The rifles were barking on the left front; in a moment the reports from that quarter died away, and the right found voice. The men of the first line were in the trenches dug by us a fortnight earlier, and there they would remain, we knew, until their supports came to their aid. Already we passed several of them, who were detailed off on the anticipated casualty list in the morning. These wore white labels in their buttonholes, telling of the nature of their wounds. One label bore the words: “Shot in right shoulder; wound not dangerous.” Another read: “Leg blown off,” and a third ran: “Flesh wounds in arm and leg.” These men would be taken into the care of the ambulance party when it arrived.
When within fifteen hundred yards of the enemy, the command for extended order advance was given, and the section spread out in one long line, fronting the knoll, with five pace intervals between the men. We were now under rifle-fire, and all further movements forward were made in short sharp rushes, punctuated by halts, during which we lay flat on the ground, our bodies deep in the soft earth, and the rain, which again commenced to fall, wetting us to the skin.
Six hundred yards from the enemy’s front we tumbled into the trenches already in possession of Battalion B, and I found myself ankle-deep in mire, beside a unit of another regiment who was enjoying a cigarette and blowing rings of smoke into the air. Although no enemy was visible we got the order to fire, and I discharged three rounds in rapid succession.
“Don’t fire, you fool!” said the man who was blowing the smoke rings. “Them blanks dirty ’orrible, and when you’ve clean’t the clay from your clothes t’night you’ll not want to muck about with your rifle. There’s a price for copper, and I always sell my cartridge cases. The first time I came out I fired, but never since.”
Several rushes forward followed, and the penultimate hundred yards were covered with fixed bayonets. In this manner we were prepared for any surprise. The enemy replied fitfully to our fire, and we could now see several khaki-clad figures with white hat-bands—the differential symbols—moving backwards and forwards amidst the trees. Presently they disappeared as we worked nearer to their lines. We were now rushing forward, lying down to fire, rising and running only to drop down again and discharge another round. Within fifty yards of the coppice the order to charge was given. A yell, almost fiendish in its intensity, issued from a thousand throats; anticipation of the real work which is to be done some day, lent spirit to our rush. In an instant we were in the wood, smashing the branches with our bayonets, thrusting at imaginary enemies, roaring at the top of our voices, and capping a novel fight with a triumphant final.
And our enemies? Having finished their day’s work they were now fifteen minutes’ march ahead of us on the way back to their rest and rations.