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- Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation in the original document has been preserved. For the interest of the reader, 'the morning hate' is WWI slang for the "Stand To Arms". Obvious typographical errors have been corrected. For a complete list, please see the end of this document. -
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Q. 6. A
AND OTHER PLACES
Q. 6. A AND OTHER PLACES
RECOLLECTIONS OF 1916, 1917, 1918
BY FRANCIS BUCKLEY
LONDON SPOTTISWOODE, BALLANTYNE & CO. LTD. 1 NEW-STREET SQUARE, E.C. 4 1920
In the following pages I have tried to set down as faithfully as I can some of the impressions which remain to me now of three years' service in France and Flanders.
I have naturally suppressed much of the grim and ghastly horrors that were shared by all in the fighting area. A narrative must be written from some point of view, and I have had to select my own. I regret that so much personal and trivial incident should appear. Perhaps some will be able to see through the gross egotistical covering and get a glimpse, however faint, of the deeds of deathless heroism performed by my beloved comrades—the officers and men of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, the officers and men of the 149th Infantry Brigade, the officers and men of the 50th Division.
The climax of the story is the battle on the Somme where so many dear friends have perished. The name is taken from a spot where a small party of the 7th N.F. did something long afterwards to avenge their fallen comrades.
Finally no criticism of the Higher Command is intended by anything that has been written. If such can be read between the lines, it is unintentional and a matter for sincere regret.
I. WHEN IT BEGAN 1
II. THE MEN OF THE NORTH COUNTRY 7
III. ALNWICK 12
IV. THE JOURNEY OUT 17
V. HILL 60 22
VI. MOUNT SORREL AND CANNY HILL 31
VII. KEMMEL 41
VIII. DIVISIONAL REST 48
IX. BRIGADE HEAD-QUARTERS 52
X. THE BRIGADE BOMBING SCHOOL 59
XI. ST. ELOI AND NEUVE EGLISE 64
XII. THE SOMME 68
XIII. HENENCOURT 72
XIV. MAMETZ WOOD 76
XV. THE 15TH SEPTEMBER, 1916 80
XVI. MILLENCOURT 87
XVII. HOOK SAP 90
XVIII. SECOND LEAVE—BRESLE 97
XIX. BUTTE OF WARLENCOURT—TRENCH WARFARE 102
XX. FRANCE AND THE FRENCH 107
XXI. SOUTH OF THE SOMME 115
XXII. THE BATTLE OF ARRAS 122
XXIII. WANCOURT TOWER—CROISILLES 125
XXIV. MONCHY-AU-BOIS 139
XXV. TRENCH WARFARE—VIS-CHERISY FRONT 143
XXVI. THE HOUTHULST FOREST 153
XXVII. DIVISIONAL REST NEAR ST. OMER 161
XXVIII. THE PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE 165
XXIX. GOOD-BYE TO THE 50TH DIVISION 173
XXX. DIGGING TRENCHES ABOUT LOOS 176
XXXI. THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE 1918—SECOND BATTLE OF ARRAS 182
XXXII. TRENCH WARFARE—HEBUTERNE 203
XXXIII. TRENCH WARFARE—THE COLINCAMPS RIDGE 207
XXXIV. THE BRITISH OFFENSIVE 1918—BAPAUME RETAKEN 219
XXXV. THE STORMING OF THE HINDENBURG LINE NEAR TRESCAULT 224
XXXVI. THE GERMANS' LAST STAND 230
XXXVII. THE FINAL RUSH FORWARD 234
XXXVIII. THE END OF IT ALL 238
The following abbreviations are used:
B.H.Q. = Brigade Head-quarters. C.C.S. = Casualty Clearing Station. C.O. = Commanding Officer. C.T. = Communication Trench. D.A.Q.M.G. = Deputy-Assistant-Quartermaster-General. D.H.Q. = Divisional Head-quarters. F.A. = Field Ambulance. H.Q. = Head-quarters. L.-C. = Lance-Corporal. N.C.O. = Non-commissioned Officer. O.C. = Officer Commanding. O.P. = Observation Post. O.T.C. = Officers' Training Corps. Q.M. = Quartermaster. R.T.O. = Railway Transport Officer. Y.M.C.A. = Young Men's Christian Association.
Q. 6. A
RECOLLECTIONS OF 1916, 1917, AND 1918
WHEN IT BEGAN
Before the war I was living in London, with chambers at Lincoln's Inn.
I was not surprised when the trouble started. Ever since 1904 it was reasonably clear to me that our country would have to fight the Germans or go under.
The days before we declared war on Germany were spent in London. During the last few of them it was as though a terrible thunderstorm was hanging overhead, ready to burst: gloom and foreboding on the faces of all. There is no doubt that most of our people were taken by surprise and that they were aghast at the sudden gathering of the war cloud. But when the stroke of fate fell and we were committed to the war, there was a curious sense of relief in many hearts. Better death and ruin than dishonour. A shameful peace or neutrality is for most Englishmen harder to bear than all the horrors of war. Besides, this struggle for freedom had to be fought out, though few can have foretold the cost.
I had been rejected for the Territorial Force by the Army authorities in 1908 on account of weak eyesight. I had therefore few hopes of better luck in August 1914. At first only trained men were enrolled at the Inns of Court O.T.C., and this went on for some months—till the nation in fact began to realise the size of its task. So after two or three vain attempts to find my way into the services, I had to be content with the truncheon and armlet of a special constable. With this force I had no special adventures, but I learnt a good deal about the Vine Street Police area, and about the electric power stations of the West End. Christmas Day was spent on duty in the streets, and Easter Day found me still there. Then something happened which decided my own little fate, as well perhaps as the fate of Europe. This was the sinking of the good ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, under peculiarly barbarous and inhuman circumstances. Eventually it brought the Americans into the war, when they came to understand that the German people gloried in the deed of shame. As for me, it took me once again to the doors of the O.T.C. in Lincoln's Inn. If I could not go as an officer I would at least go into the ranks. But by this time the rush of officer recruits had died down, and they were not so particular about eyesight. So on May 10, 1915, I found myself in possession of a suit of khaki. It was second-or third-hand and an indifferent fit, but it enclosed a glad heart. The die was cast, and one little boat fairly launched on its perilous passage. Never have I had cause to lament this step. If it has brought me great troubles and anguish, it has also given peace of mind and the satisfaction of using to the full such energy as I possess. It took me out of the stifling heat of the town and gave me at least four years of an open-air life. For which God be thanked! If it did not bring much promotion or honour, it brought the friendship of real men, and a treasure greater than all the stars and ribbons in the world.
