Charles Carrington’s Ordeal Continues

Charles Carrington fought forward yesterday, a century back, taking all his company’s objectives–though this was not immediately clear in the nearly featureless mudscape at the time–at the cost of most of his company, including nearly every other officer. One Lieutenant Thorburn,[1] an officer who had been held back from the battle as an emergency reserve, came up in the evening. The purpose of this reserve is now fairly clear: it is to make sure not only that officers of sufficient experience are still unwounded the day after a major assault (as with Major Kearsey, who briefly commanded the 2/RFW after their advance last week), but also that there are a few leaders who are not yet too exhausted to lead effectively. Carrington/”Edmonds” does not shy away from telling us how close he was to collapse.

But the day begins on an easier note, with another of those exceptions to the rule of absent generalship:

In the morning I went out early to my men, and found all well and Thorburn a tower of strength. While we were cooking breakfast on a ‘Tommy’s cooker,’ General Hutchinson with a staff officer and his galloper came wandering up from the rear, and in full view of the enemy. He talked cheerily to us, as always, and then pointed out a wounded Boche in a little hollow, a few yards away, whose legs were shattered and who was trying to walk on his knees with two crutches of broken timber. We had known of this man before, but were leaving him until our own wounded were all in. ‘Hutchy’ insisted on our attending to this man first. Then he wandered on fearlessly to the front.

Carrington himself is left to consolidate yesterday’s positions, and he finds that the all-important work of one of his four Lewis gun sections (the Lewis gun, as the only portable automatic weapon, will be crucial in fending off mass counter-attacks) has been done–and done extremely well–by a new private who simply took over after the officer and senior NCOs had been killed or wounded.

So I put this prodigy, confirmed in the command of his section, to watch the crossing of the Stroombeek.

Taking stock of the rest of his company, Carrington finds that

Both officers, all four platoon Serjeants, eleven out of twelve section commanders had been hit; only Serjeant Walker and I and Lance-Corporal Reese, whose stripe was not a week old, were left. No wonder the company
was a little scattered.

Though the day had started well, it was to turn out the most wretched of my life. The three of us crouched happily enough in our circular pit, five feet in diameter, and dug it down till it was five feet deep.

And, with Carrington, we will find that his wretched day is a rewarding one for readers: one of the finest and most awful descriptions of a mind under bombardment, and then, in a mere parenthesis, an excellent “mud piece.”

As we were in full view of the enemy on the right front, along the valley of the Stroombeek, the movement of men in and near our position drew its reward. When the German gunners really settled down to their day’s shooting they gave us their fullest attention. There was no drumfire, no hurricane barrage, but a steady slow bombardment of the whole valley with heavies; all day the fire grew in intensity and accuracy; and occasionally the area was raked
over with a finer shower of field-gun shells. We had nothing to do but to sit and listen for the roar of the 5’9’s, lasting for five seconds each, perhaps twice a minute. One would be talking aimlessly of some unimportant thing when the
warning would begin. The speaker’s voice would check for an infinitesimal fraction of a second; then he would finish his sentence with a studied normality marvellously true to life. Everyone listened hard to the conversation, but with more than half an ear cocked in the direction of the enemy. If the shell were coming close, one would crouch down against the side of the pit, apparently as a mere perfunctory precaution, actually with delight that one could take cover unashamed. When the shell had burst in a smother of black smoke, and the clods and whining splinters had ceased to fall pattering around, one went on with the conversation. It was a kind of round game, in which a man felt he had lost a point every time a grunt or a remark about the danger was fetched out of him.

A bombardment is a war in miniature, and here it illustrates both the unavoidable general conclusions–war grinds down every man’s store of courage–and the specific surprises: some men are not what they seem.

Thorbum won easily; of course he had been through nothing yet but a night in a safe, dry trench. Yet this trial might well have finished off a fresh man. The shells fell consistently among our men (who, however, were well scattered
and in the deepest shell-holes); every other one would fling a shower of mud on to our helmets. About one in five or six would fall near enough to shake the parapet, blast its pungent fumes in our faces, and set every nerve in our bodies jangling.

