Memoirs & Diaries - "Stand To" on Givenchy Road

German prisoners captured at Cigalerie Butte It was near the end of the great German bid for victory in April 1918.  We left Beuvry and passed the hamlet of Le Fresnoy and crossed the bridge over the La Bassee Canal into the village of Gorre.  There we struck a route past the famous Brewery to make for the open fields and the front-line trenches.

We knew our destination was "somewhere between Festubert and Givenchy" - a new sector to us - and, as we marched, we sang softly a popular ditty of those days.  It went to the tune of a sentimental song then going strong in Blighty, about a Tulip and a Red, Red Rose.  Our own exclusive lyric had pointed reference to certain gentlemen at home and ended in averring that:

You stole our wenches
While we were in the trenches
Facing the angry foe;
You were a-slacking
While we were attacking
The Huns on Givenchy Road.

Now, in reality, we were to know what it was like on Givenchy Road, and it was said that there was plenty of "dirt" up in "the doings".  The "Pork and Beans" had broken in disorder on the left, and it was rumoured that the Germans had captured the Portuguese commissariat and were even raiding and reconnoitring in Portuguese uniforms.

The 55th Division had made a stand and held up a veritable horde of the enemy with great slaughter.  Now, utterly weary, they were to be relieved, and we of the 1st Division were to hold the renewed attack of the enemy.

A part of my own company relieved a detachment of the Liverpool Scottish, and we occupied a section of the trenches almost square-shaped in form, with three sides facing a miniature salient of German troops, who surrounded us more or less in the form of a horseshoe.  Our post was evidently a key position in the line.

Dead men lay about here and there; the communication trench to Headquarters - a small pillbox in the centre of the square - had partly collapsed at the sides and was sickeningly yielding underfoot with the bodies of buried men.  Here and there a leg or an arm protruded from the trench side.  The wire was cut in places and the gaps in the trenches, caused by trench mortar attacks, were staringly open and dangerous.

French soldiers being transported to prison camp - ColorizedWe arrived in the dark of the evening, before the moon had risen.  Silently we filed into the trench at a corner of the square.  A line of bare trees, tall and ghostly, marked another boundary of the line.

The Scotties trailed out with whispered greetings, and we settled down to the eternal vigil.  The silence was of the dead.  Not a gun fired.  Not even a Verey light flared.  The bloated trench rats squeaked now and again and only intensified the silence.

There was nothing to do but overhaul equipment: place Mills bombs at strategic points, with slack pins ready for throwing; play cards ; smoke interminable cigarettes.  During the night we examined the wire and sent reconnoitring patrols into No Man's Land.  They met nothing, heard nothing, saw no one, and came back scared and craving rum.

Above all we must not remain still to brood on things.  For two days the silence continued, unnatural and nerve-racking.  Old soldiers talked with bated breath of the horrors that were surely coming.  On the evening of the third day, as we shook our limbs and set guards and patrols moving, a whispered word went round that at "Stand to" at dusk the Germans might attack in force.

We lined up along the trench, and gulped our rum ration and literally ached for something to happen.  But the sun went down and the gloom came on, and not a sound broke the solitude.  Well, it would be at "Stand to" at about six o'clock in the morning - a blood-chilling time.

Morning "Stand to" came in due course, and once more the rum went round and the whispered word of warning.  A watery sun peeped through the mist and still no enemy appeared.  No lark rose to greet the dawn.  Not a gun hurled its load of venom.  I sat down with my section of eight men and I looked at our ration of bread, bacon, and cheese.  It was small enough, and God knew if we should ever get another.

"Shall we cook the whole issue?" I asked, and a nodding chorus signified assent.  We lit the "Tommy" cooker, and made a good job of the cooking, and ate a great bellyfull and smoked a Woodbine at the end.

Belgian light cavalry firing Hotchkiss machine gunSuddenly a gun barked and a heavy explosion shook the trenches.  The frantic rats squeaked and scuttled past us: men shuddered, and clattered their arms and sprang to attention.

The barrage had started.  I heaved a sigh and was almost glad the suspense was over.  The barrage was pitched about 40 yards short of our line of trench.  Evidently it would creep to us after first smashing the wire.

