While researching the stories of WW1 soldiers from Hadleigh and Thundersley, Val Jackson was given Leonard Doust’s account of how he came to be awarded the Military Medal
THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE
Taking ammunition up the line by mules to advanced battery on which occasion I was honoured with the Military Medal.
L.A.DOUST No 156799 Driver L.A. Doust113(8) /A/Brigade ACRFA
Horribly frightened, yes he was horribly, humbly frightened.
‘Oh God! For Christ’s sake don’t let me be killed or maimed. Don’t let me lose my arms and legs!’ He muttered it over and over – the same words. His brain was clear. He knew what he wanted and he wanted it as he had wanted nothing else… his life… his body.
‘Oh God! for Christ’s sake don’t let me be killed or maimed! Don’t let me lose my arms and legs!’ He dreaded death, extinction but he dreaded more the shrieking horror of an arm blown off. What does one do if an arm is blown off? It doesn’t hurt at first, they say. You don’t know it has happened for a minute or more. Just a screech through the air and you lie felled by the wayside, dumb with horror and blood pouring.
His teeth chattered. His clenched jaw could not hold them still. Inside his head they sounded a weird kind of jangle. It was the blood. He could see it there, in the centre of the track. A body dressed in dull olive-fawn, coated with grey mud, untouched apparently but by the neck a little pool of dull red, which by very contrast of colour, drew down his eyes.
He was past. Good! He held his jaw firmly for a minute. Dragging on he solemnly started again. ‘Oh God, for Christ’s sake…’
‘Curse the mules! Why didn’t they come without dragging? He’d get killed soon. The air was full of noise; distant booms, whining screeches overhead; sharp reports as shrapnel burst; vicious shrieks of near-falling shells; and worst of all, those tiny whirrs and instant sharp taps telling of shrapnel fragments. Twice he heard a ‘whizz’ and a ‘ping’, a piece of hot ragged metal had hit his ‘tin-hat’. He didn’t jump. He was too numb. There was a heart-leap and he hurried in his prayer: ‘Don’ le’ me ge’ killed!’
Why weren’t there some others about? He ventured to look around. There on his right was the shattered wood. Not a living soul in sight. At each side of the wooden track, built on piles, was sprinkled and in parts piled, debris: waggons, stretchers, corrugated iron, planks, – all smashed and splintered; dead horses near to bursting; dead men looking gruesomely like the grey mud modelled into human likenesses. These did not terrify him; merely giving the accustomed chilled bewilderment. What struck his soul and paralysed his mind was the fresh red blood.
All along the track lay newly dead men; their attitudes repulsive but not frightening; their grey faces showing clearly they’d been bled. And by nearly everyone lay the horror – blood, which gave him such fear as to stop his prayer and make him long to run. Yes, he would have stampeded back if he had had the vitality to do so. But he had started forward now and was too numb to turn. He was going to die. Of that he felt nervous but prepared for. But to be ripped and gashed and torn… It wasn’t dying he feared, but being killed.
‘Curse the mules!’ No, he mustn’t curse or God wouldn’t look after him. Mother and Father were praying. They wanted him back whole. ‘Oh God! for Christ’s sake and mother and father’s sake, don’t let me be killed!’
The mules with their loads of shells ( four apiece, 4.5 gun ammunition) came to a dead halt, ears back, muscles vibrating, fore-legs rigid. They also feared blood. They also minded not death. And before them the wooden track had burst asunder. In the chaos of destruction lay the remains of an ammunition waggon, also six horses and three men bleeding – dead. How long? Perhaps five minutes.
Roused by the mules’ refusal to budge, moved to indignation at their stopping, the youngster (he was only nineteen and had come straight from school to bloodshed) damned them between his shaking teeth. He had been drifting into partial numbness, just moving his steps beating time to the rhythm of his prayer. And now a jarring note of stoppage. He ground his teeth with rage as he tried to drag the beasts over the shell-holes and round the men.
They would not go forward. Worse, with eyes ringed-white and staring, they slowly backed. With an energy born of fear, the fear of stopping – of going mad, and, with splitting brain, of drowning himself in a stinking gas-filled shell-hole, he seized the rein of the second mule and tied it to the other’s bridle. Then laying the front mule’s rein over his shoulder, he pulled, pulled with a frantic fear of blood.
Jerkily he forged ahead, but what was that? Hooves hurrying on the wooden track? He swung round and saw the rear mule lumbering unsteadily down the way he had come. The driver saw nothing funny about it. All he knew was that he had to catch the thing and to make it go past that heap of death, as he had to go.
