One Young Man Again In The Trenches
( Originally Published 1917 )
ON his return from leave Sydney Baxter writes: January 29th, 1916.
" I am writing this in a small estaminet which is much overcrowded, and in the conversation can only be described as a din. Madame is hurrying round with coffees and fried pommes de terre, whilst monsieur is anxiously trying to find out if we are moving to-morrow. He is much disturbed, no doubt thinking of the drop in the number of coffees apres demain.
" I am keeping very fit and well, and much to my surprise have not experienced any of the I fed-up-ness I anticipated on my return from leave. To my mind, there is only one experience to equal a leave from Active Service—that is the final home-coming. My leave was pure delight from one end to the other."
Sydney Baxter's Division was soon again on trek to a new position. He writes:
" We had stayed in, and passed through, many villages, had even had a fire at one, burning down rob One Young Man Again in the Trenches.
one or two barns, and yet life was uneventful. Marching most days, or, when billeted, doing platoon drill, playing cards, reading or writing in the cafés or our barns. Company concerts were no good. We had heard all of our soloists' repertoire, which was not very extensive. There came the day when we marched into Doullens. Strange were the sights of large shops and smartly dressed townsfolk—we were more used to the occupants of obscure villages. The Sergeant-Major came along with the message, Smarten up and keep step through the town.' We needed no bidding. A soldier doesn't want it, you know, when he becomes the object of admiration and the recipient of smiles from the brunettes of France. On past the Hotel de Ville we swung—this was a G.H.Q., and Eyes left ! ' was given as platoons passed the guard. Staff officers, resplendent in red-tabbed coats and well-creased slacks, seemed to be showing the populace what fine soldiers they were, while the M.M. Police stood at the corners directing traffic as only the members of that unit can. Into the Rue d'Arras we turned, and outside an Ecole de Filles we halted. There was our billet, the best we ever had. In the playground stood our cooker. Upstairs we were packed into the classrooms, with just enough room allowed to stretch one's legs and to turn over should one wish. We had our stew, and quickly rushed off to see all the town.
In the square a military band was playing ' Nights of Gladness,' and we found a crowd gathered round the bandstand, many of them civilians. We stayed and enjoyed the performance, and at the Marseillaise and our own National Anthem every khaki-clad man from private to general stood at attention, and the latter at the salute. It was a grand spectacle, and one felt proud to be a soldier. We went and had a look at the shops and into the church, until nearly 5 o'clock, when we debated amongst ourselves as to whether we should go back for tea or wait till 6 o'clock when the cafés open.
" Running into a group who had been endeavouring to break the camera, we asked them what they were going to do. Why, go to the Y.M.C.A., of course,' they replied. Is there really one here ? What luck ! ' We all followed the guide. It was in a market hall, but liberally placarded with the familiar Red Triangle, and so there was no mistaking it. Like most other canteens of the Y.M. it had a long counter and about twelve small tables. The ever-refreshing cup of tea and the good old English slab cake were in plenty, and we asked for nothing better. . . . It was quite exciting to sit and have tea at a table. Afterwards there was a concert. The artists were A.S.C. men, and, although very markedly amateur, we enjoyed the evening, which was decidedly a change from our usual evening of cards. Unfortunately we marched away next day and so were unable to get full advantage from that depot. It was one of the Y.M.'s smaller ventures and lacked many of the usual articles of comfort that their huts are renowned for. However, it served its purpose. Troops were able to procure English cigarettes and chocolates, and at the same time have a good tea and a jolly evening. A toast to the Y.M. should always be drunk in hot tea, for supplying it to us in France. It's one of the chief blessings the Association confers on the army."
The battalion was soon in huts some way behind the firing line.
Sydney Baxter writes to one of his friends in the office:
" Glad to hear everything is O.K., and that you are still smiling. Thank God for that. Whatever happens, still keep smiling. The greatest tonic out here is to know the girls are working so hard, and all the time willingly and smilingly. We know you all miss the boys as they do you, and to read that our friends at home are enjoying themselves is enjoyment to us. We are out to have the harder tasks, and we want you all at home to have the benefits.
That's why we feel so bitter against the Air Raids.
" Well now, I am glad to write the usual formula. I am very fit and well, and not having such a bad time; things are fairly quiet this side, but not for long, I hope. Everyone is expecting a move and looking forward to it in the sense that it will help to finish the war.
" We have had much rain the last few days, and, as these tiny huts we're in are not waterproof, we wake up in the morning soaked and lying in puddles. It's the limit, I can tell you. However, we are on active service and so are not afraid of H2O. Now, as to my Eastertide. My Good Friday brought with it duty. I was on Police Picket, much the same as a village policeman. Our duties are to see every soldier is properly dressed with belt and puttees before going out, and that there are no suspicious persons around, that all lights are extinguished by 9.30, etc. It's not a bad job, but on a Good Friday it's tough.
" Sunday was as usual,—Church Parade in the morning, and free in the afternoon, when we had a cricket match. Monday was the worst day of all. We were called out at 8.3o, and from then to 12.30 had to clean up the roads, scrape mud out of ditches, and make drains in our village streets. Nice occupation, wasn't it ? The afternoon was not so bad, but we might have had a holiday. Instead we had to go and throw live bombs for practice purposes. The evening, as usual, was free. That ends my Eastertide, and in spite of what sounds a far from good one I enjoyed it immensely and count myself lucky to he out of the trenches for it.