A recruit at the Inns of Court O.T.C. had nothing to fear from those in charge if he was willing to do his best. There was little boisterousness or horse-play among the recruits, the dark shadow was too close for that; and the spirit among my new comrades was one of great earnestness. For the first two or three weeks we were trained in Town near the H.Q. of the Battalion in Lincoln's Inn. After that recruits were sent on to the camp at Berkhamsted for field training. We were billeted on the local inhabitants. I stayed at the house of Mr. Charles Dipple, from whose family I received much kind hospitality. It was a sudden change for one who had spent the greater part of ten years in London chambers. And at Berkhamsted they worked you hard, almost to the last degree of physical endurance. Save once, during a dark two weeks in France, I have never before or since felt the same fatigue of body. Also the change of food was a little strange and startling at first. The drill and discipline could do nothing but good to a healthy man. The enthusiasm of nearly all was great, our chief idea being to get ready and out to France or elsewhere before the war should be over. Little did we know what the future had in store.
There is nothing much to tell of this part of one's experience. One of the most pleasant incidents was a fortnightly leave of thirty-six hours at the week-end, which I used to spend with my friends in Town. Night manoeuvres on Wednesdays and Fridays and guard duty were perhaps the most unpleasant part of our lot. Some would add the adjutant's parade on Saturday morning. But that was short, if not always sweet.
I had the good luck to win an unpaid lance-corporal's stripe towards the end of my stay, chiefly, I think, on account of a certain aptitude for drill, a clean rifle, and clean boots. Of this small achievement I was and still am a little proud.
I left the battalion on getting my commission with respect for the officers in charge of the training. The short experience in the ranks was to be of great value afterwards, when I came to deal for the first time as an officer with men in the ranks. It gave a certain sympathy with them and taught what to avoid. It was the custom of our C.O., Lieut.-Col. Errington, to give a few words of advice to those leaving the battalion to take up commissions. And I have never forgotten two of the principles which he urged upon us. One was the constant necessity for a soldier to deny himself in little things. The other was the idea that every officer in his own command, however small, had a duel to face with another officer in a similar position on the other side; and that in this duel the one that used his brain best would win. And so this embryo existence came to an end—a careless, happy time with no particular thought for the troubles ahead. In the middle of July 1915 I obtained a commission in the 3rd line Battalion of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, Territorials, supplying drafts to the 1st line battalion in France. I had no desire to display my ignorance of things military before a group of neighbours and possibly relations, so I applied for a commission, not in the Territorials of the West Riding Regiment, but in a north-country battalion of Territorials, with the 1st line fighting in France. The Territorial Force seemed to me most suitable for one who had no military career in view. And France, the land of old time romance and chivalry, gave a more urgent call than Egypt or the East. The choice of a unit, if one can be said to choose it, is fraught with greater consequences to oneself than might be supposed. I cannot say after a lapse of three years that the choice has proved unfortunate to me. It came about in this way. We were doing a rifle parade one day at Berkhamsted, when Lieut. Reynolds (N.F.) appeared with our company commander, Capt. Clarke, and asked for the names of any men who would like to join the 3rd line of the 7th N.F. The 1st line battalion, he said, had just been badly cut up in France, and we should be out there in four months perhaps, certainly in six months. That was all the information we had, but it was enough for me. A north-country territorial battalion and France in six months—those were the attractions. I had never spent more than one night in Northumberland and I knew of Alnwick only by name. It was therefore rather a step in the dark; but to one who was still ignorant of the meaning of a 'Brigade' or a 'Division' only general considerations could appeal. And so on July 30, 1915, I set off for Alnwick to join my battalion, with a new uniform and kit, with a somewhat nervous feeling inside, but with a determination to do my best.
THE MEN OF THE NORTH COUNTRY
I have a great respect and admiration for the men of Northumberland. Especially for those who come from the country towns and villages, the farm-lands and mines in the northern parts of the county. As soldiers they have gained a name the world over, of which it would be idle for me to talk. A cold climate and a fighting ancestry that goes back many hundreds of years have produced some marked qualities in the race of Northumbrians to-day. There are few of them that are not true to type, few that you would not care to have as comrades in a tight corner. Their stubborn courage and contempt for danger have been proved again and again. The worse the outlook the more cheerful they seem to become. Sturdy independence is there, and for this allowance has to be made—slow to like and slow to change; if you are known as 'Mister' So-and-so, whatever your rank, you have won their respect. No better soldiers in the land can be found to hold or to fortify a position. But I doubt whether they have quite the same genius for the attack. A certain lack of imagination, a certain want of forethought, have always, as it seems to me, been a handicap to these brave men when they attack. Again and again during an assault they have fallen in hundreds, they have shown themselves as willing to die in the open as in the trenches. But have they the wild fury that carries the Scot, the Irishman, or the Frenchman over 'impossible' obstacles? No, they are not an enthusiastic people, nor a very imaginative one. And these qualities are needed to press home a difficult attack. They are not as a whole a quick or a very intelligent race. But for stark grim courage under the most awful surroundings they stand second to none. There is a streak of ruthlessness, too, in their dealings with the enemy; a legacy from the old Border wars with the Scots. They are quite ready, if need be, to take no prisoners. A hard and strong, but a very lovable race of men. Yes, I think all the world of the men of the north, although I am not blind to their faults. Taken as a whole no more handsome or manly set of men can be found in the British Isles.
The Northumbrian dialect is difficult to understand until you get the trick of it. And the trick of it is in the accent and intonation, and not so much in any peculiar form of words. They have a peculiar way of dropping their voices, too, which is sometimes disconcerting. But it is a clean wholesome language, undefined by the disgusting and childish obscenity which is too often a disgrace to other districts in England. It reminds me a little of the Scottish tongue, but rather more of the country speech in the northern parts of Yorkshire, but in some ways it is all its very own. It must indeed be one of the earliest surviving types of the Anglo-Saxon speech. I had no great difficulty in understanding it, but to this day I am sometimes puzzled to pick up what is said owing to that curious drop in the voice.
