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History of the First World War in 100 moments

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: ‘After the first day or two, the corpses swelled and stank...’

Robert Graves, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, describes an episode of horror and heroism in the trenches

From the morning of September 24th to the night of October 3rd, I had in all eight hours of sleep. I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whiskey a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since; it certainly helped me then. We had no blankets, greatcoats, or waterproof sheets, nor any time or material to build new shelters. The rain poured down. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had few casualties.

After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.

On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said – not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, he stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuits that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall . He did come back, with a stretcher-party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Taken from “Goodbye to All That”, by Robert Graves, published by Penguin Books, 1960; republished with an introduction by Andrew Motion, 2014. © Robert Graves 1929, 1957. 

For more details of Robert Graves’s work see: www.carcanet.co.uk

Tomorrow: Rudyard Kipling’s lost son

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar