The Irish Guards in the Great War, Vol. 2

1915 - Loos And The First Autumn

Rudyard Kipling

OFFICIALLY, the formation of the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards dates from the 15th July 1915, when it was announced that His Majesty the King had been “graciously pleased to approve” of the formation of two additional Battalions of Foot Guards—the 4th Grenadier Guards, and the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, which was to be made up out of the personnel of the 2nd (Reserve) Battalion. And, officially, on July 18 that formation took place. But those who knew the world in the old days, and specially the busy part of it that had Warley Barracks for its heart, know that the 2nd Battalion was born in spirit as in substance, long ere the authorities bade it to be. The needs of the war commanded it; the abundance of the reserves then justified it; and, though Warley Barracks had been condemned as unfit for use by the Honourable the East India Company a trifle of fifty odd years ago, this was not the hour to stand on ancient tradition. So the old, crazy barracks overflowed; the officers’ damp and sweating dog-kennels were double-crammed; and, by sheer goodwill and stark discipline, the work went forward to the creation. Officers and men alike welcomed it, for it is less pleasing to be absorbed in drafts and driblets by an ever-hungry 1st Battalion in France, than to be set apart for the sacrifice as a veritable battalion on its own responsibility, with its own traditions (they sprang up immediately) and its own jealous esprit-de-corps. A man may join for the sake of “King and Country” but he goes over the top for the honour of his own platoon, company, and battalion; and, the heart of man being what it is, so soon as the 2nd Battalion opened its eyes, the first thing that it beheld was its 1st Battalion, as an elder brother to measure its stature against in all things. Yet, following the ancient mystery of all armies, there were not two battalions, but one regiment; officers and men interchangeable, and equally devoted to the battalion that they served for the time, though in their deeper minds, and sometimes confessing it, more devoutly attached to one or the other of the two.

By summer of ’15 the tide of special reserve officers was towards its flood, and the 2nd Battalion was largely filled by them. They hailed from every quarter of the Empire, and represented almost every profession and state of life in it, from the schoolboy of eighteen to the lawyer of forty odd. They had parted long ago with any delusion as to the war ending that year or the next. The information that came to them by word of mouth was not of the sort dispensed in the Press, and they knew, perhaps a little more than the public, how inadequate were our preparations. One and all they realised that humanly speaking, unless fortune favoured them with permanent disablement they were doomed men; since all who recovered from their wounds were returned to the war and sooner or later despatched. He was lucky in those days who survived whole for three months; and six without hurt was almost unheard of. So the atmosphere of their daily lives, underneath the routine and the carefully organised amusements that the world then offered to its victims, had an unreality, comparable in some degree, to the elaborately articulated conversation and serious argument over utterly trivial matters that springs up among officers in that last hour of waiting under the thunder of the preliminary bombardment before the word is given that hoists all ranks slowly and methodically into a bone-naked landscape.

Lieut.-Colonel the Earl of Kerry, M.V.O., D.S.O., who commanded the reserve and whose influence over the men was unbounded, began the work of making the 2nd Battalion, and, later on, Major G. H. C. Madden was recalled from duty in France to be its senior major. Captain the Hon. T. E. Vesey was the first adjutant and, with a tight hand which was appreciated afterwards, showed all that young community how to take care of itself. It was a time for understanding much and overlooking little. “Or else,” as the sergeants explained, “ye’ll die before ye’ve killed a Jerry.”

On the 27th of July, Major and Brevet-Lieut.Colonel the Hon. L. J. P. Butler took over command, and on August the 6th the Battalion with full transport, and packs, paraded as such for its first route-march, of sixteen miles in the flat country, filled with training troops, that lies round Warley. The weather was very hot, nor did that officer who had bethought him to fill his “full pack” with a full-blown air-cushion, take much reward of his ingenuity when his unlucky fraud betrayed him by bursting almost under the adjutant’s eye. Men said that that was their real introduction to the horrors of war.

They were inspected on the 10th August by Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, commanding the London District who, after the usual compliments on their physique and steadiness, told them they were due for France in a few days. Lord Kitchener came down and addressed them on the 13th of the month, was photographed with a group of all the officers of the 2nd Battalion and Reserve Battalions, and expressed his belief that they would be a credit to the Guards Division then, as we know, being formed in France.

On the 16th they left Brentwood Station, that has seen so many thousands depart; and that evening were packed tightly at Southampton in the Anglo-Canadian and the Viper. Duly escorted by destroyers, for the seas were troubled by submarines, both ships tied up at Havre in stillness and strange “foreign” smells at midnight. The city and its outskirts for miles round had long since been turned wholly to the monotonous business of expediting troops and supplies; and the camps that ringed it spread and linked on almost daily. The French were used, now, to our armed Empire at large flooding their streets. Wonder and welcome had passed. No pretty maids met them with wine or garlands, and their route inland to their work was as worn and smooth as the traffic-burnished metals from Brentwood to the sea. But the country and its habits were new to all those new hands, trained in a strict school; and it filled them with joy to behold the casual manner in which a worn and dusty French sentry was relieved while they were marching to their first wonderful camp outside the city.

They entrained for Lumbres on the 18th August and were bidden, next day, to march to billets at Acquin, a little village on a hill-side a few miles from St. Omer, in a fold of the great Sussex-like downs. It is a place both steep and scattered, cramped and hot, and when the air-war was in full swing had its small share of bombs intended for Army Headquarters at St. Omer, and the adjacent aerodromes. The men were billeted in barns forty and fifty at a time which, specially for a new battalion, was rather unhandy, as offering many ups and downs and corners, which afford chances for delays and misunderstandings. But it was to be their first and only experience of comfort for any consecutive time, and of French life a little untouched by war. They most deeply enjoyed the simple kindliness of the village-folk, and the graceless comments of the little sharp-faced French children at the halting attempts of the Irish to talk French; the glimpses of intimate domestic days, when sons and brothers of their hosts, returned on a few days’ leave from far-away battlefields in the Argonne or beyond, were shown with pride to the visitors who were helping the villagers to cart their corn—“precisely as our own sons would have done.” They talked, too, with veterans of ’70 met in the fields and at the cafes, who told them in set and rounded phrases that war was serious. And the French men and women upon whom they were billeted liked them well and remembered them long. Said one, years after, with tears in the eyes: “Monsieur, if you drew a line in the air and asked those children not to cross it, it was as a wall to them. They played, monsieur, like infants, without any thought of harm or unkindness; and then they would all become men again, very serious—all those children of yours.”

So things were gracious and kindly about them in that little village where every one had suffered loss, and was making their resolute, curt, French best of it; and the 2nd Battalion settled down to an eleventh-hour course of instruction in everything that the war of that day might call for—except, it may be, how to avoid their own cavalry on the march.

The historic first meeting between the 1st and 2nd Battalions took place on the 30th August on a march out to St. Pierre, when the units of the different Guards Brigades were drawing in together for combined work preparatory to the Battle of Loos. The veterans of the 1st were personal in their remarks, deriding the bright cap-stars of the 2nd Battalion, and telling them that they would soon know better than to advertise their rank under fire. The 2nd Battalion Diary notes a point that the 1st, doubtless through delicacy, omits—that when the merry gathering under the trees in the field was at an end, after dinner, the 2nd Battalion fell in and marched off the ground “before the critical eyes of their older comrades, and the 1st followed.” No fault was found, but it was a breathless business, compared, by one who took part, to the performances of rival peacocks. (“There was not any one else, that we considered; but we knew that, if we put a foot wrong that parade in front of them we’d be in the road to hear tell of it the rest of our lives.”) And it was on this great day, too, that the Rev. Father Knapp joined as R.C. Chaplain to the Battalion, and thereafter proved himself as far forward on all fields as any of the rest of his brethren.



They began to learn something about service conditions when, on the 1st September, they joined up with their Brigade, the 2nd Guards Brigade, and shared a wet day of advancing, on parallel roads, with three Guards Brigades, for practice at coming up into the line. Otherwise, they dug trenches by day and night, developed, more or less, their own system of laying them out in the dark, and their brigade’s idea of storming trenches with the help of bombers who had had very little practice with the live bomb; and kept their ears open for any news about conditions on the front. The “smoke-helmets” issued on the eve of the Battalion’s departure from England were new also. Many of the talc eye-pieces had cracked in transit, and had to be replaced, and the men instructed how to slip them on against time. This was even more important than the “attack of villages,” which was another part of their, curriculum at Avroult, Wismes, Wavrans, Tatinghem, Wisques, Dohem, and the like in that dry autumn weather that was saving itself to break filthily at Loos.

On the 5th September, knowing extremely well what they were intended for, after battalion drill, Lieut.General Haking, commanding the Eleventh Corps, addressed all the Officers of the 2nd Guards Brigade at the 1st Coldstream Mess at Lumbres. The summary is set down in the Diary with no more comment than three exclamation points at the end.

He told them that an attack on the German lines was close at hand; that the Germans had but forty thousand men at the selected point to oppose our two hundred thousand; and that behind their firing-line and supports were only six divisions as a reserve to their whole western front. This may or may not have been true at the time. What follows has a more direct bearing, perhaps, on the course of events, so far as the Battalion was concerned. General Haking said that almost everything depended on the platoon leaders, and “he instructed them always to push on boldly whenever an opportunity offered, even at the expense of exposing and leaving unguarded their flanks.” Hence, perhaps, the exclamation points. From the civilian point of view the advice seems hardly safe to offer to a battalion of at least average courage a few days before they are to meet singularly well-posted machine-guns, and carefully trained bombers.

