Stanley E. Stephens’ letter about his ‘baptism of fire’ in the trenches

Transcript of an article by “Coo-ee” Stanley. E. Stephens titled ‘A Baptism of Fire” published in The Farmer and Settler on 17 August 1917, p. 2.

A “Hop-Over” In France

The “raids” upon the German trenches carried out by the British forces have been among the most successful enterprises with which the war has made newspaper readers familiar, and their effect upon the enemy has been of the highest military importance, breaking down his moral, shattering his nerves, and making him, in most cases, an easy prey to the attacking party. A vivid description of one of these raids, and one that is interesting also, because of the personal and psychological disclosures made, was given by Stan E. Stephens, formerly on the “Farmer and Settler” staff in a letter that he wrote from France shortly before he participated in the attack upon Lagnicourt, in which action he was reported among the “missing.”

“On the night of February 4th, we ‘went in’ — into the front line,” he writes. “As we had suspected for some time past, we were to do a ‘stunt.’ There was a ‘hop over’ for us, to try to take a trench that some other battalion had taken and failed to hold, four or five days before. We dumped our blankets, and at about eight p.m. moved off in Indian file; stopped a moment at an ammunition dump at a chalk pit, to fill our pockets with bombs; then on again, in dead silence, crouching. We passed through a sap running forward to our front line, which we entered, squeezing past the Victorians that were holding it, and thus getting into position for the ‘hop over,’ only a few minutes to ten p.m. It had taken us two hours to come three-quarters of a mile. The moon was like an electric incandescent lamp in the frosty sky. Our hearts were thumping, and one heard muttered words and curses, as we stumbled into our places, and nervously filled our magazines and fixed our bayonets. I was wondering if I could ever bring myself to get over that bank, two feet above my head, where I crouched in what was merely a shell-hole connected with other shell-holes, and called a trench. Fritz was quiet. It must surely be ten o’clock — the time we were to go over. The big wild Irishman, Tom Riley, was on my right, Finlayson and Lord on my left.

“The plan of attack on this occasion was explained to us before we moved off, and was similar in the main points to the teachings we had had back in England. A two-minute barrage was to open on the enemy wire at ten p.m. making a passage for us, and then lifting to the trench, putting the enemy to flight, and smashing things up generally. At the end of two minutes (10.2 p.m.) the barrage was to lift altogether, and play on to the enemy supports and communications. We were to hop out at one minute past ten, and it was estimated that it would take us a minute to cross, reaching the wire as the barrage lifted to the supports — distance across, 150 yards. Our objective was a trench (already known as Stormy trench), in which Fritz had a strong post.

A Nerve-steadying Drink.
“Some one said: ‘Get ready’, and I was just wishing I was at home, or anywhere else in the wide world, when a fervent ‘Ah!’ in the vicinity made me look around. A mess-tin full of rum was being passed along. Everyone took a swig, and passed it on. There was plenty in it when it came to me, and I just gulped down a couple of mouthfuls and handed it to Fin, when, ‘bang,’ ‘bang,’ ‘screech,’ ‘screech,’ over our heads came some shells. Many men involuntarily ‘ducked,’ but were reassured by someone saying: ‘They’re ours.’ So they were. The barrage had started — only a minute to go! Thank Heaven for that rum. It pulled me together, stopped the nervous trembling that made me afraid that everybody would notice me and think I was going to ‘squib’ it. I was cool enough to notice things then, but still I glanced hatefully now and then at the top of the bank above me.

“Somebody said: ‘Now!’ There was a bustle, and I found myself up in No Man’s Land jostling someone to get around a shell-hole. The order had come simultaneously from both ends of our line, so that we at the centre were a bit behind — a sag in the middle. Everything could be seen as clear as day; the line stretched out to right and left. We crouched in our advance, moving slowly, picking our way, with the shells shrieking over us, and bursting only a few yards in front of us. I thought about the ‘backwash.’ Why weren’t some of us killed. Would they knock our heads off if we stood up straight? We were in semi-open order, perhaps five or six deep, and advancing slowly. Oh!, the weight on my back from the heavy kit and the stooping. Yet I felt amused at the struggles of a chap that was sitting down, softly cursing a piece of barbed wire— such silly, meaningless curses. Another stumbled in front of me, and I nearly jabbed him with my bayonet. Then I looked around smartly, to see if any one was close enough behind me to treat me likewise.

