Weekending 28th November 1915

I deliver some whisky and hear some awful news

front sunday post 28th november 1915

I was called to see Lt Smith last week when we were resting behind the lines. He asked me how I was and then told me that he had something special for me, because he knew that I could be trusted and because I knew my way around the trenches. Although the actual fighting seems to be over for the time being, there is still a great deal of traffic going through the reserve trenches. New recruits are being taken up to the front lines all the time to join their new units, rations and letters are delivered daily and messages are carried between the commanders. Of course, the telephone lines carry orders to and fro, but the unofficial communications are usually delivered by hand. Capt McIntyre, who has just returned after recovering from his wounds, needs a trustworthy messenger, and I have been selected!

The good news is that I am immediately relieved from digging and labouring duty. Now, however, I must hang around the officers’ quarters at their beck and call. My first job was to take a new Lt up to his company at the front line just past Givenchy.  For me it was easy enough, as I know it like the back of my hand – we had just finished digging some of those trenches. But he found it terribly difficult, especially as it was dark. And for someone carrying only a pistol and a knapsack, he seemed to make a terrible amount of noise. I was glad to leave him there – I felt much safer on the way back. The next morning, I had to deliver orders to the two companies we have in the front trenches at the moment. The phone lines were down. I really enjoyed it. I saw plenty of people I knew and, whilst I could not stop to talk, I was able to exchange news as I went. I found the relevant officers, waited for their replies, and was back in time for breakfast.

And so I am taking it easy. I have plenty to do, but it is mainly fetching and carrying and hanging around, waiting for more orders. Normally I think I would be bored by such a prospect but, after those weeks of digging trenches and burying the dead, it is a welcome relief.

hmshs anglia

 

I picked up a copy of the Courier the other day and was shocked to see that the HMSHS Anglia - the hospital ship that carried me home only a few months ago – has been sunk travelling between Calais and Dover. Over a hundred wounded officers and men were drowned.  That is awful news. I can only imagine what it must have been like. I Know I would not have been able to look after myself when I was being  brought back home. I remember seeing a film at the cinema of the sinking of the White Star Titanic and to think that wounded men would have suffered in the water like that fills me with anger. I hope the nurses and doctors managed to get onto the lifeboats.

 

 

I was called into see Capt McIntyre yesterday. He had a case of whisky and asked me to deliver a bottle to each the company commanders for St Andrew’s day. They were received very gratefully. Then I was given a further eight bottles and told to take them to the 15th Division Headquarters. Capt McIntyre told me I must be sure to present a bottle to General McCracken, the Divisional Commander and then to a list of other officers. he said that I must be very careful to make sure I found the correct office. I set off to the chateau, which was a few miles away, taking a lift in a supply lorry. I was stopped at the bottom of the drive by a sergeant and sentry who insisted on looking at my cargo. I thought for a moment I might lose some of it, and I think they were tempted, but I explained that my captain would be coming to see the listed officers very soon and would know if the bottle had not arrived. I was reluctantly waved through. The Chateau was full of staff officers, all looking very serious and busy. They were dressed very smartly and I felt quite bedraggled next to them. It made me want to scratch myself all over. I soon found the GOC’s office and delivered my first bottle. The Officer at the desk picked it up and barely contained a snort of laughter. He called over his colleague and they both chortled. “Do you think it is an omen?” one asked. The other looked around to see that noone was within earshot – though I was a mere four feet away –  and said “Well, let’s hope so. I don’t think anyone can bare to see Sir John crying into his soup again. It is all too embarrassing.” I was given a receipt and dismissed. I delivered the other bottles, all of which were greeted with a raised eyebrow or a knowing smile and then I returned back to our quarters.

I spoke to Danny Robertson about it that evening. He is a constant source of gossip and seems to know what is happening. When I told him what had happened, he burst out laughing. He explained that Many officers don’t think that Sir John French will last much longer as the Commanding Officer, because of Loos. ” Not that it was a failure,” said Danny, ” Just that it wasn’t a success.” Danny said that the other officers are all waiting to see who will take command in his place. ” I know three officers – senior ones – who have placed bets on it happening by Christmas. Nobody knows, but they are all looking for signs. Then you go around and give out bottles of whisky to the officers. Haig whisky.”

