An unexpected diversion turned up in the front line in the shape of a cinema operator who unlimbered his camera on the parapet behind the sand-bags and took pictures of our guns shelling enemy wire a hundred yards ahead. Then he demanded “scenes in the trenches,” which were supplied him, with all the Irish sense of drama, but, as local opinion thought, a little too much “arranged.” Notably one picture of a soldier tending a grave. An officer correspondent writes grimly, “We have quite enough work digging graves to mind about tending them.” The film duly appeared in the halls and revues, sometimes before the eyes of those who would never again behold in life one particular face there.
It turned out a quiet tour of duty; the two lines were so close together that much shelling was inexpedient, and snipers gave no trouble. So all hands were free to attend their own comforts, notably the care and discharge of drains. The R.E. who, contrary to popular belief, sometimes have bowels, had added wooden floors to many of the little huts behind the redoubts. Company Headquarters were luxurious, with real windows, and even window-curtains; the slimy trenches were neatly boarded over and posted, and men went about their business almost dry-shod. It was, as we know, the custom of those parts that, before entering the line, troops should dump their ankle-boots at a farm-house just behind Red House, and go on in the long trench boots. For no earthly reason that the Irish could arrive at, the Hun took it into his methodical head one night to shell their huge boot dump where, as a matter of course, some regimental shoemakers were catching up with repairs. The shoemakers bolted like ferreted rabbits, and all the world, except those whose boots were buried, laughed at them. So long as a man comes through it alive, his agonies and contortions in the act of dodging death are fair game.
On the nights of the 4th and 5th January they began to engineer the detail of a local raid which marked progress in the art. Patrols went out from each company in the front line to hunt for weak places. The patrol from the right company worked to within fifteen yards of the enemy, got into boggy ground, noisy with loose wire, listened an hour to the Germans working and talking, and came back. The right centre company patrol slopped up a ditch for a full furlong, then ran into a cross-ditch fifteen feet wide, with a trip-wire (the enemy disliked being taken unawares), and also returned like the dove of old. Similarly the left-centre patrol, which found more ditch and trip-wires leading them to a singularly stout section of trench where two Germans looked over the edge of the parapet, and the general landscape was hostile. The left company had the luck. It was an officer’s patrol commanded again by 2nd Lieutenant Brew. Their crawl led them along a guiding line of willows, and to within six feet of a salient guarded by a three-foot wire belt. But a few yards farther down, they came across a gap our guns had made—not clean-cut, but easy enough, in their opinion, to “negotiate.” As far as men on their bellies could make out, the line seemed held by sentries at wide intervals who, after the manner of single sentries, fired often at nothing and sent up lights for the pleasure of seeing their support-line answer them. (“As we was everlastingly telling the new hands, the fewer there are of ye annywhere, the less noise should ye be after making annyhow. But ’tis always the small, lonely, miserable little man by himself that gives forth noises like large platoons.”) Then they were relieved by the 1st Coldstream, and their Acting C.O. (Captain Eric Greer) was instructed to produce a scheme for a really good raid from the left of their line on the weak place discovered. The Coldstream would attend to it during their tour, if the Irish furnished the information. Greer worked it out lovingly to the last detail. Three riflemen and three bombers were to lead off on the right, and as many on the left followed by a “killing and demolition. party,” armed with bludgeons, of an officer and eight other ranks. A support party of one N.C.O. and five other ranks, with rifles and bayonets, and a connecting party of two signallers with telephones and four stretcher-bearers brought up the rear of what the ribald afterwards called “our mournful procession.” It was further laid down that a wire-cutting party (and the men hated wire-cutting) would “improve the gap in the enemy’s wire” for the space of one hour. The raiders were to work quietly along the line of the providential willows till they found the gap; then would split into two gangs left and right, and attend to the personnel in the trench “as quickly and silently as possible, never using bombs when they can bayonet a man.” The rest were to enter afterwards, and destroy and remove all they could find. “If possible and convenient, they will take a prisoner who will be immediately passed back to our trench by the supporting-party. Faces to be blacked for the sake of ‘frightfulness,’ mutual recognition, and invisibility,” and electric torches carried. The officer in charge was to be a German linguist, for the reason that a prisoner, hot and shaken at the moment of capture, and before being “passed back” was likely to exude more information than when cold and safe in our own lines.
There was nothing special on at the Front just then; and the 2nd Battalion and the Coldstream discussed and improved that raid at every point they could think of. One authority wanted a double raid, from left and right fronts simultaneously, but they explained that this particular affair would need “so much quietness” in combined stalking that it would be “inconvenient to run it on a time schedule.” Then our guns were given word to cut wire in quite other directions from the chosen spot which was no more to be disturbed till the proper time than a pet cover. That was on the 7th January. On the night of the 8th the Twentieth Division on their left announced that they were “going to let off gas” at 2 A.M., and follow up with a raid. The Battalion had to stand to arms, stifling in its respirators, during its progress; and by the glare of the enemy’s lights could see our gas drifting low in great grey clouds towards the opposite lines. They observed, too, a number of small explosions in the German side when the gas reached there, which seemed to dissipate it locally. The enemy guns were badly served, opening half an hour late and pitching shell in their own wire and trenches, but they hardly annoyed the Battalion at all. The affair was over in a couple of hours. (“There is nothing, mark you, a man hates like a division on his flank stirring up trouble. Ye know the poor devils have no choice of it, but it looks always as if they was doing it to spite their neighbours, and not Jerry at all.”)
But the pleasure of the Twentieth Division was not allowed to interfere with the business of their own private raid. Before the gas was “let off” 2nd Lieutenant Brew again chaperoned two scouts of the Coldstream to show them the gap in the wire in case they cared to try it on their tour. It was found easily and reported to be passable in single file.
But, as they said wrathfully afterwards, who could have guessed that, on the night of the 10th, after the Coldstream’s wire-cutting party had worked for two hours, and their raiders had filed through the gap, and met more wire on the parapet which took more time to cut—when they at last dropped into the trench and searched it for three long hours they—found no sign of a German? The Coldstream’s sole trophies were some bombs, a box of loaded M.G. belts, and one rocket!
When they relieved the Coldstream on the 11th January, they naturally tried their own hand on the problem. By this time they had discovered themselves to be a “happy” battalion which they remained throughout. None can say precisely how any body of men arrives at this state. Discipline, effort, doctrine, and unlimited care and expense on the part of the officers do not necessarily secure it; for there have been battalions in our armies whose internal arrangements were scandalously primitive, whose justice was neolithic, and yet whose felicity was beyond question. It may be that the personal attributes of two or three leading spirits in the beginning set a note to which the other young men, of generous minds, respond: half a dozen superior N.C.O.’s can, sometimes, raise and humanise the soul of a whole battalion; but, at bottom, the thing is a mystery to be accepted with thankfulness. The 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards was young throughout, the maker of its own history, and the inheritor of the Guards’ tradition; but its common background was ever Warley where they had all first met and been moulded—officers and men together. So happiness came to them and stayed, and with it, unity, and, to use the modern slang, “efficiency” in little things as well as big—confidence and joyous mutual trust that carries unspoken through the worst of breakdowns.
The blank raid still worried them, and there may have been, too, some bets on the matter between themselves and the Coldstream. At any rate 2nd Lieutenant Brew reappears—his C.O. and the deeply interested battalion in confederacy behind him.
On the night of the 11th of January, Brew took out a small patrol and entered the German trench that they were beginning to know so well. He re-cut the wire, made a new gap for future uses, explored, built two barricades in the trench itself; got bogged up among loose wire, behind which he guessed (but the time was not ripe to wake up that hornet’s nest) the German second line lay, and—came back before dawn with a periscope as proof that the trench was occupied by daylight. “The enterprise suffered from the men’s lack of experience in patrolling by night,” a defect that the C.O. took care to remedy.
As a serious interlude, for milk was a consideration, “the cow at Red House calved successfully. Signallers, orderlies, and others were present at the accouchement.” Doubtless, too, the orderly-room kitten kept an interested eye on the event.
In the afternoon the Brigadier came round, and the C.O. and the 2nd Lieutenant discussed a plan of the latter to cross the German line and lie up for the day in some disused trench or shell-hole. It was dismissed as “practical but too risky.” Moreover, at that moment there was a big “draw” on hand, with the idea of getting the enemy out of their second line and shelling as they came up. The Battalion’s private explorations must stand over till it was finished. Three infantry brigades took part in this game, beginning at dusk the Guards on the left, the 114th Brigade in the centre, and the left battalion of the Nineteenth Division on the right. The 114th Brigade, which was part of the Thirty-eighth Division, had just relieved the 1st Guards Brigade. Every one stood to arms with unlimited small-arm ammunition handy, and as daylight faded over the enemy’s parapets the 114th sent up a red rocket followed by one green to mark Zero. There was another half minute to go in which a motor machine-gun got overtilted and started to gibber. Then the riot began. Both battalions of the 2nd Guards Brigade, the left-half battalion of the 114th Brigade, and the left of the Nineteenth Division opened rapid fire with rifles, machine-, and Lewis-guns. At the same time, our artillery on the right began a heavy front and enfilade bombardment of the German line while our howitzers barraged the back of it. The infantry, along the Winchester Road, held their fire, but simulated, with dummies which were worked by ropes, a line of men in act to leave the trenches. Last, the artillery on our left joined in, while the dummies were handled so as to resemble a second line attacking.
To lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative, the guns on the right lifted and began shelling back-lines and communication-trenches, as though to catch reinforcements, while the dummies jigged and shouldered afresh on their energetic ropes. The enemy took the thing in quite the right spirit. He replied with rifle-fire; he sent up multitudes of red lights, which always soothed him when upset; and his artillery plastered the ground behind our centre with big shells that could be heard crumping somewhere in the interior of France till our own guns, after a ten minutes’ pause, came down once more. Over and above the annoyance to him of having to rush up supports into the front line, it was reasonable to suppose that our deluges of small-arm stuff must have done him some damage. “The men were all prepared and determined to enjoy themselves, the machine-gunners were out to show what a lot of noise they could really make, and the fire must have been infinitely uncomfortable for German quartermaster-sergeants, cookers, and others, wandering about behind the line with rations—if they walk about as much as we do. One of the companies alone loosed off 7000 rounds, including Lewis-guns, during the flurry.”
They were back at La Gorgue again on the 13th January, in divisional rest; the 3rd Guards Brigade relieving them. While there the C.O. launched a scheme for each subaltern to pick and train six men on his own, so as to form the very hard core of any patrols or bombing-parties he might have to lead hereafter. They were specially trained for spotting things and judging distance at night; and the tales that were told about them and their adventures and their confidences would fill several unprintable books. (There was an officer who did not so much boast as mount, with a certain air, a glass eye. One night, during patrol, he was wounded in the shoulder, and brought in by his pet patrol-leader, a private of unquestioned courage, with, by the way, a pretty taste for feigning abject fear when he wished to test new men with whom he was working in No Man’s Land. He rendered first aid to his officer whose wound was not severe, and then invited him to “take a shquint” at the result. The officer had to explain that he was blind on that side. Whereupon, the private, till the doctor turned up, drew loud and lively pictures of the horror of his wife at home, should it ever come to her knowledge that her man habitually crawled about France in the dark with an officer “blinded on the half of him.”)
They rested for nearly a fortnight at La Gorgue, attended a lecture—“if not instructive, at least highly entertaining”—by Max Abbat, the well-known French boxer, on “Sport and what England had done for France,” and had a regimental dinner, when ten of the officers of the First Battalion came over from Merville with their brigadier and the Staff Captain, and Lieutenant Charles Moore who had saved the Battalion Christmas dinners, looked after them all to the very end which, men say, became nebulous. Some one had been teaching the Battalion to bomb in style, for their team of thirty returned from Brigade Bombing School easy winners, by one hundred points in the final competition. (“Except that the front line is mostly quieter and always more safe, there is no differ betwixt the front line and Bombing School.”)
They went back into line and support-billets on the 26th relieving the 3rd Guards Brigade; and the Battalion itself taking over from the 1st Grenadiers on the Red House sector, Laventie. Apparently, the front line had been fairly peaceful in their absence, but they noted that the Grenadier Headquarters seemed “highly pleased to go,” for the enemy had got in seven direct hits that very day on Red House itself. One shell had dropped in “the best upstairs bedroom, and two through the roof.” They took this as a prelude to a Kaiser’s birthday battle, as there had been reports of loyal and patriotic activities all down that part of the line, and rumours of increased railway movement behind it. A generous amount of tapped German wireless lent colour to the belief. Naturally, Battalion Headquarters at Red House felt all the weight of the war on their unscreened heads, and all hands there, from the adjutant and medical officer to the orderlies and police strengthened the defences with sand-bags. A battalion cannot be comfortable if its headquarters’ best bedrooms are turned out into the landscape. No attacks, however, took place, and night patrols reported nothing unusual for the 26th and 27th January.
A new devilry (January, 28) now to be tried were metal tubes filled with ammonal, which were placed under enemy wire and fired by electricity. They called them “Bangalore torpedoes” and they were guaranteed to cut all wire above them. At the same time, dummies, which had become a fashionable amusement along the line, would be hoisted by ropes out of our trenches to the intent that the enemy might be led to man his parapets that our guns might sweep them. It kept the men busy and amused, and they were more excited when our snipers reported that they could make out a good deal of movement in the line in front of Red House, where Huns in small yellow caps seemed to be “rolling something along the trench.” Snipers were forbidden to pot-shot until they could see a man’s head and shoulders clearly, as experience had proved that at so long a range—the lines here were full two hundred yards apart “shooting on the chance of hitting. half a head merely made the enemy shy and retiring.” One gets the impression that, in spite of the “deadening influence of routine” (some of the officers actually complained of it in their letters home!) the enemy’s “shyness,” at that moment, might have been due to an impression that he was facing a collection of inventive young fiends to whom all irregular things were possible.