“The wire! We were up to it already. But the shells weren’t finished. They had made a good mess of it, I saw as I stepped through from loop to loop. A piece caught me somewhere, but something gave way and I was free again. No; the shells weren’t finished yet. ‘They are bursting behind me.’ I exclaimed to myself, ‘Why on earth don’t I get killed? Are they charmed, so as to kill only Fritzes.’ I caught the flash of another out of the tail of my eye, and then there was a straight line of intermittent flashes in front. What’s this? At that moment I slid and scrambled down a steep, bank and found myself in the German trench!

Too Quick for Fritz.  
“Our barrage was just lifting. A Fritz officer afterwards said: ‘I knew you were   Australians; you come in with your barrage; you are too quick for us.’ Yes, we went in with the barrage, instead of a few moments after it— and without a casualty!

“The details of this, my first hop-over, my baptism of fire, are indelibly printed on my memory. I shall always remember the impressions made on me, down to the most trivial incident of the hop-over. Thinking over it afterwards, I have tried to reason out why we got in with our barrage. It’s a good fault, for it prevents the Germans from getting ready for us when the barrage lifts. The Germans reckon that the Australians are always too quick for them that way. I certainly believe that a spirit of ‘don’t-care-a-damn’ was abroad; or, maybe, it was hereditary bloodthirstiness that came out in the excitement, and made us, for the time being, all ‘hogs for stoush.’ I think only the fear that we would be killed by our own curtain of fire kept us from actually running. It wasn’t the rum, anyhow, as the slanderous have asserted. The rum, I found out afterwards, was our first casualty, being broken in the coming up, so that the only rum issued was half a demi-john to a small section of trench that I happened to be in. The jar was found by a chap taking German prisoners back half an hour later, still   nearly half full.

“Just by the way, I might mention that he gave this batch of Fritzes a nip each, and filled his own waterbottle before giving the remainder to the Victorians (the men holding the old front trench), and bustling his herd back to Chalk Pit. The poor beggars wanted it!   They were almost in a state of collapse from our bombardment. I was to experience the same sort of bombardment very soon after.

Delighted to be Prisoners.
“To get back to it: The Fritzes that remained in the trench to meet us were still down their dugouts when the first men hopped in. The trench was big, wide, and deep. They came up crying, ‘Mercy, kamerad,’ whining and cowering in the bottom of the trench in a way that made me feel very brave; and, I have no doubt, the same feelings were experienced by others. They were shooed off at once in batches of ten or a dozen, as they were found, back to — somewhere. They were delighted to find that they were to be prisoners, pointing back to our lines and saying, ‘Mercy, kamerad,’ and ‘Kamerad good,’ etc. But they didn’t care about going over the top to go back. I helped one chap persuade his lot to go. I don’t think I actually stuck it into them, but they went! Like a mob of sheep, once started on their feet, they raced over the top and across No Man’s land for their very lives, the escort a good last, laughing fit to burst, at their scurry.

“Finlayson was separated from us in the hop-over, and entered the trench some distance on our right. Lord and I were together. Our bombardment continued on the enemy reserves, and Fritz had commenced ‘putting them into us.’ The row was deafening, and we were having casualties; not very many, but every now and then the order would be passed along for stretcher bearers. Just as I stepped down for a smoke (it would be about midnight) Fin. came along the trench looking for us. After yarning for a minute or two he went back to fetch his web gear and rifle, etc., up to our ‘possy.’ He and I had been mates for a long while, back in Kiama, and together with Lord, had run our affairs on an ‘all in and share alike’ basis, since going into the line. He had only been gone about ten minutes when another mate named Moss Paine came to tell me that Fin. was killed. I went back along the trench with Moss, but Fin. had been hit in the chest with a piece of shell that exploded in the trench, and had dropped without a word. Another good chap, Dave Whittingham (a tent mate at Duntroon), was hit everywhere, and died in half an hour. Moss Paine, who was standing between them— the three were talking together—was not touched. Needless to say, I was much upset. “The little bit of a trench we took has ‘opened up the game’ on this front, seemingly. It was on a rise that obstructed our observation of enemy lines; now the tables are turned.”’

Click here to view the article on Trove:

Note: Stanley E. Stephens was The Farmer and Settler newspaper’s official reporter on the Coo-ee March. He also joined the Coo-ees at Gilgandra as a recruit, and had the rank of sergeant on the march. Francis Charles Finlayson (whose death is reported in this article) joined the Coo-ees at Parramatta.

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