ON ACTIVE SERVICE SERIES
AT YPRES WITH BEST-DUNKLEY
By THOMAS HOPE FLOYD
LONDON: JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEAD NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY MCMXX Garden City Press, Letchworth, Herts.
ALL RANKS OF THE
SECOND-FIFTH LANCASHIRE FUSILIERS
WHO FELL AT
ON THE THIRTY-FIRST OF JULY, 1917
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK
"... Henceforth These are our saints.
These that we touched, and kissed, And frowned upon; These that were frail, yet died because the good Was overthrown.
That they in one dread hour Were terrible Stains not their sainthood, nor is heaven less sure That they knew hell.
How beautiful they are, How bright their eyes. Their hands have grasped the key Of Paradise!
They hold it out to us, Our men, our sons ... To us The lonely ones."
 Quoted with Mr. Moult's permission.
No doubt it will be thought that some apology is necessary for thrusting upon the public all this mass of matter, relating to many persons and episodes with whom and with respect to which they may feel that they are in no way concerned. I quite realize that my action may appear strange and uncalled for to the superficial observer. But I do not hold that view. I, personally, have always felt a desire to read this kind of literature. The Press does not cease to pour forth volumes of memoirs by leading and prominent persons—matter which is all wanted for a true understanding of the history of our times. But this is not enough. We require all the personal narratives we can get; and, in my opinion, the more personal and intimate, the better. We want narratives by obscure persons: we want to know and appreciate everybody's outlook upon public events, whether that outlook be orthodox or unorthodox, conventional or unconventional. Only thus can we see the recent war in all its aspects.
The motives which have prompted me to publish this book have been well expressed by Dr. A. C. Benson in his essay on Authorship in From a College Window. In that volume there occurs the following striking passage:
"The wonderful thing to me is not that there is so much desire in the world to express our little portion of the joy, the grief, the mystery of it all, but that there is so little. I wish with all my heart that there was more instinct for personal expression; Edward Fitzgerald said that he wished that we had more lives of obscure persons; one wants to know what other people are thinking and feeling about it all; what joys they anticipate, what fears they sustain, how they regard the end and cessation of life and perception which waits for us all. The worst of it is that people are often so modest, they think that their own experience is so dull, so unromantic, so uninteresting. It is an entire mistake. If the dullest person in the world would only put down sincerely what he or she thought about his or her life, about work and love, religion and emotion, it would be a fascinating document. My only sorrow is that amateurs of whom I have spoken above will not do this; they rather turn to external and impersonal impressions, relate definite things, what they see on their travels, for instance, describing just the things which anyone can see. They tend to indulge in the melancholy labour of translation, or employ customary, familiar forms, such as the novel or the play. If only they would write diaries and publish them; compose imaginary letters; let one inside the house of self, instead of keeping one wandering in the park!"
These memoirs, then, consist mainly of extracts from my private diary and my letters home during those memorable days, spent in the Salient and its vicinity, between the Battle of Messines and the Third Battle of Ypres. The letters cover a definite period in the history of a great battalion and in the course of the war. As will speedily be noticed, the whole period was one of looking forward, practising and awaiting a great day which we all knew was not far off, but the actual date of which none of us knew until it was almost upon us. All this time our interests (and, perhaps, our fears!) were centred upon one man, the unpopular Colonel who, few of us guessed in those days, was destined to win the V.C. on "the day," going down in a blaze of glory which should ever associate his name with that battle. With that "day," which was for many of us the end of all earthly troubles and hopes and fears, or, at any rate, an end for many months, the story reaches its natural termination.
In these pages I give to the public, for what they are worth, my own personal impressions of the people and things I saw and with whom I came into contact. I hope I have revealed the late Colonel Best-Dunkley to the public just as he was—as he appeared to me and as he appeared to others. I believe that in this I am doing right. "Paint me in my true colours!" exclaimed Cromwell to Lely. That is all that any hero—and Best-Dunkley was certainly a hero—can conscientiously ask. And I am sure it was all Best-Dunkley himself would ever have asked. He was a brilliant young man, endowed with a remarkable personality. It is right that his memory should be preserved; and if his memory is to be preserved it must be the memory of the Best-Dunkley we knew.
The battalion which Best-Dunkley commanded has, since his death, achieved great things and acquired great fame under the still more brilliant leadership of his successor, Colonel Brighten; but we must never forget that it was Best-Dunkley who led it on the glorious day of Ypres and that it was the tradition which he inspired which has been one of the strongest elements of esprit de corps in the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. All who served under Best-Dunkley remember the fact with a certain amount of pride, however unfavourably his personality may have impressed itself upon them at the time—for "All times are good when old!"
I am fully aware of the many imperfections of this book; but if it succeeds at all in vividly recalling to those who were in the Ypres Salient in 1917 the atmosphere of that time, and if it should encourage others to risk a similar venture, I shall feel amply rewarded.
I OFF TO THE FRONT 1
II THE PRISON 26
III ENTER BEST-DUNKLEY 49
IV MILLAIN 57
V THE MARCH 63
VI THE GENERAL'S SPEECH 77
VII THE VALE OF ACQUIN 81
VIII BACK TO THE SALIENT 103
IX BILGE TRENCH 113
X THE RAMPARTS 128
XI MUSTARD OIL 136
XII THE CITY AND THE TRENCHES 146
XIII RELIEF 164
XIV WATOU 168
XV THE DAYS BEFORE 179
XVI THE BATTLE OF YPRES 187
I MURRAY AND ALLENBY 227
II THE INFANTRY AT MINDEN 229
III GENERAL RAWLINSON AND OSTEND 230
IV EDWARD III AND THE ORDER OF THE GARTER 231
V GOLDFISH CHATEAU 233
AT YPRES WITH BEST-DUNKLEY
OFF TO THE FRONT
I had been to France before—in 1916, during the Battle of the Somme—but not as an officer; in 1916 I was a private in the Royal Fusiliers, and I had received orders to return to "Blighty" in order to proceed to an officer cadet battalion at Gailes, in Ayrshire, before I had been able to see what a front-line trench was like. So this, then, was my first experience of war—my "baptism of fire." I had seen and heard those magnificent bombardments up the line in 1916, and had gazed with awestruck admiration upon the strange horizon far away from my tents at Boulogne and Etaples, wondering what it must be like to be amongst it all, and expecting to be amongst it all in the course of a day or two; but, as I have already observed, I was recalled to England, and was not destined to be amongst it until the following summer. But now, at last, the experience, the great adventure to which I had been looking forward so long, was to be mine. I was gazetted a second-lieutenant in the 5th (Territorial) Lancashire Fusiliers on March 1, 1917; on March 26, I reported for duty with the 5th (Reserve) Lancashire Fusiliers at South Camp, Ripon, where I spent some unpleasant weeks amongst snow and mud; from Ripon the unit proceeded to Scarborough, where I rejoined it after having spent a couple of weeks in hospital, with tonsillitis, at the former place. Shortly after this, I received orders to proceed overseas, and returned to my home in Middleton Junction to spend my embarkation leave.
That leave was spent in the happy way in which all such leaves were spent during the Great War, terminating with a visit to the Gaiety, in Manchester, in conjunction with my father and mother, where we saw a most enjoyable comedy entitled "The Two Miss Farndons."
I bid farewell to my parents on Victoria Station at 10.35 that evening—Friday, May 25, 1917; and I then proceeded to the train which was to carry me away to England's capital.
The following letter, written at Folkestone at 11.15 the following morning, describes my journey up to that moment:
"I hope you and Father got home safely last night and are not worrying. My train left Manchester at 11.20. I had to change at Stockport. In neither case could I get a carriage to myself, but I managed to doze. When dawn broke we were in Northampton. It was 6.30 when the train arrived in Euston Station. I got a taxi across London to Victoria. There was an enormous crowd of military there, bound for France. People were seeing some of them off. I could not get any breakfast there. My train left London at 7.50. The journey through Kent is really delightful, such beautiful country. I am sorry to leave dear old England; hope I shall soon be back again!
"As we passed through Shorncliffe I noticed a house in ruins. Apparently there had been an air raid. And there has indeed! There was a bad air raid here at 6.30 last night. There is a good deal of damage done in Folkestone: I have seen it while walking about the streets this morning. There have been a good many casualties.
"The weather is glorious, delightful sunshine and hot. I am now having breakfast in a cafe in Folkestone with another officer. We sail on the Princess Clementine at 2 this afternoon, and so will be in Boulogne about 3.30."
I landed at Boulogne at 4 that afternoon and we went straight on to Etaples the same evening. The following letter recounts my journey and arrival at that great camp upon the sand-hills:
"May 27th, 1917.
"I have now, once more, safely arrived in this place, where there is nothing but sand. I expect you will already have received my communications from Folkestone. Is the news of the raid yet in the papers? I was told that there were thirty German aeroplanes and one zeppelin. Bombs were dropped on the soldiers' camp there, and a good many soldiers were killed. Apparently the operation made a big row, for it was heard across the water in the cathedral city in which we landed.
" ... We went on board at 1.30, but the boat did not start until 2.50. It was, and still is, tremendously hot. It seems that submarines are not harassing our transport route: for the number of ships, of various kinds, crossing was considerable. It was a pleasant voyage; but as I saw the white cliffs of Folkestone receding from my ken I could not help recalling with what rapture I beheld them on my return from France last October, and expressing a faint wish that I were again returning rather than going out! But, still, one will soon get used to France again; and we can always look forward to the next return. One thing is obvious—I am here for the hottest weather; heat, if anything, will be the trouble, not cold.
