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 4

Next day I missed fourteen days' leave, and gee! I did feel sore over it. I was on sentry duty with Ernie Rowe, and I was just in the act of changing my boots for a pair of rubber waders when along came an officer. I paid no special attention to him, as a sap ran underneath Hill 60 and there were always engineering officers around. This chap stopped and passed a few commonplace remarks about the wetness of the trench, etc., and then passed on. I thought no more about it and was taking my turn at looking through the periscope, when along came Captain Breedan and a bunch of scouts. "Did you see an officer go by here?" was their excited greeting. I answered, "He went past about fifteen minutes ago. What about him?" "He's a spy, that's all, and if you had caught him it would have meant fourteen days' leave for you," said Captain Breedan. Just my luck to miss a nice fat chance like that-the beggar was never caught, he seemed to vanish into thin air. After he left me the boys kept up the hunt for a long time and then gave up in disgust.

That day I left the battalion to take a course of instruction in the Stokes trench mortar. I always had a fancy for it, as it seemed to offer a chance at getting back at Fritzie. This sitting down and taking everything he had a mind to send over, and giving nothing in return, was not my idea of fighting. I hated to leave the boys, but I was "fed up" and I wanted a change. Bink took a machine gun course at the same time and we were at the same school. When we finished he went back to the platoon and I went to the Stokes gun. The first time I went in with the gun crew, they sent us to the old St. Eloi craters. There was always lots of trench mortar fighting here, and we had orders to send over six shells for every one that came across. They put me on lookout; that is, to watch for sausages and give the boys who were working the gun time to get away. We hadn't been firing more than five minutes, and the sausages were coming thick and fast, but most of them were landing about fifty yards away, when all at once something hit me in the face. I turned around with my fists clenched, for I thought that some one had hit me. One of the boys looked at me sharply and began getting out his bandage. He said, "You're hit," then I felt the blood trickling down my cheek, and after the boys fixed me up as well as they could I went to the dressing-station. One of the boys in the trench had been killed by the shell that I got a piece of; and I was out at the dressing-station for a day or two, and then had orders to report to my unit. On my way back I met Rust and Tommy Gammon, and we sat and chatted about old times. "Come with me and join the Stokes gun," said I; "it's lots better than the infantry." "Nothing doing," said Tommy, "you're a poor advertisement." and I suppose I did look funny with a big bandage around my head. "No, we are not looking for a quick funeral yet awhile," said Rust. Well, I left the boys and went on to my new unit. Some time in the next day or so Harry Foster got hit through the shoulder; and he went off looking as pleased as a dog with two tails. My, how we envied him as he walked out smoking a cigarette! But, poor chap, he died in London, and we never heard what took him off.

Shortly after this we started off for the Somme, and before we went we exchanged our Ross rifles for Lee-Enfields. We had a great time going down; we rode in cattle cars part of the way and marched the rest. Most of the roads we passed over were lined with apple trees, and gee! they did look good. When we were getting near the lines we met a division of Australians coming out from the Somme battlefield, and what sights they were! They were covered with white chalk and most of them had their trousers cut off at the knee. We asked them what it was like and they said, "Oh, you won't want a rifle, all you need is a shovel to dig yourself a hole" - cheerful, wasn't it? Well, we went into reserves and for a couple of days we did nothing but lounge around. We took a walk through Albert to see the statue of the Madonna and the infant Jesus. It hung right over the road, and it is marvellous how long it stayed there without being hit. The French people used to say that when it fell the war would end, but it has been down some time and the war is not over yet. They put us on fatigues and working parties for a few days and then we were moved up to the supports.

We were told that we were going over the top early next morning assisted by tanks. Now, tanks had not been used up to this time and they were the surprise of the war. We hadn't heard one word about them and we were crazy to know what they were like, so our officer told us where we would find one, and away we went to see it. When we got there it was covered with a tarpaulin, but the officer in charge took the sheet off and let us have a good look at it and such a queer looking monster as it was! It looked like a cross between an elephant (without his baggage) and a mud turtle. We bombarded the officer with questions, but he wouldn't answer many of them; only he said that nothing but a direct hit with a six-inch shell would penetrate its hide; and it could go through any hole or walk right over a house. It was some diabolical device all right, and we went back chuckling over the surprise that the Germans would get next day. That night we went in, marching in single file. It was pitch dark and the Germans were shelling furiously, though before we left all our massed artillery had carried out what is known as half an hour's counter-battery work, the idea being to put as many German guns out of action as possible. Our gunners had most of the enemy positions covered, as our aeroplanes had been spotting them.

Well, we went in on the night of the 14th of September, 1916, and as I had been wounded in the knee the day before I was limping along with the other boys when, whiz-bang! a big shell burst right near us. It killed several of the boys that were just ahead. I hadn't been able to bend my leg a few minutes before, but believe me, I ducked when I saw that shell coming and I never thought about my knee. I was with the Stokes gun crew and was detailed off as a runner. This meant that I had to keep in touch with the various trench mortar crews, and report how things were going, to Headquarters. Tommy, Bink, and our other friends were with the battalion. Just before daybreak the Sergeant came around and gave us a snort of rum. We were lying in the trench that we had dug that night out in No Man's Land. It was called a "jumping off" trench. In front of us lay the German trench, and we were supposed to capture it and also a sugar refinery that was located a little further back. Altogether our advance was to cover about a thousand yards. Just at daybreak our barrage burst on the enemy trenches, and over we went; we got the frontline trenches without much opposition, but, where the Fritzies did make a stand there was some dirty work. We were losing quite a lot of men with artillery fire. Rust was hit in the back with shrapnel, and as he half turned, a bullet caught him, smashing his jaw. Flarepistol Bill was waving his arm to direct some of the boys when a bullet caught him in the head. But we were too busy to notice by this time, and leaving the wounded to the care of our stretcher bearers, we pushed on. We reached the second German trench and proceeded to lay out the Huns. Fat was bayoneting them as fast as he could, and "tee-hee-ing" all the time. Tommy had a big Hun in one corner, and with his bayonet under his chin was trying to make him put his hands up. At first Fritzie didn't understand, but when at last it dawned on him his hands went up in a hurry, and he cried "Kamerad!" in the approved fashion.

