1 April 1916

Taking a short cut across country to our lines I found myself on the first battle field of Loos, the place where the French had made their attack. For some reason or other this part of the ground has not been cleared, and it remains more or less as it was the morning after the fight. I had to pick my steps, for numbers of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lay all round. The ground was littered with broken rifles, torn uniforms, packs, etc., just as the men had flung them aside, charging the German trenches. Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body. The soldiers had been buried on the spot they fell; that is, if you can call burial, hastily throwing a few shovelfuls of clay on the corpses: there was little time, I fancy, for digging graves, and in war time there is not much thought or sentiment for the slain. As I walked along, I wondered had they made certain each man was really dead. One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before the breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen — friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together. They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful cf earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad, with fair, almost golden, hair. ‘An unknown soldier ‘ was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was ‘missing’ and hoping against hope that he might one day come back. Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand, and after a couple of hours’ stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least they might rest in peace.

Later that day, the following scene occurred in (as far as I can make out) the cellar of a house.

John McCormack had just finished the last bars of ‘She is far from the land’ (Note: on a gramophone) which brought back old memories, when suddenly Bertha Krupp opened her mouth in a most unlady-like way, even for a German, let a screech which you could hear in Dublin, and spat a huge shell right into our courtyard. It was a 6 inch gun, so the artillery officer who was present said, but I am certain that 60 inches would be nearer the mark. I shall not easily forget the roar as the shell burst only a few feet from where we sat: had we not been safe under cover, there would have been few ‘Fragments from France’ to send across the water. A moment later there was a deafening crash: a second shell had hit what was left of the upper wall, and brought it tumbling down half smothering us with the dust that came through the open slit which served as a window and chimney combined. Not bad shooting so far.

The next shot went wide, but did useful work among the stables and out houses, and then came a fearful dull thud, the walls quivered, I was nearly knocked off my chair by the concussion, while the cup in the officer’s hand sitting next me was sent flying – a shell had landed clean on top of our cellar. That was too much for Messieurs les Rats: out they came from hole in the corner, scores of them, and scuttled for the open, evidently they thought the poor ship was in a poor way. For once I said a fervent prayer for the Germans who had formerly occupied the house. They had done their work well, propping up the cellar roof with huge beams, otherwise we must have all been buried in the ruins. Shell after shell kept raining down, six at least falling on our heads. We were perfectly safe as the battered in roof and walls on top of our cellar made a natural dug-out, but we all knew that there was just the chance of a shell coming through and possibly smashing the cup and gramophone. It was an exciting half hour, and as I said one also that none of our party have any great anxiety to repeat for some time at least.

As we went home in the dusk of the evening I came to the conclusion that there are worse places to live than in than poor old Ireland, and also that I had had quite enough thrills for one day. It was not to be for another experience awaited me. I found that a dead man had been brought in for burial, a by no means pleasant part of my life. The cemetery, part of a field, was outside the town, in the open country, so exposed to shell and rifle fire that it could not be approached by day. As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could, began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up, which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat, and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lay down, as things were rather warm, but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldier’s Guardian Angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial, though assuredly not my last – may God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.

 

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