Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Over the Top -- Chapter XIII --December 29, 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:  
R.A. M. C. Royal Army Medical Corps. Tommy says it means "Rob All My Comrades."  

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"
CHAPTER VII -- Rations


RIGHT behind our rest billet was a large creek about ten feet deep and twenty feet across, and it was a habit of the company to avail themselves of an opportunity to take a swim and at the same time thoroughly wash themselves and their underwear when on their own. We were having a spell of hot weather, and these baths to us were a luxury. The Tommies would splash around in the water and then come out and sit in the sun and have what they termed a "shirt hunt." At first we tried to drown the "cooties," but they also seemed to enjoy the bath.

 One Sunday morning, the whole section was in the creek and we were having a gay time, when the Sergeant-Major appeared on the scene. He came to the edge of the creek and ordered: "Come out of it. Get your equipment on, 'Drill order,' and fall in for bath parade. Look lively my hearties. You have only got fifteen minutes." A howl of indignation from the creek greeted this order, but out we came. Discipline is discipline. We lined up in front of our billet with rifles and bayonets (why you need rifles and bayonets to take a bath gets me), a full quota of ammunition, and our tin hats. Each man had a piece of soap and a towel. After an eight-kilo march along a dusty road, with an occasional shell whistling overhead, we arrived at a little squat frame building upon the bank of a creek. Nailed over the door of this building was a large sign which read "Divisional Baths." In a wooden shed in the rear, we could hear a wheezy old engine pumping water.

We lined up in front of the baths, soaked with perspiration, and piled our rifles into stacks. A Sergeant of the R. A. M. C. with a yellow band around his left arm on which was "S. P." (Sanitary Police) in black letters, took charge, ordering us to take off our equipment, unroll our puttees, and unlace boots. Then, starting from the right of the line, he divided us into squads of fifteen. I happened to be in the first squad.

We entered a small room where we were given five minutes to undress, then filed into the bath room. In here there were fifteen tubs (barrels sawed in two) half full of water. Each tub contained a piece of laundry soap. The Sergeant informed us that we had just twelve minutes in which to take our baths. Soaping ourselves all over, we took turns in rubbing each other's backs, then by means of a garden hose, washed the soap off. The water was ice cold, but felt fine.

Pretty soon a bell rang and the water was turned off. Some of the slower ones were covered with soap, but this made no difference to the Sergeant, who chased us into another room, where we lined up in front of a little window, resembling the box office in a theater, and received clean underwear and towels. From here we went into the room where we had first undressed. Ten minutes was allowed in which to get into our "clabber."

My pair of drawers came up to my chin and the shirt barely reached my diaphragm, but they were clean, -- no strangers on them, and so I was satisfied.

At the expiration of the time allotted we were turned out and finished our dressing on the grass.

When all of the company had bathed it was a case of march back to billets. That march was the most uncongenial one imagined, just cussing and blinding all the way. We were covered with white dust and felt greasy from sweat. The woolen underwear issued was itching like the mischief.

After eating our dinner of stew, which had been kept for us,--it was now four o'clock,--we went into the creek and had another bath.

If "Holy Joe" could have heard our remarks about the Divisional Baths and army red tape, he would have fainted at our wickedness. But Tommy is only human after all.

I just mentioned "Holy Joe" or the Chaplain in an irreverent sort of way but no offense was meant, as there were some very brave men among them.

There are so many instances of heroic deeds performed under fire in rescuing the wounded that it would take several books to chronicle them, but I have to mention one instance performed by a Chaplain, Captain Hall by name, in the Brigade on our left, because it particularly appealed to me.

A chaplain is not a fighting man; he is recognized as a non-combatant and carries no arms. In a charge or trench raid the soldier gets a feeling of confidence from contact with his rifle, revolver, or bomb he is carrying. He has something to protect himself with, something with which he can inflict harm on the enemy,--in other words, he is able to get his own back.

But the chaplain is empty handed, and is at the mercy of the enemy if he encounters them, so it is doubly brave for him to go over the top, under fire, and bring in wounded. Also a chaplain is not required by the King's Regulations to go over in a charge, but this one did, made three trips under the hottest kind of fire, each time returning with a wounded man on his back. On the third trip he received a bullet through his left arm, but never reported the matter to the doctor until late that night—just spent his time administering to the wants of the wounded lying on stretchers waiting to be carried to the rear by ambulances.

The chaplains in the British Army are a fine, manly set of men, and are greatly respected by Tommy.

Next: CHAPTER XIV -- Picks and Shovels

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