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A Yankee in the Trenches R. Derby Holmes

A Few Days' Rest In Billets

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I heard a good many stories of this kind off and on, but this particular one, I think, brought home, to me at least, the general beastliness of the Hun closer than ever before. We all loved our little kiddie very much, and when we saw the evidence of the terrible cruelties the poor old woman had suffered we saw red. Most of us cried a little. I think that that one story made each of us that heard it a mean, vicious fighter for the rest of our service. I know it did me.

One of the first things a British soldier learns is to keep himself clean. He can't do it, and he's as filthy as a pig all the time he is in the trenches, but he tries. He is always shaving, even under fire, and show him running water and he goes to it like a duck.

More than once I have shaved in a periscope mirror pegged into the side of a trench, with the bullets snapping overhead, and rubbed my face with wet tea leaves afterward to freshen up.

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Back in billets the very first thing that comes off is the big clean-up. Uniforms are brushed up, and equipment put in order. Then comes the bath, the most thorough possible under the conditions. After that comes the "cootie carnival", better known as the "shirt hunt." The cootie is the soldier's worst enemy. He's worse than the Hun. You can't get rid of him wherever you are, in the trenches or in billets, and he sticks closer than a brother. The cootie is a good deal of an acrobat. His policy of attack is to hang on to the shirt and to nibble at the occupant. Pull off the shirt and he comes with it. Hence the shirt hunt. Tommy gets out in the open somewhere so as not to shed his little companions indoors--there's always enough there anyhow--and he peels. Then he systematically runs down each seam--the cootie's favorite hiding place--catches the game, and ends his career by cracking him between the thumb nails.

For some obscure psychological reason, Tommy seems to like company on one of these hunts. Perhaps it is because misery loves company, or it may be that he likes to compare notes on the catch. Anyhow, it is a common thing to see from a dozen to twenty soldiers with their shirts off, hunting cooties.

"Hi sye, 'Arry," you'll hear some one sing out. "Look 'ere. Strike me bloomin' well pink but this one 'ere's got a black stripe along 'is back."

Or, "If this don't look like the one I showed ye 'fore we went into the blinkin' line. 'Ow'd 'e git loose?"

And then, as likely as not, a little farther away, behind the officers' quarters, you'll hear one say:

"I say, old chap, it's deucedly peculiar I should have so many of the beastly things after putting on the Harrisons mothaw sent in the lawst parcel."

The cootie isn't at all fastidious. He will bite the British aristocrat as soon as anybody else. He finds his way into all branches of the service, and I have even seen a dignified colonel wiggle his shoulders anxiously.

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A Yankee in the Trenches
R. Derby Holmes

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