Memoirs & Diaries - At a Sap-Head
A fellow named Kendall and I palled up the day after he joined our company. We were in a sugar factory at the time, where we were to spend the night before going into the line. I had found two planks and trestles, and thought, in my ignorance, to make a bed where the rats would not disturb me, and while I surveyed the available floor space the slinking form of a large rat, just discernible in the dimming light, made me turn sharply round.
My planks struck Kendall's and, in trying to save them, he received the full weight of one on his foot. "Clumsy swine!" he shouted, and hopped in a threatening attitude towards me. As I put up my fists, I appraised his ability. He was lean and lanky. I decided to punch him in the stomach and upper-cut him as he crumpled. But the platoon-sergeant intervened, warned us both for guard from two to four o'clock the following morning.
Kendall spat copiously after the retiring sergeant. "Stop that!" I said in mock seriousness, "or I'll have you up for dumb insolence." Kendall laughed outright.
"Well, if we've got to go on guard together we may as well kip together". He had two planks but no trestles, so we jammed the four planks together on my trestles, and next morning on guard we got to know each other better.
Looking back, I am vaguely conscious that the human associations of those War years live more vividly in my memory than the horror and unspeakable realities of War, much as they tormented me.
Kendall and I did many duties together after that and we grew in each other's regard. Of course we never voiced it - at twenty years of age one does not, nor, I suppose, at sixty. I don't know! But how else can I explain why he cursed me more abusively than my fellows?
Or that my references to his mode of travel along the trenches as being due to chronic "wind-up" caused him to smile and make dumb signs with his fingers, yet when others said so he would rise in a flash to silence them with his clenched fists.
One night when Kendall and I, together with two others, were over the parados busily digging, the enemy's machine guns traversed in our direction. It was soon after nine o'clock when "Jerry" started to strafe us pretty generally along the line with "minnies," "coal-boxes," "flying pigs," "toffee apples," aerial torpedoes; "flying fishes," "pip-squeaks," - a very mixed assortment from his stock, to be recognized by whichever of their names you knew them.
Soon we heard the cry "Stretcher bearers!" Again and again it was repeated as we crouched lower in our now deepening pit.
"Down Sap 26 - shouldn't wonder," Kendall said, rising and plying his spade once more. "'D' Company's getting it good and heavy. Damned if I don't think we're better off out here over the--".
A pip-squeak exploded near by and the sprayed earth tinkled on our steel helmets. The next minute our captain dropped into the pit. We stopped working and wondered what he wanted. He spoke to me:
"A 'minnie' has dropped plump into the middle of the support bay of Sap 26 and wiped all four of them out, poor chaps, and the two men at the sap-head have been sent down with shell-shock.
I want you and someone else to man the sap-head and hang out as long as you possibly can, because the company is short of men and I can't spare any to remain in support. If you get into trouble you must send up a couple of Verey lights and make your way back to the front line. Now, who'll you take with you?"
"Me, sir!" Kendall answered quickly. "Right! You others must come to the front line. This job must wait."
We gathered our tools together and prepared to make our way back to the front line.
"Sergeant Popple and I will come with you as far as the support bay. Wait for us at the entrance to the sap."
Arrived at the entrance, we waited for the captain and Sergeant Popple. They soon came up, bringing the Verey light pistol with them.
"All O.K.?" the captain asked. We nodded. "Then lead the way - you'll find it's knee deep in mud. Halt at the support bay, or where the bay was before the 'minnie' dropped. We're sure to straggle out going through the mud."
For the first few yards of the sap - a roughly hewn trench leading forwards from our front line - the going was good and the desultory shelling ceased. Then the mud became thicker, almost knee high, and footholds none too easy. And the squelching as each foot was lifted out of the mud seemed deafening in contrast with the piercing quiet that had descended on our sector.
I floundered into a hole, loin high in the mud. "'Ware hole," I whispered over my shoulder to Kendall and heard him pass the warning on to the captain, who in turn passed it on to Sergeant Popple. And in a few moments more I heard the captain's muffled curses as he floundered as I had done.