"The boat stood in the harbour for some time before we could land; but we eventually did so at 4. After seeing about my kit I had tea at the British Officers' Club, opposite the Gare Centrale. Then I got into the train. It should have left at 5.45, but, like all French trains, was very late in starting. It did start a little before 7. It was a train filled entirely with officers. It ambled along in the usual leisurely fashion. When we were about half-way we noticed that a good many were standing outside on the step; some had their legs hanging out of the window, others were actually on the roof! When we came to a tunnel the latter dived in through the open windows. Others got out and spoke to girls on the way, and then ran on and got back into the train. This is how travelling is carried on 'Somewhere in France'!
"The scenery, beautiful as it seemed last autumn, is much more beautiful now. It is at its best: the green grass with the dandelions and daisies, the hawthorn and the trees in bloom, little villages clustering in charming woods, the sheep and the cows, and little children cheering the train, everything sparkling in the hot sunshine; such is France—and such was the Kent I left behind me—at present. As one looks upon the peaceful country-side in France to-day one can scarcely realize that war is raging in all its ferocity and barbarity so near. It seems an anomaly. The weather is more suggestive of cricket than of war.
"I got here about 8.30, and went to the mess of the 23rd Infantry Base Depot. Here I found Bridgestock, Hamer, and Allin (officers who had been at Scarborough with me, and had come out a few days earlier). They have been here nearly a week. They are going to the 3/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. I had some supper before going to bed in my tent. We are three in a tent. Leigh and Macdonald are the names of my tent companions.
"Fortunately it is Sunday to-day. So we did not get up until 7.45. I did not feel like rising until then!
"We (the twenty Lancashire Fusilier officers who arrived here yesterday) saw the Adjutant, Captain Reid, this morning, in the orderly room, and had some information given to us. I spent most of the morning at the field cashier's, waiting for an 'advance of pay book'! Then lunch. It is now about 2.30 in the afternoon.
"As I expected, I find that I have too much kit: I am told that I shall have to get rid of some when I get to my unit. I am at present writing on my nice table, but no other officers have brought out tables or chairs or anything of that kind! Well—we shall see...."
"May 28th, 1917.
"It is still boiling hot; thank goodness we have finished for to-day! I must first, however, tell you how I spent the remainder of yesterday, after writing home. I spent the afternoon in the town. I explored most of it. Happening to pass the church, I saw a great crowd. It was full inside; the west doors were open, and people were sitting in the doorway and standing out in the street watching the service. So I too stopped and watched. It was most interesting, but as the service was conducted in French (apparently the Gallican Church differs from the Roman Catholic Church in England in that the service is conducted in the vernacular), I do not know what the service was. Although most of it was in French, bits were in Latin. It was exceptionally spectacular. There were about a hundred little boys in surplices and little girls in white veils (as if dressed for confirmation), all carrying long, lighted candles. Music and hymns were proceeding all the time. The little boys and girls were standing still part of the time, and processing up and down the chancel at other times. Eventually they all processed past the senior priest, attired in full vestments; and he blew out their candles as they passed. Towards the close of the service, a little girl, carrying her candle, was brought out by the priest and stationed in front of the altar with her face to the congregation; then she recited, in French, something which sounded like a very long creed. She was only about twelve or thirteen; but she did it without a stop, and in a clear, pleasant voice. After that a bell rang, everybody bent their heads, and the priest pronounced the Benediction. Then the congregation came out, and behind came the boys and girls and the priest. The people lined the road, and the procession walked on until it reached a kind of yard leading to some institute. The people followed. They all halted inside here. Then the priest prepared to make a little speech and pronounce another Benediction; but he would not proceed until all the little choir boys were perfectly quiet. He waited about five minutes. Then he preached a brief sermon (of course in French) directed to the children. I could not understand much of what he was talking about; but I think he was very eloquent. I could deduce from words here and there that he was reminding them that their fathers and brothers and uncles were fighting at the front, and telling them that if they were not good little boys and girls their fathers and brothers and uncles would fall in battle! Then he pronounced his final Benediction, and we scattered—5.20.
"I could see that everybody was discussing the service and the sermon. I overheard a Frenchman in frock coat and top hat, who seemed to be a churchwarden or something of the kind, expressing his appreciation of the latter.
"Then I came back to camp and paraded for a box-respirator! We then went through 'tear gas.' Then dinner. I sat at the Commandant's table. He was talking about a great concentration up North—guns and supplies and men swarming there recently....
"After dinner I went to bed. Thus ended Whitsun Day, 1917.
"I got up at 7.15 this morning. Breakfast. Then down to the 'bull ring' in full marching order. Gas all day. Fortunately we were under nice shady trees most of the time. We had sandwiches down there between 12 and 1, and got back at 4.30, feeling very hot after the march. Then tea....
"Hamer, Bridgestock, and Allin have gone up the line this morning. I am posted to the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers (the battalion Norman Kemp was in!). I shall not be going up the line for a few days, but by the time your reply to this reaches me I shall be there...."
My diary of that same day, May 28, records: "To Paris Plage in the evening." And my letter written home the following day proceeds as follows:
"After writing home yesterday I walked down town, and took a car to the seaside place opposite. The country through which the car went was pretty, and the seaside place quite passable; all right in peace-time I should think. Unfortunately the last car back leaves at 8.15, so I came by it....
"To-day, Royal Oak Day, we have spent on the 'bull ring' again....
"I have seen David Morgan (who was in the same billet with me when we were privates together in the 29th Royal Fusiliers at Oxford, in January, 1916) this evening. I managed to find the C.R.E. offices where he works. He saw me, and came out to me. I went inside. He is very cosy there, in a nice new hut. He was working at a drawing. His hours daily are from 9 in the morning until 8 in the evening; but, as I had come, he managed to get a pass to go down town with me this evening. We therefore had a walk. He looks very well with his stripe, and he seems to be having a good time. He desires to be remembered to you both. I left him at about 8. Then I had dinner at the Officers' Club, but was not struck by it....
"It is now 'lights out,' so I had better stop."
" ... We spent the day on the 'bull ring' as usual. It has been fine. We have not, I am thankful to say, had any rain at all since I landed in France on Saturday last.
"This evening I have spent parading the streets of the town. I have become heartily 'fed up' with the dirty antediluvian place. Morgan actually, after nine solid months of residence here, says that he likes it and the people. I could not have imagined that there were many of the latter whose acquaintance would be particularly charming; but he speaks upon the authority of long experience!"
I also wrote down the following note at that time while I was still in Etaples:
"One noticeable thing to-day (May 30) has been the number of men and transport which have been passing through on the trains all day and going north, obviously coming from one part of the Front and going round this way, to avoid the observation of the Germans, to another. We are massing troops round the great city where great battles have been fought before—concentrating for a great offensive. So there will very soon be a third battle of Ypres, and I expect I shall be present on the occasion myself. It should be very exciting. In the two former battles we were on the defensive; this time we shall be on the offensive. And I must say—pessimistic as I am on all Western offensives—this idea holds forth a faint ray of hope of success. I have always held that there is only one way in which the war can be won in the West—by a flanking offensive in the North. This is not entirely the type of flanking movement I would myself recommend, but it is an attempt at the idea—and that is something. It may prove a semi-fiasco like the awful tragedies of Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, and Arras; but it might possibly turn out a success. Then it would be simply a case of veni, vidi, vici!"
That memorandum is particularly interesting in view of the events which followed, and the story which this narrative will tell. I always held very strong-views on the conduct of the war. I was not one of those who looked upon this great bid for world power on the part, of the German Empire as purely a campaign on the Western Front, all other campaigns in other corners of the globe being mere "side shows." I was always a firm and consistent supporter of the "East End" school of strategy. I looked upon the war as a World War and, since the decisive Battle of the Marne in September, 1914, when the German hopes of complete and crushing victory in the West were shattered (which decision was still more finally confirmed at First Ypres), as primarily a south-eastern war. I held with that great statesman and strategist, Mr. Winston Churchill, that Constantinople was "the great strategic nerve-centre of the world war." I realized that a deadlock had been reached on the Western Front, and that nothing was to be hoped from any frontal attack there; and I also realized that Germany held Constantinople and the Dardanelles—the gateway to the East. And the trend of German foreign policy and German strategy convinced me that it was in the Near East that the menace to our Empire lay. There was our most vulnerable part; while Germany held that gateway, the glamour of the East, with its possibilities of victories like those of Alexander, and an empire like that one which was the great Napoleon's early dream, would always be a great temptation to German strategists. I therefore always used to assert that "The side which holds Constantinople when peace terms come to be discussed is the side which has won the war," and I think the events of September, 1918, have proved that my view and prophecy were correct. I firmly believe that if unity of command under Marshal Foch and Sir Henry Wilson, with the following decisive victories of D'Esperey at Cerna and Allenby at Armageddon in September, 1918, bringing about the capitulation of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and the surrender of Constantinople to the Allies, had not been attained last year the war would still be in progress. And I therefore hold that it is impossible to estimate the debt which the Allies owe to those statesmen who brought about that unity of command.
