By Greg Clark, August, 6, 1932
From back amongst the big leafed mangels, you could see the thing sticking straight out from Mericourt.
It was a brand new trench. The yellow sand and white chalk was flung up. It was a slightly zig-zag ditch and it seemed to end in a strong-point of some sort.
All day, the infantry scout officers and the artillery observers stared at it through telescopes. Some of the field guns and light howitzers fired at it, to get the range for night shooting.
No Man’s Land being hundreds of yards wide there, this new German digging could be of little danger to us. But we were curious.
“Maybe it’s one of those minniewerfer pits,” said Gold Tooth Cohen.
“They put them behind their front line, not in front,” said Mr. Johnson, the undertaker, who was Gold Tooth’s rear file.
Surely it wasn’t a listening post, because if ever piece of digging was like a toothache to the Canadians it was this hundred-yard trench jutting out into No Man’s Land.
The first night, patrols were ordered out to scout around it. During the night, the light howitzers and whizz-bangs fired on it. And in the morning, there it was just as plain and mysterious as ever. The patrols reported that they had heard nothing.
So the colonel came up to our company and lay out in the mangels with his field glasses and looked long and earnestly at it.
“Captain,” said he, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it. I think to-night we ought to send a patrol across to get right into it.”
“Very good, sir,” said the captain, thinking at once of McDonald.
McDonald was a French-Canadian and he was, at one and the same time, the most useless soldier and the most valuable man we had.
No matter how you hid him, he always ruined the look of a platoon. They even had the regimental tailor specially cut an issue uniform in a desperate effort to make McDonald look smart. But they couldn’t. On his flat chest glowed the crimson of the D.C.M., and when a stranger suddenly saw that ribbon on so unprepossessing a little soldier, he always took another look at the dark, small face. And then he saw the cold gray eyes of the Highland shepherd with which McDonald was fitted.
McDonald was warm when everybody else was cold. He was dry when we were wet, fed when we were hungry. He came from somewhere “up nort,” and he could take rabbits and partridges out of No Man’s Land as a magician takes them out of a hat. His best deed so far was trapping a German lieutenant in a fox snare. He loved war and poaching and he hoped the war would never end.
“McDonald,” said the captain, when the colonel had left our company, “what do you think of that new trench Fritz has dug out there?”
“I t’ink,” said McDonald, “dat she is a joke. Nobuddy would buil’a trench like dat. Fritz she’s buil’ dat so we go over to look at her and by goly, he shoots us all up!”
The Mysterious Trench
“How would you like to come out to-night and take a prowl around with me?”
“Sure t’ing.” said McDonald.
And he went and had a wash and gave up smoking for the rest of the day, so, as he said, “he could smell good in de dark.”
Six other men went with the captain and McDonald. All good men. They left their tin hats at home, and carried nothing but two bombs each.
It was nearly two o’clock before they left, on hot and starry July night.
“If they are waiting for us, they will be tired by now,” explained the captain.
So the patrol vanished out into the dark and we stood watching across to where the distant flares rose and lobbed out of the German line. More than an hour passed, and suddenly, our eyes saw the red flash of bombs and heard the far whine, whine of Millses exploding. Up went German flares, three and four at a time, and machine guns rapped. A couple of German whizz bang guns opened up and slashed a few shells across at us and into No Man’s Land, and then everything grew still.
There we stood, waiting, silent, everybody up on the step, and after a time, we saw and challenged shadowy figures outside our wire. It was the captain, McDonald and only four men.
While the captain was back telling the colonel what had happened, our lieutenant gave us McDonald’s story. They had approached the mysterious trench warily, listened for a long time, and then two of the men were sent into the trench while the rest of the party crept along the top. Not a sound was to be heard. The whole trench seemed to be deserted,
And like a dogfight, everything started at once. There was a muffled yell from the men in the trench. The party on top leaped up and looked in. The two men had vanished. And from nowhere, a group of about eight Germans had popped up. After an exchange of bombs, there was nothing for our squad to do but beat it. Machine gun fire hissed around for a few minutes, and it was a miracle none of the fleeing party was hit.
A sorry enterprise. Should our gang have stood their ground and bombed it out with the Germans?
