Saturday, February 28, 2015

Over the Top -- Chapter VII -- February 28, 2015

Arthur Guy Empey was a member of the US Cavalry who resigned to volunteer for the British Army during World War One. He was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. When the US entered the war, he tried to rejoin the US Army, but was rejected because of his wounds and possibly because of some disparaging comments about American draftees. He wrote a book, Over the Top, about his experiences during the war. With the 100th anniversary of the war, I thought it might be interesting to post his story. Empey later became a prolific pulp magazine author, a movie star and producer, and a playwright.

From "Tommy's Dictionary of the Trenches" by Empey:
Bully Beef. A kind of corned beef with tin round it. The unopened cans make excellent walls for dugouts.
Lance-Corporal. A N. C. O. one grade above a private who wears a shoestring stripe on his arm and thinks the war should be run according to his ideas.

CHAPTER I -- From Mufti to Khaki
CHAPTER II -- Blighty to Rest Billets
CHAPTER III -- I Go to Church
CHAPTER IV -- Into the Trench
CHAPTER V -- Mud, Rats and Shells
CHAPTER VI -- "Back of the Line"


JUST before dozing off, Mr. Lance-Corporal butted in.

In Tommy's eyes, a Lance-Corporal is one degree below a Private. In the Corporal's eyes, he is one degree above a General.

Every evening, from each platoon or machinegun section, a Lance-Corporal and Private goes to the Quartermaster-Sergeant at the Company Stores and draws rations for the following day.

The "Quarter," as the Quartermaster-Sergeant is called, receives daily from the Orderly Room (Captain's Office) a slip showing the number of men entitled to rations, so there is no chance of putting anything over on him. Many arguments take place between the "Quarter" and the platoon Non-Com, but the former always wins out. Tommy says the "Quarter" got his job because he was a burglar in civil life.

Then I spread the waterproof sheet on the ground, while the Quartermaster's Batman dumped the rations on it. The Corporal was smoking a fag. I carried the rations back to the billet. The Corporal was still smoking a fag. How I envied him. But when the issue commenced my envy died, and I realized that the first requisite of a non-commissioned officer on active service is diplomacy. There were nineteen men in our section, and they soon formed a semi-circle around us after the Corporal had called out, "Rations up."

The Quartermaster-Sergeant had given a slip to the Corporal on which was written a list of the rations. Sitting on the floor, using a wooden box as a table, the issue commenced. On the left of the Corporal the rations were piled. They consisted of the following:

Six loaves of fresh bread, each loaf of a different size, perhaps one out of the six being as flat as a pancake, the result of an Army Service Corps man placing a box of bully beef on it during transportation.

Three tins of jam, one apple, and the other two plum.

Seventeen Bermuda onions, all different sizes.

A piece of cheese in the shape of a wedge.

Two one-pound tins of butter.

A handful of raisins.

A tin of biscuits, or as Tommy calls them "Jaw-breakers."

A bottle of mustard pickles.

The "bully beef," spuds, condensed milk, fresh meat, bacon, and "Maconochie Rations" (a can filled with meat, vegetables, and greasy water), had been turned over to the Company Cook to make stew for next day's dinner. He also received the tea, sugar, salt, pepper, and flour.

Scratching his head, the Corporal studied the slip issued to him by the Quarter. Then in a slow, mystified voice he read out, "No. I Section, 19 men. Bread, loaves, six." He looked puzzled and soliloquized in a musing voice:

"Six loaves, nineteen men. Let's see, that's three in a loaf for fifteen men,—well to make it even, four of you'll have to muck in on one loaf."

The four that got stuck made a howl, but to no avail. The bread was dished out. Pretty soon from a far corner of the billet, three indignant Tommies accosted the Corporal with,

"What do you call this, a loaf of bread? Looks more like a sniping plate."

The Corporal answered:

"Well, don't blame me, I didn't bake it, somebody's got to get it, so shut up until I dish out these blinkin' rations."

Then the Corporal started on the jam.

"Jam, three tins—apple one, plum two. Nineteen men, three tins. Six in a tin, makes twelve men for two tins, seven in the remaining tin."

He passed around the jam, and there was another riot. Some didn't like apple, while others who received plum were partial to apple. After awhile differences were adjusted, and the issue went on.x

"Bermuda onions, seventeen."

