The instruction bore fruit; for, so soon as they were back in the trenches at Ebenezer farm, which they had quitted on the 4th, bombing seems to have been forced wherever practicable. A weak, or it might be more accurate to say, a sore point had developed on the front in a crater thrown up by one of our own mines, which it was necessary to sap out to and protect by intermittent bombing. This brought retaliation and a few casualties nightly. A trench-mortar battery was imported to deal with the nuisance and, as might be expected, drew the enemy’s artillery.
On the 28th January a single stray bullet in the dark found and killed Captain V. C. J. Blake, No. 2 Company, while he was laying out some work in wire for his company, and a bombing attack round the mine-crater ended in three other ranks killed and one wounded.
On February 1 our mine-shaft in the same locality flooded without warning and drowned a couple of men in a listening-post. Our pumps could make no impression on the water; it was difficult to put up any head-cover for the men in the forward sap, and the enemy’s wire was being strengthened nightly and needed clearing away. This was routine-work undertaken by our artillery who blew gaps in it in three places, which the Battalion covered with machine-gun fire. It kept the enemy reasonably quiet, and H.R.H. Prince Albert, who was out on a tour from England, breakfasted with Battalion Headquarters the same morning (February 5). Once again the enemy’s information must have been inaccurate or delayed since there is no mention of any shelling or aeroplane work on Headquarters.
They came out of the line on the 7th and billeted near Merville. Reckoned by their standards it had been an uneventful stretch of duty, and those officers who could be spared had gone on short leave; for there was a rumour that leave would be stopped after the 20th of the month. The French and their English allies knew well that the great German attack on Verdun was ripening (it opened in the third week of February) and the world had no doubt of the issues that depended upon that gate to the heart of France holding fast. The whole long line stiffened to take the weight of any sudden side-issue or main catastrophe that the chance of war might bring about. But a battalion among hundreds of battalions knows as little what its own movements mean as a single truck in a goods yard knows of the import and export trade of Great Britain. The young officers snatched their few hours’ leave at home, loyally told their people that all was going well, returned—“to a most interesting lecture on the Battle of Neuve Chapelle,” delivered at La Gorgue by a Divisional Staff Officer, and to an inspection of the 1st Guards Brigade by Lord Kitchener on a vile wet day when they were all soaked to the skin (February 10), and “to the usual routine in very poor weather.”
Lord Desmond FitzGerald, being now second in command by seniority, resigned his adjutancy and was succeeded by Lieutenant T. E. G. Nugent; No. 2, Captain Blake’s, Company was commanded by Major the Hon. A. C. S. Chichester, fresh from home, and Father S. Knapp, their priest, who had been transferred to the 1st London Irish, was followed by Father J. LaneFox from the same Battalion. Of the six Fathers who served the two battalions, two—Fathers Gwynne and S. Knapp, D.S.O., M.C.—were killed, one—Father F. M. Browne, M.C.—wounded twice, and one—Father F. S. Browne, M.C.—wounded once.
On the face of it nothing could have been quieter and more domestic than their daily life round Merville, and after a week of it they were moved (February 16) north towards Steenvoorde, in a hurricane of wind and rain, to the neighbourhood of Poperinghe, on the Ypres–Poperinghe–Dunkirk road, and a camp of tents, mostly blown down, and huts connected, for which small ease they were grateful, by duck-boards. This brought them into the Second Army area and into the Fourteenth Corps under Lord Cavan, precisely as that officer had hoped. He explained to them there was “a small German offensive” on the left of the line here, and that “if it came to anything” the Brigade might be wanted.
The “small offensive” had opened on the 13th with a furious bombardment of the extreme southern end of the Ypres Salient between the Ypres–Comines Canal and Ypres–Comines railway, a little to the south of Hill 60, followed by the springing of five mines under the British front line and an infantry attack, which ended in the capture by the enemy of four or five hundred yards of trench and the low ridge called “The Bluff,” over which they ran. The affair bulked big in the newspaper-press of the day; for a battalion, the 10th Lancashire Fusiliers, was literally buried by one of the mine explosions. The German gain was well held, but prevented from extending by a concentration of our artillery, and later on (March 2) the whole position was recaptured after desperate fighting and the line there came to rest.
For the first time the Battalion seems impressed by the hostile aircraft with which the Salient was filled. Poperinghe and Hazebrouck were bombed almost as soon as they came in, and their camp was visited by four aeroplanes at high noon, after a snow-fall, which showed up everything below. They had been attending a demonstration to prove the harmlessness of a Flammenwerfer if only one lay flat on the ground and let the roaring blast hiss over. Ribald men have explained, since, that these demonstrations were more demoralising than the actual machine in action, especially when, as occasionally happened, the nozzle of the flameshooter carried away and, in the attempts to recontrol the thing, the class, bombed from above and chased by fire below, broke and fled.
But the whole Salient was a death-trap throughout. The great shells crossed each other’s path at every angle, back and forth, single or in flights. For no certain cause that our side could guess, fire would concentrate itself on some half-obliterated feature of the landscape—a bank, the poor stumpage of a wood, a remnant of a village or the angle of a road, that went out in smoke, dust, and flying clods, as though devils were flinging it up with invisible spades. The concentrated clamours would die down and cease; the single shells would resume their aimless falling over a line of fields, with the monotony of drips from a tap, till, again, it seemed as though one of them had found something worthy of attention and shouted back the news to its fellows who, crowding altogether in one spot, roared, overturned, and set alight for five or ten wild minutes or through a methodical half-hour. If the storm fell on bare ground, that was churned and torn afresh into smoking clods; if upon men in trenches, on relief, or with the transport, no eye could judge what harm had been done; for often where it had seemed as though nothing could live, dispersed units picked themselves up and reformed, almost untouched, after inconceivable escapes. Elsewhere, a few spurts of stinking smoke in a corner might cover all that remained of a platoon or have ripped the heart out of a silent, waiting company. By night, fantastic traceries of crossing firelines ran along the shoulder of a ridge; shrapnel, bursting high, jetted a trail of swift sparks, as it might be steel striking flint; dropping flares outlined some tortured farm-house among its willow-stumps, or the intolerable glare of a big shell framed itself behind a naked doorway; and coloured lights dyed the bellies of the low clouds till all sense of distance and direction was lost, and the bewildered troops stumbled and crawled from pavé to pot-hole, treading upon the old dead.
Dawn brought dirty white desolation across yellow mud pitted with slate-coloured water-holes, and confused by senseless grey and black lines and curled tangles of mire. There was nothing to see, except—almost pearl-coloured under their mud-dyed helmets—the tense, preoccupied faces of men moving with wide spaces between their platoons, to water-floored cellars and shelters chillier even than the grave-like trenches they had left, always with the consciousness that they were watched by invisible eyes which presently would choose certain of them to be killed. Those who came through it, say that the sense of this brooding Death more affected every phase of life in the Salient than in any other portion of the great war-field.
The German offensive on the Bluff and the necessary measures of retaliation did not concern the Battalion for the moment. After a few days’ aimless waiting they were sent, in bitter cold and snow, to rest-camp at Calais for a week. They were seven hours slipping and sliding along the snow-covered roads ere they could entrain at Bavichore Street, and untold hours detraining at the other end; all of which annoyed them more than any bombing, even though the C.O. himself complimented them on their march “under very trying circumstances.” The Irish, particularly in their own battalions, have not the relief of swearing as other races do. Their temperament runs to extravagant comparisons and appeals to the Saints, and ordinary foul language, even on night-reliefs in muddy trenches choked with loose wires and corpses, is checked by the priests. But, as one said: “What we felt on that cruel Calais road, skatin’ into each other, an’—an’ apologisin’, would have melted all the snows of Europe that winter.”
Bombing instruction and inter-platoon bombing matches on Calais beach kept them employed.
On March 3, during practice with live bombs, one exploded prematurely, as several others of that type had done in other battalions, and Major Lord Desmond FitzGerald was so severely wounded that he died within an hour at the Millicent Sutherland (No. 9. Red Cross Hospital. Lieutenant T. E. G. Nugent was dangerously wounded at the same time through the liver, though he did not realise this at the time, and stayed coolly in charge of a party till help came. Lieutenant Hanbury, who was conducting the practice, was wounded in the hand and leg, and Father Lane-Fox lost an eye and some fingers.
Lord Desmond FitzGerald was buried in the public cemetery at Calais on the 5th. As he himself had expressly desired, there was no formal parade, but the whole Battalion, of which he was next for the command, lined the road to his grave. His passion and his loyalty had been given to the Battalion without thought of self, and among many sad things few are sadder than to see the record of his unceasing activities and care since he had been second in command cut across by the curt announcement of his death. It was a little thing that his name had been at the time submitted for a well-deserved D.S.O. In a hard-pressed body of men, death and sickness carry a special sting, because the victim knows—and in the very articles of death feels it—what confusion and extra work, rearrangement and adjustments of responsibilities his enforced defection must lay upon his comrades. The winter had brought a certain amount of sickness and minor accidents among the officers, small in themselves, but cumulatively a burden. Irreplaceable N.C.O.’s had gone, or were going, to take commissions in the Line; others of unproven capacities had to be fetched forward in their place. Warley, of course, was not anxious to send its best N.C.O.’s away from a depot choked with recruits. The detail of life was hard and cumbersome. It was a lengthy business even to draw a typewriting machine for use in the trenches. Companies two thirds full of fresh drafts had to be entrusted to officers who might or might not have the divine gift of leadership, and, when all was set, to-morrow’s chance-spun shell might break and bury the most carefully thought-out combinations. “Things change so quickly nowadays,” Desmond FitzGerald wrote not long before his death; “it is impossible to see ahead.” And Death took him on Calais beach in the full stride of his power.
He had quietly presented the Battalion the year before with service drums. “No mention need be made of who paid.” They were the only battalion of the Brigade which lacked them at that time, and they had been the only battalion to bring them out of the beginning of the war, when, during the retreat from Mons, “the artillery drove over the big drum at Landrecies.”
Temporary Captain A. F. L. Gordon followed Lieutenant Nugent as Adjutant, and the Rev. F. M. Browne from G.H.Q. replaced Father Lane-Fox.: They moved into the Salient again on the 6th March, billeting at Wormhoudt, and were told several unpleasant things about the state of the line and the very limited amount of “retaliation” that they might expect from their own artillery.
The snow stopped all training except a little bombing. Opinion as to the value of bombs differed even in those early days, but they were the order of the day, and gave officers the chance to put in practice their pet theories of bowling. A commanding officer of great experience wrote, a year later, after the Battle of Arras, thanking Heaven that that affair had “led to the rediscovery of the rifle as a suitable weapon for infantry,” adding, “I swear a bomb is of all weapons the most futile in which to specialize.”
The French were as keen on the bomb as the rest of the world, and parties of officers visited our bombing competitions at Wormhoudt, where the Battalion lay till the 16th March, moving to billets (Brandhoek) near Vlamertinghe for St. Patrick’s Day and the sports sacred to the occasion. They were played into camp by a naval party to the tune of “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” not a little to their astonishment. A little later they were to be even more astonished.
Then the 1st Guards Brigade took over their sector of the Fourteenth Division’s new front from the Sixth Division and, as usual, complained that the trenches which ran from the east to the town were in bad condition. The Brigade Reserve camp near Vlamertinghe was not much better. It is significant that, at this date, a train, specially oiled and treated to run noiselessly through the night, used to take the reliefs up into Ypres—a journey that did not lack excitement.
On the 23rd March, as the Battalion was going into the trenches on the Ypres Canal bank, the meaning of that “naval party” at Vlamertinghe became plainer. Three naval officers and twenty-five petty officers on special leave appeared among them for the purpose of spending a happy four days with them at their labours. They wore the uniforms of private soldiers without pack or equipment, and were first seen joyously walking and talking on a well-observed road, which combination of miracles led the amazed beholders to assume that they were either lunatics or escaped criminals of the deepest dye; and it was a toss-up that the whole cheery picnic-party was not arrested—or shot to save their lives. One officer, at least, had the liveliest memories of chaperoning for several hours a naval officer with a passion for professional souvenirs in the shape of large-calibre shell fragments. “I’ve never been at the wrong end of this size gun before,” the mariner would say as the German heavies fell. “It’s tremendously interesting! I must just make sure about that fuse, if you don’t mind.” The host, to whom 5.9’s, and much larger, were no novelty (for the Canal bank dug-outs did not keep them out) had to feign an interest he did not feel till it dawned on the sailor that if he pursued his investigations too far he would be cut off by German patrols. The visitors all agreed that ships, under normal circumstances, were the Hotel Ritz compared to the daily trench-routine of the army. We vaingloriously fired several rounds from a 9.2 to please the Senior Service who, naturally, had seen such things before. The enemy replied with two days’ full “retaliation” after the navy had left.
