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Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The Story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and Some Account of the Daily Round of the Troops within Its Bounds

Trench Warfare

page 166

Trench Warfare

And when the night is finding
The weather cold, outside,
Through trenches, dark and winding,
We do the glow-worm glide.

"What's in the wind to-night?" asked Long Mac, in the ranks, of Curly, the corporal.

"Trench warfare—doing the glow-worm glide subterraneously. The motto is, 'Put your band in father's, and he will pull you through.'"

The company wheeled through the gateway into the Engineers' training-ground and tramped away towards the trenches. A summer moon shone in clear skies, and the landscape looked warm and grey. Of a company which had already gone to the rear of the trenches nothing could be seen. It had already begun its task of manning the trenches. Along the tortuous underground pathways it was winding, a silent, human caterpillar, towards the front line trench.

"Gimme a scrap in the open air," said Long Mac. "There's something lonesome about these trenches."

"Silence in the ranks!" said Curly. "Dammit, man, do you want the Germans to hear you?"

Instinctively, Long Mac glanced over at the place where the Germans ought to have been, according to the trench plan, and muttered to himself. Like many another soldier, he regarded this branch of training as a joke or a nuisance. But it is no joke, as the Instructor told them, to be sent to relieve trenches without some previous training.

page 167

Through the communication trenches at each end of the front line trench men were beginning to gather. The first company had negotiated the dark and difficult way and was now filing into the bays. In each bay a squad of men under an n.c.o. was stationed, when the head of the caterpillar had halted at the appointed place. Presently in each bay a soldier's head appeared. He was the sentry. With eyes at the level of the ground, he looked out across the moonlit paddocks towards the tents and the lighted camp, just as, in days to come, he will look across the Belgian plains or even across the Rhine. The second company was marching to the rear trenches where it would go underground and begin to worm its way to relieve the first company. Relieving trenches is one of the most difficult operations, and the moment of actual exchange, when the two reliefs are in the firing trench, is often a critical time.

A guide went first. At his elbow, and holding him firmly by the coatsleeve, was a platoon commander. He did not intend to lose his guide. The leading soldier, who happened to be Long Mac, grasped the officer's tunic firmly, and each soldier held on to the bayonet scabbard of the man ahead of him. To be lost in the trenches is so easy that it was wiser to take no risks. The platoon sergeant brought up the rear of each platoon, and every platoon had its guide. Curly, the corporal, was near the tail of the platoon, and his hoarse whispers echoed:

"Straight ahead along Robin Road it is. Watch the sign-posts. Careful, Blasty, with your feet, and don't lose touch!"

Tramp! tramp! stumble! clatter! tramp! tramp!

"Not that way—no," the guide protested, as the platoon commander suggested that they should take a shorter way. The Instructor walked, above ground, to the edge of the trench and watched.

"Imagine you are under enemy shell fire," he said. "Don't hurry, there! Slow is the word—slow and sure—and keep quiet."

Then he walked away to watch the other half of the company, which was entering the trenches by another way, so that the two columns would reach the fire trench at its opposite ends.

A few false turns, some stumbles, smothered laughter, and curses instantly suppressed, and the guides are in the fire trench, where the men on duty regard the slowly-appearing relief with interest. Man by man, the line grows and grows, passing along, through bay after bay, till the whole of the relief is in the trench. The n.c.o. in each bay rung his eye over his men. They are all there, dim shapes in the gloom.

"Fix bayonets !" he orders.

page 168

On the fire-step is the old relief, with the sentry standing up to the parapet.

"Change over!" is the order.

Like automatons the men move, the men on the fire-step changing places with the relief, except the sentries. They confer for a moment, while the one coming off duty gives his successor all information concerning the enemy which he is in possession of.

"Nothing moving, so far," said the old sentry, "but keep an eye on Quinn's Post."

The new sentry smiled and stepped up to his post, while Long Mac whispered,

"What can you see, Sister Anne ?"

The men who have been relieved filed out of the fire trench and away through the earthy corridors, moving at a snail's pace. Bay by bay the double line dwindled to a single one, a line of shadowy men, showing dimly in the distance.

It was only mimic warfare in the trenches, but something—perhaps it was the moonlight—made it seem very real.