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Empey served for six years in the US Cavalry and was performing duty as recruiting for the New Jersey National Guard in New York City when World War I began. He left the United States at the end of 1915 frustrated at its neutrality in the conflict at that point and travelled to London, England, where he joined the 1st London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), Territorial Force, of the British Army, going on to serve with it in the 56th (London) Infantry Division on the Western Front as a bomber and a machine-gunner. He was medically discharged from the British Army after he was wounded in action at the commencement of theBattle of the Somme.On returning to the United States, Empey wrote a book of his experiences titled Over The Top, which became a publishing sensation in 1917 with over a quarter of a million copies sold, and was turned into a film in 1918 with Empey writing the screenplay and playing the lead role. Empey had attempted to re-join the US Army in 1917 but was rejected due to his wounds. On the basis of the book's success, he played a major propaganda role for the Federal Government's policy of moving the nation from a position of neutrality in World War I to a combatant role, and toured widely throughout the USA giving public performances and readings from it to rally the American people to the nation's entry into the conflict. He was commissioned a Captain in the US Army's Adjutant General's Department but the commission was withdrawn three days later amidst speculation that the cause was that whilst appearing as an actor in a play of Pack Up Your Troubles, Empey gave a speech praising the American volunteers but not the draftees who were being consripted at that time, suggesting that the latter lacked the right stuff because they had waited "until they were fetched" before enlisting for war service. In the audience was President Woodrow Wilson. Empey wrote several more screenplays, and more books on World War I, and formed his own production company called the Guy Empey Pictures Corporation. He was also a popular song-writer during the war years, writing the lyrics for numbers such as Your Lips are No Man's Land but Mine, and Liberty Statue is Looking Right at You.
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FROM MUFTI TO KHAKI
BLIGHTY TO REST BILLETS
I GO TO CHURCH
'INTO THE TRENCH'
MUD, RATS, AND SHELLS
'BACK OF THE LINE'
THE LITTLE WOODEN CROSS
'THE DAY'S WORK'
OVER THE TOP
MY FIRST OFFICIAL BATH
PICKS AND SHOVELS
BATTERY D 238
OUT IN FRONT
STAGED UNDER FIRE
ON HIS OWN
'CHATS WITH FRITZ'
PUNISHMENTS AND MACHINE-GUN STUNTS
GAS ATTACKS AND SPIES
THE FIRING SQUAD
PREPARING FOR THE BIG PUSH
ALL QUIET (?) ON THE WESTERN FRONT
'TOMMY'S DICTIONARY OF THE TRENCHES'
During sixteen years of “roughing it,” knocking around the world, I have nibbed against the high and low and have had ample opportunity of studying, at close range, many different peoples, their ideals, political and otherwise, their hopes and principles. Through this elbow rubbing, and not from reading, I have become convinced of the nobility, truth, and justice of the Allies’ cause, and know their fight to be our fight, because it espouses the principles of the United States of America, democracy, justice, and liberty.
To the average American who has not lived and fought with him, the Englishman appears to be distant, reserved, a slow thinker, and lacking in humor, but from my association with the man who inhabits the British Isles. I find that this opinion is unjust. To me, Tommy Atkins has proved himself to be the best of mates, a pal, and bubbling over with a fine sense of humor, a man with a just cause who is willing to sacrifice everything but honor in the advancement of the same.
It is my fondest hope that Uncle Sam and John Bull, arms locked, as mates, good and true, each knowing and appreciating the worth of the other, will wend their way through the years to come, happy and contented in each other’s company. So if this poor attempt of mine will, in any way, help to bring Tommy Atkins closer to the doorstep of Uncle Sam, my ambition will have been realized.
Perhaps to some of my readers it will appear that I have written of a great and just cause in a somewhat flippant manner, but I assure them such was not my intention. I have tried to tell my experiences in the language of Tommy sitting on the fire step of a front-line trench on the Western Front — just as he would tell his mate next him what was happening at a different part of the line.