But to return to my story. The next day was spent, as usual, on the "bull ring." On June 1, I find that I recorded the following incident:
"We have been on the 'bull ring' again this morning. The weather is as hot as ever. While we were down there a German aeroplane flew right over from one end to the other—north to south. The anti-aircraft guns were firing at it the whole time, but failed to hit it. It was flying at a great height, and the shrapnel appeared to be bursting all round it. At one time it flew directly over our heads; but it did not drop any bombs! A few minutes after it had passed, bits of shrapnel fell quite near us—within four or five yards—proving how much overhead it had been. It was quite exciting, but not quite so much so as it was during those two minutes at Dover last September. Now the question which arises is: What was its object? It did not drop any bombs. Its object, therefore, must have been reconnaissance. I suppose that it came to find out what number of troops we are moving round this way to the new battlefield in the north. Even though we may move troops by so roundabout a way, the enemy is able to find out by means of aircraft. Aircraft makes manoeuvre in modern warfare intensely difficult."
That same evening orders came through for me to proceed up the line, but, as the following letter will tell, they were afterwards cancelled, owing to some mistake:
"I had a walk down town yesterday evening. Then I came back and called at the C.R.E. office to say good-bye to David Morgan. He was in—writing letters—and I stayed a few minutes; then he walked back with me part of the way. He wished me the best of luck. We both expressed a hope that the war would soon be over! 'What a life!' said Morgan.
"Leigh got up before 4 this morning, as his train up the line left soon after that. I got up at 6, and had breakfast. My kit was taken down to the New Siding Station where I had to report at 7.50. The place was, as usual, crowded with troops waiting to go up the line. There was a train full of Portuguese troops in the siding. I reported to the R.T.O. He said 'Get in officer's coach marked C, and get out at Bethune.' Then he suddenly discovered that my name was crossed out. 'I've got your name crossed off here; I don't think you are to go. You had better stand by a few minutes while I telephone and find out,' he remarked. He then telephoned to Headquarters and, after about ten minutes, the reply came through: 'Not to proceed.' There had been a mistake about the division or something. Anyhow, I was ordered to return to camp. So I told my man to take my kit back, and returned. The others went up the line. It is funny, isn't it? I am amused. I take all these changes with equal equanimity. I am quite agreeable whatever happens.... I know that whatever happens all will turn out right. I shall arrive at the right place at the right time. It is most interesting. I expect you will be pleased at the delay!
"When I got back I saw the Adjutant and reported to him. He was with the padre, an Irishman who was an officer in Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force, at the time. He was amused, and the padre said 'Lucky man!' So I have had a nice easy day, writing letters and strolling about....
"There are a whole crowd of Portuguese here now. A large number marched up from the station, with band playing, this morning. I find that the Portuguese troops pay more attention to saluting than do the French; I have received more salutes from Portuguese than from French; but I hear that the discipline of the Portuguese in the trenches is very bad indeed.
"I notice that it is announced in the paper to-day that a violent artillery bombardment is in progress between Ypres and the sea. There you are—that is the preliminary bombardment which always precedes a great battle in war of to-day."
"I am still here, and have heard nothing further about going up the line. The weather is still hot and fine—summer at its best. Yesterday evening I went down town as usual. When I got back I found some Portuguese officers in the mess. Everybody was talking French; it was amusing; but I soon disappeared to my tent. Macdonald left this tent some days ago; Leigh went up the line; —— took the latter's place: so now there are just —— and I in Tent 12. He returned slightly tight about 11, and talked a lot of stuff, telling me many stories of his lurid past! He seems to have been a gay undergraduate at Jesus College, Oxford, seventeen years ago; he is now thirty-eight. His home is in ——. His two children live there. He has a daughter fifteen and a son in the Cathedral choir. Yet he himself is a Quaker! And he is in the Army! He was present at the Battle of the Marne. He is a most quaint individual altogether.
"He and I were censoring-letters this morning. It was amusing, but soon became boring as most of the men employed the same formula: 'Just a line to let you know that I am in the pink, hoping this finds you in the best of health as this leaves me at present, etc.'!
"I went down town this afternoon and had a bath (an expensive luxury which cost me 2s.) and strawberries and cream (which cost 3s. 6d.) That just gives you an idea of prices in this God-forsaken land named France....
"I also looked inside St. Michael's Church during the afternoon service. It appears to be a case of come in and go out when you please. There is one redeeming feature about the French people: they take their religion seriously, and the children are systematically taught. One can see that. The priest is a depressing-looking old chap. The service in the Gallican Church is much nicer than the service in Roman Catholic, or extreme High Anglican churches in England. There were not nearly so many candles to-day carried in procession as last Sunday. Nor was the congregation so large.
"I read the Middleton Guardian correspondence to —— in the tent when I got back. He was interested. We then argued until about 11. Macdonald, in a tent close by, called out 'Floyd, shut up!' The latter is marked 'temporary base' for a month; that is why he has not yet gone up the line. All the others who came out when I did have now gone up the line; I am the only one left behind!"
" ... At 3.50 this afternoon I was informed that the Adjutant wished to see me; so I went to the orderly room. He informed me that I go up the line to-morrow morning. I go to the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, 55th Division....
"Now I am going to bed in my tent for the last time in this peaceful place, where the only reminder of the fact that war is raging is to be traced in the encamped city on the sand dunes above the town and the swarms of soldiers. The sunset is fine, the air is now a little cooler after the heat of the day, and the sea and the river calm and refreshing."
Thus ended my long wait at Etaples. The following morning (June 5) I rose at 6. Having had breakfast, I reported at the New Siding Station at 6.50. I was ordered to get into the train which was drawn up there, and get out at Hazebrouck, where I would receive further orders from the R.T.O. there. The train moved off at 7.40. As we passed Camiers we noticed an American camp there; an American waved the Stars and Stripes as we passed. We passed through Boulogne at 9. At 1 we reached the city of St. Omer, where the great Earl Roberts had died at Field-Marshal French's G.H.Q. in 1914. All round here we noticed numerous German prisoners working along the line; and we passed many dumps of various kinds. At 2.30 we steamed into Hazebrouck. I noticed a long hospital train standing in the station, full of wounded who were being taken to the Base hospitals. Those who were in a condition to do so looked very pleased with life.
I reported to the R.T.O. in the square at Hazebrouck, and he gave me instructions to go by the next train to Poperinghe. It was a sultry day and I was glad of a drink. I managed to get one on the station. I could occasionally hear the rumble of the guns in the distance now, but very faint.
The train left Hazebrouck at 3.30 p.m. The country looked as calm and peaceful as anything. The only signs which suggested war were the German prisoners at the side of the railway and the numerous dumps. But we drew nearer to the Front. The train halted at Abeele, a village near the frontier of France and Flanders. As we stopped here for a few minutes a number of us managed to dash into an estaminet opposite the station and get a drink! From Abeele onwards the most noticeable objects were the aeroplanes which were now very numerous above us, the presence of which indicated our proximity to the war.
At 6.30 the train came to a standstill in a station which I was informed was my destination, Poperinghe. "This is the railhead for the Ypres Salient" I was told. So out I got with my kit. I was expected. There was a mess cart awaiting me at the station; and in it I jogged along to the Transport Lines which were in the vicinity of Brandhoek a mile or so further on—on the left of the road from Poperinghe to Ypres.
The transport driver told me what it was like in that part, how it had been very quiet when the 55th Division took over their positions in the Salient from the 29th Division the previous autumn, but had grown more lively every day; how they had received a nasty gas bombardment only a few days ago, how the Boche had recently taken to shelling us furiously and systematically every night, and how there were some very hot times ahead—there was to be a raid by a battalion in our brigade that night.
It was fairly quiet when I arrived—it was a time of the day when things generally were somewhat quiet, when the guns were resting before joining in the nightly fray—so I did not immediately notice how near to the war I had come. But I was soon to realize it.
When I reached the Transport Lines I made the acquaintance of two officers of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers of whom I was destined to see much in the coming months, Philip Cave Humfrey and Joseph Roake—especially Roake, as it was his good fortune to remain with the Battalion until long after the cessation of hostilities and to be with me in the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers in the Army of the Rhine. Humfrey, by a curious coincidence, turned out—though I did not know it until many months after—to be the brother-in-law of my school-friend William Lindop!
Never shall I forget that summer evening near Brandhoek. Roake, effervescing as always with droll wit, and Humfrey, with his natural cheerfulness and affability, made me at home in their little hut at once. I can well recall the scene: a tiny little wooden hut at the edge of a large field; the wall adorned by a trench map of the Ypres Salient, on which our present position was marked in pencil, and a striking group photo of the Imperial War Cabinet, taken out of an illustrated journal, in which the well-known faces of Lloyd George and Lord Curzon seemed to dominate the picture; a little table upon which Humfrey drafted a signal message to the Adjutant of the 2/5th, announcing my arrival and asking for instructions, the table upon which an excellent little dinner was almost immediately served; outside the observation balloons in a curved line, denoting the Salient, and aircraft sweeping through the skies.
It was then that I first saw what was going to be to me a very common sight during those memorable "Wipers days"—an air fight. I had not been in the little wooden hut many minutes before Roake called me out to watch a scrap between British and German aeroplanes over the Salient. We got out our field-glasses and, in the cool of a summer's evening, when any ordinary individual in "Blighty" would be relaxing from the labours of the day in cricket or in tennis, we surveyed with interest the contests between the chivalrous heroes of the air far above. It was then that I first saw a "blazing trail across the evening sky of Flanders." There were many such in the summer of 1917, though the brilliant young airman of whose death that glowing eulogy had been written now lay sleeping beneath a little wooden cross in the grave in which the Germans, paying homage to true chivalry, had laid him at Annoeullin. Who could watch those little specks rising and falling, and falling to rise no more, up there in the bright blue sky without a thrill of admiration for these "New Elizabethans" of England and Germany?
