"There is nothing to report."
W. Lewis provides an honest account of life in trench warfare with the matter-of-fact tone which is is prevalent within accounts from the First World War.
The Grammar School Chronicle
The following interesting account of how life is actually lived at the Front has been sent us by Captain W. Lewis (late O.C., O.T.C.), who is now in command of a double coy. in France.
“There is nothing to report.” – Official Communiqué.
The heading and sub-heading of this contribution probably seem contradictory. I gather that many people at home are beginning to think that our service out here in Flanders is not very active. Well, my message to them is “come and see.” It is nothing new to describe the operations on the Western front as those of siege warfare, and surely in the siege warfare only great events are worth publishing; the continual wearing down and petty annoyance of either side, though important taken as a whole, provide no copy for the newspaper. For this reason I refrain from any attempt at a diary of events while at the same time I shall try to avoid a mere string of disconnected incidents.
I would first warn anyone who reads any further that unless he has either seen a trench or had one described to him by one who has actually seen one, he has no real idea of our conditions of life. In most parts of the line the trench so called is half trench and half breastwork. Concealment of the line of trench, so important in the South African War, is seldom studied in this. The most important consideration is to get a good thickness – five or six feet at the least – of earth on the side of you from which the bullets come. This is not always the front by any means. The line wriggles and winds to such an extent that bullets fire by the Hun at one place may travel far and enter a British trench almost directly in rear. To meet this inconvenience trenches are built up at the back. Again enfilade fire, a term now understood I expect by all, is met by “traverses” either solid or of the bridge kind. To keep heaped-up earth standing at a steep angle and also to prevent the wearing away of the sides of the trench, revetting is found everywhere. The devices for this are almost innumerable. Stakes with boarding sheets of corrugated iron, hurdle work, wire netting, metal netting, twisted straw, house doors, cupboard doors, canvas, and myriads of sand bags. Trenches are only two feet size inches to three feet wide as a rule because of the danger of shell. Just imagine the whole school passing to and fro over a garden bed in all weathers all on that width of earth, and you will have an idea of what the trench floor would become. The result is more work. Flooring of boards or bricks is found everywhere. One of the chief troubles has been that after a depth of almost two feet it is more likely than not that water appears. This has to be met by drains, pits and pumps. Men have to live in the trenches for several days – weeks in the earlier part of the campaign – at a time. Places have to be made for sleeping, cooking, washing, etc., and all of these have to be protected. The flooring gets worn away, dug-outs get out of repair, the top of the parapet gets worn away, sometimes it gets knocked in altogether; everything needed in the trenches has to be carried up by the men from a big distance in the rear – drinking water (in many cases), rations, ammunition, bombs, boards, quartering, iron sheets and other revetting material, nails, tools of all kinds, to say nothing of barbed wire. Barbed wire entanglements, so casually spoken of, provide plenty of work and need continual renovation; a bullet which hits the bottom of the parapet has probably cut at least one strand of wire on its way – and there are machine guns. Now, I want to know, is it Active Service or not?
One of the wisest arrangements of many in the conduct of the war is the system of reliefs. A unit takes over a certain section of line for a period of so many days after which it is relieved by another unit. It then goes into billets at some village or in farms behind the firing line while the other unit is in the trenches. This period is officially known as a rest. Sometimes the men agree with this description. In order to prevent time hanging on our hands during the rest, we undergo countless inspections, and also provide working parties for plans and always manage to need large parties of infantry to do the work. However, we find time to get some rest and recreation and, seriously, the system works exceedingly well and is decidedly beneficial. During these periods units visit the baths and it is worth the journey out of the trenches to do that. Try living half under the earth without taking off your clothes for eight days on end and see what you think. The R.A.M.C. have converted breweries and factories at various places into huge bathing establishments. Uniforms are dry-cleaned while the men are bathing and a fresh set of underclothing is issued to every man after the bath. It is worth noting that preference is given in the civilian labour employed to refugee Belgian and French women.