The penny dropped. I don’t know if General Haig’s family make whisky. I always thought they must be gentry. I am sure that Capt McIntyre didn’t intend it, but his gifts certainly seem to have put the cat amongst the pigeons.

sunday post 28th November 1915

 

 

 

 

Weekending 14th November 1915

More labouring, but we add another company to the battalion

Sunday Post 14th November 1915

 

This week has demanded more work from us in the front trenches – digging and shifting like navvies – and then some training behind the lines. We now have enough men to parade a third company and I am very pleased to see them all march so splendidly. However, we can no longer call ourselves ‘Dundee’s own’ – as our new recruits seem to come from all over Scotland and beyond. Navvying would most suit some of them as there are definitely some accents from across the Irish sea, some from the highlands and some from the north of England. It is strange to think that the Black Watch could welcome this disparate crowd, but we are mighty grateful to them. I just hope they fully understand the traditions of this great regiment.

Photo from the Sunday Post 14th november 1915

It is very cold and wet here at the moment. Fortunately there is little action, both sides seem to have turned their attentions elsewhere. The feeling is good amongst the lads – seeing the replacements arrive so quickly has boosted morale after Loos. There also seems to be good news on other fronts. We are holding our own and gradually exhausting the Germans. The Italian army  are still fighting in the Austrians in the mountains and have been enraged by the sinking of a passenger ship, the Ancona, carrying over one hundred Italians on their way to America. These German submarines, who strike without warning and kill civilians without mercy have a lot to answer for. The Russians are still over in the East. The Czar has a massive army, and judging by this picture of some of his troops, they are well equipped and ready to fight. However, I would be surprised if anything significant happens now that the weather is so poor. We can wait until it improves and wear the Hun down a little more in the process.

 

One of the new officers, Lt Smith, has earmarked me for some special work next week. I don’t know what it may be, but he said that my knowledge of the front line trenches would be very useful. So long as it is not more digging I will be happy…

Weekending 7th November 1915

Digging trenches at the front near Givenchy

Sunday Post 7th November 1915

More soldiers are coming through from Blighty to make up the numbers, but I notice that the 4th are not getting as many as other battalions. This is odd because we were only about half strength when we went into action at Loos. Capt Cunningham (acting) is still in charge of our two companies , though we are told a new Colonel is expected soon. Surely we must have more men soon! Otherwise Capt Cunningham could be left in charge.

In fact we seem to be reduced to a number of working parties. After helping the miners last week and pumping out their tunnels, we have now been placed at Givenchy, digging new trench works, connecting old trenches and straightening the lines. It is an arduous job, not least because, the new men don’t seem to be able to resist poking their heads up or straightening their backs at the slightest inclination. The fools think that because there is no shelling nearby and they can’t hear anything, there are no Huns ready to put a bullet in them. Fortunately I have only had a man get a hole in his  arm wound in my lot, but it is only a matter of time, I think.

So, what could be worse that crawling out into No Man’s Land and pulling the dead into shell holes for burial?  This week we discovered it at Givenchy. We dig a straight line from one trench to another, throwing the earth to front to make a bulwark facing the German lines. But it is not earth,  not really. It is bits of uniform, an occasional boot, rifle stocks, bayonets, buttons and bones and sinew. It is those who weren’t buried last time we fought here at this spot a few months ago. This sight is quite sickening, even for our experienced lads. The Medical orderly who came up to collect my wounded fool told us to be very careful, as the ground itself is sickly. In that case we are all doomed because we have been digging it for 5 days!

pickelhaube helmet

 

 

Yesterday three of the lads dug themselves into a hole. Or rather they fell into one. Two trenching picks and a shovel were making steady progress. One touched wood, the second battered it and they were through, 6 feet down in an old German dugout. Table, 2 chairs, and a long dead Hun officer in the bunk.  After checking it thoroughly for traps and bombs, I let everyone have a good look. Not so long ago, new lads would have been all over it looking to steal a moment or two. But now they aren’t at all interested. The officer will even be buried with his Pickelhaube!

Weekending 31st October 1915

On work detail, helping the miners dig their tunnels

The Sunday Post, 30th October, 1915

Well, we are running these lads into proper soldiers pretty sharpish. It is none stop. Some of them don’t know what has hit them. Most of them have applied themselves and improved greatly but, of course there will always be some shirkers. So, as part of my new responsibilities, I am assisting Sergeant Mackay with his  work detail. It is not quite a punishment detail, but these sixty of so lads are really the poorest of the soldiers who have arrived over the last fortnight. And so, every day I take them to the front lines trench – not to fight, but to labour for the miners.