A. G. E.
NEW YORK City,
It was in an office in Jersey City. I was sitting at my desk talking to a Lieutenant of the Jersey National Guard. On the wall was a big war map decorated with variously colored little flags showing the position of the opposing armies on the Western Front in France. In front of me on the desk lay a New York paper with big flaring headlines:
LUSITANIA SUNK! AMERICAN LIVES LOST!
The windows were open and a feeling of spring pervaded the air. Through the open windows came the strains of a hurdy-gurdy playing in the street — I DIDN’T RAISE MY BOY TO BE A SOLDIER.
“Lusitania Sunk! American Lives Lost!” — I DIDN’T RAISE MY BOY TO BE A SOLDIER. To us these did not seem to jibe.
The Lieutenant in silence opened one of the lower drawers of his desk and took from it an American flag which he solemnly draped over the war map on the wall. Then, turning to me with a grim face, said:
“How about it, Sergeant? You had better get out the muster roll of the Mounted Scouts, as I think they will be needed in the course of a few days.”
We busied ourselves till late in the evening writing out emergency telegrams for the men to report when the call should come from Washington. Then we went home.
I crossed over to New York, and as I went up Fulton Street to take the Subway to Brooklyn, the lights in the tall buildings of New York seemed to be burning brighter than usual, as if they, too, had read “Lusitania Sunk! American Lives Lost!” They seemed to be glowing with anger and righteous indignation, and their rays wigwagged the message, “REPAY!”
Months passed, the telegrams lying handy, but covered with dust. Then, one momentous morning the Lieutenant with a sigh of disgust removed the flag from the war map and returned to his desk. I immediately followed this action by throwing the telegrams into the wastebasket. Then we looked at each other in silence. He was squirming in his chair and I felt depressed and uneasy.
The telephone rang and I answered it. It was a business call for me requesting my services for an out-of-town assignment. Business was not very good, so this was very welcome. After listening to the proposition, I seemed to be swayed by a peculiarly strong force within me, and answered, “I am sorry that I cannot accept your offer, but I am leaving for England next week,” and hung up the receiver. The Lieutenant swung around in his chair, and stared at me in blank astonishment. A sinking sensation came over me, but I defiantly answered his look with, “Well, it’s so. I’m going.” And I went.
The trip across was uneventful. I landed at Tilbury, England, then got into a string of matchbox cars and proceeded to London, arriving there about 10 P.M. I took a room in a hotel near St. Pancras Station for “five and six — fire extra.” The room was minus the fire, but the “extra” seemed to keep me warm. That night there was a Zeppelin raid, but I didn’t see much of it, because the slit in the curtains was too small and I had no desire to make it larger. Next morning the telephone bell rang, and someone asked, “Are you there?” I was, hardly. Anyway, I learned that the Zeps had returned to their Fatherland, so I went out into the street expecting to see scenes of awful devastation and a cowering populace, but everything was normal. People were calmly proceeding to their work. Crossing the street, I accosted a Bobbie with:
“Can you direct me to the place of damage?”
He asked me, “What damage?”
In surprise, I answered, “Why, the damage caused by the Zeps.”
With a wink, he replied:
“There was no damage, we missed them again.”
After several fruitless inquiries of the passersby, I decided to go on my own in search of ruined buildings and scenes of destruction. I boarded a bus which carried me through Tottenham Court Road. Recruiting posters were everywhere. The one that impressed me most was a life-size picture of Lord Kitchener with his anger pointing directly at me, under the caption of “Your King and Country Need You.” No matter which way I turned, the accusing finger followed me. I was an American, in mufti, and had a little American flag in the lapel of my coat. I had no king, and my country had seen fit not to need me, but still that pointing finger made me feel small and ill at ease. I got off the bus to try to dissipate this feeling by mixing with the throng of the sidewalks.
Presently I came to a recruiting office. Inside, sitting at a desk was a lonely Tommy Atkins. I decided to interview him in regard to joining the British Army. I opened the door. He looked up and greeted me with “I s’y, myte, want to tyke on?”
