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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 3

"IN" or "OUT", NO OUTING

I soon got over the effects of my ordeal of the 'Whit-Monday do' and when the time came for me to leave hospital my reluctance to get back to the Front was tempered by my anxiety to find out what had happened to Bill and to see how many of the draft were left.

Map of the Ypres area (Belgium) showing Poperinghe, Hell Fire Corner, Sanctuary Wood, Westoutre, Kemmel and Messines.

When I arrived back at battalion HQ I found that my company was in the Front Line and I was detailed to join the ration party taking up supplies. Soon after dark that night I paraded with the party outside the QM's stores and was given a sack of potatoes to carry. We soon came within sound of rifle fire and saw the occasional star shell. The men soon began to straggle out finding their loads very tiring. My sack of potatoes got heavier with every step and I dropped it for a time and was about to heave it onto my back again when I heard what sounded like horses hooves galloping on the pave.

Ahead of me there was a slight rise in the road and as I tried to puzzle out this sound I suddenly saw sparks rising from the crest of the rise. A passing member of my party started to run as he overtook me, calling out as he went "Get the hell out of here mate, those were machine gun bullets. This is Hell Fire Corner!" Tired as I was I had those spuds on my back like a shot and started running after the others as fast as I could go. The going was rough and just when I thought I was catching up I went full length into a shell hole, my sack flying over my head into the water filled bottom of the hole. Regaining my breath I started fumbling in the water for the sack. I found it at last and giving a great tug I fell flat on my back as the sack came up, leaving the spuds in the water.

Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992. 
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan
Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992.
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan

Knowing that if I lingered much longer I should lose contact with the others decided to stop worrying about the spuds, threw down the sack and followed as quickly as possible to catch up so that I should not miss the entrance to the communication trench. Jerry started shelling the trench and about forty yards ahead, one apparently dropped smack into it, for when I reached the spot I found the trench sides blown away and a dead man lying sprawling in the mud, the two petrol tins of water he had been carrying nearly submerged in the water.

Picking up the two tins I proceeded on my way glad that I should now avoid the indignity of arriving empty handed at the Company HQ. Having disposed of my load I reported myself to the Company HQ as having returned from hospital for duty.

Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992. 
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan
Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992.
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan

I found my platoon officer sitting on a box in a dug-out lighted by means of a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle. Using another box as a desk he thumbed through some papers and then instructed me to report to No.5 Platoon Sergeant. We stayed in the line for another couple of days until, on the third night, we were relieved and we trudged away down the communication trench and along the road to rest billets in farm buildings. I was just making myself comfortable for the night when the Orderly Corporal came in, poked me with his boot and said "You! Parade outside for guard." It was the rule that any man just returned from leave, hospital or having been away from the battalion for any other reason, was the first to be called out to do guard duty.

I joined two other men and a corporal and proceeded to the guard point at the entrance to the farm yard. Presently the Duty Officer and Sergeant Major came along to 'mount the guard'. "Guard! 'Shun!" "Fix..." I was right hand man and immediately took out my bayonet and fixed it on my rifle without ceremony. "What's the matter with that man? Move him Corporal." The drill was repeated with each of us and each time with the same effect. The officer came up to us and asked what we were playing at. I spoke up and told him that only having had a few weeks training before coming out to the front we had not been instructed in the ceremonial drill of 'fixing bayonets'. The officer then gave up, saying "All right Corporal, do it their way." And he and the sergeant major cleared off. The corporal told us how to challenge anyone approaching the post and I was told to take the first two hour spell.

Suddenly I nearly jumped out of my skin! Someone coughed only a few yards away. Bringing my bayonet to the on-guard position I called out "Halt! Who goes there?" No answer - no movement. "Who are you?" No answer. Much to my relief at that moment the corporal appeared at the entrance to the tent.

"Who were you challenging sentry?"

"Don't know, Corporal, but I heard someone cough quite near."

One of the other men now came out of the tent and was told to take my place on sentry go.

"Your time's up," said the corporal, "but before you turn in just take a look around. I'll wait here."

Very warily I marched off, stopping every few steps to listen.

Although I didn't feel so jittery now that there was someone else with me, never-the-less I nearly stopped breathing when the cough came again "Who's there?" No answer. I stood quite still for a while and then began to move slowly in the direction of the noise. There! I saw something move. Moving slowly nearer I could now make out the dark bulk of something lying on the ground and as I got close it slowly rose to its feet and ambled away. My set face relaxed into a sheepish smile as I returned to the corporal.

"Well?" he asked, "did you see anything?"

"Yes Corporal. A cow with a cough!"

"You great windy bugger, go and get some kip."

My turn of guard duty over I returned to my platoon and was glad to bed down with the others in the straw. We were not allowed to undress but could remove our boots and equipment and after over a week in the line this was comfort indeed. I slept like a log, covered with my great-coat. Then the shout "Show a leg there" came next morning I was startled on picking up my great-coat to see a large rat jump out of the pocket!

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Front Line or Front.

Relating to the most advanced or important position - the line along which opposing armies face each other.

Q.M. or Q.M.S.

abbreviation: Quartermaster.
An officer responsible for the food, clothing, and equipment of troops.

Hellfire Corner.

Hellfire Corner was a simple road junction on the Menin (Menen) Road near Ypres. A railway crossed the road at this point so the position was accurately marked on maps of the area and so German artillery officers could calculate their ranges most accurately and drop shells on it to within a metre or two. Each night wagons carrying supplies to the forward positions in the Salient had to cross this junction. It was generally accepted that this was the most dangerous spot on the face of the Earth in the second half of 1917.

Jerry, also Gerry.

Although a nickname for German soldiers or the German armed forces that was originally created during World War I, Jerry it did not come in to common use until World War II.

Trench.

From late 1914 until nearly the end of the war the fighting consisted largely of trench warfare. The trenches consisted of parallel lines of interconnected trenches protected by lines of barbed wire.


diagram of typical trench layout

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Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992.
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan

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Hellfire Corner, Command Post entrance, excavated 1992.
Photo credit: Ted Smith/Tom Morgan