Read CHAPTER III - “Mud!” of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on

Those at home in England, with their experience of war books and photographs, of Zeppelin raids and crowded hospitals, are beginning to imagine they know all there is to know about war. The truth is that they still have but little idea of the life in the trenches, and, as far as mud is concerned, they are delightfully ignorant. They do not know what mud is.

They have read of Napoleon’s “Fourth Element,” they have listened to long descriptions of mud in Flanders and France, they have raised incredulous eyebrows at tales of men being drowned in the trenches, they have given a fleeting thought of pity for the soldiers “out there” as they have slushed home through the streets on rainy nights; but they have never realised what mud means, for no photograph can tell its slimy depth, and even the pen of a Zola or a Victor Hugo could give no adequate idea of it.

And so, till the end of the war, the old story will be continued while the soldier flounders and staggers about in that awful, sucking swamp, the pessimist at home will lean back in his arm-chair and wonder, as he watches the smoke from his cigar wind up towards the ceiling, why we do not advance at the rate of one mile an hour, why we are not in Berlin, and whether our army is any good at all. If such a man would know why we are not in German territory, let him walk, on a dark night, through the village duck-pond, and then sleep in his wet clothes in the middle of the farmyard. He would still be ignorant of mud and wet, but he would cease to wonder and grumble.

It is the infantryman who suffers most, for he has to live, eat, sleep, and work in the mud. The plain of dragging slime that stretches from Switzerland to the sea is far worse to face than the fire of machine guns or the great black trench-mortar bombs that come twisting down through the air. It is more terrible than the frost and the rain you cannot even stamp your feet to drive away the insidious chill that mud always brings. Nothing can keep it from your hands and face and clothes; there is no taking off your boots to dry in the trenches you must lie down just as you are, and often you are lucky if you have two empty sandbags under you to save you from the cold embrace of the swamp.

But if the mud stretch is desolate by day, it is shocking by night. Imagine a battalion going up to the trenches to relieve another regiment. The rain comes beating pitilessly down on the long trail of men who stumble along in the blackness over the pave. They are all well loaded, for besides his pack, rifle, and equipment, each man carries a pick or a bag of rations or a bundle of firewood. At every moment comes down the line the cry to “keep to the right,” and the whole column stumbles off the pave into the deep mud by the roadside to allow the passage of an ambulance or a transport waggon. There is no smoking, for they are too close to the enemy, and there is the thought of six days and six nights of watchfulness and wetness in the trenches.

Presently the winding line strikes off the road across the mud. This is not mud such as we know it in England it is incredibly slippery and impossibly tenacious, and each dragging footstep calls for a tremendous effort. The men straggle, or close up together so that they have hardly the room to move; they slip, and knock into each other, and curse; they are hindered by little ditches, and by telephone wires that run, now a few inches, now four or five feet from the ground. One man trips over an old haversack that is lying in his path God alone knows how many haversacks and how many sets of equipment have been swallowed up by the mud on the plain of Flanders, part of the equipment of the wounded that has been thrown aside to lighten the burden and when he scrambles to his feet again he is a mass of mud, his rifle barrel is choked with it, it is in his hair, down his neck, everywhere. He staggers on, thankful only that he did not fall into a shell hole, when matters would have been much worse.

Just when the men are waiting in the open for the leading platoon to file down into the communication trench, a German star shell goes up, and a machine gun opens fire a little farther down the line. As the flare sinks down behind the British trench it lights up the white faces of the men, all crouching down in the swamp, while the bullets swish by, “like a lot of bloomin’ swallers,” above their heads.

And now comes the odd quarter of a mile of communication trench. It is very narrow, for the enemy can enfilade it, and it is paved with brushwood and broken bricks, and a little drain, that is meant to keep the floor dry, runs along one side of it. In one place a man steps off the brushwood into the drain, and he falls headlong. The others behind have no time to stop themselves, and a grotesque pile of men heaps itself up in the narrow, black trench. One man laughing, the rest swearing, they pick themselves up again, and tramp on to the firing line.

Here the mud is even worse than on the plain they have crossed. All the engineers and all the trench pumps in the world will not keep a trench decently dry when it rains for nine hours in ten and when the trench is the lowest bit of country for miles around. The men can do nothing but “carry on” the parapet must be kept in repair whatever the weather; the sandbags must be filled however wet and sticky the earth. The mud may nearly drag a man’s boot off at his every step indeed, it often does; but the man must go on digging, shovelling, lining the trench with tins, logs, bricks, and planks in the hope that one day he may have put enough flooring into the trench to reach solid ground beneath the mud.

All this, of course, is only the infantryman’s idea of things. From a tactical point of view mud has a far greater importance it is the most relentless enemy that an army can be called upon to face. Even without mud and without Germans it would be a very difficult task to feed and look after a million men on the move; with these two discomforts movement becomes almost impossible.

It is only after you have seen a battery of field artillery on the move in winter that you can realise at all the enormous importance of good weather when an advance is to be made. You must watch the horses labouring and plunging in mud that reaches nearly to their girths; you must see the sweating, half-naked men striving, with outstanding veins, to force the wheels round; you must hear the sucking cry of the mud when it slackens its grip; and you must remember that this is only a battery of light guns that is being moved.

It is mud, then, that is the great enemy. It is the mud, then, and not faulty organisation or German prowess that you must blame if we do not advance as fast as you would like. Even if we were not to advance another yard in another year, people in England should not be disheartened. “Out there” we are facing one of the worst of foes. If we do not advance, or if we advance too slowly, remember that it is mud that is the cause not the German guns.