Excerpt from "Into The Jaws of Death"

by Private Jack O'Brien

A Narrative History of The Battalion
From The Letters of Edgar Robert "Bob" Goddard

Part 3

Bob and I woke up next morning and had our breakfast, and after awhile we wandered out around town. Some German prisoners were coming down the road, and we stopped and spoke to them. One who could speak a little English said, "Too much shell." They were very hungry; one of them spotted a piece of biscuit beside the road. He grabbed it up and ate it like a dog. All at once we heard a shout, and turning we spied Bink and Charlie Pound. When they got up to us they said, "Where the devil have you fellows been? We want our rations." They seemed quite peeved and they hadn't worried a bit about losing us. It was not having their rations that bothered them.

Well, that night we went back to the same trenches that we had left just three nights before, only this time we marched on the Ypres Menin road. This is the worst road in the salient; the Germans sweep it with their machine guns every night, and it sure is wicked. Of course Rust had been over it months before and knew all about it. He told us that the bullets come about a foot from the ground, and if a fellow gets one in the leg, he will get hit again before he can crawl away. We were nicely started down the road when all at once the machine guns started to crackle. I took one jump and landed, rifle and all, in a ditch full of water. Most of the boys came with me, but I couldn't help laughing at some of the reinforcements. They took refuge behind trees, just as if a little tree would stop a machine gun bullet. Of course we told them, but not till one or two of their number got hit did they realize their danger. The Germans were shelling the trenches that we were going into, and now and again they would send over some high-explosive shells and sweep our road with shrapnel, so we had a few more casualties.

Well, at last we reached the trenches, and McMurchie and I stopped to help a fellow that was hit. By the time we got in our boys had relieved the 29th, who had been holding it ever since we left. Well, just as Mac and I jumped into the trench, we heard some one say to our Sergeant, "The officer wants you to send a couple of men for the bombing-post on the road; the two that were holding it have just been killed." Donnslau turned around and spied us making tracks up the trench. "Goddard and McMurchie, you will take charge of the bombing-post at the end of the trench: Sergeant Oldershaw will show you where it is." Mac was ticked to death, and I followed him looking as happy as I could-but, say, I wasn't feeling a bit heroic. We went on the post and Fritzie shelled us there for two days, and it sure was a marvel that we didn't get hit. I remember, we were lying on the cobblestones in the middle of the road-the idea being to stop any Germans that might be sneaking down that way. Some times when things got too hot the Sergeant would call us into the trench and let us stay there for awhile. While in the trench we would go around whistling; and he was always cooking up tea or something. We always burned candles for this, and when our supply ran out he went and borrowed from the officers. Nothing seemed to bother him, and he would watch the shells bursting overhead-big black shrapnel and "woolly bears." When the latter burst they make a noise like a ton of bricks being dumped, and Mac would watch them with a smile - once when we were sitting in the mud, and I suppose I was looking about as cheerful as a dying duck in a thunderstorm, Mac remarked, "In spite of orl 'is trials and privations, the British Tommy remyns as cheerful as ever." He brought it out just like a Cockney, and I just had to smile. Shortly after this along came "Fat." He and Bink had been up at the culvert, and they were supposed to be on their way out, but poor old Fat was so stiff with the cold that he couldn't walk. We offered to fetch him a snort of rum, but he said he wouldn't take it. I suppose, he had promised some darn girl back home, and he would die rather than break his word. Well, we gave him some hot tea, took off his socks and rubbed his feet; and I got him a pair of my dry socks. After awhile we coaxed him to eat a little, and we joked with him, till at last he gave a bit of a smile-and soon we heard his familiar "Tee he, tee he!" - he had the funniest laugh I ever heard. Well, he stayed with us till we were relieved.

A funny thing happened up the trench that same day. Marriot and some of the other boys were sitting in one of the bays of the trench cooking some Maconachie rations, when bang! right through the parapet came a shell. It went between Marriot and the next chap, and the shock must have been awful. Marriot rushed into the next bay, and meeting our Sergeant he spluttered, "Oh say, old chap, ain't I a lucky devil? All those fellows in the next bay are blown to hell, and I escaped." The Sergeant rushed around to find the bay empty except for the shell which hadn't exploded, but was reposing quietly in the bottom of the trench and Marriot had been too excited to notice. Maybe he didn't get chipped about it afterwards. That night we were relieved by the Coldstream Guards; and say, Jack, they are soldiers! They came in like clockwork; every man knew his place, and exactly where to go. They fixed bayonets on entering the trench and there was no confusion. They had taken over the trench almost before we knew it.

How glad we were to be relieved no one knows but those who were there. We were not sorry to see the last of Hooge. They gave us about a week's rest and then we went back to our old trenches at_____. It was quiet there, and for awhile we had it pretty easy. Just after taking over these trenches we were treated to a great sight. Our aeroplanes made a general attack all along the British front from the coast to the Somme, and they burned all the German observation balloons. We stood and watched them come down in flames, and it was great. Mind you it meant a lot to us; while they were watching us there couldn't be a stir behind our lines but we would be treated to a salvo of shells. In fact, we had orders not to move around in the daytime. But after the balloons were gone we could go about with comparative freedom. Even one man would attract the attention of these German eyes. Our old boy, Charlie Pound, was a runner or dispatch carrier between the front line and Headquarters, and he often came up to see us when we were in the line. One day he said, "There's a fat Fritzie in that balloon that I'd like to get my hands on; he must have a grudge against me, for he shells me every time I go down the communication trench." So Charlie was tickled to death when that particular balloon was brought down.

Well, Jack, our next trip in was at Hill 60, and it was a warm spot-not artillery fire this time, but trench mortars. Every morning Fritzie would send us "sausages" for breakfast; they came at the rate of one a minute. It wasn't that they caused so many casualties, but they made so much work. Every day Fritzie would blow up our front line and we would have to build it up again each night under machine gun fire.

We took it in turns; half of us would be on working parties and the other half on outpost duty. One night several of us were down in a cutting on a bombing-post. The cutting had once been the Ypres Commines railway and it ran across the German lines as well as through ours. We had strong posts there to keep the Fritzies back in case they took a notion to come over. In the daytime it was exposed to rifle fire. We were sitting there this night when our Corporal came running in and said, "Hurry back to the trench, there's a show going to start." He had scarcely finished speaking when the trench mortar bombardment opened up, and we had barely hit the trench when a sausage landed on the very spot where we had been. The next few minutes were very exciting and we were kept busy dodging the sausages. We could easily see them coming through the darkness, for the fuse burned and left a trail of sparks. One would have thought they were rockets, if he hadn't seen them before. Then Fritzie opened up his artillery, and things got very warm indeed. We had several casualties, but once more our little bunch was lucky. We expected Fritzie would try to come over, so a bunch of us got out on the parapet and threw bombs and the others kept up a steady fire with their rifles. Our trench mortars were doing great work throwing over six bombs for every one Fritzie sent, and the Germans evidently thought we were too wide-awake, for they failed to show up.

Continued


28th (North-west) Battalion Headquarters is © Copyright 2002 Robert Lindsay. All Rights Reserved