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 - End

After a few days they sent us back to Lens, and there was something doing every minute there this time. Our artillery was steadily bombarding the enemy's lines, and our boys were putting on raids almost every night. When a raid was being made our guns would throw bombs on either side of the sector attacked to prevent reinforcements coming up from the sides, then our artillery would put up a barrage behind the front line to keep back help from the supports, thus hemming them in on three sides with shell fire while our infantry attacked from the front. A great many prisoners were taken in this way, but our losses were very light. Not long after this, on August the 18th, the 1st Division of Canadians made their big attack on Hill 70. At the same time our boys made an attack on the outskirts of Lens. The attack was a complete success, though afterwards the Germans made five successive counter-attacks and our losses were heavy. The slaughter in these counter-attacks was awful. I was in the reserve trenches at the time watching the prisoners and the wounded streaming past. Half of our Stokes gun battery was in reserve, and the other half in the firing-line. About noon the day after the first attack was made, word came out that one of our crew had caught it and asking for help and stretchers to carry out the wounded. So we made our way in through a perfect inferno and we found the crew-an officer and six men-all lying wounded in a dugout. We got busy and carried them out, and poor beggars, they got some awful bumps as we stumbled along through the darkness, over dead bodies and through shell holes. We had just passed safely through the barrage when gas shells came over and we had to put masks on the wounded as well as on ourselves. We got them all to the dressing-station, but one of the boys died just after we got them in. Poor Roy Taylor - he was marked for leave the next day.

The following night we went in again with our guns and our boys were billed for another attack. The gun I had charge of was supporting the 29th Battalion, while behind us in the trenches lay the 28th. My orders were to open fire at the same time that the artillery did, about 4 A.M., and my job was to blow out a blocked trench that led up to the German lines. This was to enable our boys to advance without losing many men. After doing this I was to keep on firing well in advance of our troops till I reached the limit of my range, and then go up the trench and place the gun in a spot that would cover a point from which a counter-attack might be expected. These were my orders, and I was given five men to help manage the gun. The Stokes gun will fire one hundred twelve-pound shells in three minutes, if no time is lost with misfires. It takes two men to work the gun and one to hand up ammunition. I sent three men down the trench to be ready in case of need and the other two helped me. Exactly on the dot the artillery and our gun opened up, and for five minutes there was just the banging and flashing of explosives all around. The Germans opened up their artillery and attacked at the same minute that our boys went over-and it was a real hell. Of course I couldn't see what was going on-around us there was nothing but explosions and smoke. My three spare men were hit, but so far we had escaped. Some Germans were behind us, having worked their way around from the left, but we didn't know it. Finally one of the boys said, "Just five more shells, Bobby," so I said, "All right, we'll save them, come along, and we'll pick out a new place for our gun." So, away we stumbled up the trench, half blinded by smoke and the concussion of the exploding shells. As we went on in the trench leading to the German lines I began to wonder what had happened-dead Germans were lying in heaps-but we kept on, thinking that our attacking party were away ahead, when all at once we ran into a bunch of "square-heads." They were on the outside of the trench as well as the inside, and then started the damnedest scrap I was ever in. Two of the boys were armed with rifle and bayonet, and I had a revolver. We shot those Fritzies just as fast as they stood up, and then they lay down and threw hand grenades at us. How we killed all those in the trench I don't know, things are hazy in my mind. Faces came and went, and it's like a horrible dream.

The old fellow beside me gave a yell and dropped, hit in the back by a piece of one of the exploding grenades. I was out of ammunition and I flung my revolver at the nearest Fritzie, and thinks I, "It's all up now, and I don't care a d anyway." I tried to drag the old man into a dugout and I got him on the stairs, but he looked so bad that I laid him down and started cutting away at his tunic to find the wound. The Germans that were left started firing bombs at me, but they went over my head and down the stairs bursting on a pile of wounded below. All at once, one hit the roof of the dugout and dropped at my feet. It exploded and it was just as if some one had thrown a bucket of boiling water all over my legs. I put down my hand and my leg was full of holes and the blood was literally streaming from it. The pain was awful and I couldn't stand up any longer. I was half fainting, and I dropped into the dugout on a pile of writhing bodies. But I still had sense enough to know that if I stayed there the next bomb that came down those stairs would land on my back, so I managed to scramble off, and then I crawled along the dugout floor till I came to a table. It was black dark and I had to feel my way along. I pulled myself up on the table and started to bind up my leg, when along came one of our crew, Benson; he had bayoneted the man who was throwing bombs, and had come into the dugout by the other entrance. He helped me fix myself up and along came one of our own stretcher bearers. We called to him and he told us that the old 28th had come to our rescue and had chased the Germans out of the trench. The stretcher bearer was working like a hero, sorting out the wounded, binding them up and getting them ready to move. My old man had managed to get downstairs and he was calling, "Bobbie, Bobbie, come and help me." I told him that I couldn't go, for I was hit myself. The stretcher bearer lit some candles and we had a look around; one entrance of the dugout was blocked and the dead were lying everywhere. Benson did his best to make me comfortable, but the bone was sticking out through the side of my leg and it was mighty sore. After awhile an officer of the 28th came down and said, ?Sorry, boys, but we've got to drop back; the Germans are attacking heavily, and we are not strong enough to hold them here, we will have to leave you, but if you are here we will come back for you tomorrow morning." We groaned. I tried my best to get up the stairs, but after two or three attempts I had to give up. Benson had to go to help the boys hold the Fritzies in the next line of trenches. After awhile along came the Germans-the stretcher bearer saw them as they passed the entrance. In the dugout we all kept as still as we could. There were thirty of us, all badly wounded, and caught like rats in a trap.