Racing down the track, holding his one mule by the rein, he saw the first living being. It had a red band on its arm and it was dodging into a dugout where the track divided. A little comfort came to him. He was not in the world of dead men, killed men. He had no sense of envy at the man’s sudden disappearance into safety. Obviously he couldn’t get into a dugout with two mules.
Ha, there was Geoff, standing bewildered at the parting of the ways, stricken with the uncertainty of vague fear. He had called his two mules, Geoff and Jim, after two boys in a story of his boyhood. ‘Geoff, Geoff, all right old boy – keep calm – keep calm – now then – come on then – come on.’
Slowly he retraced his steps, came to the hole of blood, made a large detour round it and across the sea of shell-holes – thick yellow-grey mud. Then the barrage came down upon him again, with devitalizing heaviness. ‘Oh God, for Christ’s sake don’t let me get killed or maimed,’ he started again. He was back to his nerveless rigid tramp; his hands clenching the reins; his teeth vainly trying to clench; his whole body tense with fear. He passed by more blood, and sickness swept through him. More blood, shells, trembling fear, parrot prayer!
The track was uphill now, up towards the ridge. His battery was somewhere around here, on the right. Yes, just about here. He tramped slower, his bewildered mind could not think what to do. The shelling thinned perceptibly. No one in sight. Suddenly an officer appeared from beneath the mud. To the weary artilleryman he seemed a heavenly angel, and, as if to bear this out, the officer carried a heavenly message. ‘Hello, what are you doing here?’ he cried; the lack of welcome in his voice sounding very sweet.
‘Ammunition, sir’, said the youngster, his own words seeming to be spoken by someone near him, someone very weak and frightened. He felt disgusted with the voice, also disappointed, for he had made a great effort to speak easily and firmly.
Then came the message direct from heaven. ‘Get to hell out of this boy!’ ‘What about the ammunition, sir?’ he loitered, goodness knows why. Perhaps he was too tired to turn back, even to move, without a definite push.
‘Put ’em on the side, put ’em on the side and,’ with a rising voice, ‘get out, get out boy.’ The angelic order gave him power. He, slowly at first, lugged the shells from their stiff canvas cases and dropped them on the track side. ‘Right O, sir,’ he said in a much improved tone.
The officer gave a wave of the hand and vanished suddenly beneath the mud. A shrapnel shell burst perilously near and low – one of the small white puffs, not so dangerous as the great black ones, but with vicious sharp twang as if a string had broken in a mighty harp.
With a kick and a wriggle he was on Jim’s back. Not a comfortable seat for he had neglected to move the coarse canvas packs which spread over the saddle. Perched uncomfortably on the packs, not troubling to find his stirrups, he swung his mount round and set off at a steady trot.
Much more likely to be hit by a shell, with miles of danger before him; yet his heart beat steadily and he stopped praying, for was he not on the way down from the line.
As he trotted he heard more mighty harp strings burst; he heard the curt pings of the sharp little pieces driving their way into the wooden track. He did not care; and Geoff and Jim did not care as they clattered over the heavy planks with earnest gusto.
Soon came the fear. Blood. There it was on the track, drying dark. The mules swerved and lost their even stride. Onwards at a clumsy canter but now fearful; praying again: If he was killed now! ‘Oh God, for Christ’s sake…’
He reached the bend. Now straight before him stretched the Menin Road. He hated the track. He saw in his mind the hole in the track and the blood. He would not return that way; straight on for him.
The shelling ceased but for a few seemingly chance shells dropping at a distance and in various directions, as if the enemy were merely using up a few left over. Here was the Menin Road. He slowed his mules to a a steady trot, found his stirrups, breathed easily. He even thanked God for not letting him be killed or maimed. He still had his arms and legs.
Then out of the grey sky fell a rasping shriek filling his ears. Acting instantly, instinctively he threw himself down against the side of his mule – CRASH – right on him. He was off the mule, sweeping along the road – one foot in a stirrup – bump, bump, bump – this was the end. The mule’s hoof struck his free leg, just missed his face. Finis – killed or maimed.
Stillness – he was lying upon the road. Of course he was dying. There was a great hole in him somewhere, with blood running. He’d never stop it; better lie and go unconscious.
But a minute later he found energy returning. Stiffly he stood up. Thoughtfully and fearfully he felt himself, his back, his legs, his stomach and neck. Out of the ditch another mud-coated figure was climbing. ‘That was a near ‘un,’ said the figure. ‘Yes, I don’t think I’m hit; but I… I think I’m smashed up a bit. ‘Thought it had got me,’ said the other.
