I was lucky enough after the first day to be put on sappers’ duty. The Sappers, or Engineers, are the men whose duty it is to run mines under No Man’s Land and plant huge quantities of explosives. There was a great amount of mining going on all the time at Vimy Ridge from both sides.
Sometimes Fritz would run a sap out reasonably near the surface, and we would counter with one lower down. Then he’d go us one better and go still deeper. Some of the mines went down and under hundreds of feet. The result of all this was that on our side at least, the Sappers were under-manned and a good many infantry were drafted into that service.
I had charge of a gang and had to fill sandbags with the earth removed from the end of the sap and get it out and pile the bags on the parapets. We were well out toward the German lines and deep under the hill when we heard them digging below us. An engineer officer came in and listened for an hour and decided that they were getting in explosives and that it was up to us to beat them to it. Digging stopped at once and we began rushing in H.E. in fifty-pound boxes. I was ordered back into supports with my section.
Right here I began to have luck. Just see how this worked out. First a rushing party was organized whose duty it was to rush the crater made by the mine explosion and occupy it before the Germans got there. Sixty men were selected, a few from each company, and placed where they were supposedly safe, but where they could get up fast. This is the most dangerous duty an infantryman has to do, because both sides after a mine explosion shower in fifty-seven varieties of sudden death, including a perfect rain of machine-gun bullets. The chances of coming out of a rushing party with a whole hide are about one in five.
Well, for a wonder, I didn’t get drawn for this one, and I breathed one long, deep sigh of relief, put my hand inside my tunic and patted Dinky on the back. Dinky is my mascot. I’ll tell you about him later.
On top of that another bit of luck came along, though it didn’t seem like it at the moment. It was the custom for a ration party to go out each night and get up the grub. This party had to go over the duck walk and was under fire both going and coming. One of the corporals who had been out on rations two nights in succession began to “grouse.”
Of course Sergeant Page spotted me and detailed me to the “wangler’s” duty. I “groused” too, like a good fellow, but had to go.
“Garn,” says Wellsie. “Wot’s the diff if yer gets it ’ere or there. If ye clicks, I’ll draw yer fags from Blighty and say a prayer for yer soul. On yer way.”
Cheerful beggar, Wellsie. He was doing me a favor and didn’t know it.
I did the three miles along the duck walk with the ration party, and there wasn’t a shell came our way. Queer! Nor on the way back. Queerer! When we were nearly back and were about five hundred yards from the base of the Pimple, a dead silence fell on the German side of the line. There wasn’t a gun nor a mortar nor even a rifle in action for a mile in either direction. There was, too, a kind of sympathetic let-up on our side. There weren’t any lights going up. There was an electric tension in the very air. You could tell by the feel that something big was going to happen.