A Surgeon in Arms - R. J. Manion - ebook

The greater part of A Surgeon in Arms was written before the United States entered the war in April, 1917. Therefore, the Americans are not mentioned in many paragraphs in which the soldiers of the other allies are spoken of. The Canadian soldiers on the Western front have won undying fame for their marvelous feats in many actions, from the first battle of Ypres in April, 1915, to Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. As soldiers they take a place second to none. And, I believe, the American soldiers will, in the lines, show the same courage, dash, and initiative, and win the same fighting reputation and honors as the Canadians; for do not Americans and Canadians inherit the same blood, literature, history, and traditions; do they not both live in the same wide spaces, speak the same mother tongue, aspire to the same ideals, and enjoy the same free institutions?

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The greater part of A Surgeon in Arms was written before the United States entered the war in April, 1917. Therefore, the Americans are not mentioned in many paragraphs in which the soldiers of the other allies are spoken of. The Canadian soldiers on the Western front have won undying fame for their marvelous feats in many actions, from the first battle of Ypres in April, 1915, to Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. As soldiers they take a place second to none. And, I believe, the American soldiers will, in the lines, show the same courage, dash, and initiative, and win the same fighting reputation and honors as the Canadians; for do not Americans and Canadians inherit the same blood, literature, history, and traditions; do they not both live in the same wide spaces, speak the same mother tongue, aspire to the same ideals, and enjoy the same free institutions?



Life "out there" is so strange, so unique, so full of hardship and danger, and yet so intensely interesting that it seems like another world. It is a different life from any other that is to be found in our world today. In it the most extraordinary occurrences take place and are accepted as a matter of course.

I am sitting in a dugout near Fresnoy. Heavy shelling by the enemy is taking place outside, making life in the pitch-dark trenches rather precarious. A number of soldiers of different battalions on this front are going to and fro in the trenches outside. The shelling gets a bit worse, so some of them crawl down into the entrance of my dugout to take a few minutes' rest in its semi-protection. They cannot see each other in the blackness, but with that spirit of camaraderie so common out there two of the men sitting next each other begin to chat. After exchanging the numbers of their battalions, which happen to be both Canadian and in the same brigade, one says,—

"But you're not a Johnny Canuck; you talk like a Englishman."

"That may be; I was born in England. But I am a Canadian. I've been out there for seventeen years," the other returned a little proudly.

"Hindeed! I was in Canada only three years. W'ere'd you come from in old England?"

"Faversham, Kent."

"Faversham! Well, I'm blowed! That's my 'ome! What the 'ell's yer name?"

"Reggie Roberts."

"W'y, blime me, I'm your brother Bill!" Affectionate greeting followed, then explanations: The elder brother had gone out to Alberta seventeen years before while the younger was still at school. Correspondence had stopped, as it so often does with men. Fourteen years later the other boy went out to Ontario. When the war broke out, they both enlisted, but in different regiments, and they meet after seventeen years' separation in the dark entrance to my dugout.

On the front of our division, an order came through telling us that information was reaching the enemy that should not reach him. For this reason all units were ordered to keep a sharp lookout for spies since we feared that some English-speaking Germans were visiting our lines.

In our battalion at that time was a very good and careful officer, Lieutenant Weston. Rather strangely, one of the men of his platoon was a Corporal Easton. Shortly after the above order had come forth, Lieutenant Weston was sent out on a reconnoitering expedition by night into No Man's Land. He took as his companion, Corporal Easton. Over the parapet they crept between flares, and proceeded to crawl cautiously about among the barbed wire entanglements, shellholes, and ghosts of bygone sins and German enemies. At each flare sent up by us or the enemy, splitting the thick darkness like a flash of lightning, they pushed their faces into the mud and lay perfectly still, in order to avoid becoming the target of a German sniper, or even possibly of some over-nervous Tommy. If there is any place in this war where Napoleon's dictum that "a soldier travels on his stomach" is lived up to in a literal and superlative degree, it is in No Man's Land by night.

Their reconnaissance had lasted some two hours when they started to return to what they thought was their own battalion front. But, as sometimes happens, they had lost their bearings. While they were correct as to the direction toward the Canadian lines in general, they were really crawling to the firing line of one of the brigades to our right. Suddenly Weston, who was leading, found his chest pressing against the sharp point of a bayonet. He heard a voice hissing:

"Who goes there?"