I looked at him and answered, “Well, whatever that is, I’ll take a chance at it.”
Without the aid of an interpreter, I found out that Tommy wanted to know if I cared to join the British Army. He asked me: “Did you ever hear of the Royal Fusiliers?” Well, in London you know. Yanks are supposed to know everything, so I was not going to appear ignorant and answered, “Sure.”
After listening for one half-hour to Tommy’s tale of their exploits on the firing line, I decided to join. Tommy took me to the recruiting headquarters where I met a typical English Captain. He asked my nationality. I immediately pulled out my American passport and showed it to him. It was signed by Lansing, — Bryan had lost his job a little while previously. After looking at the passport, he informed me that he was sorry but could not enlist me, as it would be a breach of neutrality. I insisted that I was not neutral, because to me it seemed that a real American could not be neutral when big things were in progress, but the Captain would not enlist me.
With disgust in my heart I went out in the street. I had gone about a block when a recruiting Sergeant who had followed me out of the office tapped me on the shoulder with his swagger stick and said: “Say, I can get you in the Army. We have a ‘Leftenant’ down at the other office who can do anything. He has just come out of the O. T. C. (Officers’ Training Corps) and does not know what neutrality is.” I decided to take a chance, and accepted his invitation for an introduction to the Lieutenant. I entered the office and went up to him, opened up my passport, and said:
“Before going further I wish to state that I am an American, not too proud to fight, and want to join your army. ‘
He looked at me in a nonchalant manner, and answered, “That’s all right, we take anything over here.”
I looked at him kind of hard and replied, “So I notice,” but it went over his head.
He got out an enlistment blank, and placing his finger on a blank line said, “ Sign here.”
I answered, “Not on your tintype.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Then I explained to him that I would not sign it without first reading it. I read it over and signed for duration of war. Some of the recruits were lucky. They signed for seven years only.
Then he asked me my birthplace. I answered, “Ogden, Utah.”
He said, “Oh yes, just outside of New York?”
With a smile, I replied, “Well, it’s up the State a little.”
Then I was taken before the doctor and passed as physically fit, and was issued a uniform. When I reported back to the Lieutenant, he suggested that, being an American, I go on recruiting service and try to shame some of the slackers into joining the Army.
“All you have to do,” he said, “is to go out on the street, and when you see a young fellow in mufti who looks physically fit, just stop him and give him this kind of a talk: ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, a Britisher, physically fit, and in mufti when your King and Country need you? Don’t you know that your country is at war and that the place for every young Briton is on the firing line? Here I am, an American, in khaki, who came four thousand miles to fight for your King and Country, and you, as yet, have not enlisted. Why don’t you join? Now is the time.’
“This argument ought to get many recruits, Empey, so go out and see what you can do.”
He then gave me a small rosette of red, white, and blue ribbon, with three little streamers hanging down. This was the recruiting insignia and was to be worn on the left side of the cap.
Armed with a swagger stick and my patriotic rosette I went out into Tottenham Court Road in quest of cannon fodder.
Two or three poorly dressed civilians passed me, and although they appeared physically fit, I said to myself, “They don’t want to Join the army; perhaps they have someone dependent on them for support,” so I did not accost them.
Coming down the street I saw a young dandy, top hat and all, with a fashionably dressed girl walking beside him. I muttered, “You are my meat,” and when he came abreast of me I stepped directly in his path and stopped him with my Swagger stick, saying:
“You would look fine in khaki, why not change that top hat for a steel helmet? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, a husky young chap like you in mufti when men are needed in the trenches? Here I am, an American, came four thousand miles from Ogden, Utah, just outside of New York, to fight for your King and Country. Don’t be a slacker, buck up and get into uniform; come over to the recruiting office and I’ll have you enlisted.”
He yawned and answered, “I don’t care if you came forty thousand miles, no one asked you to,” and he walked on. The girl gave me a sneering look; I was speechless.