By this time all the Germans in sight had either been killed or taken prisoners, and a whole bunch were being herded back to our lines. The German guns were dropping heavies on the ground we had left, and as the prisoners went back they were caught in their own shell fire and a lot were killed.

From the start the tanks had been doing great work, walking over machine guns and killing hundreds with their own machine gun fire. The Germans were scared stiff and absolutely demoralized. One band, with more courage than the rest, gathered round a tank and tried to bomb it with hand grenades, but they met with no success, for the bombs either bounded off or exploded harmlessly against the steel sides. Finding their efforts useless they surrendered to the tank crew. While all this was going on, I was busy carrying messages between the gun crews and Headquarters. I was on the go all day and though the German shell fire was heavy, my luck was with me, and I didn't get hit once. Bink was dispatch runner for his company, and I passed him several times and he told me about the boys, as he was with them more than I. The last time I met him, he said, "Bob, Tommy's killed." "Tommy!" said I, almost too stunned to speak. "Yes," said he, "I was passing along the trench and had just jumped over a body when I thought the clothes looked familiar and I turned the body over, and there was poor Tommy; he had been shot through the chest by a sniper. I took charge of his things, and I'll send them to his people when I get out again." After Bink left me, I tried to realize that Tommy was gone, but I couldn't believe that my chum and bedfellow was really dead. It seemed so hard when he had only been back from hospital a few days. Well, I had no time to sit down and think, things were getting too warm.

At six o'clock that evening General Byng decided to throw in the third division, who had been held in reserve. I watched them as they came over, and it was a great sight. The 42nd Highlanders were in the lead, and they came in long lines with their bayonets fixed. The Germans spotted them as soon as they came over the ridge and immediately turned their guns on them, but they came on steadily in spite of their losses, over the top of us, and into the Hun lines. They cleaned up what was left of the Germans and established themselves firmly in Courcelette. The French Canadians had been holding Courcelette all day, but had lost heavily.

Well, that night we went back in reserve; we were all in, and we staggered along till we got to the brick fields at Albert. There we had our bivouacs and we turned in. Next morning I went over to see Bink, and we felt pretty blue. Tommy, Flare-pistol Bill, Barbed-wire Pete, and Lieutenant Oldershaw were all killed, and half a dozen others, including Rust, were wounded. Poor old 10th Platoon, they were going fast! Bink, Fat, McMurchie, Erne Rowe and I were the only ones left of my old pals, and the ones who were gone were the ones I had chummed with most. Sink and I had a lot of sad letters to write to the boys' relatives that day.

Shortly after this we were taken back of the line a few miles and reorganized, and in a few days we were back in the trenches again. The battalion went in at Courcelette a night or two before me, and such a place it was. The German artillery had made it a veritable hell-hole. What was once a pretty town was now a pile of bricks with a sunken road running through it, and leading down to a cemetery. When I went in with a Stokes gun, the 28th held the graveyard; such a time as we had getting in. We were shelled all the way, and the nearer we came to Courcelette the hotter it got. Finally we reached that sunken road and it was strewn with dead bodies, our lads and Germans. We started to set up our gun in the bank beside the road, and how we did dig. The shells were tearing up everything around us, and Tommy Lowe and I dug like demons. Our crew had three casualties almost immediately, two wounded and one killed. We got our gun set up, but as we were short of ammunition we had to wait for a counter-attack before we were allowed to fire. The 31st made an attack that morning, but got hung up on the German wire entanglements and lost heavily. When daylight came things were still hot. Sergeant Faulkner, who had just come back, after recovering from his second wound, for his final one that morning. "Carry on," he said; "I'm done." A little bunch of the 28th were holding the cemetery and expecting a counter-attack any moment. McMurchie was therein his glory. ?Let the devils come,? said he; "I'll chase them back with me entrinchin' tool handle." The wounded were lying around everywhere, and Tommy Lowe, Danny Dugan and I carried them up that road to the dressing-station. All forenoon the German snipers were on our track, and we had to hug the bank all the way up. The shell fire had died down, though our artillery was still giving the Germans a heavy shelling. When Tommy and I got tired we lay down in a shell hole, but the sun was hot and the odour from the dead bodies was so awful we had to move on.

That night the shelling was wicked, and we lost heavily. Our boys came along with a few prisoners, and as they couldn't get through the shell fire we allowed them to share our hole. They went out next morning, and the Huns wanted to shake hands with us for being so kind to them, but I gave one the toe of my boot and pointed the way out. Our artillery had made things unbearable for the Germans by this time, and they pulled out, leaving only a few snipers to harass us. McMurchie crawled over with a bomb and brought two of the snipers back with him. It was a funny sight to see them going up the road; those big six footers walking ahead of little Mac; the latter was barely five feet; but he marched proudly along, keeping his bayonet mighty close to them. The same day our cavalry went over, but they ran into a nest of machine guns and their little bunch was cut to pieces; it was dreadful to see the poor frightened horses running in all directions.

Continued


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