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

On Smoking

A parenthetic word may not be out of place here, in praise of the soldier’s main comfort and support in the field – Tobacco. We were inveterate and unrepentant Slaves of the Weed; it was our constant companion and solace, at once a luxury and a necessity. In quiet times, in the line or out of it, our intervals of leisure were made more enjoyable and periods of boredom less irksome by it; but it was in times of great mental stress like this that we knew its full value. Tired bodies and strained minds were alike soothed by its influence, and it remains a mystery to me how the few non-smokers in our ranks managed to exist without it. Occasionally, when in the line, there was a free “issue” of cigarettes, mostly provided, I believe, by public or private charity through official channels; the packets bore names which were strange to me, both at that time and since, such as “Trumpeter”, “Red Hussar”, “Oros”, “Ruby Queen” etc., and they varied considerably in quality. But for the most part, we had to rely on our own purchases in the canteen, and always, before going into the line, we would fill our pockets and haversacks with as many as we had room for, or our purses would “run to”, sometimes even stuffing them (illegally) into gas-mask cases and ammunition pouches.

On this occasion, however, we had been rushed to the front without warning, so that most of us were very “short”, though on the third day there was a small issue of “Ruby Queens”.

Whenever the shelling became violent, the first thing one thought of doing was to light a fag, and all down the trench during a night “alert” one might see the little red pin-points glowing, carefully shielded in cupped hands. With nerves stretched to their utmost tension, without sleep, warmth or adequate food, and almost ready to drop from exhaustion, tobacco was an inexpressible comfort; I am sure that we would rather at any time go short in rations than in fags, however inferior the brand, A cigarette (or pipe) between our lips seemed in some way to give us a hold on ourselves, and helped us to carry on sometimes in conditions which otherwise might have been unendurable.

On Drinking

There were certain comfortable, self-righteous Stigginses in England at that time who made a great fuss in the papers about the iniquity of supplying alcohol to the troops in the Line; one good lady from my own home-town, I remember, was virtuously indignant because (she declared) “our boys are being drugged” and wanted to have the rum issue stopped. I should like these people to have spent just one night in the trenches, under the same conditions as us, and see whether they would then have effused the meagre stimulant which we (sometimes) got! In any case, the size of the “ration” which reached us (via the QM stores and intermediate channels) was never large enough to corrupt the morals of a louse; nevertheless, I think that the incidence of sickness, both physical and mental, in the Line would have been much higher without it.

 

On Fear

There may be, no doubt, a few lucky men who are literally without fear – though I doubt if this rare quality is ever due to anything higher than a complete lack of imagination. Fear is a natural concomitant of intelligence, and he who is most mentally alive thereby has the greatest capacity for being afraid. The truly brave men, the real heroes, are those whose self-control is so strong that they can overcome their fear and act as though it did not exist. Most men are capable of this kind of bravery on occasions – there are times in war when the least of us may be “keyed-up” to a point of self-forgetfulness when personal danger is ignored – but not many can maintain a cool demeanour by sheer strength of character under all circumstances. To pretend that I was one of these, or that I soon “got used to” shell-fire and the other hazards of life in the Line, would be entirely false. Each day in the trenches, indeed, so far from deadening my sense of peril, increased it, and I must confess that I felt “windy” during most of the time I spent in the line. True, I endeavoured – and, I think, fairly successfully on the whole, to conceal my true feelings from my companions, yet I often felt secretly ashamed that I could not “face danger with a smile”, as I thought a soldier should. But I do not think I was alone in this. We were all, in varying degrees, afraid; and all, with greater or less success, tried to hide our fear from each other – and from ourselves. I have heard veterans who had been “out” since Mons or Gallipoli (some of them wearing decorations for bravery) admit in unguarded moments that every time they went up the line they felt windier. “Going over the top”, although actually more dangerous to life and limb, was probably less of a strain on the nerves, because less protracted, than life in the trenches.


See also A Night in the Trenches

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

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

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

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