I recruited for three weeks and nearly got one recruit.
This perhaps was not the greatest stunt in the world, but it got back at the officer who had told me, “Yes, we take anything over here.” I had been spending a good lot of my recruiting time in the saloon bar of the “Wheat Sheaf” pub (there was a very attractive blonde barmaid, who helped kill time — I was not as serious in those days as I was a little later when I reached the front) — well, it was the sixth day and my recruiting report was blank. I was getting low in the pocket — barmaids haven’t much use for anyone who cannot buy drinks — so I looked around for recruiting material. You know a man on recruiting service gets a “bob” or shilling for every recruit he entices into joining the army, the recruit is supposed to get this, but he would not be a recruit if he were wise to this fact, would he?
Down at the end of the bar was a young fellow in mufti who was very patriotic — he had about four “Old Six” ales aboard. He asked me if he could join, showed me his left hand, two fingers were missing, but I said that did not matter as “we take anything over here.” The left hand is the rifle hand as the piece is carried at the slope on the left shoulder. Nearly everything in England is “by the left,” even general traffic keeps to the port side.
I took the applicant over to headquarters where he was hurriedly examined. Recruiting surgeons were busy in those days and did not have much time for thorough physical examinations. My recruit was passed as “fit” by the doctor and turned over to a Corporal to make note of his scars. I was mystified. Suddenly the Corporal burst out with, “Blime me, two of his fingers are gone”; turning to me he said, “You certainly have your nerve with you, not ‘alf you ain’t, to bring this beggar in.”
The doctor came over and exploded, “What do you mean by bringing in a man in this condition?”
Looking out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the officer who had recruited me had Joined the group, and I could not help answering, “Well, sir, I was told that you took anything over here.”
I think they called it “Yankee impudence,” anyhow it ended my recruiting.
The next morning, the Captain sent for me and informed me: “Empey, as a recruiting Sergeant you are a washout,” and sent me to a training depot.
After arriving at this place, I was hustled to the quartermaster stores and received an awful shock. The Quartermaster Sergeant spread a waterproof sheet on the ground, and commenced throwing a miscellaneous assortment of straps, buckles, and other paraphernalia into it. I thought he would never stop, but when the pile reached to my knees he paused long enough to say, “Next, No. 5217, ‘Arris, ‘B’ Company.” I gazed in bewilderment at the pile of junk in front of me, and then my eyes wandered around looking for the wagon which was to carry it to the barracks. I was rudely brought to earth by the “Quarter” exclaiming, “‘Ere, you, ‘op it, tyke it aw’y; blind my eyes, ‘e’s looking for ‘is batman to ‘elp ‘im carry it.”
Struggling under the load, with frequent pauses for rest, I reached our barracks (large car barns), and my platoon leader came to the rescue. It was a marvel to me how quickly he assembled the equipment. After he had completed the task, he showed me how to adjust it on my person. Pretty soon I stood before him a proper Tommy Atkins in heavy marching order, feeling like an overloaded camel.
