An Underground Tank
Lieut. C. W. Tilbrook
Who Wrote “The Enemy Under the Earth," “Buried Alive,” etc.
BINGY walked into the dugout, soaking wet. “Dirty night in the trenches,” he growled. I knew something must be wrong with him. He was not smiling. “What’s the matter?” I inquired. “That d-d sniper’s got
five men in the last hour. You can’t get by in Canada street without crawling on your stomach—and it’s such a beastly undignified way to go around!”
I nodded in sympathy. This sniper was an absolute mystery. Somewhere in no man’s land he had his nest. We had been unable to locate him owing to the fact that his rifle was fitted with a silencer. We had heard the “chug” of it and we knew that he was not far away. He had, however, located us “good and plenty”—in one week he had accounted for 11 men and now five more in an hour.
It was the wet season, January, and it rained all the time as it can only rain in Flanders. Our trenches were no longer trenches but just a series of mounds connected by sink holes. The only places that were at all inhabitable were our saps. We had carefully built small dams with sand bags round our sap entrances and these kept the 'water out. Also we kept our gas curtains down. These curtains were blankets on rollers, and could be pulled up or down at will, they were saturated with the vermal solution to neutralize the gas if it came our way and prevent our galleries filling up with the dreaded invisible death. The result of these precautions was that underground we were dry and warm and the envy of the infantry, (only for our comfort, not for our jobs).
INGY and I sat around and discussed ways and means of “getting” the mysterious sniper. We finished a meal in the meantime and were waiting for the shift to come off when we received a visitor in the form of one Lieut. Gills, commonly known as the Fish. He was a cadaverous individual with a continuous smile that revealed protuberant teeth, halfsoled in gold. Incidentally he was the inveterate gossip monger of that section of the front.
The Fish greeted us with his customary form of salutation, “God’s rotten night, you chaps!” and sat down on a bully beef box. Then he elevated his muddy boots on my bed and helped himself to a cigarette from a package on the table, absentmindedly dropping the package into his pocket.
That had to be stopped of
course and, after the affair of the dirty boots and the bed had been settled, we demanded to know what had brought him
“Well, Old Top, you see I’m shy on timbers. Some rotter stole all my 2 ft. 3 x 4 ft. off the dump and I didn’t discover it till to-night. So I want you to let me have some.”
Bingy glared. “Somebody stole our 2 ft. 3x4 ft. last night. The dump corporal said it was one of your sergeants came up with a party and took it. Are you trying to rub it in?”
The Fish grinned. “Fact is,” he said, “I’m short of rum and I promised the fatigue party I’d get some. Could you let me have a jar?”
I saw it was time for me to join in the conversation.
“Nothing doing!” I said, “abso-ballylutely! You swipe our sills and then come to us for rum to reward your band. Go home, Ali Baba, go home to your cave and your forty thieves”
“Well, what’ll I do?” moaned the Fish,
his hand stealing over towards my cigarettes again. “Smoke your own,” I suggested.
So he gave up his felonious efforts and came around to the real object of his visit. “I’m coming on duty here tomorrow,” he announced.
Bingy squirmed and breathed an audible “Hell!” The Fish ignored the frank ejaculation and proceeded to enlighten us with the latest news which he had discovered in the bowels of the earth. “The tunneling companies are going to move out of the salient. Didn’t you hear? Well. Just nursing parties to be left here. I suppose most of the officers will transfer into something else. Me, I’ll go into the tanks. Ripping idea, tanks, what?” We agreed and the Fish, having passed on his news, rose to depart.
“Am I to get that rum?” he asked in a placating tone.
“Shylock!” he snapped.
Bingy called after him. “’Ware sniper!” Then we looked at each other with mutual commiseration for the presence of the Fish was not going to add anything much to the pleasantness of our lot. Gills was an inventor, one of that very numerous tribe who would win the war by some ingenious dooflang and hope to discover a magic carpet to carry the Allied armies to Berlin. The army is full of them. With the prospect of having the Fish added to our little circle we could not keep our minds from reverting to the occasion when a G. O. C. was inveigled into inspecting a smokeless stove that Gills’ fertile mind had conceived. The sequel was painful, the General’s name appearing In the next casualty list —accidentally, and painfully, burned about the lower limbs! The Fish was not a comfortable person to have about.
