Life in a dugout during wartime

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Burton K. Janes

The Newfoundlander, George Whitefield Ridout (1870-1954), may not be remembered by many people today. However, during the First World War he distinguished himself as chaplain with the 38th Regiment in France.

Born in St. John's, he went to Boston, Massachusetts, as a young man, and was educated at Temple University. He served as professor of theology at Upland, Indiana.

Following the war, he accepted the chair of theology at Asbury College, where he remained until 1927. Entering religious work, he travelled extensively in Japan, China, India, Africa and South America. He was a member of the British Philosophic Society and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

He wrote several books, including "The Cross and Flag: Experiences in the Great World War." Published in 1919, so soon after the war ended, it reads today with a keen sense of immediacy. He says nothing about the so-called glamour of war, but everything about the way it really was.

"To live in a dugout," he writes, "is an experience rather unusual indeed. One feels a bit of surprise at times at the way men take to this kind of thing when it becomes a necessity of war, as well as a matter of safety and protection. I have seen men living in holes in the ground, in holes dug out of the side of the bank, as well as in the larger dugouts capable of holding quite a number ... I am with several lieutenants, and a captain in a large dugout. The advantage of a dugout is, you are protected from shellfire, and then the enemy aeroplanes cannot locate you and you can sleep free from the feeling that bombs might get you as you sleep ...

"Life in a dugout is very simple. Lots of things you don't have to do; you don't have to sweep the floors or dust the furniture or be careful of the furnishings, and then you are not so very particular about the matter of attire. There are no tailors around the corner to press your uniform, and as you have to sleep with your clothes on, ready to jump up and out in a moment, if need be, you don't grow very particular, and then, as you never meet any of womankind, you don't mind being a bit rough in appearance for the time being. Then again, you don't have to be over careful about the dining room. Your eating utensils are neither china nor glass, but tin or aluminum, and your dining table may be a box, or a rock, or a patch of straw. You have to forego napkins, etc., but invariably you have a good appetite and are always ready when mess time comes around.

"The other night I had to visit a company quite a distance away, and in reaching them I had to pass through some very interesting bit of territory, and in returning had to meet many a guard who, in compliance with his orders, halted with bayonet fixed and pointed at everyone who came by. The important thing at a moment like that is to stand still and not move till told to advance with the countersign. I of course had the countersign and was permitted to pass, arriving back at my dugout about midnight.

"I had no sooner laid down than the gas alarm was sounded and a lieutenant rushed in and yelled 'Gas.' This is a cry often heard within the war zone, and woe to the soldier who neglects to heed the warning. Instantly I grasped my gas mask and put it on. Fortunately, this was not a severe attack and none of us had to keep the uncomfortable gas mask on very long.

"About this war there is not much of the poetical; it is nothing but practical drab war with no brass band attachments. Often we read of the soldier marching into battle with flags flying and bands playing, etc. Not so in this war.

"You never hear the band play within the war zone, and the musicians themselves are called upon to be stretcher bearers and perform other duties. There are no flags flying, because it is important that your positions should not be known by the enemy, who has his aeroplanes flying all over, observing all movements. Besides, there are observation balloons constantly being employed and the man sitting up in that observation seat with his balloon attached to the ground can see for many miles with his all-powerful glass all that is going on."

Ridout writes much more, but space is limited.

Lest we forget.

Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at

Organizations: Asbury College, Temple University, British Philosophic Society Royal Geographic Society The Compass

Geographic location: France, St. John's, Boston, Massachusetts Upland, Indiana Japan China India Africa South America Bay Roberts

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