The Corporal avoided a row by saying that he did not want an onion, and I said they make your breath smell, so guessed I would do without one too. The Corporal looked his gratitude.

"Cheese, pounds two."

The Corporal borrowed a jackknife (corporals are always borrowing), and sliced the cheese,— each slicing bringing forth a pert remark from the on-lookers as to the Corporal's eyesight.

"Raisins, ounces, eight."

By this time the Corporal's nerves had gone West, and in despair, he said that the raisins were to be turned over to the cook for "duff" (plum pudding). This decision elicited a little "grousing," but quiet was finally restored.

"Biscuits, tins, one."

With his borrowed jackknife, the Corporal opened the tin of biscuits, and told everyone to help themselves,—-nobody responded to this invitation. Tommy is "fed up" with biscuits.

"Butter, tins, two."

"Nine in one, ten in the other."

Another rumpus.

"Pickles, mustard, bottles, one."

Nineteen names were put in a steel helmet, the last one out winning the pickles. On the next issue there were only eighteen names, as the winner is eliminated until every man in the section has won a bottle.

The raffle is closely watched, because Tommy is suspicious when it comes to gambling with his rations.

When the issue is finished, the Corporal sits down and writes a letter home, asking them if they cannot get some M.P. (Member of Parliament) to have him transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he won't have to issue rations.

At the different French estaminets in the village, and at the canteens, Tommy buys fresh eggs, milk, bread, and pastry. Occasionally when he is flush, he invests in a tin of pears or apricots. His pay is only a shilling a day, twenty-four cents, or a cent an hour. Just imagine, a cent an hour for being under fire,—-not much chance of getting rich out there.

When he goes into the fire trench (front line), Tommy's menu takes a tumble. He carries in his haversack what the government calls emergency or iron rations. They are not supposed to be opened until Tommy dies of starvation. They consist of one tin of bully beef, four biscuits, a little tin which contains tea, sugar, and Oxo cubes (concentrated beef tablets). These are only to be used when the enemy establishes a curtain of shell fire on the communication trenches, thus preventing the "carrying in" of rations, or when in an attack, a body of troops has been cut off from its base of supplies.

The rations are brought up, at night, by the Company Transport. This is a section of the company in charge of the Quartermaster-Sergeant, composed of men, mules, and limbers (two wheeled wagons), which supplies Tommy's wants while in the front line. They are constantly under shell fire. The rations are unloaded at the entrance to the communication trenches and are "carried in" by men detailed for that purpose. The Quartermaster-Sergeant never goes into the front-line trench. He doesn't have to, and I have never heard of one volunteering to do so.

The Company Sergeant-Major sorts the rations, and sends them in.

Tommy's trench rations consist of all the bully beef he can eat, biscuits, cheese, tinned butter (sometimes seventeen men to a tin), jam, or marmalade, and occasionally fresh bread (ten to a loaf). When it is possible, he gets tea and stew.

When things are quiet, and Fritz is behaving like a gentleman, which seldom happens, Tommy has the opportunity of making dessert. This is "trench pudding." It is made from broken biscuits, condensed milk, jam—a little water added, slightly flavored with mud—-put into a canteen and cooked over a little spirit stove known as "Tommy's cooker."

(A firm in Blighty widely advertises these cookers as a necessity for the men in the trenches. Gullible people buy them,—-ship them to the Tommies, who, immediately upon receipt of same throw them over the parapet. Sometimes a Tommy falls for the Ad., and uses the cooker in a dugout to the disgust and discomfort of the other occupants.)

This mess is stirred up in a tin and allowed to simmer over the flames from the cooker until Tommy decides that it has reached a sufficient (gluelike) consistency. He takes his bayonet and by means of the handle carries the mess up in the front trench to cool. After it has cooled off he tries to eat it. Generally one or two Tommies in a section have cast-iron stomachs and the tin is soon emptied. Once I tasted trench pudding, but only once.

In addition to the regular ration issue Tommy uses another channel to enlarge his menu.

In the English papers a "Lonely Soldier" column is run. This is for the soldiers at the front who are supposed to be without friends or relatives. They write to the papers and their names are published. Girls and women in England answer them, and send out parcels of foodstuffs, cigarettes, candy, etc. I have known a "lonely" soldier to receive as many as five parcels and eleven letters in one week.

Next: CHAPTER VIII -- The Little Wooden Cross

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