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 6

When we were returned to the lines we were told that it was over the top again for us; the Canadians were going to make an attack on Fresnoy. The town of Fresnoy was only a short distance from Arleaux, which we now held, and about one mile from Vimy Ridge. The ridge it was on made it important as an observation post, and through the town ran a line of trenches known as the Oppy switch of the Hindenburg Line. To the 1st Division was given the task of taking the town, while the 2nd Division attacked the trenches on the left.

We went in during the night when it was fairly quiet, and we took over the gun positions from a trench mortar crew. Just before daybreak our barrage burst on the enemy and away we went and got in close to their wire entanglements. As soon as the barrage lifted, through the wire we went and into the trench, but instead of a wave of infantry being in with us they got hung up on the wire and lost heavily; so half a dozen of our crew were in the trench by ourselves. The Germans were only too willing to be made prisoners at first, and threw away their rifles, but when they saw that no one else was coming they got fresh and started to bomb us. Our Corporal was shooting them as fast as he could with his revolver and we dropped our gun and pelted them with their own bombs. We managed to chase them back along the trench and the 1st Division sent us help, so we blocked the trench and held over part of it. Our boys on the left had also gotten in and cleared out a section of the trench, so it was a sandwich with the Germans for our meat. We were relieved that night, but only stayed out long enough to get a rest and some food, and next night we were back again. The shelling was dreadful when we were going in and we had to keep on the run all the way up-and carrying guns, that was no joke. Every road we crossed had a heavy barrage put on it and we had a lively time. We had almost reached the front lines when one of our officers got hit in the face by apiece of "whiz-bang." Well, finally we got in and we spent all the next day sniping Germans as they tried to run across the open to get to another trench. One Hun got lost and walked almost up to our section of the trench before he found out his mistake; he tried to go back, but a bullet chipped by him and he came in and gave himself up. Tommy and I were on lookout when we were surprised to see a German crawl to the edge of our trench. I was just going to fire, when Tommy said, "Wait a minute," and he danced around and stuck his bayonet up under the German's nose; up went the hands, and we hauled the wretch in. He was wounded in the leg; we gave him a drink though water was very scarce, we only had one bottle among three; then we gave him a kick and sent him on his way rejoicing back to his lines.

The third night we were relieved-shelling had been heavy all day and all the approaches to our lines were blotted out-the barrages had made them impassable during the day. I was sent out to act as guide to the relieving party, and I found them sitting down under a heavy barrage. They had been shelled all the way from Vimy and were so "all in" that they didn't care what happened. After much persuasion I got them to come along, and finally we reached our line, and we went out leaving them in possession of the trench. We were scarcely out of sight when the Germans counterattacked, and the crew we had just left were wiped out. Three times the German penetrated parts of the line and three times they were thrown back. Our casualty list was very heavy. Fresnoy fell into their hands again in spite of the fierce resistance our boys put up.

In the meantime we got through the barrage all right, though we lost some of our men. A shell dropped just ahead and blew the man in front of me to pieces; I got his body all over me and I was blood and dirt from head to foot. But we kept on going till some one ran out of the darkness shouting, "You cannot get past the railway, Fritzie has been throwing over gas shells and the gas is thick in the valley, all our artillery is gassed." We put on our masks, but we couldn't see through them very well and we decided to hang out where we were till morning, but Fritzie began sending us some high-explosive shrapnel and we thought we would rather take our chance with the gas, so we stuck our gas tubes in our mouths, grabbed our noses, and away we went. The Germans were flinging heavy shells at our silent artillery, but we got past all right and we stumbled on till we came to our camp at Neuville St. Vaast. One or two had been gassed a little and had to go to a dressing-station, but the rest of us had a good feed and we went right to sleep-we sure were "all in." We only did one more trip into that part of the line, and then it was very quiet, so to our great joy we were taken out and given a month's rest.

The next time we went in was at Lens, and here we relieved some British troops that had been having an awful time. They were holding a place on the outskirts of Lens known as Cite Ste. Elisabeth, and they told us some awful tales of what had been taking place. The British had attacked Lens, but after being practically successful the attacking party were not able to hold what they had gained. The Germans surrounded the town, and those that were not killed were taken prisoner. Now, Lens was merely a mass of ruined houses, but the Huns had fortified every house and were firmly entrenched. The troops we relieved were holding what had been German territory, and they had made fortresses out of the houses that were still standing. They had lost half their men, and it was marvelous what they had done and the way they had held out.

The gun position that our two Stokes guns took over was in a big house, or rather behind it. The basement of this house was propped up with mine timbers and steel props; this was to sustain the eight feet of concrete with reinforced steel that had been laid on the first floor. It made a wonderful protection for our guns and also for ourselves. The basement contained bog spring-beds and real mirrors, and we felt that we were very swell indeed. We kept most of our ammunition in the house, where it was always dry, and the way we hammered old Fritz wasn't slow. We fired from two to three hundred rounds daily and our carrying parties cussed us for firing so much. When not on the guns we spent our time in the basement telling yarns and playing cards. We had a dandy officer; he had only just come out, but he was as keen as mustard. He insisted on living with us, and when we were firing he was right on the spot. Of course with our gun going so much of the time Fritzie came back with everything he had, but he never could find out where we really were. The greatest drawback to our new position was the lack of water. Before the Germans retired they had filled all the wells with barbed wire. The Germans tried to gas us out, and sometimes they would pelt us with gas shells; all night long we had to sleep with our gas masks on. On the whole, our position here was much better than what we were used to, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but after we had been here for a few days we were taken out on rest and then sent to another place.

This time we went in at Liever, and our positions here were hellish. I don't know how we lived through it; we were there four days, and in that time our guns were either blown up or buried at least twice a day. One night Tommy and I were lying in a hole that we had dug right beside our gun, and without letting us know, our fellows in the trenches sent over a cloud of gas. The Germans always bombarded where gas was sent over, and this was no exception to the rule. They started at once. Tommy and I were lying in the most exposed part of the trench and Tommy was snoring, when with a crash the shells began bursting over us. I wakened Tommy, for one gets so that he sleeps through everything, and we lay there wondering what would happen next. Suddenly, bang! a shell hit the side of the hole we were in and filled the hole with smoke and covered us with dirt. I said, "Come on, Tommy, let's go down the trench a bit where it isn't so blamed hot." "Naw," says Tommy, "it's a long chance on him hitting us again." The words were hardly out of his mouth, when crash came another shell and it buried us in dirt this time. We were just scrambling out and Tommy was ahead, when bang! another shell landed right in front of us. Tommy went still and I grabbed him. "Tommy, Tommy, have they got you, kid?" No answer, and I shook him again; he squirmed and started to swear, and I knew that he was all right. We scrambled out and were beating it down the trench when an officer came out of a dugout and asked us what was the matter. We told him and he said, "What size were the shells that came over?" "Huh," said Tommy, "they was comin' too damned fast for me to measure 'em." The officer grinned, and we went on. At the end of four days we were relieved and sent back on rest.

Continued


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