Life in the Trenches

Letters written by Bert Smythe and published in the Jerilderie Herald and Urana Advertiser on 30 June and 7 July 1916.





Corporal Bert Smythe, an old Jerilderie boy, writes an interesting narrative concerning trench warfare in Gallipoli in which campaign he participated. At time of writing the soldier was an inmate of a London Hospital. He says:-

“It is about 6 o’clock in the morning, and we are in the rest trenches due to go into the firing line for four hours (approx.) sometime during the morning. There is a splutter of rifle fire and a machine gun spits out about 20 rounds viciously. A short silence and another splutter, and an ominous heavy report, and again silence. You turn over, and in so doing dislodge some dirt in your dugout which of course falls into your ear and mouth. Further sleep out of question by the time you have emptied your mouth, so you get up, but do not bother dressing as the situation demands you to sleep fully dressed. Examine your rifle and see that your ammunition is OK, and then you think of “brecker.” Being in charge of a platoon you look up your orderly roster and find out who is orderly for the day. You should have done this last night, only the excitement of writing to the “one and only” caused you to forget. You find that Smith and Jones are the unfortunates, so you proceed to Smith’s domicile and kick him gently in the ribs. You don’t kick him because you don’t like him, but because it is too much trouble to bend down and shake him.

“What the __  __ is the __  __ matter?”
“You and Jones are orderlies today; better buck along and get the scran.”  
“Whose orderlies? I’m not.”
“You and Jones are. Nick along and tell him.”
“Why the __  __ wasn’t I told last night? Hi! Jones you and me are orderlies. Shift yourself up if you want any __  __ tucker.”
“I’m not the __  __ orderly today, I was orderly a couple of days ago, so you ____.”

Jones sits up and considers things, and finally Smith and he go grumblingly to the cook house under the shelter (?) of a hill and you walk along to make sure no one is oversleeping. Breakfast comes up - a kerosene tin full of tea and tea leaves floating about on the top, and a swarm of flies buzzing about. On examination the floating tea leaves prove to be flies and you get seven in your dixie with your share of tea - and a dixie with fried bacon and bully beef hash which is very salt. There is also some bread and a tin of jam between four men. As water is scarce you leave some of your tea in your dixie lid to wash it free of the bacon grease.

It’s your platoon’s turn for cookhouse fatigue so you again refer to your roster. This is a very hard and disagreeable fatigue. A large quantity of water has to be carried half a mile from the tanks in Shrapnel Gully up to the cookhouse and wood has to be hunted for to cook it with, so it’s an all day job. It falls to James and Brown. James promptly lets off forty-eight consecutive and unprintable adjectives, and Brown stares moodily at a rent in his trousers and finally threatens to go sick. Then they both want to see the roster, and then curse their luck and depart. Always growling, but they get there just the same. The finest regiment in the world wouldn’t have done more than the wild, undisciplined mob did in the landing, and again at Lone Pine; and an intelligent officer can get anything out of the men if he himself is a man.

Word is received that we relieve the 5th at 9.30 a.m. and in the meantime the trench must be tidied up. We roll up our belongings up, all except what we will take with us, and take them to our parade ground and pile them up together. The parade ground is a flat piece which has been cut out of the side of a hill and is about 20 yards square. Nine a.m. arrives and we move off along the communication trenches to our position in the newly captured Lone Pine. We are a wild looking mob. Dusty faces, unshaved - about six weeks to three months' growth. The trenches are narrow and our mess ties are continually getting caught, and every now and then one is almost strangled through walking into a telephone wire across the top of the trench. A tedious walk brings us to the left of our position where we encounter the wild-eyed Victorians of the 5th battalion, who we are to relieve. Of course there is a crush.

“Stop shovin', you __  __.” 
“Whose shoving? Keep your face shut, you __  __.”
“Get off my bloomin’ feet, d’yer think they’re mats?
“Yes, I thort they were, they’re big enough.”
“Silence! you __  __ idiots, d’yer want any more bombs over?”
Deadly silence for two seconds then - “Who are yer leanin’ on? Think I’m yer dinner?”
“Well move up, you ass.”
Plaintively: “I carnt move, there are a baynet stickin’ in me stummick.”

