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

Fen Gets Wounded. March 1918. They had marched from Tinques where they were resting, to meet the German attack. The 3rd Coldstream were mistakenly subjected to shell bombardment by their own side

Huge shells screamed down on all sides of us with appalling roar and devastation, tons of soil spouted upwards in every direction, and the huts of the Rest Camp were flung about like houses of cards. I saw eighty-foot-long wooden huts lifted bodily a score of feet into the air, disintegrating as they went, and nissen huts flying like paper before the wind. Hardly any of us expected to escape with our lives; we crouched on the floor of the trench, expecting every minute to be our last. I know I was convinced that this was the end, and although I was “scared stiff”, I don’t think I felt afraid to die – there was no time to be conscious of any kind of emotion – but I remember vaguely thinking that this meant rest at last, and wondering in a detached sort of way how they would receive the news at home. It is difficult to describe one’s feelings “in extremis”. I think my chief desire was to get it over as quickly as possible.

After a while – it is impossible to say how long: it seemed like hours, though it was probably no more than then minutes; time had ceased to count – as the fire showed no signs of slackening, orders were passed from mouth to mouth to move to the left. Crouching as low as possible, crawling over smoking heaps of debris and dead bodies, and falling flat every now and then, we stumbled along the trench, but there was no escaping the barrage. At last, as no good purpose could be served by holding on, and it looked as though the Battalion would be practically wiped out by our own guns without doing a ha’porth of harm to the enemy – I was told afterwards that our Company had more than thirty men killed in that ten minutes – an officer jumped up on the parados and shouted to us to run for it.

We scrambled out and ignominiously ran for all we were worth, shells bursting everywhere among us. Burdened with great-coat and rifle, and weak with exhaustion, we could not make very good speed even with almost certain death at our heels, and I was soon so winded I could hardly struggle along. My feet seemed to weigh tones, and for a few minutes the feeling was exactly like one gets in a nightmare – a desperate struggle to run, without being able to move at more than a snail’s pace. Pure funk, of course. Then an indescribable feeling of disgust for the whole show swept over me, and I slowed to a deliberate walk, not caring whether I got through or not. A few more paces, an enormous explosion close at hand, and – nothing….

My memories of what followed are not very clear. Trying to look back, most of it is mixed up in a haze of dizziness and fatigue, a jumble of vague impressions, among which it is sometimes difficult to decide which are facts and which are merely the hallucinations of exhaustion. I do not think I was unconscious for long, probably not more than a few minutes and the first thing of which I was aware was brandy being forced between my lips and a feeling of annoyance as the sharp edge of the flask grated on my teeth. I seem to remember someone saying something about “….one of the new men”, but I felt too sick to take much notice; as my mind cleared a little, I found I was lying in a shell-hole into which I had apparently fallen or been dragged, and the stretcher-bearer whose flask I had been biting said, “you’ll be all right, chum; wait here a bit and then get off up the road to the First Aid Post toute suite”. Then he hurried away, and I was alone.

I suppose the shelling had ceased in the immediate neighbourhood, and there was no sign of the Battalion, but I was too dazed to take much notice of my surroundings. I sat in the shell-hole for a time, until the ground stopped swaying around me, and then, not knowing where I was going and hardly what I was doing, but with a fixed conviction that I had to find the Aid Post, I got to my feet and stumbled towards the road. I was probably suffering from slight shell-shock or the effects of the blast, for at first everything was confused and I did not seem to be clear about what had happened; I only knew, as one knows in dreams, that I had to go along this road. I can only have gone a short distance, however, when a fresh wave of dizziness overcame me and I slid into a ditch or trench alongside. I had a vague impression that the ditch was lined by troops, but if they were really there or if I only imagined them, they took no notice of me, and when I felt better I scrambled out and went on again, walking unsteadily in the middle of the road, although it was again being shelled fairly heavily – for I had reached the point where shells were almost a matter of indifference and I hardly cared what happened.

