“What can you do alone?”
“I’ve got a secret,” said Fannah.
“This is crazy,” cried the sergeant-major. “You’ll be plunked the minute you move.”
“No, I won’t. They won’t see me.”
“They won’t see a balloon!”
By Gregory Clark, December 21, 1929.
The sergeant-major made it sound like a curse.
To the Canadian corps as a whole, burrowed in for the winter along the Lens front, the snow, fine and crisp, and comforting the ghastly ground swiftly, had a merry touch of home. The sentries, staring out over No Man’s Land, felt the strain relaxing as the white blanket grew. But the sergeant-major of C company of the Central Ontario regiment sensed a panic rising in his bosom.
“Now what the hell’re we going to do!” he groaned, as he thrust his way along the trench to the company officer’s dugout.
At the entrance, fat Captain Fannah was standing in the dark listening to the crisp pellets tinkling on his steel hat.
“Merry Christmas, sawm-major!” he squeaked.
“Sir, this jiggers the works,” said the sergeant-major, jabbing his heels into the bathmat1 by way of salute. “This snow is going to last. No Man’s Land is already white with it. The raid will be impossible.”
“What’s time?” demanded, the pudgy captain. Offhand, Captain Fannah was a type of man you would not like. It took a week to like him. And then you gave him your shirt.
“Raid’s at one ack emma2,” said Captain Fannah. “Plenty of time to dope it out. Reduce the party from the full platoon to ten men. And inform Lieutenant Beaurien that I will take the raid instead of him.”
“Very good, sir. Will I report back to you or stay in the trench?”
“Tell Lieutenant Beaurien to take over trench duty. You come back. I want you tonight, sawm-major.”
The little fat captain spoke querulously3, like a head-waiter busy with a banquet. He struggled, grunting, into the dugout entrance.
The sergeant-major hurried to the left where Eleven Platoon stood, and picking up its sergeant, went on to where the platoon officer, Beaurien, was sitting on the firestep4 discussing the impending raid with a few of his toughest men.
“Sir,” said the sergeant-major, stamping his salute on the frosty bathmats, “here’s good news for most of your platoon. Captain Fannah has ordered plans changed in view of the snow. He will lead the raid himself, and will take only ten men instead of the whole platoon. With his compliments, will you please take command of the trench and act for him until further orders.”
Beaurien was visibly relieved. The good word spread along the trench and down into dugouts where Eleven Platoon lay worrying about the raid and the snow. But the handful of choice spirits who had been gathered round Beaurien gave no sign of joy. A raid is a jumpy business. A battle is one thing, with its tumult and vasty compass. In a battle you feel as if all the world is with you in disaster. But a little raid has a lonesomeness that eats into the core of a man. From the length of a brigade front away, a raid, with its two battery barrage, sounds like a drunken celebration with giant fire crackers. And you wonder about the little handful of lads that are scurrying about in the night beneath that angry vortex of shellfire in the heart of the great tropic stillness of the long No Man’s Land.
In every platoon were a half-dozen hard-boiled characters who invariably found themselves selected for raids, battle patrols, wire-cutting and the more desperate adventures of trench warfare. Five of these, standing about their relieved lieutenant, knew that no matter how the raiding party might be reduced, from thirty-five men to ten, they would be amongst the ten. And they were right.
“Well, troops,” said Beaurien, rising. “I don’t mind telling you I have been glad to sit down ever since this snow started falling. My legs is bad.”
“I’ve Got a Secret”, Said Fannah
Beaurien, with a white and purple ribbon on his tunic and enough bloody exploits to his credit to permit him the luxury of confessing fear, produced his little platoon roster from his pocket.
“You five will go,” he said. “Each of you pick one other man. How’s that? Then there can be no belly-aching about the wrong man being sent.”
The five departed along the trench to select their voluntary partners in desperation.
Raids were the peculiar pride of the Canadians. They had, in a sense, originated them. At any rate, back in Fifteen, they had become aware of a higher rate of individual initiative which existed amongst Canadians and had developed various forms of raids, some with the famous “box” barrage, three walls of shell-fire, the fourth or near wall being left open for the entry of the raiders. Then they went on to the stealth raid in its many forms, where no gunfire disturbed the silence of night, but only the sudden whang of bombs bursting and the muffled crack of pistols held close to the stomachs of surprised sentries in the violated trench. It was a stealth raid that Eleven Platoon was about to pull.
“And how,” Captain Fannah was saying into the little field telephone deep in his candle-lit, coke-gassey dugout, “can we make a stealth raid across a blanket of virgin snow?”
“Fannah,” came back the colonel’s Royal Military College voice, “brigade says we have got to – got to – get a prisoner for identification. I have put it up to you. This snow may last a week. I realize the mess this makes, but, my dear Fannah, you’ve got to figure it out. You can shift the time if you like.”
“One ack emma,” said Captain Fannah, in his pained voice. “They will go at one ack emma, colonel, but I am reducing the party to ten.”
“And Beaurien taking them?”
“Mmmm,” said Fannah, knowing that the crackling telephone, with its lines laid across the waste of mud between his and the colonel’s dugout, six hundred yards back, would convert this sound into an affirmative.