They went into brigade reserve at Laventie on the 30th of the month, with genuine regrets, for the trenches that they had known so long. “We shall never be as comfortable anywhere else,” one boy wrote; and the C.O. who had spent so much labour and thought there lifts up a swan-song which shows what ideal trenches should be. “Handed over in November in a bad state, they are now as nearly perfect as a line in winter can be. The parapets are perfect, the fire-steps all wooden and in good repair. The dug-outs, or rather the little huts which answer to that name in this swampy country, their frameworks put up by the engineers and sandbagged up by the infantry, are dry and comfortable. The traffic-trench, two boards wide in most places, is dry everywhere. Wherever trench-boards ran on sandbags or mud they have been painted and put on piles. The wire in front of the line is good.”
They were due for rest at Merville, farther out of the way of fire than La Gorgue, for the next week or so, but their last day in Laventie was cheered by an intimate lecture on the origin, nature, and effects of poison-gas, delivered by a doctor who had seen the early trials of it at Ypres. He told them in cold detail how the Canadians slowly drowned from the base of the lung upwards, and of the scenes of horror in the ambulances. Told them, too, how the first crude antidotes were rushed out from England in a couple of destroyers, and hurried up to the line by a fleet of motor ambulances, so that thirty-six hours after the first experience, some sort of primitive respirators were issued to the troops. The lecture ended with assurances that the ’15 pattern helmets were gas-proof for three quarters of an hour against any gas then in use, if they were properly inspected, put on and breathed through in the prescribed manner.
Their only diversion at Merville was a fire in the local chicory factory close to the messes. Naturally, there was no adequate fire-engine, and by the time that the A.S.C. turned up, amid the cheers of the crowd whom they squirted with an extincteur, the place was burned out. “When nothing was left but the walls and some glowing timbers we heard, creeping up the street, a buzz of admiration and applause. The crowd round the spot parted, and in strode a figure, gaunt and magnificent, attired in spotless white breeches, black boots and gaiters, a blue jacket and a superb silver helmet. He was the Lieutenant of Pompiers, and had, of course, arrived a bit late owing to the necessity of dressing for the part. He stalked round the ring of urban dignities who were in the front row, shook each by the hand with great solemnity, stared gloomily at the remains of the house and departed.”
There was no expectation of any imminent attack anywhere, both sides were preparing for “the spring meeting,” as our people called it; and leave was being given with a certain amount of freedom. This left juniors sometimes in charge of full companies, an experience that helped to bring forward the merits of various N.C.O.’s and men; for no two company commanders take the same view of the same private; and on his return from leave the O.C. may often be influenced by the verdict of his locum tenens to give more or less responsibility to a particular individual. Thus: Locum Tenens. “I say, Buffles, while you were away. I took out Hasken—No, not ‘Bullock’ Hasken—’Spud’—on that double-ditch patrol, out by the dead rifleman. He didn’t strike me as a fool.”
Buffles. “Didn’t he? I can’t keep my patience with him. He talks too much.”
L. T. “Not when he’s outside the wire. And he doesn’t see things in the dark as much as some of ’em.” (Meditatively, mouth filled with fondants brought from home by Buffies.) “Filthy stuff this war-chocolate is.” (Pause.) “Er, what do you think? He’s lance already.”
Buffles. “I know it. I don’t think he’s much of a lance either. Well . . .”
L. T. “Anyhow, he’s dead keen on night jobs. But if you took him once or twice and tried him .. . He is dead keen. . . . Eh?”
Buffles. “All right. We’ll see. Where is that dam’ log-book?” Thus the matter is settled without one direct word being spoken, and “Spud” Hasken comes to his own for better or for worse.
On the 7th February, they were shifted, as they had anticipated, to the left of the right sector of the divisional front, which meant much less comfortable trenches round Pont du Hem, and badly battered Headquarters at Winchester House. They relieved the 1st Coldstream in the line on the 9th, and found at once plenty of work in strengthening parapets, raising trench-boards, and generally attending to their creature comforts. (“Never have I known any battalion in the Brigade that had a good word to say for the way the other battalions live. We might all have been brides, the way we went to our new housekeepings in every new place—turnin’ up our noses at our neighbours.”)
And while they worked, Headquarters were “briefly but accurately” shelled with whizz-bangs. On the 11th February the pace quickened a little. There was mining along that front on both sides, and our miners from two mines had reported they had heard work going on over their heads only a hundred and twenty yards out from our own parapets. It might signify that the enemy were working on “Russian saps”—shallow mines, almost like mole-runs, designed to bring a storming party right up to our parapets under cover. The miners were not loved for their theories, for at midnight along the whole Battalion front, pairs of unhappy men had to lie out on ground-sheets listening for any sound of subterranean picks. The proceedings, it is recorded, somewhat resembled a girls’ school going to bed, and the men said that all any one got out of the manœuvres was “blashts of ear-ache.” But, as the Diary observes, if there were any mining on hand, the Germans would naturally knock off through the quietest hours of the twenty-four.
In some ways it was a more enterprising enemy than round the Red House, and they felt, rather than saw, that there were patrols wandering about No Man’s Land at unseemly hours. So the Battalion sent forth a couple of Lewis-gunners with their weapon, two bombers with their bombs, and one telephonist complete with field telephones. These, cheered by hot drinks, lay up a hundred yards from our parapets, installed their gun in an old trench, and telephoned back on prearranged signals for Very-lights in various directions to illumine the landscape and invite inspection. “The whole scheme worked smoothly. In fact, it only wanted a few Germans to make it a complete success.” And the insult of the affair was that the enemy could be heard whistling and singing all night as they toiled at their own mysterious jobs. In the evening, just as the Battalion was being relieved by the Coldstream, a defensive mine, which was to have been exploded after the reliefs were comfortably settled in, had to go up an hour before, as the officer in charge, fearing that the Germans who were busy in the same field might break into his galleries at any moment, did not see fit to wait. The resulting German flutter just caught the end of the relief, and two platoons of No. 1 Company were soundly shelled as they went down the Rue du Bacquerot to Rugby Road. However, no one was hurt. The men of the 2nd Battalion were as unmoved by mines as were their comrades in the 1st. They resented the fatigue caused by extra precautions against them, but the possibilities of being hoisted sky-high at any moment did not shake the Celtic imagination.
While in Brigade Reserve for a couple of days No. 1 Company amused itself preparing a grim bait to entice German patrols into No Man’s Land. Two dummies were fabricated to represent dead English soldiers. “One, designed to lie on its back, had a face modelled by Captain Alexander from putty and paint which for ghastliness rivalled anything in Madame Tussaud’s. The frame-work of the bodies was wire, so they could be twisted into positions entirely natural.” While they were being made, on the road outside Brigade Headquarters at Pont du Hem, a French girl came by and believing them to be genuine, fled shrieking down the street. They were taken up to the front line on stretchers, and it chanced that in one trench they had to give place to let a third stretcher pass. On it was a dead man, whom no art could touch.
Next night, February 15, between moonset and dawn, the grisliest hour of the twenty-four, Lieutenant Pym took the twins out into No Man’s Land, arranging them one on its face and the other on its back in such attitudes as are naturally assumed by the old warped dead. “Strapped between the shoulders of the former, for the greater production of German curiosity, was a cylinder sprouting india-rubber tubes. This was intended to resemble a flammenwerfer.” Hand- and rifle-grenades were then hurled near the spot to encourage the theory (the Hun works best on a theory) that two British patrols had fought one another in error, and left the two corpses. At evening, the Lewis-gun party and a brace of bombers lay out beside the kill, but it was so wet and cold that they had to be called in, and no one was caught. And all this fancy-work, be it remembered, was carried out joyously and interestedly, as one might arrange for the conduct of private theatricals or the clearance of rat-infested barns.
On the 16th they handed over to the 9th Welsh of the Nineteenth Division, and went back to La Gorgue for two days’ rest. Then the 2nd Guards Brigade moved north to other fields. The “spring meeting” that they talked about so much was a certainty somewhere or other, but it would be preceded, they hoped, by a period of “fattening up” for the Division. (“We knew, as well as the beasts do, that when Headquarters was kind to us, it meant getting ready to be killed on the hoof—but it never put us off our feed.”) Poperinghe, and its camps, was their immediate destination, which looked, to the initiated, as if Ypres salient would be the objective; but they had been promised, or had convinced themselves, that there would be a comfortable “standeasy” before they went into that furnace, of which their 1st Battalion had cheered them with so many quaint stories. Their first march was of fifteen miles through Neuf and Vieux Berquin—and how were they to know what the far future held for them there?—to St. Sylvestre, of little houses strung along its typical pavé. Only one man fell out, and he, as is carefully recorded, had been sick the day before. Thence, Wormhoudt on the 22nd February, nine miles through a heavy snowstorm, to bad billets in three inches of snow, which gave the men excuse for an inter-company snowball battle. The 1st Battalion had thankfully quitted Poperinghe for Calais, and the 2nd took over their just vacated camp, of leaky wooden huts on a filthy parade-ground of frozen snow at the unchristian hour of half-past seven in the morning. On that day 2nd Lieutenant Hordern with a draft of thirty men joined from the 7th Entrenching Battalion. (“All winter drafts look like sick sparrows. The first thing to tell ’em is they’ll lose their names for coughing, and the next is to strip the Warley fat off ’em by virtue of strong fatigues.”) They were turned on to digging trenches near their camp and practice-attacks with live bombs; this being the beginning of the bomb epoch, in which many officers believed, and a good few execrated. At a conference of C.O.’s of the Brigade at Headquarters the Brigadier explained the new system of trench-attack in successive waves about fifteen yards apart. The idea was that if the inevitable flanking machine-gun fire wiped out your leading wave, there was a chance of stopping the remainder of the company before it was caught.
A lecture on the 1st March by the Major-General cheered the new hands. He told them that “there was a great deal of work to be done in the line we were going into. Communication-trenches were practically non-existent and the front parapet was not continuous. All this work would have to be done by the infantry, as the Divisional R.E. would be required for a very important line along the Canal and in front of the town of Ypres.” One of the peculiarities of all new lines and most R.E. corps is that the former is always out of condition and the latter generally occupied elsewhere.
Their bombing practice led to the usual amount of accidents, and on the 2nd March Lieutenant Keenan was wounded in the hand by a premature burst; four men were also wounded and one of them died.
Next day, when their Quartermaster’s party went to Calais to take over the 1st Battalion’s camp there, they heard of the fatal accident at bomb-practice to Lord Desmond FitzGerald and the wounding of Lieutenant Nugent and Father Lane-Fox. They sent Captains J. S. N. FitzGerald and Witts, and their Sergeant-Major and Drum-Major to FitzGerald’s funeral.
On the 6th March they entrained at Poperinghe for Calais, where the whole Brigade lay under canvas three miles out from the town beside the Calais–Dunkirk road. “The place would have been very nice, as the Belgian aviation ground, in the intervals of dodging the Belgian aviators, made a fine parade and recreation ground, but life in tents was necessarily marred by continued frost and snow.” More intimately: “The, bell-tents are all right, but the marquees leak in the most beastly manner. There are only a few places where we can escape the drips.”
Here they diverted themselves, and here Sir Douglas Haig reviewed them and some Belgian artillery, which, as it meant standing about in freezing weather, was no diversion at all. But their “Great Calais First Spring Meeting” held on Calais Sands, in some doubt as to whether the tide would not wipe out the steeple-chase course, was an immense and unqualified success. Every soul in the Brigade who owned a horse, and several who had procured one, turned out and rode, including Father Knapp, aged fifty-eight. There were five races, and a roaring multitude who wanted to bet on anything in or out of sight. The Battalion bookmaker was a second lieutenant—at home a barrister of some distinction—who, in fur coat, brown bowler of the accepted pattern, and with a nosegay of artificial flowers in his buttonhole, stood up to the flood of bets till they overwhelmed him; and he and his clerk “simply had to trust to people for the amounts we owed them after the races.” Even so, the financial results were splendid. The mess had sent them into the fray with a capital of 1800 francs, and when evening fell on Calais Sands they showed a profit of 800 francs. The star performance of the day was that of the C.O.’s old charger “The Crump,” who won the steeple-chase held an hour after winning the mile, where he had given away three stones. His detractors insinuated that he was the only animal who kept within the limits of the very generous and ample course laid out by Captain Charles Moore. There followed a small orgy of Battalion and inter-Battalion sports and amusements-football competitions for men and officers, with a “singing competition” for “sentimental, comic, and original turns.” Oddly enough, in this last the Battalion merely managed to win a consolation prize, for a private who beat a drum, whistled, and told comic tales in brogue. It may have been he was the great and only “Cock” Burne or Byrne of whom unpublishable Battalion-history relates strange things in the early days. He was eminent, even among many originals—an elderly “old soldier,” solitary by temperament, unpredictable in action, given to wandering off and boiling tea, which he drank perpetually in remote and unwholesome corners of the trenches. But he had the gift, with many others, of crowing like a cock (hence his nom-de-guerre), and vastly annoyed the unhumorous Hun, whom he would thus salute regardless of time, place, or safety. To this trick he added a certain infinitely monotonous tomtomming on any tin or box that came handy, so that it was easy to locate him even when exasperated enemy snipers were silent. He came from Kilkenny, and when on leave wore such medal-ribbons as he thought should have been issued to him—from the V.C. down; so that when he died, and his relatives asked why those medals had not been sent them, there was a great deal of trouble. Professionally, he was a “dirty” soldier, but this was understood and allowed for. He regarded authority rather as an impertinence to be blandly set aside than to be argued or brawled with; and he revolved in his remote and unquestioned orbits, brooding, crowing, drumming, and morosely sipping his tea, something between a poacher, a horse-coper, a gipsy, and a bird-catcher, but always the philosopher and man of many queer worlds. His one defect was that, though difficult to coax on to the stage, once there and well set before an appreciative audience, little less than military force could haul “Cock” Byrne off it.
They celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on the 14th March instead of the 17th, which was fixed as their date for removal; and they wound up the big St. Patrick dinners, and the Gaelic Football Inter-company Competition (a fearsome game), with a sing-song round a bonfire in the open. Not one man in six of that merry assembly is now alive.