Wolfe came out in an unexpected light; he was a tall, pale, flabby medical student in spectacles, and until that day I had had but a poor opinion of him. Every time a shell fell near he proceeded to tell us that he had a very strong presentiment; nothing was going to hit him that day. He said it so often, with such conviction, and so ingenuously, that it cheered me wonderfully, even at the worst moments. He did nothing and seemed to care little, but was
quite contented about himself.

Like Dr. Dunn before him, Carrington’s self-diagnosis is acute–this next paragraph sounds some like a particular form of shell-shock, a sort of trauma-induced O.C.D. But he is no doctor, after all, just a good writer making over to us a strong and terrible memory:

I needed some cheering up. I had had very much worse times than either of the others, but cannot deceive myself, all the same; I never could stand shell-fire. I got into a thoroughly neurotic state during the day. Enduring a bombardment is the opportunity for that kind of nervous disease which made Dr. Johnson touch every post as he walked along Fleet Street. You think of absurd omens and fetishes to ward off the shell you hear coming. A strong inward feeling compels you to sit in a certain position, to touch a particular object, to whistle so many bars of a tune silently between your teeth. If you complete the charm in time you are safe—until the next one. This absurdity becomes a dark, overpowering fatalism. You contemplate with horror that you have made a slip in the self-imposed
ritual, or that the augury sign of your own invention shows against you. You imagine that the shells are more deliberate and accurate than could be possible. They seem to have a volition of their own and to wander malevolently until they see a target on which to pounce; they seem to hurl themselves with intention sounding in the fierce roar of their near approach; they defy your mute relief when they fall far away, by sending slivers of jagged steel sighing and murmuring hundreds of yards towards you, long after the shock of the explosion is spent and gone.

Every gun and every kind of projectile had its own personality. Old soldiers always claimed that they knew the calibre of a shell by its sound and could always foretell which shells were going to fall dangerously close. Yet far more than they calculated depended on the range and the nature of the intervening ground. Sometimes a field-gun shell would leap jubilantly with the pop of a champagne cork from its muzzle, fly over with a steady buzzing crescendo, and burst with a fully expected bang; sometimes a shell would be released from a distant battery of heavies to roll across a.huge arc of sky, gathering speed and noise like an approaching express train, ponderous and certain. Shells flying over valleys and woods echoed strangely and defied anticipation; shells falling in enclosed spaces simply arrived with a double bang and no warning at all. Some shells whistled, others shrieked, others wobbled through space gurgling like water poured from a decanter.

So all the day you listened, calculated, hoped or despaired, making imaginary bargains with fate, laying odds with yourself on the chances of these various horrors. One particular gun would, seem to be firing more directly on you than the others. You would wait for its turn so intently as to forget other perhaps more real dangers. At last it comes. You hold frenziedly on to the conversation; you talk a little too fast; your nerves grow tense, and while you continue to look and talk like a man, your involuntary muscles get a little out of hand. Are your knees quivering a little? Are you blinking? Is your face contorted with fear? You wonder and cannot know. Force yourself to do something, say something, think something, or you will lose control. Get yourself in hand with some voluntary action. Drum out a tune with your finger-tips upon your knee. Don’t hurry—keep time—get it finished, and you will be safe this once.

Here superstition and neurasthenia step in. Like the child who will not walk on the lines in the pavement and finds  real safety in putting each foot on a square stone you feel that your ritual protects you. As the roar of an approaching shell rises nearer and louder you listen in inward frenzy to the shell, in outward calm to the conversation. Steady with those nervous drum-taps on your knee; don’t break time or the charm is broken and the
augury vain. The shell roars near. What is Thorburn saying?

“Oh yes! The rations came up at nine o’clock, enough for twice our numbers.” (Explosion!)

