Next night we were billeted at Barlin—don’t get that mixed up with Berlin, it’s not the same—in an abandoned convent within range of the German guns. The roar of artillery was continuous and sounded pretty close.
Now and again a shell would burst near by with a kind of hollow “spung”, but for some reason we didn’t seem to mind. I had expected to get the shivers at the first sound of the guns and was surprised when I woke up in the morning after a solid night’s sleep.
A message came down from the front trenches at daybreak that we were wanted and wanted quick. We slung together a dixie of char and some bacon and bread for breakfast, and marched around to the “quarters”, where they issued “tin hats”, extra “ammo”, and a second gas helmet. A good many of the men had been out before, and they did the customary “grousing” over the added load.
The British Tommy growls or grouses over anything and everything. He’s never happy unless he’s unhappy. He resents especially having anything officially added to his pack, and you can’t blame him, for in full equipment he certainly is all dressed up like a pack horse.
After the issue we were split up into four lots for the four companies of the battalion, and after some “wangling” I got into Company C, where I stopped all the time I was in France. I was glad, because most of my chums were in that unit.
We got into our packs and started up the line immediately. As we neared the lines we were extended into artillery formation, that is, spread out so that a shell bursting in the road would inflict fewer casualties.
At Bully-Grenay, the point where we entered the communication trenches, guides met us and looked us over, commenting most frankly and freely on our appearance. They didn’t seem to think we would amount to much, and said so. They agreed that the “bloomin’ Yank” must be a “bloody fool” to come out there. There were times later when I agreed with them.
It began to rain as we entered the communication trench, and I had my first taste of mud. That is literal, for with mud knee-deep in a trench just wide enough for two men to pass you get smeared from head to foot.
Incidentally, as we approached nearer the front, I got my first smell of the dead. It is something you never get away from in the trenches. So many dead have been buried so hastily and so lightly that they are constantly being uncovered by shell bursts. The acrid stench pervades everything, and is so thick you can fairly taste it. It makes nearly everybody deathly sick at first, but one becomes used to it as to anything else.
This communication trench was over two miles long, and it seemed like twenty. We finally landed in a support trench called “Mechanics” (every trench has a name, like a street), and from there into the first-line trench.
I have to admit a feeling of disappointment in that first trench. I don’t know what I expected to see, but what I did see was just a long, crooked ditch with a low step running along one side, and with sandbags on top. Here and there was a muddy, bedraggled Tommy half asleep, nursing a dirty and muddy rifle on “sentry go.” Everything was very quiet at the moment—no rifles popping, as I had expected, no bullets flying, and, as it happened, absolutely no shelling in the whole sector.