They marched out of Calais early on the 17th March, through Cassel, and Major the Hon. A. C. S. Chichester joined on transfer from the 1st Battalion as Second-in Command. Poperinghe was reached on the afternoon of the 18th, a sixteen-mile march in suddenly warm weather, but nobody fell out. The town, crowded with troops, transport, and traffic of every conceivable sort, both smelt and looked unpleasant. It was bombed fairly regularly by enemy planes, so windows had long since ceased to be glazed; and at uncertain intervals a specially noxious gun, known as “Silent Susy,” sent into its populated streets slim shells that arrived unfairly before the noise of their passage. But neither bombs nor shells interfered with the cinemas, the “music hall,” the Y.M.C.A. or other diversions, for every one in “Pop” was ipso facto either going into the Salient or coming out, and in both cases needed the distraction of the words and pictures of civilised life. They lay there for a few days, and on the 26th March about midnight, in a great quiet, they entered Ypres, having entrained, also with no noise whatever, from Poperinghe. The Diary, rarely moved to eloquence, sets down: “It was an impressive sight not to be forgotten by those who were present, as we threaded our way through the wrecked and shattered houses. Those of the Battalion who knew it before had not seen it since the dark days of November ’14, when with the 1st Battalion they played their part in the glorious First Battle of Ypres, a fight never to be forgotten in the annals of the Irish Guards.”
The impression on the new hands, that is, the majority of men and officers, struck in and stayed for years after. Some compared their stealthy entry to tip-toeing into the very Cathedral of Death itself; and declared that heads bowed a little and shoulders hunched, as in expectation of some stroke upon the instant. Also that, mingled with this emotion, was intense curiosity to know what the place might look like by day. (“And God knows Ypres was no treat to behold, then or after—day or night. The way most of us took it, was we felt ’twas The Fear itself—the same as meeting up with the Devil. I do not remember if ’twas moonlight or dark when we came in that first time. Dark it must have been though, or we felt it was, and there was a lot of doings going on in that darkness, such as Military Police, and men whispering where we was to go, and stretchers, and parties carrying things in the dark, in and out where the houses had fallen by lumps. And there was little blue lights showing here and there and around, and the whole stink of the Salient, blowing back and forth upon us, the way we’d get it up our noses for ever. Yes—and there was transport on the pavé, wheels going dam’ quick and trying, at the same time, not to make a noise, if ye understand.
“And I remember, too, voices out of holes low down betwixt the rubbish-heaps. They would be the troops in cellars over against the Cloth Hall, I expect. And ye could hear our men breathing at the halts, and the kit squeaking on their backs, and we marching the way we was striving not to break eggs. I know I was.”)
At the time no one seemed to have noticed the peculiarity of the Salient, which, like Verdun, appears at night surrounded by a ring of searchlights and artillery; so that on going forward one feels as though one were altogether cut off from the rest of the front, a target open to every fire.
They were welcomed on the morning of the 27th March by three shells well and truly placed, one after the other, in the courtyard of the Convent where Battalion H.Q. stood. Six N.C.O.’s and men were wounded, of whom Sergeant McGuinn died a few hours later. This was the prelude to a night-long bombardment from a battery evidently told off for the job, which opening at eleven kept it up till ten of the morning of the 28th, when it ceased, and the remainder of the day was quiet. One must remember that the enemy used Ypres through the years as their gunnery school officers’ training-ground.
The 29th March was also a quiet day for the Battalion. There was, naturally, no walking about, or any distraction from the wonder where the next blast of fire would choose to fall, a sensation of helplessness which is not good for the nerves. They were the right Reserve Battalion of the Right Brigade, which, elsewhere, would have been equivalent to being in the front line, but Ypres had its own scale of sufferings. They worked quietly on repairs from dusk till the first light of dawn in their trenches beyond the Canal. From daylight to dusk again they lay up in dug-outs for the most part, and all fires that showed smoke were forbidden. But a race accustomed to peat can miraculously make hot tea over a few fragments of ammunition-boxes or a fistful of stolen coke, even in the inner bowels of a sealed dugout. Any signs of life were punished by visits from observation-planes or a shelling from one flank or the other; for the enemy commanded practically all their trenches, and this implied a constant building and repair of traverses and blindages. It took them three hours to relieve the 1st Coldstream in the front line on the night of the 30th March, and during relief the reserve trench which was being taken over by No. 4 Company under Captain Eric Greer (he had reverted to Company Officer on Major Chichester’s arrival as Second-in-Command) was shelled and badly knocked about. There were only eight men wounded, however, and the company was “perfectly cool throughout.” (“When you know ye may be for it every minute, you can not be more frightened than frightened. The same as getting drunk, I think. After a while-dead-drunk ye get, and dead-drunk ye stay. Ah, but they was genteel trenches and pleasant-spoken Jerries down at Laventie where we’d come from, in front of Red House and all!”)
The last day of March brought them for one breathless half-hour the heaviest shelling they had yet undergone; but it ended, as so many such outbursts did, in nothing but a few slight wounds, and a searching of the Menin road by night with big stuff that roared and rattled on what remained of the tortured stones. One could always know when Ypres city had been shelled afresh, by the pools of blood on the pavé in the raw morning or some yet undisposed-of horse which told that the night-hawking processions of the transport had caught it once again. Their daily lives in the front and reserve line were dark, confined, and unsavoury. One officer was ill-advised enough to pry into the vitals of his dug-out. (“When I arrived, it did not look so bad, as the floor was covered with sand-bags as usual.”) A strong-stomached orderly turned in to remove a few. He found no less than six layers of them, progressively decaying; then floor-boards of a fabulous antiquity, and last the original slime of ’14’s corruption. It was neglectful, but men who may be blown out of this life any hour of the twenty-four do not devote themselves to the continuities of house-cleaning.
In Ypres city that spring not one single building was habitable, though many of them still retained the shapes of human dwellings. The Battalion messes were all underground in cellars, a couple of which, with a hole knocked through the dividing walls, make a good anteroom; but their sole light came from a small window which also gave passage to the stove-pipe. A tired man could doze down there, in gross fuggy warmth and a brooding stillness broken only by the footsteps of small parties moving without ostentation till the triple whistle of the aeroplane-watchers sent feet scurrying loudly to cover.
Those who have known of both terrains say Verdun Salient, by reason of its size, contours, and elevation was less of a permanent tax on the morale than the flatness and confinement of Ypres. One could breathe in certain spots round Verdun; look out over large horizons from others; and solid, bold features of landscape interposed between oneself and the enemy. The thickness and depth, too, of all France lay behind for support. In the Salient it was so short a distance from Calais or Boulogne that one could almost hear the Channel threatening at one’s back, and wherever wearied eyes turned, forwards or flankwise, the view was closed by low, sullen rises or swells of ground, held and used in comfort and at leisure by an established enemy.
They reckoned time in the trenches by the amount of shelling that fell to their share. A mere passage of big stuff overhead seeking its butts in the town did not count any more than excited local attacks to left or right of the immediate sector; and two or three men wounded by splinters and odds-and-ends would not spoil the record of “a quiet day.” Occasionally, as the tides and local currents of attack shifted, our guns behind them would wake up to retaliation or direct punishment. Sometimes the enemy’s answer would be immediate; sometimes he accepted the lashing in silence till nightfall, and then the shapeless town would cower and slide still lower into its mounds and rubbish-heaps. Most usually a blow on one side or the other would be countered, it seemed to the listeners in the trenches between, exactly as in the prize-ring. But the combatants were heavy-, middle-, and light-weight guns, and in place of the thump of body blows, the jar and snap of jabs and half-hooks, or the patter of foot-work on the boards, one heard the ponderous Jack Johnsons arrive, followed by the crump of the howitzers, and then the in-and-out work of field artillery quickening to a clinch, till one side or the other broke away and the silence returned full of menaces of what would happen next time “if you hit my little brother again.” A local and concentrated shelling of the Battalion’s second line one day, which might have developed bloodily, was damped down in three minutes, thanks to a telephone and guns that worked almost simultaneously. Nobody but themselves noticed it in the big arena.
Suddenly on the morning of the 9th April (it was due, perhaps, to some change of troops on the front) the enemy snipers and machine-guns woke up; and Lieutenant Kinahan, a keen, well-trusted, and hard-working officer, was shot through the head by a sniper, and died at once. By next day, Captain Greer of No. 4 Company had the pleasure to report that his C.S.M.’s little party of snipers had “accounted” for the killer. Sniping on that front just then was of a high order, for the local enemy had both enterprise and skill, with rifle and bomb.
Their trenches were a little below the average of those parts, that is to say, almost impossible. A consoling local legend had it, indeed, that they were so vile that a conference of generals had decided to abandon them, but that, hearing the Guards Division were under orders for the Salient, forebore, saying: “We’ll put the Guards in ’em and if they can’t make ’em decent we’ll give ’em away to Jerry.” And in addition to repairs and drainage (“County Council work,” as one sufferer called it) there were the regular fatigues which, as has been pointed out many times, more than any battle break down and tire the body and soul of the soldier. Here is one incidental, small job, handed out as all in a night’s work. The officer speaks. “It was particularly beastly. We were supposed to make a dummy machine-gun emplacement for the enemy to shell. I took forty men to meet the R.E. officer at a pleasant little rendezvous ‘two hundred yards north-west from Hell Fire Corner.’ Of course, we were sent to the wrong place to look for that Sapper; and, of course, the Boche was shelling the road on both sides of us. That was about half-past nine. Then we drew our stuff to carry up. There were two sheets of iron, each 12 by 6, and any quantity of sand-bags, shovels, and timber. We had to travel a mile and a half by road, then up a communication-trench, and then a few hundred yards across the open. That was all. Well, it took four men to carry each of those cursed pieces of iron on the level, open road. You couldn’t get ’em up a trench at all. But we hung on to ’em, and about one o’clock we had covered the road-bit of the journey and were half-way from the road to the place where we had to build our blasted dummy. Then we got on to ground absolutely chewed up by shell-holes and old trenches. You couldn’t go a foot without falling. When we’d struggled a bit longer with those sheets, we simply had to chuck ’em as unshiftable; and make the best dummy we could of sand-bags only. Imagine two parties of four tottering Micks apiece trying to sweat those tin atrocities across that sort of country l And then, of course, a mist got up and we were lost in the open—lovely!—and our guide, who swore he knew the way, began to lead us round in circles. The R.E. and I spotted what he was doing, because we kept an eye the stars when we could see ’em. So, after any amount of bother, we all got home. There were bullets flying about occasionally (that’s part of the job), and we ran into some shelling on our way back at four in the morning when the Huns could see. But what I mean to say is that if it hadn’t been for those two dam’ sheets which weren’t really needed at all, a dozen men could have done the whole business straight off. And that was just one small fatigue!”
Nothing of all this worried the morale of the men. They took it all as a part of the inexplicable wonder of war, which orders that the soldier shall do what he is told, and shall stay where he may be put.
A platoon was being inspected that month in Ypres. Suddenly shelling opened some distance off, at first, but methodically drawing nearer to dredge the town, till at last the shrapnel burst almost directly overhead. The men stood rigidly to attention without moving a muscle, till the officer gave them orders to take cover. Then they disappeared into the nearest cellar. Later on, it occurred to the officer that the incident “though commonplace was not without its interesting aspect.”
They lay at Poperinghe in divisional rest from the 13th till the 19th April, during which time Lieutenant Nutting, and 2nd Lieutenant Reford from the 11th Notts and Derby Regiment, joined for duty. Thence they shifted over to camp near Vlamertinghe in Brigade Reserve as left Battalion of the left Brigade.
On the 21st April Lieutenant R. McNeill joined, and on the 24th they went into the line to relieve the 1st Coldstream in the left sector—as unpleasing a piece of filth as even the Salient could furnish. Five days before their entry it had been raided and blown in, till it was one muddled muck-heap of wreckage and corpses. Front-line repairs, urgently needed, could only be effected in the dark; traffic- and communication-trenches had to be spasmodically cleaned out between “crumps,” and any serious attack on them during their first turn would have meant ruin.
The enemy tried a bombing raid on the night of the 28th-29th, which was beaten off, without casualty, by our bombs, rifles, and machine-guns. Nothing worse overtook them, and the bill for their five days’ turn was one man killed and ten wounded, of whom three did not quit duty. But the mere strain was poisonous heavy. They handed over thankfully to their opposite number, the Coldstream, on the 29th, and lay up in Ypres Gaol. “The prison is a fine example of the resistance to shellfire of brick walls if they are thick enough.” Verdun forts, at the far end of the line, were learning by now that the best and thickest stone-facings fly and flake beneath the jar of the huge shell that the enemy used against them, while ancient and unconsidered brickwork over deep earth cores, though it collapses into lumps hardly distinguishable from mould, yet gives protection to the men in the galleries beneath.
May-Day at Ypres opened with “a good exhibition” of German shooting. The enemy spent the whole day shelling the water-tower—a metal tank on a brick pedestal—close to the prison. Every shell fell within fifty yards, till the sole object that escaped—for a while—was the tower itself. The “weather being hot and dry,” some of our officers thought good to bathe in the Canal, but, not being water-towers, found it better to come out before a flight of “crumps” found them. Looking back upon this, one of the bathers counted that bath as his own high-water mark of heroism. (“There were things in the Canal, you know.”)