Thank God, the tune was finished soon enough. But then, comes an overwhelming rush of panic. The next shell will be the nearest, the climax of the day. What is the next shell when the air is never free from their sound? The next that is at all near. But how near? Which is near enough to break the tension? Thorburn is saying, “We haven’t issued the rum to-day. Best do it at dusk, don’t you think?” (Terrific explosion!) “God,” you say with a gasp, dropping for an instant the mask of indifference. You eye the others guiltily and wonder if they are going through the same performance. At least are you keeping up appearances as well as they do? What a comfort that Wolfe’s augury
is so optimistic.

Once in the afternoon I was on the point of breaking down. My luck turned; the self-deluding charm failed; omens were bad and a shell roared into the mud throwing clods and whining splinters on our heads. I swore and moved nervously and lost control of my features.

“Steady,” said Thorburn, putting a hand on my arm. That was my nadir. The shelling slackened and stopped, until between Wolfe’s optimism and Thorburn’s unconcern I revived my good spirits.

This is one of the essential descriptions of the stress of prolonged shelling, a war compressed into a few hours, a memoir into a few paragraphs.

A little while later, trying to guide another officer of the battalion to his position near the Steenbeek[2] Carrington is held up in the mud:

We wandered vaguely; it was as dark as the Pit. Presently a British battery opened fire, dropping shells unpleasantly close in front of us. We must be right up to the front line then, such front line as there was. A smart bombardment began, which forced us to crouch down, for we could take no proper cover in this marsh. (There are no words in English for the omnipresent wetness, the sliminess, the stickiness of the mud, the gouts that you found clogging your fingers, and wiped off accidentally in your hair when you adjusted your helmet, the smears of it that appeared on your clean message forms and your mess-tin, the saturation of your clothes with its semi-solid filthiness, the smell of it, and the taste of it, and the colour of it.)

Now Carrington is lost, and mired, and under fire:

As we could only expect, the German guns began to retaliate. We were not reassured to find ourselves between the two fires. The Boche shells fell close behind us, the English close in front; we had wandered out into No Man’s Land.

We moved about trying to avoid the danger, and soon became entirely confused as to direction. The shells whizzed down from all sides, bursting with red showers of sparks and whiffs of smoke, and, difficult as it was to locate it in the dark, we endeavoured to find the empty vortex of the storm. We were helpless here for some unmeasured time, wet through, cold and paddling through seas of slime, in absolute blackness broken only by the occasional gleam of a high bursting shell.

At last in a slight lull I caught sight of rising ground, and led the party in that direction, where we came into an area of big shell-holes, that is, a planless maze of high ridges and pits where it was impossible to see more than five yards in any direction. I was leading, not more than three paces ahead of the next man, when another whirl of shell-fire came down.

They flung themselves one way into cover, I another.

In a few seconds, when I stood up again, they had vanished.

“Newsom! ” I called, not too loud, for this was No Man’s Land. No answer.

I circled round, looking for them. They cannot have been more than thirty yards away, but in that noise, darkness and chaos, they were undiscoverable. At last I gave them up, found a good piece of cover where I could watch in
their supposed direction, and waited for something to happen.

In time, the shelling stopped. I wondered where I was, and how to get back through the lines. For all I knew, there might be a German sentry-group three feet away in the next shellhole. I wasn’t even sure which was east and which was west, though I was inclined to think we had missed our way by edging off too far to the right, southward from the Stroombeek.

My troubles were soon solved for me, when the clouds broke above and I caught a pale glimpse of the Pole Star. Now to apply the invariable rule—east for Germany and west for ‘Blighty.’ Not for the first time I kept the Pole Star on my right hand and walked straight for home.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By chance the name of one of Edward Thomas's comrades and friends during his last days at Arras.
  2. There is no mention of the irrigation channels or small canals that connect to it on the map--presumably they are destroyed, rendering the entire area a marsh.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 155-69.