A word or two as well about the officers of the Northumberlands, meaning, of course, the natives of the county. For them as well as for the hardy miners and farmers of the north I have a very sincere respect and liking. Better comrades on the field of battle no man could wish for, better officers for a Territorial battalion it would be hard to find. Their unbending courage, their gallant bearing in danger, their cheerfulness and their care and thought for their men have been responsible in a great measure for the successes won by the Northumberland battalions and for the lamentable but noble sacrifices when success was denied. Gallant and devoted soldiers they have been, and well they have earned the love and admiration of their men. Always cheerful whatever was on foot, readiest of all to turn a danger passed into a jest. There could not be a better spirit in which to face the long delays and the bitter disappointments of the war. Two outstanding features in their character are, to my mind, practically universal, whatever form they happen to take. An inherent pugnacity, and a whole-hearted belief in and love of their county, which amounts to something more than clannishness. They know everything about every one in Northumberland, and with others they do not trouble themselves much. They do not talk about it like the Scots, but it is there all the same; and it has a profound influence on their actions and judgment. Within this sacred circle, into which no outlandish man can break, their pugnacity develops countless local feuds. And these feuds can be bitter enough, and I do not think I ever met a north-countryman without one. Generally there are two or three on foot at a time. One town against another, the men who did against the men who did not. Sometimes I have thought that these queer hereditary instincts, for such they undoubtedly are, have led the men of the north astray. The house has been divided against itself, justice has not been done, or it has been delayed, incompetence has been allowed to spread its blighting influence. In other words the love of their county and the strength of their local feuds have at times blinded the men of the north to the real interests of their country, when a united front and a concentration of the best effort available were absolutely necessary to get on with the war. To me the Northumbrian officer has been universally kind, and I have never had the least discourtesy or injustice from any of them, but many acts of kindness. But I have seen with regret on several occasions a loss of effort and strength through the divisions caused by prejudice. Thoroughly cheerful and a generous and charming comrade, much given to hospitality, I do not think the Northumbrian officer is always a very brilliant person intellectually. There are many notable exceptions, but they are notable enough to establish the impression.
Beyond these general observations it would be unwise—and I do not intend—to enter into the domestic history of any battalion or brigade. Better comrades one could not have, and a nobler and more devoted body of men I have yet to meet.
 This criticism can of course be made of any troops of English nationality.
A short sketch of my stay at Alnwick may not be out of place. For though it did not seem very adventurous at the time it had a great influence on my subsequent career, both in France and afterwards. It is a most romantic spot, with one of the finest castles in England. The heather hills run down through corn-land towards the seashore; and the general features of the countryside reminded me much of my own home in the West Yorkshire hills. The curious battlements and gates in the town and the monuments outside tell of a time when it was one of England's front line posts against the raiding Scots. It seemed to me to be a fitting spot to train men for the wars.
When I arrived at the end of July 1915 the H.Q. of the 3rd line battalion were at the Star Hotel in Fenkle Street—very comfortable but rather expensive quarters. Only a few of the officers had arrived as yet. Just a few new-comers like myself, very green and raw, and about four or five officers of the 1st line battalion who had returned wounded from France. These latter had for the most part been wounded at the battle of St. Julien in April 1915, during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. They were now discharged from hospital and attached to the draft battalion for training before going out once more. They were very friendly and nice to the new-comers; and indeed we looked upon them quite as veterans, although their active service in France had not exceeded a few days. Capt. J. Welch, Lieuts. J.W. Merivale, E. Nixon, and E. Fenwicke Clennell became special friends of mine, and I am grateful for many acts of kindness from them both then and later on abroad. The men of the battalion, also raw recruits and wounded men returned from hospital, were quartered in the houses in the town. The O.C. battalion was Major (afterwards Lieut.-Colonel and Brevet Colonel) J.J. Gillespie, T.D., and the Adjutant Capt. W.A.C. Darlington. The C.O. was a man of great personality, so much so that he is one of the best known and most talked of persons in the Northumberlands. A great organiser and a hard worker, who generally got his own way with small and great, he has done much to make the drafts efficient. I was lucky to find favour in his eyes, and our relations were always friendly.
We had as near neighbours in Alnwick the Brigade of Tyneside Scottish, who were encamped in the Pastures near the Castle, as fine a body of men as you could wish to see. After staying for a while at the Star our battalion moved out to Moorlaws Camp and we remained there under canvas till the middle of October. In the meantime I was lent for about five days to the 21st Provisional Battalion N.F., a home service battalion, who were encamped at Cambois ('Cammis') on the sea-coast. This was like a picnic for me, for all the officers there treated me kindly and did not work me hard. One night I volunteered for night duty and had the experience of visiting the sentries (all with loaded rifles) at the various posts along the shore. Shortly after returning to Alnwick I was sent, on September 2, to the Army School of Signalling and Bombing at Tynemouth, and went through the Bombing course, which lasted about a week. So primitive were the arrangements, even at this date, that we were only taught how to improvise grenades out of old jam tins, and how to fire them out of iron pipes as trench-mortar bombs. We were indeed allowed to handle precious specimens of the famous No. 3 (Hales) and No. 5 (Mills), but there were not enough available for live practice. The West Spring Thrower had not arrived, but I saw a trench catapult in action; and some dummy Stokes bombs were fired off for us to see. At this course there was an examination, and I got a first-class certificate as a grenade instructor, an event which had considerable influence on my career in France, as will appear later on. When I got back to Alnwick I found the battalion under canvas at Moorlaws. Here I became 'grenadier officer' to the battalion, and I had daily classes of men who had volunteered to become bombers, or 'grenadiers' as they were then called.
Live practice was carried out entirely with improvised bombs, old jam tins and black powder. But we procured a certain number of dummies of Nos. 1 and 5 to practise throwing. Major N.I. Wright (who had returned wounded) took a great interest in our proceedings and had some dummy grenades made for us. A gallant soldier with hard service in South Africa and the Great War, he has always been a good friend to me. I went on with the bombing till about October 20, when the battalion returned to Alnwick and went into wooden huts in the Pastures. The officers were billeted at a house called 'Alnbank,' a mansion some little distance from the men's quarters. After this move I was appointed Company Commander to C Company, a newly formed company with only raw recruits in it. My second in command was Lieut. Joseph Robinson, a dear friend, who had come all the way from the Argentine, and whom I first met at the O.T.C. at Berkhamsted. He was known as 'Strafer Robinson' on account of being physical drill instructor, and a pretty exacting one. I found the recruits in C Company most willing and anxious to learn their job; and they never gave me much trouble either in orderly room or on parade.
