The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 9

Chateau Thierry

We have seen the army behind the lines in the great base camps where seldom a gun is heard and only rarely an airplane was to be seen. We have seen the troops in the camps where, after their arrival in France they were taken for special drill and training. Now we are seeing the army in real action and we write this within the fighting zone just a stones throw from the enemy, and as we write the boom, boom of gunnery and the buzzing of airplanes fill the air and every soldier is constantly on the alert not knowing the minute when he might be called to jump into the fray and fight for the cause which brought him here as well as for his own life

Shell Fire

To many of us shell fire had been a matter of newspaper and magazine knowledge only, we had seen pictures of the thing and had drawn up all kinds of imaginary notions of it, but to behold the real thing, to be into it, to be a dodger of the shells as they fall about you is another thing. I have been frequently on road’s where the shells had been quite busy. The other day I had to go over to YMCA supply headquarters on the front to look after some supplies for my companies, and had to go by a road which every now and then had shell holes in it, and I could never tell when another shell might fall behind me or in front of me and one felt a bit as though he was pursued by an unseen enemy, and a feeling of comfort hardly came back till I was completely without range of German positions and could no longer be seen by their powerful field glasses. They have been known to shoot at individuals even with shells. Some engineers were telling me the other day they were engaged doing a piece of work when shell after shell followed them. Somehow when in the zone one learns the knack of knowing how to “duck” or dodge the shells when they come along, and thank heaven, as a general thing you can hear the whistle of the thing a few seconds before it hits the ground, and this gives you a chance, if you are quick, to jump into a dug-out or behind a rock or tree, or throw yourself prone on the ground, and yet this does not always insure safety. The other day a fine young fellow who had gone through the spring drive in safety lost his life just a little down the line from my dug-out, because the shell hit a little too close to where he had jumped. His chum got it likewise and lived only a few hours after, but it is surprising how coolly our boys take these things. It is a rare thing to find a fellow that is scared. Yesterday I was visiting various platoons and dealing out some Y. M. C. A supplies to them when shells were screeching over our heads. Sometimes they came a bit too close but through it all the fellows were as full of humor as though nothing was happening. I think it can be written down that the American soldier is not afraid of danger and as he nears the firing line the more nerve he seems to get. A Lieutenant said to me last night that it was a great surprise to him as his men came into real action to find some fellows who were, in ordinary times, considered no good that they proved to be fellows of courage and daring, and volunteered for the most dangerous service when occasion arose. I went down with a Sergeant to see a Lieutenant on the front. When I got there I met a number of the boys whom I had not seen for a week or more, the companies having been separated by several kilometers. They were glad to see a YMCA man again, and then told me how much they liked the very front lines. They preferred it to the rear. Just across were the enemy positions, within a stone’s throw almost, and the little, and once prosperous, happy town lay empty and dejected with its fine church a wreck and its people fled, no one knows where. Such is war! And I thank God that the one thing that is bringing Americans over here is to protest against this kind of thing and make it possible that Europe can, after this war is over, live without the fear that at any moment war lords who make war a business shall not project upon humanity another such calamity as world-wide war. Though, at the same time, I have my doubts whether wars will ever be a thing impossible as long as sin is in the human heart and the devil is doing business. France has hardly known fifty years straight history without war. It is to be hoped she may go centuries without another, and England also, and America.

Life In A Dugout

To live in a dugout is an experience rather unusual indeed. One feels a bit of surprise at times at the way men take to this kind of thing when it becomes a necessity of war as well as a matter of safety and protection. I have seen men living in holes in the ground, in holes dug out of the side of the bank as well as in the larger dugouts capable of holding quite a number. A friend of mine, a professor of languages from down south, has his abode in a hole in the wall, and the captain has the same. I am with several Lieutenants, and a Captain in a large dugout. The advantage of a dugout is, you are protected from shell fire, and then the enemy airplanes cannot locate you and you can sleep free from the feeling that bombs might get you as you sleep.