"Two Canadians," he whispered in reply.

"All right; crawl in here, and no funny tricks or we'll fill ye full o' lead." At the point of the bayonet he and his corporal crawled over the parapet. They found themselves in the enlarged end of a sap that was being used as a listening post. In the darkness they could dimly see that they were surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets.

"What's yer name?" hissed the voice, for out there no one is anxious to attract a hand grenade from the enemy on the other side of the line.

"Lieutenant Weston."

"An' yours?" to the corporal.

"Corporal Easton."

"Weston—Easton; that's too damn thin. Now you fellows march ahead of us to Headquarters, an' if ye so much as turn yer head we'll put so many holes through ye, ye'll look like a sieve. Quick march!" And they plowed through the deep mud of the trenches till they were well back, then they came out and proceeded overland to H.Q.—headquarters. Here, after a few sharp questions, a little telephoning, and some hearty laughter, they were given a runner to show them the shortest route back to their own battalion.

Trench warfare as it has been carried on during this great war is different from the warfare of the past. Here we had—and have at the time of writing—on the western front alone, a fighting line five hundred miles long, with millions of the soldiers of the Allies occupying trenches, dugouts, huts, tents, and billets, on one side of the line, and the millions of the enemy in the same position on the other. For months at a time there is no move in either direction.

Trenches are merely long, irregular ditches, usually, though not always, deep enough to hide a man from the enemy. Occasionally they are so shallow that the soldier must travel on his stomach, during which time any part of his anatomy which has too prominent a curve may be exposed to the fire of the enemy. Of course this all depends on the architectural configuration of the traveler. Except trenches far in the rear, they are always zigzag, being no more than ten to twenty feet in a straight line, to prevent any shell's doing too much damage. The front trench is called the firing line; the next one, fifty yards or so behind, but running parallel, is a support trench; and other support trenches exist back to about 1000 yards.

Communicating trenches run from front to rear, crossing the support trenches. Here and there a communicating trench runs right back out of the danger zone, and these long trenches are at times divided into "in" trenches, and "out" trenches. Shorter communicating trenches run from support to firing lines. These different trenches give the ground, from above, the appearance of an irregular checker board.

The front wall of the trench is called the parapet, and the rear wall, the parados. Above the trenches, on the intervening ground, is overland. In the bottom of the trenches, when the water has not washed them away, are trench mats, or small, rough board walks. Sometimes the mud or sand walls of the trench are supported by revetments of wire or wood.

No Man's Land is the area between the firing lines of the opponents. It is a barren area of shellholes, barbed wire, and desolation, and may be from forty yards to 300 or more yards wide. Commonly, on standing fronts its width is about one hundred yards. Saps are trenches extending out into No Man's Land, and used for observation purposes or for listening posts. They may end in craters, or large cavities in the ground, made by the explosion of mines.

Dugouts are cavities off from the trenches, connecting with them by narrow passages. The dugout proper is a cavity, small or large, used for living in and for protection from shell fire. They may be superficial, having only two or three feet of sandbags—more properly, bags of sand—for a roof; or they may have a roof ten to forty feet in thickness. But the term is often used carelessly for any kind of shelter at the front.

At dusk and dawn the men usually "stand to," that is they stand, rifle in hand, in the trenches ready to repel any attack of the enemy. During the dark hours the men take part in working parties, or fatigues, to bring in water, clean the mud from the trenches, carry rations or ammunition, and dig holes or dumps in which munitions, flares, or equipment are stored. Fatigues are rather disliked by the men, for they are laborious and just as dangerous as other work in the lines.

In speaking to each other, and often in official communications, abbreviations are much employed among officers and men. For example: O.C., or C.O., is used to signify the officer commanding any unit, whether it be the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of a battalion, or the Major, Captain, or Lieutenant in command of a company; the M.O., or the Doc., is commonly the shortened form for the Medical Officer; and H.Q. signifies headquarters, and may apply to company, battalion, brigade, divisional, corps, or army headquarters, any of which would, generally speaking, be specified, unless the conversation or communication made it plain which was meant.