I was kindly treated by every one at Alnwick. My stay there has only pleasant memories. Major the Hon. Arthur Joicey, who had returned from the 1st line, gave me several glorious days after partridges at Longhirst. The number of these birds so far north fairly astonished me. The doctors' families in Alnwick were also very kind and hospitable to all our officers. Mrs. Scott Jackson, the wife of the Colonel of the 1st line battalion, could not do enough for us; and many happy evenings have been spent at her house; notably a great New Year's Eve party for all the officers, just before I left for the front. I took part in a Rugby football match, the first time for eleven years. The 3rd line 7th N.F. succeeded in defeating the reserve battalion of the Tyneside Scottish, largely through the prowess of 2nd-Lieut. McNaught at half-back. There was rather a pleasant institution towards the end of my stay—namely, a meeting of the senior officers for dinner every Wednesday evening at the Plough Inn. They did you well there, and it was a pleasant change from the mess dinner.
About January 3, 1916, I was warned to proceed with a small draft of officers to the front. Four of us were to go, and I was delighted to find myself one of those selected. After a splendid farewell dinner with the officers of the battalion on January 4, I left the same night for London to spend my final leave.
THE JOURNEY OUT
On Monday, January 10, 1916, I left England with three other officers, bound for the Base Camp at Havre. My companions were 2nd-Lieuts. Peters, O. Clarke, and Gregson. My final purchases at Southampton included an extra haversack and some morphia pills. The latter had been strongly recommended for certain kinds of wounds and they were still sold without a prescription. The journey across the Channel was done at night. The transport left port about 8 P.M. and steaming slowly without lights reached Le Havre about 5 A.M. next morning.
My last view of England was the dreary wet dock, and later on a few distant and receding lights. Though we got into port at 5 A.M. we were not allowed to leave the vessel till 8 A.M. But, at last, as a cold and cheerless morning was breaking, I stepped ashore and set foot for the first time on foreign soil. We soon found an hotel (? Hotel de Normandy) where they understood the English language and some of our ways, and we got breakfast in the English fashion. After a look round the shops and a shave in a small establishment in a side street, we reported at a large office in the town. Here we signed our names in a large register, and were given directions to proceed to a Camp, some distance from the town, where reinforcements for the 7th N.F. were collected and accommodated till they could be sent 'up the line.' Our stay here was a short one, for which I was thankful. They did not seem at all pleased to see us; it seems we had arrived a few days later than had been expected, and the Camp Commandant appeared to think it was our fault. We left Le Havre next day without having tasted the joys of the 'Bull Ring' or any other educational entertainment prepared for those staying on at the Camp. The train started about midnight, and like most troop trains in France moved along in a leisurely, dignified manner, with frequent stops and long waits between the stations. When we did arrive at Rouen, which was about midday on Thursday, we had to change. And feeling unrefreshed by our night in the train, we spent the time resting at an hotel instead of seeing the sights. But it is a fine looking old town and would be worth visiting in more peaceful times.
We left Rouen again at night and wandered along in the same dilatory fashion, arriving at Hazebrouck and eventually at Poperinghe.
The latter was railhead for the Ypres Salient. It was not surprising then to find the houses near the railway station looking shattered from the shells and bombs that had been aimed at the station. We had tea with the Y.M.C.A., who had with their usual dauntlessness selected a house close to the station. It had been struck by a bomb a few nights before, and there was a hole in the roof and in the ceiling and floor of one of the rooms; but I understood that no one had been hurt by the explosion. These shattered houses and the distant sound of gun fire, which we first heard about Hazebrouck, were the first signs of war that we noticed. After a long wait a limber arrived at the station to take ourselves and our valises to the camp of the 7th N.F. at Ouderdom. It was not really a very long journey, I believe, but it seemed so to us after our long and wearisome journey in the train.
To make matters worse the military police made us take a roundabout road, and the driver lost his way. Of course a limber is not quite the vehicle you would select for comfort, especially over roads that are stony or pave. The German flare lights could be clearly seen all the way, and they seemed to be on three sides of us. A most brilliant and interesting sight the first time you see it.
Eventually we reached the camp at Ouderdom. It was called 'Canada Huts' and consisted of a cluster of wooden huts erected just off a narrow muddy road. At one time I am told, the mud was thigh deep; but now duck boards had been laid down, and though decidedly muddy the camp was quite passable. When we arrived it was quite late, and we found the camp in total darkness and every one asleep. But some of the batmen (or officers' servants) were roused, and they not only showed us a place to sleep in, but got us some tea and a scratch meal, very welcome after our uncomfortable ride from the station. What wonderful people these batmen are! Always so cheery and good to their officers. Inside the huts we found wooden bunks in two tiers round three sides and also a wooden table and forms in the middle. Not much room to move about perhaps, but fairly dry and warm. After two sleepless nights in the train we did not need rocking.
We found that we had arrived just in time to go with the battalion to the front line trenches next day. For the battalion had just spent three days in the rest area and was due to take over the line on the fourth day. There was not much time, therefore, to get acquainted with our fellow officers or to learn much about the platoons to which we were assigned. Several of the officers we had known well at home in the 3rd line battalion at Alnwick, and Major N.I. Wright and Capt. J. Welch and Lieuts. J.W. Merivale and Fenwicke Clennell were old friends. Also we had already met our new battalion commander Lieut.-Col. G. Scott Jackson at Alnwick when he was last on leave. It was nice to be greeted by friendly faces when our trials were so soon to begin.
The last few hours before going back to the line are always rather dreary and unprofitable, spent chiefly in packing up and deciding what to leave behind. Valises of course were left behind with all 'spare parts' in the Q.M.'s stores. But in winter a fairly heavy load of things was necessary, and the weather was wet and stormy. We had no steel helmets in these days and no gas box-respirators, only two cloth respirators of little weight. I found myself in charge of No. 4 Platoon in A Company, of which Capt. H.R. Smail was commander. There were two other 2nd-Lieuts. in the company besides myself. The fighting strength of a company did not much exceed 100 men, if as many.
Before we left Canada Huts, I was provided with a batman, coming of course from A Company. And a good fellow he was and much I owe to him. He has looked after me continuously from the day after I arrived until he was demobilised on December 24, 1918—nearly three years. A miner from Ashington, wounded at St. Julien in April 1915, he had rejoined the battalion some months before in France. At a later stage I had to rely much on his skill as a cook. A wonderfully cheerful person and a smart and handy man at improvising little comforts for me. His name was William Critchlow.
 Fortunately I never had occasion to use them.