Ceremonial drill of the whole of the 2nd Guards Brigade followed the next day, when they were inspected by Major-General the Earl of Cavan, marched past in column of double platoons, returned to line in mass, complimented on their appearance and so forth, after which, in the evening the C.O. of the Battalion with General Feilding (1st Guards Brigade) Captain Viscount Gort (B.M. 1st Guards Brigade), and Colonel Corry commanding the 3rd Grenadier Guards, went off in a car to “see the country south-east of Béthune.” This was not a sector that improved on acquaintance; and in the days that followed all senior officers looked at and pondered over the unwholesome open scarred ground over which “the greatest battle in the history of the world,” as General Haking said, was to take place. Meantime, among the drills held at Acquin appear orders, presumably for the first time, that every one was to fire ten rounds “from his rifle while wearing his smoke-helmet.” The result on the targets of this solitary experiment is not recorded; but it takes some time for a man to get used to sighting through dingy talc eye-pieces. Nor is it likely to be known in this world whether the “six young officers” who attended riding-school just before the march towards Loos, derived much benefit from their instruction.

They moved on the evening of the 22nd September and marched to Dohem where they picked up their Brigade Headquarters and some other units, and thence, next day, in heavy rain to billets in Linghem. General Haking delivered another speech at the Corps Conference on the 24th, explaining the broad outlines of the “greatest battle, etc.” which at that moment was opening. He dwelt specially on the part to be played by the Eleventh Corps, as well as the necessity for speed and for the use of reserves. It may have occurred to some of his hearers that they were the reserves, but that speed was out of the question, for the roads were clotted with cavalry, and there did not seem to be any great choice of those “parallel roads” on which they had been exercised, or any vast crush of motor-buses. When they got away from Linghem on the early morning of the 25th and marched with their brigade to Burbure and Haquin, they enjoyed continuous halts, owing to the cavalry going forward, which meant, for the most part, through them, and the wounded of the battle being brought back—all on the same road. They billeted (this was merely a form) at Haquin “very wet and tired” about one on the morning of the 26th, having been on their feet standing, marching, or variously shifted about, for twenty odd hours. The men’s breakfasts were issued at half-past four that same dawn “as there was a possibility of an early move.”

No orders, however, came, the world around them being busied with the shifting phases of the opening of Loos, which had begun with an advance at some spots along the line, and at others was hung up among wire that our two or three hours’ bombardment did not seem to have wholly removed. The 2nd Guards Brigade, then, waited on at Haquin till shortly after noon, and moved via Nœux-les-Mines, Sailly-Labourse, Noyelles, and Vermelles, large portions of which were then standing and identifiable, to trenches in front of Le Rutoire. Here the German lines had been driven back a little, and Captains Alexander and Hubbard commanding the two leading companies of the Battalion were sent on to look at them in daylight. The results of the Captains’ adventure, when it is recalled that one set of trenches, at the best of times, looks remarkably like another, and that this was far from being a good time, were surprisingly satisfactory. “There was no one to tell them exactly which trenches were to be taken over, but, from instructions given on the map, and in consultation with the 1st Scots Guards who had to occupy ground on their right, they arranged which set of them to inhabit. Owing to congestion of roads, and having to go across much broken country, etc., it was nearly midnight before the Battalion got into the selected spot—an old line of captured German trenches in front of Lone Tree.” This, as is well known to all regimental historians, was a mark of the German guns almost to the inch, and, unfortunately, formed one of our dressing-stations. At a moderate estimate the Battalion had now been on foot and livelily awake for forty-eight hours; the larger part of that time without any food. It remained for them merely to go into the fight, which they did at half-past two on the morning of the 27th September when they received “verbal instructions to push forward to another line of captured German trenches, some five hundred yards, relieving any troops that might happen to be there.” It was nearly broad daylight by the time that this disposition was completed, and they were much impressed with the permanence and solidity of the German works in which they found themselves, and remarked jestingly one to another, that “Jerry must have built them with the idea of staying there for ever.” As a matter of fact, “Jerry” did stay within half a mile of that very line for the next three years and six weeks, less one day. They had their first hint of his intentions when patrols pushed out from Nos. 2 and 3 Companies in the forenoon, reported that they were unable to get even a hundred yards ahead, on account of rifle-fire. Men said, long afterwards, that this was probably machine-gun fire out of the Bois Hugo; which thoroughly swept all open communications, for the enemy here as elsewhere had given ground a little without losing his head, and was hitting back as methodically as ever.

The attack of their Brigade developed during the course of the day. The four C.O.’s of the Battalions met their Brigadier at the 1st Grenadier Guards Headquarters. He took them to a point just north of Loos, whence they could see Chalk-Pit Wood, and the battered bulk of the colliery head and workings known as Puits 14 bis, together with what few small buildings still stood thereabouts, and told them that he proposed to attack as follows: At half-past two a heavy bombardment lasting for one hour and a half would be delivered on that sector. At four the Second Irish Guards would advance upon Chalk-Pit Wood and would establish themselves on the north-east and south-east faces of it, supported by the 1st Coldstream. The 1st Scots Guards were to advance echeloned to the right rear of the Irish, and to attack Puits 14 bis moving round the south side of Chalk-Pit Wood, covered by heavy fire from the Irish out of the Wood itself. For this purpose, four machine-guns of the Brigade Machine-gun Company were to accompany the latter battalion. The 3rd Grenadiers were to support the 1st Scots in their attack on the Puits. Chalk-Pit Wood at that time existed as a somewhat dishevelled line of smallish trees and brush running from north to south along the edge of some irregular chalk workings which terminated at their north end, in a deepish circular quarry. It was not easy to arrive at its precise shape and size, for the thing, like so much of the war-landscape of France, was seen but once by the men vitally concerned in its features, and thereafter changed outline almost weekly, as gun-fire smote and levelled it from different angles.

The orders for the Battalion, after the conference and the short view of the ground, were that No. 3 Company (Captain Wynter) was to advance from their trenches when the bombardment stopped, to the southern end of Chalk-Pit Wood, get through and dig itself in in the tough chalk on the farther side. No. 2 Company (Captain Bird), on the left of No. 3, would make for the centre of the wood, dig in too, on the far side, and thus prolong No. 3’s line up to and including the Chalk-Pit—that is to say, that the two companies would hold the whole face of the Wood.

Nos. 1 and 4 Companies were to follow and back up Nos. 3 and 2 respectively. At four o’clock the two leading companies deployed and advanced, “keeping their direction and formation perfectly.” That much could be seen from what remained of Vermelles watertower, where some of the officers of the 1st Battalion were watching, regardless of occasional enemy shell. They advanced quickly, and pushed through to the far edge of the Wood with very few casualties, and those, as far as could be made out, from rifle or machine-gun fire. (Shell-fire had caught them while getting out of their trenches, but, notwithstanding, their losses had not been heavy till then.) The rear companies pushed up to thicken the line, as the fire increased from the front, and while digging in beyond the Wood, 2nd Lieutenant Pakenham-Law was fatally wounded in the head. Digging was not easy work, and seeing that the left of the two first companies did not seem to have extended as far as the Chalk-Pit, at the north of the Wood, the C.O. ordered the last two platoons of No. 4 Company which were just coming up, to bear off to the left and get hold of the place. In the meantime, the 1st Scots Guards, following orders, had come partly round and partly through the right flank of the Irish, and attacked Puits 14 bis, which was reasonably stocked with machine-guns, but which they captured for the moment. Their rush took with them “some few Irish Guardsmen,” with 2nd Lieutenants W. F. J. Clifford and J. Kipling of No. 2 Company who went forward not less willingly because Captain Cuthbert commanding the Scots Guards party had been adjutant to the Reserve Battalion at Warley ere the 2nd Battalion was formed, and they all knew him. Together, this rush reached a line beyond the Puits, well under machinegun fire (out of the Bois Hugo across the Lens–La Bassee road). Here 2nd Lieutenant Clifford was shot and wounded or killed—the body was found later—and 2nd Lieutenant Kipling was wounded and missing. The Scots Guards also lost Captain Cuthbert, wounded or killed, and the combined Irish and Scots Guards party fell back from the Puits and retired “into and through Chalk-Pit Wood in some confusion.” The C.O. and Adjutant, Colonel Butler and Captain Vesey went forward through the Wood to clear up matters, but, soon after they had entered it the Adjutant was badly wounded and had to be carried off. Almost at the same moment, “the men from the Puits came streaming back through the Wood, followed by a great part of the line which had been digging in on the farther side of it.”