Yet, as things went in the Salient, it was, like their reserve camp, “not too uncomfortable.” Though there was only one workable communication-trench (The Haymarket) to their line, and that a bad one, the main St. Jean. road could be used after dark at reasonable risks. No work was possible by daylight, but, except for general and indiscriminate shelling, they lived quietly, even when, as happened on the first night (March 23), No. 1 Company and Headquarters were solemnly misguided down the Menin road in the dark over Hell Fire Corner to within a few hundred yards of Hooge and returned “without even being fired at.” The regimental transport, too, managed to come up as far as Potijze with supplies, on three of the four nights of the Battalion’s first tour, and had no casualties, “though the woods were regularly shelled.” This was an extraordinary stroke of luck for the Battalion since other transports had suffered severely.
The outstanding wonder that any one in the Salient should be alive at all, is not referred to in the Diary. Men who watched the shape of that cape of death, raken by incessant aeroplanes and cross-cut by gun-fire that fell equally from the flanks and, as it seemed, the very rear, sometimes speculated, as did the French in the livelier hells of Verdun, how long solid earth itself could hold out against the upheavals of the attack. Flesh and blood could endure—that was their business—but the ground on which they stood did not abide. As one man said: “It ’ud flee away in lumps under the sole of your foot, till there was no rest anywhere.”
Their first four days’ tour saw three men killed in the line by a single whizz-bang in a dug-out; one wounded, and an officer, Lieutenant R. J. P. Rodakowski, slightly hit by a piece of shrapnel. They buried their dead by night at Potijze. Reliefs were the real difficulty; for the line and the roads were continuously shelled, and at any moment in the dusk they might find their only sound communication-trench impassable. They watched it go up from end to end, one dreadful night on the 29th of March, when they were in support and the Grenadiers in the line, and the King’s Company was wiped out almost to a man. It was a prelude to an attack that never arrived—a suddenly launched, suddenly arrested, wantonness of destruction. Coming, going, standing, or sitting still gave no minute of guaranteed safety. A party returning from home-leave were caught by a single shell in the streets of Ypres on April 2. Sergeant-Major Kirk and a private were killed, and a N.C.O. and three men were wounded. Men dropped, too, almost in the hour when they took their leave. They worked up the line of nights, half the shift at a time repairing damage, and the remainder standing by for attacks.
On the 3rd April, after an untouched turn of duty, eight men were. wounded by blind fire during the relief.
At Poperinghe, on April 4, they were billeted in the Convent which supplied them with variety entertainments, cinemas, band concerts, and performing troupes, all liable at any moment to be dispersed by the enemy’s artillery or ’planes and therefore doubly precious. The Battalion had its share of professional honour, too, in a matter of ceremonial. As regards the outside world the Brigade of Guards is one; as regards the various battalions of it, there are allowable internal differences of opinion. Consequently when a Russian General, late Chief of the Staff to the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, visited Poperinghe, and the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards—out of five Guards Battalions within reach—was chosen as the one for him to inspect, life smiled upon them, and they rose to the occasion. Hear the words of an observer, experienced, if not altogether disinterested: “The day (April 5) was lovely, and our fellows, in spite of their months of trench-work, did magnificently. The wonderful precision of their drill excited the admiration even of officers belonging to some of the other regiments. The Huns missed a grand opportunity.”
The Huns had their revenge a few days later when the Battalion’s billets and Headquarters at Poperinghe were suddenly, on April 11, shelled just as the Battalion was going into line at Ypres. The thing began almost with a jest. The Regimental Chaplain was taking confessions, as is usual before going up, in Poperinghe Church, when the building rocked to bursts of big stuff obviously drawing nearer. He turned to open the confessional-slide, and smelt gas—chlorine beyond doubt. While he groped wildly for his gas-helmet in the dusk, the penitent reassured him: “It’s all right, Father. I’ve been to Divisional Gas School to-day. That smell’s off my clothes.” Relieved, the Padre went on with his duties to an accompaniment of glass falling from the windows, and when he came out, found the porch filled with a small crowd who reported “Lots of men hit in an ambulance down the road.” Thither ran the Padre to meet a man crazy with terror whom a shell-burst had flung across the street, halfstripped and blackened from head to foot. He was given Absolution, became all of a sudden vehemently sick, and dropped into stupor. Next, on a stretcher, an Irish Guardsman crushed by a fallen wall, reported for the moment as “not serious.” As the priest turned to go, for more wounded men were being borne up through the dusk, the lad was retaken by a violent haemorrhage. Supreme Unction at once was his need. Captain Woodhouse, R.A.M.C., the regimental doctor, appeared out of the darkness, wounded in the arm and shoulder, his uniform nearly ripped off him and very busy. He had been attending a wounded man in a house near headquarters when a shell burst at the door, mortally wounded the patient, killed one stretcher-bearer outright and seriously wounded two others. The Padre, dodging shells en route, dived into the cellars of the house where he was billeted for the Sacred Elements, went back to the wayside dressing-station, found a man of the Buffs, unconscious, but evidently a Catholic (for he carried a scapular sewed in his tunic), anointed him, and—the visitation having passed like a thunder-storm—trudged into Ypres unworried by anything worse than casual machine-gun fire, and set himself to find some sufficiently large sound cellar for Battalion Mass next morning. The Battalion followed a little later and went underground in Ypres—Head-quarters and a company in the Carmelite Convent, two companies in the solid brick and earth ramparts that endure to this day, and one in the cellars of the Rue de Malines.
It was the mildest of upheavals—a standard-pattern affair hardly noted by any one, but it serves to show what a priest’s and a doctor’s duties are when the immediate heavy silence after a shell-burst, that seems so astoundingly long, is cut by the outcries of wounded men, and the two hurry off together, stumbling and feeling through the dark, till the electric torch picks up some dim, veiled outline, or hideously displays the wounds on the body they seek. There is a tale of half a platoon among whom a heavy gas-shell dropped as they lay in the flank of a cutting beside a road. Their platoon-commander hurried to them, followed by the sergeant, calling out to know the extent of the damage. No one replied. The question was repeated. Then “Speak up when the Officer’s askin’,” cried the scandalized sergeant. But even that appeal failed. They were all dead where they lay, and, human nature being what it is, the sergeant’s words became a joke against him for many days after. Men cannot live in extreme fear for more than a very limited time. Normal little interests save them; so while they lay in cellars by candle-light at Ypres and worked stealthily at night, the Battalion found time to make a most beautiful Irish Star, four feet across, of glass and pounded brick from the rubbish of the Convent garden. It was a work of supererogation, accomplished while cleaning up the billets, which drew favourable notice from high authorities.
On the 16th April they were shifted to relieve the 2nd Grenadiers at Railway Wood north-west of Hooge. This was almost the most easterly point of the Salient on the north of the Menin road by the Roulers railway, and ranked as quite the least desirable stretch of an acutely undesirable line. In addition to every other drawback, the wood welled water at every pore, for the Bellewaarde Beck brought to it all the drainage from the Bellewaarde ridge, and even the trenches on high ground were water-logged. They were bombed from overhead as soon as they moved in; Hell Fire Corner was shelled on the 17th April and six men were wounded.
The 18th April was quiet, only two men wounded, and “except for violent bombardments, north and south, and an attack on Wieltje and other places,” so was the 19th. Wieltje was two thousand yards, and the “other places” even farther away. The “disturbance” was nothing more than principal German attacks on four different fronts of the Salient among mud and mudfilled shell-holes and craters of old mines where men sunk and choked where they fought waist-deep in the dirt; where the clogged rifles were useless, and the bomb and the bayonet were the only hope. From any reasonable point of view the Salient was a particularly weak position, always worth an attack in the intervals of its regular use as a gunnery school for German artillery. The enemy knew that we were on the way to take the pressure off the French at Verdun, which had been a factory of death since February, and argued that it would be well to make trouble anywhere they could. They chose the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions round Ypres, and fought them for two days with very little profit beyond filling more shell-holes with more dead.
At that date men had learned by experience the comparative values of their flanking divisions and the battalions immediately beside them. When a local attack fell on some of these, those unaffected would rest as unconcernedly as the watch below takes its ease when the watch on deck is struggling with the squall. The syren-like hoot of the gas-horns, one or two miles off, might break their rest on relief, but the division involved being known to be adequate, the Battalion was not roused and “spent a quiet day.” Other divisions, new to the line caused anxiety and interfered with regular routine, till they had shaken into place; and yet others might be always trusted to hoot and signal for help on the least provocation. These peculiarities would be discussed in the cantonments and coffee-bars of the rest-areas, or, later, out on the roadside with an occasional far-ranging German shell to interrupt a really pleasant inter-battalion or divisional argument where, if reports be true, even the Military Police sometimes forget to be impartial. And there were unambitious, unimproving units quite content to accept anything that their predecessors had left them in the way of openwork parapets, gapped sandbags, and smashed traverses. Against these, experienced corps builded, not without ostentation, strong flanks so that if their neighbours went of a sudden, they themselves might still have a chance for their lives. The Irish had a saying of their own—a sort of lilting call that ran down the trenches at odd times—to the effect that God being in his Heaven and “the Micks in the line, all was well. Pom-pom!” Every battalion, too, had its own version of the ancient war-song which claims that they themselves were in the front line with their best friends of the moment immediately behind them, but that when they went to look for such-and-such a battalion with whom they were unfriends for the moment, they were blessed (or otherwise) if they could find them.
Theirs was the misfortune to be the only battalion of the division available for fatigues during their sixteen days’ tour; so they supplied parties without intermission, both to the trenches round Railway Wood, and in battered Ypres in the cellars where they rested by candle-light to the accompaniment of crashing masonry and flying pavement blocks. A fatigue-party, under Lieutenant T. K. Walker, carrying Engineers’ stuff to near Railway Wood, was caught and shelled on the 24th, on the last two hundred yards or so of utterly exposed duckboards, every piece of which the enemy guns had taped to a yard. The water-logged soil made any sort of trenches here out of the question. Men slid, and staggered across the open under their loads till the shells chose to find them, or they reached Railway Wood and found some cover in the mine which was always being made there and always pumped out. Lieutenant Walker and four men were killed at once and seven men were wounded, of whom two afterwards died. It was as swift as the shelling of Headquarters at Poperinghe on the 11th; and Captain Woodhouse, the M.O., had to get forward to the wreckage under a heavy fire of shells and aerial torpedoes. With, or not far from him, went, crawled, ran or floundered the priest; for if by any means the body could be relieved, repaired or eased, so could the soul. It is true that both these men more or less respected direct orders not to expose themselves too much, but they suffered from curious lapses of memory.
Then Spring came to the Salient in one swift rush, so warm and so windless that, at the end of April, when they were in rest under leafing trees at Poperinghe, it was possible to dine in shirt sleeves in the open by candle and starlight. The gentle weather even softened the edge of war for a day or two, till Ypres and the neighbourhood were vigorously shelled on the 5th May. The Battalion was then in Ypres prison and the cellars beneath it, where some unloved enthusiast had discovered that there was plenty of room for drill purposes in the main gaol-corridor, and drilled they were accordingly to the music of the bombardments. On such occasions men were sometimes seen to “budge,” i.e. roll their eyes in the direction of plaster and stones falling from the ceiling, for which heinous “crime” their names were justly taken.
On the 9th May they relieved the 2nd Grenadiers on the left sector of their Brigade’s front at Wieltje, where what were once trenches had been bombed and shelled into a sketchy string of bombing-posts—or as a man said, “grouse-butts.” It was perhaps one degree worse than their stretch at Hooge and necessitated companies and posts being scattered, as the ground served, between what was left of Wieltje, St. Jean, and La Brique. The enemy opened by shelling the Reserve Company (No. 4) at St. Jean and wounding eight men, while their machine-gun fire held up all work in the front line where No. 1 Company was trying to dig a communication-trench through old dirt and dead to No. 2 Company in support.
The demonstration might have meant anything or nothing, but to be on the safe side and to comply with Brigade orders, regular observation and snipers’ posts were posted henceforward, and Lieutenant Rodakowski was struck off all trench duties as “Intelligence (and Sniping) Officer.” The arrangements and supervision of a dozen or so snipers, imaginative, stolid or frankly bored, as the case might be, and the collation of their various reports based (for very little could be actually seen) on the Celtic imagination operating at large; the whole to be revised and corrected from hour to hour by one’s own faculties of observation and deduction; make Intelligence work a little strenuous.
On the 12th May St. Jean, which included Battalion Headquarters, half way between St. Jean and Wieltje, was heavily shelled for eight hours of the night with heavy stuff but no casualties beyond a couple of men wounded.
On the 18th May, when they were in the line once more, the enemy who had recently been remarkably quiet made an attempt to rush a bombing-post, but, says the Diary, “Lieutenant Tisdall and 4182 Private A. Young came upon them unexpectedly, and owing to the former’s coolness and the latter’s vigorous offensive action with rifle and bombs, the hostile party, about twenty, fled.” The Diary is never emotional in such little matters as these, and the officers concerned say less than nothing. It is the old-timers among the men who cherish memories of the “vigorous offensive” action. No pen dare put on paper the speech of the orderly who, with rifle and bomb, erupts along the trench or over the edge of the shell-crater either in deadly silence or with threatenings and slaughter in his own dialect, and, when the quick grisly business is over, convulses his associates with his private version of it.