They went up on the 2nd May, relieving the Coldstream in the same evil sector, and the enemy machine-guns filling the dark with bullets as effectively as and more cheaply than artillery, killed one of our corporals and wounded a couple of the Coldstream. A hint of the various companies’ works shows what they had to contend with nightly. No. 2, which held the right front line “where enough of the trench had been already reclaimed to accommodate the whole company” (it was not superior accommodation), borrowed two platoons from No. 1 and worked till dawn at finishing a traffic-trench behind the blown-in front and at making parapets till “by morning it was possible to get all along this trench, even with a good deal of crawling.” No. 4 were out wiring a post against flank and rear attack. It stood out in a wilderness of utterly smashed trenches, which fatigue parties from the reserve battalions dealt with, by the help and advice of the Sappers, and constructed a new trench (Wieltje Trench) running out on the left flank of the weak and unsupported Wieltje salient. Here was another desert of broken trenches, linked by shallow or wet sketches of new ones. No. 3 Company worked at its own trench, and at the repair of Cardoen Street which “had recently been blown in in several places.” An improved trench could be walked along, without too much stooping. Unimproved dittoes demanded that men should get out and run in the open, steeple-chasing across wreckage of tinware and timber, the bramble-like embraces of stray wireends, and that brittle and insecure foothold afforded by a stale corpse, while low flights of machine-gun bullets hastened their progress, or shrapnel overhead hunted the party as hawks hunt small birds in and out of hedges. The labour was as monotonous and barren to perform as it seems to record; but it made the background of their lives and experiences. Some say that, whatever future war may bring forth, never again can men be brought to endure what armed mankind faced in the trenches in those years. Certain it is that men, nowadays, thinking upon that past, marvel to themselves that they could by any means have overcome it at the time, or, later, have put it behind them. But the wonder above all wonders is that, while they lived that life, it seemed to them sane and normal, and they met it with even temper and cool heads.
On the 3rd May, Major Chichester, who had been suffering for some time from the effects of a wound by a H.E. that burst within a few feet of him, had to go sick, and Captain E. B. Greer was left temporarily in command. Their own Commanding Officer, the Hon. L. J. P. Butler, who had come out with them at the first and taken all that the Gods had sent since, was on the 5th May translated to the command of a Kitchener Brigade. Here is a tribute of that time, from within the Battalion, where they were not at all pleased by the calls of the New Army for seasoned brigadiers. “Butler, more than any other man, has made this Battalion what it is. Also we all love him. However, I am glad he has got a less dangerous job. He is too brave a man ever to be safe.”
On that same day they were relieved and went into one of the scattered wooden camps near Brandhoek for a whole week, which was spoiled by cold weather and classes in wiring under an R.E. corporal attached to them for that purpose. (“We were not clever with our hands at first go-off, but when it came to back-chat and remarks on things, and no officers near, begad there was times when I could have pitied a Sapper!”)
By the 12th May the Battalion was in reserve, their Brigade in the line, Major P. L. Reid had assumed command and Lieutenant F. Pym and 2nd Lieutenants A. Pym and Close had joined. Then they began again to consider raids of a new pattern under much more difficult conditions than their Laventie affairs. The 2nd Grenadiers and the 1st Coldstream were to do the reconnoitring for them, and “live Germans were badly needed for purposes of intelligence.” The authorities recommended, once more, two simultaneous raids symmetrically one from each flank. Their C.O. replied, as at Laventie, that live Germans meant stalking, and wished to know how it was possible to stalk to a timetable, even had the ground been well reconnoitred, and if several nights instead of one, and that a relief-night, had been allowed for preparations. Neither of the raids actually came off, but the projected one on the left flank ended in a most typical and instructive game of blindman’s buff. The idea was to rush a German listening-post known to be held just north of the railway line on the left of Railway Wood, and the point of departure for the Coldstream reconnoitring patrol had been from a listening-post of our own, also on the railway. The patrol’s report was perfectly coherent. They had left our listening-post, gone up the railway line, turned half right, crawled fifty yards, found German wire, worked along it, discovered a listening-post “empty but obviously in recent use,” had hurried back, recrossed the railway about a hundred yards above our own listening-post, and fifty yards to the north of their crossing had noted the outline of another German listening-post where men were talking. (It is interesting to remember that the entire stage of these tense dramas could almost be reconstructed in a fair-sized garden.) This latter, then, was the post which the Battalion was to attack. Accordingly, they rehearsed the play very carefully with ten men under Lieutenant F. Pym, who had strict orders when they should rush the post, to club the Germans, “trying not to kill them (or one another).” They were to “collar a prisoner and hurry him back if well enough to walk,” and, incidentally, as illustrating the fashion of the moment, they were all to wear “brown veils.”
With these stage-directions clear in their mind, they went into the line on the 16th May, after a quiet relief, and took over from the Coldstream the sector from Railway Wood, the barricades across the railway, the big dug-out which had been an old mine, under Railway Wood, and disposed their reserves near Hell Fire Corner and the Menin road. It was ground they knew and hated, but since they had last eaten dirt there, our own listening-post, which had been the point of departure for the Coldstream patrol, on whose reports the raid would be based, had been withdrawn one hundred and fifty yards down the railway line. Apparently no one had realised this, and the captain (Platt) of the Coldstream Company, who had this sector when the 2nd Irish Guards relieved, had been killed while out wiring a couple of nights before. Consequently, that patrol had reconnoitred inside our own front; had mistaken our own wire for the German, had followed it to one of our own disused posts, and had seen and heard a listening-post of the 2nd Grenadiers which they, quite logically, assumed to be German and reported as such. Everything fitted in like a jigsaw puzzle, but all was based on a line which had been shifted—as the Battalion perceived the moment they took over the sector. So there was no attack with clubs and brown veils by the 2nd Irish Guards on the 2nd Grenadiers’ listening-post then, or afterwards, and the moral of the story was “verify your data.” (“No living man could tell from one day to the next—let alone nights—which was our line and which was Jerry’s. ’Twas broke an’ gapped and turned round every way, and each battalion had its own fancy-trenches dug for to make it worse for the next that took over. The miracle was—an’ how often have I seen it!—the miracle was that we did not club each other in the dark every night instead of—instead of when we did.”)
The Battalion went on, sadly, with its lawful enterprises of running wire and trench from the high ground under Railway Wood toward the shifted barricade on the railway itself; and digging saps to unstable mine-craters that had, some way or other, to be worked into their ever-shifting schemes of defence. All this under machine-gun fire on bright nights, when, as the cruel moon worked behind them, each head showing above ground-level was etched in black for the snipers’ benefit. On their right flank, between their own division and the Canadians, lay a gap of a quarter of a mile or so, which up till then had been imperfectly looked after by alternate hourly patrols. (“And in the intervals, any Germans who knew the way might have walked into Ypres in quest of souvenirs.”) It had to be wired and posted, and, at the same time, a huge, but for the moment dry, mine-crater directly in front of the right company’s shattered trench, needed linking up and connecting with another crater on the left. Many dead men lay in the line of that sap, where, at intervals, enemy rifle-grenades would lob in among the sickened workers. The moonlight made the Germans active as rats every night, and, since it was impossible to wire the far sides of the craters in peace, our people hit upon the idea of pushing “knife-rests”-ready wired trestles out in the desired direction with poles, after dark. Be it noted, “This is a way, too much neglected, of wiring dangerous places. Every description of ‘puzzy-wuzzy’ can be made by day by the eight company wirers, and pushed out. Then on the first dark night, a few metal pegs and a strand or two of wire passed through the whole thing, makes an entanglement that would entangle a train.” (The language and emotions of the fatigue-parties who sweated up the unhandy “knife-rests” are not told.) Half the Battalion were used to supply the wants of the other half; for rations and water could only creep to within a couple of hundred yards of Hell Fire Corner, where the parties had to meet them and pack them the rest of the way by hand. The work of staggering and crawling, loaded with sharp-angled petrol-tins of water along imperfect duck-boards, is perhaps a memory which will outlast all others for the present generation. “The fatigues kill—the fatigues kill us”—as the living and the dead knew well.
On the 18th May they were drenched with a five hours’ bombardment of 4.2’s and “woolly bears.” It blew in one of their trenches (West Lane) and killed two men and wounded an officer of the Trench Mortar Battery there. But the height of the storm fell, as usual, round Hell Fire Corner, never a frequented thoroughfare by daylight, and into an abandoned trench. “They could hardly have put down so much shell anywhere else in our line and have got so small a bag. Only one man in the company was wounded.” The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but a battalion that works strenuously on its parapets and traffic-trenches gets its reward, even in the Salient in ’16. Battalion Headquarters, always fair target for a jest, is derided as taking “a severe fright from a shell that pitched twenty yards away, but it was an obvious error in bowling, and was not repeated.” Our guns fired throughout the next day, presumably in retaliation, but, like all troops in trenches, the Battalion had no interest in demonstrations that did not directly affect their food and precious water-tins. They were relieved on the 21st of May by the 6th Oxford and Bucks of the Twentieth Division, and went off to camp near Proven for ten days’ Corps Reserve, when “almost the entire Battalion was on fatigue, either building military railways or cleaning up reserve-lines of trenches.”
On the 1st June they moved out of that front altogether, to billets at the back of Wormhoudt fourteen miles away, and thence on the next day, June 2, to Bollezeele westward, while the enemy were making their successful attack on the Canadians at Hooge. (“Have ye noticed there is always trouble as soon as you come out of the line; or, maybe, being idle you pay the more attention to it. Annyway, the minute we was out of it, of course Jerry begins to play up and so Hooge happened, and that meant more fatigue for the Micks.”) Meantime, they were in “G.H.Q. Reserve” for a fortnight, busy on a rehearsal-line of English and German trenches which the R.E. had laid down for them to develop. Our G.H.Q. were thinking of the approaching campaign on the Somme. The enemy were intent on disarranging our plans just as our guns were moving southward. Hooge was their spoke in our wheel. It came not far short of success; for it pinned a quantity of shellable troops to weak ground, directly cost the lives of several thousands of them and added a fresh sore to the Salient’s many weaknesses in that it opened a fortnight’s fierce fighting, with consequent waste, as well as diversion, of supplies. While that battle, barren as the ground it won and lost, surged back and forth, the Battalion at Bollezeele gained a glory it really appreciated by beating the 3rd Grenadiers in the ring, six fights out of nine, at all, weights. Specially they defeated Ian Hague (late heavy-weight champion of England) whom Corporal Smith of the Battalion settled “on points.” There would be time and, perhaps, warning to attend to Death when He called. Till then, young and active life was uppermost, and had to be catered for. Indeed, their brigadier remarked of the social side of that boxing entertainment that “it reminded him of Ascot.”
But at the back of everything, and pouring in hourly by official or unofficial word, was the news of the changing fortunes of Hooge. Would that postpone or advance the date of the “spring meeting,” not in the least like Ascot, that they had discussed so long? Whichever way war might go, the Guards would not be left idle.
On the evening of the 13th June the order came “telling us that we would move up next day to Hooge and take over a section of the line from a Canadian brigade.” They went off in motor lorries, and by the evening of the 15th the Battalion was once more in the packed Infantry Barracks of Ypres where the Canadian officers made Battalion Headquarters their guests till things could be sorted out. Our counterattack of the 13th June had more or less come to rest, leaving the wrecked plinths of the houses of Hooge, and but very little more, in the enemy’s hands, and both sides were living on the last edge of their nerves. Proof of this came on the night of the 16th, when the Battalion in barracks was waiting its turn. An SOS. went up in the dark from somewhere north of the Menin road, that stony-hearted step-mother of calamity; some guns responded and, all in one instant, both sides’ artillery fell to it full-tongued, while “to make everything complete a gas-signal was given by one of our battalions. A terrific bombardment ensued. Later in the night, the performance was repeated, less the gas-alarm.”
The explanation was as simple as human nature. Both sides had taken bad knocks in the past fortnight. Both artilleries, largely increased, were standing by ready for trouble, and what else could one expect—save a detonation? But local rumour ran that the whole Gehenna had been started by one stray ration-party which, all communication-trenches being blown in, was toiling to the front line in the open and showed against the sky-line—quite enough, at that tension, to convince the enemy that it was the head of a fresh infantry attack. The rest came of itself: but the gas-alarm was the invention of the Devil himself. It upset the dignity of all the staffs concerned, for the Brigadier himself, the H.Q. Staff of the Coldstream as well as the C.O. and company officers of the 2nd Irish Guards who were visiting preparatory to taking over the sector, found themselves in one tiny room beneath a brick-kiln, all putting on their helmets at once, and, thereafter, all trying to explain their views of the crisis through them. Some have since compared that symposium to a mass-meeting of unemployed divers; others to a troupe of performing seals.
They relieved the 1st Coldstream, very quietly, on the night of the 18th June in an all but obliterated section of what had been the Canadians’ second line and was now our first, running from the Culvert, on the Menin road, west of Hooge, through Zouave Wood, and into the north end of Sanctuary Wood. Four to eight hundred yards lay between them and the enemy, who were settling down in the old Canadian front line across the little swampy valley. The left of the Irish Guards’ sector was, even after the Coldstream had worked on it for three days, without dug-outs, and blown in in places, but it offered a little cover. Their right line, for nearly half a mile, was absolutely unrecognizable save in a few isolated spots. The shredded ground was full of buried iron and timber which made digging very difficult, and, in spite of a lot of cleaning up by their predecessors, dead Canadians lay in every corner. It ran through what had once been a wood, and was now a dreary collection of charred and splintered stakes, “to the tops of which, blown there by shells, hung tatters of khaki uniform and equipment.” There was no trace of any communication-trenches, so companies had to stay where they were as long as the light lasted. Battalion H.Q. lived in the brick-kiln aforementioned, just west of the Zillebeke road, and company commanders walked about in the dark from one inhabited stretch to the next, trusting in Providence. So, too, did the enemy, whom Captain Alexander found, to the number of six, ambling promiscuously in the direction of Ypres. They challenged, he fired, and they blundered off—probably a lost wiring-party. In truth, neither front line knew exactly where the other lay in that chaos; and, both being intent upon digging themselves in ere the guns should begin again, were glad enough to keep still. Our observation-parties watched the Germans as they crept over the ridge at dusk and dropped into the old Canadian line, where their policies could be guessed at from the nature of the noises they made at work; but no one worried them.
On the 20th June an unlucky shell pitched into No. 1 Company, killing three, wounding two, and shocking five men; otherwise there was quiet, and their brigadier came round the support-trenches that day and complimented all hands on their honesty as craftsmen. As he said, it would have been easy for them to have slacked off on their last night in a position to which they were not returning, whereas they had worked like beavers, and so the battalion which relieved them (the Royal Canadian Regiment resting at Steenvoorde since Hooge where it had lost three hundred men) found good cover and fair wire all along the sector. The Canadians were late, for their motor buses went adrift somewhere down the road, and the Battalion only “just caught the last train” out of Ypres and reached camp near Vlamertinghe at dawn on the 21st June.
