by Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore
One of our tasks while in Bécordel was to furnish work parties to assist the tunnelling companies who were engaged in mining under the German lines.
About half of our men had to go each night for this work, and most unpopular work it was, both for officers and men, especially during wet weather. The enemy knew exactly where our mine heads were situated and amused himself regularly each night by dropping shells and rifle grenades among the work parties. The previous occupants of our village had suffered heavy casualties in this way, so we were not surprised when during the following night work the officers reported several wounded and one killed. Later on when the men had finished their allotted task earlier than usual some of them were seized with the souvenir-hunting craze and crawled out in No Man’s Land to look for unexploded grenades. Unfortunately they discovered a few and in coming through the narrow trench on their way back to the village one let his fall; it exploded and caused no less than ten casualties. This resulted in an order that under no condition was any man allowed to touch unexploded shells or grenades.
The following day two of the victims of this unfortunate tragedy were brought through the village for burial in the little cemetery nearby. It was the first time I had seen one of those pathetically simple funerals. The bodies were sewn up in Army blankets (which the Germans with their high degree of efficiency would have considered criminal waste) and borne on light two-wheeled stretcher carriers ; there was no guard or firing party, no one but the Padre and the men who pushed the stretchers, and so they were taken to their last resting place over which two more small crosses would be added to the thousands, yes hundreds of thousands that will remain in France to mark England’s dead, her part in the great sacrifice for the rights of humanity.
Many strange things happened during the night operations. I was told that on several occasions the Germans had sent a man over dressed in our uniform. The fellow would crawl along and watch his chance to join our work party, with them he would work until an hour or so before daylight and then vanish with complete lack of ostentation, probably carrying valuable information regarding our mining operation. Such a task certainly requires courage and no one could help admiring a man who would take the risks.
Each of our officers took turns in conducting the work parties, and my turn happened on a fine and fairly quiet night. After handing over my men to the various tasks allotted to them by the mining officer, I visited their dugout, had a bite of supper and then accepted the invitation to go down the shafts. These were about one hundred feet deep and we went down on rope ladders. I was glad that many years of my early life had been spent at sea as it made the ladder descent a little less unpleasant.
On arriving at the bottom, I was allowed to take one of the listening devices, a sort of microphone which was fastened in the ground. By listening carefully I could hear the Germans working at their mines, apparently very near. It was an uncanny, queer, and not at all pleasing sensation being down there in the dark damp hole listening to men working with the sole object of blowing you to pieces, and I could not help thinking of what would happen should they decide to set off their mines while I was down in the stuffy, heated and very cramped place. To tell the truth I did not enjoy the experience and was only too glad when my guide had finished his inspection and suggested returning to the surface again, but my joy was short lived for on arriving at the top I found that I was expected to go down two more of the shafts. Pride alone prevented my saying that I had had quite enough to satisfy my curiosity, especially as I was being entertained by blood-curdling stories of how mines had been fired by the Huns at unexpected moments with horrible results to the wretched men who were working below.
In going along the trenches I noticed cages of canaries and thought how nice it was for the men to have their pets with them, they gave a sort of touch of home. I was however, surprised to learn that these birds are taken down the saps as a test of the purity of the air. If they die the men know that the air is foul and unfit for human beings to breath so the supply of fresh air sent down by the pumps must be increased immediately. ‘Not so very home-like after all!
It appeared that when we first took over this part of the line, the Germans had the advantage in the mining, but that for some time past our fellows had gained in every point. We had found a way of ascertaining when the enemy intended to fire his charge and thereafter we invariably fired ours first, with results entirely satisfactory from our point of view. This underground form of fighting is one of the many strange and ghastly developments of modern warfare and perhaps none calls for a greater degree of nerve control. It is no wonder indeed that the men frequently break down under the long-continued strain of working in awkward, cramped positions, the terrible suspense, and the long hours spent in the foul air, and it is astonishing that human beings can be found who will volunteer for it, knowing well what hardships it entails.
Shortly before daylight appeared, I was told that the men had completed their tasks and that they had given entire satisfaction and only one had been wounded (they were nearly all miners and thoroughly understood everything connected with the work they had been doing), so we made our way out along the narrow crooked trenches and arrived at our village in good time for breakfast.