Bringing supplies up through the mud, 1917. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image E00963.
We found Sailly-au-Bois to be a small deserted French village, partly destroyed, and with one main street. Not quite deserted really as two very old French women were living alone in their respective houses. Obviously they had refused to leave their homes, but a few weeks later they were taken away by the French authorities. One woman kept a big pig which she drove through her kitchen to a back room for safety from marauding soldiers each night. When morning came she drove it out again to a small pig-sty outside her kitchen door.
The other woman was more interesting as she kept chickens which seemed to lay plenty of eggs. We used to go to her and say: “Omelette, Madame, s’il vous plait” and she would hold up her fingers asking if we wanted a two, three or four egg omelette. Such luxury! We usually had four eggs. Both pig woman and chicken woman were later taken away much to our regret.
We were to sleep in a large barn with mud walls and upon the hard mud ground inside. We duly put down our waterproof groundsheet, rolled in our blanket, overcoat on and went to sleep. But this lasted only a few minutes as there was a sudden shout of “Rats!” Almost simultaneously a rat ran over the side of my head as I lay on the ground into my next door man’s blanket. He jumped up with a shout and so did everyone else.
We found out next day that the barn walls were full of rat runs and rats were plainly visible during daytime running along their burrows. It was enough for us. Every night we vacated the barn and slept in the orchard adjoining the barn in the open air. We moved out of the barn at night and moved our kit into the barn in the morning. We did this because our sergeant-major said no-one was allowed to sleep outside when covered accommodation was available. He never tried to enforce this dictum, he had done his duty and therefore left us alone. So we all slept outside at night and stored our kit inside by day. I have never forgotten, however, the feeling of that rat running over the left side of my head in the darkness of the barn.
At this time, every day was a busy one, running out telephone lines, helping the gunmen to build emplacements with sandbags, nets with camouflage over the top of each gun; bricks from the villages were broken up to put under the gun wheels so that the recoil of the gun did not dig itself in the soft soil. We had just received two additional guns, making us a six gun battery. This was a major change as it involved the addition of another fifty horses and drivers, another forty gunners and several more officers. We signallers received another ten men to join our party. All, of course, newly trained recruits from England full of theory but no actual experience. We had to teach them the practicalities of war which shocked them.
One day I was walking alone up the main street of Sailly-au-Bois from our barn residence to the battery when I met our Major going from the battery to his sleeping quarters. I saluted and was passing when he stopped me, saying: “Elwin I want to speak to you.” I stopped dead in my tracks, sprung to attention and said, “Yes, sir.” He was about 6ft 3 ins tall and at 5ft 11ins I felt very small. He towered above me. To my utter surprise he then said gravely: “I am going to make you a bombardier”. He then gave me a short lecture on how I should behave, pointing out I should be discreet as I would be ordering old seasoned regular soldiers what to do and what not to do. To all of which I said: “Yes, sir, I understand. I will do my best.” He replied: “I’m sure you will.” Then I saluted again and he walked on.
My head was in a whirl over this sudden promotion over the heads of many older seasoned soldiers. I told our sergeant but he smiled and said he knew all about it as the major had spoken to him first. I sewed the one stripe on my sleeve and my pay went up from one shilling seven pence daily to two shillings seven pence, an increase of one shilling per day. I had always liked our Major, in fact he was very popular with all ranks. Stern, just, but friendly to all ranks under his command. Not like the little poppycock who became our commanding officer after Major Hanna went home for good. Possibly due to age, he had a snow-white head.
So there we were, preparing for the July 1st 1916 Somme offensive. Our village was repeatedly shelled by the Germans and we had to dodge for cover many times, always crouching behind some cover and praying we wouldn’t be killed by a direct hit.
One funny incident stands out in my mind. Outside our barn was a small courtyard with a 20ft well complete with bucket and rope and the usual winding gear. It was our habit to draw up water for washing purposes. One day the shelling started and everyone dived for cover. One of our men, a very nervous Irishman named Mulcahy, jumped into the well bucket and, of course, went to the bottom into the water. Nobody knew what he had done and he spent several hours at the bottom of the well before his shouts for help were heard.