" I ought to have mentioned earlier that we are in a village behind the firing line, in reserve; we shall be having our turn of trenches in a few days, and so we are making the best of our time out. The weather is glorious, and we are having a good time. I do not doubt that there will be some hard work shortly along the front, but it's difficult to say what will happen. Only the folk in charge know. We only obey, and really it's just as well to be in the dark and so escape the worry beforehand."
The death of his chum George was often in Sydney Baxter's thoughts. He writes:
May 21st, 1916.
" I have heard from ; he also mentions to me the opportunity of revenge. I can quite 'understand and have felt that a life for a life would wipe out the debt, but when my mind dwells on these things I always try to think what George would have me do, and I know his answer would be: I Why, the German was only doing his duty. I should have done the same myself.' That is true. We fire, but we little know what suffering we cause. We do our duty and the Germans do theirs. It rests with the heads as to clean methods or not"
The turn in the trenches soon came, and it was a rough turn too. The following are extracts from letters written to his mother:
June 6th, 1916.
" I have been unable to write before, as we have been having an extremely busy and horrible time. From the day we entered the trench till now has been one series of heavy bombardment, an absolute rain of shells everywhere a whole week of it. How so many managed to come out alive I don't know.
" We lost four killed in our platoon, including one of my section, a splendid chap, cool and jolly. Three of us went to see him buried yesterday—we had a short service. his brother is with us, a boy of eighteen, and is naturally very cut up. We have now sixteen graves where there were none a fortnight ago. Ten whom I knew personally are gone such is war.
" All of us have had a shaking up. To many it has been their first dose of real grim warfare, and it has been a sore trial for us to lie out in front with shells bursting all round and no cover. The natural tendency is to run back to the trench and get under cover. However, I managed to pull through, and feel much more confident of myself, and the Captain apparently is pleased, for on the strength of it all I have been made a lance-corporal—only do not yet get paid. That will come later. Of course, this is no big honour, but coming at such a time as this it shows they have some confidence in one's ability.
" There are so many senior in front of me that the possibility of further promotion is somewhat remote. One of our majors has got the D.S.O., one of our company lieutenants a Military Cross, and a lance-corporal a D.C.M., and so we have not come out without honour.
" I am feeling O. K. myself, and by the time you get this shall be back on a month's rest right away from the line, and until I write again you will know I am out of danger. Your parcel arrived whilst in the trenches, and was very welcome indeed. As far as cash goes, don't worry. Don't send any money, and don't worry; there's no need."
June 8th., 1916.
" We are now out on rest right away from our line, in our old village. We are not sorry, as you can imagine, and to sleep in our own little beds once again is lovely. I had a bath this morning, a nice change, and feel quite fit.
" Having now my first stripe, I have to go to No. Platoon. They are a nice lot of fellows, and I shall be all right there with my old friend, another corporal, while an old section comrade of Crowborough times is platoon sergeant.
" As to wants if you have an old shirt at home I could do with it. But I don't want a new one sent. Also a pair of strong laces, a nail brush (stiff)—that's about all, I think.
June 9th, 1916.
" Things are very active along the line, although very little appears in the papers. Our sector has been subject to heavy bombardments, and our first night in the trench saw three separate strafes, and the succeeding days brought a big list of casualties, which by now run well into three figures. The first strafe, which lasted ten minutes according to our artillery observers, brought 1,100 shells of all sizes from the Huns. I was half buried three times, and but for my steel helmet would have had a nasty scalp wound, whereas all that resulted was a dent in the hat and a headache for me."
There follows the last letter Sydney Baxter wrote to his mother before the great Somme offensive. He was facing the possibilities himself and trying to get her to do so too. I have not cared to print this letter in full. Those who have written or received such a letter will understand why.
" My DEAREST OF MOTHERS,
" Owing to increased activity at the front, I hear our letters are to be stopped and only picture, field, and plain postcards can be sent. Therefore you must not worry if you only get such. If I can get a letter through I will. I do not disguise the fact that things are warmer, for you can read that in the papers, and anything may happen any day.
" Thanks for the shirt, laces, brush, cards, and notebook which I received this afternoon; I had just returned after taking a party to another village on fatigue. The P.O.'s have arrived regularly, thanks, dear. I had a good lunch to-day, steak and chips and fruit after, at a little café where we went this morning. It was O.K.
" As you will have noticed in the papers, our artillery has been very active along the front, and it's when the Hun replies that most of the trouble comes in, for the Huns won't take it quietly for a minute and will send some souvenirs across. It remains to be seen what will happen.
" I like my platoon very much, and I have had a very happy time these last few months.
" I often think of the time to come, apres la guerre, when we shall have the old tea-time chats, a smaller house and less running about for you, of the time when I shall take up my Church secretaryship again and also my work in the City. I wonder what they will put me into ?
" Well, mother mine, don't worry about me. I'm all right and will be home sooner than you think, even if I last the war through and—I might, you know, unless I get wounded. And if I get that I shall be home sooner, and if I get the only other alternative, well, dear, it's merely a reunion with the others, and a matter of waiting for you. But it remains to be seen.
" Well, mother darling, I must now close. I'll drop you both a line every day, so don't worry."
The next line that both received was from a hospital.