The orderly got the D.C.M. and the officer the Military Cross.
The enemy retaliated next night by shelling the support line and wounded seven men just as the Battalion was going into rest and was relieved late, which they noticed with deep displeasure, by a battalion of the Twentieth Division.
The 20th May saw them in the clean back-area at the pleasant well-treed village of Longuenesse, three miles south-west of St. Omer, all together in good billets and plenty of clean straw at one farm; Headquarters at a neighbouring Château, the 2nd Coldstream, their particular friends with them, and the other battalions of their brigade at villages near by. The weather was good; for a week at least work was reasonable, and they all went to pay a visit disguised as a “Battalion Drill” to the parade ground of the cadet-school at Blendecques, of which Lieutenant J. Halligan, late Orderly-Room Quartermaster-Sergeant of the Battalion, was Adjutant. It is reasonable to infer that the Russian General at the Poperinghe camp got no better in the way of a ceremonial parade than did their old comrade.
The shadow of preparations for the Somme fell over them afterwards. They dug quadruple lines of trenches and assaulted them in full kit with gas helmets; and found time, between whiles, to hold a boxing competition, at which the 12th Lancers arrived with “their private Young,” who was defeated by the Battalion’s Company Sergeant-Major Voyles. These things are as sacred as the Eton dinner at St. Omer on the 3rd June, which seven officers from the Battalion attended.
On the 7th June they moved on a twelve-mile march to Hondeghem, under Cassel, en route for a Poperinghe camp once more, and developed several cases of sore feet. This was put down to a “bad issue of socks,” but it supports the theory of the Sergeant’s Mess, that nothing but careful inspection, coupled with steady route-marching, can “put a foot” on men who have been paddling in trench-mud with twisted, waterlogged boots.
At Poperinghe they were coolies again till they went into line on the 15th June. A permanent fatigue-party of 150, under 2nd Lieutenants Hegarty and Earle, was sent to the Engineers near Ypres. Another, a hundred strong, helped to bury field-cables by night at Brielen on the Ypres–Elverdinghe road, a place much sought after by the enemy’s artillery. But digging is reckoned better than drill, and their next tour of duty was to be a wearisome one. Lieutenant J. N. Marshall from the Entrenching Battalion joined on the 15th, and Lieutenant J. K. Greer took command of
No. 1 Company, Lieutenant Law being on a course.
They relieved the 11th Essex and the 8th Bedfordshires (Sixth Division) on the night of the 16th, in the surprisingly short time of one hour, which was nearly a record and showed that all hands were abreast of their work. Their new sector lay north-west of Wieltje and due north of Ypres, covering the Ypres–Pilckem road, with supports at Lancashire farm, and the Battalion Headquarters amid loose bricks and mud on the Canal bank. The trenches were bad; only one communication-trench (Skipton Road) was moderately dry, and the parapets were thin, low and badly gapped, which gave enemy snipers their chance. Two men were killed outright the first day; one died of wounds and four were wounded.
No Man’s Land at this point was several hundred yards deep, and covered with long grass and weeds. The periscopes soon learned to know that poppies and thistles grew brightest and tallest round the edges of shell-holes, and since shell-holes meant cover, all patrols directed their belly-flat course to them.
On the 18th June officer patrols went out to look at the enemy’s wire. Second Lieutenant F. H. N. Lee was wounded in the leg while close to it, and was carried back by No. 3836 Corporal Redmond; dying later of gangrene. Another officer, Lieutenant Hon. P. Ogilvy, ran by mistake into wire on his return journey, and had to fight his way back with his orderly. One man was killed and one wounded, besides the wounded officer.
On the 19th Lieutenant J. N. Marshall, while out with a working-party, was sniped in the arm, but finished his work before reporting it. A man was killed and two were wounded. “The day was normal—probably the quietest of the tour,” says the Diary, but one may be certain that certain inconspicuous German snipers were congratulating themselves on their bag. The bulk of the trouble came from five old dug-outs known as the “Canadian dug-outs,” some two or three hundred yards away, which had once been in our hands. These had been wired round collectively and individually, and their grass-grown irregular moundage made perfect snipers’ nests.
The Battalion lay, from the 21st to the 23rd June, in shelters round and cellars beneath Elverdinghe Château, the trees of which were still standing, so that it was possible to put in an inspection and a little drill beneath them, but careful watch had to be kept for hostile aeroplanes. Drill under these circumstances is discipline of the highest. “’Tis not the dhrill, ye’ll understand, but the not budgin’ in the ranks that’s so hard to come by. For, ye’ll understand, that you can’t help liftin’ an eye when you hear them buzzin’ above. And, of course, if a man budges on parade, he’ll be restless when he’s shelled.”
Our artillery had been cutting German wire on the front of the Division with the idea of raids to follow. Consequently, there was night-firing on both sides when the Battalion went back on the 24th. The trenches had been a little improved, and one man only was killed and one wounded by the snipers.
On the 26th June four men were sniped. On the 27th June wire-cutting by our guns drew heavy retaliation from the enemy. Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, D.S.O., as brave a man as the War made, who had only come up from the Entrenching Battalion a few days before, was sniped and killed at once. He had gone with his orderly to pick up a wounded man in a trench, and both were hit by the same bullet. The sniper did his best to kill Private Carroll, who dragged the wounded man and the officer’s body under cover. Private Carroll was awarded the Military Medal for this. Four dead and seven wounded were that night’s total.
The 28th June was the worst of that tour. The enemy opened on the trenches and supports through night and day with everything available, down to aerial torpedoes, killing five men and wounding eight.
The casualties for a “quiet” twelve days’ tour, including three days only in the front line, were three officers and forty-seven other ranks killed and wounded. Some of the credit of this must go to the German snipers, who, working without noise or display, gave the Battalion the idea there was nothing much doing. The brutal outcry of artillery, its visible effect on the ground—above all, the deadly accuracy of the single aimed shells on the well-registered trench from which none must move—upset men sometimes more than repeated single casualties in the front line, which can be hurried off round the traverses without rousing more than a few companions.
They lay for a week beneath the trees near Poperinghe and started inter-platoon bombing competitions to “accustom the men to throw overarm without jerking.” These little events forbade monotony, and were sometimes rather like real warfare, for not every one can be trusted to deliver a ball accurately when he is throwing in against time.
Meanwhile, Verdun had been in the fire since February, there was no sign of the attacks on it weakening, and France and the world looked uneasily at that dread point of contact where men and stuff consumed as the carbon of arc-lights consumes in the current. It was time that England should take the strain, even though her troops were not fully trained or her guns yet free to spend shells as the needs of the War demanded. What had gone before was merely the initial deposit on the price of national unpreparedness; what was to come, no more than a first instalment. It was vital to save Verdun; to so hold the enemy on the western front that he could not send too much help to his eastern line or his Austrian allies, who lay heavy on the Italian Army: most vital, to kill as many Germans as possible.
The main strength, the actual spine of the position, so far as the British front was concerned, was some twenty-five miles of high ground forming the water-shed between the Somme and the rivers of southern Belgium, which ran, roughly, from Maricourt in the south, where our line joined the French, to Gomiecourt in the north. Here the enemy had sat untroubled for two years, looking down upon France and daily strengthening himself. His trebled and quadrupled lines of defence, worked for him by his prisoners, ran below and along the flanks and on the tops of five-hundred-foot downs. Some of these were studded with close woods, deadlier even than the fortified villages between them; some cut with narrowing valleys that drew machine-gun fire as chimneys draw drafts; some opening into broad, seemingly smooth slopes, whose every haunch and hollow covered sunk forts, carefully placed mine-fields, machine-gun pits, gigantic quarries, enlarged in the chalk, connecting with systems of catacomb-like dug-outs and subterranean works at all depths, in which brigades could lie till the fitting moment. Belt upon belt of fifty-yard-deep wire protected these points, either directly or at such angles as should herd and hold up attacking infantry to the fire of veiled guns. Nothing in the entire system had been neglected or unforeseen, except knowledge of the nature of the men, who in due time, should wear their red way through every yard of it.
Neither side attempted to conceal their plans. The work of our airmen would have been enough to have warned the enemy what was intended, even had his own men overlooked the immense assembly of troops and guns in a breadth of country that had been remodelled for their needs, above ground and below. Our battalions in the Salient, where the unmolested German aeroplanes bombed them, knew well enough that, in the phrase of the moment, “everything had gone south,” and our listening-posts in the front line round Ypres could tell very fairly when a German “demonstration” was prompted by natural vice or orders to cover a noisy withdrawal of their guns in the same direction. It did not need placards in English, “Come on, we are ready for you!” which were hoisted in some of the German trenches on that Somme front to make men wiser than they had been for weeks past.
Side by side with this elaborate and particular knowledge, plus a multitude of camp-rumours, even more circumstantial, was the immense incuriousness that always exists in veteran armies. Fresh drafts would pour out from England filled with vain questions and the hope of that immediate “open warfare,” so widely advertised, to be told they would know all about it when their turn came, and that, meantime, deep trenches were not bad things after all. When they had looked for a little on the full face of war, they were content to copy their elders and ask no questions. They understood it was to be a wearing-out battle. Very many men had already been worn out and cast aside in the mere detail of preparation, in building the light and broad-gauge railways of supply and the roads beside them; in fetching up and installing timber, hutments, hangars, telephones, hospitals, pipe-lines for water, and the thousand other necessities of mechanical war. As it happened to individuals, so, they knew, would it be with the battalions, brigades and divisions of all the armies which General Rawlinson on the 1st of July moved up against that fortress of a whole countryside, called in history “The Somme.”
And while that storm gathered and broke, the Battalion went on with its horrible necessary work in the Salient till the hour should come for it and its Division to be cast into the furnace and used up with the rest.
On the 7th July they moved as a support to the broken and filthy banks of the Canal north of Ypres and sat in dug-outs connected by a tunnel and begirt with water and mud. Except for a mere nightly fatigue of a couple of hundred men, the Diary noted that “there was no training possible but there was little shelling.” The 2nd Grenadiers were in the line which the Battalion relieved (11th July) on a broken and marshy front, between Buffs Road and Forward Cottage with Battalion Headquarters near St. Jean and the 3rd Coldstream on their left. They were shelled during relief, when Lieutenant Christy, who, but a little while before, had just escaped a sniper’s bullet through the loophole, was killed.
That same morning four Germans wormed their way through the rank grass and broken ground and for a while almost captured an isolated post of six men of No. 1 Company. They tried, indeed, to march them off as prisoners, but the Irish edged away under cover of the next platoon’s fire, and all got back safely. The day closed with heavy bombardments from 5.9’s. An officer and three other ranks killed and seventeen wounded were counted as a light casualty-list “considering the bad cover.” No man could stand upright for an instant, and all repairs, parapets, and drainage work were done at night, stooping and crawling between spurts of machine-gun hose-work.
The 13th July was another “light” day with but seven men wounded. Second Lieutenant G. V. Williams joined from the base and Major C. F. Fleming went sick on the 14th. The sector being rather too active and noisy of nights just then, a patrol under Lieutenant J. N. Marshall went out to see what the enemy might intend in the way of digging a sap across “No Man’s Land.” The Lieutenant was wounded in the side as he left the trench, but insisted on doing his work and was out two hours; for which he paid by having to go into hospital a month later. Their casualties on the 15th, when they were relieved by the 2nd Grenadiers and went back to their dug-outs by the Canal, were five wounded, one of whom died. Out of this tense life were suddenly chosen an officer and twenty men to form part of the contingent representing our armies at the French review in Paris on the 14th July. They were chiefly veterans of 1914, and under Captain J. S. N. FitzGerald, then of the 2nd Battalion, repaired to a bright clean city where a man could hold up his head, walking in unchoked streets between roofed and glazed houses: and the day after the glittering affair was over they returned to their brick-heaps and burrows in the Flanders mire.
On the Battalion’s next turn (July 18-22), suspecting that the enemy might be newly relieved, our patrols worked hard night after night to catch prisoners for identification purposes. 2346 Lance-Corporal Hennigan, a regimental “character” and a man of strong powers of leadership, with 5743 Private O’Brien, of whom, too, many tales are told, were marked as “very prominent in the work.” But the Germans took great care not to leave men or corpses about, and they got nothing for their toil.
On the 23rd July orders came that their expected term of rest was to be cancelled as the Division would go “elsewhere,” which all knew meant towards the Somme. There were five days yet ere the Battalion drew clear of the Salient, each day with its almost unnoticed casualty that in the long run makes the bulk of the bills of war, and brings home the fact that the life-blood of the Battalion is dripping away. The support platoons were reckoned lucky to have only one man killed on the 23rd after bombardment by a six-inch high-explosive gun. Captain Pollok, who took over command of No. 1 Company on the same day, was wounded two days later, just after relief, by a machine-gun bullet; and their last “normal” day in the trenches gave one sergeant killed and three other ranks wounded.