After big advances there are varying periods during which trench life is more or less abandoned for open warfare. After an advance the consolidation of the land taken consists of again digging trenches and dugouts, preparing machine-gun emplacements, bringing up the artillery, and establishing communications. During this transitory period the losses are often heavy, because of the poor protection afforded the men and the fact that the enemy is well acquainted with the ground which he has abandoned, willingly or unwillingly.



When a man has gone over the top of a front line trench in an attack on the enemy, he has reached the stage in his career as a soldier at which the title, "veteran," may honorably be applied to him.

For, to climb out of your burrow where you have been living like an earthworm into God's clear daylight in plain view of enemy snipers, machine-gunners, and artillerymen, and, under the same conditions, to start across No Man's Land toward the Hun in his well-protected and fortified trenches, is indeed to earn that distinction.

Many there are who have courted death in this form, again and again, and "got away with it." But it is a good deal like trying your luck at Rouge et Noir in the Casino at Monte Carlo. The odds are against you, and if you keep at it long enough you are almost mathematically certain to lose out in the end.

The boys know this as well as you and I. In spite of that knowledge, over the top they go again and again, by day and by night, with a smile on their lips, blood in their eyes, and joy in their hearts at the thought of revenging themselves upon the despicable Hun for his breaking of all the laws of civilization, for his utter disregard of the principle that "between nation and nation, as between man and man, lives the one great law of right."

Attacks in which the men go over the top are of various kinds and on different scales. The commonest are simply raids in which a small sector of enemy lines is the object. By them we endeavor to obtain prisoners for purposes of identification of the troops opposing us, while at the same time we depress the morale of the enemy.

Then there are the immense attacks, called pushes, in which we mean to push back the enemy, take possession of his lines, consolidate and hold them, killing, taking prisoners, and putting hors de combat as many as we can in the process. These pushes are always on a greater scale and require thorough organization and preparation to be successful. If they should fail, our last condition is worse than our first. We have not only wasted all our immense preparations but we have lowered the spirits of our own men, and raised and encouraged the fighting spirit of the enemy.

The man who is sitting comfortably in his library five or six thousand miles from the scene of battle notes on the map on his wall that it is only five inches from the firing line of the Allies to the Rhine. He may decide that it should be an easy matter to bring up a few million troops, break through the enemy lines, push a million men through the gap, cut the communications of the opposing forces, hurl the enemy back into the Rhine, and make him sue for peace.

On paper, and with the aid of a vivid imagination, this may look easy. In reality the preparations for a great advance are enormous. For weeks before the push, even for months, the staffs of battalion, brigade, division, corps, and army are planning it.

Dummy trenches are laid out from aerial photographs, taken by aviators, and dummy advances are practiced with all the details as in real advances. Our information must be so complete that we know even where certain dugouts are in the enemy lines, and who occupies them. This knowledge comes from prisoners and deserters. Raids are put on to know what troops are opposing us by the identification of prisoners. Medical arrangements have to be completed so as to handle the hundreds or thousands of casualties that must occur.

Immense guns must be brought up, and millions of shells must be piled along the roads and stored in dumps ready for use during battle. Water arrangements have to be made to supply pure water to the troops when they cross into enemy territory, for the enemy may have destroyed or poisoned the water supplies as they retired. Extra food rations and equipment must be supplied the men. Places of confinement for the hoped-for prisoners must be built. And, finally, thousands of extra troops must be brought up and trained for the attack.

The above are only a few of the preparations that must be made, for the details are multitudinous. The most difficult thing is that these preparations must be carried out so far as possible without the enemy's knowledge. For he also has his aeroplane scouts taking photographs and looking about for information, his observation balloons and his spies, his raids and his prisoners. It is even possible that we might have a deserter who betrayed us to him, though one feels that this must be exceedingly rare.

If the armchair critic has read the above he will perhaps realize a little more vividly than he has done before how difficult advances are and why it is more easy to talk of getting the enemy on the run than to actually do it. Once he has started to retreat and you to advance, your difficulties multiply and go on increasing in direct proportion to the distance that you get from your base of supplies. Your munitions, food and water must be transported from the rear over strange roads pulverized by shell fire, while your enemy is backing into greater supplies hourly.

