An Extract from Fen's Book, "The Distant Drum"

A Night in the Trenches. No. 6 platoon are in a trench opposite Bourlon Hill by the Canal Du Nord, September 1917.



It may be interesting, perhaps, to attempt to describe the events of that one night in some detail, and see how much of the atmosphere of a typical “quiet” night in the trenches I can recapture in retrospect. Not that there is much to tell, in point of incident – if there was, it would not have been a “quiet” night – but it may serve to exemplify conditions in the trenches during normal times when there was no particular “stunt” on, typical of many such another night I had spent in the line at different times and places; and in describing my own feelings – very inadequately and unskilfully, it is true – I believe I am putting into words more or less what the majority of men thought and felt in similar circumstances, though they might not always own to it.

About half and hour after sunset, as it begins to grow dusk, we turn out and line the trench on each side of the post, with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets. This is the evening “Stand-to” and lasts for a hour, until darkness has fallen completely, for dusk and dawn are the times when, theoretically, there is most danger of an attack. Actually, however, it is the time when we feel safest from disturbances of that kind, for “Jerry” undoubtedly knows all about this invariable daily routine (he observes the same ritual himself), so that if he has aggressive intentions it is unlikely that the first move would be made at a time when we are known to be thoroughly prepared. Still – one never knows, and we keep our eyes skinned. We stand about in the trench, nursing our rifles and talking, and as the dusk deepens some of us get up on the firestep and peer out across No-man’s land at the tangled wire and grass-grown shell-holes, secure in our knowledge that we cannot now be seen from the lines opposite. One has to be wary, though, for occasionally there is a sharp rattling splutter as a machine-gun traverses at random, and we duck below the parapet while the fugitive bullets whine harmlessly overhead. A light mist gathers in the valley and the Verey lights begin their nightly dance. They are nearly all sent up from the other side, and as Jerry has an apparently-unlimited store of them we are content to let him provide nearly all the illumination that is needed.

The Orderly Officer for the day comes along to see that the post is properly manned and to receive the Sergeant’s report, and presently the order to “Stand-down” is passed back. Thereupon, with the exception of the sentry on duty, we all file down into the dugout and get out our rations. There is a brazier made from an old biscuit tin filled with glowing coke at the bottom of the steps; most of the smoke escapes up the shaft into the open air as through a chimney, but quite enough remains below to make our eyes smart and run as we boil water in our mess-tins and make tea. My supper consists of the residue of a tin of bully, a piece of bread and some broken bits of Army biscuit, helped down with a little of my jealously hoarded ration of butter. The tea is a success, despite the tendency of tea-leaves to float on the surface; it is well sweetened and its warmth is very comforting.

The low, oblong dugout is like the interior of a huge coffin buried thirty feet underground; the air is stuffy with damp and the frowsty smell of humanity, while the smoke from the brazier, to which our cigarettes and pipes add their quota, makes a haze through which the glimmering of half a dozen candle ends struggles gallantly but ineffectually. There is a babel of voices and a clatter of equipment and rifles. Conversation is discursive and trivial, for the most part, but generally good-humoured and often humorous, though the language would hardly pass muster in a drawing-room. There might be arguments – wordy, repetitive and leading nowhere – and a good deal of blasphemously-expressed grousing, but it all amounts to very little. Three or four men are squatting on the ground in a group, playing “nap” with a dirty pack of cards; one or two are trying to read, or catching lice in the seams of their tunics. Someone starts to sing, and others join in: the songs are usually popular ballads or music-hall hits, among which the favourite seems to be such sentimental ditties as “Sweet Adeline” or “It’s Only a Beautiful Picture”, rendered with exaggerated feeling. Or it might be one of those lugubrious satirical “classics” which poke fun at ourselves and the “windiness” which we all feel but do not want to acknowledge:


“I want to go home,
I want to go home
I don’t want to go in the trenches no more,
Where there’s bullets and whiz-bangs and shrapnel galore;

Put me over the sea
Where the Alleman can’t get at me –
Oh my! I don’t want to die,
I want to go ho-o-o-me!”

or else:

“Send out the Army and the Navy,
Send out the rank and file
Send out the good old Territorials –
They’ll face the danger with a smile.

