Today, thankfully, is in the main another “nothing of importance” day. The Serbian Army continues waiting for French deliverance; the action at Third Isonzo is mostly limited to artillery fire and counter-battery responses.
Burying the dead
So let’s check in at Loos, where attention is finally turning to the increasingly-smelly corpses that are lying around everywhere in the wake of the Battle of Loos. Lieutenant George Cralke of the 12th Highland Light Infantry has just arrived in the sector, and he’s not in a good mood.
[Burying the dead] naturally could only be done under cover of darkness. The evening burial parties were a feature which went on for several months before the battlefields were finally cleared up. Each unit had its share of this unpleasant task. One frosty evening, practically the whole of our company, including the captain, were on a special burial party.
We crawled out of the trenches with caution, and dealt with the dead by pulling them into depressions in the earth or shell-holes. This was not a pleasant task, and occasionally the arms disengaged from the bodies. However, they were placed as far as possible in the holes and covered over with a light layer of earth, brushed or dug in with entrenching tools. All the work had to be done on all fours.
In addition, the frequent Very lights of the Germans necessitated instant stillness while the lights illuminated the sky. The work was slow, laborious, and difficult. Before the bodies were actually covered over, the main task was to retrieve the identity discs.
“Occasionally the arms disengaged from the bodies.” You don’t even have to go into battle to find a seriously traumatic experience in this war! Trooper Clarke, still up the line, concurs with this.
It was impossible to bury them all. They lay in the trenches where they’d fallen or been slung, and the rain had washed most the earth away. You’d go along the trenches and see a boot and puttee sticking out, or an arm or a hand. Sometimes faces. You’d be walking on them, slipping and sliding. The stench was terrible because of the rotting flesh. But if you ever had to write home about a particular mate, you’d always say he got it quick and clean with a bullet and he didn’t know what had happened.
A common complaint was “back home, they just don’t know what it’s like”. Here, Trooper Clarke shows the other side of that coin; the willing self-censorship by most of the men, who all knew instinctively that they couldn’t just tell it like it was.
Louis Barthas is settling back into life up the line as best he can.
Those who find their bedrooms not spacious or comfortable enough should consider whether forty men were comfortable on this narrow, muddy, slippery staircase, where every moment someone was either going up or coming down, and there wasn’t room for two slightly overweight men to pass each other. Luckily we were all pretty thin.
The opening of this cave faced the enemy, and it was quite possible that an errant shell could come bouncing down the staircase and make a bloody grenadier omelette. But we didn’t give this a second thought; we were familiar with mortal danger.
Besides, we weren’t gathering any moss in this dead-end spot. On the captain’s behalf, morning and night, an orderly came and put us into work details. We had to carry out our chores in the rain; since we had arrived at the Tranchée du Moulin it rained almost without stopping.
You’ll note that Captain Cros-Mayrevielle sends his orderly with orders, rather than going himself, even though they’re only in a reserve trench. I suppose we can admire the officer’s utter devotion to cowardice and self-comfort.
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