When it was beginning to get dark the battalion formed up in the road and the roll was called over. At last we set off slowly, squelching through the mud on the wet roads, the rain pouring down unceasingly. We soon struck the pave road that runs through Dickebusch, a long straggling village, still fairly intact and occupied by Belgian civilians. It was shelled now and again but not severely. When we reached this place, the battalion opened out considerably, platoons keeping 200 yards apart; a precaution necessary on roads that were periodically shelled at night. After plodding along for some time we reached the Cafe Belge, a mere ruin now, but a well-known halting place for troops on the march. Here we turned off to the right and left the pave road which runs on to Ypres, and after this the roads were much more difficult to travel. Shell holes were frequent and generally full of water, so that in the dark it was only too easy to stumble into them. 'Shell-hole on the right,' 'Shell-hole on the left,' 'Shell-hole in the middle,' 'Keep to your right' were being passed back continually. Progress was slow of course under these conditions and with the heavy loads that we all carried. But it was all so novel to me that I had not a moment to feel dull or depressed. After a time we reached the notorious 'Shrapnel Corner' and turned towards 'Transport Farm,' for we were bound for trenches at Hill 60. This place was of course famous for the British attack in 1915, and for the German counter-attack with gas a little later on which was all too successful. It was also notorious for being one of the hottest corners of the British front. Owing to their vantage ground on the hill the enemy had little difficulty in sniping and shelling our trenches effectively.
As we approached Transport Farm I came for the first time under indirect rifle fire. A number of bullets fired at our trenches carried over and landed not far from the roads at the back. Though rather alarming in the dark to one unaccustomed to them, they seldom did much damage. Occasionally a man or two got wounded during these reliefs. Our company turned to the left again near Zillebeke railway station, and then struck off the road and reached the mouth of a C.T. which led after about a hundred yards to the support trenches.
A glance at the official plan of the trenches at Hill 60 will give some idea of the extraordinary place it was. Whilst the German line ran solid along the top of the ridge, there were two complete gaps in the British fire trenches between Hill 60 and Mount Sorrel on the left. On paper it looks as if there were nothing to stop the German from walking across and behind our lines whenever he chose. But I imagine that these empty spaces were covered by machine-gun posts, and that the artillery were ready to deal with any attempt of that sort. Another feature of the place was the awful nature of the ground outside the trenches. It was a morass filled with partially buried bodies—that is, partially buried by nature in the ooze and mud. During a dense mist about seventy identity discs were recovered from the ground behind our support lines. And it was worse in front between the opposing trenches. It was not likely, then, that the German would wish to press us farther down the hill, at any rate for tactical purposes.
A Company had two platoons in the front line trench 41, some 100 yards from the enemy, and two platoons in a support line called '41 support.' The trenches themselves were well-built and revetted with sand bags, and dry enough even during the wettest weather. We had in these days only small shelters—the deep dugout was unknown. The three subalterns in A Company took turns at duty in the trenches, four hours on and eight hours off, night and day. The duty consisted chiefly of visiting the sentries every hour, and keeping a general look-out, and seeing that the trench rules were obeyed. A good deal of rifle fire went on at night. Sentries on either side would exchange shots, and an occasional machine-gun would open out. At close range the bullets make a curious crack as they pass overhead. Being tall and having been warned of the efficiency of the German sniper, I had to walk in most of the trenches with a bend in the back, which soon became tiring.
On Sunday, January 16, I had a decidedly lively time for my first day in the trenches. It was always said that the Germans got a fresh supply of ammunition at the week-end, and Sunday was scarcely ever a day of rest. However that may be, this Sunday was the worst day I had for some time. After sending over a few small howitzer shells, the German field-guns sent periodical showers of shells, 'whizz-bangs' we called them, on to the support trench and C.T.
This went on all morning, and whilst the shoot lasted they came over in a perfect stream. After a quieter afternoon a regular trench battle opened out at night, rifle grenades and bombs being freely exchanged, and a number of trench-mortar bombs—'sausages and rum jars'—coming over from the enemy's trenches. Eventually our heavy guns opened out with lively retaliation and the enemy quietened down. Rather a big dose to get the first day in the trenches, when everything was so strange and new. However I was assured that it was not an 'average' day even on Hill 60, but something like an organised shoot. One of the features of the place was the number and size of the rats; they looked the size of rabbits as they scuttered along the trenches at night. Another was the awful taste of the water we got to drink. It was boiled and it was turned into strong tea, but it had a most indescribably horrible taste. The food, on the other hand, was excellent and plenty of it. In the light of subsequent rations these were indeed the days of plenty. Owing to the kindness of some friends of the battalion in England, both officers and men were supplied with sheep-skin coats or jackets which were wonderfully good in keeping out the cold at night. 'Stand-to' was a regular institution of trench warfare, both an hour before dark and an hour before dawn. Naturally the latter was the more trying, but at this time the rum ration was served out; and it certainly prevented you from being frozen stiff and enabled you to get to sleep again if your duties did not keep you to the trenches. A very curious life in the trenches, a very small world but every bit of it packed full of interest and novelty to me. From the trenches, if you looked backwards, there was a splendid view of Ypres, with its shattered spires and houses, still a beautiful grey ruin, even in death. I was destined to have a much closer acquaintance with it later. Beyond the usual rounds of shelling on both sides nothing of particular interest happened during the next three days. On the evening of January 19 we were relieved by a company of the 5th N.F. (Capt. North M.C.), and moved out after dark for a short rest in close support.
My career as a platoon commander in the trenches was a short one, for as it happened that was my first and last experience as such. We moved out and back for about a mile, eventually reaching a house called Blauwpoorte Farm. It was not a bad place then, and was not shelled, though at night the bullets used to rattle round if you walked abroad. Here on the second day I took a small party of men, as a working party, to the shelters at the 'Sunken Road,' rather nearer the line. I think we were engaged in clearing the road of mud and generally cleaning up. On the way there I saw some rather humourous notices stuck up at various points. 'This is a dangerous spot.' It was kindly meant no doubt, but on the whole no part of the Salient afforded much of a rest-cure, and it was practically all under direct observation of the enemy. We existed simply through his forbearance.