Send out the boys of the Old Brigade
Who made England free;
Send out my brother, my sister or my mother,
But for God’s sake! Don’t send me!”

Presently there is a call down the entrance shaft, of “Rations!” and two or three men of a fatigue party clatter down the dugout steps and deposit sandbags containing supplies for the next day. We crowd eagerly round the Sergeant as he distributes the mail that accompanies them, calling each name aloud and throwing the letter or package to its owner. There are several for me: the Sergeant calls, “Noakes, coming over!” – “ Noakes, here’s another!” – “ Noakes, you lucky b -- !” – “Christ Almighty still they come!” - with friendly groans and chaffing from the others. There are a couple of newspapers and a magazine for me as well, I am at once besieged by requests for a reversionary interest in these, for reading matter is very scarce, and before they are completely worn out they will have passed through dozens of hands and will have been read from cover to cover, advertisements included. I retire to my “bed” with my letters and for a short space of time my surroundings fade into the background as I abandon myself to memories of home.

Then, as “it takes me” for sentry-duty soon after midnight, I turn in for a short sleep. We are not allowed to undress, of course, or even to remove our boots, but I pile my equipment against the wall in the way which experience has taught me makes the least knobbly pillow and, with the facility of those days which I have often envied since, I am quickly asleep. It seems as if I have hardly lapsed into unconsciousness, though, when I feel the Sergeant shaking my shoulder, telling me that it is time to take my place on the fire-step. All around are slumbering forms, snoring or muttering in their sleep, or turning over with an impatient sigh, dimly visible in the red glow of the brazier. Half-asleep, cold and hardly sure whether I am awake or still dreaming, I huddle on my equipment and tin hat, pick up my rifle and stumble up the dugout steps. At the top the chill night air, after the stuffiness below, shocks me awake like a cold douche. The man I am relieving, with a sleepy “Goodnight”, disappears into the dugout, and I am alone.

I get up on the fire-step and peer around. The night is very dark, and I can see only a few yards ahead. Overhead, a few stars show through rents in the clouds and a breeze blows coldly. There is very little firing, although every ten seconds or so a flash on the horizon shows that the artillery is awake. Each night, from soon after dusk until about midnight, the guns shell the back areas and cross-roads in the hope of impeding the supply of rations and munitions to the trenches, but it is now one o’clock and things are quiet. Down in the valley below, the Verey lights curve upwards at intervals, but their light makes very little difference to the darkness where I am. A sudden rattle announces a machine-gun, and there is an isolated rifle-shot or two.

As I lean my elbows on the damp sandbags and look across towards the invisible horizon, my thoughts return to the letters I have just received, and I wonder if they are all asleep at home, or if , like me, they are watching flashes in the sky, from a distant air-raid on London. My home! – how well and in what detail I remember it. Scenes of other days flash through my mind, days before I knew anything of was, so long ago in retrospect that they are almost like recollections of a previous incarnation! My mind drifts to the early days of the war, to my unsuccessful efforts to enlist (would that they had remained unsuccessful, I think!), to the now-incredible enthusiasm of my first day in the Army… Windsor and recruit training… the draft… Arras, the H.B. … the “March do”… I try to visualise the end of the war and my return home, but there imagination fails me; it seems impossible that the war should ever end, that there should ever come a time when the old life can be taken up again and I shall live in comfort and safety once more. Now that it has me firmly in its grip, it seems as if only a miracle could make the military machine loose its hold on me. My mind refuses to envisage any more permanent release than an almost impossibly wonderful vision of “Leave”.

A sudden outburst of machine-gun fire from in front brings me back to reality with a jerk. A fusillade of rifle-shots joins in, some of which whine away high over my head. More machine guns rattle furiously and Verey lights shoot into the air. What is it? – a raid? If so, they are sure to put down a barrage on the Support line. I watch tensely for the “S.O.S.”, but there are no coloured light among the flares, and gradually the shooting dies down. I heave a sigh of relief. Only someone in the front line got the wind up!