E turned in. A few hours later I was awakened by a sapper shaking my shoulder.
“A sergeant hit, sir.” “Where?”
“Canada Street, sir. Sergeant Wicks.”
I was out of my bunk in a minute.
After pulling on my trench hoots, I rushed up the steps into the front line, the sapper just ahead of me. We reached a group barely discernible hi the darkness, gathered around two outstretched forms. I was very much agitated, for since Wicks and I had participated together in that grim affair of the galleries there had been a close bond of interest between us. He was just back and a sergeant, his promotion having been won by his
gallantry in that terrible fight in the dark.
“How did it happen?” I asked. “He shouldn’t have been here. All our men have orders to travel underground.”
“That sniper got them both.”
We carried the two inanimate forms down to my dugout. I attended to Wicks. It was pretty evident that his time was short. He was bleeding copiously from several wounds, the worst being in the neck. Wicks remained unconscious while I bound up his wounds. In the meantime one of the others related how it had occurred :
“Three scouts went out to see if they could locate that sniper, sir. But instead he got ’em all. Two were killed outright and the third one, this man here, got shot in the stomach. It was horrible, sir. He was paralyzed from the waist down and he kept calling out to us for help for he couldn't crawl a yard. We called for volunteers to go out and get him and as Sergeant ¡— Wicks was above ground for a breather he said he’d go. He said he knew this ’ere salient better than any other bloke and he couldn’t stick hearing the poor beggar howl like that. So he was out of the trench before anyone could stop him and he got over to the other one and was starting to bring him back.
The wounded man was delirious I guess, sir, because he kept calling out and sniper was able to follow each change of position and pepper them all the way back. He got Wicks but not until they were within a few feet of the trench.
Wicks got up to his feet and lifted his man up and lowered him over the parapet and the sniper got him in the neck.”
As the man finished his story, Wicks opened his eyes and, seeing me, attempted' a salute. It was a feeble effort, falling off half way. It was a full minute before I could speak. Then I asked:
He smiled. “No, sir. I shan’t be till I’m gone West.
I won’t be long. That bloody sniper, sir, he’s just opposite O’Grady’s walk—sixty feet out. I ’opes the young ’un ’as got a Blighty and not a Belgian Cross. Can I ’ave a fag, sir?”
I lit one for him and stuck it between his lips. He pulled at it with evident gratification. The other wounded man here moaned loudly and Wicks, with the sense of authority of his stripes, rolled his head slightly in his direction and upbraided him. “Now then, me man, stop makin’ that noise. Don’t forget ye’re in officers’ quarters.”
Soon after this the cigarette fell from his lips and he looked at me wistfully. ‘Tm goin’ now, sir. I’d like to ’ave—stopped with yer—’elped yer to finish the job —with the bloody ’Uns. I ’opes yer get
that b--of a sniper.” He gasped
for breath. “Write my missus — —.”
“We’ll get that sniper!” was all I could say as they carried poor Wicks out.
For the rest of the night I could not sleep. At daybreak I got up and made my way to the sap head for some of God’s good air. It was a beautiful morning but there was nothing of beauty in what I saw. In front of me stretched the Armagh Woods, just a few blackened posts, mockeries of trees. In the valley below nothing could be seen but a slate
colored mass of mud mounds and s.iell holes—various sized circular puddles of stinking water. All around was nothing but a deathly stillness, broken occasionally by the squeaking of rats. It was so impressing that I felt like the last man alive in a dead world. Here was an old crumped dugout with its buried inmates— how long would it be before they would be churned up by a shell? To my right were innumerable sand bags—our spoil dump, under which were buried hundreds, friend and foe alike. I watched a rat come out from underneath a tin can, so diseased that it could hardly walk. It crept to a brownish, green heap that stuck out between some sandbags and began to nibble. Was it a human thigh? I turned away in disgust only to be faced by many such sights.
Overhead a solitary shell pursued its way on to Valley Cottages, (our ad-
vanced dressing station) whining as if in protest at its inhuman work.