On January 22, 1916, I became bombing officer to the battalion, or, as it was then called, 'grenadier officer.' My predecessor had had bad luck, getting his hand shattered by the accidental explosion of a detonator. Accordingly I was sent to see Sergt. W. Moffat, the battalion bombing sergeant, in order to pick up what I could of the routine at so short a notice. Sergt. Moffat was a short withered man with sandy hair, a quiet manner, but a cheery twinkle in his eye. He had served in the South African war; and had been mentioned in despatches for good bombing work during a German attack at Hooge. A most conscientious and hard-working fellow, with a passion for all sorts of bombs. I could not have fallen into better hands. He was an admirable instructor and assistant, and knew all there was to be known about trench routine. I could see he was universally respected in the battalion. He was a Salvation Army man at home, and wore their red woollen jersey under his tunic. Much do I owe him and much do I still lament his untimely end.
Capt. Smail returned to England about this time, leaving me his woolly coat, a priceless parting gift. Capt. J. Welch came to command A Company and a cheerier fellow surely never existed. I was glad to accept his offer of messing with A Company. There never was a dull moment at mess when Welch presided.
We went back to Hill 60 for four days on January 23. I cannot remember much of this stay in the line, and nothing special happened. I was too busy learning all I could of the routine of the trenches and locating and checking bomb stores. I had to visit all the trenches held by the battalion, and thus got the chance of making the acquaintance of the other Company commanders, Capt. H. Liddell (B Coy.), Capt. C. Davies (C Coy.) and Capt. G.F. Ball, M.C., (D Coy.). I remember being asked by our Brigadier-General Clifford to explain some part of a derelict West Spring Thrower in the cutting at Hill 60 (I had never even seen one before) and being saved by the timely intervention of Sergt. Moffat.
On January 27 we were relieved and went back to Canada Huts for a rest of four days. Oh, that first rest out of the trenches! The accommodation was poor enough seen in the light of home comforts, but what a palace of rest and refreshment it seemed to me then, and how quickly the time passed. I had to practise the bombers (nineteen from each company) in throwing dummy grenades each morning on the mud flat (it was once a field) outside the huts. In order to stimulate keenness I organised a competition and gave one franc each day as a prize for the best score. I soon found out who were the most expert throwers.
We had a Y.M.C.A. hut close to the camp, and it was interesting to drop in and have a chat with the men in charge and a cup of cocoa. There was an old gentleman there, in command, who was rightly proud of being the civilian nearest to the front line. He displayed to us with great pride a souvenir found in Ypres, the huge base of a 17-inch shell—it was almost too heavy for one man to lift. We had our Church Service and our concerts in the marquee attached to the Y.M.C.A. hut.
Most of the officers got leave to go to Poperinghe during these rests out of the line, but I never went there myself. There was an attraction there in the 'Fancies,' a fine concert party, many of whose songs I learnt at second hand.
 Lieut. F.B. Cowen, a very cheery machine-gun officer, also 7th N.F., had his quarters here.
MOUNT SORREL AND CANNY HILL
When we went up the line again on January 31, it was to Mount Sorrel, on the north of Hill 60. Here we had a good set of trenches, but they were practically cut off from our trenches at Hill 60 by a swamp. Through the swamp ran a watery sort of drain about four feet deep. It was the old front line, now waterlogged and quite untenable. Although the drain was not held by day, a patrol of bombers used to pass along it at intervals during the night. And it was part of my duties to wade through it every night. This was not a pleasant job, because you could not show a light and the mud smelt abominably. We were provided, however, with rubber boots reaching up to the thigh, so we did not get very wet. The officers of A Company occupied an 'elephant' shelter just behind the support line. All its occupants were killed by a shell bursting in the doorway, just two days after we had left these trenches. I first met Lieut. W. Keene here. He was the Brigade Grenadier officer and had the supervision of all bombing arrangements in the Brigade area, besides being responsible for the supply of grenades. I always found him friendly and encouraging, and I was glad to learn anything he could tell me. He asked me to send in a daily report to B.H.Q.; and I have kept the copies of these reports to this day.
During this stay in the trenches the Germans stuck up a notice board with the following legend: Attention Gentlemen, and below in German, 'If you send over one more trench-mortar bomb you will get strafed in the neck.'
On February 3 we were relieved and A Company stayed four days in the railway cutting at Hill 60 in close support. The second day I went with Capt. Welch and Lieut. Greene to the trenches north of Mount Sorrel which were called Canny Hill. That journey was full of incident, we seemed to be shelled or bombed all the way to Mount Sorrel and back, and Capt. Welch has often humourously suggested that I was the Jonah. It also meant crossing the dismal swamp in daylight, and how we did it without being seen and shot I really do not know. During our stay in the cutting I explored the old broken trenches behind our support line at Hill 60, and found a fine dump of English bombs of early types. I spent quite a long time drawing their teeth. One little incident I remember at this spot. About 1 A.M. an elderly R.E. officer came into our shelter, and told us in a voice shaking with joyful emotion that he had just blown up a German counter-mine which had been threatening our mine galleries at Hill 60.
On February 8 we marched back to Canada Huts, and had another four days' rest. This time the bombers carried out a good deal of live practice with Mills bombs at some bombing-pits about half a mile from Canada Huts. It was my first experience of the sort; but Sergt. Moffat kept me up to the procedure at the firing-pit. Also it was the first time I had the chance of throwing a live Mills bomb myself. On February 12 we were due to take over the trenches at Canny Hill, and I went up early and by myself, riding to Cafe Belge and thence on foot to Hill 60, Mount Sorrel, and so on to Sanctuary Wood. It was a long way round but I knew no other way. My dugout was in the wood, rather far from the front line and from the H.Q. of A Company in Davison Street. Our front line trenches were about quarter of a mile away from the German front line, but there were signs that the Germans were digging a forward trench along a hedge about 200 yards away from our front. This activity gave the Staff some uneasiness, and considerable interest was taken in these forward workings. I went out with Capt. Welch for a short visit in that direction the first night, but we saw nothing of interest. The next night Capt. Welch brought back a revetting stake from the new German trench. I believe it was on February 13 that the Germans attacked and took the 'Bluff,' some trenches south-west of Hill 60. About 3.30 P.M. our own trenches were bombarded for about two hours continuously with field artillery, and a lot of pieces were blown out of the top of our trenches, but no infantry attack developed. After this a small mine was blown up under our old trenches at Hill 60 and a platoon was wiped out there. But an attempt by the Germans to occupy the crater was frustrated through the initiative of a machine-gun officer. I saw and felt the shock of this mine going up, and a wonderful sight it was in the evening light. The shelling went on for some time after dark, whilst to our right our artillery thundered away in support of several fruitless attempts to recapture the lost trenches at the 'Bluff.'
