“Gawd lumme,” says Wellsie, “‘ave we got to fight th’ ‘ole blinkin’ war. Is it right? I awsks yer. Is it?”
It was all wrong. We had been told after High Wood that we would not have to go into action again in that part of the line but that we would have a month of rest and after that would be sent up to the Ypres sector. “Wipers” hadn’t been any garden of roses early in the war, but it was paradise now compared with the Somme.
It was a sad lot of men when we swung out on the road again back to the Somme, and there was less singing than usual. That first night we remained at Mametz Wood. We figured that we would get to kip while the kipping was good. There were some old Boche dug-outs in fair condition, and we were in a fair way to get comfortable. No luck!
We were hardly down to a good sleep when C company was called to fall in without equipment, and we knew that meant fatigue of some sort. I have often admired the unknown who invented that word “fatigue” as applied in a military term. He used it as a disguise for just plain hard work. It means anything whatever in the way of duty that does not have to do directly with the manning of the trenches.
This time we clicked a burial fatigue. It was my first. I never want another. I took a party of ten men and we set out, armed with picks and shovels, and, of course, rifles and bandoliers (cloth pockets containing fifty rounds of ammo).
We hiked three miles up to High Wood and in the early morning began the job of getting some of the dead under ground. We were almost exactly in the same place from which we had gone over after the tanks. I kept expecting all the time to run across the bodies of some of our own men. It was a most unpleasant feeling.
Some cleaning up had already been done, so the place was not so bad as it had been, but it was bad enough. The advance had gone forward so far that we were practically out of shell range, and we were safe working.
The burial method was to dig a pit four feet deep and big enough to hold six men. Then we packed them in. The worst part of it was that most of the bodies were pretty far gone and in the falling away stage. It was hard to move them. I had to put on my gas mask to endure the stench and so did some of the other men. Some who had done this work before rather seemed to like it.
I would search a body for identification marks and jot down the data found on a piece of paper. When the man was buried under, I would stick a rifle up over him and tuck the record into the trap in the butt of the gun where the oil bottle is carried.
When the pioneers came up, they would remove the rifle and substitute a little wooden cross with the name painted on it. The indifference with which the men soon came to regard this burial fatigue was amazing. I remember one incident of that first morning, a thing that didn’t seem at all shocking at the time, but which, looking back upon it, illustrates the matter-of-factness of the soldier’s viewpoint on death.