It was during tea that I realized that I was really at the war. The guns began to boom and the hut shook with the continual vibration. And then the band of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers struck up some jolly tunes in the field. War and music going hand in hand, it was difficult to know whether one ought to feel jolly or sad. I think I may safely say that we felt as jolly and gay as could be; I know that the romantic aspect was the one which appealed to me most. This was the real thing, none of your home-service games.
The bombardment became more intense as the evening progressed. After dark the Transport moved off to carry rations up to the men in the line. If it is not superfluous to do so, I would wish to pay here the warmest possible tribute to those gallant Transport men who used to "carry rations on the road from Pop to Ypres." It was no picnic. The Boche knew quite well the time that vast and apparently never ending chain of traffic would be wending its nightly way from Poperinghe to Ypres. He shelled the great high road systematically every night. Every night some of those gallant men would go never to return. It seemed marvellous that so many could escape the destruction which was hurled at them; but war is full of wonders.
My diary of that night reads as follows:
"As it began to get dark the bombardment became louder and louder and the flashes more vivid. Shells were falling at Vlamertinghe, half way between Poperinghe and Ypres, exploding with a great sound. They were falling here yesterday!
"At about 10.30 p.m. we saw the Transport set off along the road, taking rations and supplies up to Ypres.... Humfrey went with them. (I would have gone up with him, but the Adjutant of the 2/5th had sent a message by the signals saying that I could sleep at the Transport Lines and report the following morning.) Red Cross motors were also coming back from Ypres with wounded. Meanwhile the moon—a full moon—steadily rose above the Front, amid the flashes between Ypres and Messines, the bombardment sounding like thunder. It was a fine scene. If only there had been an artist there to paint it! A farm on the Switch Road (a new road for traffic built by the British Army) some way off got on fire. I hear that the King's, in our Brigade, are going over the top on a raid to-night. Our great offensive here has not yet opened, but it will come off before very long....
"To bed 11.30, the guns booming like continuous thunder. I was awakened in the night by shells whizzing past the hut where I was sleeping."
So I was, at last, introduced to that strangest of all music—the screech of a shell: Whoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-UMP!
It has already been observed that the 55th (West Lancashire) Division, after a hot time on the Somme, particularly at Guillemont and Ginchy, had come up the Salient in October, 1916. So when I joined the Division it was in the 8th Corps, commanded by Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston ("Hunter-Bunter," as I remember Best-Dunkley calling him), in Sir Herbert Plumer's Second Army. The 55th Division was responsible for the sector between Wieltje and the south of Railway Wood.
The 55th Division was commanded by Major-General Jeudwine, of whom it has been said: "No General ever was more devoted to his Division: no Division ever was more devoted to its General." The three infantry brigades in the Division were the 164th Brigade (Brigadier-General Stockwell), the 165th Brigade (Brigadier-General Boyd-Moss), and the 166th Brigade (then commanded by Brigadier-General Lewis). The 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, who had been commanded by Colonel Best-Dunkley—an officer who had previously been Adjutant on the Somme—since October 20, 1916, were in the 164th Brigade.
In those days a brigade consisted of four battalions. The other three battalions in the 164th Brigade were the 1/4th King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, commanded by Colonel Balfour, the 1/8th King's Liverpool Regiment (Liverpool Irish), commanded by Colonel Heath, and the 1/4th Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, commanded by Colonel Hindle, who, after winning the D.S.O. and Bar, was killed at the head of his battalion at Heudecourt during the great Battle of Cambrai on November 30, 1917. When the necessity for "infiltration" brought about the reduction of the strength of brigades from four battalions to three, the Liverpool Irish were afterwards transferred to the 57th Division. But throughout the whole of the period with which this narrative deals the Liverpool Irish were still with us.
It is interesting to note the summary of the situation written by the chronicler of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers in the 1917 Lancashire Fusiliers' Annual:
"On May 26th, the Battalion moved back to the Prison. Lieutenant-Colonel B. Best-Dunkley went on leave the same day, leaving Major Brighten in command.
"Then began a very memorable 17 days—Ypres was shelled heavily every day, particular attention being paid to the Prison.
"By night the Battalion was occupied in digging a new communication trench, Pagoda Trench. The digging was finished in two nights, but there was all the riveting to do as well. Every night the working parties have to pass through a barrage. Our casualties during this period totalled 60 or 70. The moral of the men was very high all the time. The continual shelling, paradoxical as it must seem, hardened and prepared them as much as anything for the great day which every one knew was not far off.
"We had our first serious gas attack on June 3rd. It was preceded by a heavy bombardment of Ypres, after which some 25,000 gas shells were put over, lasting from 10 p.m. to 4 p.m. We were fortunate in having very few casualties."
That was the position of the Battalion when I set off to join it in the Prison cells on the morning of June 5, 1917.
I rose at 10 a.m. It was a rowdy morning. The guns were still unusually lively. While we were having breakfast shells were bursting three or four hundred yards away from our hut, and we could hear occasional H.E. dropping as far back as Poperinghe behind us.
The following letter which I wrote home from my cell (which I shared with three other second-lieutenants, Gilbert Verity, Bernard Priestley and H. A. Barker) in the Prison, dated June 6, 1917, describes my journey to Ypres:
"At 11 a.m. I set off up the road with another officer to the city where my unit is stationed. We got a lift in a motor as far as a town half-way. This town (Vlamertinghe) was almost entirely in ruins. There has been an ancient church there, but only the front of the tower and all the crucifixes remain. Shells were bursting all about. We sat down on a fence and waited for another lift. It was most exciting. I have not got the 'wind up' yet; I am more interested than anything else. I contemplated a famous hill on my right. Then we got on another motor. This ride was most exciting, the excitement consisting in whether we could reach the city without being blown to pieces by the shells which were exploding to front of us, to right of us, to rear of us, and to left of us! The road was cut up by shells which had exploded on it, and trees were felled across it. We jogged a good deal riding over this debris. We saw one of our batteries on the left of the road which had been smashed by a German shell. A good many of the transport horses had been killed on the road last night, but the bodies had been removed by now. We got out of the car just outside the city and walked into it. What struggles have taken place here! One could hardly realize that in pre-war days this had been a great and flourishing city. Just a few buildings remain standing, and those all in ruins; debris everywhere, shells constantly exploding everywhere. It is reckoned that the rate of casualties in this city just now is a thousand a week; military, of course—there are no civilians here; it is a battlefield where battles have been fought, where strafing is going on now, and around which a great battle is about to be fought. One battalion in our brigade went over the top on a raid last night. Our guns are even now conducting the preliminary bombardment along the line which precedes a great offensive. And the Germans are giving it us back too! My companion was very anxious that we should reach the Prison without personally encountering any shells. He told me that the corner round which we were passing was a windy one! But we got inside the Prison safe and sound, and here I now am writing this while the shells are flying and our guns stationed in the city are speaking. The top of this building is in ruins as shells are constantly hitting it, but we are down below, and we have wire-netting to catch the falling debris.
"I was received by a young Major and the Adjutant, Lieutenant Andrews. I had lunch with them and the other officers in the (Headquarters) mess-room."
There let us pause for a moment. There are scenes in one's life, pleasant and otherwise, which one can never forget, which ever rest vividly in the eye of the mind. There were many such scenes during my experiences in France and Belgium; but none do I recollect more clearly, and few with more satisfaction, than this my first meal with the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. Never was a subaltern given a more friendly welcome than that which Major Brighten extended to me. I was made at home at once. Padre Newman, who seemed little more than a young undergraduate with a gay and affable countenance, but with that unselfish and utterly unostentatious heroism depicted in every feature—a typical example of the kind of hero which our public schools, with all their failings, have sent forth in hundreds and thousands during the last five years—was placing jolly records on a gramophone when I entered the little cell; and the mess-waiters were preparing lunch on a table which had been erected for the purpose.
In England I had been accustomed to "battalion messes," but out here such an arrangement was very rare. "Company messes" were the thing out here. There were generally five messes in all—Headquarters and the four companies. Major Brighten at once invited me to stay for lunch at Headquarters and, when the meal was announced to be "served," told me to sit next to him. I found him extremely interesting. The conversation was most entertaining. The subject upon which his wit pivoted during a good part of the meal was the Brigadier (always an interesting topic!), his latest sayings and possible future career 'after the war'—a period which Major Brighten always declared to be in the very near future. The first thing which struck me about Major Brighten was his youth; he was only twenty-seven. I had not been accustomed to such young senior officers in England. In fact, youth seemed to be the foremost characteristic of the Battalion. Nearly all the officers were extremely young. And I learnt that Colonel Best-Dunkley himself was only twenty-seven! It was the pride of the Battalion that it was led by youth. If ever a proof were required of the truth of Disraeli's famous maxim "The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity," it is here in the brilliant record of the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers. Let Mr. Alec Waugh and the League of Youth and Social Progress carefully note that, for here, surely, is a feather in their cap!
