Today we share the poem Break of Day In The Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg. Written while serving on the front line, Rosenberg’s poetry was, and still is, considered some of the greatest of the First World War. Sadly, Rosenberg would be killed north-east of Arras on 1 April 1918 during the German Spring Offensive.
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid
Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’ s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’ s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.
(As it appeared in Poetry – A Magazine of Verse, Vol. IX, No. III, December 1916 Issue)
Bombardier Fritz – A corruption of the French “pommes de terre frites”, it referred to the ever-present eggs and fried potato chips meal that could be bought at civilian estaminets just back of the front lines. Also referred to as “pom Fritz”. (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 44 & 149, Brophy, Partridge, Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, p. 88).
Following the constitution of the Imperial War Graves Commission by Royal Charter in May 1917, the Commission was officially charged with the care of the dead from all of the British Empire’s armed forces. The scope and magnitude of such an undertaking was and still is perplexing. Even the seemingly “simple”, (though it never was), task of collecting the bodies represented an astronomical amount of required manpower. An example of the scope of work facing the Commission can be found in the description of Lorette Ridge by Corporal Becker, 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, who observed the area while in the Lens sector during the build up to Hill 70 in July 1917:
“It was said that the bones of at least 40,000 men were bleaching on that hill… British Labour Battalions were now at work gathering up the remains, identifying them from the discs found here and there among the bones, bundling such personal articles as remained and tagging them for French authorities who would subsequently forward them to next of kin… The memory of that great battlefield is with me yet. I wandered through the shell pitted area frequently in those two weeks and even now can see the white bones, fragments of red pants and blue coats, the small caps… the grey of the German uniforms, the leather boots with foot bones in them, the broken rifles, the rusty ammunition, the skulls – many with bullet holes in them – the watches, decayed leather wallets with personal articles in them, the wire and stumps and stones and trenches and shell holes. It was impossible to identify any particular skeleton… The Labour units had not made much headway on it in the two months they had been there… Here and there one would come upon a rifle stuck bayonet down in the ground with the remains of a cap on the butt – mute evidence of the effort of the soldier whose skeleton lay alongside to bring assistance to him as he lay helplessly wounded – assistance that had not reached him for two and one-half years. I wish that some of our fire-eaters at home could have seen that ground as I saw it in 1917. (Becker, Silhouettes of The Great War, p. 105).
Today we continue looking at the topic of leave for the men at the front.
Once in the rear areas, those on leave would be provided a chance to clean-up, perhaps get a new uniform, and then they would rush to the train that would take them as far from the trenches as they had probably ever been since arriving on the continent.
Where a soldier spent leave was dependent on what district their leave pass authorized them for. For Canadians, the desire was often split between the legendary city of Paris and a trip back to “Blighty”, where many still had family, and whose London streets could prove just as raucous as those of Paris.
Both of these cities had been transformed by the war, physically, emotionally, and economically – with the massive influx of foreign troops having a part in all three. Dance halls, theatres, and restaurants all provided welcome distraction and luxuries not seen for years near the trenches. From the letters of Lieutenant Bert Sargent, 6th Howitzer Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, comes the following excerpt:
“Had a real quiet and delightful time up town. Stayed with my friends the James’ and it sure was a bit of “home” and how I did hate to leave it Sunday night. Say, can you imagine me climbing out of a real feather bed (with sheets, etc.) about 10:15 AM and, after a nice bath, getting into a comfortable grey-checked suit and sauntering down to a breakfast beside a blasting coal fire and a couple of nice young ladies to wait on me. It was about the biggest treat I have had since I have been over here.” (Sargent, Letter of Tuesday, October26, 1915, in Grout, Thunder In The Skies – A Canadian Gunner In The Great War, p. 138).
Estaminets were small shops established by French and Belgian civilians near the front lines that operated as a mix of bar, pub, restaurant and café for troops once pulled off the line (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 86). Amidst the destruction of war, they could be found in the form of half-ruined houses, shelters scrounged out of scrap materials, army Nissen huts re-claimed by civilians, and as proper store-fronts in nearly deserted villages. The civilian family that ran the estaminet often lived on the premises and took the opportunity to make a small income by selling coffee, alcohol and food to the soldiers who came off the line for rest periods. With the gutting of local economy in wartime, estaminets were often the few sources of steady income for those near the lines.
“Usually small with the barest of wooden tables and chairs and warmed by a huge iron stove. They were almost exclusively run by ‘madame’ often aided by her attractive daughters”, lending itself to plenty of attempted conversations in muddled pidgin French (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 86). The most popular estaminet fare was eggs and fried potato chips (“Bombardier Fritz” to the soldiers), believed to be a “wartime invention due to the difficulty of finding meat” (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 84).
Estaminets were such a cherished and symbolic institution to the frontline troops that an entire mock French village, full of estaminets, was built for the Canadian Corps Reunion of 1934. True to form, they too were scenes of raucous entertainment, laughter and letting loose.
The following quote from the memoir of a Canadian highlights the antics and revelry that went on at estaminets:
“Joe got into an argument in an estaminet one day getting hit on the head with a pick handle. Old Doc. Mothersill M.O. told him it was lucky he had no brains or he would have suffered from concussion. When Joe had a few drinks he would start to give a representation of a bear eating blueberries. He could certainly make some unearthly noises during this performance. At a certain stage of inebriation he would start to talk on theology and he had a surprising and wide knowledge of the subject…” (Iriam, In The Trenches, 1914-1918, p. 121).
The history of the Tour de France was deeply impacted by the First World War, with 1914 being the last Tour before the onslaught of the First World War. In fact, the 1914 Tour began on 28 June, the very day that the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. That Tour ended on 26 July 1914. Six days later, on 1 August 1914, France would mobilize for war. Many of the pre-war cyclists would answer this call of mobilization, including the champion cyclists of the 1907-1910 Tours. All three former champions would die during the war, along with many of their former competitors.