One of the most difficult propositions is to keep the different parts of your immense organization in communication with battalion, brigade, and divisional headquarters. Many different methods are used.

Perhaps the most reliable is by runner, or courier, on foot. The runner has an arduous, dangerous, and often thankless, task, which he performs as a rule patiently, bravely and tirelessly. The telephone, telegraph, and power buzzer—the latter being sometimes used without wires, at a distance as great as 4000 yards—are commonly employed, though they have many disadvantages. The first of these is the difficulty in installing them in the face of heavy shelling and counter attacks by the enemy. Secondly, they are likely to be put out of commission, their wires being destroyed by shells. Finally, their messages are often picked up through the earth by your opponents with some apparatus invented for the purpose.

There are the semaphore and flashlight methods of signaling, and signaling by flares, all naturally very limited in variety of use, the latter particularly so. But flares are of great service when a hurried artillery retaliation is desired, S.O.S. flares then being sent up. The wireless apparatus on aeroplanes and the throwing of flares by aviators are also used to good account. But there are times when all these different methods are found wanting. Through force of circumstance a battalion or company may be completely isolated, and then it is that the last and least employed method, that of carrier pigeons, is resorted to. In each battalion are a couple or more specially trained carrier pigeons, and to speak of the "O.C. Pigeons" is a standing joke. The pigeons are rarely employed. It may be almost forgotten that they are with a unit, as was practically the case of one battalion at the Somme of which the following story is told:

The commanding officer had waited in vain for hours for some message as to the success or failure of a show one company was putting on. He was impatiently striding up and down when a poor little carrier pigeon fluttered into his presence. He hurriedly caught it, and untied from its leg the following message: "I am bally well fed up carrying this damned bird about. You take it for a while."

After all this preparatory stage is completed, when transport, artillery preparation, communication, maps, training, dummy advances, extra rations, water, medical supplies and equipment, are in order, the next move is to get all troops taking part in the advance into the most advantageous positions, unknown to the Germans. The men are well fed, given extra water bottles, "iron rations" are in their kits—that is, bully beef and biscuit—they are equipped only in fighting dress. By night they are marched into the trenches from which they are to go over the top, and after a few hours of rest, broken by shell fire, the zero hour, or hour of attack, arrives.

Just before the great advance in which the Canadians took Vimy Ridge, that hill consecrated by the graves of thousands of French, British, and Canadian soldiers, our brigade had made all these arrangements. We were to march into the line on Easter Saturday and go over the top the following morning at daybreak. But at the last moment we were delayed by a brigade order, due to information obtained from a German deserter, information that said that the Huns knew that we were to attack on Easter Sunday.

While sitting in my tent I was visited by officers on various missions, some to get dressings to carry in their pocket, dressings that they neglected getting till the very last moment; others to tell me that such and such a man was afflicted with that grievous malady, "cold feet," and if he should visit me on pretension of illness, to bear this fact in mind; and again others with no object but a pleasant word.

Among those who always had a humorous word and a smile, and whose honest eyes always looked at one fearlessly through his gold-rimmed spectacles, was Lieutenant Henderson—"Old Pop," as the younger officers always called him. After his usual courteous and kindly greeting we joked about the possibility, or rather the probability, of some of us not coming back from the great advance. No doubt he voiced the opinion of most of us when he said with a hearty laugh—

"You know, Doc, the main objection I have to death is that it is so d—— permanent."

The following day "Old Pop" was no more. His jolly laugh and his voice with its pleasant burr were to be heard no longer in our ranks. He had met death while bravely leading his men across No Man's Land like the gallant Scotch gentleman that he was.

Something which struck me then, and which still impresses me as extraordinary in looking back at it, was the buoyant, cheerful, optimistic spirit in which our army of citizen-soldiers looked forward to the day when we were to take part in one of the greatest battles in history. We knew it was to be a fearful and magnificent trial of strength out of which many of us would never return to the people and the lands we loved. And yet all awaited it with a gay, hopeful, undaunted optimism, asking naught but the opportunity, anticipating nothing but victory. It is unbelievable that the blind obedience of a militaristic kaiserism can ever subdue a soldiery who so freely offer their all on the altar of liberty.



The normal position of man on the earth is on its surface.