It had been a strange interlude of ash-pits and charnel-houses, sandwiched between open-air preparations, for that always postponed “spring meeting.” No troops are the better for lying out, unrelieved by active reprisals, among shrivelled dead; and even the men, who love not parades, were pleased at a few days of steady barrack-square drill, when a human being walks and comports himself as though he were a man, and not a worm in the mire or a slave bound to bitter burdens and obscene tasks. At Vlamertinghe they found, and were glad to see him, Captain FitzGerald, recovered after three weeks’ sickness in England, and joyfully back before his time; and Lieutenant R. McNeill, who had acted as Adjutant, returned to the command of No. 2 Company in the absence of Captain Bird, gone sick. They were busied at Battalion H.Q. with the preparation of another raid to be carried out on the night of the 2nd July “as part of the demonstration intended to occupy the attention of the Germans in this locality while more important events were happening elsewhere.” Lieutenant F. Pym, a bold, daring, and collected officer, was chosen to command the little action, and each company sent up eight volunteers and one sergeant, from whom thirty men and one sergeant were finally picked and set to rehearsing every detail.
On the 28th June they moved up to within four miles of the front and lay at Elverdinghe—two companies and Battalion H.Q. in the Château itself, where they were singularly comfortable, and two in the canal bank, in brick and sand-bag dug-outs. It was true that all furniture and pictures had gone from the Château with the window-glass, and that swallows nested in the cornices of the high, stale-smelling rooms, but the building itself, probably because some trees around blocked direct observation, was little changed, and still counted as one of the best places in the line for Brigade reserves. Their trenches, however, across the battered canal presented less charm. The front line was “dry on the whole,” but shallow; the support quite good, but the communication-trenches (it was the Battalion’s first experience of Skipton Road) were variously wet, blown in, swamped, or frankly flooded with three feet of water. Broken trenches mean broken companies and more work for company commanders, but some of the platoons had to be scattered about in “grouse butts” and little trenches of their own, a disposition which tempts men to lie snug, and not to hear orders at the first call.
All through the 1st of July our guns bombarded their chosen front with the object of cutting, not too ostentatiously, the wire where our raid was going to take place, and of preparing the way on the right for an attack by the 3rd Guards Brigade on a small German salient that had to be reduced. The enemy answered with a new type of trench-mortar shell, nine inches in diameter, fired from a rifled mortar of high trajectory at a thousand yards’ range. The shock and smash of it were worse than a 5.9, and did much damage to Nile Trench, but caused no casualties. The 2nd July was the day for the raid itself, and just as Battalion Headquarters were discussing the very last details, an urgent message from Brigade Headquarters came in to them—“Please hasten your report on pork and bean rations.”
The notion was that our 18-pounders and 4.5 hows. with a couple of trench-mortars, would open heavily at twenty minutes to ten. Ten minutes later, the Stokes mortars were to join in. At ten the guns would lift and make a barrage while the Stokes mortars attended to the flanks of the attack. It was a clear evening, so light, indeed, that at the last minute the men were told to keep their jackets on lest their shirts should betray them. (It was then, men said later, that the raid should have been postponed.) Everything was quite quiet, and hardly a shot was being fired anywhere, when the party lined up under Lieutenant F. Pym. Our bombardment opened punctually, but drew no answer from the enemy for ten minutes. Then they put down a barrage behind our front line, which was the origin of all the trouble to come. At the last minute, one single unrelated private, appearing from nowhere in particular, was seen to push his way down the trench, climbing over the raiders where they crouched waiting for the life-or-death word. Said an officer, who assumed that at the least he must bear vital messages: “Who are you?” “R.F.A. trench-mortar man, sir,” was the reply. Then, “Where the devil are you going?”—”Going to get my tea, sir.” He passed on, mess-tin in hand, noticing nothing that was outside of his own immediate show; for of such, mercifully, were the armies of England.
Meantime the enemy barrage increased on Nile Trench, and the front trenches began to gap badly. There was still light enough to give a good view of the German parapets when our raiders went over the top, and several machine-guns opened on them from the enemy second line. This was a bad kick-off, for, with our leading raiders out in the open, it would have been murder to have held the rest back. They all went on into the barrage and the machine-gun fire, and from that point the account of what actually, or supposedly, happened must, as usual, be collected from survivors. The whole attack seems to have reached the German wire which was “well cut in places.” Here our men were checked by machine-gun fire (they probably ran up to the muzzles of them) and some bombing. They stopped and began to bomb back. Pym rushed forward through the leading men, jumped into the trench, landed in an empty German bay, shouting to them to follow, turned left with a few men, reached the door of a machine-gun dug-out with its gun in full blast, broke in, found two men at work, knocked one of them off the gun and, with the help of Private Walshe, made him prisoner. Our bombers, meantime, had spread left and right, as laid down, to hold each end of the captured section, but had further to block a communicationtrench which entered it about the middle, where the enemy was trying to force his way in. It is difficult to say whether there was not an attack on both flanks as well. At any rate, a general bomb-scuffle followed, in which our men held up the enemy and tried to collect prisoners. The captured section of trench only contained one dead and five living. One of these “proved unmanageable and had to be killed.” Four were hurried back under escort for samples, but two of these were killed by their own shell-fire on the road. The R.E. officer looked round, as his duty was, to find things to demolish, but the trench was clean and empty. He was hit twice, but managed to get back. Three gas-experts had also been attached to the expedition. Two of them were wounded on the outward run. The third searched the trench but found no trace of gas engines. Some papers and documents were snatched up from the dug-outs, but he who took charge of them did not live to hand over. The barrage grew heavier; the machine-gun fire from the enemy second line never ceased; and the raiders could see the home-parapet going up in lumps. It was an exquisitely balanced choice of evils when, at about ten past ten, Lieutenant Pym blew his horn for the withdrawal. A minute or two later, men began to trickle over our parapet through the barrage, and here the bulk of the casualties occurred. Our guns ceased fire at twenty past ten, but the enemy battered savagely at our front line with heavies and trench-mortars till eleven. The result was that “the front line, never very good, became chaotic, and the wounded had to be collected in undamaged bays.” It was hopeless to attempt to call the roll there, so what raiders could stand, with the two surviving prisoners, were sent up to Brigade Headquarters while the wounded were got across the open to Lancashire Farm and the trolley-line there. Pym was nowhere to be found, and though some men said, and honestly believed, that they had seen him re-enter our lines, he was not of the breed which would have done this till he had seen the last of his command out of the German trenches. He may have got as far as the German wire on his way back and there, or in that neighbourhood, have been killed; but he was never in our trench again after he left it. Others, too, of that luckless party bore themselves not without credit. For example, a signaller, name not recorded, who laid his telephone wire up to the trench across No Man’s Land and had it cut by a shell while he was seeking for Lieutenant Pym. On his return he came across a man shot in the legs, and bore him, under heavy shell and machine-gun fire, to our wire which was not constructed for helpless wounded to get through. The signaller dropped into the trench, calling on Sergeant O’Hagan, a busy man that night, for stretcher-bearers, but these had all been hit. The Sergeant suggested that he should telephone to Battalion Headquarters and draw some from there. The telephonist—perhaps because a doctor rarely uses his own drugs—preferred to put the case directly to a couple of men in No. 2 Company, at the same time indicating the position of the wounded man, and those three handed him down into the very moderate safety that our front line then offered. And again, when Sergeant Austen, the sergeant of the raid, was hit and fell in German wire, one of the raiders stayed with him awhile, and finally dragged him to our line, with the usual demand for bearers. This time they were all busy, but he found Lieutenant F. Greer and that officer’s servant, whom he had led forth, and “in spite of heavy machine-gun fire,” they brought in the Sergeant. Unluckily, just at the end of the German bombardment, Lieutenant Synge was very badly hit while in the front line. The raid had been a fair, flat, but heroic failure, due, as most men said, to its being loosed in broad daylight at a fully prepared enemy. Outside the two prisoners, nothing, not even a scrap of paper, was gained except the knowledge that the Battalion could handle such affairs as these in their day’s work, put it all equably behind them, and draw fresh lessons for fresh to-morrows. (“We lost one dam’ good officer, and more good men than was worth a thousand Jerries, but, mark you, we might have lost just that same number any morning in the front line, as we have lost them again and again, under the expenditure of half a dozen, maybe one, shell the devil happened to be riding that time. And them that it took would never have had even the exercise, let alone the glory, of all them great doings of ours. So, ye see, everything in war is good luck or bad.”)
Their brigadier had a little talk with the raiding-party next day on the Canal Bank, when he made much of them, and told them that he was very pleased with “their gallant behaviour under adverse circumstances.” It was gratifying, because they had done all that they could. But after every raid, as indeed after every action, there follows interminable discussion from every point of view of every rank, as to the “might-have-beens”—what would have happened had you been there, or they been here, and whether the bay where the raid wrecked itself against the barricade none suspected might have been turned by a dash across the top, in the pauses of the shifting and returning overhead machine-gun fire. The messes discuss it, the estimates where the men talk pick up those verdicts from the messwaiters and go over them again and again; the front line scratches diagrams on the flank of sand-bags with bits of burned stick, and the more they explain, argue, and asseverate, the deeper grows the confusion out of which the historian in due time weaves the accepted version—at which all who were concerned scoff.
The 4th July was a quiet day after a bombardment the night before that had further enlarged the gap of untenable trench which the furious reprisals for the raid had created. They spent their hours repairing damage as much as possible till they were relieved by the 1st Coldstream, and a half of them got into billets at Elverdinghe Château, and the rest in Canal Bank. By this time the enemy had begun to turn their attention to the Château, in spite of its screening trees, and were in the habit of giving it a daily ration of whizz-bangs, which disturb drill-formations. Troops of the Division being fairly thick on the ground, one morning’s work (July 7) managed to wound two machine-gunners of the 1st Coldstream and another of the 1st Irish Guards.
On the 5th July Major C. A. Rocke arrived and took over the duties of Second in Command. On the 7th Captain R. McNeill left the Battalion sick, and Lieutenant R. Nutting took over command of No. 2 Company.
On the 8th they moved up to their old position, relieving the 1st Coldstream across the canal without casualties, three companies in the front line that had been a little repaired since their raid, and the fourth (No. 2) in support in Nile Trench. Three quiet days and nights followed, when they could work undisturbed. On the 11th July a happy party was chosen to attend the 14th July celebrations at Paris. The adjutant, Captain J. S. N. FitzGerald, commanded them, all six, and their names were: Drill-Sergeant Harradine, Sergeants Reid, Glennon, and Halpin, and Privates Towland and Dunne. Rumour, which respects naught, said that they were chosen with an eye to the credit of the Battalion at any inter-allied banquets that might be obligatory, and that they did not fail. On the 12th, after a quiet night, forty large-size shells were sent into Canal Bank, as retaliation, they presumed, for some attentions on the part of our 9.2’s, the afternoon before. The Battalion was unhurt, but the 1st Scots Guards had several casualties. Their tour ended next day without trouble, and they were back by Elverdinghe Château for two days’ light and mostly ineffective shelling preparatory to their move on the 15th July to Camp P. some three miles north of Poperinghe. During this time, 2nd Lieutenant Mylne arrived and was posted to No. 4 Company, and 2nd Lieutenants C. Hyne and Denson to No. 2 Company. Second Lieutenant Hordern also rejoined and was posted to No. 1. Every one understood, without too much being said, that that sector would see them no more till after the great “spring meeting,” now set for the autumn, which many believed would settle the war. It was a small interlude of “fattening up” before the Somme, which included Battalion sports and company-drill competitions. There was, too, a dinner on the anniversary of the raising of the Battalion, 16th of July, when General Ponsonby dined with the Battalion. (In those ancient days men expected everything in the world except its disbandment as soon as war should be over.)
On the 18th July Captain J. S. N. FitzGerald and his detachment returned from Paris after one joyous week, and took over the adjutancy again from the second in command; and Captain Greer, who had sprained his ankle badly during the raid, was sent down to the base for cure.
It is noted that on the 21st Captain Lord Castlerosse, wounded in the far-off days at Villers-Cotterêts with the 1st Battalion, joined the Battalion from G.S. Ninth Corps. The wild geese were being called in preparatory to their flight for the Somme.
It began in the usual way, by definite orders to relieve a battalion in the front line. These were countermanded next day and, the day after, changed to orders to move to Bollezeele, where on the 25th they “received a great welcome from the inhabitants,” doubtless for old sakes’ sake. Then came the joining up of the last subalterns, and three days’ steady route-marching to toughen tender feet. Lieutenant Montgomery rejoined, and was posted to No. 2 Company, and, with him, 2nd Lieutenant Budd; Lieutenant Brew, not without experience in raiding, also arrived and was posted to No. 4 Company. This finished the tale, and on the 29th, the last Sunday of the month, they cleared personal accounts at mass and Church of England services; and on the 30th marched out to Esquelbecq, where they entrained all together, with their first-line transport, and were shifted, via Hazebrouck, Berguette, and St. Pol, to Petit Houvain five miles south of the latter town, or, broadly speaking, from the left to the right of the British line. That small trip lasted till evening, after which they marched fourteen miles to Lucheux on the Grouches River above Doullens, into a new world of camps and hutments, at midnight. The Diary says—on such points diaries are always particular, because it touches the honour of company officers—“the Battalion marched splendidly, only six men having to be carried for the last few miles. These were mostly old or previously wounded men.” And the month of July ends with the words, “There is nothing to record.”
There was, perhaps, not so very much after all.
The battle of the Somme had been in full blaze now from Maricourt to Hébuterne and Gomiecourt, for one month; and after the expenditure of no one had time to count how many men, our front from Ovillers-la-Boisselle to Fricourt and below Montauban had been advanced in places to the depth of three miles on a front of ten. It was magnificent, for the whole of the Press said so; and it was also extensively advertised as war.