What a rag-tag bunch these miners are. They are supposed to be Royal Engineers, but  they are barely soldiers at all. They shuffle nonchalantly along the trenches, taking no notice of any of the other troops, not even their officers. The regulars treat them in the same way, as if both were in completely different worlds. They look a disgrace to their uniforms, making no attempt to keep clean and tidy. They have rifles, but I am told they don’t even know how to fire them. They are here to dig and that is what they do.

 miners digging a tunnel in ww1

The entrance to the mine is built into the wall of the trench – a doorway about 4 feet high and2 feet wide. Behind it a stair case takes you down about 30 feet which opens up into a room about 8 feet square,in the middle of which there is a four feet square shaft with a wooden windlass and rope. The shaft goes down about 20 feet and at the bottom there is a doorway facing the German lines. These lads a are proper miners, brought from the coal fields in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Northumberland. But instead of shovel and pick, their main tool is a bayonet. Down there, they want to be as quiet as possible. Fortunately, the ground here is mainly clay, and they say cutting the mine is like cutting cheese. The tunnel is only that same four feet wide, with wooden supports and panels, so the work must be done on their backs, usually in 3 or 4 inches of cold water. They cut the clay and load it into sand bags which are passed  along the tunnel, then lifted up th shaft. Then a chain of our lads pass the bags along up the stairs and carry it along the trench until the bags can be used in the bulwarks somewhere. It is really important to get the earth away from the entrance, because the German planes fly quite low and photograph the lines regularly. There can’t be anything that will draw attention to the mine.

a ww1 tunneller listen for the enemy with  a stethoscope

 

Two or three times a day we all stop work and scuttle out of the tunnel, leaving a man down there with a stethoscope. His job is to listen to the walls, to see if he could hear any activity from the Huns. It is not as you might imagine. They want to hear them digging. It is the silence they fear, for that means they are about to blow their tunnel. One day I was one of the first to return down there and the chap with the stethoscope let me have a try. It was amazing.  I could actually hear some Germans  talking!

Knowing that the Huns are so close and could burst in upon that at any moment, these miners work away, drenched and with only the light of a few candles to see by. It is hot and fetid as there is only an old blacksmith’s bellows to circulate the air. Some of our lads – the very worst – are put onto the pumps, which need to work constantly to remove the water. with the weather so wet at the moment, their efforts make little difference. Yet these men, armed with only bayonets, work in near darkness and dig their way to within a few feet of the enemy before they pack the tunnel with explosives and blow the trench to kingdom come.

 

 

Weekending 17th October 1915

Rest at last and some time guarding prisoners captured at Loos.

Sunday post 17th october 1915

At last we were relieved from out trenches in Givenchy. After the mines and the attack , it all got a bit quieter, though the  nightly excursions into No Man’s land to clear out the craters and bury the dead didn’t get any easier. Three days ago we were marched back behind the lines and given the job of guarding some of the German prisoners taken on the first day at Loos. They certainly don’t seem so threatening now!

german prisoners after loos

There were so many, special camps had been hurriedly built, a little like chicken runs. They were fenced in with barbed wire and, whilst they didn’t seem very eager to escape, they had to be closely watched. There are thousands of them, very sullen and unhappy (or, as Tom Lewis says “Hunhappy”) and reluctant to look us in the eye. There is a continuous rota of feeding them and then putting them out again into  the cages, where they hang about aimlessly, smoking or sitting in groups, waiting for the next meal. We can’t keep them here. Where will they go?

Good news came the other day, firstly, there arrived new drafts of men and officers to replenish the fourth and, best of all, we found our missing pal Jack Gray, who had been wounded in the arm and was able to return to the battalion for light duties. He told us that he had seen Eric Brodie briefly in hospital, he has lost a leg, but was put on a train for Blighty, and, as Jack said, “is probably sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, smoking his pipe already”. strange to think that a man losing his leg can seem like good news, but are were all delighted to know that he has come through and I wrote him a letter that very evening. I do hope he is well – perhaps resting in Sandgate!

Weekending 10th October 1915

Warm work at Givenchy as the Hun take their revenge

After the Battle of Loos, Givenchy

Well we have barely stopped since the reorganisation. We have been posted to Givenchy (where Lt Steven was killed only a week after his brother). We are now about three miles south of Neuve Chapelle, very close to Festubert. In other words, in the months between my first proper battle and now, the British army has not moved forwards more than a few hundred yards. The little hill of Givenchy sits opposite the small town of La Bassee and we share it with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders.

Neuve_Chapelle_to_La_Bassee, and Givenchy_1915

The place has been heavily shelled over recent months and we spend much time at night rebuilding the bulwarks and repairing the wire. Of course Hun know what we are doing there and it is very dangerous. Lt Steven was killed inspecting some of the new defences. We all crouch as low as possible so as not to be seen against the skyline. No Man’s Land is full of craters and there is a constant battle between our snipers and theirs. This involves night-time raids – crawling out from crater to crater, trying to clear them. Dangerous enough as, if they do have snipers in them, they can usually see or hear us no matter how diligent we try to be. They are armed with rifles, while we satisfy ourselves with clubs ad shovels. We also have a macabre task in each crater – we must check them for the dead. This is happening all along the lines.  There are so many missing after the last action and, of course, so many mothers, wives and sisters are desperate to know one way or another. By now the bodies are bloated, the skin often grey-green or blue. It is a relief that a man would not recognise his best friend and so, we can be dispassionate about our task. After clearing a crater, and checking those around, we begin to drag the bodies by their clothes towards it, so that we could at least give them some kind of burial. It is very important to take their identity tags for the records. We had to do this on all fours and if the Germans fired a very light, we had to stay completely still or face a blast of Machine gun fire.