“No,” said our lieutenant, “the job of reconnaissance patrol is to get information, not to fight. And anyway, two of our men were in that trench somewhere.”
Dawn came and we stared with ugly feelings across at the lifeless low ridge of the German trenches.
McDonald did not go down to bed when morning came. It was a hot, sultry day, and he sat in the sun, with nothing to say, but thinking with bent head. About noon, the captain came up and they talked together.
“You were right, McDonald,” said the captain. “That trench was a trap.”
“Sure t’ing. I hear dose two men give little yell. I jump up and look straight in. Dey were gone. It was a trap door in de trench. A bat’ mat dat drop dem into a hole and fly back up.”
“That must have been it.”
“Sure t’ing. And dose Fritz was in funk hole and jump out to chase us away from de trap.”
“Should we go back again to-night? Will they expect us to go back to investigate?”
“Sure t’ing. But we don’t go back dere until we find out where de Fritz is in de firs’ place.”
“How can we do that?” asked the captain.”
“Dat’s why I am t’inking,” said McDonald, bowing his head again.
The captain respectfully left him.
Making a Collection For Fritz
That afternoon, when we came on top, McDonald came to each of us and he had an olive bottle in his hand he had got from the officer’s dugout.
“How is your cooties?” asked Me Donald. “I am start a little collection. Have you got some gray ones, or maybe blue? Who ‘as got some nice blue ones?”
And there, in the hot summer evening, we proceeded to chase cooties for McDonald.
“What’s the idea?” we asked.
“Dese are for Fritz,” said McDonald, who was one of those quiet men.
The captain issued orders through the platoons that no cooties were to be killed until further orders. All cooties were to be brought, immediately they were discovered, to McDonald. During the early part of the night, a sergeant came from both the companies in support with bottles containing slowly moving masses of crumbs.
At midnight, McDonald, alone, with two small bottles of lice, slipped quietly out into No Man’s Land.
We felt no tenseness that night. We just rested our chins on the parapet and watched patiently out across the blue silence. Because Me Donald was like a mink out there, a wild, silent creature and we knew he was as safe as if he were in Canada.
Until he called the password in, we did not see him coming back. He went straight to the captain.
“I dump dem all out into dat trench,” he said. “I want a lot more for tomorrow.”
By this time, the cootie collecting was going on far and wide. We sent some of our support company corporals through the highways and byways of the Mericourt-Avion trench system, gathering cooties in bottles. By nightfall, the collection amounted to wide-mouth marmalade bottle more than a third filled with the gray mass of tiny dopey-moving insects.
McDonald watched over them dotingly. He borrowed a few shirt clippings from some of the most notoriously unbathed members of the company and dropped these bits in amongst his pets.
“So dey wont’ get de shell shock,” explained McDonald.
Just an hour before morning, he passed the word that he was again going out, and he was gone until the break of dawn. He leaped back into the trench with a sort of glee on him. The first thing he did was strip off and hunt carefully through his clothes.
“I sprinkle dem,” he told the captain, carefully studying the seams of his underwear, “in five places in dat trench. Tonight we go listen again, hey?”
The famous cootie raid was started the minute it grew dark. McDonald claimed the right to lend the raid and sergeant went along just to add prestige to the undertaking.
“We are up,” said McDonald, carefully, to the four men he selected to help him, “against one of dose trick bunch of storm troopers Fritz has got. You know dat? He take some fellow and he give dem a soft and easy tam, leeving like officers, out of de line, and den he bring dem up for a raid or a special job. I t’ink dey will still be dere, in dat trick trench. Look out for de bat’-mat. Dey are trap over hole in de groun’. But dose Fritz, who leev like officer, will be scratching now like anyt’ing. Dese fashionable storm troop don’t meet ver’ many cootie in dere life.”
McDonald led his little expedition out into the dusk, and they crept as cautiously as the increasing darkness demanded until they were in a position down-wind of the German trick trench. Here they lay, advancing by dragging with their elbows and on hands and knees, listening and watching for the slightest sounds.