The sergeant-major, sitting on a cartridge-box beside the captain, filched a cigarette out of the captain’s leather case. These two, off parade and when no other ranks were looking, were more than comrades.
“What’s the dope?” asked the sergeant-major, as the phone was laid down.
“The Stokes guns5,” said Fannah, “are going to start right away and make a lot of dark holes out in that white No Man’s Land. They will fire at random around the open and over towards the German trench. Tell Beaurien to get as many of our men as he can risk out of the front line, so that some of the Stokes can fall short, close to our trench. It will look like a warming-up from a new bunch of Stokes just come in.”
“Won’t Fritz be on the lookout?”
“The Stokes will stop at twelve midnight. Starting at one o’clock, I want you to get the boys, one by one, out into the best Stokes holes that occur. Scatter them out from Tivvy Sap.”
“Then,” said Fannah, sighing deeply and looking guiltily away from his sergeant-major, “when they are in position I go over and go in.”
“You know there is a gap in their wire?”
“I found it. But they may have closed it since last night. But what the devil can you do alone?”
“I’ve got a secret,” said Fannah.
“This is crazy,” cried the sergeant-major. “You will be plunked the minute you move.”
“No I won’t. They won’t see me.”
“They won’t see a balloon!”
“It will have to be done as slyly as possible. All I want them for is to cover me coming back. Just plain rifle fire. Some of us are going to get hurt, but I can’t see that can be helped.”
The first faint thump of the Stokes shells vibrated in the dugout and made the candles flicker.
“Get out and watch that Stokes stuff and pick a nice bunch of dark spots for the boys to lie on.”
“I don’t like your scheme,” said the sergeant-major, standing up and looking at his officer grimly. “I think you have gone nuts.”
“They won’t be able to see me,” said Captain Fannah. “I will be all white.”
Disappearing in the Snow
A random fire from Stokes mortars disturbed the night. These softly belching little cannon hurled their whiskey-bottle shells high in the air, to fall and lie a horrid moment on the ground before they went off with a terrific crash. They blew shallow, five-foot-broad patches of darkness on the snow-covered ground. A steady, thickening whirl of snow continued to fall. Machine guns woke up on the German side and chattered about nervously. Flares went up more frequently, to dazzle the new fallen snow. Fritz was on the alert. But the Stokes fire neither increased nor seemed to concentrate. It gave a lazy, casual and poorly-aimed battering to a strip of No Man’s Land for a three-hundred-yard stretch. About eleven o’clock, puzzled by this desultory crashing, the Germans ordered their field guns to fire some retaliation, which cheerfully increased the number of dark spots out in the snow.
As if quelled by this come-back, the Stokes died away at midnight. And peace, oddly spiritualized by the snow, settled over the line. The one point of discord in miles of silence was stilled.
About twelve-thirty the first of the covering party, crouched and swift, skipped out an opening in the Canadian wire and flung himself into one of the shell holes. There was a breathless moment of waiting, but no hint that the figure had been noticed came from the German trench. The bank of barbed wire, which was a filigree of rust and silver, acted as a dark screen for the raiders’ movements. Another figure made the dash, then another. Obviously the German sentries were lulled by the same feeling of security the new fallen snow gave the Canadians. One by one the ten men of Eleven Platoon got into the dark splashes on No Man’s Land where the Stokes and the German field guns had left their scars.
Then appeared queer and ghostly little figure in Eleven Platoon’s trench. His head was swathed in white field bandages. His legs and feet were likewise wrapped tightly in white. Over his arm he carried a large white garment. And from amongst the bandages emerged Captain Fannah’s plaintive voice:
“If any man fires from this trench until I return I will personally lame him!”
Beaurien and the other two lieutenants of C Company were with the captain to see him off. The sergeant-major was the last to go out before Fannah, and he was to go furthest and be closest to the lone white raider when the entry into the German trench was attempted. Shaking hands with the captain, the sergeant-major himself wrapped in bandages in different spots so that he appeared raggedly camouflaged, climbed over the parados6 and disappeared into the silence.
Not a Shot was Fired
Then Captain Fannah shook out the garment he was carrying and drew it over his head. He stood forth absolutely white, save for pencil-wide strip across his eyes.
“No shooting from the trench,” he said again. “The boys in front will do any shooting required.”
And helped by his lieutenants from behind the pudgy captain grunted his way over the parapet. The thick snow fell like feathers.
“I can’t see him already,” said one of the sentries.
Beaurien stood up on the fire-step. Through the haze of falling snow could faintly be seen the scattered dark splotches where the shells had cleared a space. But no movement disclosed the fact that in eleven of them, staggered across towards the German lines, lay eleven men with their rifles cocked and pointed to answer any flash from the enemy trench. And not a trace could be seen of Fannah, though Beaurien knew his stout little officer could not have got far on his dangerous mission.