On my feet were heavy-soled boots, studded with hobnails, the toes and heels of which were reinforced by steel half-moons. My legs were encased in woolen puttees, olive drab in color, with my trousers overlapping them at the top. Then a woolen khaki tunic, under which was a bluish-gray woolen shirt, minus a collar, beneath this shirt a woolen belly-band about six inches wide, held in place by tie strings of white tape. On my head was a heavy woolen trench cap, with huge ear flaps buttoned over the top. Then the equipment: A canvas belt, with ammunition pockets, and two wide canvas straps like suspenders, called “D” straps, fastened to the belt in front, passing over each shoulder, crossing in the middle of my back, and attached by buckles to the rear of the belt. On the right side of the belt hung a water bottle, covered with felt; on the left side was my bayonet and scabbard, and entrenching tool handle, this handle strapped to the bayonet scabbard. In the rear was my entrenching tool, carried in a canvas case. This tool was a combination pick and spade. A canvas haversack was strapped to the left side of the belt, while on my back was the pack, also of canvas, held in place by two canvas straps over the shoulders; suspended on the bottom of the pack was my mess tin or canteen in a neat little canvas case. My waterproof sheet, looking like a jelly roll, was strapped on top of the pack, with a wooden stick for cleaning the breach of the rifle projecting from each end. On a lanyard around my waist hung a huge jackknife with a can-opener attachment. The pack contained my overcoat, an extra pair of socks, change of underwear, hold-all (containing knife, fork, spoon, comb, toothbrush, lather brush, shaving soap, and a razor made of tin, with “Made in England” stamped on the blade; when trying to shave with this it made you wish that you were at war with Patagonia, so that you could have a “hollow ground” stamped “Made in Germany"); then your housewife, button-cleaning outfit, consisting of a brass button stick, two stiff brushes, and a box of “Soldiers’ Friend” paste; then a shoe brush and a box of dubbin, a writing pad, indelible pencil, envelopes, and pay book, and personal belongings, such as a small mirror, a decent razor, and a sheaf of unanswered letters, and fags. In your haversack you carry your iron rations, meaning a tin of bully beef, four biscuits, and a can containing tea, sugar, and Oxo cubes; a couple of pipes and a package of shag, a tin of rifle oil, and a pull-through. Tommy generally carries the oil with his rations; it gives the cheese a sort of sardine taste.
Add to this a first-aid pouch and a long ungainly rifle patterned after the Daniel Boone period, and you have an idea of a British soldier in Blighty.
Before leaving for France, this rifle is taken from him and he is issued with a Lee-Enfield short-trench rifle and a ration bag.
In France he receives two gas helmets, a sheep-skin coat, rubber mackintosh, steel helmet, two blankets, tear-shell goggles, a balaclava helmet, gloves, and a tin of anti-frostbite grease which is excellent for greasing the boots. Add to this the weight of his rations, and can you blame Tommy for growling at a twenty kilo route march?
Having served as Sergeant-Major in the United States Cavalry, I tried to tell the English drill sergeants their business but it did not work. They immediately put me as batman in their mess. Many a greasy dish of stew was accidentally spilled over them.
I would sooner fight than be a waiter, so when the order came through from headquarters calling for a draft of 250 reinforcements for France, I volunteered.
Then we went before the M. O. (Medical Officer) for another physical examination. This was very brief. He asked our names and numbers and said, “Fit,” and we went out to fight.
We were put into troop trains and sent to Southampton, where we detrained, and had our trench rifles issued to us. Then in columns of twos we went up the gangplank of a little steamer lying alongside the dock.
At the head of the gangplank there was an old Sergeant who directed that we line ourselves along both rails of the ship. Then he ordered us to take life belts from the racks overhead and put them on. I have crossed the ocean several times and knew I was not seasick, but when I budded on that life belt, I had a sensation of sickness.
After we got out into the stream all I could think of was that there were a million German submarines with a torpedo on each, across the warhead of which was inscribed my name and address.
After five hours we came alongside a pier and disembarked. I had attained another one of my ambitions. I was “somewhere in France.” We slept in the open that night on the side of a road. About six the next morning we were ordered to entrain. I looked around for the passenger coaches, but all I could see on the siding were cattle cars. We climbed into these. On the side of each car was a sign reading “Hommes 40, Cheveux 8.” When we got inside of the cars, we thought that perhaps the sign painter had reversed the order of things. After forty-eight hours in these trucks we detrained at Rouen. At this place we went through an intensive training for ten days.
This training consisted of the rudiments of trench warfare. Trenches had been dug, with barbed-wire entanglements, bombing saps, dug-outs, observation posts, and machine-gun emplacements. We were given a smattering of trench cooking, sanitation, bomb throwing, reconnoitering, listening posts, constructing and repairing barbed wire, “carrying in” parties, methods used in attack and defense, wiring parties, mass formation, and the procedure for poison-gas attacks.