Ten minutes is a long time in which to preserve absolute silence. In ten minutes, man must cough or clear his throat or rattle his equipment or murmur to his mate. But six ten-minute periods passed while McDonald’s little company snaked themselves foot by foot to within a few yards of the upthrown earth; and no sound had come from the trench under the starry summer sky.
And then, when they were lying actually alongside the new earth, faintly there rose an obscure sound. It came from the left, further out into No Man’s Land. For breathless long minutes, the raiders harked. And then, with McDonald leading, they crawled toward the sound.
A Share in the Glory
There is a universal language in the sport of cootie hunting. It consists largely of the exclamation “Ahhhh!” enunciated with an expression of triumph and extreme satisfaction.
And somewhere below them, in the trench, amidst a furtive and infrequent mumble of sound, the raiders heard:
And it had a very rich, German sound to it.
McDonald nudged and the nudge was passed along the party. With infinite caution and wildly beating hearts, they drew themselves, feeling over every inch of the soft earth, on to the bank of sand and chalk.
And they lay looking down into an empty trench!
Bathmats were scattered along the floor, as it thrown down in preparation for fitting the trench properly.
Yet from the trench, eight feet away, rose indistinct and intimate sounds.
And the wall of the trench, in the purple darkness, moved.
McDonald, with the natural gifts of raider, took each of his men and after a soundlessly whispered instruction, placed him along the trench bank. They were spaced a yard apart.
Then McDonald slid soundlessly into the trench, and avoiding the bath mats like a rat, he crept along the wall. There was rough burlap curtain suspended over a large funk-hole in the side of the trench, and behind that curtain, which looked in the night exactly like the trench wall, hid a group of Germans.
And they were uncomfortable.
McDonald, flattening himself against the wall, with all his strength yanked the burlap curtain aside.
Five Germans were crouched there in the shallow funk-hole, their faces staring whitely up, to see, like the images of the sphinx in the Egyptian night, the heads and shoulders of the raiders spaced along the trench bank above.
“Parlais francais?” said McDonald softly, from the side, where they could not see him.
“Oui,” answered voice.
“Then,” said McDonald in French, “starting at this end, step out one by one with your hands high –”
But they were gallant lads. Out they came with rush. McDonald, crouching down, fired steadily with his pistol at their leg levels. Two of the Germans leaped on to a bathmat and disappeared magically like clowns in a pantomime, into a pit below.
Working with methodical speed, like baggagemen unloading an express, McDonald, from the trench, and the men from above, laid the three remaining Germans low.
Into the trench they all piled, to avoid the German machine gun fire that was lashing around above ground.
“Now for de hog from de crate,” cried McDonald.
They pried the trick bath mat up. It was on heavy spring hinges. In the commodious hole below crouched two large Fritzes whose discretion had got the better part of their valor. They had themselves been trapped in the pit they dug for the enemy.
Out they came to McDonald’s pistol like nails to a magnet. Down the trench the party shoved and hastened in the darkness, out over the end, despite the fact that machine gun bullets were still hissing and phutting.
In due time, they arrived at our trench and the captain joyously looked them over; they were two fine, stalwart specimens of the German special storm troops.
“Take them right back to the colonel,” said the captain.
“Excuse me,” said McDonald, “I must see dem in the dugout wit’ candle. Dey have got some of my cooties on dem.”
“Nonsense,” exclaimed the captain.
“Sure t’ing,” said McDonald. “I wan to have a couple of quart of dem cootie by winter tam. Dey make good trap baits.”
So McDonald watched over his prisoners In the candle light while they searched their clothes and retrieved half a dozen cooties, each of which McDonald hailed enthusiastically as an ally and a friend.
“Ho,” he said, “you fine fellow don’t know much about de cootie! But dere is more way of making a buck jump in de brush den by sticking him wit a bayonet.”
Which shows that from field-marshals to lice, everybody had a share in the glories of war.
Editor’s Notes: Mangel is a type of beet root.
“Minniewerfer” is slang for Minenwerfer, a German mortar.
Howitzer is a type of artillery piece.
“Whizz-bangs” is Worlds War One slang for any German artillery.
D.C.M. is the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
When he speaks of “Millses” exploding, he is referring to Mills Bombs, a type of hand grenade.
Bathmats was the term used for small trench floor coverings.