From Ovillers-la-Boisselle to the north the German line, thanks to its clouds of machine-guns, had not been shifted by our attack, and the Battalion came, for the time being, under the orders of the Twenty-fifth Division (7th Brigade) which lay against the southern shoulder of the Gomiecourt salient just where the sweeping bare uplands break back to the valley of the Authies. They were turned in to dig trenches on the sector, four or five miles from their bivouac in the little wood to the south of Mailly-Maillet. They left the crowded Lucheux camp in lorries at three on the afternoon of the 1st August (“In those days we knew we were for it, but we did not know what the Somme was going to be”), reached bivouac at eight, marched to their trenches and came back at daybreak with one N.C.O. and four men wounded. It was a most gentle introduction to the scenes of their labours. The enemy were using shrapnel mostly part of the 3rd August; 2nd Lieutenant Hordern was dangerously and eight men were slightly wounded by one shell while at work. Second Lieutenant Vaughan joined on this date and was posted to No. 2 Company. Whether, as some said, the authorities did not know what to do with them for a few days, or whether they were part of a definite scheme of attack, no one cared. The machine had taken possession of their lives and fates, and as they went from trench to bivouac and back again they could both see and hear how extremely little a battalion, or for that matter a brigade, mattered in the present inferno. The fortnight’s battle that had opened on the 14th of July had finished itself among erased villages and woods that were already all but stumpage, while the big guns were pounding the camps and bivouacs that held our reserves, and one stumbled on old and fresh dead in the most unlikely and absurd places.
On the 6th August their turn ended, and they came back, for a couple of days, to the 2nd Guards Brigade in the Bois du Warnimont hutments—none too good—outside Authie. Here His Majesty the King visited them on the 9th August, and, after three “quiet” days spent in reconnoitring the trenches in front of Mailly-Maillet and Auchonvillers, the Battalion on the 13th relieved the 1st Coldstream in the front line.
It was a featureless turn of duty, barring some minenwerfer work by the enemy once or twice in the dawns, which affected nothing.
They were relieved by a battalion of the K.O.Y.L.I. on the 15th, and hutted in the wood near Mailly-Maillet. Here began their more specialised training for the work that lay ahead of them. It included everything that modern warfare of that date could imagine, from following up drum-barrages at twenty-five yards’ distance, to the unlovely business of unloading ammunition at railheads.
Domestically, there were not many incidents. Captain E. B. Greer rejoined from the base on the 15th August. The Second in Command and the Adjutant went sick on the 18th and 19th respectively. (These ranks are not in the habit of noticing their personal complaints when regimental life is crowded. They were back in ten days.) Second Lieutenants Lysaght and Tomkins arrived from the base on the 30th, and 2nd Lieutenant Zigomala on the 31st August.
One little horror of a life where men had not far to look for such things stands out in the record of preparations that went on through the clangour and fury of the Somme around them. On a windy Sunday evening at Couin, in the valley north of Bus-les-Artois, they saw an observation-balloon, tethered near their bivouacs, break loose while being hauled down. It drifted towards the enemy line. First they watched maps and books being heaved overboard, then a man in a parachute jumping for his life, who landed safely. “Soon after, something black, which had been hanging below the basket, detached itself and fell some three thousand feet. We heard later that it was Captain Radford (Basil Hallam). His parachute apparently caught in the rigging and in some way he slipped out of the belt which attached him to it. He fell near Brigade Headquarters.” Of those who watched, there was not one that had not seen him at the “Halls” in the immensely remote days of “Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Nuts.”
Before the end of the month, they had shifted from their congested camp near Bus-les-Artois to Méricourt under Albert, which they reached circuitously by train, and there lay in Corps Reserve. The weather was against drills. It rained almost every day, and they slipped and swore through their rehearsals, wave-attacks, and barrage-huntings across the deepening mud.
On the 9th September, at Happy Valley, they had their first sight of the tanks, some thirty of which were parked, trumpeting and clanking, near their camp. At that date the creatures were known as “creepy-crawlies” or “hush-hush birds” and were not as useful as they learned to become later. Then came the Battalion’s last dispositions as to the reserve of officers, who were to be held till needed with the first-line transport. The C.O., Lieut.-Colonel Reid, was down in hospital with pukka trench-fever and a temperature to match, and Lieutenant Nutting, sick with dysentery, had to be sent to England. Lieutenant Dollar, who had rejoined a few days before on recovery of the same disease, Captain Greer, and Lieutenant Brew represented the Reserve, and even so (for the Somme was merciless throughout) Captain Witts, who had fallen ill at Carnoy, had to change places with Lieutenant Brew. Captain Alexander had rejoined the Battalion after two days’ (jealously noted as “three nights”) Paris leave.
The field-wastage began at once. They relieved the 4th Grenadiers on the evening of the 12th September in the new, poor, and shallow trenches dug a few days before, as our troops had worked their way into the German system, in the salient east of Ginchy; but ere that relief was completed, 2nd Lieutenant Zigomala and ten men had been wounded. Next day saw forty casualties from shrapnel and snipers, and 2nd Lieutenant Vaughan and several men in No. 1 Company were killed by a single shell. The enemy, well aware of what was intended, did all that they could to cripple, delay, and confuse, and waste the men and material on our side. Their chief reliance was their “pocketed” machine-guns with which the whole ground was peppered; and their gunners’ instructions, most gallantly obeyed, were, on the withdrawal of any force, to remain and continue killing till they themselves were killed. Consequently it was necessary at frequent intervals to hunt up these pests by hand rather as one digs out wasps’ nests after dark.
On the night of the 13th September, it fell to the lot of the Battalion to send out No. 2 Company upon a business of this nature—machine-guns in a strong trench on their right. After a bombardment supposed to have cut the wire, the company had to file across a stretch of the open Ginchy–Morval road, and there were enfiladed by machine-gun fire which killed 2nd Lieutenant Tomkins, who had joined less than a fortnight before, and wounded a good many of the men. This was while merely getting into position among the cramped trenches. Next, it was discovered that our bombardment had by no means cut enough wire, and when the attack was launched, in waves of two platoons each, undisturbed machine-guns in a few dreadful minutes accounted for more than three quarters of the little host. Almost at the outset, Lieutenant Montgomery was killed close to our own parapet, and those who were left, under 2nd Lieutenant Hely-Hutchinson, lay down till they might crawl back after dark. That wiped out No. 2 Company, and next day, its thirty survivors were sent back to the first-line transport—a bleak prelude to the battle ahead. But it passed almost unnoticed in the failure of an attack launched at the same time by the 71st and 16th Infantry Brigades in the direction of Leuze Wood. Names of villages and salient points existed beautifully on such maps as were issued to the officers, and there is no doubt that the distances on these maps were entirely correct. The drawback was that the whole landscape happened to be one pitted, clodded, brown and white wilderness of aching uniformity, on which to pick up any given detail was like identifying one plover’s nest in a hundred-acre bog.
But the idea of the battle of the 15th September was, as usual, immensely definite. Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was to attack between Combles and Martinpuich and seize Morval, Lesbœufs, Gueudecourt, and Flers; the French attacking at the same time on the right, and the Reserve Army on the left. Immediately after our objective had been won the cavalry would advance and, apparently, seize the high ground all round the Department, culminating at Bapaume. The work of the Guards Division, whose views of cavalry at that particular moment are not worth reproducing, was to support the cavalry “on the above lines.” The 2nd Guards Brigade would take the right of the attack on Lesbœufs; the 1st the left, with the 3rd Brigade in Reserve, and the 71st Infantry Brigade on the right of the 2nd Guards Brigade. The 3rd Grenadiers and 1st Coldstream were respectively right and left leading battalions, with the 1st Scots Guards and the 2nd Irish Guards as right and left supporting battalions; each advancing in four waves of single rank; two machine-guns accompanying each leading battalion and four each the supporting ones. Three other machine-guns were to bring up the rear flanked, on either side, by two Stokes mortar-guns. The Brigade’s allotted front was five hundred yards to the north-east of Ginchy, and since the normal enemy barrage between Guillemont and Ginchy was a thing to be avoided if possible, they were assembled east of the latter village and not behind it. Their objectives were duly laid down for them in green, brown, blue, and red lines on the maps, or as one young gentleman observed, “just like a game of snooker except that every one played with the nearest ball as soon as the game began.” But every one understood perfectly the outlines of the game. Their predecessors had been playing it by hundreds of thousands since the 1st of July. They knew they would all go on till they were dropped, or blown off the face of the earth.
They dug themselves in on the night of the 14th in shallow trenches about ten paces apart, a trench to each wave which was made up of two half companies. The 2nd Irish Guards having expended one (No. 2 ) company on the 13th September, their No. 3 Company was distributed between Nos. 1 and 4 who accordingly went over in two enlarged waves.
The Brigade lost hardly a man from enemy bombardment during the long hours that passed while waiting for the dawn. At six o’clock on the 15th our heavies opened; and, as far as the 2nd Brigade was concerned, brought down the German barrage exactly where it was expected, between Guillemont and Ginchy, which, by German logic, should have been crowded with our waiting troops. Thanks, however, to the advice of Major Rocke and Captain Alexander as to the massing-point, that blast fell behind our men, who thus lived to progress into the well-laid and unbroken machine-gun fire that met them the instant they advanced. Their first objective (green line) was six hundred yards away through the mists of the morning and the dust and flying clods of the shells. A couple of hundred yards out, the 3rd Grenadiers and 1st Coldstream came upon a string of shell-holes which might or might not have started life as a trench, filled with fighting Germans, insufficiently dealt with by our guns. This checked the waves for a little and brought the Irish storming into the heels of the leading line, and as the trench lay obliquely across the advance, swung the whole of the 2nd Brigade towards the left, and into the 1st Brigade, who had already met a reasonable share of trouble of their own. Indeed, during this first advance, one party of the 2nd Irish Guards, under Major Rocke and Lieutenant G. Bambridge and 2nd Lieutenant Mylne found themselves mixed up among the men of the 1st Battalion. Moreover, the attack of the Sixth Division which was taking place on the right of the 2nd Guards Brigade had been held up, and it seemed as though the whole of the machine-gun fire from the low fortified quadrilateral dominating that end of the line was sweeping like hail into the right of the 2nd Guards Brigade. This still further, though they were not aware of it at the time, turned them towards the left.
The Battalion, without landmarks to guide, did what they could. Under Captain Alexander and 2nd Lieutenant Greer, the Germans in the first unexpected trench were all accounted for. Greer also shot down and put out of action an enemy machine-gun, and the thinned line went on. There had been instructions, in Brigade Orders, as to the co-operation of nine tanks that were to assist the Guards Division that day and would, probably, “start from each successive line well in advance of the attacking troops.” Infantry were warned, however, that their work “would be carried out whether the tanks are held up or not.” It was. The tanks were not much more in evidence on that sector than the cavalry which, cantering gaily across the shell-holes, should have captured Bapaume; and long before the Brigade were anywhere near their first objective, companies and battalions were mixed up, in what with other troops, would have been hopeless confusion; but the Guards are accustomed to carry on without worrying whether with their own units or not. In due time, and no man can say what actually happened outside his own range of action, for no man saw anything coherently, their general advance reached the German trench which was their first objective. Its wire had not been cut properly by our guns, and little gasping, sweating parties dodged in and out and round the wings of it, bombing enemies where they sighted them. There were many Germans, too, in the shellholes that they overpassed who fired into their backs, and all the while from their right flank, now wholly in the air, came the lashing machine-gun fire of the quadrilateral which was so effectively holding the Sixth Division. So the wrecked trench of the first objective was, as one man said, “none too bad a refuge even if we had to bomb ourselves into it.”
They tumbled in, as they arrived, about a hundred and twenty of all units of the Brigade with Captain Alexander of the Battalion, Captain F. J. Hopley, 3rd Grenadiers, Lieutenant Boyd-Rochfort, Scots Guards, Lieutenant M. Tennant, Scots Guards, attached to the machine-guns, and 2nd Lieutenants Greer and Lysaght, of the Battalion. A few minutes later Colonel Claude de Crespigny of the 2nd Grenadiers of the 1st Brigade arrived with about fifty men. They had fairly lost the rest of their Brigade in the dust and smoke, and had fetched up, fragmentarily, among the 2nd Brigade, at what was fast becoming a general rendezvous. Finding that the first objective still needed a great deal more combing out, the mixed parties of officers and men divided and began to bomb left and right along the trench. Then Colonel Godman of the Scots Guards appeared (it was all one whirling vision of breathless men and quickly passing faces), and took over general command of the Brigade. With him were Lieutenant Mackenzie and Captain the Hon. K. Digby, the adjutants of the 1st Scots Guards and 1st Coldstream; while Captain FitzGerald, Lieutenant Keenan, and 2nd Lieutenant Close of the Battalion were bombing and taking prisoners up an offshoot of the trench in the direction of Lesbœufs. The Germans who had fought so well among the shell-holes did not seem to be represented here for they surrendered with ease. Their own people machine-gunned them so purposefully as they scuttled towards our lines that sometimes they bolted back to the comparative decency of the trench whence they had been digged.
Meantime the situation did not clear itself. The uncut wire of the first objective and the general drift of the whole attack to the left had made a gap between the two front battalions of the 2nd Brigade’s attack, that is to say, the 3rd Grenadiers and the 1st Coldstream. A party of a hundred of the former battalion were pushed up into it, and seem to have disappeared into the general maelstrom. At the same time, the 3rd Grenadiers were trying to get touch with the Sixth Division, on their sorely hammered right. Major Rocke, Lieutenant Bambridge, and 2nd Lieutenant Mylne and their party of the 2nd Irish Guards, were far out towards the left where the 2nd Brigade’s advance had outrun that of the 1st, so much that the 1st Coldstream’s left flank was in the air and there was a gap between the two brigades. Here Major Rocke’s party found Colonel Guy Baring (he was killed a little later) commanding the 1st Coldstream, and at his suggestion formed a defensive flank on the left of the Coldstream until the 1st Brigade drew level. This precaution was rewarded by a satisfactory bag estimated at over two hundred Huns who, being incommoded by the 2nd Brigade’s action, were trying to slip through the gap between the two brigades and escape round the rear of the 2nd Brigade, and who were mostly killed by small-arm fire.
