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'Stretcher-bearers': (37) Trench

by hugh white

Contributed by 
hugh white
People in story: 
H.A.B. White
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8936841
Contributed on: 
29 January 2006

Trench

After handing over the bomb-happy corporal, I set off on the return journey in the darkness and almost immediately was up to my ankles in mud. This was certainly the mule track. Now all I had to do was to follow on to the cow and white tapes. The next moment however I was floundering in the middle of a stream. I waded out of it and found myself on a muddy slope which I could not recognise. Here I could find no mule tracks, so advanced past two small haystacks which I knew to be about 200 yards from the Regimental Aid Post.
I walked on with growing uncertainly until another slope loomed up and I knew for certain that this was not the way back.
Foolishly I cried out "Anybody there?" twice. No reply.
I decided to locate the two haystacks and thence make for the Regimental Aid Post.
I fell full length again and found myself laughing hysterically. A few yards further on came another challenge and the sentry directed me to the Regimental Aid Post where the MO told me at about 3.45 a.m. to stay put until breakfast.
In daylight I took a Stretcher Bearer Officer out to "A" squadron.
Still pouring all day. RSM goes sick. S/Sgt Claxton goes sick. Cpl. Walton is escorted to ADS with exhaustion. No tea. No rum.
Relieved from slit trench in afternoon by four others. Return for night to Regimental Aid Post.
Next morning after lunch tossed with Bill Daultrey for going to forward sections "A" or "B", since both regimental stretcher bearers had now gone sick. Lost the toss. Bill elected to go to "B", the nearer one.
We ploughed up together through the quagmire, past the now familiar dead mules, sheep, pigs and others It was, as usual, pouring. I left Bill at "B" squadron and went on alone, taking care to avoid the skyline as the usual noise of battle was around.
Arrived at "A" squadron I found "my" slit trench occupied by two cooks, but, since one of them was going sick, managed to obtain his berth.
The one who remained and I sat underneath a stretcher and blanket canopy which afforded some psychological relief, since the rain streamed through the canopy in fixed spots, whereas, outside it poured unremittingly
Tea time arrived and we had stew and bread with unrationed clay which stuck to our fingers. Jerry was now firing over us and dropping on a ridge perhaps a mile distant.
It began to grow dark and the pippings of mortar made a noisy traffic overhead.
We came out of the trench for a break and watched in the gloom "B" squadron being shelled, men running from a wrecked farmhouse.
A large rum ration came round.
Afterwards we stood about in the rain just outside our slit trench until about 6.30 p.m., when the cook and I decided to turn in for the night
We manoeuvred one at a time into sitting positions on an empty ammo tin at the bottom of the trench. The whole operation took about ten minutes, at the end of which we were both sitting with the cheeks of our buttocks upon the tin, and with our backs to the deepest wall of the trench, down which a stream of rain was coursing.
Our sides fitted with difficulty into the breadth of the trench and our feet were submerged in the mud below.
We wore steel helmets, not just for obvious reasons, to lift up the blankets over our heads which stopped the rain from running on to our heads. It now fell on our shoulders, a distinct improvement.
As there was no chance of sleep my new friend decided to smoke, but met with some difficulty because he was soaking wet. Eventually, after attempting to strike matches from 3 boxes, he found a dry match and lit up. From then onwards he chain- smoked until I bought out some army ration chocolate about 9.30 p.m. He was now shivering uncontrollably, since he had been up in the trench two nights running. Our feet, soaked through, lost feeling and our backs and buttocks ached.
This was the longest night on record, one of the noisiest and perhaps the dampest.
He related his life story; his illnesses, including recurrent malaria, his escapes from death, his cooking experiences, in short every possible detail. That brought us to about midnight, after which we remained silent for about two hours.
Then he tried to smoke again.
I crawled out several times trying to restore some circulation into my feet. Then we sat together, teeth chattering in unison. At about 3.30 a.m. he was dozing fitfully. Suddenly - "Hark the glad sound!" - a cock crew, prematurely, no doubt, but it heralded an end to the ordeal.
About half an hour later I heard sounds of engines from Jerry's lines and optimistically imagined that his SP (Self propelled) guns were retreating, because dawn was near.
About 5 a.m. it began to grow light and I climbed out of the slit trench on to the ridge. It was misty and raining.
Jerry was still shelling the far ridge and shrapnel flew about on our hill after one burst.
I helped fetch petrol and light a fire.
After breakfast three Jerries gave themselves up between "A" and "B" squadrons to a trooper whose hands were too numb to draw back the bolt of his rifle.
They shook hands with him and said "No good". He replied "non buono". (I witnessed their arrival out of the mist, but did not hear their words, which were related colourfully afterwards.)
Sergeant ---, one of the few men left with "A" squadron and now in charge, asked me to help recover a Ls sergeant who had been killed several days before. We found him about 15 yards down from the ridge not under observation, lying on his back with machine gun bullets running from his neck down his left side.
We could find no pay book nor personal papers and I could not even see his identity discs until looking closely. Their cord had been shot through and I had to open his tunic to recover it. Both cord and discs were covered with blood and maggots.
I spread out the blanket I had brought and tied his feet together. Then the sergeant and I lifted him on to the blanket and covered him, tying at feet and head with kicking straps.
Was relieved before lunch, and skirted "B" company on return journey because shelling was continuing. Upon returning to the Regimental Aid Post I learnt that only two casualties had reached them the day before from "B" squadron. Over 30 are sick with trench foot so far. Have it mildly myself.
Next evening foot powder arrives. Gets mixed up with dried milk powder and is used by some in error! It probably did no harm. A patient to evacuate. A hard carry.
Sun shining today. We retreat at night, being relieved by the Ls. Just before we left the Regimental Aid Post came a salvo of shells, one bringing down dust and debris, causing black-out curtains to swish in on us. It shook us all, the new young Stretcher- Bearer Officer included, who kept on saying to himself "A dirty big shell! What a dirty big shell!"

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