Unbeknown to us, the Germans had been mining up close to our lines.  Fortunately, the tunnelling company were able to detect and blow up a mine that was in front of us. However, on the morning of the 8th the Hun exploded two smaller mines destroying part of our parapet. Although it was nothing like the massive mine I had witnessed just before Loos, we were thrown back and covered in earth and debris. For some moments, I was completely dazed, not knowing which way was up. There is a very strange silence after such an event. As if nobody quite knows how to respond to it.  Lt Cunningham was up and in charge immediately, directing those who still had their wits about them to defend the gap, rebuild the parapet and help to dig out the others. The Germans advanced quickly from some of the craters and could only be held back by sustained machine gun fire. I am pleased to say they were soon turned and all their efforts came to nought.  For such an explosion, hardly any of us were hurt, which is a relief after such an awful time last week. I am looking forward to some rest.

Weekending 3rd October 1915

We slowly recover from the Battle of Loos

Sunday post 3rd october 1915

 

We have spent some time re-organising after the Battle of Loos. I have been made up to lance corporal. So has Tom Lewis. This is a result of need rather than ability as, out of 420 who left the trenches last week, only 200 returned. I know I should be pleased, but how can I be? We have been split into two companies and are now attached to 2nd Battalion.

lads

Out of the dozen lads who made 2 section – the ones who joined up with me – five, Ken Collins ( Back row 2nd from the right), Jamie Mann ( Far right back row), Eric Brodie ) front row, middle), Johnny Orton (front row second from right)  and Bob McLeod (front far right) were killed and Jack Gray  (front row far left) is missing.  Of course Robbie died at Neuve Chapelle and Arthur Watson was killed in the lines when I was convalescing. Only Tom Lewis, Danny Robertson and myself are still fit for action. We are all bereft, and having to sort out their backpacks and personal belongings was traumatic for all of us. So many of us have lost close friends and family.

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos,

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos.

Lt Steven’s brother joined the battalion on the very day of the battle and was one of the first to learn of his brother’s death. He manfully threw himself into re-organising the companies and sending his brother’s belongings home. This week, when we took over the trenches at Givenchy, he too was killed. What an awful blow to his parents, yet there are mothers and fathers throughout Perthshire who have lost this week. I am constantly reminded of my poor dead friends every time I look over the fire step out into No Man’s Land. Thankfully those who died hanging from the wire have been removed – the Hun cleared their lines pretty quickly – but there are hundreds of our lads are out there, victim the to weather and the rats. I received a letter from Father yesterday saying that the whole of Dundee and Perth are in mourning. The news of Colonel Walker’s death has hit the city particularly hard, as he was well known as a man who devoted his life to public service. But there isn’t a street in Dundee, or a family, that hasn’t been affected.

I certainly didn’t feel much like celebrating my birthday this week. To think I was so excited last year, finally old enough to join up and fight the Hun! Little did I think I would be stuck in a soaked ditch, with so many of my friends – who had been just as excited as me –  dead. I remembered my father’s stories of the glory of battle, but there is no glory in this war. just survival. Death is all around us and yet we carry on. The Hun are attacking more courageously than ever and it is all we can do to hold them back.

 

Weekending 26th September 1915

The Battle of Loos – The worst day of my life

sunday post 26th september 1915

The Battle of Loos, that’s what it is being called – and described as some sort of success. I don’t know what they saw, but in my view it was a  disaster. Our biggest push so far, with a week long bombardment and Kitchener’s new army at full strength, has ended in failure. We are back on our own lines after taking three lines of enemy trenches will heavy losses and then being forced back. We had no support on our flanks and the reinforcements we needed to take advantage didn’t arrive. The wire wasn’t cut by the massive bombardment and the gas attack we launched blew back and affected us more the Hun. The germans came back at us with bombing parties and heavy shelling. There were so many of them. We just didn’t have the numbers to defend our new positions. Colonel Walker is dead, Major tosh, Lt Steven, Cpl Quinn and five of my mates who joined up with me. Heaven knows how many are missing, captured or taken prisoner. Lt Cunningham is the only officer who survived unscathed. we are back at Pont du Hem a mere 200 of us from nearly 450 who set off. There are so few of us that we have been formed into two companies and incorporated into 2nd Battalion. The whole army has suffered  a similar fate – a battalion of Scot Fusiliers, who stayed in the tobacco factory at Bethune have been reduced from 1100 to 90. We are all dazed and exhausted.