I re-entered our saps, relieved at the darkness and the poor air. This, at least, did not smell of purification. We kept the place sprayed with a creosote and chloride of lime solution.
I made my rounds of the works. All was well—no sounds. We had big workings now and it took me two hours to go over the whole system. It was more than satisfactory to know that we had beaten the Hun at this game and were monarehs of all we surveyed. Then I decided to go up to the front line and do a little observing; I wanted to get a line on the sniper. So I proceeded to Canada St. opposite O’Grady’s Walk. I got a periscope from one of the infantry men and put it np. Zimmer! It was out of action in a trice. Our friend in No Man’s Land had put a bullet right through the centre of it. So that was no good. But Wick’s information was correct with regard to his loca-
That night we built up the parapet at this point and strange to say the Hun did not fire a shot. We built a cunning little O.P. (observation post) and watched. But it was no use; we could not locate the sniper. And still men were being hit.
In due course the Fish arrived on the
scene, full of his schemes and inventions. In spite of them, he wasn’t such a bad fellow. He hailed from the Yukon and we had that one-time famous land served up to us continuously from that time on. But he was very handy and useful in some ways. If we wanted any supplies very badly, the Fish would go out with a fatigue party and bring back what we wanted—and several things, always, that we did not want and could not possibly USe'.i.-reniC*1 morta>ammunition, guns, anything he could lay his hands on, he would bring along. He was like the Jackdaw of Rheims. He just had to steal.
1 went out on rest several days after his arrival and had a talk with Major
w;nuy‘r u SJ uCe the death of Sergeant Wicks I had been turning over in my mind
sninpremiff0r ca^hin^ the mysterious sniper. If we could not locate him from above, why not from underneath? This plan I outlined to the O.C. and - I he was impressed with it.
; Good scheme,” he said. “When you go back, carry on with it.” Before proceeding to put the plan into effect, however, we were destined to have a still more exalted sanction placed on the plan. Word came
Éup that Major Henry would be along with the C. R. E. (Commander of the Royal Engineers) and that a general clean up would be advisable. We got everything shipshape, even to the extent of -'reparing to serve tea in the dugout and opening a box of very special biscuits that a lady friend had sent us and that we had reluctantly held in reserve for just such an occasion. The arrival of our distinguished visitor was heralded by a most unusual commotion and a storm of blasphemous language.
“That was awful, Major, awful!” we heard.” I don’t
___I mind being strafed by the
Huns but I object strongly to taking a liqueur of mud. I must have swallowed a quart of the beastly stuff!”
The sniper had nearly reached the C. R. E. As soon as that distinguished officer had reached Canada St. a shot had taken away one star and crown off his shoulder strap, thereby reducing him from a full colonel to a subaltern and brought him down still lower in the mud through which he had g’-ovelled to our dugout. He was red in the face and mud from head to foot and pretty well mad all through.
So I unfolded my plan to his Brasshatship, and he was violently enthusiastic. He authorized the immediate construction of a gallery to a point close enough below that sniper to “blow” him.
Otherwise our party was not very successful. The Fish placed the tea pot where the General knocked it over and then made the disconcerting discovery that there would be no more water until the fresh supply was brought up at night. But the General and the Major took it in good part and made a flank attack, capturing the box of precious biscuits that we had abstained from touching so far. It resolved into a sort of game between them. They took biscuits alternately until finally the General won—the box was empty. When they had gone, Bingy looked ruefully into the empty box and expressed an emphatic wish that
we had held some of the biscuits in reserve. “I’m afraid,” said the Fish, referring to the General, “that he makes a Gawd of his stummick.”
BUT now it was a case of work. I unfolded my scheme in detail, which was to start a gallery at right angles to our first defensive and push it foward on an up grade. By careful listening from this gallery we could detect the chug of the sniper’s rifle and “tease a rabbit’s hole” right under him.
We started in that night and were soon working away merrily. Our system was 30 ft. in depth and from the map the sniper was approximately 66 feet out from us. Allowing the sniper’s nest to be six ft. in depth and deducting 2 ft. for foundations this made a grade in proportion of 22 to 66 or 1 in 3. We put in a track so that we could evacuate our bags quickly on the gravity run.