Generally speaking, when he is under the surface he is in his wine cellar, or he is dead. But at the front all this is altered. Both the enemy and ourselves have reverted to the cave age, for if we wish safety in the lines—comparative safety, that is—we pass our time in caves or cellars, dugouts or trenches.

Not that living underground would be taken as a matter of choice in the piping times of peace. For the mud and dirt of the trenches and dugouts cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to be comfortable or pleasant.

The fact that your only chance against a hidden enemy is also to hide makes your desires subservient to necessity. In fact, both the enemy and ourselves are continually burrowing deeper and deeper in each other's direction. At the end of the burrow or tunnel we place charges of dynamite to blow each other out into the open. The fear that your enemy may succeed in doing it to you first, and that some fine day you may awaken to find yourself sailing about in the heavens with no support but the explosion which sent you there, makes many a man on a dark night hear imaginary tappings, causing him to report that he fears the enemy are mining underneath us. More than once out of the pitch darkness has come into my dugout some lonely sentry to tell me that he has heard mysterious hammering underfoot, and only when we had located the real cause as something other than he thought, did his—and perhaps our—nervousness disappear.

On one occasion a non-commissioned officer came hurrying into the H.Q. dugout of a certain Canadian battalion. With hair standing on end he reported that an augur had actually come through the bottom of the trench in which he had been standing. The colonel insisted on investigating this himself, and found that a mole had bored his way through the ground.

These fears may have an unconscious effect in making everyone wish to get out of the semi-darkness of the trenches into the bright sunlight which dispels clammy feelings and fears as if they were mists of the morning. But the real reason for traveling overland is that at all ages and in every clime the forbidden or dangerous has its attractions. Thus it is that out there both officers and men, contrary to orders and upon the flimsiest of pretexts, climb out of the trenches and in more or less plain view of enemy snipers or observation posts walk again like ordinary human beings on the face of the earth.

This practice is very common where the trenches are muddy, or knee or hip-deep in water. It is the recognized custom after dark when working parties are carrying up ammunition or rations. Not rarely some of the men of these parties are hit by bullets put across from fixed machine-guns. It is a weird sight on a dark night to go overland and, in the dim light of the flares or star shells, to discern long rows of men trudging along with packs of supplies. They loom up suddenly before you; or, perchance, a column of the ever-useful packmules pass, patiently carrying their burdens overland. And often by day one comes across the body of a mule that was given rest from its weary toil by a German bullet, at which times one cannot but wonder if in a happier land the patient, plodding, much-abused packmule is given his just meed of appreciation and kindness.

When someone pays the price of his recklessness in going overland, the price is most often exacted by a bullet. What insidious little things bullets are! They sneak in and hit you without forewarning you in any way, and they may hit so hard that you do not know you are hit even then. Most men out there have more respect for them than for shells, for often you have time to "duck" against the side of a trench and so partly dodge a heavy shell.

But you can't dodge a bullet. It gives you a most uncanny feeling to be taking a short cut overland, and suddenly to hear a "ping-thud" just beside you, thus learning that some German is trying to pot you as you potted an innocent red deer on your last hunting trip. Or you may be walking quietly through apparently safe trenches, maybe dreaming of your loved ones at home, when a bullet thuds into the trench wall a few feet from your head, insolently spattering mud into your face. Then you know you are alive only by the grace of God and the poor aim of the German.

But, despite these risks, all take the chance of going overland to lessen a quarter-mile trip by one hundred yards, or to miss a particularly muddy bit of trench. Any day you choose when you are five or six hundred yards from the front line you may see scattered parties of men crossing in the open.

The regimental aid post of the —— Canadian Battalion in October, 1916, when they were doing their tour in the lines, could be reached in two ways—one by trench, a roundabout route of over a mile; the other one-half mile by trench and one-quarter overland. The former route was never employed, except on regular relief days, officers and men passing daily the one-quarter mile overland, only about six hundred yards from the enemy front line. The field ambulance stretcher bearers made the trip twice daily, and one day when I was crossing over with their sergeant I asked him why the German snipers did not hit us.

"Oh, 'Heiny' is too busy keeping himself out of sight to notice us," was the careless reply. But at times those crossing this space heard a bullet whistling nearby, or ping-thudding into the ground close to their feet!