I have thought frequently of those words of Jer. 49:8, “Dwell Deep,” as I have come in contact with the dugout outfit. (It is a good thing on the danger line to dwell deep. Spiritually it is likewise so. The soul that dwells deep in God may have a thousand enemies pursue it but is safe from the enemy. Moses dwelt deep in God, and Enoch and Elijah and Daniel and Paul. Though all the world was against them and the “times” were opposed to them their refuge was in God and they dwelt safely. Life in a dugout is very simple. Lots of things you don’t have to do; you don’t have to sweep the floors or dust the furniture or be careful of the furnishings, and then you are not so very particular about the matter of attire. There are no tailors around the corner to press your uniform, and as you have to sleep with your clothes on ready to jump up and out in a moment if need be, you don’t grow very particular, and then as you never meet any of womankind you don’t mind being a bit rough in appearance for the time being. Then again, you don’t have to be over careful about the dining-room. Your eating utensils are neither china nor glass, but tin or aluminum, and your dining table may be a box, or a rock, or a patch of straw. You have to forego napkins, etc., but invariably you have a good appetite and are always ready when mess time comes around.

The other night I had to visit a company quite a distance away, and in reaching them I had to pass through some very interesting bit of territory, and in returning had to meet many a guard who, in compliance with his orders, halted with bayonet fixed and pointed at everyone who came by. The important thing at a moment like that is to stand still and not move till told to advance with the countersign. I of course had the countersign and was permitted to pass, arriving back at my dugout about midnight. I had no sooner laid down than the gas alarm was sounded and a Lieutenant rushed in and yelled “Gas.” This is a cry often heard within the war zone, and woe to the soldier who neglects to heed the warning. Instantly I grasped my gas mask and put it on. Fortunately this was not a severe attack and none of us had to keep the uncomfortable gas mask on very long.

Some More Things About The War

About this war there is not much of the poetical, it is nothing but practical drab war with no brass band attachments. Often we read of the soldier marching into battle with flags flying and bands playing, etc. Not so in this war. You never hear the band play within the war zone, and the musicians themselves are called upon to be stretcher bearers and perform other duties. There are no flags flying, because it is important that your positions should not be known by the enemy who has his airplanes flying all over, observing all movements, besides there are observation ban ‘loons constantly being employed and the man sitting up in that observation seat with his balloon attached to the ground can see for many miles with his all-powerful glass all that is going on. The other day I was passing through some country where the artillery was located. The men who operated those guns were far behind the actual scenes. They really knew nothing themselves as to how things were going, and every shot was fired at the direction of the man at the telephone and he in turn got his instructions from the man at the observation point, and that may be in an airplane, a balloon, or some other vantage point. The gunner is an important factor in war, but one is struck by the fact that he does all his work unobserved and hidden in a place where it is impossible for him to make observations. To me this illustrates many points in religious warfare. Some of the most important work has to be done away from the limelight where the public eye cannot see and where there can be gotten no inspiration from the crowd, i Many a saint on his knees unobserved by anyone except God, does a greater work for the kingdom than many a one who wins the plaudits of the crowd. Daniel alone in his secret chamber praying three times a day did more to promote religion in Babylon than all the lords and grandees in the kingdom. Father Nash prayed down more revivals of religion than a battalion of time-serving preachers could bring to pass in a thousand years. Then in gunnery I am reminded that all the directions come from someone above. The gunner does not act on his own initiative, but does as he is told to do by the one above — he is given the exact direction, the distance, the range, and away he sends the fatal bullet and it is wonderful to behold the exactness with which the gunner strikes his blows. I passed a big farm house yesterday which was literally hacked to pieces by artillery fire. It was an important point and its destruction was a matter of necessity.

Then I observe the artilleryman is required to be faithful unto death. Recently I passed an artillery embankment no longer in use but beside it was a grave and it bore a wooden cross upon it with the inscription in French, “Here lieth Bournard Pascal, 61st Artillery, who died for France.” The date was also given and his soul was committed to God. A number of American artillerymen in the recent battle have been cited for bravery. One gunner is named especially — his whole gun crew had been wiped out and he himself was severely wounded by a shell, he crawled to his company commander and asked for other men to man the gun, and then crawled 200 yards to turn in parts of the gun he carried in his pocket. The gunner often takes his life in his hands — he consecrates himself to the very death if need be, and many seal their devotion with their blood. We are reminded just here of Rev. 2:10, “ye thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life,” which in the French Testament reads thus: “Sois fidele jusqua la mort et je te donnerari la couronne de vie.”