More men kept dribbling in to the first objective trench from time to time (“Like lost hounds, only they’d been fighting every yard of their way home”), and the remnants of the battalions of the Brigade were sorted out and apportioned lengths of trench to hold. Thus: “Grenadier Guards, 60 on the right; Scots Guards, 60 next; Irish Guards, 40 next; Coldstream Guards, 10, on the left in touch with the 1st Brigade,” or, at least, as far as any touch could be made. The fighting, of course, continued all round them, and various parties devoted themselves to this as need arose. Everything was in the air now, left and right flanks together, but the Guards Division, as an extremely mixed whole, had pushed forward and taken the ground it had been ordered to take, while the enemy, attacking here, bombing there, and bolting across the shell-holes elsewhere, seemed to be desirous to pull out of action and break away towards Bapaume. Our guns, of which the fighting infantry were unconscious at the tine, had helped them towards this decision. There was some question and discussion in the trench as to whether they should now push on to their second objective or whether our artillery would, as originally laid down, bombard that before a fresh move. But signs of German withdrawal across the bare down and the sight of some of their field-guns trotting back suggested a sporting chance of pushing on towards Lesbœufs, which Captain Ian Colquhoun of the Scots Guards and Captain Lyttelton of the 3rd Grenadiers thought worth taking. Their view was shared by Major Rocke, Captain Alexander, and Lieutenant Mylne of the Battalion, so between them they amassed some hundred men and went out nearly half a mile into an unoccupied trench in a hollow, with standing crops in front. Here they halted and sent back demands for reinforcements. As they were utterly detached from an already detached force, they might as well have indented for elephants. The day went on, and the enemy, realising that our push had come to an end, began to steal forward in small bodies which first out flanked and then practically surrounded the detachment. At last a whole company, hidden in the tall crops, made a rush which should have killed or captured every one in the position. Somehow or other—and again no coherent account was ever rendered, but it was probjably due to our controlled rapid fire—they failed. Our men fought their way out and back to the main body with surprisingly few casualties; and the enemy excitedly following them, came under a limited but well directed machine-gun fire from the main trench. The Diary enters it as “a weak attack from Lesbœufs easily driven off, Lieutenant M. Tennant doing good work with his machine-gun which was well placed on the right.” But nothing is more difficult than to dissect and sift out the times and the values of linked or overlapping episodes throughout one desperate day, where half a dozen separated detachments are each profoundly certain that they, and they alone, bear the weight or turn the tide of the local war. The minuteness of the field of action adds to the confusion, when one remembers that the distance from Ginchy to Lesbœufs was about the extreme range of a service rifle and that the whole of that day’s work had won them about eight hundred yards. For that advance they had paid three hundred casualties among the men, and the following officers: Captain Parsons, Lieutenants Purcell and Walters, both the latter attached to the machine-gun company, killed; Major Rocke, Lieutenant Brew (seriously), and 2nd Lieutenants M. R. FitzGerald, Mylne, and Cutcliffe Hyne wounded. In addition 2nd Lieutenants Vaughan and Tomkins, and Lieutenant Montgomery had been killed in the preliminary work on the 13th September. A total of six officers dead and five wounded.
A partially successful attempt on a German trench ahead of them by a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry a little after dark brought the very long day to an end. The night was quiet, while some units of the Twentieth Division came up and dug themselves in outside their parapet in readiness for the fresh attack which was to begin the next morning. Men could not help admiring, even at the time, the immense and ordered inhumanity of the system that, taking no count of aught except the end, pushed forward through the dead and the debris of war the fresh organisations which were to be spent next day as their predecessors had been. (“Atop of it all, when a man was done with he felt that he was in the road of the others. The same with the battalions. When they was used they was heaved out of the road like a broke lorry, and only too glad of it. But, as I was saying, when we was expended, we all felt ashamed of blocking the traffic with our wounds and our carcases. The only fun for us afterwards was telling them that came up what was awaiting them. But they knew—they knew it already!”)
The 16th September was an almost continuous bombardment of whizz-bangs and 5.9’s on the trench where they still lay; but in the intervals of the shelling men kept turning up and reporting themselves with tales of adventure and extremity among the shell-holes outside. They were relieved a little before midnight and left their battered lair eighty-eight strong, via Ginchy, Guillemont, and Trônes Wood for the Citadel, which, when they reached their total, had been increased by strays to one hundred and six. Lieutenant Bambridge, eminently capable of looking after himself and his party, turned up later with another sixty. Next day, the weary work of re-making the Battalion began. Lieutenant Dollar had to be sent down to hospital with a return of the dysentery from which he had reported himself recovered. This further reduced the few available officers on their feet. A draft of a hundred and fifty men came in. By absorbing the still effective digging-platoon into the active line, a battalion of four companies of a hundred each was put together and turned out for the next week in the Carnoy mud to drill under new company commanders.
The second move of the Guards Division opened on the 25th September, and this time the ball was with the 1st Battalion. The work on the 15th of the month had carried the Fourteenth Division’s front on to the naked ridge towards Morval and Lesbœufs where it had been held, but without advance, for the past ten days. Now brigade orders came “to renew the attacks” over what remained untaken of the ground. “The Guards Division will capture Lesbœufs. The 1st Guards Brigade will attack on the right, the 3rd on the left,” while the Fifth Division was to attack Morval on the right of the Guards Division and the Twenty-First Division (62nd Brigade) would take Gueudecourt on the left. The 2nd Guards Brigade would be in reserve; and the Battalion hoped, as men may who know what war means, that they would not be needed. Nor were they till the evening of the 26th September, when they moved from Trônes Wood and its dead, to relieve the 1st Battalion, used and broken for the second time in ten days, the day before, with the 2nd Grenadiers who “after the attack on Lesbœufs had dug themselves in to the east of that town.” Cæsar himself does not equal the sublime terseness of the Diary. All their world from the King downwards was to crown them with praise later on, but in the meantime reliefs must be orderly conducted and touch must be kept through the shell-tormented darkness with the battalions on either side, while they themselves settled in the reeking front line under certainty of vicious bombardment and the possibility of suddenly launched counter-attack. They were shelled all that night from their relief on and throughout the next day (the 27th) “by every type of shell, but mostly by 5.9’s.” In the afternoon when it became necessary to help an attack on their left by launching a creeping barrage from in front of Lesbœufs towards Le Transloy, the enemy retaliated with a barrage on the Battalion’s front that blew the line in in several places. They received the same attentions on the 28th, and this in an uptorn isolated land where water was scarce; but, on their demand, retaliation arrived in the shape of heavies and some aeroplanes. “This had the effect of stopping the enemy’s fire completely except for a few whizz-bangs.” For the rest of the day they merely took their share of the general necessary shellings on a vast and disputed front. Men grow quick to differentiate between the punishment they should accept without complaint, and the personal direct “hate” which sets the newly strung telephones buzzing to Brigade Headquarters for the guns. But, even so, it is said, a hypnotic sense of helplessness comes over troops which are being shelled continuously, till sometimes they will sit and suffer, the telephone under their hand, while parapets fly up and fall down on them. Yet, one single small casualty may break that spell as suddenly as it was cast, and the whole line, grumbling and uneasy, wants to know whether their artillery are dead too.
The 1st Coldstream relieved them late at night and without one single casualty on the 28th September, and they lay up in bivouac in Trônes Wood on the 30th, their old C.O., Colonel, now General, Butler lunched with them in the Headquarters dug-out, where they compared experiences. The 3rd Londons relieved them, and an enemy aeroplane bombed them, but without effect, on their way back to camp in Carnoy Valley; and four officers, Lieutenant Gunstone and 2nd Lieutenants Heard, Crawford, and Black, arrived on that uneventful day. Naturally, in a district alive with troops, German aeroplanes did all the harm they could in our back-areas, and nothing will persuade harried infantry on the ground that our aircraft are properly protecting them. A draft of fifty men came in on the 1st October, a Sunday, and on the 2nd they withdrew altogether with the Division out of the battle for intensive training. Their own camp was Méricourt-en-Vimeux west of Amiens, but—more important than all else—the leave-season opened.
It was an ordinary month of the ordinary work demanded by the war conditions of the age. Steady drill was the background of it, and specialist classes for Lewis-gunners, bombers, intelligence, and gas filled the hours, varied by night and day outpost and wire work as well as map-reading for officers. Company commanders, whose men were taken from lawfully ordained parade, swore and complained, and not without justification; for the suave, un-get-at-able shirker has a much better chance of evading the burdens of mere battalion routine when every one is a “specialist,” than when, as a marching unit, he is under the direct eye of his own unimaginative N. C.O.’s. (“There was times, if you will believe me, when we was sorry for platoon sergeants. What with this and that and the other special trick, every mother’s son of us Micks had the excuses of his life to his hands all the time.”) Hence the disgraceful story of the sergeant who demanded whether “those somethinged spe-shy-lists” could “lend him as much as three wet-nurses,’ just to make a show with the platoon.”
Rewards began to come in. Captain Harvey, their M.O., was awarded the Military Cross for a little more than the usual bravery that a doctor has to exhibit in the ordinary course of his duty, and 2nd Lieutenant Greer received the same honour for, incidentally, dealing with enemy machine-guns in the advance of the 15th. General Feilding, on the 6th, also distributed ribbons of medals won, and said what he thought of the work of the Guards Division during the previous month. The formal acknowledgment of the commander of the Fourth Army (General Rawlinson) arrived on October 17. He said that the “gallantry and perseverance of the Guards Division in the battles of the 15th and 25th were paramount factors in the success of the operations of the Fourth Army on those days.” Of the 15th September, specially, he observed, “The vigorous attacks of the Guards in circumstances of great difficulty, with both flanks exposed to the enfilade fire of the enemy, reflect the highest credit on all concerned, and I desire to tender to every officer, N.C.O., and man, my congratulations and best thanks for their exemplary valour on that occasion.” They knew that they had not done so badly, though every one above the rank of drummer could say now how it could have been done much better; but the official word was grateful to those who had lived, and cheering for those about to die.
On the 23rd October they route-marched to a fair field south of Aumont with their cookers and their water-carts (all the Division more or less was being trained in that neighbourhood), met their 1st Battalion, dined well together, and embarked on a football match which the 1st won by two goals to nothing. “The men thoroughly enjoyed meeting each other, and spent a very happy day.” It might be a Sunday-school that the Diary describes, instead of two war-used battalions drawing breath between engagements.
H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught was to inspect the Division on the 1st of November, which meant rehearsals for the ceremonial—a ritual of value for retaining a hold on “specialists,” and taken advantage of by company officers and N.C.O.’s who held that it did men no harm to disport themselves occasionally in slow time with a properly pointed foot. The rain and break-up of autumn made training very difficult, but, the Diary notes, though many denied it at the time, “We endeavoured to make every man a bomber rather than to concentrate on the production of a number of specialists.” The inspection rewarded the trouble taken—there was nothing their sternest critics could lay a finger on—and at the end of it, those officers and men who had won decorations in the war lined up before the Duke who addressed them. Méricourt days ended with a Battalion dinner in the 1st Battalion billets at Hornoy to General Butler, their old commandant whose brigade was in rest near by. Somehow the memory of such dinners remains with the survivors long after more serious affairs, as it seemed then, have faded. (“It’s a curious thing that, on those occasions, one was drunk before one sat down—out of sheer good-fellowship, I suppose, and the knowledge that we were all for it, and had all come through it so far. The amount of liquor actually consumed has nothing to do with the results. I’ve put away four times as much since Armistice and only got the deuce of a head.”)
On the 10th and 11th of November the Divison returned to school. They were to take over a stretch of the Fourteenth Corps’ front near Gueudecourt and Lesbœufs. For tactical purposes the Division was now divided into two “groups” of six battalions each. The right group was made up of the 1st Guards Brigade as a whole, with the 1st Coldstream and the 2nd Irish Guards additional. The left was the 3rd Guards Brigade plus the 3rd Grenadiers and the 1st Scots Guards, so that the 2nd Brigade was absorbed for the while. The Battalion left Méricourt-en-Vimeux “with considerable regret” for it was good billets and was packed into a large fleet of French motor-buses, many of which were driven by Senegalese—“an example of the Frenchman’s ability in saving up their men. A particularly engaging ape was the conductor of the officers’ bus. He was fed by the adjutant on chicken legs which he greatly appreciated and entirely devoured. He appeared to speak no word of any human language.” Medals should have been awarded for this affair; to be driven forty miles by Senegalese chauffeurs is an experience deadly almost as warfare. Meaulte, their destination, was then an “entirely unattractive town.” Gangs of Hun prisoners shovelled mud from roads a foot deep in grey reeking slime. Every road was blocked with limbers and lorries that offered no way to the disgusted infantry wedged up impatiently behind them. Their billets were crowded and bad, and they regretted the flesh-pots of Méricourt while they cleaned them or froze in tents beside the Carnoy–Fricourt road where they kept warm by trying to make roads out of frosty mud.
Mud, filth, cold, exposure, and the murderous hard work necessary to mere existence, were their daily and nightly fare from now on. It must be duly set down for that reason, and that the generations to come may judge for themselves what the war of a people unprepared, against a race that had made provision for war, cost in the mere stage-setting and scene-shifting of actual warfare.
On the 18th November they were shifted from their chill tents at “Mansell Camp” to Camp A, only four miles off, at Trônes Wood. The roads which were not roads and the traffic that was trying to treat them as such, made this a matter of three and a half hours’ continuous marching, mainly in single file. They found themselves at last in dark and pouring rain, hunting across a morass for holes in the ground inadequately covered with pieces of tarpaulin and five hundred yards away from any firm foothold. This was the “camp.” The cookers frankly dared not leave the road and the men had to flounder across the bog to get their teas. For that reason, the next day being fine and all hands, “thoroughly wet and uncomfortable,” they “sang loudly as they slopped about in the mud.”