I placed five men on the fire-step and fixed one man with a Lewis gun and two men to fill containers for it.  We waited with livid faces.  The barrage crept nearer.  Now it was 30 yards, now 20 yards.  We were in a hell of din and slaughter.

The trench was crumbling slowly to pieces.  One of my men suddenly sank to his knees.  A piece of a shell had torn at his middle and he sat down quietly to die a slow death.  I shook with stark fear, but I held to my rifle and kept my place on the crumbling fire-step.

The barrage lifted again and moved nearer.  The man with the wound in his side moaned at intervals, and fixed his field bandage and held his hands to it as if to hold the very life in him.  His groans, coming during the briefest lulls in the shelling, were unnerving us all.

We crouched at the bottom of the trench, abject and trembling.  I passed the rum bottle round and took a long swig myself.  Rum numbs you at times like these.  It gives you Dutch courage and a lurching contempt for danger.  You die more or less decently; neither whining nor squealing - which is as it should be.

A moment later the machine gun to the right of us went up in the air and its team of men went up with it: a direct hit.  The shells were dropping practically on the very brink of the trench.  Now the worst had come.  We were face down in the slime, with boot and finger and knee clutching and scraping for the veriest inch of cover; hiding our eyes, as we did once from childish terrors; now whimpering, now cursing, with bowels turned to water and every faculty at agonized tension.

Austrian Skoda 305mm howitzer...Who shall say where Providence came in?  Death grinned at us and yet not a shell hit full on our dozen yards of entrenchment.  Still leaping forward, the barrage blundered over us and beyond us.  It left us stunned and deaf and prostrate.  The dying man mercifully breathed his last in the midst of it.  Still we cowered in the mud and the slime.

At nine o'clock in the morning the barrage started.  It ceased as suddenly as it had begun, at exactly 11.30 a.m.  It might have been a year of time.  The deadly stillness came on again but I ran among the others kicking right and left in a frenzy because I knew the attack was coming.  The man would follow the machine.

Looking over the top I saw the long grey lines sweeping along four hundred yards away.  They were marching slowly, shoulder to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations.

We scrambled to the fire-step.  We fired madly and recklessly.  The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste.  It should have been horrid slaughter at the distance, for the Germans seemed to huddle together like sheep as they lurched over No Man's Land.

But there were thousands of them and our aim was hurried and bad.  We fired in abandonment rather than by design.  Still the grey hordes advanced.  A hoarse voice shouted at the back of us.  It was Sergeant Winnford: God knows how he got through to us; and he yelled, "Retreat back to support line: you, corporal, see them all out."

He made for a gap in the trench.  The survivors followed him.  As he reached the open a stray shot, or splinter, splattered his brains out and he fell without a sound.  Stupefied, the others crept through and got clear, and raced across the open land with the enemy in full cry behind.  Barker was the last to crawl out.  I howled at him to hurry but he was tall and lanky and dead beat.  I raced at his side.

David Lloyd George"Slip off your pack," I shouted, as I got out of my own trappings.  He did so, but he was ashen and panting.  I felt a smart above my elbow and found there was blood trickling from the tips of my fingers.  "Barker, Barker!" I screamed.  "Hurry up, chum, for God's sake!" I might have saved my breath.

As I turned my head to him, and as he made a supreme effort to hasten, I saw the bullet hit the back of his tin helmet and spurt out at the front.  He curled over in a heap.  He was past aid.

I ran a dozen steps further.  Something hit my other elbow, searing hot and smashing through, and I spun round like a top and lay once more in the slime.  I thought my arm had gone.  If it was death I was numb, careless and content.  I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of grey uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror.  They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame.  How many of them would see another dawn?

Presently I came fully to myself and found that my arm was still there but was bleeding profusely.  Laboriously, I got my field dressing somewhere near where the blood was flowing, and I got to my knees, then to my feet in a half-blind endeavour to get somewhere, to someone...  I staggered to meet the second wave of the advancing Germans.

Would they shoot me again as they passed me?  An officer, with revolver in hand, waved me through the ranks.  They parted to make a road for me.  At every other step I fell with weakness and the spikes of the ground wire stabbed into my hands, my limbs, my very face, as I fell.  I remember weeping like a child because I could not help falling and suffering this torture.