After lunch I was posted to a company—"B" Company; and I was conducted to another cell where I found my company commander, Captain H. H. Andrews, sitting up in bed, looking very happy. It was quite the thing to stay in bed until the afternoon in those days, because the nightly working parties did not get back until just before dawn. It was a day of pleasant surprises. I had already been very favourably impressed by the magnetic personalities of Major Brighten and Padre Newman; now I was ushered into the presence of another amiable military genius, Captain Andrews. I had not been in his presence two minutes before I congratulated myself on my good fortune in having "clicked" for so delightful a company commander as Captain Andrews. Though older and very different in appearance, he was another officer of the same stamp as the lovable and brilliant Major Brighten. He was an ideal company commander. One could not hope for a better either from a military or from a social point of view. He was ability, wit, and sociability combined. Those were great days.
But to continue the reproduction of the letter quoted above:
"I am attached to B Company, commanded by Captain Andrews, and I have been appointed by him to command the seventh platoon. Just before tea Captain Andrews had me in his room and gave me maps of the district and explained—with reference to the maps—the situation. He also told me the plan of campaign and explained what Haig's intentions for the whole summer offensive are and what he requires us to do; so I now know the general idea, and I also know in detail what this battalion, this company, and my own platoon have got to do—and when; but as it is all very secret information only for officers, I, unfortunately, cannot give it you. My opinion is that the general plan is good, with the exception that I do not quite appreciate the point with respect to the particular part which this battalion (and brigade) has to play in a few days; it strikes me as being rather foolish, though it may be all right.
"While we were having tea the Germans set up a most terrific bombardment of this prison. Shells exploded just outside the window-opening, causing quite a wind inside the room. It is going on still; shells keep striking the wall outside. There it goes—bang! And there are our guns smashing back at them. There again—debris scattering in the quad, the other side of the door. Whizz-bang! It is extraordinary that any walls in this city can remain standing at this rate. They say that this goes on day and night. When a shell explodes the room is temporarily darkened by the cloud of smoke which rises. This is some bombardment; it is worse than the worst of thunder-storms.
"I have found Verity here. He has been here some time, and is alive and in the best of health.
"Well, I really must stop now; though I could go on recording every bang as it comes; there are about two explosions during every sentence which I write.
"Now do not get anxious, we manage to exist through it all; and I do not see why my luck should desert me. I am on the one point on the Western Front where I had a desire to explore. There is something doing here."
And "something doing" there was, much sooner than I expected. I had reached the Prison at Ypres just in time to hear and feel the best staged battle in history—the Battle of Messines. The following letter written home on the evening of June 7, describes Messines Night:
"Since I wrote to Mother yesterday a good deal has happened. About 6.30 I attended a conference consisting of the officers and sergeants of B Company in Captain Andrew's room; and Captain Andrews explained the scheme which he had explained to me earlier on; though he did not tell them quite as much. I, of course, will not tell you what the scheme was! Then dinner. Things were much quieter now—quieter than they had been all day. A working party of the Battalion was to leave after dinner. The 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers are the battalion in reserve to General Stockwell's brigade at present: we hang out here in the day-time, and go out on working parties in the trenches in the Salient at night. But Captain Andrews said that I need not go out with them on this occasion. So I remained behind and censored letters. While doing so my eyes began to water—about 11 to 11.30. Then the Company mess-waiter, Private Saul (Captain Andrews' batman), came in and told me that the Germans were sending over 'tear gas.' So on with my gas helmet. The gas shells were bursting outside the windows; but I thought it safe to take off my helmet after a few minutes; my eyes watered a good deal, that was all. At about midnight I went to bed.
"For three hours I slept quite comfortably. At 3.15 I was awakened by a terrific row. The whole place was shaking like an earthquake; the wall was quivering; our guns were firing rapid as fast as ever they could go; every gun in the city, in fact, every gun on the British Front for miles, was pounding the enemy with shells. A man came in to say that the order was 'everybody down in the cellar.' So I threw some clothes on and went down there. There was a crowd down there. The parties which had been out working had returned, but not without casualties; there had been a few killed and wounded. At a table in the centre of the room, a lamp on it, sat Captain Andrews, in his shirt sleeves, and other officers, seriously contemplating a message which had arrived, the purport of which they were trying to understand. The man who had brought it was under arrest as a suspected spy; but after inquiries had been made at Brigade it was discovered that he was perfectly bona fide; So Major Brighten ordered him to be set free.
"I found myself next to Verity, so I asked him whatever all this hubbub was about. He replied that it was the expected push on our right—'the Messines push'—taking place. The New Zealanders (and Australians, the 36th Ulster Division, the 16th South Ireland Division, the 23rd Division, and the 47th London Division) were going over the top, and this was our barrage. Captain Andrews said that this was a bombardment which our guns were conducting, double in intensity to any which we inflicted upon the enemy during the Battle of the Somme! It was a row indeed, and it continued for some time. Then dawn broke, and it had slackened. At 5.30 we came upstairs and had some refreshment in the mess; the gramophone was set going ('The Bing Boys'—'Another little drink wouldn't do us any harm'—was the precise record which was put on as soon as we entered the mess!); things were much quieter, but we were expecting the Germans to retaliate."
It was at these early morning breakfast parties in the Prison that the grim significance of the word "Gate" impressed itself upon me. "Which gate did you come in at?" was a very common question which one officer would ask another on their return from work in the trenches. "I came in by the Dixmude Gate," or "I came in by the Menin Gate," would be the reply. And some would say that they had avoided "gates" altogether and threaded their way across the open. These gates were places of evil omen. The enemy had the exact range of them, and knew when working parties would be likely to be passing them. And upon no spot was conferred a greater legacy of awe than upon the Menin Gate. It was always one of the most terrible spots in Ypres. People were killed there every day. To go past the Menin Gate was considered to be asking for it. So a terror of the Menin Gate was bred in me before I had ever seen the gruesome, stinking spot. And the Menin Gate had taken its toll on Messines Night.
My letter continues: "At 6 I went to bed again. Just as I was doing so, gas shells began to burst once more, but we did not smell much; the wind could not have been very favourable to the enemy. I soon got to sleep again. We all did. In my room, apart from myself, there are Verity, Priestley, and Barker. They are in different companies from me.
"We got up at midday to-day. Things are very much quieter; there are only, on an average, about one or two bangs per minute; and those are generally caused by our guns firing shells on the enemy. Very few German shells have burst here to-day since the terrible bombardment in the early hours of the morning. We lost no officers last night, but a few non-commissioned officers and men were killed and wounded while returning last night. An official message has come through that all our objectives were captured this morning."
It was on this afternoon that Major Brighten gathered all officers together for a conference in Headquarters Mess, and read out to us, in great exultation, a "secret" Special Order of the Day by Sir Douglas Haig dated, if I remember rightly, the day before Messines. I wish I had a copy of that Order in my hands now in order that I might quote it verbatim here. In the course of his Order I remember the Field-Marshal declared that another such blow as those which we had inflicted upon the enemy on the Somme, on the Anare, and at Arras would win the war! Major Brighten, with his eternal optimism, honestly believed it; and so did everybody else. Everybody was effervescing with excitement about Plumer's brilliant victory at Messines. I hold now with Mr. John Buchan, and I realized then, that "Sir Herbert Plumer had achieved what deserves to be regarded as in its own fashion a tactical masterpiece"; but, as I have already pointed out, I took a much more telescopic view of the World War than that. So, while sharing the satisfaction of the others in the Messines success, I could not endorse the ultra-optimistic view of the course of the campaign which Sir Douglas Haig had inspired. Major Brighten was beaming with delight as he read out Sir Douglas Haig's Order, and informed us that General Jeudwine and General Stockwell, with whom he had just been conversing, were equally "bucked" about it all. And he laughingly chaffed me upon my pessimism. I told him quite frankly that I did not share the general opinion.
That night only one company had to go out to work, and the company detailed was C Company; so I was not affected.
In the course of a letter written the following day (June 8) I wrote:
"I went to bed about 10 last night. About 2, Barker, Priestley, and Verity returned from their working parties. Priestley was very doleful; he was mournfully discussing the horrors of the war, and of his evening's experiences in particular. And it appears that there was some reason, for he had been in command of a party of eight whose mission had been to fetch back some steel helmets from the trenches. (A ruse had been played upon the Boche on Messines Night. A large number of helmets had been placed in such a position as to encourage the Boche to think that we were concentrating troops there instead of, or as well as, at Messines and Wytschaete!) They were returning, and Priestley was remarking that the Boche was very quiet just at present, when a shell burst amongst them. Four of his party were wounded and one killed; and a piece of shrapnel went right through the tube of his box-respirator, he himself escaping unhurt. A near shave! 'Well, do you think those helmets were worth the life of one man and injury to four others?' I heard him asking."
In my next letter (June 9) I wrote:
"There was only one working party last night. I went to bed at 10 p.m. At 10.20 there was a terrible row on our front. A big artillery duel was going on, machine-guns were firing continuously, and flares were going up! I sat up in bed and watched it all through the prison bars. It went on for about twenty minutes! I should think it must have been a raid of some sort. Shortly after this, Priestley came to bed, and, later, Verity and Barker. We had quite a long discussion upon all kinds of topics ranging from the conduct of the war (East versus West), and the doctrine of the Apostolical Succession, to the character and policy of Winston Churchill (whom, of course, they all detest!), and the pre-war morals of civilian Ypres, concerning which Barker held very decided views. We went on arguing until dawn broke! Then we got to sleep.