Their wholly unspeakable front line was five miles distant from this local paradise. You followed a duckboard track of sorts through Trônes Wood, between ghastly Delville and the black ruins of Ginchy, and across the Ginchy ridge where the chances of trouble thickened, through a communication-trench, and thereafter into a duck-boarded landscape where, if you were not very careful, the engulfing mud would add you to its increasing and matured collection of “officers and other ranks.” These accidents overcome, you would discover that the front line was mud with holes in it. If the holes were roundish they were called posts; if oblong they were trenches with names, such as Gusty Trench and Spectrum Trench. They connected with nothing except more mud. Wiring peered up in places, but whether it was your own or the enemy’s was a matter of chance and luck. The only certainty was that, beyond a point which no one could locate, because all points were wiped out by a carpet-like pattern of closely set holes, you would be shelled continuously from over the bleak horizon. Nor could you escape, because you could never move faster than a man in a nightmare. Nor dared you take cover, because the mud-holes that offered it swallowed you up.
Here, for instance, is what befell when No. 1 Company went up to relieve a grenadier company on the night of the 19th November. They started at 3 P.M. in continuous mud under steady shelling. Only three out of their four platoon guides turned up. The other had collapsed. Ten men were hit on the way up; a number of others fell out from sheer exhaustion or got stuck in the mud. The first man who set foot in the frontline trench blocked the rest for a quarter of an hour, while four of his comrades were hauling him out. This was five hours after they had begun. The two Lewis-guns and some stragglers, if men hip-deep in mud and water can straggle, were still unaccounted for. Lance-Sergeant Nolan brought them all in by hand at three in the morning under shell-fire. Then they were heavily shelled (there was hardly any rifle-fire), and three men were wounded. Luckily shells do not burst well in soft dirt. It was Private Curran’s business to shift two of them who were stretcher-cases to Battalion Headquarters one mile and a half distant. This took two relays of eight men each, always under shell-fire, and Curran’s round trip was completed in nine hours. When they were relieved by the soft-spoken Australians, on the evening of the 21st, they spent the whole of the night, from 8 P.M. to 6 A.M., getting back to camp, where it is not surprising that they arrived “utterly exhausted.” Owing to an orderly losing his way, one isolated trench or hole held by Sergeant Murphy, Lance-Sergeant Nolan and seven men, was not relieved, and they stayed on for another twenty-four hours. No. 2 Company, a few hundred yards away, were fairly dead to the world by the time they had worked their way to their line, which possessed, nominally, a trench and some posts. The trench was a gutter; their posts had no protection at all from shells, and when they arrived they found that no sand-bags had been sent up, so they had nothing to work with. They also spent their time pulling men out of the mire. Supervision of any sort was impossible. It took the officer three hours to get from the left to the right of his short line. The posts could not be reached by daylight at all, and during bombardments of the trench “it often seemed as though what little there was must disappear, and (the Battalion, as we know, was mostly new hands) the coolness of the young N. C. O.’s was invaluable in keeping up the spirits of the men.” There was one time when a sergeant (Lucas) was buried by a shell, and a brother sergeant (Glennon) “though he knew that it meant almost certain death” went to his aid, and was instantly killed, for the enemy, naturally, had the range of their own old trenches to the inch. To be heroic at a walk is trying enough, as they know who have plowtered behind the Dead March of a dragging barrage, but to struggle, clogged from the waist down, into the whitehot circle of accurately placed destruction, sure that if you are even knocked over by a blast you will be slowly choked by mud, is something more than heroism. Equally, to lie out disabled on an horror of shifting mud is beyond the sting of Death. One of our corporals on patrol heard groaning somewhere outside the line. It proved to be a grenadier, who had lain there twenty-four hours “suffering from frost-bite and unable to move.” They saved him. Their stretcher-bearers were worn out, and what sand-bags at last arrived were inadequate for any serious defence. “We were fighting purely against mud and shells, as the German infantry gave us no trouble.” When No. 2 was relieved at the same time as No. 1 Company, they dribbled into camp by small parties from two till ten in the morning, and three of the men never turned up at all. The Somme mud told no tales till years later when the exhumation parties worked over it. The Australians, of whom it is reported that the mud dragged every national expletive out of them by the boots, relieved the Division as a whole on the 22nd November, and, pending the new arrangements for taking over more of the French line, the Guards were transferred first to a camp between Carnoy and Montauban, which for those parts was fairly comfortable. At all events, the huts though stoveless were water-tight, and could be “frowsted up” to something like warmth. For ten days they worked, two days out of three, on the Carnoy-Montauban road in company with a labour battalion surnamed “The Broody Hens,” owing to their habit of scuttling at the very last moment from under the wheels of the multitudinous lorries. “On off days we made paths through the mud for ourselves.” But these were dry, and by comparison clean.
The trench line taken over by the Guards Division ran, roughly, from Morval to Sailly-Saillisel (locally “Silly-Sally”) when their groups were split into two (right and left) sections. The right, to which the Battalion was attached, was made up of themselves, their sister battalion, and the 2nd Grenadiers. A spell of hard winter weather had frozen the actual trenches into fairly good condition for the minute, but there were no communications, nor, as they observed, much attempt at fire-steps. The French trusted more to automatic rifles—the battalions the Irish relieved had thirty-two each—and machine-guns than to infantry, and used their linesmen mainly as bombers or bayoneteers. Accommodation was bad. When not on tour, two companies were billeted in old dug-outs that contained the usual proportion of stale offences, on the west side of Combles; one in cellars and dug-outs in the town itself; and one in dug-outs in Haie Wood three thousand yards behind the front. Their front line ran along the east edge of the obliterated village, their support a hundred yards or so behind it through the mounds of brick and earth of the place itself, while the reserve company lay up in mildewy dug-outs in a chalk quarry three-quarters of a mile back. (One peculiarity of the Somme was its most modestly inconspicuous cave-dwellings.) For the rest, “The whole area was utterly desolate. West of the village, rolling ground, the valleys running east and west a waste of mud with shell-holes touching one another. Here and there the charred stumps of trees. Equipment, French and German, dotted the ground, and rifles, their muzzles planted in the mud, showed where, in some attack, wounded men had lain. The village was just mounds of earth or mud and mere shell-holes.” Later on even the mounds were not suffered to remain, and the bricks were converted into dull red dust that in summer blew across the dead land.
The Battalion was not in position till the 11th December, when it relieved the 2nd Grenadiers after three or four days’ rain which wiped out what communication-trenches had been attempted, and pulped the front line. As to the back-breaking nature of the work—“Though the first company (on relief) passed Haie Wood about 4 P.M. it was 11.30 before they had floundered the intervening 3000 yards.” One of the grenadiers whom they relieved had been stuck in the mud for forty-three hours. Unless the men in the trenches, already worn out with mud-wrestling to get there, kept moving like hens on hot plates, they sank and stuck. (“It is funny, maybe, to talk about now, that mudlarking of ours; but to sink, sink, sink in the dark and you not sure whether they saw ye or could hear you, puts the wind up a man worse than anything under Heaven. Fear? Fear is not the word. ’Twas the Somme that broke our hearts. Back, knees, loins, acrost your chest—you was dragged to pieces dragging your own carcase out of the mud. ’Twas like red-hot wires afterwards—and all to begin it again.”)
A mystery turned up on the night of the 12th December in the shape of a wild-looking, apparently dumb, Hun prisoner, brought before Captain Young of the Support Company, who could make naught of him, till at last “noticing the likeness between his cap and that affected by Captain Alexander”1 he hazarded “Russky.” The prisoner at once awoke, and by sign and word revealed himself as from Petrograd. Also he bolted one loaf of bread in two counted minutes. He had been captured at Kovel by the Huns, and brought over to be used by them to dig behind their front line. But how he had escaped across that wilderness that wild-eyed man never told.
They got back on the 13th December to a hideous tent-camp near Trônes Wood. Thence, thoroughly wet, they were next day solemnly entrained at Trônes Wood, carted three miles by train to Plateau and thence, again, marched two more to Bronfay. There, done to the last turn, chilled to the marrow, and caked with mud, they found the huttage allotted them already bursting with a brigade of artillery. Short of turning out themselves, the gunners did their kindest to help the men dry and get their food, while the various authorities concerned fought over their weary heads; some brilliant members of the Staff vowing that the camp intended for them had not even been built; which must have been vast consolation to the heavy-eyed, incurious sick, of whom there were not a few after the last tour, as well as to the wrathful and impeded cooks and sergeants. They got their sick away (the Adjutant, Captain, J. S. N. FitzGerald and Lieutenant D. Gunston among them), and somehow squashed in all together through another day of mere hanging about and crowded, cold discomfort, which does men more harm and develops more microbes than a week’s blood and misery.
On the 16th December they returned afoot through eight miles of snow-storm to “some of the most depressing scenery in Europe.” The “men had had but little rest and few of them had got any of their clothes in the least dry.” But they were left alone for one blessed night at Combles and Haie Wood in their cellars and their dug-outs, and they slept where they lay, the stark, corpse-like sleep of men too worn out even to mutter or turn.
Except that shelling was continuous over all back-areas and approaches, the enemy as a fighting force did not enter into their calculations. Or it might be more accurate to say, both sides were fighting ground and distance. The sole problem of the lines was communication; for every stick, wire, and water-tin had to be backed up by brute bodily labour across the mud. All hands were set to laying trench-boards from the support and reserve lines and Haie Wood. Without these, it had taken two and a half hours to carry a load eight hundred yards. With them, the same party covered the same distance under an equal burden in twenty minutes. The enemy used their prisoners and captives for these ends. Ours were well tended, out of harm’s range, while His Majesty’s Foot Guards took their places. The front line—they relieved the 2nd Grenadiers there on the 17th—was “mere canals of mud and water with here and there a habitable island.” The defences had been literally watered down to a string of isolated posts reached over the top across stinking swamp, and the mounds and middens called parapets spread out dismally and collapsed as they tinkered at them.
All dirt is demoralising. The enemy’s parapets had melted like ours and left their working-parties exposed to the waist. Since the lines were too close to be shelled by either artillery, the opposing infantry on both sides held their hands till there grew up gradually a certain amount of “live and let live,” out of which, but farther down the line, developed attempts at fraternisation, and, in front of the Guards, much too much repair work and “taking notice” on the part of the enemy. The Hun never comprehends unwritten codes. Instead of thanking Heaven and the weather for a few days’ respite, he began to walk out on the top of his mounds and field-glass our wire. Therefore, on the 19th December, the dawn of a still freezing day, two obviously curious Germans were “selected and shot” by a sniper who had been detailed for that job. “The movement then ceased,” and doubtless our action went to swell the wireless accounts of “unparalleled British brutalities.”
Their next tour, December 23, which included Christmas Day, saw them with only seven officers, including the C.O. and the Acting-Adjutant, Lieutenant Denson, fit for duty. Captain Bambridge and Lieutenant Hely-Hutchinson had to be left behind sick at the Q. M. stores in Méricourt, and two officers had been detached for special duties. The M.O. also had gone sick, and those officers who stood up, through the alternations of biting frost and soaking thaw, were fairly fine-drawn. Whether this was the vilest of all their war Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life—are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.
The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternisation on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments” by our artillery on Christmas morning cauterised that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and—a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot—was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his company.”
They were relieved by the 1st Battalion on Christmas night, but returned on the 29th to celebrate New Year’s Day by bailing out flooded trenches and slapping back liquid parapets as they fell in. The enemy had most accurately registered the new duck-board tracks from the support-lines, and shelled the wretched carrying-parties by day and night. (“If you stayed on the track you was like to be killed; if you left it, you had great choice of being smothered.”) The ActingAdjutant (Lieutenant Denson) and the Bombing Sergeant (Cole) attended a consultation with the Brigade Bombing Officer on the morning of the 30th at Support Company’s Headquarters in the Quarry. Business took them to the observation post in the wreckage of the church; and while there, the enemy opened on the support-line. They tried to get to the support company’s dug-out; but on the way a shell pitched in among them, wounding the Brigade Bombing Officer (Lieutenant Whittaker), the Sergeant and Lieutenant Denson. The other two were able to walk, but Denson was hit all over the body. Hereupon Lieutenant Black and his orderly, Private Savage, who were in the Support dug-out, ran to where he lay, and, as they lifted him, another shell landed almost on them. They did not dare to risk taking Denson down the nearly vertical dug-out stairs, so Private Savage, with a couple more men from No. 3 Company, in case of accidents, carried him on his back six hundred yards to the dressing-station. Thrice in that passage their track was blown up, but luckily none of the devoted little party were hit. To be hunted by shell down interminable lengths of slimy duckboard is worse than any attempt on one’s life in the open, for the reason that one feels between the shoulderblades that one is personally and individually wanted by each shouting messenger.
Another escaped prisoner, C.S.M. J. B. Wilson of the 13th East Yorks, managed to get into our lines that night. He had been captured at Serre on the 13th November, and had got away from a prisoners’ camp at Honnecourt only the night before. He covered sixteen kilometres in the darkness, steered towards the permanent glare over the front, reached the German line at dawn, lay up in a shell-hole all through the day and, finally, wormed across to us by marking down an N.C.O. of ours who was firing some lights, and crawling straight on to him. Seeing his condition when he arrived, the achievement bears out the Diary’s tantalisingly inadequate comment: “In private life he was a bank accountant, and seemed to be very intelligent as well as a man of the greatest determination. We fed him and warmed him before sending him on to Haie Wood whence an ambulance took him to Brigade H.Q.”
So the year ended in storm and rain, the torn, grey clouds of the Somme dissolving and deluging them as they marched back to Maltz Horn camp, across an insane and upturned world where men of gentle life, unwashen for months at a stretch, were glad to lie up in pigsties, and where ex-bank-accountants might crawl out of shell-holes at any hour of the hideous twenty-four.
|1. This was pure prophecy. Captain, as he was then, Alexander was credited with a taste for strange and Muscovitish headgear, which he possibly gratified later as a general commanding weird armies in Poland during the spasms of reconstruction that followed the Armistice. [back]|