They were relieved on the 27th July, after dark as usual, by the 1st Royal Warwicks, “recently come from the south, having been in the fighting there.” The Warwicks knew “The Somme.” They looked on the clean, creosoted, deep-bayed, high-parapeted trenches they were to hold and announced that they would feel “cushy” in such a line. “Cushy!” said the Brigade. “Wait till you’ve had to live in ’em!” “But,” said the Warwicks, “you see, we’ve been fighting.” The large Guardsmen looked at the little worn Linesmen and swallowed it in silence. The 4th Division, to which the Warwicks belonged, had been part of that terrible northern attack along the line from Serre to Fricourt, which had spent itself in vain against the German defence a month before, and had been ground and milled day by day since. But all that the Diary notices is that that last relief was “carried out smoothly and quietly” in what to the Warwicks, after such experience, must have been grateful peace.
After their three weeks in dug-outs, the Battalion rested and washed south of merry Poperinghe which had been heavily shelled and for some days completely evacuated.
Between March 18 and July 18, excluding four weeks in rest, they had lost four officers and thirty other ranks killed; five officers and a hundred and fifty-three other ranks wounded—a total of one hundred and ninety-two, in the mere routine of the slow days.
There was a saying of the war, “no one notices weather in the front line”; and it is curious that, so soon as the Battalion was above ground, walking under naked skies with light and air all round it, men dwelt on weather as almost a new discovery. They found it hot when the Division entrained at Proven for St. Pol. Forty-two trains took the Division and forty-seven lorries bore the Battalion itself from St. Pol to Bouque-Maison on the Doullens road. There, Headquarters were in an orchard beneath unbarked trees with leaves on the branches and a background of gun-voices from the Somme, to remind the men who laughed and talked in that shadow and sun what waited for them after this short return to real life.
They moved on the 4th August to Vauchelles-les-Authies, the matchboard huts of which, on the trampled ground, have been likened to a “demobbed poultry show.” It lay just off the well-worn Doullens–Albert road, now flooded with a steady current of troops and material. They waited there for ten days. During that time 2nd Lieutenant Cook (4th Connaught Rangers), Lieutenant T. Butler-Stoney from the Entrenching Battalion, and Lieutenant N. Butler from Hospital joined them.
The Regimental Band arrived from England for a three months’ tour. The officer who accompanied it wore a wound-stripe—the very first which the Battalion collectively had ever seen—and men wondered whether wound-stripes would become common, and how many one might accumulate. It was removed from the officer by laughing friends, as a matter something too suggestive in present company, and the band played in the still warm evenings, while the dust of feet going Sommeward rose and stretched unbroken along the Doullens—Albert pavé. Here the very tree-boles, before they began to be stripped and splintered by shellfire, were worn and rubbed beneath the touch of men’s shoulders and gnawed by the halted horses.
The King came on the 9th August to visit the Division. Special arrangements were impossible, so bombing-assault practice went on, while the officers of the Battalion were presented to him “in the orchard where the messes were pitched.” He made no orations, uttered no threats against his enemies, nor guaranteed the personal assistance of any tribal God. His regiments merely turned out and cheered the inconspicuous car as long as they could see it. But there is a story that a Frenchman, an old Royalist, in whose wood some officers had rigged a temporary hut of which he highly disapproved, withdrew every claim and complaint on the promise that the chair in which the King of England had sat should be handed over to him, duly certificated. Which was done.
On the 11th the Brigade moved over the open country via Louvencourt and Bertrancourt to the woods south of Mailly-Maillet, a six-mile march in hot and dusty weather, and the Brigade (2nd Grenadiers, 3rd Coldstream, 2nd Coldstream in reserve and 1st Irish Guards in support) took over trenches east of Englebelmer and “well within the shell area.” Thiepval and the Schwaben redoubt across the Ancre were only a thousand yards away and unsubdued; and, for a while, it looked as though that weary corner of death was to be the Guards’ objective. But, next day, orders came to move out of the line again, back to high and breezy Louvencourt in warm rain, taking over billets from the 2nd Sherwood Foresters and, by immense good luck, coming across a heaven-sent Expeditionary Force Canteen, a thing not often found in front-line billets. Upon this, pay was at once arranged for, and every one shopped at large. The incident stayed in their minds long after the details of mere battles were forgotten, and “that canteen at Louvencourt” is a landmark of old memories.
By this date the battle of the Somme was six weeks old, and our troops had eaten several—in some places as much as five or six-thousand yards deep into the area. Two main attacks had been delivered—that of the 1st July, which had lasted till the 14th, and that of the 14th, which went on till the end of the month. From Serre to Ovillers-la-Boiselle the Germans’ front stood fast; from Ovillers-la-Boiselle to the junction with the French armies at Hardecourt, the first tremendous system of their defence had been taken literally a few score yards at a time, trench by trench, village by village, quarry by quarry, and copse by copse, lost, won, and held again from three to eight or nine times. A surge forward on some part of the line might succeed in making good a few hundred yards of gain without too heavy loss. An isolated attack, necessary to clear a flank or to struggle towards some point of larger command, withered under enormous far concentrations of enemy guns, even as the woods withered to snapped, charred stickage. At every step and turn, hosts of machine-guns at ground-level swept and shaved the forlorn landscapes; and when the utmost had been done for the day, the displaced Germans seemed always to occupy the crest of some yet higher down. Villages and woods vanished in the taking; were stamped into, or blown out of the ground, leaving only their imperishable names. So, in the course of inconceivable weeks fell Mametz and the ranked woods behind it, Contalmaison, Montauban, and Caterpillar Wood, Bernafay, Trônes Wood, Longueval, and the fringe of Delville (even then a charnel-house among shattered stumps), both Bazentins, and Pozières of the Australians. The few decencies and accommodations of the old settled trench-life were gone; men lived as best they could in the open among eternal shell-holes and mounds of heaped rubbish that were liable at any moment to be dispersed afresh; under constant menace of gas, blinded with the smoke-screens of local attacks, and beaten down from every point of the compass either by enemy fire, suddenly gathered and loosed, or that of their own heavies searching, from miles off, some newly cleared hollow or skyline of the uplands where our troops lay indistinguishable from the skinned earth.
Battalions, brigades, and divisions went into the fight, were worn down in more or in less time, precisely as the chances of the ground either screened or exposed them for a while to the fire-blasts. Sometimes it was only a matter of hours before what had been a brigade ceased to exist—had soaked horribly into the ground. The wastage was brought down and back across the shell-holes as well as might be, losses were made good, and with a half, two thirds, or three quarters, new drafts, the original Battalion climbed back to its task. While some development behind the next fold of land was in progress or brought to a standstill, they would be concerned only with the life-and-death geography of the few hundred yards immediately about them, or those few score yards over which profitable advances could be made. A day, even an hour, later, the use and value of their own hollow or ridge might be altogether abolished. What had been a hardly won foothold would become the very pivot of a central attack, or subside into a sheltered haven of refuge, as the next dominating ridge or lap of the large-boned French landscape was cleared. Equally suddenly, even while the men thanked God for their respite, German batteries or a suddenly pushed-forth chain of German machine-guns would pound or spray their shelter into exposed torment once more.
As one philosopher of that unearthly epoch put it some time afterwards: “We was like fleas in a blanket, ye’ll understand, seein’ no more than the next nearest wrinkle. But Jerry and our Generals, ye’ll understand, they kept us hoppin’.”
“Our Generals,” who, it may be presumed, knew all the wrinkles of the blanket, shifted the Brigade on the 16th August opposite Serre on the far left of the line, which was not destined to be pierced till the next year. It was a fleeting transfer to another Army Corps; their own, the Fourteenth, under Lord Cavan, having joined the Fourth Army. They took over from the Somerset L.I. (61st Brigade) a set of trenches which, after their experiences in the Salient, struck them as dry, deep and good, but odd and unhomely. They had been French, were from six to nine feet deep, paved in places with stone, which our men had never seen in trenches before, and revetted with strange French stickwork. The dugouts, too, were not of their standard patterns. The front line was badly battered, but reliefs could be effected in broad daylight without casualties. The activities and comforting presence of our aeroplanes impressed them also as a great contrast to Ypres, where, naturally, our troops for the moment held only a watching-brief and every machine that could be spared had gone to the Somme. The dead of the opening battles lay thick about the place. The Irish buried two hundred of a division that had passed that way, five weeks or so before, and salved, with amazement at its plenty, the wreckage of their equipment. “There’s the world and all out there, Sorr,” said a man returning from his work. “The very world an’ all! Machine-guns and”—his voice dropping in sheer awe—“rum-jars!” They were unmolested, save by a few minenwerfers. Un dertaker’s work does not hearten any troops, and they were glad to get back to hutments in the untouched woods behind Authie, near their old “poultry-show.” During these days 2nd Lieutenants J. N. Ward and T. Gibson joined from home, the latter going to the first line transport and Captain L. R. Hargreaves took over No. 2 Company on joining from home on the 20th.
On the 23rd August they moved with the Brigade across to Beauval on the Doullens–Amiens road (where camps and hutments almost touched each other), and on the 25th embarked at Canaples in a horror called a “tactical train,” which was stuffed with two thousand of their brigade. After slow and spasmodic efforts it bore them quite fifty kilometres in seven hours to Mericourt l’Abbe, whence they marched to Méaulte in a green hollow under the downs, and found themselves once more in their own Fourteenth Corps under Lord Cavan. More immediately to the point, and a thing long remembered, their billets were damp, dirty, and full of fleas; the weather that was destined to ruin the campaign broke in torrents of rain, and the continuous traffic of stuff had knocked the very bowels out of all the hard-worked roads. This was the first time they realised what the grey clinging Somme mud meant.
They trained in that wet at bombing, at assaulting from trenches, at visual signalling to aeroplanes, and at marking out trenches by night with white tapes, as scores of thousands had done before them, while the roar of the guns rose and dropped without explanation, like the tumult of unseen crowds; and rumours and contradictory orders for standing fast or leaving on the instant kept them in tension for ten days. But, most wonderful of all to the men from The Salient, where silence and guarded movement were automatic, was the loud life of this open-air world of troops around them—men and guns spread over the breadth of counties—horses in the open by thousands ranked in endless horselines—processions of roaring lorries and deep-rumbling heavy guns; and, only a few miles away—the war in full blast. It was possible to catch a ride in a lorry and go up and see “The War,” as the saying ran. Yonder, but a very little way, stretched horizons, downs, and tablelands as far as imagination could range. All the firmament groaned to the artillery hidden and striving within them; and statelily, and regularly and unceasingly, the vast spaces of open were plumed with vertical columns of changeful shell-smoke. Men perceived that everything they had known, till then, had been a field-day. Here was The War!
A story that a wonderful new weapon would soon appear was very general. Some one had half-seen or been told about the tanks in their well-screened shelters; one or two over-zealous English journals had been industriously hinting at the developments of science; the enemy was uneasy, and, German-fashion, had issued portentous instruction to his men to be on their guard against something. But, however short his training, the British infantryman is a born scoffer. “We had heard about moving forts that weighed thirty ton,” said one of them. “Whatever it might be, we knew we’d have to take the thick o’ the coffee.”
The local battles and operations on the southern stretch of the front, now immediately in front of the Battalion, were almost as indistinguishable as waves on a beach that melt into or rise out of each other in the main flood. But there was a fresh tidal movement at the beginning of September, when our whole line attacked again, in conjunction with the French. We gained nothing of any account in the north, but in the south Guillemont fell, and, after desperate attack and counter-attack, almost all of Ginchy and the whole thousand-yard-square of Delville Wood and the south end of High Wood.
The net result up to the middle of September had been to advance and establish the centre of our line on the crest of the high ground from Delville Wood to the road above Mouquet farm (Thiepval and its outworks still untaken), so that we had observation over the slopes ahead. From Delville Wood eastward to Leuze—historically known as “Lousy” Wood—overlooking the little town of Combles on our right flank, our advance held the main ridge of land there, but had not gone beyond it. Still farther east, across the valley where Combles stood, the French were working north along the heights towards Sailly-Saillisel, three thousand yards away. Their line was pinched on the right by the big St. Pierre Vaast woods, fortified throughout. Their left was almost equally constricted by the valley where Combles, among its quarries and hidden shelters, squatted and dealt death, which all the heights to the north—Morval, Lesbœufs and Le Transloy—joined, with Sailly-Saillisel and St. Pierre Vaast in the east, to make more sure. It was necessary, then, to free the ground at the junction of the two armies in the direction of Morval, which commanded far too complete a fire; and also beyond Ginchy towards Lesbœufs, where the outlying spurs of high land raked “Lousy” Wood.