The week began so differently, with me so pleased to be back with he lads. I made a special effort to see Lieutenant Steven, to thank him for helping me when I was convalescing. It was his intervention that got me posted to Ormskirk with the Horse Remount Depot. He was pleased to see me and shook me by the hand. He said it was good to see some old faces. That was praise indeed from a man who won the Military Cross a few months ago. It is true, though, there were lots of new faces. The battalion was almost to full strength and there were lots of eager and excited young lads everywhere . Tom Lewis said they were a danger to themselves in the front line, making lots of noise and getting shot at by German snipers. He said that wo got hit last time out, just peering over the top for a look. They just couldn’t help themselves.

There was so much activity, that it seems obvious that there was something coming. The artillery were steadily building up their bombardments. There was a time they would only fire a few a shells a day just to keep the Hun on their toes, but now they were firing regularly. And the  number of trucks and soldiers I saw when I came down from St Omer, suggested to me that there was going to be a big push.

Then it was announced that we were going to have inter-regimental games. The 2nd, 4th and 5th were together and there were going to be football, running, highland dancing and a tug’o’war. Cpl Quinn told Lugs McLeod he was in the football team. Others volunteered for the running and Danny Robertson and Jack Gray both volunteered for the Tug’o’war, though only Danny got into the team.

We didn’t have a very successful sporting day, though we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The 2nd Battalion proved to be excellent runners and better footballers. Lugs was furious and our only successful sport was the Tug’O’War. But a good time was had by all: Much banter, laughter, food and even drink. At the end of the day Colonel Wauchope gave a short speech and presented the 2nd with a cup. The guns, which had been firing steadily all day seemed to stop for the Colonel’s speech, resuming again as he finished.  We marched back in a good mood, especially Tom Lewis, who had won £6 betting through the day.

The next day we received orders to prepare to move. Obviously the camp burst into action. By the afternoon we had achieved nearly all that was required and Cpl Quinn came round with pencils and paper for us to write home. This was quite a shock for the new lads. Suddenly they realised that they could be killed. We old hands knew what was expected of us, having written the electors before. I wrote mine out, revisiting my feelings for each of my family and, of course, Lily. We were also each given a red rag to pin to our backs for identification.

Later we were paraded for Major Tosh. The weather had been foul – lots of rain. but it gradually started to improve to pale sunshine. w eerier organised into 4 companies, a,b,c, and d. I was in C company under captain Moodie, and Lt Steven. Then Colonel Walker came to speak to us. He spoke of the great history of the Black Watch, mentioning Fontenoy, Alexandria, Waterloo, Alma and Sudan. Then he said ” Let us add to the glorious history of our Regiment, Let this victory display on our colours for all to see! Go the fighting fourth!”

And we joyfully gave him three cheers. Eric Brodie said he probably didn’t mention Cawnpore and Lucknow, because they are on our side now…

Afterwards we were ordered back to our tents and Cpl Quinn came around to check our equipment. We were then ordered to leave our backpacks behind, with our letters in. and take just our overcoats and haversacks with ammunition and rations for a day. We set off as darkness fell. Double file. told to be silent, but we were so laden down with equipment it was impossible. But with the guns firing away the Hun could not have heard us.

At about 11pm we came to a stop in a reserve trench. We couldn’t move further forward – It was  like market day in there, soldiers pushing to get backwards and forwards. At midnight the rum ration came round. the new lads drank thirstily because they feared the unknown. We drank because we know there would be a long wait. Gradually we moved closer to the front trench with D Company, under Captain Couper. There were also our bombing section and machine gun section. to our left were the Punjabis and then the 2nd battalion. To our right the Gurkhas.

At the front, shells occasionally fell close to us. The new lads shrank into the trench walls and prayed. I looked at them with some pity. I knew what they were praying for – to be brave, to overcome their fear no matter what. That is what I prayed for before Neuve Chapelle. This time I prayed not to be injured and left in No Mans Land crying for water in agony until death takes me. I prayed “If it is to be, let it be quick.”

I almost slept for a short while and woke with my head rested against a jute sandbag in the trench wall. For a few moments I was reminded of my mother – had she made these very bags? – then Chrissy, full and cheek and with money in her pocket and bonny Janet. They seemed so very far away. And then father, who says he understands, but can never really know.. I prayed that Lily would not receive that letter. I wished I had torn it up.