The Germans did not bother coming down, but they threw bombs in every time they passed. These bombs killed a number of the boys and the smoke and gas almost choked the rest of us. This continued all day and all night. An Irishman with a leg and an arm broken was lying at my side; and he just lay there grinding his teeth and cursing the Germans. Just after daybreak we heard a lot of bombs bursting in the trench above and we wondered what was happening. Soon we heard a footstep on the stairs and some one shouted, "Who's down there?" and one of our sergeants appeared with a bomb in his hand. "It's us!" we cried, and perhaps we were not glad to see him! He said, "All right, boys, we'll get some stretcher bearers up and have you taken out as soon as possible." In about half an hour along came a carrying party; they took the Irishman up just ahead of me, and I could hear him grinding his teeth. Gee! but that fellow had grit. We had just gone a little way down the trench when bing! one of the stretcher bearers got a bullet through the top of his tin hat. It didn't touch, but it came too close for comfort and they kept pretty low after that. As they carried me along some one passed me on the run going out, and I called "Hello, Benson." He turned around and, gee! he was glad to see me alive. He grabbed one end of the stretcher and insisted on helping to carry me out, so away we went to the advance dressing-station. I had to wait my turn, for there was a long line of wounded. "Well, Bobbie, what shall I do?" asked Benson. "Go back and report to Headquarters," I said. "And, by the way, Benson, what happened to our gun?" "Oh," said he, "a shell landed right on top of it and blew it to smithereens." Not long after old Tucker came along and said, ``Got a Blighty, Bob?" "Yes," says I, "and I'll be lucky if I don't lose my leg." By this time my leg was swollen up like a balloon, and I was afraid of blood poisoning. When at last my turn came at this dressing-station they just gave me an injection to prevent poisoning and sent me on.

After much jolting in a motor ambulance I arrived at a big clearing-station and had my leg properly dressed. Then they put me aboard a Red Cross train, and I was lying there feeling pretty tough when a sweet voice said, "Would you like a cigarette?" I opened my eyes, and there stood a Red Cross nurse. Say, she looked like an angel to me. I guess the other boys felt the same, for their eyes followed her wherever she went. Just before daylight we arrived at the little town of Camiens, and we were tenderly carried off the train and put into motor ambulances. The road was very rough, and at every jolt we would all swear. Then, to our amazement, a lady's voice said, "I'm sorry, boys, but the road is rough." I looked up and there, driving the ambulance, was a young lady. Gee! we did feel ashamed. Finally we arrived at our destination and were carried into a big base hospital. It was an American hospital, and it sure seemed like heaven after what we had been through. They soon fixed up my leg, and then I had nothing to do but watch the nurses. They were the most efficient doctors and nurses I ever saw; everything in the hospital moved like clockwork. After a few days they set my leg and put it in splints and then I waited for my ticket to Blighty; but my troubles were not quite over. One day the German aeroplanes came over, and next night they came again and bombed our hospital. Oh, it was awful-worse than the front lines. They dropped six bombs, killed a doctor, wounded some nurses, and killed and wounded many of the boys. I lay in bed hanging onto the pillows and listened to the crash of the bombs, and the screams of the wounded. I hope I will never hear the like again. One of the bombs came through the tent I was in, but didn't explode. The minute the Huns were gone the doctors and nurses were around looking after the boys, soothing those who were shaken and attending the ones who were injured. There was no excuse for the bombing of this hospital; it was plainly marked with the Red Cross, and no one could mistake it for an ammunition dump. A few days more, and I was shipped across to dear old Blighty and three months of heaven. It was worth all I had gone through to be treated as we all were over there. I was in several hospitals, and it was the same in all-they were just as good to us as our own people could have been. The X-ray showed fifty-six pieces of tin in my leg. As the doctor remarked, "You are a regular mine, and I think we will let you take your fifty pieces back to Canada; it would destroy too many nerves to dig them out, and in time they will work up to the surface."

So, here I am back in Canada, a civilian with fifty-six pieces of iron in my leg to remind me that I spent Two Years in Hell.

Your chum, BOB.


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