That clearing-up, a comparatively small detail on a vast front, fell to the lot of the Fourteenth Army Corps (Lord Cavan commanding), which lay between Ginchy village and Leuze Wood. The Corps was made up of the Fifty-sixth London Territorial Division, on the extreme right or east, next to the French; the Sixth Division, a little north of Leuze Wood, facing the Quadrilateral, a veiled defensive work as strong as ample time and the ground could make it, and destined to turn the fortunes of that day; and on the left of the Sixth, again, the Guards Division in front of what remained of Ginchy, Ginchy farm and orchard, all strongly held by the Germans, and some battered brickfields hard by.
Lord Cavan did not overstate the case in his message to the Guards Division just before the attack when he wrote: “The Corps Commander knows that there are difficulties to be cleared up on the left and in front of the 1st Guards Brigade and on the right of the 2nd Guards Brigade, but the Commander-in-Chief is of opinion that the general situation is so favourable that every effort should be made to take advantage of it, etc., etc.”
A battalion looks at life from a more limited standpoint. Brigade Orders issued on the 11th September announced: “The French Army will attack the enemy defences between Combles Ravine, and Martinpuich on Z day, with the object of seizing Morval, Lesbœufs, Gueudecourt and Flers, and breaking through the enemy’s defences.” But what interested the Irish, who prefer fighting light, even as the Frenchman can shuffle into action under all his high-piled possessions, was the amount of weight they would have to carry up there. It included two days’ rations, a couple of bombs, two extra bandoliers of ammunition, a pick or a shovel and three sandbags per man, plus wire-cutters and other fittings. On the other hand, greatcoats and packs were discarded and cardigan waistcoats worn beneath their jackets.
On the 10th September the Battalion, with the 1st Brigade, moved in from Méaulte to the valley behind Carnoy, and, after dark that night, Nos. 3 and 4 Companies, under Major T. M. D. Bailie, were ordered up through Bernafay Wood to a line of what passed for trenches behind Ginchy, and next morning Nos. 1 and 2 (Captain Hargreaves and Captain Rankin) bivouacked in some old trenches at the north end of Bernafay, where they were used in carrying-fatigues for the 3rd Guards Brigade, then in the front line. The other two companies were heavily shelled in their Ginchy trenches, and lost seven killed and thirteen wounded. A bombing accident in bivouac the day before had also wounded six men.
On the 12th September No. 1 Company, stationed in a small copse near Trônes Wood, which was choked with wreckage and dead, had three of their Lewis-gunners killed and five wounded by a single shell.
On the 13th September the Battalion spent a quiet day (with only one killed and seven wounded), except for a deadly tiring fatigue of carrying bombs to Guillemont under shell-fire. Our artillery began on the 12th, and continued day and night without much break till the hour of advance on the 15th, when it changed to the duly ordered stationary and creeping barrages of the field-guns.
On the evening of the 14th, the 1st Brigade of Guards moved out to the shell-holes and fragments of trench that formed their assembly-positions, on a front of five hundred yards between Delville Wood and the northern flank of Ginchy. There it lay in the cold with the others till “Zero,” 6.20 A.M. Of the 15th. The 2nd and 3rd Coldstream had the front line, for they were to lead the attack; the 2nd Grenadiers lay behind to support them and consolidate the first objective—a line of trench about twelve hundred yards north-east—and to hold it till the 1st Irish Guards came up and had passed through them. Then, if the flanks were secure, the 2nd Grenadiers were to come on and support in turn. The 1st Irish Guards were to pass through the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream after the latter battalions had reached the third objective, another line of trench twenty-five hundred yards off, and were thence to go and take the final objective—the northern outskirts of Lesbœufs, thirty-five hundred yards from their jumping-off place. There was a limited objective, three hundred yards beyond the first, which worked in with the advance towards Flers of the divisions on the left of the Guards from Delville Wood to Martinpuich. It was supposed to concern only the Battalion (2nd Coldstream) on the left flank of the 1st Brigade.
Incidentally, it was announced that as soon as all the objectives had been seized, “Cavalry would advance and seize the heights ahead.”
The Battalion formed up north-west of Ginchy in two lines, facing north-east. Nos. 3 and 4 Companies in the first line; 1 and 2 in the second on the right, commanded as follows:
No. 1, Lieutenant J. K. Greer, M.C.|
No. 2, Captain R. Rankin.
No. 3, Captain C. Pease.
No. 4, Captain P. S. Long-Innes.
Captain L. R. Hargreaves, Lieutenants the Hon. P. J. Ogilvy, and R. Rodakowski, 2nd Lieutenant T. C. Gibson, and C.S.M. Voyles and Farrell were left in reserve. Lieutenant L. C. Whitefoord and his section of the Brigade Machine-gun Company was attached to the Battalion.
They waited the hour and occupied themselves, many times over, with trivial details, repetitions of orders and comparisons of watches and compasses. (Their compass-bearing, by the way, was N. 37, or within a shade of North North-east.) Every one noticed that every one else fussed a little, and rather resented it. The doctor and the priest seemed to loom unnaturally large, and the sergeants were busier than was necessary over shortcomings, till ten minutes or so before Zero, Father Browne, who had given Absolution, spoke to the companies one by one as they knelt before him, their bayonets fixed and the searching dawn-light on their faces. He reminded them that that day was one set apart to Our Lady, and, ere many minutes, not few of them would be presenting their homage to Her in person. They realised that he told no more than truth.
Through some accident, Zero had been a little mistimed, and the troops left their lairs, not under the roar and swish of their own barrage, but in a silence which lasted perhaps less than a minute, but which seemed endless. They felt, one man averred, like amateur actors upon whom the curtain unexpectedly rises. The enemy, not looking for the attack, were only expending occasional shots, which emphasised the awful loneliness and exposure of it all, till, with a wrench that jerked the ground, our barrage opened, the enemy’s counter-barrage, replied, and through a haze of flying dirt No. 1 Company of the Irish saw a platoon of Coldstream in front of them crumped out of existence in one flash and roar. After that, the lines moved into a blizzard of shell and machine-gun fire where all landmarks were undistinguishable in the upheaval of explosives. (”We might as well have tried to guide ourselves by the waves of the sea-the way they spouted up.”)
There naturally cannot be any definite or accurate record of the day’s work. Even had maps been issued to the officers a week, instead of a day or so, before the attack; even had those maps marked all known dangerpoints—such as the Ginchy–Flers sunk road; even had the kaleidoscopic instructions about the brown and yellow lines been more intelligible, or had the village of Ginchy been distinguishable from a map of the pitted moon—once the affair was launched, there was little chance of seeing far or living long. The two leading platoons of No. 3 Company following the Coldstream, charged, through the ripping fire that came out of Ginchy orchard, to the German first-line trench which ran from the sunken road at that point. The others came behind them, cheering their way into the sleet of machine-gun fire. The true line of advance was north-easterly, but the 2nd Guards Brigade on the right of the 1st, caught very heavily by the German barrage on their right flank, closed in towards the 1st Brigade and edged it more northward; so that, about an hour and a half after the advance began, what the countless machine-guns had left of the Irish found itself with three out of its four company commanders already casualties, all officers of No. 2 Company out of action, and the second in command, Major T. M. D. Bailie, killed. They were held up under heavy shelling, either in front of German wire, or, approximately, on the firstline objective—a battered German trench, which our artillery had done its best to obliterate, but fortunately had failed in parts. With the Irish were representatives of every unit of the 1st and 2nd Brigades, mostly lacking officers, and some fresh troops of the Fourteenth Division from the left of the line. Outside their area, the Sixth Division’s attacks between Ginchy Telegraph and Leuze Wood had failed, thanks to a driving fire from the Quadrilateral, the great fortified work that controlled the landscape for a mile and a half; so the right flank of the Guards Division was left in the air, the enemy zealously trying to turn it—bomb versus bayonet.
Judgment of time and distance had gone with the stress and roar around. The two attacking battalions (2nd and 3rd Coldstream) of the 1st Brigade had more or less gone too—were either dead or dispersed into small parties, dodging among smoking shell-holes. The others were under the impression that they had won at least two of the three objectives—an error due to the fact that they had found and fought over a trench full of enemy where no such obstacle had been indicated.
Suddenly a party of snipers and machine-guns appeared behind the Irish in a communication-trench, fired at large, as much out of bewilderment as design, wounded the sole surviving company officer of the four companies (Lieutenant J. K. Greer), and owing to the jamming of our Lewis-guns got away to be killed elsewhere. A mass of surrendering Germans, disturbed by the advance of a division on the left, drifted across them and further blinded the situation. Nobody knew within hundreds of yards where they were, but since it was obvious that the whole attack of the Division, pressed, after the failure of the Sixth Division, by the fire from the Quadrilateral, had sheered too far towards the left or north, the need of the moment was to shift the men of the 2nd Guards Brigade back along the trench towards their own area; to sort out the mixed mass of officerless men on the left; and to make them dig in before the vicious, spasmodic shelling of the congested line turned into the full roll of the German barrage.
They cleared out, as best they could, the mixed English and German bodies that paved the bottom of the trench, and toiled desperately at the wreckage—splinters and concrete from blown-in dug-outs, earth-slides and collapses of head-cover by yards at a time, all mingled or besmeared with horrors and filth that a shell would suddenly increase under their hands. Men could give hideous isolated experiences of their own—it seemed to each survivor that he had worked for a lifetime in a world apart—but no man could recall any connected order of events, and the exact hour and surroundings wherein such and such a man—private, N.C.O., or officer—met his death are still in dispute. It was a still day, and the reeking, chemical-tainted fog of the high explosives would not clear. Orders would be given and taken by men suddenly appearing and as suddenly vanishing through smoke or across fallen earth, till both would be cut off in the middle by a rifle bullet, or beaten down by the stamp and vomit of a shell, There was, too, always a crowd of men seated or in fantastic attitudes, silent, with set absorbed faces, busily engaged in trying to tie up, staunch, or plug their own wounds—to save their own single lives with their own hands. When orders came to these they would shake their heads impatiently and go on with their urgent, horrible business. Others, beyond hope, but not consciousness, lamented themselves into death. The Diary covers these experiences of the three hours between 8 A.M. and 11 A.M. with the words: “In the meantime, despite rather heavy shelling, a certain amount of consolidation was done on the trench while the work of reorganization was continued.” In the meantime, also, some of the Coldstream battalions, mixed with a few men of the Irish Guards, the latter commanded by Lieutenant W. Mumford, had rushed on into the wilderness beyond the trench towards the brown line, or what was supposed to be the brown line, three hundred yards or so ahead, and for the moment had been lost. About half-past eleven the Commanding Officer, the Adjutant, and 2nd Lieutenant G. V. Williams and Lieutenant L. C. Whitefoord of the 1st Guards Brigade Machine-gun Company, who represented all that was left of the officers, went forward with all that was left of the Irish Guards and all available, not too badly wounded Coldstreamers, towards the next objective. Every one was glad to step out from the sickening trench into the wire-trapped, shell-ploughed open whence the worst of the German barrage had lifted, though enemy machine-guns were cropping it irregularly. Their road lay uphill through a field of rank, unweeded stuff, and, when they had topped a little rise, they saw what seemed, by comparison, untouched country where houses had some roofs on them and trees some branches, all laid out ahead, in the hot sunshine between Flers and Lesbœufs. There were figures in the landscape too—Germans on the move with batteries and transport—an enemy in sight at last and, by the look of them, moving away. Then a German field-battery, also in the open, pulled up and methodically shelled them. They came upon a shallow trench littered with wreckage, scraped themselves in, and there found some more of the Division, while the German battery continued to find them. In the long run, that trench, which had been a German covered-way for guns, came to hold about sixty of the 1st Irish Guards, thirty of the 2nd Grenadiers under Captain A. F. S. Cunningham, and a hundred or so of both Battalions Coldstream under Colonel J. V. Campbell, the senior officer present. Somewhere on the left front of it, fifteen of the Irish were found lying out in shell-holes under C. S. M. Carton and Sergeant Riordan. They were in touch, so far as touch existed then, with the 9th Rifle Brigade on their left, but it was not advisable to show one’s head above a shell-hole on account of enemy machine-guns which were vividly in touch with everything that moved. Their right was all in the air, and for the second time no one knew—no one could know—where the trench in which they lay was situated in the existing chaos. They fixed its position at last by compass-bearings. It was more or less on the line of the second objective, and had therefore to be held in spite of casualties. The men could do no more than fire when possible at anything that showed itself (which was seldom) and, in the rare intervals when shelling slackened, work themselves a little further into the ground. At this juncture, Captain L. R. Hargreaves, left behind with the Reserve of Officers in Trônes Wood, was ordered up, and reached the line with nothing worse than one wound. He led out a mixed party of Coldstream and Irish to a chain of disconnected shell-holes a few hundred yards in advance of the trench. Here they suffered for the rest of the afternoon under the field-battery shelling them at less than half a mile, and the regular scything of the machine-guns from the Quadrilateral on their right. A machine-gun detachment, under Lieutenant L. C. Whitefoord, went with them, and Lieutenant W. C. Mumford and 2nd Lieutenant F. S. L. Smith with their little detachments of Irish and Coldstream came up later as reinforcements. That scattered forward fringe among the shell-holes gave what help it could to the trench behind it, which filled up, as the day wore on, with more Irish and Coldstream working their way forward. Formation was gone—blown to bits long ago. Nearly every officer was down, and sergeant after sergeant succeeding to the command, had dropped too; but the discipline held, and with it the instinct that made them crawl, dodge, run and stumble as chance offered and their corporals ordered, towards the enemy and not away from him. They had done so, at first, shouting aloud in the massed rush of the full charge that now seemed centuries away in time, and worlds in space. Later, as they were scattered and broken by fire, knowing that their battalion was cut to pieces, they worked with a certain automatic forlorn earnestness, which, had any one had time to think, was extremely comic. For instance, when a sergeant came across a stray private meditating longer than seemed necessary at the bottom of a too-tempting shell-hole, he asked him gravely what he thought he was doing. The man, dazed and shaken, replied with an equal gravity that he did not know. “Then,” said the sergeant, “get on forward out o’ this an’ maybe ye’ll find out,” and smote him dispassionately with the flat of a spade. The man, without a word, rose up, lifted his head once more into the bullet-torn air, and pitched forward, dead, a few paces farther on. And, at one time, in a terrible waiting pause, when it was death to show a finger, they saw one man out on the flank suddenly taken by madness. He lifted himself up slowly, and as slowly marched across the open towards the enemy, firing his rifle in the air meantime. The bullets seemed to avoid him for a long while till he was visibly jerked off his feet by several that struck him altogether. The stiff, blind death-march ended, and the watching Irish clicked their tongues for wonder and pity.