The Fish was in charge of the supplies andmaterials and on the third night he returned with a goodly stock of timbers and sandbags, not all strictly belonging to us, but very useful nevertheless. After his last trip he came into the dugout with something that clanged when he dropped it.
“What have you got there?” I enquired. “Only a sniper’s shield, old dear, I thought it might be useful.”
“So it will—in the right place. Now take the damn thing out of here!” was my rejoinder.
“Oh, but be reasonable I thought-”
Here I interrupted him by summoning the orderly. “Take that shield outside and throw it on the spoil dump.”
“Yes sir.” The orderly left with it and the Fish mournfully watched the exit. I did not know then that the said shield was going to prove a gift from the gods. But of that more later.
In three days we had fifty-five ft. done and I put the listeners in. They reported no sounds. I listened myself for five hours during which time the sniper was reported to have fired 8 shots, and all that time I heard absolutely nothing. Here was a poser. Was Wick’s information wrong or had the sniper moved away? I held a conference with the O. C. Trenches with the result that we made two dummies with sand bags and put them up at the extremities of a measured base line. The bait took. The sniper fired two shots which were effective and we noted the path of each bullet by the angles they made on our decoys. On triangulating these directions I found Wick’s information to be practically correct. The sniper was firing from the exact spot he had indicated. I decided that there was nothing for it but to carry on.
TWO shifts after I was making out my * reports preparatory to resting when the Fish rushed in to the dugout, and
“Come at once, Tilly! They’ve broken in on us!”
I jumped off my seat as if I had been shot. “Where, man?” I asked. “In the new gallery,” he replied.
I snatched up my revolver and belt and made my way up to the spot. I soon found out that the Hun apparently had sensed this move of ours and had run a protective gallery in front of the sniper. From this they had broken in on ours. Why they had not blown us? I discovered the reason later. They had a greater scheme on hand and that was for the destruction of all our systems, the in-
genuity of which I will show later.
“Why didn’t you rush him?” I demanded.
“We had no rifles, sir, and he had. He got two of the face men. The rest of us got away, sir,” was the reply. I walked up to the entrance and laid down. I peered intently into the darkness but could see nothing. I put my hand around and flashed on my torch. There was a deafening clamor and rattle, my hand felt as though paralysed and the light went out. A bullet had hit my torch, but luckily my hand had escaped injury. Still the rattle kept on. The timbers started to splinter and littie showers of wood flew around. Fritz had wasted no time for he hud a machine gun installed, and had divided our system in two. Now we were really “up against it.”
We could not bomb him, for the gallery
EDITOR’S Note.—Lieut. Tilbrook is telling real stories .of his experiences at the front, the only change from the actual facts being the use of fictitious names.
was sixty feet in depth and only four feet high. Every move we made brought up a hail of bullets. We were blocked out of our own gallery.
BUT this was not the worst of it. About midnight I was called down to find that we had another element to fight, water. The wily Hun had installed pumps and was draining his system into our. Remember, our new gallery ran at a sharp angle up to within eight feet of the surface—and the water poured down it in fetid streams. Certainly they had turned the tables on us.
The only thing to do was to build a dam of sand bags, caulked with blue clay, at the sap head and then get our pumps at work. The pumps were only small affairs, excellent enough for light work, but hardly equal to the additional strain. They started to break down. It was then that the Fish loomed up as a real asset. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix it,” he declared. And he went out and got another system of pumps! Where we did not ask. We installed the double system and managed to keep the flow of water down.
All this time the Hun was keeping up intermittent strafes with his machine gun. In spite of our work the water was slowly gaining on us. And such water! Evidently he was draining off all his sewage. The stench was abominable.
'THE idea that enabled us to extricate -*ourselves finally came to us more or less by accident. Let us depict the conditions under which it was born. A dugout, Six foot high with two foot six inches of water; the lower bunk under water; three very miserable officers, without anv cigarettes, sitting on the upper bunk watching a lighted candle float around in a block of wood. When the wood got into a current and floated away, candle and all, Bingy tried to cheer us up with something about submarines.
“I wish,” I said, as I shivered in my soaked clothing,” there was such a thing as an underground tank.”