Evidently, one and a half hour’s bombardment, against a country-side packed with machine-guns, was not enough to placate it. The Battalion had been swept from all quarters, and shelled at the same time, at the end of two hard days and sleepless nights, as a first experience of war, and had lost seven of their officers in forty minutes. They were reformed somewhat to the rear along the Loos–Hulluch road. (“Jerry did himself well at Loos upon us innocents. We went into it, knowing no more than our own dead what was coming, and Jerry fair lifted us out of it with machine-guns. That was all there was to it that day.”) The watchers on the Vermelles water-tower saw no more than a slow forward wave obscured by Chalk-Pit Wood; the spreading of a few scattered figures, always, it seemed, moving leisurely; and then a return, with no apparent haste in it, behind the wood once more. They had a fair idea, though, of what had happened, and guessed what was to follow. The re-formed line would go up again exactly to where it had come from. While this was being arranged, and when a couple of companies of the 1st Coldstream had turned up in a hollow on the edge of the Loos–Hulluch road, to support the Battalion, a runner came back with a message from Captain Alexander saying that he and some men were still in their scratch-trenches on the far side of Chalk-Pit Wood, and he would be greatly obliged if they would kindly send some more men up, and with speed. The actual language was somewhat crisper, and was supplemented, so the tale runs, by remarks from the runner addressed to the community at large. The demand was met at once, and the rest of the line was despatched to the near side of the Wood in support. The two companies of the Coldstream came up on the left of the Irish Guards, and seized and settled down in the Chalk-Pit itself. They all had a night’s energetic digging ahead of them, with but their own entrenching tools to help, and support-trenches had to be made behind the Wood in case the enemy should be moved to counter-attack. To meet that chance, as there was a gap between the supporting Coldstream Companies and the First Guards Brigade on the left, the C.O. of the 2nd Battalion collected some hundred and fifty men of various regiments, during the dusk, and stuffed them into an old German communication-trench as a defence. No counter-attack developed, but it was a joyless night that they spent among the uptorn trees and lumps of unworkable chalk. Their show had failed with all the others along the line, and “the greatest battle in the history of the world” was frankly stuck. The most they could do was to hang on and wait developments. They were shelled throughout the next day, heavily but inaccurately, when 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon was wounded by a rifle bullet. In the evening they watched the 1st Coldstream make an unsuccessful attack on Puits 14 bis, for the place was a well-planned machine-gun nest—the first of many that they were fated to lose their strength against through the years to come. That night closed in rain, and they were left to the mercy of Providence. No one could get to them, and they could get at nobody; but they could and did dig deeper into the chalk, to keep warm, and to ensure against the morrow (September 29) when the enemy guns found their range and pitched the stuff fairly into the trenches “burying many men and blowing a few to pieces.” Yet, according to the count, which surely seems inaccurate, they only lost twenty dead in the course of the long day. The 3rd Guards Brigade on their right, sent in word that the Germans were massing for attack in the Bois Hugo in front of their line. “All ranks were warned,” which, in such a situation, meant no more than that the experienced, among them, of whom there were a few, waited for the cessation of shell-fire, and the inexperienced, of whom there were many, waited for what would come next. (“And the first time that he is under that sort of fire, a man stops his thinking. He’s all full of wonder, sweat, and great curses.”) No attack, however, came, and the Gunners claimed that their fire on Bois Hugo had broken it up. Then the Brigade on their left cheered them with instructions that Chalk-Pit Wood must be “held at all costs,” and that they would not be relieved for another two days; also, that “certain modifications of the Brigade line would take place.” It turned out later that these arrangements did not affect the battalions. They were taken out of the line “wet, dirty, and exhausted” on the night of the 30th September when, after a heavy day’s shelling, the Norfolks relieved them, and they got into billets behind Sailly-Lebourse. They had been under continuous strain since the 25th of the month, and from the 27th to the 30th in a punishing action which had cost them, as far as could be made out, 324 casualties, including 101 missing. Of these last, the Diary records that “the majority of them were found to have been admitted to some field ambulance, wounded. The number of known dead is set down officially as not more than 25, which must be below the mark. Of their officers, 2nd Lieutenant Pakenham-Law had died of wounds; 2nd Lieutenants Clifford and Kipling were missing, Captain and Adjutant the Hon. T. E. Vesey, Captain Wynter, Lieutenant Stevens, and 2nd Lieutenants Sassoon and Grayson were wounded, the last being blown up by a shell. It was a fair average for the day of a debut, and taught them somewhat for their future guidance. Their commanding officer told them so at Adjutant’s Parade, after they had been rested and cleaned on the 2nd October at Verquigneul; but it does not seem to have occurred to any one to suggest that direct infantry attacks, after ninety-minute bombardments, on works begotten out of a generation of thought and prevision, scientifically built up by immense labour and applied science, and developed against all contingencies through nine months, are not likely to find a fortunate issue. So, while the Press was explaining to a puzzled public what a far-reaching success had been achieved, the “greatest battle in the history of the world” simmered down to picking up the pieces on both sides of the line, and a return to autumnal trench-work, until more and heavier guns could be designed and manufactured in England. Meantime, men died.



The Battalion, a little rested, and strengthened by four officers from the 1st Irish Guards (Lieutenant and temporary Captain FitzGerald, Lieutenants Rankin and Montgomery, and 2nd Lieutenant Langrishe) as well as a draft of a hundred men under Lieutenant Hamilton, was introduced to the trenches on the 3rd October, when they moved to Vermelles and hid themselves in the ruins and cellars of as much as the enemy had allowed to remain of it. It was an unpleasant experience. The following comment covers it, and the many others of the same sort that followed: “We was big men for the most part, and this creeping and crawling in and out of what’s left of houses, was not our ways of living. Maybe some of the little fellows in the Line would have found it easier. And there’s a smell to that kind o’ billet worse than graves—a smell off the house-plaster where it lies, and the wall-paper peelin’ off the walls, and what’s in the sand-bags that we build acrost the passages an’ the sculleries, ye’ll understand, and the water on the floors stinkin’ and rottin’. Ye hear it drip like dhrums through ceilings in the night. And ye go in an’ out of them dark, stinkin’ places always stoopin’ an’ steppin’ on bits o’ things. Dead houses put the wind up a man worse than trenches.”

Next day they were turned down into the multitude of trenches, established or in the making, which lay between Vermelles and the great Hohenzollern redoubt that swept every line of approach with its sudden fires. They were led out (October 5) at dusk across a muddy field beside a dead town, and entered that endless communication-trench called Central Boyau, whose length was reckoned by hours. It led them to the line held by the East Yorks Regiment and two companies of the K.O.Y.L.I. they were relieving. Men forget much, but no man of any battalion ever forgets his first introduction to the stable, deadly fire-line, as distinguished from the casual field-trench. An hour or so before they moved off, a 5.9 burst in a ruined cottage where all the Battalion Staff was sitting, and might well have destroyed the sergeant-major, drill-sergeants and signallers, etc. The only casualty, however, was one pioneer killed, while the officers of the Battalion Staff in the next mound of ruins escaped unhurt.

Then began the slow and repeatedly checked sidle in the dusk, of single men up Central Boyau, which was also a thoroughfare for other units falling, tripping, and cursing among festoons of stray telephone wires. From Vermelles to their trenches was a mile and a quarter. They began at seven at night and completed the relief at six in the morning. Not much shelling greeted them, but the darkness was “tickled up,” as one man put it, with bullets from all angles, and while No. 3 Company was settling in to reserve trenches just at the point of grey dawn, 2nd Lieutenant Hine showed himself by getting up on to the parapet, and was shot through the head at once, probably by a sniper. Over and above the boy’s natural fearlessness, by which he had already distinguished himself at Loos (for he had helped Captain Alexander to hold the men in Chalk-Pit Wood after the failure of Coldstream attack on Puits 14 bis), he was utterly convinced he would not be killed in the war. Others of his companions had presentiments of their own death more than once, and yet survived to the end with nothing worse than a wound or gassing. It may be worth noting, as far as this sort of information goes, that a man who felt that he was “for it” on the eve of an engagement was seldom found to be wrong. Occasionally, too, it would come over a man in the trenches that that day or night would be his last. Indeed the very hour would sometimes forespeak itself as with an audible voice, and he, chosen, would go forward to the destined spot—so men have said who saw it—already divorced from this world.

But at the beginning, before nerves wore down, there was hope and interest for every one. The enemy had probably learned of the fresh material before them, for they filled the day of the 6th October with alternate whizz-bangs and large-size H.E. howitzers; the crack and gravel-like smash of the small stuff alternating with the grunt, vomit, and stamp of the Jack Johnsons. Every one was hit by the flying dirt, and well-nigh choked by the stench, and some officers visiting the front line had their first experience of crawling in cold blood across bits of broken trench, where the debris of corpses was so mingled with the untidy dirt that one could not be sure till later what hand or foot had met. It struck some of the young officers as curious that they were not more impressed. Others were frankly sick; while others found that the sights lifted from them the dread fear of being afraid which waits at every generous man’s shoulder. But they all owned, according to their separate temperaments, that they were quite sufficiently frightened for working purposes, and so—went on with their work.

Between the 5th and the 7th October the Battalion lost one officer (2nd Lieutenant Hine) and six other ranks killed and twenty-one wounded. Their trenches were moderately good, and had been regularly used, and they discovered dug-outs here and there, which enabled some of them to doze lying down instead of propped against the side of a trench full of moving men. This was great luxury to them, though their revolvers punched holes in their hips and their boots drew like blisters. The more imaginative wrote home that the life was something like camping out. The truthful merely said that they were having an interesting time, and gave their families peace. There was no need to explain how their servants brought them up their meals, dodging, balancing, and ducking along a trench as the fire caught it, or how, even while the hungry youngsters waited and watched, both food and servant would be wiped out together, with a stretch of the parapet under which they had decided to eat.

Just where the Battalion lay, our front line was two hundred yards from the enemy—too far for hand-bombing, but deadly for artillery and machine-gun work. Our artillery was declared to be more numerous and powerful than the German, which generally showered our supports and reserves with shrapnel, while machine-guns kept down the heads of the front line with small-arm fire. Orders had been issued at that moment that recesses should be built, at twenty-five yard intervals in our fire-trench parapets, for mounting gas cylinders, and the Battalion worked at this new fatigue under the direction of an Engineer Officer, Lieutenant Ritchie. The recesses meant nothing in particular, but gave people a pleasant feeling that there was abundance of gas somewhere in the background. They were regularly shelled, but, mankind being infinitely adaptable, had come in the few days of this new life to look on it as almost normal, and to alleviate it with small shifts and contrivances. “I think,” says one of the beginners, “that in those days we were as selfcentred as a suburban villa-residence. The fact of not being able to put your head up without having a shot through it kept us from worrying about our neighbours.” Their first experience of external trouble in their underground world began on the afternoon of the 8th October, when loud bombing and shelling broke out two battalions down the line to the right, and some one from the 3rd Grenadiers came charging round the traverses asking for all available bombers, because the Germans had got into their line and were making rather a hash of things. Bombers were accordingly sent, though their experience with the live bomb was limited, and the two companies on the right got to work on sandbags to bulkhead their right flank in case of a break through. No one really thought that they would be attacked, possibly for the reason that such a thing had not happened to them personally before. “You see, we had lost count of time—even of the days of the week. Every day seemed as long as a year, and I suppose we considered ourselves like aged men—prisoners of Chillon, you know. We didn’t think anything could happen.” On that occasion they were correct. The riot died down and they fell back into normal night routine, every second man in the fire-trench on sentry, every fifth man in support seventy or eighty yards behind, and relief every hour; one officer sitting, between rounds, on one particular spot of the fire-step (so that every one knew where to find him), discussing life, death, Very lights, and politics with his C.S.M. and at intervals peering over the parapet; another officer pervading the support-trench where bayonet charges are supposed to be supplied from, and where the men grumble that they are always set to make fancy improvements. Meantime, the dim dark on every hand is marked with distant pin-pricks and dots, or nearer blurs or blasts of fire, that reveal the torn edges of the shell-holes like wave-crests of a petrified ocean. Yet, after a few nights, the men in the front line said their chief difficulty was to avoid dozing off “because there was nothing to do.”