The Battalion had had no communication with Brigade Headquarters or any one else since early morning. It lacked supports, lights, signals, information, wood, wire, sandbags, water, food and at least fifty per cent. of its strength. Its last machine-gun had been knocked out, and it had no idea what troops might be next on either side. As the sun went down, word came from the advanced party in the shell-holes where the wrecked machine-gun lay, that the Germans were massing for a counter-attack on the blue line of what had been the third objective. They could be seen in artillery formation with a mass of transport behind them, and it passed the men’s comprehension why they did not come on and finish the weary game. But the enemy chose to wait, and at the edge of dusk the Irish saw the 2nd Scots Guards attacking on their right through a barrage of heavy stuff-attacking and disappearing between the shell-bursts. The attack failed: a few of the Scots Guards came back and found places beside the Irish and Coldstream in the trench. Night fell; the enemy’s counter-attack held off; the survivors of the advanced party in the shell-holes were withdrawn to help strengthen the main trench; and when it was dark, men were sent out to get into touch with the flanks. They reported, at last, a battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s on their left and the 2nd Grenadiers on their right. In the protecting darkness, too, water and rations arrived from the Ginchy–Lesbœufs road, by some unconsidered miracle-work of Captain Antrobus and the other Battalion Transport Officers; and throughout the very long night, stragglers and little cut-off parties, with their wounded, found the trench, reported, fed, and flung themselves down in whatever place was least walked over—to sleep like the dead, their neighbours. Ground-flares had at last indicated the Battalion’s position to our night-scouting contact aeroplanes. There was nothing more to be done except—as one survivor put it—“we was busy thryin’ to keep alive against the next day.”
The dawn of September 16 pinned them strictly to their cramped position, for the slope behind them ran in full view of the enemy. Moreover, enemy aeroplanes had risen early and taken good stock of the crowded shallow trench where they lay; and in due time the enemy artillery began to scourge them. But some of our batteries had moved up in the night, and one little field battery that the Irish thought very kindly of all that day, distracted their tormentors, so that, though they were shelled with H.E. and shrapnel as a matter of principle from dawn to dark, they could still make shift to hang on. The only orders they received from the Brigade that day were to maintain their positions and stand by to support an attack by the 3rd Brigade. That attack, however, never was launched. They lay still and watched, between bursts of shelling, a battalion on their left attacking some German trenches south of Gueudecourt. This happened once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Small stooping or crawling figures crept out for a while over the face of the landscape, drew the German guns, including those that were shelling the Irish trench, upon their advance, wavered forward into the smoke of it, spread out and disappeared—precisely as the watching Guards themselves had done the day before. The impression of unreality was as strong as in a cinema-show. Nothing seemed to happen that made any difference. Small shapes gesticulated a little, lay down and got up again, or having lain down, rose no more. Then the German guns returned to bombarding the brown-line trench, and the men lying closer realised that the lime-light of the show had shifted and was turned mercilessly upon themselves again. All they wanted was relief—relief from the noises and the stenches of the high explosives, the clinging horror of the sights nearest them and from the tension that lay at the back of the minds of the most unimaginative. The men were dumb—tired with mere work and suffering; the few officers doubly tired out by that and the responsibility of keeping awake and thinking consecutively, even when their words of command clotted on their tongues through shear weariness. The odds were heavily in favour of a German attack after dark; and a written warning from the rear said it would certainly come in the course of the night. A party of explorers sent to look for defences, found some sections of barb-wire on trestles in the wreck of an enemy-trench behind them. It was man-handled and brought away by lengths and, in some fashion, set up before the trench so that the enemy might not actually stroll over them without warning.
Fresh rumours of German counter-attacks arrived after midnight, in the way that information blows back and forth across a battlefield in reaction. The men were once more roused—in a burst of chill rain—to strengthen the outpost line. They must have made some noise about it, being more than half asleep at the time, but the enemy, so far from attacking, opened with long-range small-arm fire and sent up a myriad lights. That riot died down at last, and when the Battalion’s third dawn in the line had well broken, a company of Lincolns from the 62nd Brigade came up to the trench, and said their orders were to relieve. The light was full enough now to reveal them very clearly, and “a rapid relief was effected with some difficulty.” The enemy shelled till they reached the shelter of the ridge behind and there, at last, drew clear of the immediate aspect of war. Other scattered parties of the Battalion, with little knots of lightly wounded men, joined them on their way to the southern edge of Bernafay Wood, where they took reckoning of their losses. They had still seven officers left, including 2nd Lieutenant T. F. MacMahon, who with some forty men had been left behind in Divisional Reserve on the 16th, and the whole of the working platoon which had not been in action “rejoined the Battalion practically intact.” The “working platoon,” which was made up of two men from each platoon was popularly credited with fabricating Headquarters dug-outs at enormous distances from the firing-line and was treated rather as a jest by men not lucky enough to be drawn for it. As for the rest, Major T. M. Bailie, Lieutenant C. R. Tisdall, Lieutenant L. C. Whitefoord, and 2nd Lieutenant N. Butler were killed. Captain C. Pease and Lieutenant J. K. Greer died of wounds. Captain P. S. Long-Innes, Captain R. Rankin, Lieutenant A. C. W. Innes, 2nd Lieutenants H. C. Holmes, T. Butler-Stoney and Count J. E. de Salis were wounded; and there were over 330 casualties in the other ranks. The total casualties in the Brigade were 1776.
No one seems to recall accurately the order of events between the gathering in Bernafay Wood and the arrival of the shadow of the Battalion in camp at the Citadel. The sun was shining; breakfast was ready for the officers and men near some trees. It struck their very tired apprehensions that there was an enormous amount of equipage and service for a very few men, and they noticed dully a sudden hustling off of unneeded plates and cups. They felt as though they had returned to a world which had outgrown them on a somewhat terrifying scale during all the ages that they had been away from it. Their one need, after food eaten sitting, was rest, and, when the first stupor of exhaustion was satisfied, their sleep began to be broken by dreams only less horrible than the memories to which they waked.
But the cure was ready to hand. On the evening of the 18th September, in wet and cold weather, the Brigadier sent the Battalion a letter of praise and prophecy:
As your Brigadier I wish to express my feelings as to your most gallant work on the 15th September 1916 in the operations at Ginchy. The advance from the Orchard in the face of machine-gun fire is equal to anything you have yet accomplished in this campaign, and once more the 1st Battalion Irish Guards has carried out a most magnificent advance and held ground gained in spite of the most severe losses. In this, your first campaign, you are upholding the highest standard of bravery and efficiency for your successors and more praise than that I cannot give you. You may be called upon in the very near future to carry out similar work and I know you will not fail.
(Sd.) C. E. PEREIRA,
Commanding 1st Guards Brigade.
This meant that they would be moved again as soon as they could stand up, and would go into their next action with at least 50 per cent, new drafts and half their proper allowance of officers. Indeed, they were warned, next day, with the rest of their Division for further operations in the “immediate future,” and the work of re-making and re-equipping the Battalion from end to end, saved them from that ghastly state of body and soul which is known as “fighting Huns in your sleep.”
On the 19th, Major T. M. D. Bailie’s body was brought back from the front and buried in the cemetery in the centre of the camp at Carnoy, and on the same day Lord Cavan, commanding the Corps, rode over and spoke to the officers on horseback of the progress of the campaign, of what had so far been accomplished on the Somme, what was intended for the future, and specially, as bearing on their next battle, of what their artillery had in store for the enemy. It was a simple, unadorned speech, the substance of which he repeated to the N.C.O.’s, then wished the gentlemen of His Majesty’s Foot Guards all good fortune and rode away.
The Division had expected to be used again as soon as might be, but their recent losses were so heavy that every battalion in it was speculating beneath its breath how their new drafts would shape. It is one thing to take in men by fifties at a time and weld them slowly in The Salient to a common endurance; it is quite another to launch a battalion, more than half untried recruits, across the open against all that organized death can deliver. This was a time that again tested the Depot and Reserve Battalion whose never-ending work all fighting battalions take for granted, or mention only to blame. But Warley and Caterham had not failed them. Over three hundred recruits were sent up immediately after the 15th and 16th, and on the 20th September the re-made Battalion, less than six hundred strong, with ten officers, marched out of Citadel Camp to its detestable trenches on Ginchy Ridge. The two Coldstream Battalions of the 1st Brigade held the front line there; the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve, and the 1st Irish Guards in support.
The ground was not yet a sea of mud, but quite sufficiently tenacious. “The area allotted” was old trenches and newish shell-holes with water at the bottom, in “the small rectangular wood east of Trônes Wood.” They were employed for three or four days in cleaning up the litter of battle all about the slopes and piling it in dumps, while the enemy shelled them more or less regularly with large black 5.9 shells—a very fair test of the new drafts’ nerves. The stuff would drop unheralded through the then leafy woods, and explode at large among the shelters and slits that the men had made for themselves. They took the noise and the shaking with philosophy as their N.C.O.’s testified. (”There was some wondherin’ in the new drafts, but no budgin’, ye’ll understand.”)
Reading between lines one can see that the R.C. Priest, the Reverend Father F. M. Browne, was busy in those days on spiritual affairs, for he was hit in the face on the 23rd, “while visiting a neighbouring battery,” so that Mass on the 24th—the day before their second battle of the Somme—was celebrated by the Reverend Father Casey. They were shelled, too, that Sunday in the wood, a single unlucky shell killing two men and wounding thirteen. The last available officer from the base, Lieutenant A. H. Blom, had joined the night before; all drafts were in; the ground was assumed to be walkable (which was not the case), and about 9 P.M. of a pitch-black Sunday night the Battalion left the wood and reached its assembly-trench, an extraordinary bad and unprotected one, about midnight. They were promiscuously shelled in the darkness, and the trench, when found, was so narrow that they had to stand on the edge of it till the Battalion that they relieved—it did not keep them waiting long—got out. No. 1 Company (Captain L. R. Hargreaves), No. 2 Company (Captain the Hon. P. J. Ogilvy) were in the front line, the latter on the right, No. 3 Company (Lieutenant A. H. Blom), and No. 4 Company (Captain Rodakowski) about 150 yards behind with the Battalion Headquarters, in a diagonal communication-trench well bottomed with water. Second Lieutenant T. C. Gibson was wounded on the way up, and was replaced by 2nd Lieutenant T. F. MacMahon who had been left in Regimental Reserve.
The idea of the day’s work for the 25th was less ambitious than on the 15th, and the objectives were visible German trenches, not imaginary lines on uniformly undistinguishable landscapes. Here is the Brigade-Major’s memorandum for the 1st Brigade on the lie of the land, issued on the 22nd September: They were to attack and carry the village of Lesbœufs, up the Ginchy–Lesbœufs road, about fifteen hundred yards, on a front, again, of five hundred yards; the Irish Guards leading the attack throughout on the left of the 1st Brigade, and the 2nd Grenadiers on the right. It was in essence the clearing out of a badly shaken enemy line by the help of exceedingly heavy barrages.
1ST GUARDS BRIGADE No. 262
The forthcoming attack differs from the last in that the whole scheme is not such an ambitious one. The distance to the first objective is about 300 yards, to the second objective 800 yards, and to the last objective about 1300 yards. In each case the objective is a clearly defined one, and not merely a line drawn across the map.