The organisation of the contemptible little army (which has grown remarkably) is at once the wonder and admiration of our Allies. The transport and supply, postal and medical services, are truly wonderful. Food comes up regularly and in plenty. It gets a bit monotonous at times but it is marvellous that any army in the field can live as the British Army does to-day, I feel just as grieved if I don’t get Monday morning’s London paper by Tuesday mid-day as I should if it wasn’t on my breakfast table on Monday morning at home. A highly placed French Officer who very kindly gave me a lift of thirty miles or so one day said that he had never imagined in his wildest dreams that an ambulance service could be brought to such a state of efficiency as the British has been all along. Another thing that evoked his admiration was the unity and generosity of the Empire. We were travelling on one of the main routes, and motor ambulances were continually meeting us. I had to tell him where the various States were which had presented them to the Empire.
The British work their soldiers hard, and load them like pack animals. They march their infantry (loaded) for miles on the infernal French roads until their feet and backs are aching with an ache that cannot be described. But, there is a Medical Officer and a Chiropodist to every unit and the soldier receives the best of careful attention should he give under the strain, and nothing is too much trouble, nothing is too expensive, when a wound comes along.
Is it any wonder that the British soldier, whose right to grumble is proverbial, nevertheless amazes the inhabitants by his cheerful manner and bright spirits? Here and there you will meet with a professional ‘grouser’ just as you will occasionally find a churlish peasant, but everywhere the people are the essence of kindness to our men, and the men get over the language difference by signs and winks and smiles, and are quite at home anywhere in half-an-hour. One woman, in whose cottage I was staying, described our men as “always smiling, always, always honest.” The gentlemen is found in the roughest. – They fetch water, chop sticks, help cook, make up the fire, brush out the kitchen or the yard, nurse and amuse the baby – and anything and everything to help. They show an absolute trust in the people when buying things with the result that they seldom are taken advantage of. Their behaviour is beyond reproach – I have not seen a single case of drunkenness since I left England.
In the trenches, their conduct is just as cheerful. The line we have been holding was nowhere more than about two hundred and fifty yards from the enemy and in several places as near as sixty yards. Parties have to go out to mend the barbed wire, to examine the front of the parapet, to form listening posts as well as to reconnoitre. Of course these things are always done at night, but even then there are the star shells or flares as they are sometimes called, which light the whole place like a search-light.
And the Huns. They are there right enough, they pot at us and we at them. They shout at us, we don’t at them. They knock down our parapet in places, we do ditto, ditto. We sit down in cold blood and plan to annoy or kill them and no doubt they do the same, with a view to our destruction.
Narrow escapes everyone has had; some I could tell which are as true as true. I dare not for fear I should not be believed. Incidents which amuse us would look poor jokes on paper or I would recount some. One, however, I will risk. An Irish Officer, about the funniest man I have ever met, used to take a cornet into the trenches and play sweet music to the gentle foe. One day a brilliant idea occurred to him. He played “The Watch on the Rhine.” Up jumped the enemy and cheered – the range was very short. Then he gave the order – five rounds of rapid fire! We all called it a dirty trick. Just one more. One morning early, we heard a great deal of cheering over the way, a little further down the line. Soon afterwards there was a tremendous burst of rapid fire and we thought an attack was coming. We telephones along to enquire. The Germans had been having a gramophone concert and had been singing the choruses and cheering after each. They then turned on “God save the King.” Our fellows opposite to them hoping that some of them might be incautiously looking over the parapet and determined to drown any jeers which might follow, opened rapid fire. We went about our usual business much amused.
Knowing the love for the slang that exists in the School I give a few expressions that are in common use out here. To us they explain themselves; do they to you? – Cold feet – Morning hate – Gooseberry – Going West – Knife rest – Iron ration – Wind up – Whizzy-bang – Little Willie – Grandmother – Souvenir – Whistler – Whistling Willie – Pongs and Pongs food (special to the 4th Battalion) – Frightfulness – Submarine – Shell proof.