I must have missed death by inches many times, and had got a good distance farther when faintness forced me to stop again, fortunately close to a small shelter in the bank, in which there was a Red Cross man. He gave me another dose of brandy, which revived me considerably, and then noticed blood on my left hand. On investigation, he found that I had a wound in the fore-arm, probably caused by a small shell-splinter as I came up the road, or perhaps earlier; I have no memory of being hit. It was apparently quite slight, little more than a deep cut, and it was not giving me any pain, for the flesh around it seemed to be numbed. He bound it up, and seemed reluctant to allow me to go on alone; but he could not leave his post and there was no one to send with me, so after I had rested for a few minutes he gave me general directions for finding the Dressing Station and told me to enquire again from the driver of an ambulance at the top of the rise. I was now feeling much stronger and the shelling had stopped, so I thanked him and set off. If ever there was a “Good Samaritan”, that anonymous Red Cross man was one! He even pressed a piece of bread from his rations upon me. Of course, I never saw him again.

Following his directions, I found the ambulance about half-a-mile farther on, at a cross-roads, and the driver told me to take a turning to the left for Hamelincourt. Following the small Red Cross flags stuck in the bank as a guide, I came at last to the village half-an-hour later, passing several dead bodies by the roadside who, because they lay tidily under the bank, I concluded were men who had died of their wounds on the way to the hospital; for at a time like this, men who did not survive to reach the aid-post had to be unfeelingly “dumped”, so as to release the stretchers for other cases. My way led past the churchyard, which was in a gruesome condition; tombstones were thrown about in all directions, graves churned up and violently exhumed coffins and their contents scattered. It was not a spot in which to linger. At last I saw a building flying the Red Cross flag, which I took to be the Dressing Station, but as I approached I found it to be in ruins and deserted, and in the middle of the gateway there was a man lying dead, face downwards on the ground, with the Cross of Geneva on his arm!

It was getting dusk, and the place was not – to say the least – a pleasant spot in which to pass the night alone. I was just turning away, feeling rather hopeless and uncertain in which direction to go, when I heard voices and saw an officer and an NCO coming round the corner of the building – apparently the only living beings in that God-forsaken village. I immediately went up to them and said I was looking for the Dressing Station; could they direct me? The officer replied that the Station had been moved that day, owing to the shelling, but he did not know where it had gone. He advised me to go back for about half-a-mile, and then turn to the right, when I would come to a trench and probably find someone to direct me.

Looking back, I am inclined to wonder if he may have taken me for a straggler or even a deserter, for the road led back towards the line and in the opposite direction from that in which we eventually located the Aid Post. If so, I can hardly blame him, for he may not have notice my bandaged arm in the dusk, and my dirty, unshaven and haggard appearance would scarcely inspire confidence. But I may be doing him an injustice; he may have been as ignorant of my proper route as I was, and he did not question me in any way.

However, such an idea did not occur to me at the time, so I saluted and turned back, past the cemetery and the corpses, until I reached the turning indicated. There I soon found the trench, which was manned, but here again I was doomed to disappointment, for no one had any idea of the location of the Dressing Station. But just at that moment several other “walking wounded” men came along, on the same quest as myself, and after a short confab. Among ourselves, we decided to return to Hamelincourt and push on beyond the village. At any rate, it was, as far as we could make out, in the general direction of the rear. I was immensely relieved to fall I with company, for I was entirely ignorant of the lie of the land, and might easily have wandered towards the enemy’s lines in the darkness. As I learned afterwards, it was lucky that we did decide to get beyond Hamelincourt without delay, for the village was in German hands two or three hours later.