Between our present front line and the first objective there is only “No Man’s Land.” During the next two nights this should be actively patrolled to ensure that our attack is not taken by surprise by some unknown trench, and in order that Officers and N.C.O.’s may have a knowledge of the ground.
It would also be of great assistance to the artillery if reports as to the actual distance to the Green line were sent in.
The ground slopes down to Lesbœufs, beyond which there is a distinct hollow with a plateau the same level as Lesbœufs beyond. On reaching the final objective Officers and N.C.O.’s should understand the necessity for pushing patrols out to command this hollow and give warning or prevent counter-attacks forming up here.
Large scale maps of Lesbœufs have been sent to all battalions. These should be carefully studied by all Officers and N.C.O.’s, and especially by those of the companies detailed for the cleaning up of Lesbœufs.
All runners and signallers should know the position of the advanced Brigade Report Centre, and that the best means of approach to it will probably be down the communication-trench T.3.c and T.8.b.
Finally, it cannot be too much impressed on assaulting troops the necessity for clinging to our own barrage. It will be an attack in which this should be comparatively easy, and on which the success of the whole operation may depend.
(Sd.) M. B. SMITH, Captain,
1st Guards Brigade.
September 22, 1916.
The Battalion’s own task was to clear the three objectives laid down, supported by the 3rd Coldstream, to clean out the northern portion of Lesbœufs village, and above all to secure their flanks when they halted or were held up. They waited in their trenches while our guns, hour after hour, sluiced the roads they were to take with an even downpour of shell along the trenches to be attacked—over Lesbœufs and its hidden defences, and far out into the untouched farming land beyond. It was a fine sunny morning that hid nothing: at 12.35 our barrage locked down two hundred yards ahead of the troops, and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies moved out with the rest of the line towards the first German trench three hundred yards away. The enemy put down a barrage at once on our front-support and communication-trenches, which caused a good many casualties (including Captain R. J. P. Rodakowski and the Doctor) in Nos. 3 and 4 Companies who were moving up as a second wave. Eventually, these companies found it less hampering to leave the crowded trench and come out over the open. So far, our artillery work was altogether a better business than on the 15th. The companies moved almost leisurely behind the roaring arch-of-triumph of the barrage, till the leading line reached the first trench with its half-finished dug-outs. Here they found only dazed German survivors begging to be taken out of that inferno to the nearest prisoners’ kraal. Some of these captures, officers included, sincerely expected to be slaughtered in cold blood.
The 2nd Grenadiers, on the right of the 1st Irish Guards, had been unlucky in their position, for the wire in front of their sector being veiled by high crop, our guns had missed it. That Battalion suffered heavily in officers and men, shot down as they tried to work their way through by hand; but they never lost touch, and the advance went on unbrokenly to the next point—a sunken road on the east side of Lesbœufs, five hundred yards ahead of the first objective. All four companies of the Irish were together now—Lieutenant Blom of No. 3 had been wounded at the first trench and 2nd Lieutenant T. F. MacMahon took over. They reached the downward slope to the sunk road and, as at the first objective, found most of their work had been done for them by the barrage. Even while they congratulated themselves and sent off a pigeon, as well as runner messages, to report the capture to Battalion Headquarters, which, “somewhat broken” by the German shelling, had arrived in the first-taken trench, fire fell on them from the south. Our own guns, misranging across the fields, were supposed to be responsible for this; and a second pigeon was despatched praying them to cease, but “there were a number of casualties” before the advance to the last objective began. This was shown on the map as just east of Lesbœufs village, and east again of another sunken road. The final surge forward included a rush across uprooted orchards and through wrecked houses. shops, and barns, with buildings alight or confusedly collapsing round them, and the enemy streaming out ahead to hide in shell-holes in the open. There was not much killing at this point, and, thanks to the tanks and the guns, a good deal less machine-gun fire than might have been expected. The Battalion dug in in a potato field a few hundred yards beyond the village, where the men providently laid aside the largest potatoes for supper, if so be they should live till that meal. In the meantime our guns were punching holes into the open land behind Lesbœufs, where parties of dislodged enemy had taken shelter. These preferred, at last, to bolt back through that storm and surrender to our men digging, who received them with derisive cheers—“for all the world as though they had been hares in a beat.”
Then came the tragedy. Our barrage, for some reason or other, wavered and stopped almost on the line where the men were digging in, and there hung for a long while—some accounts say a quarter of an hour, others two hours. At any rate, it was long enough to account for many more casualties. Captain L. R. Hargreaves, who had fought wounded through the 15th, was here so severely wounded that he died while being carried back, and Captain Drury-Lowe of the King’s Company of the 1st Grenadiers, digging in on the Irish left, was killed—both casualties by one shell. The 2nd Grenadiers, all company officers down, were in touch on the right, but the left was still doubtful, for the attack there had been held up at Gueudecourt village, and the 3rd Guards Brigade had to make a defensive flank there, while a company of the 3rd Coldstream was moved up to help in the work.
In modern war no victory appears till the end of all, and what is gained by immense bloodshed must be held by immense physical labour of consolidation, which gives the enemy time to recover and counter-attack in his turn. The Irish dug and deepened and strengthened their line north of Lesbœufs, while the enemy shelled them till afternoon, when there was a breathing space. A German counter-attack, on the left of the Guards Division, was launched and forthwith burned up. The shelling was resumed till night, which suddenly fell so quiet, by Somme standards, that supplies could be brought up without too much difficulty. As soon as light for ranging came on the 26th, our men were shelled to ground again; and an attempt of three patrols to get forward and establish posts of command on a near-by ridge brought them into a nest of machine-guns and snipers. The Diary remarks that the patrols located “at least one machine-gun,” which is probably a large understatement; for so soon as the German machine-gunners recovered breath and eyesight, after or between shells, they were up and back and at work again. By the rude arithmetic of the ranks in those days, three machine-guns equalled a company, and, when well posted, a battalion.
The Battalion was relieved on the evening of the 26th by its sister (the 2nd) Battalion, who took over the whole of Lesbœufs ruins from the Brigade; and the 1st Irish Guards went back with the others through Bernafay Wood, where they fed, to camp once more at the Citadel.
In the two days of their second Somme battle, which they entered less than six hundred strong and ten officers, they had lost one officer, Captain Hargreaves, died of wounds, and five wounded, and more than 250 casualties in other ranks. Add these to the casualties of the 15th, and it will be seen that in ten days the Battalion had practically lost a battalion. The commanding officer, Colonel McCalmont, the adjutant, Captain Gordon, and Lieutenant Smith were the only officers who had come unwounded through both actions.
General Pereira, commanding the 1st Guards Brigade, issued the following order on the 27th September:
You have again maintained the high traditions of the 1st Guards Brigade when called upon a second time in the battle of the Somme. For five days previous to the assault the 2nd and 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards held the trenches under constant heavy shell-fire and dug many hundred yards of assembly and communication-trenches, this work being constantly interrupted by the enemy’s artillery. The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards and the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, though under shell-fire in their bivouacs, were kept clear of the trenches until the evening of 24th September, and were given the task of carrying by assault all the objectives to be carried by this Brigade. Nothing deterred them in this attack, not even the fact that in places the enemy wire was cut in the face of rifle and machine-gun fire, and in spite of all resistance and heavy losses the entire main enemy defensive line was captured.
Every Battalion in the Brigade carried out its task to the full.
The German Reserve Division, which includes the 238th, 239th, and 240th Regiments, and which opposed you for many weeks at Ypres, left the Salient on the 18th September. You have now met them in the open, a worthy foe, but you have filled their trenches with their dead and have driven them before you in headlong flight.
I cannot say how proud I am to have had the honour of commanding the 1st Guards Brigade in this battle, a Brigade which has proved itself to be the finest in the British Army.
The Brigade is now under orders for rest and training, and it must now be our object to keep up the high standard of efficiency, and those who have come to fill our depleted ranks will strive their utmost to fill worthily the place of those gallant officers and men who have laid down their lives for a great cause.
(Sd.) C. E. PEREIRA,
Commanding 1st Guards Brigade.
September 28, 1916.
Lord Cavan had sent the following message to General Pereira:
|Hearty thanks and sincere congratulation to you all. A very fine achievement splendidly executed.|
To which the Brigadier had replied:
|Your old Brigade very proud to be able to present you with Lesbœufs. All ranks most gratified by your kind congratulations.|
And so that little wave among many waves, which had done its work and gained its few hundred yards of ground up the beach, drew back into the ocean of men and hutments below the slopes of the Somme. The new drafts were naturally rather pleased with themselves; their N.C.O.’s were reasonably satisfied with them, and the remnant of the officers were far too busy with reorganization and re-equipment to have distinct notions on any subject except the day’s work. It was a little later that heroisms or horrors, seen out of the tail of the eye in action, and unrealised at the time, became alive as rest returned to the body and men compared dreams with each other, or argued in what precise manner such and such a comrade had died. There was bravery enough and to spare on all hands, and there were a few, but not too many, decorations awarded for it in the course of the next month. The Battalion took the bravery for granted, and the credit of the aggregate went to the Battalion. They looked at it, broadly speaking, thus: “There was times when ye’ll understand if a man was not earnin’ V.C.’s for hours on end he would not keep alive—an’ even then, unless the Saints looked after him, he’d likely be killed in the middest of it.” In other words, the average of bravery required in action had risen twenty-fold, even as the average of shots delivered by machine-guns exceeds that of many rifles; and by the mercy of Heaven, as the Irish themselves saw it, the spirit of man under discipline had risen to those heights.
Captain L. R. Hargreaves (killed on the 25th) and Captain P. S. Long-Inns (wounded), with Lieutenant G. V. Williams (who was knocked unconscious and nearly killed by shell-fire on the 25th), were given the Military Cross for the affair of the 15th. Drill-Sergeant Moran, a pillar of the Battalion, who had died of wounds (it was he who had asked the immortal question about “this retreat” at Mons), with Private Boyd, received the D.C.M., and Sergeant Riordan (wounded and reported missing) the Bar to the same medal. Lance-Corporal J. Carroll, Privates M. Kenny, J. O’Connor, J. White and Lance-Corporal Cousins had the Military Medal—all for the 15th.
For the 15th and 25th combined, Lieutenant Walter Mumford and 2nd Lieutenant T. F. MacMahon won the Military Cross; and Sergeant P. Doolan and Private G. Taylor the Military Medal.
For the 25th, temporary Captain the Hon. P. Ogilvy received the Military Cross; acting Company Sergeant-Major McMullen, the Bar to his D.C.M.; and Privates Whearty, Troy and M. Lewis, the Military Medal. Captain Gordon, the Adjutant, was recommended for an immediate M.C. which he received with the next New Year honours at the same time as the C.O. received a D.S.O.
It was not an extravagant reward for men who have to keep their heads under hideous circumstances and apply courage and knowledge at the given instant; and after inconceivable strain, to hold, strengthen, and turn desperate situations to their platoon’s or company’s advantage. The news went into Warley and Caterham, and soured drill-sergeants, dead-wearied with the repetition-work of forming recruits to fill shellholes, found their little unnoticed reward in it. (”Yes. We made ’em—with the rheumatism on us, an’ all; an’ we kept on makin’ ’em till I got to hate the silly faces of ’em. An’ what did we get out of it? ‘Tell Warley that their last draft was dam’ rabbits an’ the Ensigns as bad.’ An’ after that, it’s Mil’try Crosses and D.C.M.’s for our dam’ rabbits!” )
The Battalion returned to the days of small, detailed, important things—too wearied to appreciate compliments, and too over-worked with breaking in fresh material to think.
On the 27th, 2nd Lieutenant R. B. S. Reford joined from the Base; on the 28th 2nd Lieutenant T. F. MacMahon with a party was sent to rest-camp for a week. On the 30th Captains the Earl of Kingston and H. T. A. Boyse joined and took over command of Nos. 1 and 3 Companies.
On the 1st October, a Sunday, after mass celebrated by a French interpreter, which did not affect the devotion of the Battalion, the whole Brigade were embarked in one hundred and forty “French army charabancs,” a new and unforeseen torment, and driven via Amiens from Fricourt to rest-camp at Hornoy. Much must have happened on that pleasure-trip; for the Diary observes that the drivers of the vehicles were “apparently over military age, many of the assistants being natives.” One is left in the dark as to their countries of origin, but one’s pity goes out to all of them, Annamite, Senegalese, or Algerian, who helped to convey the newly released Irish for eight hours over fifty jolting miles. The Battalion found good billets for themselves, and the Brigade machine-gun company in Hornoy itself, where the inhabitants showed them no small kindness. “Owing to small numbers, officers were in one mess,” says the Diary, and one can see the expansion of that small and shrunken company as the new drafts come in and training picks up again.