A long time passed. Suspense during a stealth raid is a sensation never otherwise experienced. The burst of a bomb, the crack of a shot comes like a note of joy to break the tension. But no sound came from white-shrouded No Man’s Land. The usual night silence lay like a desert stillness, and you would never have guessed that within a square mile ten thousand men were standing with their wits wide awake. Only occasionally the German flares mounted and lobbed vividly through the glistening night. But there was no flare-thrower on duty closer than three hundred yards from Eleven Platoon’s front. Beaurien watched for a telltale moving shadow when the flares were falling, but on the shining shadows of No Man’s Land nothing stirred.
After twenty minutes that had seemed hours there was a quiet movement at the German trench, a hundred yards away. Shadows in the misty snowfall, dark figures moving fitfully against the white.
“Psst!” hissed the sentry beside Beaurien. A sergeant came running.
“Figures moving over against the German wire!” he cried in a low voice to Beaurien.
“I see them. Get back to your duty.”
Yet not a shot was fired, no flick of orange pecked in the darkness.
Then quite distinctly, moving slowly towards the Canadian lines, came two figures looming black against the snow. On they came, stumbling, hesitating. After a moment’s intent staring it appeared that they walked with their arms in the air over their heads.
“My God!” said the sentry, removing his safety-catch.
“Keep still, you…”
“They Thought I was a Fairy”
A greenish flare popped into the air opposite, burst and lighted the whole scene in dazzling splendor. The two figures stopped dead still in their tracks, their arms on high, lividly silhouetted against the snow. Beaurien, watching the shadows, not the objects themselves, as an old-timer should, saw what he was looking for, a small, round shadow in rear of the long shadows of the two standing Germans.
A shout came from the German trench. The flare lobbed to the ground and went out with a loud hiss. A shot was fired from the enemy. Instantly two shots from the dark shell holes spat back. The two dark figures against the snow began to run, hands held appealingly high. A machine gun opened from the German side. The shell holes began to spit, spit, redly. The way a typhoon could spring in an instant out of the solitude of No Man’s Land was a miracle not comparable to anything in the temperate zone. A very gale of machine gun fire rose out of the German front and support lines. White flares and red signal flares zipped and lobbed into the sky. The German artillery opened up with its usual smartness. But not a sign or sound came from the Canadian trench. The two tall Germans, guided by some unseen force in rear of them, wriggled and scrambled unhurt into the Canadian trench. A white-robed figure slid pantingly in on their heels. One by one the men in the shell holes leaped and crouched back through their wire gap. Two were wounded in the rush. The sergeant-major was last, a wounded man clinging to him.
In Captain Fannah’s dugout, ten minutes later, while his batman unwound the bandage from his head and legs, the purple-faced company commander stared up sulkily into the face of his colonel.
“I understood,” said the colonel, breathless after his dash up from his headquarters, “that Beaurien was doing this show?”
“No, sir,” said Captain Fannah. “I distinctly told you that I was going.”
“I didn’t hear you. Damn it, Fannah, you have no right to be fooling about on operations of this sort. We need you. You keep out of these things. Let the young fellows do it.”.
“Now tell me,” said the colonel, “how did this thing come off?”
“Very simply. I dressed all in white. I had a covering party in the Stokes holes. When I got close to their wire I heard voices singing softly. I had found the gap they had in their wire for working parties and patrols, and the voices were coming from the trench directly in front of the gap.
“So I crawled in the gap, got my pinnie7 caught in the wire a couple of times and finally going barely an inch at a time, got to where could see these two men here.
“They were singing what seemed to be Christmas carols. I guess the snow affects Germans the way it does us. Anyway, instead of watching the gap as was their duty they were facing each other, revelling in close harmony. They would brake off, argue quietly and then try the passage again, to get it just right. So while they were working out their harmonies I got within a few feet of them. Then I held up my pistol and said distinctly – ‘Bleib still8!'”
“They blibed. All they could see was the pistol about two feet from their heads, suspended in space. I told them, in my good high school German, to put their hands high and with me to come. They thought I was a fairy or a ghost of something. German folklore has other winter characters besides Santa Claus.
“So I digged them in the ribs to show them the visible gun was real. And here they are.”
“But where,” said the colonel, picking up the garment which Fannah had over his head, “did you get this? Why Fannah, it is a flannel nightshirt!”
“That,” said Fannah, “is my dear old mother’s Christmas present to her boy in the trenches, received in the mail.”
- In World War 1, a bathmat is another name for a duckboard. Wooden planking were placed at the bottom of trenches and across other areas of muddy or waterlogged ground to avoid sinking into them. ↩︎
- Ack Emma is a British signalmen’s telephone pronunciation of A.M., before noon. So one ack emma is 1 a.m. ↩︎
- Querulously means in a complaining way, especially using a weak high voice. ↩︎
- A firestep is narrow ledge, located inside a trench, that allows soldiers to see over the parapet. ↩︎
- In World War 1, Stokes mortars were 3 inch mortars. ↩︎
- Parados were an elevation of earth behind a fortified place as a protection against attack from the rear, especially a mound along the back of a trench. ↩︎
- A pinnie is short for the British word “pinafore,” a term that originally meant “an apron or sleeveless garment”. ↩︎
- German for “Stay still”. ↩︎