At last we arrived at the "minnie" hole, where the support bay had been.
"Jerry could hear us a mile off," Kendall whispered. "How much farther to the sap-head?" the captain asked. "Another 60 feet or so," I replied.
"All right. We'll give you ten minutes by my watch, and unless you signal us before that we'll return to the front line. I'll have you relieved as soon as I can, but it won't be before morning. Don't make yourselves objectionable, because I can't spare any men to support you. Good luck!"
The mud was not so deep at the sap-head. Kendall made himself comfortable on the small fire-step close to the supply of Mills' bombs, having first put a couple handy beside him. He looked at his watch: "Five minutes to ten," he whispered. "They'll be back in the front line by now. Say, Jerry's only a few yards away, isn't he?"
"Yes," I answered. "No need to whisper, but don't shout. Jerry's sap-head is about 25 yards from here. Sometimes, when it's quiet, you can hear him knock a tin over. I believe they've got a little dug-out at their sap-head."
"Seems damn silly, doesn't it," Kendall remarked. "Couple of Jerries, or so, 25 yards over there and us over here, sitting on our backsides doing nothing."
"Shift farther up, then I can sit down and help you. When Jerry sends a couple of bombs over after he's had his supper we'll send one over just to let him know we're still awake."
"We shan't have had any supper though. Have you anything to eat?" Kendall asked. "No. Have you?" "Not a thing, only these hard biscuits."
Apart from two small explosions near by and our reply, the night was comparatively quiet. But a continuous booming as of distant thunder came from the direction of the Somme. Kendall noted it:
"Worse places than this, I suppose," he said. "Yes. Still you might have had a soft look-out job in the front line. What did you want to come down here for, anyway? Always thought you were windy," I bantered.
"So I am," he confessed; "windy as hell." "So am I." "Then why did the captain call on--" "Shut up! I haven't told him yet."
Kendall became reminiscent as a rat scuttled up the bank to the side of us.
"Funny, that night in the sugar factory. Lord, how I cursed that sergeant sticking us on guard together! And here we are - snug as a couple of bugs in a rug."
"Not so strange after all. Perhaps, if we knew Jerry better, there'd be none of this," I ventured.
"Perhaps so. Yes. And here we sit, and over there Jerry sits, lousy as hell - platoons of 'em in column of route marching all over you: drink that's one part water and four parts chloride of lime and brought up from the well at Ecurie in 2-gallon petrol tins; a bath every eighteen days and a shave when you're lucky enough to find a puddle that hasn't been stirred for an hour or so. What the devil made you join up?"
"The papers talked me into it - and vanity, I suppose," I answered.
And so we talked through the night, gathering our greatcoats around us in the chill of the morning before dawn. A night crammed full of self-revelation - interesting as nothing else - of intimacies conveyed half-banteringly, yet with a veneer of cynicism!
And at dawn we eyed each other, a little shamefacedly perhaps, with a new interest and greater understanding.
"Gets colder between stand-to and stand-down," Kendall remarked. He jumped down from the fire-step, where he had been looking towards the German lines. "The sun'll get stronger presently. Keep an eye on that poppy" - it grew on the edge of the trench - "watch it open. That'll help the time to pass."
"Blimy!" he continued. "We've done eight hours already. Must report to the union when we get back."
Sergeant Popple crawled warily up to the sap-head, carrying two hunks of bread, two small pieces of bacon, and a dixie of cold tea. We welcomed him as uproariously as the proximity of the two sap-heads allowed.
"Well, Pop," Kendall said, "how are things?"
"Lost a lot of men in the bombardment last night - Jerry's got our range to an inch. Davies gone, poor fellow, and Wellshead; Ashton blown to pieces; and Wheeler, poor kid. Only seventeen too! Got out here by bluffing his age and now a shell's taken his head clean off while he was standing on the fire-step. Goodness knows how many have had 'Blighty ones.'"
Sergeant Popple looked grave as he stood with bended back, biting the ends of his grey moustache, the mud dripping from his puttees.
We ate the breakfast he had brought, filled our water bottles with the cold tea that was over, and asked him when he thought we would be relieved.