On the 3rd October, 2nd Lieutenants J. J. Fitzwilliam Murphy and J. N. Nash joined; on the 4th the Reverend P. J. Lane-Fox joined for duty; on the 5th, 2nd Lieutenant the Hon. D. O’Brien came in sick with the draft of a hundred and fifty-two and went down sick, all within forty-eight hours, his draft punctually delivered. Major the Hon. T. Vesey also joined as second in command during the course of this month.
They paraded on the 5th October for the Divisional Commander, Major-General Feilding, who presented the ribbons to the N.C.O.’s and men who had been awarded medals and complimented the Battalion on its past work. Second Lieutenant E. Budd (and five other ranks), 2nd Lieutenant E. M. Harvey, with a draft of ninety-five, not counting eleven more who had joined in small parties, and 2nd Lieutenants A. L. Bain, H. H. Maxwell, and J. J. Kane all came in within the next ten days. Captain R. G. C. Yerburgh, on rejoining from the Central Training School at Havre, was posted to the command of No. 4 Company; and on the 8th October, a team, chiefly officers, greatly daring, played a Rugby football match against “a neighbouring French recruit battalion,” which campaign seems to have so inspired them that they all attended a Divisional dinner that night at 1st Brigade Headquarters at Dromesnil. There is, alas! no record of that match nor of what the French Recruit Battalion thought of it; but just before their departure from Hornoy they played a Soccer match against the 26th French Infantry, and next day the C.O. and all company officers rode over to that regiment to see how it practised the latest form of attack over the open. Thus did they combine instruction with amusement, and cemented the Sacred Alliance!
They dined also with their own 2nd Battalion, who were billeted five miles away—a high and important function at Hornoy where Brigadier-General Butler, formerly in command of the 2nd Battalion, was present, with all the officers of both battalions. The band of the Welsh Guards assisted and they all drank the health, among many others, of the belle of Hornoy, who “responded with enthusiasm.” Further, they played a football match against their brethren and won; entertained the village, not forgetting the 26th French Infantry, with their drums; drove all ranks hard at company drills and battalion attacks; rehearsed the review for the approaching visit of H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, and welcomed small detachments as they came in. The last was 2nd Lieutenant D. A. B. Moodie with 50, on the 26th October, when Lieutenant H. F. S. Law rejoined the Battalion from his Intelligence duties with the Ninth Corps. Drill-Sergeant J. Orr assumed the duties of 2nd Lieutenant from November 2.
The mess was now full again. The dead of the September Somme had almost passed out of men’s memories till the war should be over and the ghosts return; and the Battalion, immortal however much it changes, was ready (“forty over strength”) for the bitter winter of ’16-’17.
On the 7th November they were warned to move back into line and celebrated it by an officers’ dinner (thirty-seven strong) of both battalions at the Hotel London, Hornoy.
On the 10th they regretfully quitted that hospitable village for the too familiar camping grounds near Carnoy beyond Méaulte, which in winter becomes a marsh on the least provocation. They were accommodated “in bell-tents in a sea of mud” with weather to match.
Next day (11th November) they shifted to “a sort of camp” near Montauban, “quite inadequate” and served by bottomless roads where they were shelled a little after mass—a proof, one presumes, that the enemy had news of their arrival.
On the 13th November, in cold but dry weather, they took over a line of trench north of Lesbœufs between that village and Gueudecourt. These were reached by interminable duckboards from Trônes Wood and up over the battered and hacked Flers ridge. There were no communication-trenches and, in that windy waste of dead weed and wreckage, no landmarks to guide the eye. Trench equipment was utterly lacking, and every stick and strand had to be man-handled up from Ginchy. In these delectable lodgings they relieved the 7th Yorkshires and the 8th South Staffordshires, losing one man wounded by shell-fire, and Major the Hon. T. E. Vesey was sent down sick as the result of old wounds received at Loos and in ’14. The Somme was no place for such as were not absolutely fit, and even the fittest had to pay toll.
Shelling for the next three days was “continuous but indiscriminate.” Four men were killed, fourteen wounded, and three disappeared—walked, it is supposed, into enemy ground. The wonder was there were not more such accidents. Wiser men than they would come up to the front line with a message, refuse the services of a guide back because, they protested, they knew every inch of the ground and—would be no more seen till exhumation parties three or four years later identified them by some rag of Guards’ khaki or a button.
The Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Grenadiers at midnight (16th November), but were not clear till morning, when they crawled back to camp between Carnoy and Montauban, packed forty men apiece into the icy-chill Nissen huts, supposed to hold thirty, and were thankful for the foul warmth of them. Thence they moved into unstable tents on the outskirts of Méaulte, on the Bray road, where the wind funnels from all parts of the compass, and in alternate snow, rain, and snow again, plumbed the deeps of discomfort. When frost put a crust on the ground they drilled; when it broke they cleaned themselves from mud; and, fair or foul, did their best to “improve” any camp into which fortune decanted them.
It was a test, were one needed, that proved all ranks to the uttermost. The heroism that endures for a day or a week at high tension is a small thing beside that habit of mind which can hold fast to manner, justice, honour and a show of kindliness and toleration, in despite of physical misery and the slow passage of bleak and indistinguishable days. Character and personality, whatever its “crime-sheet” may have been, was worth its weight in gold on the Somme, where a jest counted as high as a rum-ration. All sorts of unsuspected people came to their own as leaders of men or lighteners of care. There were stretcher-bearers, for instance, whose mere presence and personality steadied half a platoon after the shell-burst when, picking themselves up, men’s first question out of the dark would be “Where’s So-and-So?” And So-and-So would answer with the dignity of Milesian Kings: “I’m here! Caarry on, lads!”
So, too, with the officers. In the long overseeing of endless fatigues, which are more trying than action, they come to understand the men with a thoroughness that one is inclined to believe that not many corps have reached. Discipline in the Guards, as has been many times pointed out, allowed no excuse whatever for the officer or the man; but once the punishment, or the telling off, had been administered, the sinner and the judge could, and did, discuss everything under heaven. One explanation which strikes at the root of the matter is this: “Ye’ll understand that in those days we was all countin’ ourselves for dead men—sooner or later. ’Twas in the air, ye’ll understand—like the big stuff comin’ over.”
On Sunday the 27th November, the day of the requiem mass for the Irish Guards in Westminster Cathedral, a requiem mass was said in Méaulte Church and they moved out to a French camp (“Forked Tree”), south of the town where the big French huts held a hundred men apiece, but cook-houses, etc., were all to build and the “usual routine improvement work began again.” Their Brigade bombing officer, Lieutenant the Hon. H. P. O’Brien, was appointed Staff Captain to the 1st Guards Brigade, and Captain R. G. C. Yerburgh left to be attached to the 2nd Guards Brigade H.Q. Staff for instruction in staff duties.
They were visited by their corps and divisional commanders, inspected by their Brigadier and route-marched till the 3rd December, when they moved to Maltz Horn Camp.
It had been decided that the British Army should, by degrees, take over a stretch of the French line from Le Transloy to a point opposite Roye; and the Battalion’s share of this was about a thousand yards of trench at Sailly-Saillisel, held by the 160th Regiment of the Twentieth Corps (Corps de Fer). The front line ran a little in front of what had once been that long and prosperous village on the ridge, and, though not continuous, “it held in places.” The support-line, through, and among the wreck of the houses, was dry and fairly good. That there were no communication-trenches was a small matter—men preferred to take their chances in the open to being buried in trench mud—but there was no road up to it and “the going was heavy.”
Once installed (December 6), after a prompt and workmanlike French relief, which impressed them, they found the 156th French Infantry on their right, a Coldstream Battalion on their left, and an enemy infront disposed to be quiet “except when frightened” or suspecting reliefs, when he would drop very unpleasant barrages on the support-line.
They were relieved on the 9th December by the 2nd Grenadiers who were late, because they were “constantly delayed by digging men out of mud.” From Bois de la Haie, the long, thin slip of wood under Morval whence the relief started at a quarter-past five in the evening, the distance to the Battalion’s sector might be two miles. That relief was not completed till halfpast one on the morning of the 10th—say eight hours to cover four or five miles in one continuous nightmare of mud, darkness, loss of touch and the sudden engulfment of heavily loaded men. A Grenadier battalion claims to hold the record (fifteen hours) for the extrication of one man. Six or eight hours was not uncommon. They were shelled, of course, on their arrival and lost Sergeant Wylie, killed, and eleven wounded. Captain R. V. Pollok joined from home on that day and took over command of No. 1 Company, Major E. B. Greer, on loan from the 2nd Battalion, who had commanded the Battalion temporarily, handed over to Captain the Hon. H. R. Alexander, D.S.O. acting C.O. in place of Colonel R. McCalmont on leave. Captain the Earl of Kingston had to go into hospital on the 10th—“result of an old wound”—and on the 13th December Lieutenant J. J. V. F. Murphy—“exposure.”
On the 12th December, after a day’s rest in a muddy camp near Montauban, they marched to Combles through the blackened site of Guillemont to relieve the 2nd Battalion on a more southerly sector, to furnish working-parties for the railway lines that were spreading stealthily north and east, to help lay down plank roads—not the least burdensome of fatigues, for the “planks” were substantial logs—and to make the front line a little less impossible. It was an easy turn, with very little shelling or sniping, “both sides being only able to reach their front line by going over the open.” When to this is added full moonlight and a fall of snow, moderation is imposed on every one till they are under cover. Otherwise a local battle might have developed—and what is the use of local battles where both sides are stuck in the mud, and no help can be sent to either? This question would be put to the Staff when, from the comfortable security of their decent dug-outs, they lectured the front-line, and were invited mirthfully to come up and experiment for themselves.
The Battalion had eleven wounded in three days, and returned to Bronfay to find their allotted camp already filled up by Gunners. Then there was confusion and argument, and the quartermaster-notable even among quartermasters—“procured” fuel and braziers and got the men more or less warmed and fed. “The muddle,” says the Diary sternly, “was due to no proper arrangements being made to find out to whom Camp 108 belonged before the battalions were moved into them.” Thus, on paper at least, did the front line get back at the Staff.
They returned to the Combles area on the 18th, relieved their sister-battalion in less than three hours, and in fine frosty weather, helped by the enemy’s inactivity, improved the trenches, lost five killed and one wounded, and on their return found Camp 108 also “improved” and devoid of Gunners.
The year closed well. Their Christmas turn (December 25-27, when they missed their Christmas dinners) was almost bloodless. The reliefs went smoothly, and though a thaw made the trenches cave here and there, but four men were wounded, and in their New Year turn, only one.
About Christmas the Brigade, to their deep regret, lost their Brigadier-General, C. Pereira—promoted to command the Second Division, and in him, one of the best friends that they ever had. He knew the Battalion very personally, appreciated its value, and fought for its interests with devotion and a strong hand.
Nothing is said in the Diary of any attempts on the enemy’s part to fraternise, and the New Year was “seen in without any incident,” which means that no bursts of artillery marked the hour. And on the 3rd January the whole of the Guards Division went out of the line for refit. The Twentieth Division took its unenvied place, and the 1st Battalion Irish Guards lay at Sandpits Camp near Méaulte.
The strain was beginning to tell. They had had to transfer Lieutenant F. S. L. Smith and 2nd Lieutenant J. Kane to the 2nd Battalion “owing to shortage in that Battalion on account of sickness,” and their own coolies were in need of rest and change. The strongest cannot stand up beyond a certain point to exposure, broken rest, alarms all round the clock; laborious physical exertions, knee or mid-thigh deep in mud; sweating fatigues, followed by cooling-off in icy blasts or a broth of snow and chalk-slime; or—more undermining than any bodily stress—the pressure that grows of hourly responsibility. Sooner or later, the mind surrenders itself to a mill-round of harassing obsessions as to whether, if one had led one’s platoon up or down by such and such a deviation—to the left or the right of a certain dead horse, for example—if one had halted longer there or whipped up more cautiously elsewhere—one might have saved such and such a casualty, entombment in the mud, or some other shrieking horror of the night. Reason insists that it was not, and could not have been, one’s own fault. Memory brings back the face or the eyes of the dying, and the silence, always accusing, as the platoon goes forward. When this mood overtakes an officer he does well to go into rest for a while and pad his nerves, lest he arrive at that dreadful stage when he is convinced that his next turn of duty will see all his men destroyed by his own act. Between this last stage and the dragging weariness, the hoarse Somme cold, and the foul taste in the mouth which are mere signs of “beginning to be fed up,” there is every variety of derangement, to be held in check by the individual’s own character and that discipline which age and experience have devised to hold him when everything else has dropped away. It is the deadly journey, back and forth to the front-line with material, the known and foreseen war in darkness and mud against the natural perversity of things, that shifts the foundations of the soul, so that a man, who scarcely regards death hunting him at large by the hour, will fall into a child’s paroxysms of rage and despair when the wire-strand rasps him across the knuckles or the duckboard for the hundredth time tilts sideways underfoot. “Ye’ll understand,” says the voice of experience, “the fatigues do it in the long run.” All of which the Diary will dismiss with: “A few fatigues were found in this area.”
The Somme was one overwhelming fatigue.