"I rose at 10 this morning. When I entered the mess for breakfast I was greeted by the inquiry from Captain Andrews: 'How's Palestine?' They all think that the war will end out here and in two or three months' time! They think that the next great offensive will end it. I admit that there is a great deal to be said for their theory; our plans are good, and if successful, will probably do the trick; but I am none too sanguine. We shall see. I hope they are right. Everybody does. Everybody is 'fed up' with the war; that goes without saying. I have not read a single one of the men's letters in which they do not say that. To say that, and to inform their people that they are 'in the pink' is the stock substance of their letters!
"I ought now to tell you something about my platoon. To give you the names of my non-commissioned officers is surely not giving away any information which would be of use to the enemy! So I do not see why I should not do so.
"As I may already have told you I am in command of No. 7 platoon. My platoon sergeant (second-in-command) is Sergeant Williams. (He was a waiter in Parker's Restaurant in St. Ann's Square, Manchester, in pre-war days). A platoon consists of four sections, each of which is commanded by a corporal. My sections are as follows: Rifle Section commanded by Lance-Corporal Tipping; Bombing Section commanded by Lance-Corporal Livesey; Lewis Gun Section commanded by Lance-Corporal Topping; and Rifle Grenade Section commanded by Corporal Baldwin. You will notice that a Lewis Gun Section is part of every platoon; I think that is sufficient answer to your question whether the fact of my attending lectures on the Lewis Gun meant that I should go into a Lewis Gun Section.
"There has not been much to do to-day; nor has anything very notable happened during the day up to now. It is now 6.40 p.m. So I will close."
"Last night the whole Battalion went out on working parties; so I had command of a party. My party was detailed to repair the parapet of a communication trench just behind our front line. I set off with Sergeant Williams and a party of fourteen men of my platoon at 9.40, just as it was getting dark. We were soon in the open fields and so could see all around us the ruined buildings of the great city. Three shells fell across the path we had traversed, after we had passed the points. Fritz was just a little too late on each occasion! We went on in the dusk, amidst the flashes of booming guns and exploding shells and flares lighting up the weird ruins and ghostly country, as far as a dump (Potidje) where the remainder of the Battalion appeared to be congregated. It occurred to me what a number would have been knocked out if a shell had burst just by this dump just then! Fortunately no such thing happened. Tools were drawn here; then we proceeded on our way by platoons. The whole region was swarming with little wooden crosses where lie the thousands who have fallen on this oft-fought, long-fought, ever contending, battlefield. We threaded our way along a winding communication trench (Pagoda Trench). We passed a party in the trench with bayonets fixed—a party of one officer, Lieutenant Alexander, and thirty men of the 1/4th King's Own—waiting to go over the top for a bombing raid on a section of the enemy front line. 'Good-byee!' they laughed as we passed them. Eventually we reached the point at which we were to commence work. Flares were going up the whole time; the enemy must have seen us: the whole crowd of us all in the open by the side of the trench which was to be repaired! When a flare goes up the whole place is as light as day for a few seconds; and they were going up all round the Salient—what remains of it, one side disappeared on Thursday morning! Now and then a machine-gun would rattle a few rounds, and we would all duck down; but none of them were ranged on our party.
"At 11.20 I was informed that Captain Andrews wished to see me; and, with some difficulty, I found him. He was in a trench with the other B Company officers and Sergeant-Major Hoyle. He had sent for us in order to tell us that at 11.35 we must each bring our parties into a certain trench (Oxford Road) for refuge as we knew that the bombing raid was coming off at 11.45, and we expected that the Germans would retaliate. So I brought my party into this trench at the appointed time. We were there just in time. At 11.45 our barrage—artillery, stokes-mortars and machine-guns—opened on the section of the enemy trench to be raided (Ibex Trench from Oskar Farm to The Stables) a little to our right; and as our barrage lifted, the bombers went into the enemy trench. We could hear the bombs exploding. The enemy replied by sending 'whizz-bangs' in the vicinity of the trench in which we were taking refuge. Some of them burst within a yard or two of us; but we crouched behind the parapet, and there were no casualties.
"At about 12.30 this morning, when the raid was over and things had quieted, we emerged from the trench and went back to the job. Just before we got back an ugly instrument of death familiarly known amongst the boys as a 'minnie' burst about the spot where our work was. That was not encouraging! But we went back and set to again. One or two more 'minnies' burst not far from us while we were there. You should have seen us duck! And the flares continued rising and falling. We constantly heard the shells from the big guns screaming like express trains over our heads; and every now and then a machine-gun or a Lewis gun would spurt forth its bullets. We felt anything but comfortable! One man in C Company was carried away with very bad shell-shock—a 'Blighty' all right! None of us were sorry when 2 came. Major Brighten came along just before it was time to stop. 'Is that you, Floyd? How are you going on?' he inquired as he passed me. He is liked by everybody. He is awfully nice.
"Major Brighten is the young Major who is temporarily in command of the Battalion while the real Commanding Officer—the notorious Colonel Best-Dunkley—is home on leave. By the way—I have not seen Colonel Best-Dunkley yet. He was away when I arrived. I am told that it is a treat in store for me! He is simply hated by everybody. His reputation as a beast is famed in 'Blighty.' I heard about him in the 5th Reserve; and Brian Kemp told me about him when we were in Harrogate. He is discussed here every day. From what I hear he is a horrible tyrant; nobody has a good word to say for him. So I am looking forward to seeing this extraordinary man. He is only twenty-seven! His greeting to Verity when he arrived a month ago was: 'Who the d—— are you?'
"As soon as it was 2 a.m. we set off back. Going back is generally considered the most dangerous of all; it is then that most of the casualties occur. When we were going along one winding communication trench shells began to burst in front of us right in our course. We bent down and dashed through the hundred yards or so which these shells were sweeping as fast as we could go. It was very hot, but we did not trouble about that; that did not matter; to get safely past the shells was the important thing. We got through all right, and we managed to get all the way back to the Prison without a single casualty. I can tell you we felt very happy when we were safely inside. To think that one should look to the cells of a prison as a haven of refuge!
"In Lieutenant Alexander's bombing raid five German prisoners were captured—they are in here now—and three killed. Alexander sustained no casualties whatever, and got back safely.
"We had breakfast at 3 a.m. and I went to bed about 4 a.m. I rose at 12 this morning. At breakfast we learnt some very good news. To-morrow we are leaving here and going into rest billets a long way behind the line for some time. Everybody is very happy indeed about it; I think we shall have a fine time there. So you have absolutely nothing to worry about now for quite a long time...."
"Things are very quiet to-day. We had our usual gas parade outside this afternoon.
"Latterly all the men have been walking about with a windy expression on their faces; now everybody looks gay in anticipation of the time in front of us. Don't you think I am really exceedingly lucky? I do."
 Story of the 55th Division, by Rev. J. O. Coop (page 25).
The following letter, written on June 12, at Millain, recounts my first impressions of the colonel whose name figures on the title-page of this book:
"We are now in rest billets a long way behind the line. I write to narrate to you the journey.
"On Sunday (June 10) I went to bed about 10 p.m., and had only been in bed half an hour when a very intense battle appeared to have broken out on our right. A violent artillery duel was in progress, with the usual accompaniments. The thunder of the guns continued for quite a long time. I think there must have been something big on: either a further advance of Plumer's Army or a counter-attack by the Crown Prince Rupprecht. It was a big row.
"Apropos of Sir Herbert Plumer, the victor of Messines: we were in his Second Army until that battle; now we have been transferred to Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army. I was amused when I heard Priestley telling his servant that we had moved into General Gough's Army; the servant replied 'Oh, he's a fighting man, isn't he, sir? We're in for something big now!' (General Gough had the reputation of being 'a fire eater.')
"Reveille went at 5.30 yesterday morning. We had breakfast in bed at 6. It was arranged by Major Brighten that the Battalion should leave the city by platoons, each platoon moving off at five minutes interval from the ones in front and behind of it. I moved off with the seventh platoon at 8.10. We marched through the city as happily as if we were a Sunday School trip, looking at the magnificent ruins as we passed. Scarcely a gun was fired on either side the whole time. Things were extraordinarily quiet. On any ordinary occasion we would have been observed by the enemy aircraft and strafed like ——; but fortunately it was very dull at the time, the clouds precluding observation. The weather was in our favour. The whole Battalion got safely away without a single casualty! An astonishing feat. Major Brighten has reason to feel very pleased with himself. We marched along the road for a distance of about four miles, and then halted and concentrated; then we marched on together and at 10 a.m. reached the transport camp where I first appeared last Tuesday evening. Here the Battalion was halted and left to have lunch. The officers were allowed to go into the town (Poperinghe) and have lunch there if they wished. Donald Allen, the commander of the fifth platoon, and I, got lifts on two motors down to the town. Then we had baths at the Divisional Baths there. We then set off to the Officers' Club for lunch; but just before we got there two other officers called out to us from the opposite side of the road. They inquired whether we were going to the Club; and when we replied that we were, they exclaimed: 'Don't; the C.O.'s there!'
"'Who? The C.O.—Colonel Best-Dunkley?' we asked.
"'Yes,' was the reply. So we jolly well did not go; we went to a restaurant instead! Apparently Colonel Best-Dunkley had now returned. Everybody was very fed up at his return.