I cannot say how far I walked.  I passed a first-aid post in an old trench, but they waved me off despairingly.  They had too many to see to.  Stretcher bearers passed me, carrying a pole, with a blanket slung to it, and inside an agonized bundle of broken humanity-blood trickling and dripping from the pendulous blanket.

Eventually I simply fell into another portion of trench and there a sad-eyed, black-bearded man whispered "Armes kind" - meaning little child - and stripped off my tunic, leather jerkin, and cardigan, and took his own field dressing and patched up the mess of my arm.  A prisoner indeed; receiving succour from a man whose countrymen I had blazed at in hate but a while ago, and from whom I had suffered this shot in my elbow.

Front-line churchTruly the quality of mercy is not strained.  I had none of his tongue, nor he of mine, but he gave me a drink of warm coffee from a flask, and his hands were as tender as a woman's as he bandaged me.

If ever I had felt hate for the German I was cured of it now.  I had had my job to do and he his.  The responsibility was not ours and our fate was none of our choosing.  I to-day; perhaps he to-morrow.  But I could not stay here.

The English barrage had now started; tearing and rip-snorting along all the roads and communications.  It was intended to hold up the reinforcements for the German attack.  For me there was the sickening necessity of walking through the menace of our own barrage; to risk death from our own shells; to get to some place of refuge.

Three others joined me.  They also had staggered from the shambles of No Man's Land, and we bled from various wounds all along that pitiless road to the rear.

How we escaped the shelling I know not.  German transport wagons lumbered past us at intervals, the drivers whipping the horses to a mad gallop.  Here and there dead or dying horses lay among the splintered ruins of shafts and wheels.

The very road was greasy with blood.  Yet even as the horses fell the poor brutes were dragged to the side of the road and the matter-of-fact Germans whipped out knives and cut long strips of flesh from the steaming flanks.  Heaps of intestines lay in the ditches.

At last a German unter-offizier dashed out from behind a ruined house and took charge of our little band.  He took us a further short walk till we came to a large church, with the Red Cross flag flying from the tower.  We were placed in a queue of men all waiting for attention to wounds.  Gradually we got inside the church.  May I never again see such a sight.

General BrusilovAll along the nave improvised stretchers lay side by side and reached to the step leading to choir and chancel.  Up there a dozen surgeons in ghastly stained white overalls performed operation after operation.  Amputation after amputation.  The smell of chloroform and ether pervaded everything.  The horrible rasping sound of the silver saws grated on the ear.

Attendants carried limbs away in tall baskets.  Men died before aid could get to them.  Each had inexorably to wait his turn and the surgeons, with white and drawn faces, sweated and toiled silently: no time for consultations.  I was attended to in my turn, and left that charnel house for the near-by prisoners' cage, where I was questioned and had my papers examined and my letters from home confiscated.

It was now nightfall.  I was in a small town - La Bassee, maybe, though I had no means of knowing.  Twenty-four hours previously I had "stood to" on the fire-step and awaited the coming of the attack.  Now it was all over.  There is enduring stuff in youth, and I was young and craved for life with every fibre of my being.  I was not done for yet.

So I staggered among the ranks of a draft of prisoners to be entrained for the rear hospitals.  We marched in columns of four to the station, and we held one another up and marched as if in a dream.  They placed us in open trucks; Black Watch, South Wales Borderers, and others, and we clanked through a pitch-black night of hail, rain, and storm, through Lille and on to Tournai.

I was half delirious by then: the numbness had given place to agony, and with all of us the bitter night did its worst to finish off the work that even the shells had failed to do.

So we ended up away in high Germany.  and the Army Lists posted me as "missing."

Lance-Corporal Thomas A. Owen.  Attested November 1916; called up February 1917.  Service in France and Belgium, chiefly on sections of the Ypres Salient, 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers, 1st Division.  Wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert, April 18th, 1918.  Thence to Schleswig.  In hospital for 6 months, then discharged for labour at Munster Prisoner of War Camp, till Armistice.  Repatriated December 2nd, 1918.

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

The first zeppelin raid on London was on 31 May 1915.  Earlier raids in January 1915 had avoided London.  The London raid resulted in 28 deaths and 60 injuries.

- Did you know?


On This Day