"Can't say," he replied. "Won't be before this afternoon, anyway. And cookie's got a touch of nerves, so I'll bring you along some grub when I get the chance. Captain wants you to keep a sharp look-out from this sap-head, and you're not to leave it on any account."
"Right-o! Pop. Kiss the captain for me," Kendall answered, and we watched Sergeant Popple down the sap, his back bent low, and carrying the empty dixie.
"Some say, 'Good old Pop!'" I ventured. "Some don't so say," Kendall replied with gusto.
The afternoon turned in an hour from sunshine to rain. A wind sprang up, a regular gale, and from over the German lines heavy clouds rolled disgorging torrential rains. Dinner-time had long since passed and Sergeant Popple had not brought us any. We were hungry as we stood in the lee of the firing-plate, which, sand-bagged on the other side except for the peep-hole, formed the sap-head. So we munched the few scraps of hard biscuits that were left and took draughts from our cold tea.
At six o'clock we tossed for sleeping. Kendall won, and, tucking himself well into the corner of the fire-step, with his waterproof sheet pegged to the sand-bags so that his head and body were completely covered, he tried to sleep. I heard him muttering to himself every now and then; he cursed the conditions, the rain, the lice and, above all, the relieving party that had not arrived. But it was evident he would not be able to sleep. He was already wet through from the thighs downwards as I was.
"Thank your lucky stars you're not out here," I said, as I heard the scratching of his lighter and knew, although I could not see, that he was going to light a cigarette. He did not reply, but started cursing again.
The rain came down still heavier and the wind swept it across the open, washing the trunk of the tree on our right - such a tree; dead, shell-torn, barkless!
Night came. We continued to take turns at resting on the fire-step ; one resting, the other standing at the far corner and looking out over the lines into the darkness, which was relieved now and again by a fizzing Verey light.
At midnight our artillery made a show and the Germans replied vigorously. In No Man's Land as we were, it was comparatively safe, though the shells screeching overhead in both directions were particularly nerve-racking in our exhausted state.
Kendall cursed the relieving party again and again for not coming. All that night he cursed them venomously; for no one had been to see us, to bring food, and our biscuits and cold tea were long since finished. We no longer attempted to rest.
Drenched to the skin and painfully in need of sleep, we propped ourselves up on the fire-step or in the trench, now a quagmire. And Kendall's obsession, the relieving party, soon made it impossible for him to stay on the lookout. And as for me, every stake in No Man's Land turned into a stalking German after a momentary stare, and I would have to look away and blink before the Germans would revert to stakes once more.
After stand-to on the following morning we were relieved. Dog-tired and hungry, we returned to the front line, where only the minimum of sentries were on duty owing to the shortage of men. We were given hot tea, bread, and bacon, and we went down a dug-out to sleep.
Soon - it seemed about five minutes afterwards - we were roused again and placed on sentry duty in the front line. Perhaps our periscope was a little too high, for Jerry paid some invidious attention, so with the dirt showering all about us we lowered it for a while.
After two hours Corporal Simpson brought two men to relieve us. I was looking through the periscope at the time and Kendall, who sat cleaning his rifle, was the first to see them.
"What do you want?" Kendall asked the corporal. "Brought the relief, of course," the corporal replied.
"Relief! We don't want a b-- relief. We've held this position for 34 hours 27 minutes. Clear out or I'll plug you!"
Tired as I was, it was some seconds before I realized that this was no ordinary banter, that Kendall still imagined we were holding the sap-head. I turned round towards him.
"Clear out, you b-- !" Kendall shouted, and with a quick movement slid the bolt of his rifle back and forced a bullet into the breach.
I fell on him, pinning his shoulders to the ground, and, with Corporal Simpson and the assistance of the two men, barely managed to restrain him. And as I sprawled across his chest I looked into his staring, glassy eyes and realized he was mad - stark, staring mad!
Private David Phillips enlisted September 4th, 1914. Served in England and France in the 23rd County of London Regiment. Graded C3 in 1917 and transferred to Brigade of Guards Section, Army Pay Corps.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".
- Did you know?