On the tenth day we again met our friends “Hommes 40, Chevaux 8.” Thirty-six hours more of misery, and we arrived at the town of F—.
After unloading our rations and equipment, we lined up on the road in columns of fours waiting for the order to march.
A dull rumbling could be heard. The sun was shining. I turned to the man on my left and asked, ‘"What’s the noise, Bill?” He did not know, but his face was of a pea-green color. Jim on my right also did not know, but suggested that I “awsk” the Sergeant.
Coming towards us was an old grizzled Sergeant, properly fed up with the war, so I “awsked” him.
“Think it’s going to rain, Sergeant?”
He looked at me in contempt, and grunted, “‘Ow’s it a’goin’ ter rain with the bloomin’ sun a ‘shinin’?” I looked guilty.
“Them’s the guns up the line, me lad, and you’ll get enough of ‘em before you gets back to Blighty.”
My knees seemed to wilt, and I squeaked out a weak “Oh!”
Then we started our march up to the line in ten kilo treks. After the first day’s march we arrived at our rest billets. In France they call them rest billets, because while in them, Tommy works seven days a week and on the eighth day of the week he is given twenty-four hours “on his own.”
Our billet was a spacious affair, a large barn on the left side of the road, which had one hundred entrances, ninety-nine for shells, rats, wind, and rain, and the hundredth one for Tommy. I was tired out, and using my shrapnel-proof helmet, (shrapnel proof until a piece of shrapnel hits it), or tin hat, for a pillow, lay down in the straw, and was soon fast asleep. I must have slept about two hours, when I awoke with a prickling sensation all over me. As I thought, the straw had worked through my uniform. I woke up the fellow lying on my left, who had been up the line before, and asked him.
“Does the straw bother you, mate? It’s worked through my uniform and I can’t sleep.”
In a sleepy voice, he answered, “That ain’t straw, them’s cooties.”
From that time on my friends the “cooties” were constantly with me.
“Cooties,” or body lice, are the bane of Tommy’s existence.
The aristocracy of the trenches very seldom call them “cooties,” they speak of them as fleas.
To an American, flea means a small insect armed with a bayonet, who is wont to jab it into you and then hop, skip, and jump to the next place to be attacked. There is an advantage in having fleas on you instead of “cooties” in that in one of his extended jumps said flea is liable to land on the fellow next to you; he has the typical energy and push of the American, while the “cootie” has the bull-dog tenacity of the Englishman, he holds on and consolidates or digs in until his meal is finished.
There is no way to get rid of them permanently. No matter how often you bathe, and that is not very often, or how many times you change your underwear, your friends, the “cooties” are always in evidence. The billets are infested with them, especially so, if there is straw on the floor.
I have taken a bath and put on brand-new underwear; in fact, a complete change of uniform, and then turned in for the night. The next morning my shirt would be full of them. It is a common sight to see eight or ten soldiers sitting under a tree with their shirts over their knees engaging in a “shirt hunt.”
At night about half an hour before “lights out,” you can see the Tommies grouped around a candle, trying, in its dim light, to rid their underwear of the vermin. A popular and very quick method is to take your shirt and drawers, and run the seams back and forward in the flame from the candle and burn them out. This practice is dangerous, because you are liable to burn holes in the garments if you are not careful.
Recruits generally sent to Blighty for a brand of insect powder advertised as “Good for body lice.” The advertisement is quite right; the powder is good for “cooties,” they simply thrive on it.
The older men of our battalion were wiser and made scratchers out of wood. These were rubbed smooth with a bit of stone or sand to prevent splinters. They were about eighteen inches long, and Tommy guarantees that a scratcher of this length will reach any part of the body which may be attacked. Some of the fellows were lazy and only made their scratchers twelve inches, but many a night when on guard, looking over the top from the fire step of the front-line trench, they would have given a thousand “quid” for the other six inches.
Once while we were in rest billets an Irish Hussar regiment camped in an open field opposite our billet. After they had picketed and fed their horses, a general shirt hunt took place. The troopers ignored the call “Dinner up,” and kept on with their search for big game. They had a curious method of procedure. They hung their shirts over a hedge and beat them with their entrenching tool handles.