Wind-up – yes; probably some sentry in a forward post has caught sight of an enemy patrol in No-man’s-land and opened fire – or perhaps they attacked him! This reminds me of stories which have been going round lately, of German snipers who have lain hidden between our lines, to creep out in the darkness and attack sentries in isolated posts. I begin to lose hold on my imagination, and the dim shapes of the tumbled ground in front take on new and sinister forms. That dark lump a few yards away – is it still in the same place? I feel sure that it has moved since I last looked that way – not only which, but its shape has changed – it is creeping, creeping towards me! I strain my eyes into the darkness, hardly daring to breathe, and am just about to fire, when a Verey light goes up and I realise that there is nothing there but a hummock of rank grass.

Frightened of shadows! That’s a nice way to go on! There is a sudden gust of wind, and something – perhaps a loose strand of wire or an empty tin – makes a distinct scraping sound, like someone moving cautiously over rough ground. I grip my rifle again and strain my ears, every nerve and muscle taut as I wait for a repetition of the noise, but the seconds pass and nothing happens. I give myself a shake and turn up the collar of my tunic against the grave-like chill of the wind. This won’t do! Mustn’t get the wind up over nothing. It is very lonely, though – if only I had a companion! I almost wish we were in the front line instead of in support, for there are always two sentries on duty together in the front-line posts. Indeed, what is the use of single sentries in the line? If anyone got near enough to attack me – if, for instance they got into the trench farther along, where it is unguarded between the posts, amd came at me suddenly round the corner of the traverse – how could I give the alarm quickly enough to the others? They are all probably asleep down there, anyway. How cosy and companionable it must be in the dugout! Its balck entrance near the end of the firestep looks friendly and home-like, and if I step down into the trench for a moment I can smell the warm smoky air coming up from below. How is the time going? Only half-past one? – my watch must have stopped: I seem to have been here for several hours already! No, it’s still ticking

Boom! Boom! – hullo, the guns are waking up. Crash! Crash! That’s all right – well over. So long as they don’t come any nearer, the sound of the shells is almost a relief. Crash! Crash! They are firing at the batteries behind me. It is hard luck on the gunners, of course; but to us of the “P.B.I.” it always appears more seemly that the guns of both sides should fire at each other, rather than at us!

A big bombing aeroplane passes high overhead on its way to some distant target far behind the fighting-front. It is invisible, but I can hear the laboured “zoog – zoog – zoog” of its engines as they drag their heavy load of bombs apparently with difficulty across the stars, and I can see the red pin-points of light from bursting shells that follow it. Gradually the sound dies away in the distance, and there is a renewed outbreak of firing in the valley. Confound the fellows! Why can’t they keep quiet! They’ll stir up some serious trouble between them, if they don’t look out. For I cannot avoid a foolish and half-superstitious feeling that the brute-beast, War, is sleeping and might be awakened by too much noise.

Crack – whish – Crash! They are firing at the trenches now. I saw the flash of that gun on Bourlon Hill. They can fire point blank at us from there by direct observation. Crack – wheeEEE – CRUMP! That one was not far away! Crack – Crash! Another, farther off that time. I don’t think they are after this part of the trench after all; probably the communication-trench farther down………

So the long two hours drag slowly on, in alternate spells of boredom and spasms of “wind-up”. It is cold, with the hopeless chill of the “dead hours”, and my feet are like ice. I try several times to warm them by stamping on the duckboards, but without much success, and put my rifle down for a moment while I do a hasty “cabby-flap”. Oh! For a fire, a hot drink and a soft bed! – but that is dreaming of the impossible. My eyes are heavy with the sleep which I know I must not give way to, and smart with straining them into the darkness. My limbs feel numbed and my mouth is dry. I would give a great deal to be able to smoke, but dare no while on sentry, lest an officer should come along.

At long last my relief appears – late, of course (or so I think!) – and, after a brief word of greeting, I am free to retire thankfully into the dugout, for a couple of hours’ sleep before “Stand-to” at dawn.

See also False Armistice.

............ Fen Gets Wounded

........... Fen Gets Wounded Again

............ On Smoking, Drinking and Fear

............ Over The Top