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 5

That night we were relieved and we went to a place called Sausage Valley. Here I said "Goodbye" to Bink; he was starting back to Blighty to get his commission. I went down the road with him and watched him till he was out of sight, and then I'm not ashamed to say that I went off into a shell hole by myself and cried like a kid. He was the last one of the old boys that had signed up with me, and now he was gone.

It's hard enough to lose friends at home, but in the Army a fellow's pals are all that make life bearable. I never saw Bink again - he joined the flying corps and came down in Flanders with five bullets through his head. Well, after Binkie went, I didn't care a hang what happened. We put in another twenty-four hours in the trenches and then we started on our long march up north. We reached our destination and went into the trenches at S______.

We relieved the English troops, and were there right up till Christmas. It was very quiet except for a few big raids that we pulled off; but the mud was awful. We waded through mud and water up past our waists going into the front lines, and once there we had to keep pumping all the time. Each day we would have a trench mortar scrap from two o'clock till five, and we would blow each other's trenches to pieces. I was in the trenches on Christmas day and I had two bottles of champagne that we had managed to smuggle in. I was in charge of the Stokes gun crew at that time, and I sent Tommy down to Headquarters for orders. As he left I said, "Now, Tommy, if you bring me my leave check, I'll give you five francs." After awhile Tommy came back and said, "Bob, hand out those five francs, here's your leave check." I threw him the money, and away I beat it along the trench as fast as my feet could carry me. It would have taken a "whiz-bang" to catch up to me that day. It was Xmas afternoon when I left the trenches, and the next day at 5 o'clock, still muddy and carrying my pack and rifle, I stumbled off the train at Victoria Station, and in twenty minutes I was at home, telling my old dad the tale that I have told you.

Of those ten short wild days in London I won't speak, but it was like getting to heaven after being in hell. They slipped by much too quickly, and then the time came for me to go back. So one morning I landed up at Victoria Station and caught what is known as "the train of tears." The boys are always very silent going back-there is never any cheering. After you have had eighteen months of hell, war is not the grand romantic thing it seemed at first. The boys feel as if they were on their way to a funeral, and the worst of it is, it may be their own. But once in France, every one seems to brighten up again, and the game goes on as before. Memories of home die away, and you become simply an atom in the big war machine. It took me some time to get settled down again, and they kept moving us in and out of the trenches. It was terribly wet and cold, and we would sit for days all huddled around our old charcoal brazier in a dugout forty feet under ground. Of course a dugout at this depth was comparatively safe. Only once did Fritz blow in the entrance with a trench mortar, and then we had to dig ourselves out. After about two weeks longer the whole division went out on rest. At least, they called it "rest," but our time was kept so filled up with drilling, inspections, etc., that we got "fed up" and wished we were back in the lines. We had about a month of this, and then we went in and took over our new positions at the Labyrinth to the right of the Ridge. The Labyrinth was a perfect maze of trenches, built by the Germans, and taken from them by the French, at the time of the British attack at Loos. The gun crew we relieved was carried out in sandbags, having been blown to pieces by a premature shell--that is, a shell exploding in the gun. This made us pretty nervous, and we didn't fire any more till all our stock of ammunition had been inspected. After our second trip in on this line, we went out and commenced our training for the Battle of Vimy Ridge. We were taken back to a piece of country that was much like the district we would have to fight on. It was all blocked off with different-coloured tapes representing towns, trenches, and various other landmarks, and for two weeks we had to go over this ground, in the time and manner of a real attack. I, being a Stokes gunner, had to go with my gun and crew, and we had four guns behind each battalion. Our work was to set up our gun as quickly as possible and drop bombs on any machine gun that happened to be holding up the infantry. The infantry went over in waves-one wave would take a trench and hold it till the next wave went over their heads, and the next wave went over them again, and so on.