None of us knew much about the geography of the surrounding country, and the only guidance we had was the light of the star-shells which, as we knew they must indicate the approximate position of the battle-front, we were careful to keep behind us. It was not long before we reached the village again, and had made our way to the other side. Darkness had now fallen, and it was raining, but the diffused light of the moon behind the clouds enabled us to see the road. The Germans were again shelling the place, though fortunately not heavily, for we could make but slow progress, and one of two of our party were wounded in the legs and had to be helped along. Several times we had to dive hurriedly into the ditch to avoid shell-bursts, from which we had some narrow escapes.

I remember very little distinctly about the journey after we left Hamelincourt, except that it seemed interminably long. Actually, I believe, we were about four hours on the road – a painful ordeal for those of us who could only limp and, indeed, trying enough for all of us. My own wound was beginning to throb a bit, as the numbness wore off, but it was no more of a handicap, in itself, than a bad toothache might have been. I have a vague recollection at one tie of crossing a railway by way of a level-crossing – probably near Moyenville – after which, for some reason I have forgotten, we left the road and struck across open country. No more shells bothered us. As far as my memory serves, we kept on the move all the time, but it seems hardly possible that we did not halt occasionally for a rest, weak and exhausted as we all were – the whole journey was like walking in one’s sleep, and I remember nothing clearly. We passed a battery of guns standing in the open, and not long afterwards found ourselves on a road which was crowded with traffic. Here we soon obtained information as to the whereabouts of the Dressing Station, and about an hour later reached our goal in the village of Ayette.

The ambulance station was crowded with wounded men who were pouring in in a continual stream, and they were packing up for further retirement, so that had we been delayed an hour longer we should probably have missed them again. I was profoundly grateful for the bowl of hot tea which was given me on arrival and which tasted better than anything I ever drank, and shortly afterwards my arm was again dressed. The orderly who attended to me said that he had been going hard all day, and had only had time to eat a piece of meat since morning. I had the good fortune, thanks to a kindly Sergeant, of obtaining a place on the floor of one of the first ambulances to leave after my arrival, and was soon away to the CCS.

Owing to the congested state of the roads – a further retirement was made during the night and Ayette was abandoned before morning – progress was slow and we were frequently held up by traffic-jams. Before we had gone far a German aeroplane appeared overhead and dropped a couple of bombs at the slow-moving stream of traffic, which must have been plainly visible in the bright moonlight, for the sky was now clear again. Both, fortunately, missed their mark, though one of them fell close enough to our car to rock it with the blast of the explosion. Not long after this we reached a part of the road which was less crowded, and got along more quickly. I fell into an uneasy doze, crouching on the floor of the car and holding on by the leg of one of the stretcher racks, and was roused after an indefinite time by our arrival at the CCS, a group of marquees and huts near Beayumetz, alongside the Arras-Doullens main road. Its official title was “Casualty Clearing Station No. 43”.

On alighting, we were given more tea and some bread-and-butter, after which we (that is, the walking cases) lined up in a queue for particulars to be noted as to name, regiment, wounds, length of service and – inevitably – religion, all of which were entered on a card which was then attached to our person with string, as though we were so much labelled luggage. We were not treated as “luggage” in any other respect, though, for everyone was most considerate and cheerful – really wonderfully so, indeed, considering how frightfully busy they all were, with hundreds of wounded continually pouring in. I take off my hat in sincere appreciation to the RAMC, the Red Cross, Battalion stretcher bearers, and all who help the casualties in war; theirs was a devotion to duty beyond all praise and much too seldom recognised.

The floor of each marquee, dimly lighted by oil lamps, was covered with stretchers laid on the ground in rows, and the minor cases, like myself, filed past the Reception Officer’s table in a never-ending stream. Most of the bad cases on the stretchers endured their sufferings with stoical calm, but many were groaning quietly and now and again one would cry out. The atmosphere was heavy with the smell of blood and disinfectant.

My wound was examined by a doctor and bound up afresh, after which I received an anti-tetanus injection. Then, the time by now being about four am, as many of us as could get near lay down on the floor around the stove in one of the huts and went to sleep.

See also A Night in the Trenches

............ False Armistice

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

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

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