They lost three killed and nineteen wounded from all causes between the 7th and 8th October, but completed the recesses for the gas-cylinders, and cleaned out an indescribably old trench, needed for future operations, of its stale corpses mixed with bomb-boxes. While this delicate job was in progress, the enemy started shelling that section with high explosives and shrapnel. They had to shift twenty boxes of bombs under, first, a particular and next a general bombardment, which was connected with a German attack a little farther down the line. Their relief came that same day, on the 12th October, after their first full week in the trenches. It was not a cheerful affair. Three battalions were involved in the chaos, as far as the 2nd Irish Guards was concerned. What befell the rest of their Brigade may be left to the imagination. A reconnoitring party of the 1st Monmouths—four officers and eight other ranks—turned up at a quarter past five to look over the Irish Guards’ trenches before their own men came. They were sitting just outside Battalion Headquarters when a 5.9 killed one of the officers and three of the other ranks, wounded the three other officers, and buried the whole party. The Diary, rightly regardful of the interests of the Battalion, observes: “Another lucky escape for our Battalion H.Q. Staff. For this was the spot in the trench normally occupied by the senior drill-sergeant and all the orderlies.” Even so, the Monmouths were the only relieving unit that had any idea where they were or what they were to take over. The others, the 4th and 5th Leicesters, lost themselves on the way and wandered blasphemous among trenches. “The consequent confusion was deplorable.” The Battalion were chaperoning themselves and others from half-past ten to a quarter past four in the morning. Then began the mile and a half of nightmare-like crawl up the seven-foot-deep communication-trench, whose sides took strange Egyptian-desert-like colours in the dawn-light, and whose bends and windings bewildered all sense of direction. They shuffled in file behind each other like migrating caterpillars, silently except for the grunt and jerk of a tired man slipping in mud, and whispers along the echoing cut bidding them always “close up.” They were all out, in every way, at five o’clock. The relief had begun at eight. After this, they marched three or four hours to billets at Vaudricourt and Drouvin, within sound but out of reach of the guns, where they dropped and slept and shaved and washed, and their officers were grateful to pig down, six together, on the floor of a loft, and none troubled them till four in the afternoon when they were ordered to parade “clean.”

Only two nights were allowed for rest and refit, during which time a draft of fifty men under Lieutenant Kinahan joined, and the Battalion bombers were “organised” (they had not thrown very well lately) and made up to eight per platoon. That was on the 14th October. Next morning the Brigadier called up the C.O.’s of all four battalions and instructed them that every bomber was, as far as possible, to be given the chance of throwing a live bomb before going into the trenches again. He added that “again” meant next morning. On the morning of the 15th October, then, each one of those one hundred and twenty-eight organised bombers did, at practice, throw one live bomb. Says the Diary, without even a note of exclamation “With the knowledge, experience, and confidence thus gained, they had to face trained German bombers a few days later.” They might have had to face them that same evening when they took over some Brigade Reserve trenches, directly behind those of their first tour, from the 7th and 8th Sherwood Foresters; but they were merely shelled as they settled in, and the bombing fell farther down the line. Their new trenches were dirty and badly knocked about, but, by some obscure forethought or other, well provided with small and fairly safe dug-outs which gave cover to almost all. Though they were heavily shelled their first two days, and many direct hits fell on the parapet itself, and many men were buried, only two were killed outright and thirty-two wounded. The sensation of being pinned, even when one has one’s head above ground, by a weight of pressing earth, added to natural speculation as to whether the next shell may complete the burial, is a horror that returns to a man in his dreams, and takes the heart out of some even more than dysentery. (“There’s something in being held tight that makes you lose hold of yourself. I’ve seen men screamin’ and kickin’ like wired hares, and them no more than caught by one leg or two. ’Tis against Nature for a man to be buried with his breath in him.”)



On the 18th October they relieved the 1st Coldstream in the front line on the west face of Hohenzollern redoubt, which, were there choice, might be reckoned the very warmest sector of all the neighbourhood. Both battalions knowing their business, the relief was effected in two and a half hours under heavy shelling without casualty, though the Irish lost two killed and three wounded in the earlier part of the day. Their new position ran without definite distinction, except sandbagged barricades, into the German system, and one might at any time crawl into nests of enemy sentries and bombers. This, again, was a fresh experience to them. Loos had been clean cut in its boundaries. Their week in Left and Right Boyau from the 8th to the 15th October had not led to undue intimacies with anything worse than Jack Johnsons, but now they were promised a change of methods. Since the great breakthrough had failed that was to carry our triumphant arms to Lille, the authorities seemed to attach immense importance to the possession of a few score yards of enemy trench, commanded, when won, by a few thousand yards of other trenches, and were willing to expend much blood upon the captures. Doubtless there was deep design at the back of the detailed work, but, from the point of view of those who had to carry it through, it was a little wearisome. They were warned that bombing attacks would be the order of the day, and on the 10th October their Brigadier visited them and, as a preliminary, ordered that a trench should be run to connect Guildford Street, on the left of the redoubt as they faced it, with West Face Trench, a matter of some “sixty yards over ground fully exposed to hostile fire at a range of sixty yards.” In this manner, then, was the trench dug. Beginning in the dark at eight o’clock 2nd Lieutenant A. Pym, with a party of No. 1 Company, crept out of West Face, Lance-Sergeant Comesky leading, and the whole chain crawling behind him “extended” (on their stomachs) along the line to be dug. They had noted the bearing very carefully in the daytime, and a party in Guildford Street under 2nd Lieutenant T. Nugent were trying to help them to keep it, in a subdued tone. One must not shout when there are rifles and machine-guns, hands on triggers, fifty yards away. As the party lay they dug and scratched, first with their entrenching implements, and then with picks and shovels passed along the line; and Lance-Sergeant Comesky, the curve of whose labouring back in the darkness was their guide, had to keep his direction through broken wire, what had been broken men, shellholes, and the infinite tangle and waste of war. The Irish have some small reputation for digging when there is need. They dug that night as not even the 1st Battalion had dug, and when light came the new trench was four and a half feet deep, and the sole casualty was Lance-Sergeant Comesky, slightly wounded. They had been suspected and “slated” by machine-gun fire in their direction from time to time, but were not actually located till they were well down. As a point of vantage the new line had its defects. By daylight no periscope could live there half a minute ere it was knocked to shivers by rifle-fire.

Meantime a couple of little reconnaissances had been sent out. Private Horton (he had already shown his gifts in this direction), “supported by a corporal and another man,” made his way along an old blown-in trench that ran up the centre of the mass of the Hohenzollern works, till he heard Germans talking at the far end of it, and so reported. The second reconnaissance by Lance-Sergeant G. McCarthy and Private Kingston of No. 2 Company explored along another blown-in trench to the left of Private Horton’s line, which, before our guns had wrecked it, had been a continuation of West Face Trench and had run into Little Willie of unsavoury reputation, which latter in its turn trended almost due north into the German works. They found this trench barricaded just at its junction with Little Willie, were fired on by a German sentry, and came away. So far good. The Brigadier’s instructions next morning were for a night-attack to be made along both these trenches which lay parallel to each other; for barricades to be run up at the far end of the lengths gained; and, later, the two points to be joined up by a fresh cut. This, it was hoped, would pinch out about fifty yards of occupied German trench opposite the one which had been dug that night by 2nd Lieutenants A. Pym’s and Nugent’s party from Guildford Street to West Face. What might arrive after that was a question of luck, comparable to ferreting in a populous warren. The Battalion spent the day under shell-fire that killed one man and wounded nine, in making arrangements for bombs and sand-bags for the barricades, and decided that the chain of men working up the trenches, which barely allowed one and a half men abreast, should consist of two bombers, two riflemen; two bombers and two riflemen again; and four men to carry spare bombs. These were to drive the enemy back and hold them while new barricades were being built in the annexed territory. Then would come an officer and four more bombers to “hold the new barricade in event of the leading bombers being rushed while it was being built, then two men to build the barricade; then a chain of riflemen at two-yard intervals reaching back to the point of departure who would pass up more bombs or sand-bags as need arose,” and would clean up the old trench along which our advance was made, “so as to give us free access to our new barricade in daylight.” It is to be borne in mind that, at that time, the bombers of the 2nd Irish Guards had thrown just one live bomb apiece at training. (“We went in great dread of our rear-ranks that night. A bomb’s no thing—more than fixed bayonets—to go capering up trenches with at anny time. And the first time least of all.”)