A Victorian surveys the dusty N.S.W man and says, “Next time yous blokes comes out mind you tidy up a bit and don’t leave it fer us to do.”
“Strike me pink green and yeller, every time we come in we’ve got to spend two hours throwin’ yer rubbish out, so yer carn’t tork.”
An Officer is observed on his toes trying to find out who is talking, so silence again reigns. “Move on, 3rd Battalion,” comes along, and grunting and shoving and crushing, the Third moves along. “Swish–bang!” and a pungent smell drifts over to us from the “pip-squeak” which has just arrived.

“Where’d she settle?” is asked.
“Carn’t see. Seems near headquarters.”
“Shake it up,” a Sergeant growls. We all press on, and half of us go on duty at once, and the half rest. We are in the resting half and don’t commence duty till about nightfall, so we crowd into the bomb-proof rest shelters. These shelters are formed by covering a portion of the trench with log or heavy timber and covering them with earth and bushes. They are bomb-proof but not shell proof. We don’t commence duty till nightfall, but unfortunately there is a lot of work to be done, so instead of resting we have to deepen the trench, extend the underground and generally assist in strengthening our own possy or weakening Abdul’s. There is a lot of lurid language. It got so bad that some bombs were hastily removed to a safer place!

We were so afraid of instantaneous combustion. The workers start, and are working as easy as their conscience will permit them. Suddenly, “Look out! a bomb,” and a round black ball, smoking, lands on the parapet, hesitates a moment then drops into the trench. There is a scramble round the first bend till it goes off. An enterprising Sergeant, a little late in the scramble, drops his hat over it and disappears after the others. Bang! and there is a sound of falling earth and a very disagreeable smell, and we all emerge. The Sergeant wanders off somewhere and after a fifteen minutes absence returns with another hat, remarking that he had to try on seventeen before he got one to fit.

I go up to a sniping post with black murder in my heart, and with an “excuse me,” pull the lookout’s rifle down and insert my own. In looking along a ridge which has a very zig-zag Turkish trench along its crest, my optics discern an Abdul with two of his brothers, on the slope, apparently quite oblivious to their awful danger. I put up 575, (yards) and squint, but immediately seventeen flies make a frontal attack on my eye and nose, while two further bodies attack my ears. “Donner and blitzen,” likewise “Ach Himmel,” I splutter, and to save myself from choking, swallow four flies alive. Retire temporarily to put on a fly veil, and again squint along the sights. This time seven flies are fighting over some jam on my backsight, whilst another one is preening himself on my foresight. Words fail; the English language is not adequate under the circs. Hunt them off and let drive, and then pop my head over to see what happens.

A second –“a phoot” – a little cloud of dust suddenly rises just over Abdul’s shoulder and drifts lazily off. No so Abdul. True, he drifted off, also his two brothers – but not lazily, oh! dear no. I got another in just as the seat of his unmentionables disappeared in a trench, but it was also a miss. Retire discomfited. Swish! bang! – and a cloud of smoke and dust sprang into being about ten yards away along the trench. These pip-squeaks are annoying. The man that came round the corner WAS annoyed. You could not see his dial for dust and three or four clods were settled permanently in his hair. He spat and spluttered for eighteen seconds, and then “ __ and __ the __  __ __  __ ! The __  __ ought to be __  __! Why the __  __ doesn’t our __  __ ar-blooming-tillery get on to them?”

He then retired back to his job, spitting disgustedly. The pip-squeak that annoyed him had struck the parapet and dumped most of the dust and sand bags on top of him. Several more pip-squeaks arrived, 30 seconds or so between each shot, and we all kept to the safe side of the trench. They landed mostly just behind our firing line, though some got home. A commotion along the trench carried me towards it. A shell had struck the overhead cover and killed one man and badly smashed two others. The shelter itself was completely wrecked, and all this by a shell weighing less than 18 lbs. Then our “ar-blooming tillery” (as my friend called it) commenced dumping reprisal shots into Abdul’s quarters and then Abdul stopped. The orderly corporal warns the mess orderlies for dinner and eventually our midday and chief meal arrives. Bully beef stew, with preserved spuds for vegetables. Very good too, only it’s horribly salt. The tea is also very acceptable after you skim the flies off. If you don’t skim them off they are liable to choke you.