There would not be another Tour until 1919, which served as a sombre Tour of the devastated French countryside. The country’s road system was utterly destroyed, and the Tour’s wealth of riders gutted by casualties lost to the war. In an economy ravaged by war, individual bicycle manufacturers were unable to sponsor entire teams and thus formed a unique collective, sponsoring a large portion of riders as “La Sportive”. As a result of all these factors, only ten cyclists would finish the race, the lowest completion in the Tour’s history.
Having been tasked with the capture of Lens on 7 July 1917, the Canadian Corps spent the rest of the month preparing for the attack, conducting raids in the meantime to keep the enemy guessing as to the whereabouts of the next push, hopefully drawing their attention tothe “entire First Army front south of La Bassee canal” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285). Consequently, the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion was ordered to conduct a raid from the Mericourt trench on the night of 22 – 23 July1917, “with the object of destroying German dug-outs and trench-mortar emplacements behind the railway embankment” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285).
While forming up for the attack, the 116th Battalion fell victim to a chance enemy gas attack:
“About midnight, therefore, the platoons were being led quietly and stealthily into position. Suddenly the bells in the German trenches, not a hundred yards from the right flank, began to ring; gas fumes were rapidly making their way over our positions… A desperate situation confronted the Battalion; in a little while our artillery barrage would open, and its programme would be carried out while our men were stumbling blindly through the gas fumes, and in due course the enemy artillery would open up in retaliation, and our men, helpless with their gas helmets on, would be wiped out without a chance for their lives.” (The Adjutant, The 116th Battalion In France, p. 34).
“Chances had to be taken, and gas helmets were removed, the mouthpiece alone being used, and in this manner, our eyes streaming with tears and nerves strung to the highest pitch, we eventually reached our positions around the Quebec Road about five minutes before zero hour.” (The Adjutant, The 116th Battalion In France, p. 35).
Then, at 1:00 am of 23 July 1917, on the heels of a chaotic gas attack, theentire 116thBattalion went over the bags. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued as they passed the first trench and pushed through to the railway embankment, blowing up dugouts and tunnels as they came upon them. From the War Diary of the 116th Battalion comes the following excerpt detailing just a smallpart of the raid:
“Pte. W.M. Johnson, No. 1. Lewis Gunner, went with his crew up the gully in the slag heap, and swept the top of the same. He fired all his pans, and got more, and although two of his men were wounded, he kept the enemy at bay on the slag heap, and when his ammunition was running out, and men were being killed and wounded, he withdrew, fighting and covering the posts as he withdrew. He brought in his Lewis Gun, thoroughly exhausted, but full of fight. Pte. Kissock, and Pte. E. Carnaby of “A” Company together captured eighteen prisoners, and marched them back to Battalion Headquarters.” (The Ontario Regiment (RCAC) Museum, War Diary – The Logistical Summary for the 116th (Ontario County) Canadian Infantry Battalion’s Sojourn in France, p. 11)
Within thirty-five minutes the 116th Battalion returned back to Canadian lines, suffering 74 casualties but bagging 53 prisoners. Interrogations determined that the prisoners were from the 36th Reserve Division, a unit that had just transferred over from the Eastern Front(Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285-286).
Gaspers – “the cheapest of cigarettes” available at the front (Pegler, Soldiers’ Songs And Slang of The Great War, p. 101), nicknamed for the reaction of those brave enough to inhale. Capstan Cigarettes was one of the popular brands referred to as “gaspers” by the troops; high in tar and unfiltered, they could cause a first-time smoker some trouble. This waterproof tin comes courtesy of the Canadian Centre for the Great War/Centre canadien pour la Grande Guerre.
In the midst of the public turmoil being caused by the discussion of Sir Fabian Ware’s long term intentions for the Commission, the simple need for at least some sort of graves registration system was not lost on those serving at the front. In fact, it was the complete lack of such a system that was causing them distress. Canadian Stretcher-Bearer Ralph Watson lamented to his wife in a letter dated 8 July 1917:
‘The dead stay where they are, with a rubber sheet or an old sandbag, to cover their faces. Later, maybe that night or the next, a fatigue party will climb over the parados and scratch a grave a few yards from the trench, cursing the flares, and flopping, as Fritz plays a machine gun casually, just on the off chance, all along the ground behind, as a man might play a hose on a lawn.’
‘These graves are not marked. How could they be? Some one takes all the letters and things out of the pockets; eventually, if the man who has them doesn’t get blown to pieces, they reach the Quartermaster, who sends them home. Some one writes a letter, and that’s all. No advance, no spectacular raid, not even repelling an attack. So many dead Hienies, so many dead Britishers. And so she goes. And such is a “trip in” ‘ (Watson, Letters of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer, 1914-1917, p. 138).
Considering how sought after they were, once the men did receive a pass, there was often little that could stop them from immediately striking out for the rear areas. Indeed, as described in this humourous account by Victor Wheeler of the 50th (Alberta) Battalion, men were known to literally drop everything:
‘Corporal H.W. Hogg was stirring hot mulligan in “supports” when he was informed he could go on leave, “tonight, if you think you can make it”.
“I turned over my Dixie pots, pronto, to Sandy Hunter, jumped on what I thought was a bone-shaking rations wagon, and headed out at the speed of a Roman charioteer! When I got to the Transport Lines I was black with soot from head to foot. The lorry had been hauling charcoal and coke! The Officer laughed at the sight, ordered me to take a hot bath, be deloused and fitted out with new uniform. The Quartermaster cooperated – and I was on my way to Blighty!” ‘ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p.132).