The attack was confided to No. 4 Company (Captain Hubbard), who chose 2nd Lieutenants T. F. Tallents and Hamilton for the left and right attacks respectively. They led out at one in the morning, very carefully, for the men were cautioned to stalk the enemy as much as possible, but the moment they were discovered, to rush him back up the trench. So he had to be listened for in the dark, with a sky full of noises overhead. As soon as “contact had been obtained”—that is to say, as soon as the first crack of a bomb and the yell that accompanies it were heard down the cutting—the Very lights were sent up for a signal for our guns and the troops on either side to annoy and divert. Bombing affairs of the year ’15 were on the most simple lines and unaccompanied by barrage. The left attack, when it had toiled some sixty yards from its starting-point, met a party of German bombers. What followed was inevitable. “Our bombers, who had never had an opportunity of throwing more than one live bomb each at training, were easily out-classed by the German bombers, and they were all either killed, wounded, or driven back immediately on to 2nd Lieutenant Tallents.” He was coming up twenty or thirty yards behind them, and had just reached some old smashed girders that had been part of a bridge or a dug-out, and back to this tangle the attack was driven. There a stand was made for a while by Tallents and two privates, Higgins and Brophy, till Brophy was killed and the officer and other private wounded. The Germans bombed their way on down to the barricades whence the attack had been launched, and for twenty minutes it was touch and go whether the Irish could hold it even there. All this while Tallents, though wounded, headed the resistance, urged the men to strengthen the barrier, and then got atop of it, “so as to make a longer or more accurate shot with a bomb.” Bombs ran short, as they usually do on such occasions; the bombers were down and between men’s feet among the wreckage. 2nd Lieutenant Coxon, who was sending up fresh men and bombs as best he might over broken ground in darkness down blind trappy trenches, indented on Battalion Headquarters for more, and the 1st Coldstream whirled their bombers in till, by means that no one can quite recall, the German rush was stayed long enough for a steady supply of munitions to arrive. This was about four in the morning, after a couple of hours of mixed rough-and-tumble that had died out for the moment to snaps of rifle-fire round corners, and the occasional glare of a bomb lobbed over some cover in the obstructed trench. Tallents had kept his place at the barrier all the time, and, at what turned out to be the psychological moment, launched a fresh attack down the trench, headed by Lance-Corporals J. Brennan and C. Anstey and backed by Lance-Corporal Cahill. It gave time for the men behind to further strengthen the defence, while more bombs were coming up. Then Tallents collapsed and “was removed to the dressing station,” and 2nd Lieutenant F. Synge was sent up to relieve him. He was hit in the head almost at once, but remained at his post, and “never relaxed his efforts to get the position consolidated and tenable,” until he too was withdrawn to the dressing-station after dawn. By this time the barricade was completed, and the communication-trench back to the main body was sufficiently cleared to enable work to be continued in daylight.

The smooth official language, impersonal as the account of an operation in a medical journal, covers up all the horror and sweat of the night, the desperate labour with anything that came to hand to make good the barrier, the automatic measurements of time and space as the struggle up the trench swayed nearer or farther, as well as the unspeakable absurdities that went sometimes with the very act and agony of a man’s death between the feet of his comrades. The things that cannot be recorded are those that are never forgotten. (“And a man can go missing in such kind of doings more easy than anything except direct hits from heavy stuff. There’s everything handy scraped up against a barricade that will stop a bullet, and in the dark how can one see or—what does one care? Bits of all sorts, as the saying is. And a man will take the wrong turn in a trench and then three or four bombs on him, and that shakes the side of it, the like of deep drains. Then the side all shuts down on what’s left, ye’ll understand, and maybe no living thing’ll come that way again till the war’s end. No! There will not be much left over to a bomber that’s missing.”)

The right attack, commanded by Captain Hubbard, which was down the old blown-in trench that ran straight towards the centre of the Hohenzollern, was a much tamer affair than the left. The enemy were not struck till our advance was some eighty yards up the cut. They fell back after a few bombs had been exchanged, and our men were able to build a new barricade across the trench fifty yards from their starting-point, with no serious opposition. Their chief difficulty was to clear the newly gained stretch of the hideous mess that choked it, and forced them into the open where the bullets were coming from three sides at once. The men are described as “slow” in settling to this navvywork, which, considering their distractions, was quite possible. Dawn caught them “with just enough cover to enable them to continue work in a crouching position, and before very many hours of daylight had passed they made it all good.” But their officer, 2nd Lieutenant Hamilton, was shot through the jaw while he was superintending the work (it is impossible to direct and give orders without standing up) and he died an hour later. He was buried on the afternoon of the same day at the lonely, flat little cemetery of Vermelles, which is now so full of “unknown British soldiers killed in action.” As the expert has already pointed out, “there’s not much left over to a bomber that’s missing.”

The total loss in the night’s fray was Hamilton killed, Tallents and Synge wounded, and about sixty other ranks killed, wounded, and missing. The net gain was a few score yards of trench, of which the enemy held both ends, with a “No Man’s Land” on either flank of about as far as one could throw a bomb over a barricade. In front, not a hundred yards off, a most efficient German trench with lavish machine-guns sniped them continuously between the breathing-spaces of our shell-fire. Our own big stuff, bursting on and near that trench, shook and loosened the sides of our own. The entire area had been fought over for months, and was hampered with an incredible profusion, or so it struck the new hands at the time, of arms, clothing, and equipment-from shreds, wisps, and clods of sodden uniforms that twist and catch round the legs, to loaded rifles that go off when they are trodden on in the mud or prised up by the entrenching tools. The bottom and sides of the cuts were studded with corpses whose limbs and, what was worse, faces stuck out of the mixed offal, and were hideously brought to light in cleaning up. However, as one youngster wrote home triumphantly, “I was never actually sick.”

The affair could hardly be called a success, and the Battalion did not pretend that it was more than a first attempt in which no one knew what was expected of them, and the men were not familiar with their weapons.



On the evening of the 21st October they were relieved by the 1st Coldstream, and were grateful to go into Brigade Reserve in the trenches beside the Vermelles railway line, where they were out of direct contact with the enemy and the nerve-stretching racket of their own artillery shelling a short hundred yards ahead of them. (“The heavies are like having a good friend in a fight behind your back, but there’s times when he’ll punch ye in the kidneys trying to reach the other fella.”) They were put to cleaning up old communication-trenches, and general scavenging, which, though often in the highest degree disgusting, has a soothing effect on the mind, precisely as tidying out a room soothes a tired woman. For the first time in a month the strain on the young Battalion had relaxed, and since it was their first month at the front, they had felt the strain more than their elders. They had a general impression that the German line had been very nearly broken at Loos; that our pressure upon the enemy was increasingly severe; that their own artillery were much better and stronger than his, and that, taking one thing with another, the end might come at any moment. Since there were but a limited number of Huns in the world, it was demonstrable that by continually killing them the enemy would presently cease to exist. This, be it remembered, was the note in the Press and the public mind towards the close of 1915—the War then redly blossoming into its second year.

As to their personal future, it seemed to be a toss-up whether they would be kept to worry and tease Huns in trenches, or moved off somewhere else to “do something” on a large scale; for at the back of the general optimism there lurked a feeling that, somehow or other, nothing very great had been actually effected. (Years later the veterans of twenty-five, six, and seven admitted: “We were a bit young in those days, and, besides, one had to buck up one’s people at home. But we weren’t quite such fools as we made ourselves out to be.”)

They were taken away from that sector altogether on the 23rd October, marched to Noyelles, thence to Béthune on the 25th, where they entrained for Lillers and billeted at Bourecq. This showed that they had done with the chalk that does not hide corpses, and that the amazing mud round Armentières and Laventie would be their portion. At that date the Battalion stood as follows, and the list is instructive as showing how very little the army of that epoch had begun to specialise. It was commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Hon. L. Butler; Adjutant Captain (temporary) J. S. N. FitzGerald; Transport Officer Lieutenant C. Moore; Bomb Officer 2nd Lieutenant R. E. Coxon; Quartermaster 2nd Lieutenant J. Brennan. Companies: No. 1, Captain Witts, Lieutenant Nugent, 2nd Lieutenant Pym; No. 2, Captain (temporary) Parsons, 2nd Lieutenants Hannay and James; No. 3, Captain (temporary) R. Rankin, Lieutenant Montgomery, 2nd Lieutenant Watson; No. 4, Captain (temporary) Hubbard, Lieutenant Kinahan, 2nd Lieutenant Brew.

Drafts of eighty-five men in all had come in since they went into Brigade Reserve, and Captain Alexander, who had been sick with influenza and fever for the past fortnight, during which time the 1st Battalion had demanded him urgently, went over to it as Temporary C.O. and Temporary Major.

So they settled down at Bourecq, which in peace time has few merits, and devoted themselves to eating and to talking about food between meals. In the trenches they had not eaten with discrimination. Out of them, they all demanded variety and abundance, sweets, solids, and savouries devoured at any hour, and sleep unlimited to settle it all.

Lord Cavan came on the last day of the month and addressed them as their Divisional Commander; which meant a parade in wet weather. He congratulated them on their fine work of the preceding fortnight (the trench-affairs round Hohenzollern) and on “the fine fighting spirit which had enabled them to persevere and accomplish their task in spite of an initial rebuff.” (“He knew as well as we did that if we hadn’t hoofed the Hun out of the trench the Hun would have hoofed us,” was one comment.) He assured the Battalion that the lives unfortunately lost in the undertaking had not been lost in vain, and that it was only by continually harassing him that we would eventually defeat the German. He said that the Battalion had begun well, and he only wished for it that it might do as well as the 1st, “than which no finer example of a Guards Battalion existed.” “And that,” said one of those who were young when the speech was made, and lived to be very old and wise, “was at a time when we had literally no troop railways, and relatively no artillery. And they told us we were going to break through every time we had cleared fifty Jerries out of a front-line trench!”

Two Lewis-guns, which were then new things, had been supplied to the Battalion, and teams were made up and instructed in the working by 2nd Lieutenant Hannay, while the Bomb Officer, 2nd Lieutenant Coxon, had his bombing-teams out daily, and it is recorded that on one afternoon the bombers of Nos. 1 and 2 Companies, thirty-two in all, threw fifty live bombs at practice. Then it rained drearily and incessantly for days and nights on end, and there was nothing to do but to eat and attend lectures. A fresh draft of fifty men turned up. Second Lieutenant Keenan, who had been sick, and 2nd Lieutenant Synge, who had been wounded in the bombing attack, rejoined a few days before they marched with the 2nd Guards Brigade to new billets at La Gorgue in mud. Here they had huge choice of mixed discomforts, for the whole sad landscape was sodden with autumn rain. They were to take over from the 60th Brigade at Laventie a peaceful semi-flooded sector, with every promise, for which they were not in the least grateful, of staying in that part of the world the winter long.