After dinner we sit down and tell of the glorious feeds we used to have in Cairo. We can’t get the succulent roast chicken or grilled chop here, but we can talk about them and have them in imagination. “There’s Abdul again, blarst him,” someone says as a heavy explosion occurs and the peculiar pungent smell that comes from a bomb reaches us. There are two more explosions and then a sergeant staggers around the corner “The __  __ cows got three of us with that last one, __ them,” he jerks out, and continues his way to the dressing station.

“Make way,” a stretcher bearer snaps out, as he and a mate stagger up carrying an inanimate burden. The poor fellow is unconscious and his jacket is crimson and blood oozing from his mouth. Two more stretcher bearers come around the corner. This time the victim is conscious. His face is as white as a sheet and the dust and grime of the trench shows up startlingly clear on it. I followed to the temporary dressing station. Both men are badly hurt. The A.M.C. (Army Medical Corps) man dressed their wounds and cheered up the conscious man. “Oh, you’re as tight as a trivet. You’ll have a rest now”. “Am I badly hurt?” gasps the wounded man anxiously. “No, not bad. This one through your side’s the worst and it has missed your lungs. You’re all right.” Then they are carried off. “It’ll be touch and go with both of them I’m afraid,” he mutters as he packs his things away again.

I walk sadly back and see the bomb thrower on duty with a box full of sudden death. “I’ll give them h__,” he remarks cheerfully. We heard the first instalments of “h__” a few minutes later, quickly followed by further instalments. About quarter of an hour later they ceased and the bomb thrower reappeared, but not by himself - he was carried by two others. “What’s up?” we ask. “Oh, the silly cow insisted on poking his dial up to see where he was dumping ‘em. The cow missed him three times, too, and the blanky idiot must pop his nut up again, and caught it.”

(Continued in the next issue of the newspaper July 7th, 1916)



(Continued from last issue.)

Following is the conclusion of Corporal Bert Smythe’s letter, the first portion of which we published last week:-

“The day passes without further incident until our tea arrives. Boiled rice and raisins and tins of tea, both of which are liberally flavoured with flies; also bread and jam. Hold an inquest on the rice and raisins, and then bury it decently by throwing it over to Abdul. Eat my bread and jam thoughtfully. The Company S.M. appears. “Change over in ten minutes,” and asks me for a parade statement. This statement shows that No. 1 platoon, nominally 50 odd strong, has 13 men fit for duty, including two NCO’s. We change over, 6 men and one NCO to each post, two men on duty at a time, one hour on and two off. The off men must keep awake, though not watching.

The night passes very slowly. About midnight a Turkish machine gun viciously spits out about 100 rounds in about 17 seconds, and then their whole line springs into life. Peer over the top. Little jets of flame are appearing and disappearing everywhere along our front. Slip along to the bombs. The throwers are there ready, so return with an easy mind. There is a steady steady stream of bullets flying overhead or striking the parapet. Above the rifle fire you can hear the incessant crackle of the machine guns. Further along you hear bombs. We do not reply to the rifle fire, and our machine guns keep silent. We just sit tight and wait. There are no points in disclosing your MG’s possys just to get them shelled next morning. If Abdul climbed out of his trenches, then there’d be something doing, but until he does we just wait. After an hour or so the firing died down and there was only an occasional shot.
We had to keep very wakeful all night, or else risk being shot for sleeping at our posts, or perhaps get blown up through a bomb settling near one without one’s knowledge. In unprotected parts of our trenches where bombs are frequent, we have blanket men stationed at each post. They have a double blanket folded into quarters which they threw over any bomb that comes over into their domain. We get roused up thoroughly every morning an hour before daybreak and everyone ‘stands to’ in readiness till daylight. This happens every morning. After the stand to we are relieved and retire into the shelters. After brecker the blasted 75’s or pip-squeaks start again.

