From Ypres to Plug Street
The tension of Ypres (we called it 'Wipers'), with its many raids, constant bombardment, sameness of hard and dry food rations and twenty-one days and nights, more or less, in the same clothes, took its toll on the health and nerves of all ranks and even animals. Eye strain, headaches, colic, asthma, fever and indigestion were other major recurring complaints, not to mention the hazards from shells, bombs and gas.
In mid-April 1916, we left the shambles of Ypres behind and took a winding journey to Romarin. On the way we had time to have baths, clean clothing and lots of nourishing food denied us since New Year's day. New boots which were much lighter were issued.
As I was going on a refresher course for one week I found the new situation agreeable: gas warfare training, quick action movement of guns and material in an emergency, new gunnery tactics and mobile warfare. I liked the last course, for in former courses everything was based on the stupid method of static trench and raid tactics. It was a crash course indeed - I wrote everything up, for I had to lecture to NCOs, on my return to battery.
When I returned from the course I proceeded up to Plug Street section, our nickname for Ploegstreete, where our battery relieved the Canadian Artillery. The gun pits were excellent with huge tree trunks and concrete on sides and roof and well camouflaged. The rest quarters, slit trenches and ammunition dumps were well concealed, built like a model fortress. The position was very quiet during the day, but noisy at night.
One morning our Colonel H. Burrows came to say goodbye and he introduced to us Colonel Spiller, DSO. We took tQ our new Colonel right away. Like Burrows he was frank and fair, but he had an added quality, he had a sense of humour. He entered my gun pit with Captain Topper Brown. With my men we were polishing brass work on the gun. We all jumped to attention.
Colonel Spiller said to me, 'Bombardier, why are you polishing brass work?'
I had only one reply, 'On Captain Brown's instructions, Sir.'
Back came the order, 'Dull all your brasses, use paint if necessary. The enemy could spot your position from light glinting off the metal.'
That night Captain Topper Brown was replaced by Captain Stanley Goodwin.
Captain Goodwin, like Colonel Spiller, was a very fine officer. 'Stanley', as we nicknamed him, after the explorer, spoke to every man and asked us to come to him if we were anxious about anything.
'Look upon me as a friend,' he said. He took an interest in our food, our clothing, our health.
For the first time in a year I saw the Brigade Medical Officer up at the guns, at the captain's insistence. He stayed one week, giving us injections against various troubles.
Word went around that our Division was to be regrouped and we were going to Italy. Regrouped, yes, to Italy, no. Each Brigade had four eighteen-pounder guns. Fortunately we retained our captain and all officers. Some NCOs and men were drafted to form other units.
On reorganization, we switched to an active part of the 'Plug Street' front, away from the safety of our Canadian model fortress. From our fortress we had observed hits on some seventy German targets, leaving to our successors very vital coded information, which proved of great value in the month of June 1916.
The area was abnormally quiet for a few days. A narrowgauge railway line was made by Royal Engineers to about 2,000 yards from the front line. Their little steam puffer brought up valuable loads of material each night. On the sixth night the Germans found out about it and strafed the railway for an hour, smashing engine, wagons and goods.
When all was silent and dark two gunners set out down the ridge to the smashed-up railway line to salvage food. It was a risky journey, for the enemy put down salvos of whiz-bangs every few minutes. After about an hour the daring lads returned with a greybeard of rum. There was rejoicing. Then the moment came for the first issue. I cannot print what happened next for it turned out to be a greybeard of lime juice!
Later another platoon was moving forward in the semidarkness when a lad stumbled over a box. The weary soldiers took it in turn to carry the heavy box, expected to be of corned beef, to the support trench where they were to rest for the night. When daylight dawned the box was opened and judge the disquiet when the contents revealed cartons of anti-lice dusting powder.
We were pinned down day and night by enemy barrages for two weeks and so we were forced to keep our clothes on, nor could we wash or shave properly. For food we had hard biscuits, mouldy cheese and Tommy Ticklers Marmalade, plus one quart of sickeningly chlorinated water each. We were all in the same boat. The men were grousing, grumbling and calling the enemy every name possible because there was a constant bombardment around the ridge. So the Keatings Lice Powder became a blessing in disguise as it removed one of the irritations - fleas!
On orders, we had to withhold our fire. The gun pits and dugouts were well constructed and so we withstood the long ordeal in them in some comfort. No one was hurt. The only pain was from indigestion, colic and headaches. Our turn to fire came and hundreds of guns opened up, soon silencing the enemy guns. Rations arrived and now we had dixies of cold stew, cold spuds, cold tea and one slice of bread each. It was very welcome and greatly enjoyed. Someone remembered the greybeard of limejuice. Mixed with water it was refreshing and disguised the chemical taste of the water - another small blessing!
It was towards the end of our time in this new sector that Captain Stanley Goodwin sent for me. As usual I wondered what I had done wrong.
'Relax, Caseby,' he said, 'Some time ago I hear you were on a crash course about gas warfare. Tell me about it.'
I asked to be excused to go to my kitbag to collect my detailed notes.
When I handed them to him, he gasped, 'When did you write all this up.
I told him, 'During lulls in action, Sir.'
He was most impressed and the same evening, when the sector was quiet, he invited me to explain all details of the course from memory to two officers, the sergeant-major and himself.
We had just finished when we were called to action. We were unprotected in the open. Our whole front put up a devastating barrage of fire for half an hour. Infantry made a raid on the German trenches, capturing not only men, but valuable documents. This raid was the beginning of similar ones leading up to the Battle of the Somme.
This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993. All rights reserved. Used here by express permission.