The seasonal pause had begun when men merely died without achieving visible result, even in the Press. The C.O.’s and Adjutants of the Brigade, accompanied by the Brigadier-General, made wet and melancholy reconnaissances to their destined stamping ground—an occasion when every one is forgiven for being in the worst of tempers. The one unpardonable offence was false and bustling optimism. The Battalion’s line ran from Winchester road on the left to South Moated Grange on the right, all “in very bad order owing to the recent rain.”

Next day, the 12th November, the medical officer and the four company commanders were added to the reconnaissance parties. (“It was like going into a cold bath, one toe at a time. And I don’t see how looking at it for a week in advance could have made it any better.”) Wet days followed the wet nights with Hunnish precision. A wretched Lieutenant (Montgomery) was sent out like Noah’s dove to “arrange the route for leading his company in,” the communication-trenches being flooded; and on the 14th November, after Divine Service, the men were paraded in billets and “rubbed their feet with anti-frostbite grease preparatory to going into the trenches.” It seems a small matter, but the Battalion had been in the way of hearing a good deal about the horrors of the previous winter in the Ypres Salient, when men were forbidden to stand for more than twelve hours at a time belly-deep in water without relief—“if possible.” (“That foot-greasing fatigue, with what the old hands told us was in store, put the wind up us worse than Loos. We was persuaded we would be drowned and frost-bit by whole platoons.”)

They paraded that afternoon and marched down to their dreary baptism. Boots—“gum, thigh, long”—had been supplied limitedly to the companies, and they changed into them in a ruined cottage behind the lines, leaving their marching boots to be picked up on return. “Thus some men were able to wade without getting wet,” says the Diary. It was not so with others. For example, the whole of No. 3 Company was taken along one thoroughly flooded communication-trench half-way up their thighs. A platoon of No. 2 was similarly treated, only their guide lost his way, and as all the support-trenches were flooded, 2 and 3 had to be packed in the fire-trenches. Nos. 4 and 1 got off without a complete soaking, and it is pathetic to see how the Battalion, to whom immoderate and omnipresent dampness was still a new thing, record their adventures in detail. But it was not so much water as the immensely sticky mud that oppressed them, with the consequent impossibility of being able to lie down even for a moment. Then it froze of nights. All which are miseries real as wounds or sickness.

They were kept warm for the whole of their tour by repairing the fallen parapets. Shelling was light and not important, but some shrapnel wounded Captain G. Hubbard, and enemy snipers killed three and wounded six men in the forty-eight hours. When the Coldstream relieved them on the evening of the 16th November, which they did in less than four hours, they felt that they could not face the flooded communication-trenches a second time, and made their way home across the open in the dark with no accident. Avoidable discomfort is ever worse than risk of death; for, like the lady in the Ingoldsby Legends, they “didn’t mind death but they couldn’t stand pinching.”

On relief, they went into Brigade Reserve in close billets near Rouge Croix, No. 1 Company furnishing an officer and platoon as garrison for the two posts Rouge Croix East and West. Life was reduced to watching the rain drive in swathes across the flat desolation of the land, improving billets under the supervision of the Engineers, which is ever a trial, and sending parties to flounder and dig in the dark at new works behind the firing-line.

Snipers on both sides began to find each other’s range and temperament, and “put in good work” according to their lights and opportunities. The enemy developed a taste for mining, and it was necessary to investigate by patrol some craters that appeared spottily on the Battalion’s front, and might hide anything. The Germans met these attempts with grenades (minenwerfers not being yet in existence), which fell short; but their burst and direction gave our rifles their line. The days passed with long, quiet intervals when one caught the drawing scrape of a spade or the thicker note of a hammer on revetting stakes—all difficult to locate exactly, for sound runs along trenches like water. A pump would gurgle, a bucket clink, or a shift of the rare sunlight sparkle on some cautiously raised periscope. That crumb of light drawing a shot from an over-keen watcher, half a dozen single shots would answer it. One or other of the four Battalion Lewis-guns would be moved to spray the sector of tumbled dirt which it commanded. In the midst of the stuttered protest, without whoop or wail of warning, a flight of whizz-bangs would call the parapet to order as emphatically as the raps of the schoolmaster’s cane silence the rising clamour of a class-room. The hint would be taken, for none were really anxious to make trouble, and silence would return so swiftly that, before the spades had ceased repairing the last-blown gap in the head-cover, one heard the yawn of an utterly bored private in the next bay fretting under his kit because there was no possibility of sneaking a “lay down.”

It was pettifogging work for both sides, varied with detestable cleaning out “the height of the muck,” wrestling with sodden sand-bags and throwing up breastworks on exposed ground, so that men might smuggle themselves along clear of the flooded communication-trenches.

The first idea of raiding on a system was born out of that dull time; the size of the forces is noteworthy.

On the 20th November, a misty day when things were quiet, the C.O.’s of the two front-line Battalions (3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Irish Guards) together with the commandants of artillery brigades and batteries in the vicinity were assembled “to select passages to be cut by artillery fire at certain places, and for these to be kept constantly open, while raids one or two companies strong paid surprise visits to the German lines, killing or capturing and returning.” Three such places were thus chosen on the brigade front, one of which was in the line of the centre company of the 2nd Irish Guards. Having neatly laid out that much trouble for their successors, they were relieved by the 3rd Coldstream, marched to billets at La Gorgue and came into Divisional Reserve at 10.30 P.M. They expected, as they were entitled to, a long night in the Girls’ School which they occupied. But, for reasons which have long since passed with dead policies, it was important that the late Mr. John Redmond, M.P., should inspect them next morning. So their sleep was cut and they and their 1st Battalion marched a mile out of La Gorgue, and hung about for an hour on a muddy road in morning chill, till Mr. Redmond, blandly ignorant of his deep unpopularity at the moment, walked down the lines and shook hands after the manner of royalty with each officer. One of these chanced to be an ex-R.I.C. who, on the last occasion they had met, was engaged in protecting Mr. Redmond from the attentions of Mr. O’Brien’s followers in a faction-fight at Mallow. Mr. Redmond did not remember this, but the tale unholily delighted the Battalion, on their way to Divine Service afterwards.

Lieutenant T. Nugent left them on the 21st November to join the 1st Battalion with a view to appointment as Adjutant. This was a season, too, when a little leave might be counted on as within the possibilities. Nothing was breathed about it officially, but hopeful rumours arose that they were likely to be in billets well back of the firing-line for the next few weeks. The mere chance of five or six days’ return to real life acts as unexpectedly as drink or drugs on different temperaments. Some men it fills with strenuous zeal. Others it placates so that the hardiest “bad character” can take advantage of them; and there are yet those who, fretting and yearning beneath the mask of discipline, are hardly fit to approach on light matters till their date for home has been settled. Moreover, one’s first service-leave is of a quality by itself, and in those days was specially precious to parents and relatives, who made themselves cling to the piteous belief that the War might, somehow, end at any moment, even while their beloved was safe with them.

Bomb practice was taken up seriously while at La Gorgue, and the daily allowance of live bombs increased to sixty. Drums and fifes had been sent out from the Regimental Orderly Room, together with a few selected drummers from Warley. The Battalion promptly increased the number from its own ranks and formed a full corps of drums and fifes, which paraded for the first time on the 23rd November, when they exchanged billets with the 1st Coldstream at Merville. The first tune played was the Regimental March and the second “Brian Boru,” which goes notably to the drums. (In those days the Battalion was overwhelmingly Irish in composition.) Captain the Hon. H. R. Alexander, who had been in hospital with influenza for a week, rejoined on the 23rd as second in command. Merville was a mixed, but not too uncomfortable, experience. The Battalion with the rest of the Guards Division was placed temporarily at the disposal of the Forty-fifth Division as a reserve, a position which meant neither being actually in the trenches nor out of them. They were beyond reach of rifle-fire and in a corner not usually attended to by artillery. There was a roof to the officers’ mess, and some of the windows did not lack glass. They ate off tables with newspapers for cloth and enjoyed the luxury of chairs. The men lived more or less in trenches, but were allowed out, like well watched poultry, at night or on misty mornings. All this was interspersed with squad drill, instruction, baths, and a Battalion concert; while, in view of possibilities that might develop, Captain Alexander and the four company commanders “reconnoitred certain routes from Merville to Neuve Chapelle.” But every one knew at heart that there was nothing doing or to be done except to make oneself as comfortable as might be with all the blankets that one could steal, at night, and all the food one could compass by day. Leave was going on regularly. Captain and Adjutant J. S. N. FitzGerald left on the 26th for ten days and Lieutenant A. Pym took over his duties. When adjutants can afford to go on leave, life ought to be easy.

Then they shifted to Laventie in a full blizzard, relieving the 2nd Scots Guards in Brigade Reserve. Their own Brigade, the 2nd, was taking over from the 3rd Guards Brigade, and Captain Alexander, who not unnaturally caught a fresh attack of influenza later, spent the afternoon reconnoitring the trenches which he would have to occupy on the 28th. The No Man’s Land to be held in front of them was marsh and ditch, impassable save when frozen. It carried no marks in the shape of hedges or stumps to guide men out or back on patrol, and its great depth-three hundred yards in places from wire to wire-made thorough ferreting most difficult. In this war, men with small-arms that carried twenty-eight hundred yards, hardly felt safe unless they were within half bow-shot of their enemy.

