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A cutting from the "The Saturday Review" dated 14 April 1917, amongst

the personal effects of Albert Chapman 27th Field Ambulance R.A.M.C.

AN EARLY SOMME BATTLEFIELD. - III.

By a Sergeant in Kitchener's.

 

 

The trees of B---- Wood had long ago surrendered their midsummer leaves, and in the dusk held up their stark branches as though asking mercy of the smouldering sky. Looking upwards you could see a lonely leaf flapping. Stars and rags seemed caught in the boughs. To the commoner wilderness of death this place was a step forward into hell, where forms of fear had their haunts and evil spirits all but visible moved in their own paths. The menace of outraged Nature breathed in the startling odour of sap from thousands of bruised tree trunks. Corpses of trees and men mingled corruption, and their limbs lay equally broken.

The M.O. wearing his cape, walked ahead. We had entered the wood from the corner near the cross roads and were now wending our way after him. The place was quiet that evening; only an occasional shell fell and echoed. Sticks snapped under our feet. We came at last to a clearing and descended to a trench that ran left to right. It was one of the two trenches, running the length of the wood, which were held by our battalion. This trench must have been eight or nine feet deep, and was so narrow that a stretcher fully opened could not pass along it. But we had not far to go before we turned sharp, descended a little passage, and found ourselves in a good dugout roofed with three layers of tree trunks very solidly set. This was our new aid post.

The enemy knew every corner of the wood: they had the range of the trench and the position of the dugout accurately. The only mistake, from our point of view, was that the door now faced front, so that a shell by ill luck might have fallen in the entrance.

Next morning a reserve battalion made an attack over the heads of our battalion, who thus became a reserve in their turn. The enemy barrage fire grew thick and continuous, and the wood maintained its sinister tradition. Shells of all kinds flew screaming into it as to their natural home. The dugout was soon filled with wounded, who came crawling along the trenches or who were brought in by the stretcher bearers for treatment. To get them in and out of the dugout was difficult enough, but the real struggle was getting loaded stretchers across the mud, roots, and fallen timber in the wood. Progress was so slow and painful that wherever possible four bearers went with a stretcher as far as the cross roads, whence two would return to the aid post. For a couple of hours, owing to the intense shelling, our operations were suspended. Down in the dugout the M. O. worked cheerfully, though he looked on the verge of collapse from fatigue. Albert, one of our bearers, who was an excellent dresser, quite unperturbed under such conditions, remained to help. Albert had plenty of work, but I fancy he chiefly remembers searching continuously for the iodine bottle, which in the crowd and semi-darkness, was always getting lost. Immersed in our work, we came to feel that time had stopped, and that we were engaged in a void of blood and mud and noise. The creepers hanging down over the entrance moved in the draught from shell after shell. The crash of falling boughs [..........................] faces wild with terror appeared and disappeared at the entrance of the dugout. Although the iodine bottle continued to elude him, the M. O. never swore. On one occasion, after a crash that sounded immediately over us, he remarked quietly, " The Saviour loves us". Certainly death with a monstrous axe seemed to be striding in the wood above us. The wounded huddled themselves into corners as far as possible from the door. I went out on one occasion into the trench and saw the troops. The strain of enduring for hours together the peculiar nameless horror of this place, without any allaying occupation, was too much for flesh and blood. Then it was that something wonderful happened. In a lull of a few seconds a bird sang three notes. They were notes full and unbearably sweet, and had an effect indescribable upon those who heard them.

The storm closed over us again, and the next thing I remember was the figure of a man, mad with terror, who rushed into the dugout holding his back and shouting, " I'm hit in the liver!" The M. O. silenced him at once. He had been badly bruised in the back and now sat whimpering in a corner, but he was temporarily insane through fright. As I was to go back on a message for the M. O. I took him and another wounded man with me. The other case had been badly hurt in the foot, but he took my arm and walked with assistance. He was a small, conscientious man, who talked continually and cheerfully as we picked our way through the trees and shrubs or strove to stand upright in the mud. But the madman ran ahead crying to us and waving his arms. We went very slowly, and would overtake him at cross paths, where he crouched behind a tree trunk, peeping out like a hare. The branches here and there had been bent into fantastic shapes resembling bowers and trellises. Shrapnel burst frequently over us and made a strange knocking sound against the timber. Boughs and whole trees crashed to the ground, and the sound rang and mingled with homeless echoes. In the pitiless light of day the wood was more terrible than at dusk, when the eye could not penetrate its naked aisles. The smell of sap persisted like a poison in the nostrils.

But the barrage was more intense behind the wood. I gave the madman directions as to getting to the nearest communication trench, and he flew off at once, though we told him he was safer with us. We never knew whether he reached the A. D. S. in safety. He on my arm smiled and apologised for going so slowly, though each step must have hurt him. He maintained his conversation in an even voice and mentioned that he had left his best friend behind him. "Eh, but he were a good pal to me ", said he. As we passed the cross roads the shells were falling fairly thick, and we pulled our helmets well down over the nape of the neck. Meanwhile the conversation had taken a religious turn, and I heard him say that he believed in Christ very firmly, and so was not troubled with personal fear. As he spoke a large shell known as a " Coal-Box " fell about twenty feet on our right. Clods of earth pelted us and the smoke rose like genie from a bottle. The thought occurred to both of us that the thing was an apparition of evil, taking its place captiously beside his declaration of faith. He raised his collar as though at a thunder-shower. With his arm in mine I did not even feel surprised at the absence in myself of the common sensations of fear. We did not alter our pace, and in about ten minutes had crossed the barrage area. When we came [.................] dressing station I directed him and said good-bye. I had never met as brave a man.

On my return journey I had occasion to pass the trench where we had our previous aid-post. The place was almost obliterated by shells that had probably fallen the night we left. Mentally I paid a tribute to the M. O.' s instinct for aid-posts and when to leave them.

Near by I found a soldier half-sitting, half-lying on an old firing step. He was a mere boy with rosy cheeks, and had received a head wound that had stunned him. I carried shell dressings in my pocket, and bandaged him, but almost immediately a shell burst close by, and lumps of earth fell upon us, battering us. He had lost his helmet, and under the brutal shower he bowed himself and groaned. I half-carried him to a place under cover, where I had to leave him, to return to the M. O. Following the same route, familiar by now, the communication trench, the open field came before me, and then the cross roads with their shell pitted pavement and drunken signboard. But it was no longer a place of terror. The [...] arose on each side, and the air was full of uncouth sounds; but in this place that wounded man had spoken his astonishing words and delivered me from the tyranny of fear. I, too, had believed, as he had believed; yet it seemed marvellous, as though I had read it in a tale, that I should have been bound with one such a moment whose faith was greater than my own. I reached the corner of the wood and paused for a moment. The poisonous odour greeted me, and at once the figure of that other man, maddened by fear, seemed to peep at me round the tree trunks. And what of him? What of that boy I had but just left in pain? What of that German prisoner whose lunatic eyes had prophesied to us what we in our turn would have to endure? Is there any triumph for the grown man rejoicing in his own spirit, or in God's, while hundreds of children - while one child - is driven mad beside him? Rather there is more mercy in these blundering shells, more truth in three notes of a bird than in all the half creeds and half righteousness of men. Here in this scar across Europe, between the opposing lines of guns, both the strong and the weak offered equally to a spiritual God their courage and their terror in protest against every false compromise between good and evil that has gone to produce - this.

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