After a couple of weeks of this we went into the trenches at the spot from which our advance would start; this was to make us familiar with the ground. We spent seven days here, and during this time our guns were put into position in pits, in No Man's Land. These pits were covered with wire netting woven in and out with grass to hide us from the observation balloons. Our artillery were keeping up a ceaseless bombardment of the enemy's lines, destroying and obliterating the German trenches. At the same time our long-distance guns were firing night and day on all roads, towns, and ammunition dumps that lay near the enemy's lines, while our aeroplanes were over the Germans all the time. But our aircraft was having hard luck, for the Huns had just brought out a new lot of planes and these were lighter and faster than ours. It was heart-breaking to see our air men being shot down. I have seen six or seven of our planes come down in one day. Up to this time our planes bad reigned supreme, and the hostile airmen scarcely dared to show themselves; and even now the Hun's triumph was short-lived. Our Colonel insisted that the newest planes be brought over, and when they came we had the satisfaction of seeing the Huns cleaned up. Well, after a week in the trenches we were taken out and given a real rest. We were allowed to lie around pretty much all the time, while the boys in the trenches kept the Germans on the jump. Every night they would go over and destroy the enemy's dugouts and bring back a bunch of prisoners; from these prisoners they got a lot of valuable information.

All this time the roads leading to our lines were packed night and day with men, transports, guns, ammunition, limbers, and everything that is needed for a big charge. Our eighteen-pound guns were in long lines, wheel to wheel. Behind them were long lines of heavier guns and back of these a line of long range naval guns. These last fired six- and twelve-inch shells to a distance of fifteen miles at targets given them by aeroplanes. The enemy artillery shelled our roads a little, but whenever they started, our guns would redouble their efforts and the ground was shaking with their roar day and night.

The evening before the big attack our artillery carried out counter-battery work, destroying as many as possible of 'the enemy's guns. Just at dusk we fell in line and began our march to the trenches. We passed through St. Eloi (not the one in Belgium) and the French people looked at us pityingly. They didn't think it possible for us to capture Vimy Ridge, where the French troops had lost thousands in a vain attempt the year before. Our artillery fire had died down and the night was quiet when we marched into our assembly trenches at Neuville St. Vaast. The Stokes gun that I was with and one other were detailed to go over with the last wave of the 27th Battalion. That meant that we would have to go the farthest. Everything was quiet, and Tommy and I lay down in the trench and covered ourselves with our water-proof sheets and went to sleep. We slept till the officer came along with our rum. Then we watched the front line, and our watches; all at once, with a roar, our artillery burst forth. It is impossible to describe the sound, the earth shook with it, and it was like a thousand thunderclaps, continually rolling, and for miles along the enemy's trenches a sheet of flame was dropping as our liquid-fire shells fell in a ceaseless rain. For awhile the Germans shot their S.O.S. flares, but these soon died down.

The German artillery was slow in retaliation, and before they got properly started our first brigade had taken the first line of trenches, and our fifth brigade was over the top of them and pressing forward. They followed our barrage as it advanced so many yards at a time, destroying all opposition. Soon the 4th and 5th Brigades had attained their objectives with few casualties and our officer told us to get ready, so the "Iron Sixth" started to move. When the first three battalions had gone, the 27th went over, and we jumped out, shouldering our guns and advancing in file. We hadn't gone more than a couple of hundred yards when gas shells began to come. On went our masks, but hardly in time-we got a couple of whiffs. Two of the boys had to go back to the dressing-station, but the rest of us had to go on. We were feeling mighty sick but when we got to where the air was clear, we took off our gas helmets and we felt a little better. We soon forgot our ills in the excitement of the charge, as we went on over what had been the German front line, but now was manned by our men. The pioneers were already pushing forward a light railway, and our aeroplanes were fighting overhead. By the way, the Royal Naval triplanes had been sent over 'specially for this work, and they did great execution among the enemy planes. We pressed on till we caught up with our barrage. The German shell fire was very erratic, the guns seemed to be firing anywhere; on our right and left stretched long lines of smoke as the British advanced, but our flanks were not coming up fast enough, and we had to wait; meanwhile our barrage played on a wide belt of barbed wire that was just in front of us. Some of our men got too close to the barrage and were hit by our own shells.

At last the barrage lifted, and the 27th and 28th went through the belt of wire, cutting with the attachments on their rifles, any strands that our artillery had failed to sever. A machine gun commenced firing at us, so down our crew went into a shell hole and up went our gun and a few rounds silenced that machine gun; then forward again with the 27th. We struck a trench and worked our way down, for this was our objective. On the way we came to a large dugout, and it was full of Germans.

As soon as we appeared at the entrance they started to holler, and one man tried to get out the other entrance, so our Sergeant shot him. We took the rest of them prisoners (about, twenty altogether, officers and men) and we lined them up and went through their pockets. We took away their revolvers, badges, photos, and all sorts of things - in fact, we stripped them of everything but their lives and a few clothes and sent them back to our lines.