The Battalion’s entry into their forlorn heritage was preceded by a small house-warming in the shape of an artillery bombardment on our side. This, they knew, by doleful experience, would provoke retaliation, and the relief was accordingly delayed till dark, which avoided all casualties. Their general orders were to look out for likely spots whence to launch “small enterprises” against the enemy. It meant patrols wandering out in rain and a thaw that had followed the stiff frost, and doing their best to keep direction by unassisted intellect and a compass. (“Ye’ll understand that, in those days, once you was out on your belly in that muck, ye knew no more than a babe in a blanket. Dark, wet and windy it was, with big, steep, deep ditches waiting on ye every yard. All we took of it was a stiff neck, and all we heard was Jerry gruntin’ in his pigstye!” ) A patrol of No. 4 Company under Lieutenant Brew managed to get up within ear-shot of the German wire on the night of the 29th, crossing a drain by a providential plank. While they lay close, listening to the Huns hammering stakes in their trenches, they saw a German patrol slip home by the very bridge which they themselves had used. Hope ran high of catching the same party next night in the same place, but it rained torrentially, and they found it impossible to move a man out across the bog. They spent their time baling their own trenches as these filled, and were happy to wade only ankle-deep. But their professional lives were peaceful. Though the enemy shelled mechanically at intervals not a soul was even wounded when on the 30th November they came back for the short rest in billets in Laventie.

On their return to the “Red House” where they relieved the 1st Coldstream on the 2nd December, their night patrols discovered, apparently for the first time, that the enemy held their front line very thinly and their support in strength. As a matter of later observation, it was established that, on that sector, the front line mostly withdrew after dark and slept at the back till our unsympathetic guns stirred them up. Our custom seemed always to crowd the front line both with men and responsibility.

The main of the Battalion’s work was simple aquatics; draining off of waters that persisted in running uphill, and trying to find the bottom of fluid and unstable ditches where things once lost disappeared for ever. They had not yet seen a man choking in mud, and found it rather hard to believe that such things could happen. But the Somme was to convince them.

The organization of the Front evolved itself behind them as time passed, and batteries and battalions came to understand each other. Too much enemy shelling on a trench led to a telephone-call, and after a decent interval of from two to six minutes (the record was one minute fifty-five seconds) our batteries would signify their displeasure by a flight of perhaps thirty shells at one drench, or several separate salvoes. As a rule that was enough, and this, perhaps, led to the legend that the enemy artillery was weakening. And, with organisation, came the inevitable floods of paper-work that Authority insists on. There was a conference of the four C.O.’s of the Brigade on the subject on the 6th December, where suggestions were invited for “reducing correspondence” and “for saving company officers as much as possible,” which seemed, like many other conferences, to have ended in more paper-work and resolutions on “the importance of keeping a logbook in the trenches by each company officer.” The logbook handed over by every company commander to his relief is essential to the continuity of trench-war life, though nine tenths of the returns demanded seemed pure waste.

Yet there is another point of view. (“Looking back on it, one sees that that everlasting having to pull yourself together to fill in tosh about raspberry jam, or how men ought to salute, steadies one a good deal. We cursed it at the time, though!”)

On the 7th December, patrols reported the enemy with full trenches working on their front-line wire, upon which our artillery cut it up, and the enemy turned out in the evening to repair damages. The local Battery B, 76th Brigade R.F.A., was asked “to fire again.” They fired two salvoes at 10.15 P.M., and two more one hour later. One Lewis-gun of No. 1 Company “also fired at this point.” So simple and homoeopathic was war in that age!

On the 8th their sister battalion took over from them at Red House, in a relief completed in ninety minutes, and the drums of the 1st Battalion played the companies through Laventie, while the drums of the 2nd played them into billets at La Gorgue. For the first time since they had been in France all the officers of both battalions messed together, in one room, for all the time that they were there; and, as supplies from friends at home were ample and varied, the tales of some of the meals at La Gorgue endure to this day.

The system of the Guards’ company training always allowed large latitude to company officers as long as required results were obtained; and they fell back on it when bombers and Lewis-gun teams were permanently added to the organization. With the reservation that bombing-practice with live bombs was only to take place under the battalion bombing officer, company commanders were made entirely responsible for the training both of their bombers and Lewis-gunners. It made an almost immediate difference in the handiness and suppleness of the teams, and woke up intercompany competition. The teams, it may have been pointed out, were surprisingly keen and intelligent. One officer, finding a nucleus of ex-taxi drivers among his drafts, treated the Lewis-gun as a simple internalcombustion engine, which simile they caught on to at once and conveyed it in their own words and gestures to their slower comrades.

On the 12th December, the Battalion was paraded while the C.O. presented the ribbon of the D.C.M. to Lance-Corporal Quinn for gallantry in Chalk-Pit Wood at the battle of Loos, that now seemed to all of them a century distant.

On the 14th they moved to a more southerly sector to take over from the Welsh Guards, and to pick up a company of the 13th R.W. Fusiliers; one platoon being attached to each company for instruction, and the Fusiliers B.H.Q. messing with their own. There is no record what the Welshmen thought of their instructors or they of them, except the fragment of a tale of trench-fatigues during which, to the deep disgust of the Irish, who are not loudly vocal by temperament, “the little fellas sang like canary-birds.”

Their new lines, reached across mud, from Pont du Hem, were the old, well-known, and not so badly looked-after stretch from North Moated Grange Street to Erith Street at the lower end of the endless Tilleloy Road which faced south-easterly towards the Aubers Ridge, then held by the enemy. The relief was finished without demonstrations beyond a few shrapnel launched at one of the posts, Fort Erith.

On the 15th 2nd Lieutenant Brew went out with a patrol to investigate some mine-craters in front of the German firing-line and found them empty, but woke up an enemy machine-gun in the background. Other patrols reported like slackness, but when they tried to take advantage of it, they met the same gun awake, and came home upon their bellies. The ground being so flat, however, the German machines could not get well down to their work of shaving the landscape, and fifteen inches will clear a prostrate man if he lies close. A snipers’ team had been organised, and the deep peace of that age may be seen from the fact that, at the end of a quiet day, the only claim put in was for “one victim who was passing a gap between two mine-craters.”

They were relieved by the 1st Coldstream on the 16th December and went into billets, not more than two miles back, at Pont du Hem and La Flinque Farm, with scattered platoons and single officers holding posts in the neighbourhood of the Rue du Bacquerot. A draft of forty-seven men, which should have been fifty, turned up that same day. The odd three had contrived to mislay themselves as only men on draft can, but were gathered in later with marvellous explanations at the tips of their ready tongues. Officers sent out from Warley also got lost en route, to the wrath of company commanders clamouring for them. One writer home complains: “it seems that they are waylaid by some unknown person at the base and sent off for quite long periods to take charge of mysterious parties which dig trenches somewhere unknown.” This was the origin, though they knew it not at the Front, of the divisional entrenching battalion—a hated and unpopular necessity.

On the 18th December, Captain Eric Greer joined on transfer from the 3rd Reserve Battalion as Second in Command, and a couple of companies (Nos. 1 and 2) had to start the relief at Winchester Farm by daylight. The authorities had ordered the trenches should be kept clear that evening for a number of gas-cylinders to be placed in the parapets. It meant running the heavy cylinders up a light, man-power railway to the front line, when they were slung on poles, carried to the recesses that had been dug out for them, and there buried beneath sand-bags. (“There was all sorts and manners of gadgets made and done in those days. We was told they was all highly scientific. All us Micks ever took by any of them was fatigues. No! We did not like them gas-tanks.”)

The next day a shell lit within five yards of a recess apparently stocked with extra gas-tanks. The officer of No. 2 Company at once telephoned for retaliation. “After a slight lapse during which the gunners shelled our trench, and were told by the O.C. No. 2 that that was not exactly what he wanted, the retaliation was quite satisfactory.” They could easily count the number of shells that fell in those days and piously entered them in the company logbooks.

Here follows an appreciation, compiled at first-hand, of their surroundings, and the methods by which they kept themselves more or less dry. “Drains are a very difficult problem as there is probably only a fall of three feet in as many miles behind the line. The system is that the men drain the water in the actual trenches or redoubts into a drain slightly in rear. Then there are a number of drains, two or three per company-area, running straight back. Three men are told off to these and do nothing but patrol them, deepening and clearing where necessary. . . . From about two hundred yards in rear, the R.E. take and run off the water by larger drains and ditches already in existence into a river some miles in rear. At least that is the theory. The line is now wonderfully dry to live in as the profuse supply of trench-boards has made an enormous difference. Thus men can walk dry-shod up Winchester Street, our main communication-trench, on a path of floor-boards built up on piles over, perhaps, three feet of water. Of course, it hits both ways, as you are taken out of the water, but also out of the ground above your waist, and parapets must be built accordingly. . . . The front line, which is also the only one, as the labour of keeping it habitable absorbs every available man, is composed of a sand-bag redoubt about seven or eight feet high, and very thick. It is recessed and traversed. About ten or fifteen yards in rear runs the ‘traffic trench,’ a boarded path which sometimes runs along the top of black slime, and sometimes turns into a bridge on piles over smelly ponds. Between the redoubt and traffic-trench, rising out of slime, are a weird collection of hovels about three feet high, of sand-bags and tin. They are the local equivalents of ‘dug-outs’—cover from rain but not from shells. Everywhere there are rats.”

Having added gas to their local responsibilities, they suffered from the enthusiasms of the specialists attached to, and generals who believed in, the filthy weapon. As soon as possible after the cylinders, which they feared and treated with the greatest respect, were in position, all the talk was of a real and poisonous gas-attack. They were told on the 19th December that such a one would be launched by them on the first night the wind should favour it, and that their patrols would specially reconnoitre the ground that, by the blessing of fortune, the gas would waft across. Then the moon shone viciously and all special patrols were ordered off.

