Canadian soldiers standing on top of a German pillbox. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial
One night in the darkness some infantry passing by were caught in enemy shellfire and a number were wounded. Shouts of help were heard and my close friend Norman Newton, off duty at the time, went out in the darkness to see if he could be of help. He helped to carry on a stretcher a soldier who had had his arm shot away. It was still in his sleeve but kept dangling down from the stretcher side. A sickening experience for Norman who was much shaken when he returned some hours later.
From our O.P. we looked out over German held territory and the ruined town of Passchendaele. I never actually went into the town as it seemed to be occupied by both sides. So that was our duty for some months, up and down Hunter Street, directing the fire of our guns on the Germans, then back to a spell on the battery telephone, mixed, of course, with the inevitable job of repairing telephone lines broken by shellfire.
Back at the battery eight of us had fixed ourselves up with sleeping quarters in a German pillbox. These were quite different to the blockhouses which stood above ground level and depended on their two foot thick concrete walls for protection. Pillboxes were smaller and sunk into the ground at trench level. The one we occupied was at the end of a trench which opened out in the side of what was a depression in the ground about the size of two tennis courts. The depression was of course half filled with water. We had to go halfway round this depression to reach the battery. We excavated the end of the trench and created a tiny living area about six feet square, with a canvas opening and thick earth sides, corrugated iron roof and a fireplace in one corner, all collected from the surrounding battlefield.
The pillbox itself was about twelve feet by eight feet inside and was entered through a small opening three feet high and the width of a man’s body, on hands and knees of course. We used an old German bayonet to slowly, oh very slowly, scratch out a channel in the concrete to drain the water out. Having done that we put down duckboards (dry wood) to sleep on. Over the many weeks we were in the position with just two guns firing we were as comfortable as we ever had been. Sound sleeping quarters by night and a shielded fire by daylight to keep us warm. We were approaching Christmas 1917 and most days and nights were heavy with frost.
Our comparative comfort was rudely disturbed on several occasions. First our two guns were heavily shelled one day by the Germans. One gun was put out of action and the gun crew had some men killed and most of them wounded. One poor chap had only been with us for two months, a new recruit fresh from England, and he received a shell splinter in his stomach. I saw him being carried away on a stretcher clutching his stomach. He died next day. On another occasion we were shelled and the little, tiny, dug-out in which our telephone was installed was blown sideways. The officer, Lieutenant White, just disappeared. We searched for several hours and eventually found him wandering with loss of memory and shellshock but otherwise uninjured. The telephonist was quite badly wounded. He never came back to France again.
Another incident which hurt me very much at the time was the wounding of my close friend and comrade Norman Newton. I have written earlier that from our pillbox home we went about fifty yards around the rim of the depression to reach the guns and go on duty. I was up at the observation post at the time doing a 24 hour spell of duty. My friend was going on duty at 6 a.m. when halfway round the rim a shell exploded near him and he received a shell splinter through the calf of his leg, fortunately missing the bone.
When I returned from the O.P. he had been taken to an advanced dressing station some miles behind the battery. Although I had done a 24 hour spell of duty without sleep, I asked our sergeant if I could have the day off all duties so that I could go to the dressing station to see Norman. He readily gave his permission and I walked four or five miles before finding Norman in a large marquee with a huge red cross on the top and in one of about twenty beds. He grinned cheerfully when seeing me and said, “I’ve got a Blighty one, Peter.” This meant he was going to England. I sat with him for four or five hours and then set off back to walk the four or five miles to the battery. That was in 1917 and I did not see him again until after the war in 1920 when he came over from Stoke on Trent to my wedding, bringing a lovely tea service as a wedding present.
Another disturbing incident occurred just before Christmas 1917. One of our eight occupants of our pillbox home was going along our well- worn path around the rim from pillbox to battery. When going up the slight rise in the ground, he scraped away some mud while walking and activated a buried German hand bomb. He was badly injured and left us never to return. It could have happened to any one of us as we all traversed the same path.
Just before Christmas it turned frosty and everywhere was white with frost and the ground was hard everywhere. So easy to walk upon compared to the everlasting deep mud. It must be realised that we had dried mud on our outer clothing and halfway up our calf-high boots. Never any parades or inspections, just dirty men doing dirty work – dirty outer clothing and dirty inner clothing. We did manage to wash our underclothes occasionally when the weather was suitable and finally dry them in front of our little fire.
We washed hands and face every morning, also shaved every morning. We fixed up two or three duckboards jutting out into the middle of the little lake and obtained a bucketful of clean water each time for washing. After doing this for a month or so we noticed to our horror a dead German lying in the bottom of the water. Possibly a heavy storm and water movement had washed away the film of earth which had been covering him. Of course we drew our washing water elsewhere afterwards. A dead German was not our business.
When we used to enter our pillbox to sleep at night, when not on duty, there would be probably six of us inside. After crawling in on hands and knees, the last man to enter fixed up a wooden framed chicken wire screen to keep out rats. We learned to do that as a rat got inside one night and caused pandemonium. Even though the screen was up stray rats would come and climb outside the wire trying to get inside. We would poke our knives through the wire to frighten them away.
Once inside and settled for sleep, we lay reading or writing letters home. Remember it was only possible to sit up in the centre of the pillbox as the opposing sides were only one foot high. That is where we placed our heads, our feet met in the middle. Along the back of our heads was a four-inch wide concrete moulding, part of the design of the structure and an admirable place to have a candle for reading or writing purposes.