An hour before dawn the guns fall silent. we are shaken awake by Cpl Quinn and Lt Steven moving along the line, to see we were responsive. At 5.40 we were ordered to stand to – put on our gas masks and fix bayonets. I was on the firestep, keeping my head down. Some engineers came along the trenches  and are pulled back tarpaulins revealing those red star canisters I had seen before. I suddenly realised that these were gas cannisters. I was horrified. This might be expected of the Hun, but not us! Gas is underhand and most dishonourable! They began to release the gas along pipes that stretched out towards the Hun’s trenches. I don’t know why they hadn’t thought about this, but the wind blew back the gas in our direction. In fact our attempts with gas were little short of a disaster as some of our own troops were caught unaware and gassed and I also heard later that some of the keys for activating the canisters did not fit. Even worse some full canisters were later hit by enemy shells and we were gassed in our own trenches!

And so, at ten minutes to six, I was looking out across N Mans land, when I saw the biggest explosion I shall ever witness. We had planted a mine and , to my left, the whole line seems to rise, silently into the air. As it paused momentarily, before falling, the posts, trees and walls that marked the trenches evaporated into dust. Then there was the loudest explosion, followed by the very earth moving as if we were riding in a train carriage at 50 miles an hour.  I heavy hail of earth fell upon our heads. I pitied those poor soldiers in that trench. Then our guns started again.

A few minutes later the whistles blew and we were off.

British infantry advancing at Loos, September 1915

We could hardly see anything, with the gas  and our masks, but it seemed obvious that the gas had not reached the enemy trenches. We advanced at a steady double across No Mans land and we made about 60 yards before the Hun started to fire. I was amazed that there was anyone still alive after the week of shelling and that huge mine, but  a few men fell, including Major Tarleton. I followed Quinn, who I could see ahead of me.  Soon we were being shelled – shrapnel everywhere. we got to the wire  and found it  still intact. We had no choice but to get down on our bellies, then over on our backs to wriggle underneath the wire..

The first trench was just a few yards beyond the wire and we were on them very quickly.  We leapt into the first trench, in a blinded fury. But one push was sufficient. The Prussian Guards had no fight in them. They sat with their hands on their heads. some were crying. Most could hardly stand. Looking around I could see a kind of Hell. The trench had been pummelled by our guns until there were hardy any features left. These survivors had obviously been frequently buried in earth and rubble, starved of food and water and had no sleep for a week. they were shells of real men, living in a ditch with body parts and human debris scattered everywhere.

Captain Moodie gathered us around. I was relieved to see Tom and Danny, Cpl Quinn and Eric. The Captain told us that we must get to the Hun support trenches before they could bring reinforcements. At the signal we jumped out of the trench and ran hell for leather for the next trench. I was yelling like Billy-o, but they couldn’t have heard me through that ridiculous mask. As I approached the trench, almost blind, I took the decision to pull it up so that I could breathe. There was not a whiff of the stuff. We were in the reserve trench in a flash. The fighting here was more intense, the Hun putting up some resistance. But we were furies and could not be stopped. Bayonet and rifle butt won the day. We just kept advancing down the trench line. Big, small, armed or not, we did not care. Our blood was up. Finally there were just a few huddled together screaming kamerad, their hands up, palms towards us. Quinn was there, trying to restrain us, ordering us to stop. When I looked around, I could see that this trench was just as damaged as the first. Out guns, despite failing to destroy the wire had pulverised these lines.  I was pleased to Eric still with me. He was helping a lad to take of his tunic and shirt to apply a field dressing.  But apart from him and Cpl Quinn, there were only a few others from C company and some from D Company.

Storming The Trenches At Loos September 1915

Fortunately we were joined by some men from A company. They told us that Major Tosh was down, Hit almost as soon as he left the trench. We could also see some Punjabis to our left and the 2nd Battalion BW to their left and we joined them to attack the windmill. It was very heavily fortified. As we advanced I noticed that there weren’t many Gurkhas there on our right flank. They must have had more trouble than we did.  We rushed forward and leapt in. They must have been firing like Billy, but I didn’t notice. I just ran and leapt in bayonet first. There were dozens of us. Stabbing, slashing. The narrow confines were crammed with writhing bodies, some attacking, some running all fighting for some room. Our training and fury drove us – stab, stabbing, driven on by those behind, bouncing off the trench walls, leaping dead, firing into them, stabbing again. Then I lost my footing and was trampled over by my pals.