I asked one of them why they didn’t pick them off by hand, and he answered, “We haven’t had a bath for nine weeks or a change of clabber. If I tried to pick the ‘cooties’ off my shirt, I would be here for duration of war.” After taking a close look at his shirt, I agreed with him, it was alive.
The greatest shock a recruit gets when he arrives at his battalion in France is to see the men engaging in a “cootie” hunt. With an air of contempt and disgust he avoids the company of the older men, until a couple of days later, in a torment of itching, he also has to resort to a shirt hunt, or spend many a sleepless night of misery. During these hunts there are lots of pertinent remarks bandied back and forth among the explorers, such as, “Say, Bill, I’ll swap you two little ones for a big one,” or, “I’ve got a black one here that looks like Kaiser Bill.”
One sunny day in the front-line trench, I saw three officers sitting outside of their dugout ("cooties” are no respecters of rank; I have even noticed a suspicious uneasiness about a certain well-known general), one of them was a major, two of them were exploring their shirts, paying no attention to the occasional shells which passed overhead. The major was writing a letter; every now and then he would lay aside his writing-pad, search his shirt for a few minutes, get an inspiration, and then resume writing. At last he finished his letter and gave it to his “runner.” I was curious to see whether he was writing to an insect firm, so when the runner passed me I engaged him in conversation and got a glimpse at the address on the envelope. It was addressed to Miss Alice Somebody, in London. The “runner” informed me that Miss Somebody was the major’s sweetheart and that he wrote to her every day. Just imagine it, writing a love letter during a “cootie” hunt; but such is the creed of the trenches.
Upon enlistment we had identity disks issued to us. These were small disks of red fiber worn around the neck by means of a string. Most of the Tommies also used a little metal disk which they wore around the left wrist by means of a chain. They had previously figured it out that if their heads were blown off, the disk on the left wrist would identify them. If they lost their left arm the disk around the neck would serve the purpose, but if their head and left arm were blown off, no one would care who they were, so it did not matter. On one side of the disk was inscribed your rank, name, number, and battalion, while on the other was stamped your religion.
Church of England, Roman Catholic, Wesleyan, Presbyterian; but if you happened to be an atheist they left it blank, and just handed you a pick and shovel.
On my disk was stamped C. of E. This is how I got it: The Lieutenant who enlisted me asked my religion. I was not sure of the religion of the British Army, so I answered, “Oh, any old thing,” and he promptly put down C. of E.
Now, just imagine my hard luck. Out of five religions I was unlucky enough to pick the only one where church parade was compulsory!
The next morning was Sunday. I was sitting in the billet writing home to my sister telling her of my wonderful exploits while under fire-all recruits do this. The Sergeant-Major put his head in the door of the billet and shouted: “C. of E. outside for church parade!”
I kept on writing. Turning to me, in a loud voice, he asked, “Empey, aren’t you C. of E.?”
I answered, “Yep.”
In an angry tone, he commanded, “Don’t you ‘yep’ me. Say, ‘Yes, Sergeant-Major!’”
I did so. Somewhat mollified, he ordered, “Outside for church parade.”
I looked up and answered, “I am not going to church this morning.”
He said, “Oh, yes, you are!”
I answered. “Oh, no, I’m not!” — But I went.
We lined up outside with rifles and bayonets, 120 rounds of ammunition, wearing our tin hats, and the march to church began. After marching about five kilos, we turned off the road into an open field. At one end of this field the Chaplain was standing in a limber. We formed a semi-circle around him. Over head there was a black speck circling round and round in the sky. This was a German Fokker. The Chaplain had a book in his left hand-left eye on the book-right eye on the aeroplane. We Tommies were lucky, we had no books, so had both eyes on the aeroplane.
After church parade we were marched back to our billets, and played football all afternoon.