On February 14 I was told to organise a series of bombing parties, one from each company, to visit the German advanced trench at different times during the night and if possible to bomb German parties working there. I decided to accompany the first party, from A Company, between 8 and 10 P.M. Sergt. Dorgan, an experienced patroller, went with me, also L.-C. Lowes, Ptes. Austin and Gibson, and two other bombers. As it was very wet, I had a sandbag taken by each man to lie down on. The scheme was to creep right up to the new trench near the hedge, and await the arrival of the German working-party. So we crept out along the wet ground and got to the trench, which was about two feet deep. We found no one there, and Pte. Austin went on into the hedge to keep a look-out. In the hedge were found a German sniper's plate, a steel shield with a loop-hole in it, and a German entrenching tool, like a small spade. These were at once annexed. Then we lay down again on the sandbags and waited with eyes and ears straining for about an hour. But no Germans came, though we had one warning from our sentry to get ready to fire. After that, cold and thoroughly soaked, we returned in triumph with the sandbags and our spoils, which we placed in our own trench. The other parties went out later but found no Germans at work. Possibly the wet night or the battle on our right prevented them from coming out to work that night. The object of these forward trenches was afterwards apparent, when four months later the Germans attacked and took Mount Sorrel. On February 16 we were relieved and went back into support for four days. I have forgotten where we went, but I think it was to the Canal Dugouts not far from Swan Chateau.
On February 20 we returned to the same trenches at Canny Hill and held them for five days. The first night in, Capt. Welch was badly wounded through the shoulder whilst bringing in a wounded man who had been hit whilst outside wiring. He was a great loss to the battalion, and was sadly missed by the men as well as by the officers. It now turned very cold, and we had a fall of snow several inches deep. This made it difficult for parties to work in the trenches without being spotted. I had an unpleasant experience of this. I was looking for an emplacement for a grenade-rifle stand, and I selected a likely-looking spot just behind the front line. Then I brought a party of bombers to dig the place out. We had not thrown out five shovelfuls of earth before a shell came whistling just over our heads. Fortunately I dispersed the party at once along the trench. Then the fun began. Shells came whizzing in all round the unlucky spot, till a direct hit right in the middle of it apparently satisfied the German gunners and the storm ceased. After that I chose another place farther along the trench where no digging was required.
On February 25 we left Canny Hill and went back to Canada Huts. On this occasion we had to make rather a detour to allow the troops of the 3rd Division to use the roads; and in so doing we passed Ypres railway station.
On March 1 we moved into the support dugouts at Transport Farm, called Railway Dugouts. We were told to expect a bombardment by our guns that night, as the 'Bluff' was to be attacked and retaken early next day. The bombers of the 7th N.F. spent some time detonating grenades by candlelight in the bomb store at Transport Farm. Sure enough there was a terrific bombardment for half an hour. It was the first of the kind that I had seen, and I believe that at least 500 guns of all calibres were collected for the occasion. The whole of the landscape seemed to be alight, every hedge flickering with flame; whilst away towards the 'Bluff' there was a sullen red glare where our shells were bursting. Nothing further happened that night. But at dawn next morning the 3rd Division attacked the 'Bluff' without bombardment and surprised the garrison, taking many prisoners and recapturing the lost trenches and some more ground besides. I saw one or two droves of prisoners coming back past Bedford House, the first time I had seen any live Boches. The bombardment by our guns started again soon after the attack, and our guns kept up a slow rate of fire all day. In reply the German heavy guns shelled the back areas freely, especially the road past Transport Farm, and we got a few shells near the railway. We got orders to take over the trenches at Mount Sorrel the same night. I left with a party of bombers soon after 1 P.M., going along a C.T. to Sanctuary Wood and then back through the trenches to Mount Sorrel.
We found the trenches in a sad mess. That morning there had been a demonstration with all arms along this part of the front, and the enemy had naturally retaliated and done a lot of damage. To increase our troubles it became very cold, and the snow fell inches deep. But there was no more shelling on either side for the next week. Apart from sniping, which was assisted by the snow, we were left in peace to bale out the mud and repair the trenches. This cold snap caused a lot of sickness, and it was not improved by our having to hold these trenches for over a week—a long time under such wintry conditions. At last, on March 9, we were relieved and moved back to some dugouts near Bedford House. Here we stayed for some days, taking working-parties up to Hill 60 at night, from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M. One night we were shelled off the roads, and had to come back with nothing done. Another time I took a party to mend a breach in the front line at Hill 60. I think we went back to Canada Huts about March 16—at any rate we had a longer rest than usual. Sir Douglas Haig came over to Canada Huts to inspect the battalion. Amongst other things he inspected A Company who were drawn up in their hut, 2nd-Lieut. Gregson and myself being the subalterns there in charge. The General spoke to Gregson first, and asked him how long he had been out. He replied: 'January 14, sir'—meaning January 14, 1916. His reply was, however, taken to mean 'January 1914,' and quite a little discussion took place, which amused me much, as Gregson stuck to his point. Afterwards the General came round to my end of the hut and asked me how long I had been out. 'January '16, sir,' I replied. 'That's all right,' he said, 'well, I wish you the best of luck.' There was an amused twinkle in his kind sympathetic face, as I was still half-smiling over his little controversy with Gregson.
After this we moved off to another rest camp not far away, for a few days. On March 24 we were due to take over the trenches at Hill 60 again for three days. I went up early in the day and 'took over' the various bombing arrangements. The trenches now included some on the south side of the Railway Cutting, and I had my dugout there in the top of a small hillock called the 'Mound.' From 7.30 P.M. to 10 P.M. that night the trenches and Cutting were heavily bombarded, but the relief was not much delayed. The 7th N.F., however, had great luck in having only two men wounded whilst coming in. They were unfortunate casualties, it is true, 2nd-Lieut. J.H.C. Swinney and Sergt. Dorgan, both good men and a loss to the battalion. The next three days were bad days for us. The battalion had over fifty casualties, much above the average. Four days in the line generally gave about seven or eight casualties. On March 25 British mines were exploded at St. Eloi, and the mine craters were occupied by the 3rd Division. The explosion took place just before dawn, about a mile or more to the south, but it woke me all of a shake. I thought at first that I was going to tumble down into the Cutting the ground heaved and rocked so much. The German heavy artillery took the precaution of bombarding our part of the front, and caused many casualties and much damage in the front line. The whole of C Company batmen were killed by a shell, and 2nd-Lieut. Burt, a new arrival but an old friend, was also killed. Poor lad, he was always certain that he would be killed as soon as he got out to France! I saw in the trenches a pile of our dead, three or four deep, waiting for removal to the rear. The shelling was severe at times during the next two days. Lieut. Platt, a forward observing officer of the 50th Divisional Artillery and a well known and welcome figure in the trenches, was killed by a shell just below my own dugout. We had cause, indeed, to remember our last visit to Hill 60. During this visit I first met some Canadian officers who were looking over the line before taking it over from the 50th Division.