The Fish let a shout out of him. “That’s it, Old Top. The very idea!” He jumped off the bunk into the water and
we could hear him splash his way out to the gallery'. In a few minutes he came back with an electric mine lamp and the sniper’s shield that I had ordered to be thrown on the dump.
“I’m going to make a tank,” he explained. “We’ll get a trolley and put this shield on the front of it. Then we can push it up the gallery and blow that machine gun and the whole crew.”
The much abused Fish had struck a real idea. We jumped at it.
A SNIPER’S shield is made to resist bullets, and it took us two hours to punch six holes through the base of the half-inch chrome steel of which it was constructed. The holes were made at intervals of two inches. We carried the shield up to the entrance of the new gallery which was by now a regular mill race. Our trolley was there, badly battered but still serviceable. The shield was soon attached to the front and reinforced with sandbags. Then we pushed the trolley on to the track. The Huns heard us and began to work the machine gun at once. The bullets rattled on the shield like hail on a tin roof.
“Get a 50-lb. can of ammonal and another trolley,” I whispered.
They were brought. The final detail that I attended to was the securing of two small blocks of wood that I put into my pocket. Then I crawled on to the second trolley and ensconced myself there with the can of ammonal. The Fish, crouching low, pushed our underground tank ahead of him into the new gallery and the full range of the enemy machine gun.
It was a strange journey that we made. Our progress necessarily was slow for the grade was rather heavy and the Fish found the weight of the two trolleys to be almost an overtax. The water rushed down and past us and swished around the ankles of the laboring Fish.
After we had pushed up about fifteen feet the enemy, although he could not see us, concluded that something was up and opened on us again with the machine gun. Bullets whizzed above us and around us and played a regular devil’s tatoo on the shield. I crouched as flat as nature would permit and behind me the Fish doubled up like a jackknife. Through the dim he yelled into my ear: “He’s
trying to break the world’s record on that typewriter of his.” At this point he incautiously raised his head and immediately ducked down. “They’ve got the range—an outer high up and to the left.” I flashed on my lamp and saw that the tip of his ear had been shaved off. It was only bleeding slightly, however, for the heat of the bullet had burnt the wound. He pushed valiantly on.
The vibrations of the bullets on the shield were tremendous. By this time we were within about 10 ft. of the gun and I carefully lowered the can of ammonal and pushed it under the tank. Then I signalled the Fish to back up five ft. We were going to use our “tank” as partial “tamping.” I now used the two wooden wedges, that I had put in my pocket before starting, to block the wheels of the tank. The water from the Huns’ works was racing down and surging round us so, I got out my watertight match box and lit the fuse. The Fish was already seated on the second trolley and, as I gave the trolley a shove off he yelled: “Strike two! I’m hit in the ankle. Now for the home run.”
The trolley started back. Remember we had no shield to cover us this time. We raced down our 1 in 3 grade, the rush-
Continued on page 82
An Underground Tank
Continued, from page 28
ing water adding to our speed", and the bullets spitting out of the darkness all around us and miraculously not hitting us. In less time than it takes to write we had reached the junction of our main gallery. The trolley left the rails and tipped up. The Fish disappeared into the torrent, I on top of him. I dragged him out and pushed him about 6 ft. down the gallery on to the trolley which I righted.
rpHERE was a muffled chug followed instantly by the angry umph, of the exploding ammonal. I felt as if I were torn out of myself—then a blank. The next thing I remember was the flavour of rum and someone rnbbing my wrists and feet. I looked up and recognized Bingy who was feeding me. I felt very sore all over; in fact as if I had been passed through a separator. I began to get rid of my haziness and sensed that the water had stopped rushing. I could hear the sucking of our numps, Beside me was the Fish, profanely rejoicing and babbling something about getting out a patent on our underground tank. He had always wanted to transfer to the tanks,
“Can you understand what I’m saying?” asked Bingy. “Well. O.C. Trenches reported that the pestiferous sniper was blown hell West and c-ooked. It seems he was right above whe-e we left off our digging after all and of course that meant right above the machine gun. You got gun, crew, sniper and a'l—and now the waters dammed up—and everything fine.”