The next morning the draft was inspected by our General, and we were assigned to different companies. The boys in the Brigade had nicknamed this general Old Pepper, and he certainly earned the sobriquet. I was assigned to B Company with another American named Stewart.
For the next ten days we “rested,” repairing roads for the Frenchies, drilling, and digging bombing trenches.
One morning we were informed that we were going up the line, and our march began.
It took us three days to reach reserve billets — each day’s march bringing the sound of the guns nearer and nearer. At night, way off in the distance we could see their flashes, which lighted up the sky with a red glare.
Against the horizon we could see numerous observation balloons or “sausages” as they are called.
On the afternoon of the third day’s march I witnessed my first aeroplane being shelled. A thrill ran through me and I gazed in awe. The aeroplane was making wide circles in the air, while little puffs of white smoke were bursting all around it. These puffs appeared like tiny balls of cotton while after each burst could be heard a dull “plop.” The Sergeant of my platoon informed us that it was a German aeroplane and I wondered how he could tell from such a distance because the plane deemed like a little black speck in the sky. I expressed my doubt as to whether it was English, French, or German. With a look of contempt he further informed us that the allied anti-aircraft shells when exploding emitted white smoke while the German shells gave forth black smoke, and, as he expressed it, “It must be an Allemand because our pom-poms are shelling, and I know our batteries are not off their bally nappers and are certainly not strafeing our own planes, and another piece of advice — don’t chuck your weight about until you’ve been up the line and learnt something.”
I immediately quit “chucking my weight about” from that time on.
Just before reaching reserve billets we were marching along, laughing, and singing one of Tommy’s trench ditties —
“I want to go home,
I want to go home,
I don’t want to go to the trenches no more
Where sausages and whizz-bangs are galore.
Take me over the sea, where the Allemand can’t get at me,
Oh, my, I don’t want to die,
I want to go home” —
when overhead came a “swish” through the air, rapidly followed by three others. Then about two hundred yards to our left in a large field, four columns of black earth and smoke rose into the air, and the ground trembled from the report, — the explosion of four German five-nine’s, or “coal- boxes. “ A sharp whistle blast, immediately followed by two short ones, rang out from the head of our column. This was to take up “artillery formation.” We divided into small squads and went into the fields on the right and left of the road, and crouched on the ground. No other shells followed this salvo. It was our first baptism by shell fire. From the waist up I was all enthusiasm, but from there down, everything was missing. I thought I should die with fright.
After awhile, we re-formed into columns of fours, and proceeded on our way.
About five that night, we reached the ruined village of H—, and I got my first sight of the awful destruction caused by German Kultur.
Marching down the main street we came to the heart of the village, and took up quarters in shell-proof cellars (shell proof until hit by a shell). Shells were constantly whistling over the village and bursting in our rear, searching for our artillery.
These cellars were cold, damp, and smelly, and overrun with large rats — big black fellows. Most of the Tommies slept with their overcoats over their faces. I did not. In the middle of the night I woke up in terror. The cold, clammy feet of a rat had passed over my face. I immediately smothered myself in my overcoat, but could not sleep for the rest of that night.
Next evening, we took over our sector of the line. In single file we wended our way through a zigzag communication trench, six inches deep with mud. This trench was called “Whiskey Street.” On our way up to the front line an occasional flare of bursting shrapnel would light up the sky and we could hear the fragments slapping the ground above us on our right and left. Then a Fritz would traverse back and forth with his “typewriter” or machine gun. The bullets made a sharp cracking noise overhead.
The boy in front of me named Prentice crumpled up without a word. A piece of shell had gone through his shrapnel-proof helmet. I felt sick and weak.
In about thirty minutes we reached the front Hue. It was dark as pitch. Every now and then a German star shell would pierce the blackness out in front with its silvery light. I was trembling all over, and felt very lonely and afraid. All orders were given in whispers. The company we relieved filed past us and disappeared into the blackness of the communication trench leading to the rear. As they passed us, they whispered, “The best o’ luck mates.”
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