I don’t know how long I was out for. A few minutes I imagine. I woke coughing and spluttering and sat again the trench wall to catch my breath. I looked around to count seven dead, six German, one of the new lads. I didn’t even know his name. Apart from my rattling gulps, it was surprisingly quiet. At the end of this part of the trench, I saw a German standing stock still, facing down towards me. I was completely defenceless and for a moment very frightened. It was only after a few seconds that I realised that he was dead – probably impaled on something. But he looked straight out the trench, eyes wide open. He could have been on sentry duty.

Eventually I scrambled to my feet, found my rifle, collected some ammunition from the others and then caught up with the others who were only a few yards further down the trench. From this point our job was to  consolidate our positions. Lt Cunningham was here and he said that we were waiting for colonel Walker to arrive before advancing any further. We set to work moving the sand bags from the front to back of the trench. In the distance we could already see movement in front of us. We knew it would not be long before we faced a counter attack.

At first, their shelling was wild, but gradually they honed in on us. We took what shelter we could, knowing that this was just to soften us up. I wondered where our guns were now? why couldn’t they have helped us? or the flyers? But we bore the brunt of it with out any reply that I could see.  Lt Stewart and his machine gun section got a direct hit – 14 men down. I could see that we were terribly vulnerable. There were so few of us and our right flank had no support at all. I have no idea what happened to those Gurkhas. Consequently it wasn’t long before the Hun started working their way along the empty trenches towards us. We could hardly hold a like to the front, there being perhaps a man every 8 or 10 feet. Captain Air arrived, trying to bring up a machine gun. He said that we should get reinforcements shortly. We held as best we could, holding back the attacks down the trench, whilst all the time looking for the frontal attack that was bound to come. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. and our reinforcements didn’t come.

At about 10.30 or so they started to move forward, bullets spitting at us as their bombing parties came up. We held them back as best we could, but we struggled to keep them a distance away from us. At the same time, they pushed harder through the trenches. Colonel Walker was there, and Captain Air, encouraging us. He had sent several men back with urgent requests for more men, but none arrived. perhaps the runners hadn’t made it – the gunfire and shelling was pretty hot. It was soon obvious that we couldn’t hold this line and orders were given to move back.

And so, a few minutes later, I found myself back in the trench with the German sentry. His mates swarmed into the trench we had just vacated and, foolishly immediately took a look to see where we were. We made them pay for that. However, we now had to move sand bags to the back wall of the trench out new defensive line. And there seemed to be thousand of the blighters. Jamie was dead by then and so was Ken Collins. I saw their bodies.

Finally Lt Cunningham told us to run for it back to our own trenches. Corporal Quinn took charge and we tried to retreat in an orderly manner – run, turn and fire. run turn and fire. It was so difficult. We were exhausted and scared. the ground was covered with our own dead – our own friends – sometimes so thick on the ground that we could not avoid trampling on them. They distracted us, made us look at them when we should have been concentrating on defending ourselves. The bodies were thickest only a hundred or so yards infant of our own trenches. What a dreadful waste.

As I ran through a clutter of bodies, a hand reached out, grasping my leg. A bloody face looked up, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, and begged for water. I instinctively reached down to my bottle. I had a little left. I stooped down, but Quinn was on me and bustling me forward “Get on, get on, no stopping!”  I shook the man off , broke free and I ran.

after Loos, the medical station at bethune

The trench was full of wounded, with the orderlies doing their best, trying to get the seriously injured – alt least those who had clawed their way back – into the reserve trenches as quickly as possible, but they struggled in the confines space and against those still active who were trying the defend the trench. Fortunately the Hun weren’t tempted to push on. If they had jam not sure we would have been able to hold. I know that Major Rogers did his best behind us, but there were just so many. That evening we were relieved. the new lads couldn’t have arrived sooner anyway. exhausted, we were marched out by the only fit officer, Lt Cunningham. the rumours about the dead had already started. I saw Colonel Walker fall, Major Tarleton and Captain Air and heard about Major Tosh, but I didn’t know about Lt Steven until we had returned to Pont du Hem.

This was the worst day of my life.

Weekending 19th September 1915

Back with the lads at last, I arrive at Bethune to join the battalion

Sunday post 1915

Well, it turns out that they did miss me after all! But what a struggle to get there. I left the remount depot first thing in the morning and set out east. The trains were full of munitions trucks and heavy artillery heading for the front and it was impossible to get near them. Eventually I got a lift in an army truck which was driving to St Omer. The roads were terribly busy too. the driver said that he had never known so many people on it and he hadn’t stopped driving this route for eight days. When I asked him what he was carrying, he said that he couldn’t tell me, but it would be better if I didn’t smoke…

The weather has been miserable  and the countryside is a complete quagmire – as bad as the front, though due to the constant passing of thousands of troops, horses and trucks, rather than to shelling. In some places the road was lost entirely to mud.  The driver said that he delivered to St Omer because the truck was not reliable enough to get his cargo through the the front. From then onwards, the army has to rely on horses. I left him as he pulled into the depot, and as I looked back, saw soldiers jumping onto the truck and pulling the tarpaulins back, revealing large metal cylinders with “red star” written in red letters on the side. I have no idea what they are, but I don’t think it is explosive, because the men rolled them around like they were barrels of ale.