On the 20th the Gunner Officer, Major Young, paid a breakfast call, with the pleasant news that he was going to open an old repaired gap in the enemy wire, and cut two new ones, which, on the established principle of “throwing stones at little brother,” meant the infantry would be “retaliated on.” He did it. The C.O.’s of the Battalion and the 1st Coldstream, and the Brigade Major, made a most careful periscope reconnaissance of the ground, with particular attention to the smoking gaps that Major Young had blasted, and arranged for a joint reconnaissance by the 1st Coldstream and 2nd Irish Guards for that very evening. The two subalterns told off to that job attended the conference. Second Lieutenant Brew, who had gifts that way, represented our side, for the affair naturally became an inter-regimental one from the first, and 2nd Lieutenant Green the Coldstream. That afternoon everybody conferred—the brigade commanders of the 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigade, with their Staffs, all four C.O.’s of the 2nd Brigade, and the C.O. of the 1st Welsh Guards; and between them they arranged the attack in detail, with a simplicity that in later years almost made some of the survivors of that conference weep when they were reminded of it. The gas was to be turned on at first, while machine-guns and Lewis-guns would make a joyous noise together for five minutes to drown the roar of its escape. The artillery would start heavy fire “at points in rear” simultaneously with the noisy gas. At five minutes past Zero machine-guns would stop, and the artillery would slow down. But thirty-five minutes later they would “quicken up.” Three quarters of an hour after Zero “gas would be turned off,” and, five minutes after that, the attacking parties would start “with gas helmets on their heads but rolled up” and, penetrating the enemy’s second line, would “do all possible damage before returning.” Then they arranged to reassemble next day, after inspecting the ground. The Battalion was relieved that same evening by the 1st Coldstream, whom they expected to have for their confederates in the attack, and lay up at Pont du Hem.

On the 21st December, Brew, who had been out the night before reconnoitring with Green of the Coldstream, started on yet another investigation of the enemy wire at 3 A.M. They got right up to the wire, were overlooked by a German patrol, and spotted by a machine-gun on their way home. “But they lay down and the bullets went over them.” There was another conference at Winchester House in the afternoon, where all details were revised, and the day ended with a message to the troops who would be called upon, that the “attack had been greatly modified.”

On the 22nd December the notion of following up the gas by a two-company attack was washed out, and the assailants cut down to a select party, under the patient but by now slightly bewildered Brew, of bombers and bludgeoneers, who were to enter the German trench after three quarters of an hour of mixed gas and artillery, “collect information and do all possible damage.” If the gas and guns had produced the desired effect, five more bombers and bludgeonists, and a machine-gunner with one crowbar would follow as a demolishing-party, paying special attention to telephones, the bowels of machine-guns and, which was really unkind, drains. The R.E. supplied the bludgeons “of a very handy variety,” and everything was present and correct except the favouring breeze. (“And, all the while, ye’ll understand, our parapet stuffed with these dam gas-tanks the way they could be touched off by any whizz-bang that was visiting there, and the whole Brigade and every one else praying the wind ’ud hold off long enough for some one else to have the job of uncorking the bottle. Gas is no thrick for beginners!”)

They called the attack off once more, and the Battalion, with only one night left of their tour, in which to “uncork the bottle,” wired to the 1st Coldstream at Pont du Hem, “Latest betting, Coldstream 2 to 1 on (T. and 0.) Irish Guards, 6 to 4 against.” Back came the prompt answer, “Although the first fence is a serious obstacle, it should not take more than twenty-four hours with such fearless leapers. Best luck and a safe return. No betting here. All broke. We think we have caught a spy.” He turned out to be a perfectly innocent Frenchman “whose only offence was, apparently, that he existed in the foreground at the moment when a bombing-school, some miles in rear, elected to send up some suspicious blue lights.”

On the 23rd December, after a very quiet night, an entirely new plan of attack came in from an unnamed specialist who suggested that the gas (words cannot render their weariness of the accursed thing at this stage!) should be let off quite quietly without any artillery fire or unusual small-arm demonstration, at about four in the morning, when the odds were most of the enemy would be asleep, and that of those on duty few would ever have heard the sound of escaping gas. As the expert noted, “It requires a quick decision and a firm determination to give an alarm at 4 A.M., unless one is certain that it is not a false alarm, especially to a Prussian officer.” The hope was that the slow-waking and highly-to-his-superiors-respectful Hun would be thus caught in his dug-outs. The artillery would, gas or no gas, only give a general warning, and the suggested barrage (the first time, oddly enough, that the word is employed in the Diary) in rear of the enemy trenches would prevent his reserves from coming up into the gas-zone, “where there is always a chance that they may be gassed in spite of their gas-helmets.” So all the commanders held yet another conference, and agreed that the gas should be loosed at 4.30, that the barrage in the rear should be abandoned and a bombardment. of the enemy’s parapet substituted for it, and that no patrols should be sent out. The companies were duly warned. The wind was not. The enemy spent the day shelling points in the rear till our guns retaliated on their front line, which they returned by shelling our parapet with small stuff. One piece they managed to blow in, and turned a machine-gun on the gap. They also made one flooded dug-out a shade less habitable than before. The wind stayed true south all night, and the rain it brought did more damage to the hovels and huts than any enemy shells; for the Chaplain and the Second in Command were half buried by “the ceiling of their bedroom becoming detached. The calamity was borne with beautiful fortitude.” (Even a second in command cannot express all his sentiments before a Chaplain.)

Christmas Eve was officially celebrated by good works; for the Battalion, its gas still intact, was warned to finish relief by eight o’clock, because, for the rest of the night, our guns would bombard German communication-trenches and back-areas so as to interfere as much as possible with their Christmas dinner issues. The 1st Coldstream filed in, and they filed out back to their various billets and posts at Pont du Hem, La Flinque Farm, and the rest. Christmas Day, their first at the front, and in the line, was officially washed out and treated as the 25th of December, dinners and festivities being held over till they should be comfortably settled in reserve. Some attempts at “fraternisation” seem to have been begun between the front-line trenches in the early morning, but our impersonal and impartial guns shelled every moving figure visible, besides plastering cross-roads and traffic lines at the back. Lieut.-Colonel McCalmont, Lord Desmond FitzGerald, and Captain Antrobus rode over from the 1st Battalion for lunch, and in the afternoon Lord Cavan spoke to the officers of his approaching departure from the Guards Division to command the Fourteenth Corps; of his regrets at the change, and of his undisguised hopes that the Guards Division might be attached to his new command. “He finished by telling us that we were following in the steps of our great 1st Battalion, which, as he has told the King and Sir Francis Lloyd, was as fine a battalion as ever trod.” Then there was a decorated and becandled Christmas tree brought out from England by Captain Alexander, which appeared at dinner, and, later, was planted out in the garden at the back of the mess that all might admire. Likewise, No. 1 Company received a gift of a gramophone, a concertina, and mouth-organs from Miss Laurette Taylor. The Irish take naturally to mouth-organs. The gramophone was put under strict control at once.

On boxing day, the whole 2nd Guards Brigade were relieved by the 1st Brigade, and went back out of reach of the shells to Merville via La Gorgue, passing on the road several companies of the 1st Battalion on their way to relieve the 1st Scots Guards. (“When the like of that happens, and leave is given for to take notice of each other, ye may say that the two battalions cheer. But ’tis more in the nature of a running roar, ye’ll understand, when we Micks meet up.”)

Merville billets were thoroughly good, and the officers’ mess ran to a hard-worked but quite audible piano. Best of all, the fields around were too wet for anything like drill.

The postponed Christmas dinners for the men were given, two companies at a time, on the 28th and 29th, whereby Lieutenant Moore, then Acting Quartermaster, distinguished himself by promptitude, resource, and organisation, remembered to his honour far beyond mere military decorations. At the eleventh hour, owing to the breweries in the back-area being flooded, there was a shortage of beer that should wash down the beef and the pounds of solidest plum-pudding. “As it would have been obviously preferable to have had beer and no dinners to dinners and no beer, Lieutenant Moore galloped off to Estaires pursued by a waggon, while the Second in Command having discovered that some of the Eleventh Corps (it is always sound to stand well with the corps you hope to join) also wanted beer, promised to get it for them if supplied with a lorry, obtained same and bumped off to Hazebrouck. Lieutenant Moore succeeded in getting 500 litres in Estaires and got back in time.” So all was well.

Festivities began a little before two, and lasted till eight. They sat at tables and ate off plates which they had not done since leaving England. Food and drink are after all the only vital matters in war.

The year closed with an interesting lecture on the principles of war, delivered at La Gorgue, which dealt with the “futility of ever surrendering the initiative,” and instanced some French operations round Hartmannsweillerkopf on the Alsace front, when a German general, heavily attacked, launched a counter-attack elsewhere along the line, forcing his enemy to return to their original position after heavy loss. Another example from the German gas-attack on St. Julien, when the English confined themselves to desperately attacking the captured section, whereby they only lost more men instead of counter-attacking farther down the ridge. This led to the conclusion that “to sit passively on the defensive with no idea of attacking was so fatuous as not to be worth considering as an operation of war.” At present, said the lecturer, we were on the defensive, but purely to gain time until we had the men and materials ready for a great offensive. Meantime the correct action was to “wear down the enemy in every way.” Whence the conclusion that the attitude of the Guards Division for the past seven weeks had been eminently proper; since our guns had bombarded “all the time,” and had cut the German wire in many places, so that the enemy never knew when he would be attacked. Further, our troops had thrice entered his trenches, besides twice making every preparation to do so (when, finding he was ready, we “very rightly abandoned the enterprise”). Not once, it was shown, had the enemy even attempted to enter our trenches. In fact, he was reduced “to a state of pulp and blottingpaper.” The lecture ended with the news that our motor-buses and lateral railways could concentrate one army corps on any part of the British front in twenty-four hours, and two corps in forty-eight. Also that the Supreme Command had decided it was useless to break through anywhere on a narrower front than twenty kilometres.

And on this good hearing the year ’15 ended for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards; the War, owing to the lack of men and material which should have been trained and prepared beforehand, having just two years, ten months, and eleven days more to run.

The Irish Guards in the Great War, Vol. 2 - Contents    |     1916 - Salient and the Somme

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