"At 2 we turned up at the station. The news of the Commanding Officer's return had already spread throughout the Battalion. We got our platoons entrained, and then proceeded to the officers' carriages. It was rumoured that Colonel Best-Dunkley was going to travel by a particular carriage. You should have seen how that carriage was boycotted! Nobody would go into it. They preferred to crowd out the other carriages and leave the tainted carriage empty. It was most noticeable. I do not think there is a single person in the Battalion who would not rather travel with the devil incarnate than with Colonel Best-Dunkley.
"He appeared on the scene shortly. There was a flutter of low mutterings as he appeared. I was very interested to see this extraordinary man of whom I had heard so much. He stopped two or three doors away from our own and stood talking to someone inside the carriage. He is small, clean-shaven, with a crooked nose and a noticeable blink. He looks harmless enough; but I noticed something about his eyes which did not look exactly pleasant. He looks more than twenty-seven. When war broke out he was a lieutenant. It is interesting to note that he was educated at a military school in Germany! (And he had travelled a good deal in the Far East. 'When I was in China' was one of his favourite topics of conversation.) I have not yet spoken to the man, so I am not yet in a position to judge him myself. I will tell you my own opinion of him when I have had a little experience of him. I may just remark that an officer observed in the mess this morning that he supposed that there were some people who liked the Kaiser, but he was sure that there was not a single soul who liked Best-Dunkley! That is rather strong.
"Well our train moved off at about 3 p.m. We travelled through pleasant country to a little town which I cannot, of course, name. (Esquelbeck.) Here we had tea. I may mention that this place was just over the frontier—that is to say 'Somewhere in France.'
"Refreshed by our tea (for the preparation of which Padre Newman was mainly responsible), we began our long march at 7.15 in the evening. We marched to a village ten miles away (to Millain via Zeggers, Erkelsbrugge, Bollezeele, and Merekeghem). Colonel Best-Dunkley had gone on by himself; he left Major Brighten to carry on for the remainder of the journey. We had the band with us. I enjoyed the march immensely. It was a beautiful evening and the pretty villages through which we marched looked at their best. One thing which I have particularly noticed in France and Belgium is this: that a village, however small, seems to possess a large and magnificent church. I have not seen a single village in Belgium or France where the church is not the most prominent object. And I think that the villages are much healthier and prettier, and in every way much more inviting, than the towns. It is in such a village with such a church in pretty rural surroundings that I am now stationed. Darkness fell while we were on the march. We got here about 10.30, feeling considerably tired and ready for bed. Talbot Dickinson had been here a day or two and had arranged about billets. So the men were immediately shown into their billets. I am billeted in a farm-house; I have a nice little bedroom all to myself, and sleep in a civilian bed. So I am very well off. What do you say? I have nothing to grumble about as regards my quarters. B Company is billeted in the two barns belonging to this farm: two platoons in each barn. The Company parade in a delightful field the other side of the barns. There are three officers' messes: Headquarters and two of two combined companies. B and A Companies mess together in a house about two minutes' walk from this farm. Battalion Orderly Room is in a house about five minutes' walk from here. The other companies are in other parts of the village. General Stockwell and the remainder of the Brigade have not yet arrived, but they will be following on shortly. I am very happy here. The weather has been delightful, and the country looks fine. The trees here are very tall indeed. There was a heavy downpour of rain at tea-time: the first real rain we have had while I have been in France this time.
"We have spent the day 'under company arrangements': a series of inspections in the field outside the barn.
"At 5.30 Colonel Best-Dunkley wished to see all officers and sergeant-majors at Headquarters Mess. When we got there we adjourned to Battalion Orderly Room. He kept us until after 7, discussing various matters of routine. He seemed to have set his mind on purchasing a new band which was to cost L100 and for which officers should pay their share according to rank—subalterns to pay L2 each. But there was not a single person in favour of the idea! The proposal was received in cold silence. (Everybody had agreed before the conference upon the attitude to be taken up! I thought the whole affair a huge joke. Plots and intrigues always appeal to me as exciting.) Then Captain Mordecai—O.C. C Company—said that he did not think it worth it 'Since the war is nearly over.' The Colonel did not like that idea at all! He appealed to Major Brighten for his opinion; and Major Brighten urged that if we are to spend money like this it would be better spent in helping the men in some way. Others pointed out that one band was sufficient, and said that they would rather pay 10s. each for the improvement of the present band. Colonel Best-Dunkley blinked and twitched his nose in a disapproving manner. Eventually it was decided that we should not get a new band, but that we should all pay 10s. towards the present band. Colonel Best-Dunkley had set his mind on this band enterprise; I do not suppose he is at all pleased that it has not been taken up! The officers are all congratulating themselves on their victory. Colonel Best-Dunkley has announced that we must all see that the men have their equipment blancoed and polished until it sparkles. I have no personal quarrel with Colonel Best-Dunkley myself yet—in fact I have not yet exchanged a word with him—but I cannot say that I am very favourably impressed."
It was at Millain that I had my first personal interview with Colonel Best-Dunkley. That interview is recounted in the following letter, dated June 13:
" ... The weather continues to be glorious: too hot to do anything. I am Orderly Officer to-day. One of my duties as such is to inspect the billets. They are scattered on all sides of the village, so quite an appreciable walk is entailed. The Orderly Sergeant and I had a drink of milk at one farm. We felt a little refreshed after that. I mounted the guard with the Regimental Sergeant-Major. (Clements.) This afternoon he has been made Sergeant of the Transport, and has been succeeded as R.-S.-M. by Sergeant-Major Hoyle of B Company. Sergeant Preston becomes Company Sergeant-Major of B Company.
"Yesterday the padre was appointed President of the Sports Committee, but, as the Colonel wanted to arrange everything on his own lines—suggesting races in full pack, amongst other things!—he has resigned to-day.
"I had my first interview with Colonel Best-Dunkley this morning. As Orderly Officer I was present at Commanding Officer's Orders. When he arrived at the Orderly Room he saw me and said:
"'Who are you? Let me see, I don't think I have been introduced to you yet. How are you?'
"I replied that my name was Floyd; and he shook hands quite genially!
"There were only two cases up for orders. One man was there for cheeking a sergeant. He had called the sergeant something which cannot be repeated here.
"'Why the b—— h—— did you speak to an N.C.O. like that?' exclaimed the Colonel in a Judge Jeffreys tone. 'Will you take my sentence? Or will you have a court martial?' he demanded.
"The man replied that he would take the Colonel's sentence.
"'Fourteen days Field Punishment No. 1,' snapped the Colonel. Exit prisoner.
"After orders, Colonel Best-Dunkley asked me: 'What is your strong point?' I replied that I was sorry to have to say so, but I had none; I was not a specialist on anything. He did not even then become annoyed, but went on asking me one or two other questions. How long had I been gazetted? 'Not long,' was his comment on my reply. How long had I been in the Army? What unit was I in before? Where had I been educated? When I had answered these questions he expressed himself satisfied; so I saluted and departed. So I am on quite good terms with him so far, despite his terrible reputation! The question is—how long shall I remain on good terms with him? I wonder."
The next letter (June 14) recounts one of those solemn Battalion parades which I recollect so well—those parades concerning which copious orders used to be issued the night before, and in preparation for which we were instructed in the formula which we (platoon commanders) had to employ when the Colonel, to the accompaniment of sweet sounds from the band, reached the edge of our platoons:
"We had a Battalion parade in a large field this morning. There was a long type-written programme of the ceremony to be gone through. We paraded on the company parade ground at 8 a.m. and the Colonel arrived on the Battalion parade ground at 9 a.m. He rode round the Battalion. When he reached my platoon he called me up to him and asked me whether I had a roll of my platoon. I replied that I had. He asked me whether I had it on me; and I replied that I had, and produced it. He seemed perfectly satisfied. He also asked me one or two other questions; to all of which I was able to give a satisfactory answer. And last night as I passed him in the road and saluted he smiled most affably and said 'good evening.' So he is quite agreeable with me so far. I do not therefore yet join in the general condemnation of him. As far as I can tell at present his chief faults appear to me to be: that he suffers from a badly swelled head; that he fancies himself a budding Napoleon; that he is endowed by the fates with a very bad temper and a most vile tongue; that he is inconsiderate of his inferiors wherever his personal whims and ambitions are concerned; and that he is engrossed with an inordinate desire to be in the good graces of the Brigadier-General, who is really, I believe, a very good sort. Apart from those failings, some of which are, perhaps, excusable, I think he is probably all right. You may be sure that his unpopularity will not prejudice me against him; I shall not join in the general condemnation unless and until he gives me good reason. As yet I have no such reason. Up to now his personality is merely a source of curiosity and amusement.
"During the course of the morning's training, Captain Andrews rearranged the composition of the platoons in the Company; so I now command the eighth platoon. Sergeant Clews is the name of the platoon sergeant. Sergeant Dawson (who saw Norman Kemp killed and has the same high opinion of his heroic qualities as everybody else, whether officer, N.C.O., or man, who knew him; who tells me that he was by far the most loved officer in the Battalion—'one who will never be forgotten') is also in my platoon.
"In the afternoon I went with the Company on a bathing parade. It was about half an hour's march. They bathed in a canal.
"After tea I had a stroll in the country: it is very pretty, especially this weather....
"Captain Andrews goes home on leave to-night; so Lieutenant Halstead is in command of B Company for a fortnight."
