One Young Man Answers Questions
( Originally Published 1917 )
SYDNEY BAXTER'S American correspondent has sent me a letter which gives such an admirable picture of the day-to-day life of a Tommy at the front that it merits a separate chapter.
" I am glad that you like the idea of Questions and Answers. I should never have thought of explaining some of the things you mention had you not asked. Here goes:
" Question No. How do you find time to write so much I've often wondered, as I should think you'd want to sleep when out of the trenches.
" A .--Well, for one thing, I am very fond of writing letters. To me it's not a bore as it is to some. To me it's a medium by which one can have a nice chat with one's chums (both sexes), .and looking at it in that way you can understand_ I write to you because I thoroughly enjoy the little talks between us. So much for the inclination, which has much to do with the time, as where there's a will there's a way. When in the trenches the sentry duty usually runs two hours on, four hours off—all the way through. In addition, we get five hours' work a day. Now the total hours of duty are thirteen out of twenty-four: and as I only need six hours' sleep, that leaves five hours for cooking, eating, reading, or writing. I used to have a programme somewhat like this: rest hours at night sleep; rest hours before 12 o'clock—sleep; and in the afternoon read or write. Starting from 6 o'clock one evening it works out: 6 to 8 guard, S to 10 work, 10 to 12 sleep, 12 to 2 guard, 2 to 6 sleep, 6 to 8 guard, 8 to io breakfast and odd jobs, io to 2 work, 2 to 6 read and write, and afterwards tea_ This will give you a little idea. I have only two meals a day whilst in trenches, and cocoa once in the night.
By the way, when out on rest ' we sleep up to midday the first day, and as we go to bed at nine o'clock on the following evenings we get plenty of sleep. The chief advantage of rest is the change of food and more exercise, which the officers see we get. Whilst on rest,' it's drill, etc., in the morning, sport in the afternoon, letters or reading in the evening.
" 9. No. 2.—Is a dug-out a hidden structure covered with sand-bags where you only sleep, and are there such luxuries as beds ?
" A.—I think I could write a small book on dug-outs, then leave much unwritten. Let me describe two I have actually been in. My first was on Hill 6o. It was a little sand-bag one that stood 3 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 5 feet long. This was shared by eleven of us, who had to take it in turns to sleep. This is the usual type of front-line dug-out. In most cases they are large enough to squeeze all men off duty into them, but of course shells and wet cause them to smash up at times.
" Another dug-out l have been in was some 20 feet deep with iron bars supporting the roof, and capable of holding one hundred men. This was not in the trenches. It had sticks some 3 feet high, with wire stretched right across, making eight beds. However, I always prefer the ground; the wire beds are narrow and not long enough for me. I'm over 6 feet.
" Q. No_ 3.—Do you stay in trenches forty-eight hours without ever taking off your boots or resting, and how do you get your food up, etc., if you are on duty all the time ?
" A.—When in the firing line a soldier never takes off his boots, clothes, or equipment except for one thing, that is to grease the feet with an anti-frostbite preparation. As for rest, you can see that with one man in three on look-out, you get a little rest, at least six hours, which I found enough. When in a big attack you are of course scrapping all the time.
" Rations are carried up by other men who are either on rest or in reserve. As a matter of fact when on rest you are seldom more than three miles away. The rations are carried up in sacks by limbers as far as the transport can take them—it varies according to the level of the ground and activities. These limbers are met by ration parties who carry two sacks each, right up to the trenches. Every sack is marked ' ' for company, 15 for platoon, and so we always get them_ We carry an emergency ration of biscuits, bully beef, and tea and sugar in case of accidents. I have only once found it necessary to use mine.
"Q. No. 4.—In the battles you have been in, did you come face to face with the Huns, or just shoot at range ?
" A. Yes, once when we were driving them back, and once when they were advancing. Apart from that it has been shooting when a head shows_ The nearest I've been in a trench to the Hun was 15 yards, but most of them range from 6o to 150 yards. You see we are a rifle regiment and so do not do many charges, but occupy places for sniping, and relieve the line regiment after it has charged, and by the rifle fire keep the Hun from counter-attacking.
" Q. No. 5.—How do you get posts—are carriers in danger ?
" A .—The letters are put in the ration sacks. The party often get some killed or wounded.
" Q. No. 6.—Do you get acquainted with French civilians, and have you picked up any of their language ?
" A .----There are a few civilians in the deserted villages near the firing line, and by dint of repetition and purchase I have picked up a little, but I cannot possibly spell it. You see we do not enter towns.
Q. No. 7.—When one series of trenches is built, how does the enemy get a chance to build close to them ?
" A.—How ? Why, under cover of darkness, either by putting a line of men to form a screen and keep up firing with men digging behind, or by digging a trench at right angles, and making a T. The first method is mostly used as it is quicker, but more casualties occur.
" Q. No. 8.—Do you have any fear of air raids over the trenches ?
" A.—No, because a trench is too small an object to be likely to be hit by a bomb dropping from a height. The flying men would very possibly hit their own people instead. However they drop them on our rest billets. We get used to the shells, and this is only another way of presenting them.
"Q. No. 9.--What about gas ?
" A.—They very seldom use it now. Our helmets are so efficient, they cannot do any harm in sending it over. They might catch one or two who were slow in getting their helmets on, but we have gongs to give warning."