A bomb-thrower in No. 1 Section has rotten luck. There was a hissing scream, and with a loud bang a 75 smashed into the parapet. Couldn’t see anything for dust for half a minute and then saw poor Charlton lying in the bottom of a trench. A mate and I carried him to the dressing station. On our way another 75 struck near us and knocked us over but didn’t hurt us. He was pretty badly hurt, but very cheerful. As he was being carried away to the beach he said. “Goodbye, Corp., I’ll have a good time with the girls in England when I get out.” Poor boy, he died of wounds. A bit later we got a nasty knock from Abdul. We have a Marlin gun which fires high explosive bombs which explode on concussion. One of these bombs landed in soft earth and didn’t go off, and Abdul threw it back. Unfortunately it landed on its nose on an overhead cover and knocked out three men. Then one of our bomb throwers whilst manipulating a lump of sudden death, had an accident which badly shattered his hands. And now he’s enjoying a well earned spell.

After dinner a chap who’d been through the Lone Pine tragedy told me a story of those first days after the capture of the position. He was a little man who had lied bravely to the attesting officer in sunny NSW, swearing his age as 39. His platoon, in charge of a young officer, had reached a very advanced trench, and already they’d lost two-thirds of their men through bombs and cross-fire. Presently a signaller ran up through the communication trench, and seeing an officer, said, “The old man ses you've to retire – position too exposed.”
“Oh, be d___d,” he retorted. The little man was near and heard “Retire? Retire be ___. What about a __ __ baynit charge, sir?”

There is very little rifle fire during the day, only occasional shots by snipers. Most of the casualties in trench warfare are from shells and bombs. Another casualty occurred during the afternoon. One of our snipers was watching Abdul through a 3 by 2 loophole, and a bullet came through, getting him over the eye and coming out near his ear. The poor fellow was delirious and raving when the stretcher bearers carried him away. A big pot of an officer turns up during the afternoon and proceeds to examine Abdul’s quarters per medium of a periscope. He hardly got it up, when “Crack!” and the top mirror was shattered to pieces. A piece of broken glass cut his face, and the same happened to my nose. That’s the worst of poking one’s nose where it’s not wanted. The officer remarked, “If I was Sherlock Holmes, I’d arrive at the conclusion by deduction, that there is some person or persons in the vicinity whose intentions towards myself are not of the kindest.” We collapsed and didn’t get our breath till some time after he’d gone.

That night my lot were sent to a new post, at a dead end. It was a communication trench connecting us with Abdul. This trench was closed to traffic at both ends by a sandbag barricade and an armed party, pending inquiry into its ownership. Our barricade was about ten yards nearer Abdul than the main trench. It was also roofed and bomb-proof, and as dark as pitch at night. About midnight a string of sparks sprang into sight, and describing a nice gentle curve, rose up and then descended softly just at the foot of our barricade. We all held our heads below the loopholes till it went off. Another came over, and still another. An officer came up and asked a few questions, and stole back. And then reprisals started and things were quite lively for awhile, especially when one of our bombers threw a slab of guncotton short and it landed right against our barricade, and after he had frightened us to death, promptly repeated the performance. The possy was a real hardship because the men had to remain awake all night and couldn’t smoke. In most other places it was safe to smoke so long as you lit the fag with a glow instead of a match. We were relieved about 11 a.m. that morning and while waiting to move off, got chatting to an artillery observer who was watching the interests of his battery through a long periscope. “Have you seen our chaps that are out there?” he asked, jerking his thumb in Abdul’s direction. I hadn’t. “Here, have a squint.” I looked. There were about 20 of our lads lying about, some only five yards off and others about 20 yards. Most of them were lying just outside and in the barbed wire entanglements, where they got caught with a machine gun.

The time before that we had been in the trenches we were deepening a portion, but ceased quite suddenly on coming on a pair of boots. The pioneers were requisitioned and boots and owner were taken away and buried decently. When a certain tunnel was being excavated another gruesome discovery was made. Whilst breaking through the crust to give a little light, the diggers reached the surface under a dead man. In one of our rest shelters a hand is protruding. All this must sound awfully gruesome, but we do not take any notice of it. If we did we'd go mad.

After relating further incidents of a similar nature to the foregoing, Corporal Smythe adds :– I’ve tried to describe what it is like in the trenches and I hope that you have not found it too unpalatable. All the incidents I have described actually happened, though not all in the short time in which I have described them.






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