"The weather continues hot. We had another Battalion parade this morning: procedure the same as yesterday. The Colonel is still most agreeable; he has not said a cross word to me yet.
"We took the afternoon easy, except that there was a parade for inspection of equipment at 4 p.m.
"I received, this afternoon, a letter from you of June 11, and one from Mother of June 10, also enclosures. I am sorry to learn that you are both worrying. What's the use of worrying? What is there to worry about? I am quite safe. If I had the 'wind up' it might be another matter; but I do not, strange to say, even dread the time when we shall go back into the line! I think it rather exciting. One is inclined to feel a little 'windy' when shells and 'minnies' are bursting dangerously near, or when a machine-gun spurts out of the gloaming; but there is a certain element of excitement about it all. I would not have missed those few days in the Salient for worlds. I had a pleasant 'baptism of fire' there. Everybody seems to think that it was worse than going over the top in a push. Those who fought at the Battle of the Somme last year say that they would rather be there than in the place where we were last week! Candidly, I cannot understand it.
"We shall remain out of the line for some time yet—so cheer up!"
I now come to one of the most remarkable, and in some respects certainly the most comical, of all the episodes in which Colonel Best-Dunkley figured—the memorable march from Millain to Westbecourt. The following lengthy epistle which I wrote in my billet in the Vale of Acquin at Westbecourt the following day draws a perfectly accurate picture of what happened:
"You will be interested to learn that we have moved again. We are now billeted in a pretty little village in the heart of north-eastern France....
"Yesterday, Saturday June 16, 1917—the hundred and second anniversary of Ligny and Quatre Bras—is a day I am not likely ever to forget. Such a march we had; and it was some stunt! Let me tell you, as far as I can without naming places, the whole story.
"Reveille sounded at 3 a.m. I rose at 5 a.m. We (the officers) had breakfast at 5.30. Parade at 6. At 6.45 we marched off from the village in which we had been billeted during the last few days. It was a very long march which we had before us to the village in which we now are—a distance of sixteen miles. Yet we were expecting to arrive there by midday! I will show you how events turned out so that we did not arrive here anything like midday. The weather was, and is, just as it has been all the time—a cloudless sky and a burning sun. It was already quite warm when we set off, and as the morning advanced the sun naturally became more powerful still. We joined up with the rest of the Brigade a little further on, and marched past General Stockwell and Major Thompson (the Brigade-Major)."
It was in the streets of Watten that we marched past Stockwell; and I vividly recollect that he was not at all pleased with things as early as that. I distinctly heard the word 'rabble' burst from his lips! The letter proceeds:
"Men began to fall out before we reached the first village (or town as it happened to be). And as soon as the falling out began it continued without ceasing, only becoming more frequent the farther we got. I do think they began falling out too early. Every time a man fell out we subalterns had to drop behind with him and give him a chit. That naturally took time and one got right behind; then one would endeavour to catch up again; as soon as one was back with one's own platoon—generally before—one would come across more men of one's company who had fallen out, and so would get right back again. Thus it went on the whole time. It meant that we had double the walking to do that the men had; and we were loaded like Christmas trees just like them. Fortunately there was a mess cart with the Transport, containing still lemonade; so I had a drink now and then. It is an Army idea that one should not drink on the march: that it knocks one up much quicker. I say frankly, from experience, that it is nonsense. I drank as much as I could get hold of on the way (by no means as much as I could have drunk!) and though I was jolly tired I was as fresh as anybody else, and a good deal fresher than the majority, as you will see later. Well, after the first halt the falling out became dreadful; it was almost impossible for us to cope with the number of chits required; crowds must have been without chits at all. The whole roadside became one mass of exhausted men lying full length. Some were very bad indeed, some had sunstroke, some were sick, more than one were dying. At one time the padre and I were a long way behind, attending to these men. We hurried on to catch up the Battalion. The Transport, under Humfrey, were just behind the Battalion, so we followed along the Transport. When we got to the front end of it we saw nothing beyond! 'Where is the Battalion?' I asked Humfrey. He informed me that he had lost it. The Adjutant had, at the last turning, sent the Battalion one way and the Transport another; and he (Humfrey) had not the faintest idea where he was to go to! So he halted and got out a map. Then the Medical Officer (Adam) arrived on the scene too. We told him that the Battalion had disappeared. So we (Newman, Adam, Humfrey, and myself) sat down for about five minutes and discussed the situation. It struck us as being rather comical, though we wished that we were at the end of our journey instead of in a strange village and ignorant of which way we were to go. Humfrey decided to take his Transport the same way as the remainder of the Brigade Transport had gone; so we went on with him! We went across some very open country. The sun was simply burning down upon us. I felt very exhausted now; but I can stick almost anything in the way of a route march; no route march could, in my opinion, be as bad as that memorable Kidlington-Yarnton route march in March, 1916. The difficulty then was fatigue caused by the march through thick, soft slushy snow when vaccination was just at its worst; the difficulty this time was fatigue and thirst caused by the heat of a French summer. I admit that this route march yesterday was a stern test of endurance; but if I could stick the Kidlington-Yarnton stunt I could stick this, and I did stick this all the way, which very few others did! The trail which we left behind us was a sight to be seen: men, rifles, equipment, riderless horses all over; the Retreat from Moscow was spoken of! 'An utter fiasco, a debacle!' exclaimed Padre Newman.
"Before we had gone with the Transport very far the Medical Officer was called round a corner to see a man who was reported to be dying; the padre went with him. I went on with the Transport. After a time I saw Lieutenant Reginald Andrews (the Adjutant) standing alone in a village; so it looked as if the remains of our Battalion must be somewhere about. A little further on I found Captain Blamey (O.C. D Company) and Giffin sitting by the side of the road. I asked them what they were doing, and they replied that they had fallen out with Sergeant-Major Howarth who was very bad indeed—reported to be dying. So the Battalion had passed that way.
"I went on, and, in about ten minutes, saw ahead Colonel Best-Dunkley standing at the corner of a road branching off to the left from the road I was proceeding along with the Transport (just outside the village of Boisdinghem). Just as I reached this corner Brigadier-General Stockwell rode up from the opposite direction (on horseback) and, with a face wincing with wrath, accosted Colonel Best-Dunkley as follows:
"'Dunkley, where's your Battalion?'
"'This is my Battalion here, sir,' replied the Colonel, standing submissively to attention and indicating fifteen officers, non-commissioned officers, and men—all told—lying in a state of exhaustion at the side of this shaded country road.
"'What! You call that a Battalion? Fifteen men! I call it a rabble. What the b—— h—— do you mean by it? Your Battalion is straggling all along the road right away back to (Watten)! You should have halted and collected them; not marched on like this. These men have not had a long enough halt or anything to eat all day. If this is the way you command a Battalion, you're not fit to command a Battalion. You're not even fit to command a platoon!'
"The General then said that the Colonel, the Adjutant, and four company commanders could consider themselves 'under arrest'! The General was simply fuming with wrath; I do not think I have ever seen a man in such a temper. And I certainly never heard a colonel strafed in front of his own men before. It was an extraordinary scene. Those who have writhed under the venom of Colonel Best-Dunkley in the past would, doubtless, feel happy at this turning of the tables as it were, a refreshing revenge; but I must admit that my sympathy was with Colonel Best-Dunkley—and so was that of all present—in this instance, for we all felt that the General's censure was undeserved. It was not Colonel Best-Dunkley's fault; if it was anybody's fault it was the General's own fault for ordering the march by day instead of by night, and for not halting the Brigade for a long enough period earlier on in the course of the march. One felt that Colonel Best-Dunkley was being treated unjustly, especially as the North Lancs. had only arrived with ten! And the Irish had not yet arrived at all! (These facts must soon have become apparent to General Stockwell, and, perhaps, caused him, inwardly at any rate, to modify his judgment). And the way Colonel Best-Dunkley took it, the calm and submissive manner in which he bore General Stockwell's curses and the kind and polite way in which he afterwards gave orders to, and conversed with, his inferiors, both officers and men, endeared him to all. I consider that out of this incident Colonel Best-Dunkley has won a moral victory. He played his cards very well, and feeling changed towards him as a result.
"The General went on: 'You yourself, the Adjutant, and four mounted officers go right back to (Watten) immediately and collect your men together and bring them along here before you proceed any further.'
"'I have sent two officers down the road, sir,' replied the Colonel.
"'What the d——s the use of detailing unmounted officers for the job?' snapped General Stockwell. The Colonel said something else, and the General replied, 'That's no excuse.'
"Then General Stockwell went off, and Colonel Best-Dunkley carried out his orders. We could see that we were now in for a very long halt here. It would take a deuce of a time to collect the Battalion together again! So we lay down under the shade of the roadside hedge and discussed the whole affair. Three sergeant-majors had fallen out on the way, two very bad indeed; officers had fallen out; and men wearing ribbons of the D.C.M. and the M.M., heroes of Gallipoli and the Somme, men who had never been beaten by a route march before, were lying along the country roads; so there must have been some reason for it! Amongst the sturdy fifteen were the new Regimental Sergeant-Major (Hoyle) and Sergeant-Major Preston of B Company; and there were also a few officers. The Transport made us some tea, which we enjoyed immensely. Humfrey had his little fox terrier, 'Darky,' who was born in the trenches at Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme last summer, with him. It is a nice little dog. I found a gold ring on the road just by me; and I intend to keep it as a souvenir of the episode.