After a raid by our troops one early winter's morning when I had been attending the wounded for some time I came up to take a breath of air. A trench led from this cellar of mine some two thousand yards to a village of reasonable safety, but the road cut off two or three hundred yards of that distance. This road was in plain sight of the Germans, yet some of our wounded Tommies, walking cases, were leading a crowd of five or six wounded Huns by the road, the party altogether numbering ten or twelve. As we watched them, suddenly, within a few yards of them, burst two shells. All the men broke into a double and jumped into a trench beside the road while a few more shells fell about. It is an ironical truth that the only members of the party hit were three of the Germans.

On a certain relief day when food was scarce a medical officer started for a Y.M.C.A. canteen in Neuville St. Vaast for some chocolate, taking a short cut overland, as he could save one hundred yards by this route. Meeting a soldier he stopped to inquire as to direction, and this saved the life of the officer, for a shell struck the ground a few feet ahead on the spot where he would have been had he not stopped. As he and the Tommy hugged a tree nearby two more shells struck the same spot, sprinkling them with earth. They turned and ran in the direction from which the doctor had come, amidst the roars of laughter of some soldiers in a trench at the sight of the rather corpulent form of the medical officer on the double; so little is thought out there of narrow escapes! And when the officer made the same trip in the dusk of evening he found that the canteen had run out of chocolate!

In what had once been a little village, but was now a mass of ruins, the trenches ran through the streets. Our mess was situated in the cellar of a house to which we could get either in a roundabout way by trench, or by crossing a road overland. No one ever dreamed of going any other route than the overland, despite the fact that the road was in plain view of the Germans who had fixed on it a machine-gun with which they now and then swept it from end to end. I admit frankly that I never crossed that road without a sigh of relief when I reached the other side.

It was on a Christmas day. I started out to make an inspection of my lines with my sanitary sergeant and a runner who knew the best routes. Arriving at a support trench, and wishing to go to the firing line, the guide started over the parapet. On being asked the purpose he said that it was a much shorter way, but, to my relief, the sergeant told him to go by trench, for often one would rather go through a dangerous zone than appear afraid of it in the presence of his men.

However, we made the examination of the lines. After we had finished the firing line and were returning, we found ourselves crossing overland by the route over which he had attempted to take us to the front. He had led us up a gradually ascending communication trench, and so unknown to us had reached this overland trail. Nothing happened, nothing was said about it, but I certainly felt relieved when I was once again in a trench without having a German bullet sneaking between my ribs. How little Tommy cares about risking his life if it lessens his task!

In passing, it may be mentioned that on this Christmas day none of that fraternizing took place which had taken place the previous Christmas. In fact, early on the Christmas morning the battalion on our left, after a severe bombardment, put on a raid, and Christmas night the enemy retaliated with heavy stuff of all kinds. Probably this is as it should be, for while it may look well in print to read of our troops and the Germans exchanging cigarettes and eatables in No Man's Land, it is detrimental to discipline, and injurious to the best fighting spirit. It would be much more repugnant to the Anglo-Saxon at any rate to kill men with whom he had just passed a pleasant social half hour. This may appear heartless, but war is a heartless game, and fraternizing may very well be left until after the peace articles are signed.



Kelly is my batman or personal servant.

His name tells his nationality. His philosophy, especially as regards the war, is usually interesting and always instructive. Yesterday he accompanied me to headquarters out in front of the railway line at Vimy. We had to cross a few hundred yards in the open, where the Huns had an annoying habit of dropping shells at irregular moments.

Suddenly we heard the horrible shriek of an approaching whizz-bang. It passed over our heads and banged into the earth twenty feet or so beyond us. Knowing that others would probably follow it, and that they might have twenty feet less of a range, we jumped into a four-foot-deep shell hole which happily was beside us. We hugged affectionately the German side of the hole to take advantage of whatever protection it afforded. One after another, in rapid succession, three more of these shells shrieked toward us. Fortunately our unuttered prayer that they would not come to see us in our hole was answered, for they followed the first and struck twenty or twenty-five feet past us, just close enough to sprinkle us well with mud. While we waited a few more minutes to see if any more were coming, I turned over and faced Kelly.