Each thought of himself only. War makes no change in human beings. They don’t turn into angels either when alive or dead. They don’t turn into devils. Their natures become more intense, but do not change in substance. Selfishness is predominant; cruelty common; comradeship rare and, still, the most precious thing on earth. Life is simpler, that is all. Friendship becomes crystal clear in its value; cruelty has no danger of appearing excusable; selfishness is obviously universal and sadly natural: obedience to the letter of laws, written and unwritten is the prevailing occupation of all.
Our youngster, the artillery driver, was busy picking a small piece of shrapnel out of his hand. He nearly smiled at the thin stream of blood, it was so small.
And now a G.S. Waggon appeared in the distance, approaching rapidly; going down the line. What words of import were those two: ‘down’ and ‘up.’ Down the line’ or ‘up the line’ – heaven or hell. This G.S. Waggon had two colonials on the dickie, two more inside; the horses were at full trot, nearly a gallop.
‘Hi! Hi!’ shouted the little muddy men standing at the side of the battered road. Quickly they sensed the waggon was not stopping for them or anything. They were not shocked or disappointed. ‘Every man for himself,’ was as much the motto in war, as in business, may be more so. ‘Blinkin Aussies,’ they muttered with the natural insular bias; knowing well that their own countrymen held no sinecure in unselfishness.
The waggon rattled towards them. They jumped back to the road edge and, as it passed, made a running leap for the back-board. The artilleryman, kicked and bruised, hung on hopefully. They would pull him in if he hung on. But it seemed years, to his mind, before a face looked over and a hand reached down.
With an effort which was nauseating, he struggled up, his arm grazing on the edge of the back-board and his leg throbbing violently. A lurch and he was in the waggon. He looked back at the way he had come. There lay his mule, Jim, a few yards on from the spot where he had fallen. As he looked, another shell smashed down onto the very spot where he and the other fellow had examined themselves so fearfully.
The shelling faded. The Aussies steadied their horses to a trot. The waggon passd a small detachment of labour corps with spades and picks – thin weak looking men – mostly over forty – draped in straggly waterproof sheets and muddy steel helmets – they resembled a party of tramps rather than soldiers of a world empire. There were signs of the mornings ‘strafe’ back here. Fresh shell-holes with acrid smell and four ambulances stationary outside an advanced dressing station.
Soon they approached Ypres. A huge shell dropped in the square. He knew it was in the square by the sharp crack of metal against the cobbles. The waggon pulled up at a general canteen, coated with sandbags and corrugated iron sheeting. All, excepting one driver, went in and drank coffee. Each paid for himself, for money was scarce among the Tommies and the Aussies sat by themselves.
As he came out he met four fellows from his unit. They had taken a load of ammunition from the main dump to an advanced one. ‘Hallo Len,’ one called cheerfully ‘Where’ve you been?’ ‘What ho! Mac.’ he replied. ‘Up the line. I reckon you can take me back to camp. I’ve had enough,’ and he climbed into their waggon.
‘Where’s your mules, Len?’ asked the Scottie, as he tightened the girth of his saddle. ‘Killed,’ said Len, ‘and so was I nearly.’ He stumbled to a corner and dropped on to a piece of waterproof and shut his eyes. Red haze swirled before him, a blood-red haze which darkened to a dull blackness.
Len awoke in camp. Yes, he was safe. There were the horse-lines, lined with mules, the tents with their circles of raised earth to protect the sleeper from bomb and shell and there was his red-faced sergeant-major so disagreable-looking and so jovial-natured (a foreman plate-layer in civvy life).
He saw Len and strolled over, ‘And where have you been eh?’ he questioned.
‘Up the line’ replied Len, tersely and tiredly. ‘Up the line, eh! and where are your mules then, eh?’ the Sergeant-Major was prone to the amen of ‘eh’.
‘Dead’ said Len. ‘Killed – shell on the Menin Road.’ ‘What two of my best mules? dead eh?’ Len said nothing, put up his hand to show it covered in blood.
‘Ah, well’ added the Sergeant-Major ‘can’t be helped now, eh? Go and get that hand tied up and get into kip.’ Len turned, limped painfully into his tent, with its floor of wet mud, crept under his dirty damp blankets. He was not killed or maimed. He shut his eyes and said ‘Thank you Lord’.
Many thanks to Tim Doust for allowing the Archive to publish his father’s account of how he came to be awarded the Military Medal and the splendid picture of his father in uniform.