We set up our gun in the trench and waited for a counter-attack. While we were waiting we regaled ourselves on the good things we had found in the dugout; black bread, bottles of wine, and cigars. Tommy and I had to stay out on the gun, and pretty soon the German heavies began to shell the trench, and we had to dig ourselves in to protect us from the shrapnel. To make things more comfortable, it commenced to rain and all that night it poured. We were right on the crest of the Ridge and a number of the boys were hit carrying messages back to Headquarters. When morning came we found that our position overlooked miles of the enemy's country. We could look down on green fields and little villages. And close to the bottom of the hill lay the railway and the little town of Farbus.

The boys had turned the German guns around and were firing at the retreating Huns. Some of the guns we had captured were in big concrete emplacements with six feet of concrete and steel on top of them. They were still hot from firing when our boys took them and our crews with them. The Germans gave up very easily, and I don't wonder, for our artillery fire had demoralized them. One of our men had a German belt, and on the buckle were the words "Gott mit Uns" or "God with Us," but they must have a different God from ours if they expect help from Him after the deeds they have done.

That night, after Tommy and I had taken our turn on the gun, we went down into the dugout and made some tea. Tommy lay down on the floor, but the only space I could find was on a bench beside a dead German; but I slept just as soundly as I would have in a feather bed. The next day about noon our officer came and said, "Well, boys, we've got to go over again, and a dirty job we are in for too." Then he told us that at three o'clock we had to be down and have our guns set to fire on a tower in Farbus where a number of snipers were located. We had to go in advance of our outposts and stay there till our boys were ready to attack. About two o'clock we started out-our gun crew and a party carrying bags of ammunition. Little Robbie, a boy who had joined up with me at Moose Jaw, turned to me and said, " Well, Bob, this is where I get mine, and I hope I'll get it right through the bean-life's no pleasure to me." "Aw, cheer up," said I; "you may get a nice Blighty." "No," said he; "I belong to a bunch that get it good and hard when it comes at all." Poor Robbie! - he had lost all of his chums at Hooge, and he seemed to know that his time had come. He got separated from us when we were going down the hill, and he went to one of our other guns. They told him where we were, and he started to walk across the open and he got shot right through the head. Meanwhile we had sneaked forward, taking advantage of a little flurry of snow, and we got as close to Farbus as we dared to go.

We set up our guns and at the appointed time opened fire. The 27th had started down behind us, but the Germans saw them and opened up, and they must have had the place packed with machine guns, for a stream of lead swept over our heads. The attacking party were almost wiped out; our officer had crawled up ahead and was signaling us the range and how many rounds to fire. Tommy and I were lying flat and working the gun. The officer saw that the attack was a failure, and he came back to us and said, "Well, boys, we got down here-now the thing is to get back. We'll take our time and make use of all the cover we can find." So, shouldering our gun, away we went, the officer leading. We started to climb the Ridge, and we were just coming through a churchyard when rat-a-tattat! a machine gun spoke to us from the town we had left. The Corporal jumped and fell, and when we reached him he said, "Boys, I've got it." We bound him up as best we could, and Tommy went in search of a stretcher to carry him out on. But while he was gone, we tried to get the Corporal to walk a little way. He was shot through the groin, and he wouldn't move no matter how we coaxed. So the Sergeant and I got rough, and said, "Now, look here, you've got to walk; if you don't, we will go away and leave you here to die." This brought him to his senses, and leaning on our shoulders he went forward slowly till we found the road, and then the going was easier up to the top of the Ridge. When we reached the top the shelling was awful, so we put the Corporal on a concrete gun pit, and when Tommy and the stretcher arrived we carried him back to Thelner.

That night we were relieved, and utterly exhausted we stumbled our way back through the shell fire to Neuville St. Vaast. Once there, we got some hot grub from our cooks and a big drink of rum, and we turned into our dugouts, but now that the strain was over I couldn't sleep and I shook like a leaf. Tommy was beside me and he said, "Quit your shaking, you son of a gun; I do my shaking in the line, but you do yours after we get out." Next day we went still farther back and we were allowed a week's complete rest, and in the meantime our line was advanced to Arleaux.

Continued


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