Bethune 1915

Bethune Village

Then on to Bethune, on the back of a cart carrying potatoes. The weather just seemed to be getting worse. I pitied the poor horses, who received no quarter from the drivers who cajoled them forward through mud sometimes a foot deep. the wheels are much wider than usual to try to prevent them sinking, but it make little differences and the only way to avoid getting stuck is to keep moving. The poor brutes were exhausted by the time they changed at Aire-sur -la -lys, about half way. The driver told me that “Airies” as he called it had been the HQ of the entire army until a few weeks earlier, but now they had moved it to “Hinges”, which – lucky for me is only a mile or so from Bethune.  So getting a lift for the final part of the journey was so much easier, as there was a steady stream of traffic heading in that direction.

When I arrived at Bethune it was getting dark, but I was so pleased to recognise the place. I soon found our camp, just north of Vemelles and the lads were delighted to see me. They had just got back from a four quiet days at the front, and were looking forward to four days “rest”  – labouring and carrying supplies up to the support trenches. As I settled down on a makeshift bed, in a ragged tent, with the wind blowing and the rain dripping in, I couldn’t have been happier!

soldiers preparing for the front

More men getting ready for the front.

Then next morning, I made a special effort to see Lieutenant Steven to thanks him for helping me when I was convalescing. He seemed very pleased to see me, saying that with all these new faces, it was good to have some old regulars back. I suddenly felt very proud of myself. It seems that I have progressed from recruit to old hand in a very short time, but to have an officer ( one who himself has won an MC) regard me as a regular, is praise indeed. I made sure to mention that in my letter back to my father.  I also mentioned it to Lily, but I dare say, it will mean less to her.

There is definitely something brewing here. The artillery are beginning a heavy bombardment of the trenches in front of us.

 

 

Weekending 12th September 1915


We are off the France! And I am to rejoin my regiment

12th september 1915 sunday post front

Of course I soon felt dreadful about the way I had created Lily and her parents. They had done their best to be pleasant and I had behaved horridly. I wrote to Lily on the train down apologising, trying to explain that Arthur’s death and the experience I had had with his family had left me completely out of sorts. I begged her to forgive me and to explain to her parents.  It was lucky that I did, because it has been all action since.

I could not have felt more depressed when I arrived back at Ormskirk. Sergeant Harris soon snapped me out of that dark mood by announcing that we were to be in France in a week. I am to accompany our prepared horses to a remount depot in Pas de Calais and then I am to proceed to my battalion. The Sergeant thinks something big is going to happen, because they have been told to supply as many horses as they can as quickly as possible. He thinks this is going to be the big push. I shall be with the cavalry mounts, and so we have been working all daylight hours trying to get them ready. There is a lot of tackle to get ready and each horse has had an appointment with the vet and the blacksmith. They are no fools, they feel the excitement, and they have been quite difficult to handle.

ormskirk remount depot

 

At last the day arrived when they were taken and cajoled onto the trains for the south coast. many of them resisted, no doubt remembering their last experiences, and I don’t blame them. Some needed to be blindfolded. We accompanied them in a carriage at the back, little better then the open carriages the horse were in. No seats, just straw on the floor. Many of the men – ‘volunteered’ into the army a few months before, remember, did nothing but complain. But I just looked forward to seeing my friends. I received a letter from Lily the day before and was relieved to know that no lasting damage had been done. She had sensed that I was out of sorts and that I had found the evening with her parents uncomfortable. Mr and Mrs Galbraith had noticed, but when they heard that I had been to see the Watsons just before, I was completely forgiven.

william shaw, Black Watch on a horse at Ormskirk Remount depotAnd so again I arrived in Southampton, destined for France. We had a couple of hours after loading the horses, and so we went for a final drink on British soil. Our journey across the channel was completed in darkness and at dawn we started to unload the horses. When they were all off they spent the day in a local pasture and the next day, they were taken closer to the front. There I was relieved and told to make my way to Vermelles, the HQ of my battalion. So I said goodbye to my remount colleagues – and to Billy, my favourite – and set about getting a lift east.

scottish soldiers training for France

I saw this cutting in the Post this week. They all look very eager don’t they?  I wonder if they will get here in time. If this is going to be the big push, we could be in Berlin before we know it!