On March 27 we were relieved and I went back with A Company to some dugouts near Bedford House. Our first day there we were shelled out of these dugouts and had to take refuge for a time in Bedford House. A Belgian battery had just arrived close to us, and unfortunately they gave the position away. In the afternoon I went a long round to various reserve bomb stores to check the stores. Next night I paid a last visit to the Cutting at Hill 60 with a working-party. Second-Lieut. E.W. Styles was also there on a similar job.
He had just come out; and being anxious to see something of the famous Hill 60 trenches he went off by himself into the front line, and, I suppose, asked various questions of the sentries. Anyway, when next I saw him he was coming back down the Cutting followed at an interval by a sentry with a fixed bayonet, who asked me if I knew who he was. My reply was no doubt disappointing to the soldier, who thought he had really captured a spy this time, and earned his two weeks' leave—the reward for arresting a spy.
On March 29, before leaving the area, I acted as guide to some Canadian troops, from Cafe Belge to the Canal Dugouts. They seemed to be fine fellows and well up to strength in all their companies. The same night our battalion went back to Scottish Lines at Ouderdom, but we moved back to Canada Huts next day.
 A special friend, who unhappily was killed at Wancourt in 1917.
On March 31 I rode over with various company officers to Kemmel, and we looked over the trenches H2-K1 below Wytschaete Ridge. We were to take over this part of the line from the Canadians in two days' time. It was once a quiet spot, and I think we were sent there for that reason. But we soon found that we had come out of the frying-pan only to go into the fire. The battle that was still raging at St. Eloi about a mile to the north was destined to alter the character of the once peaceful Kemmel area. I had now changed my mess. All the old officers of A Company had disappeared since I first joined the battalion; so I accepted an invitation from Capt. G.F. Ball to join D Company mess. I was glad to do this, for not only was Capt. Ball the kindest and best of fellows, but there were old friends there—2nd-Lieuts. Peters and J. Robinson—whom I knew well at Alnwick.
On April 1 the battalion set out for the new area, marching first to Locre and halting there for the midday meal. Later on, towards night, D Company proceeded to R.E. Farm, a support billet just vacated by Canadians, and stayed the night there. The Canadians left a lot of excellent ration tobacco behind them both here and in the trenches.
Next day we went forward to the new trenches. They were a change indeed from those in the Salient, and it was evident that there had not been much heavy shelling there. Instead of the high narrow trenches at Hill 60, they were mostly mere breastworks with little or no back protection. And the C.T.s were hardly deep enough to afford protection from sniping or indirect rifle fire. Fortunately the Germans did not snipe these trenches. There were three gaps in the front line, and two small posts in No Man's Land. A long winding C.T. brought you from Battalion H.Q., which were at Rossignol Farm about a mile from the front line trenches. The main features of the landscape were the Wytschaete Ridge and Petit Bois—a thick wood on our left front. The German trenches were not at first at all close to ours; and both their wire and ours was thick and solid. We had a big mine shaft in the supports, but a good way back from the front line. The Canadians told us that there had been little fighting there except between patrols and during raids. And it was evident that they had spent more time and labour in draining the trenches than in fortifying them. I had my quarters with most of the bombers in a support trench, H.5, about 250 yards from our front line. We had the trench all to ourselves and during my first visit to these trenches, which lasted six days, it was a quiet, happy home, with a green field behind and an occasional pheasant crowing in the hedges. Unfortunately for the bombers, emplacements for 60-pounder trench-mortars (worked by the R.F.A.) were already being dug at either end of our trench, and I knew there would soon be trouble for H.5. We had a curious little bombing-post outside the front line at H.4, which was only held at night. It was inside our wire, but you could only reach it by clambering over the top of the parapet after dark. The post was connected by a string to a sentry-post in the front line. And various signals were arranged to warn the sentry in the front line as to what was going on, for example, two jerks on the string: 'Man returning to trench,' three jerks: 'Enemy patrol on right,' and so on. A similar bombing-post was also held at night for the first time during this visit. This was in an old broken-down trench outside our wire, called 'J.3 Right.' It was more difficult of approach owing to the mud and to its distance from the front line, and of course more dangerous because it might be attacked by the enemy's patrols. Capt. Hugh Liddell of B Company found this old trench whilst patrolling No Man's Land. It was probably once part of the front line which had become waterlogged and then abandoned. Capt. Liddell had his H.Q. in J.4 at this time. The first night he went with me to this trench with a party of bombers, and we stayed from 2 A.M. till dawn was breaking. Capt. Liddell was a great tower of strength to us in these trenches, one of the most fearless and pugnacious of men, with a taste for wandering about No Man's Land o' nights. It did you good merely to look at him.
On April 8 we were relieved by the 6th N.F., and D Company moved to a billet at R.C. Farm. One of the buildings had recently been fired by a shell, and the bodies of several horses that had been cremated inside made the air rather pungent. Whilst we were out of the line, the German artillery started shelling the trenches severely, inflicting heavy casualties on the 6th N.F., and punishing especially the support trench at J.4 and the bombers retreat at H.5. During our rest I went with Capt. Liddell and a working party of B Company to dig and fill in some cable trenches behind the supports of the 'L' Trenches. During the work I first made the acquaintance of Lieut. A.E. Odell, the Brigade Signalling Officer, who later on became a great friend. We went back to the old trenches on April 13, and I found the bombers of the 6th N.F. had moved their quarters from H.5 to Turner Town (left), two rows of small splinter-proof dugouts behind the mine shaft. The trenches were badly knocked about, and the German artillery and trench-mortars were still causing trouble. I now messed with D Company at their H.Q. in K.1.a. On the evening of April 10, I had to patrol the ground near the mine shaft with a party of bombers, to look out for a German spy who was thought to be making back this way. We saw nothing of him, but I believe that 2nd-Lieut. J. Robinson arrested a Canadian Mining Officer, who in the dark was unknown to him.
On April 18 we were relieved by the 6th N.F. their Bombing Officer, 2nd-Lieut. A. Toon, taking over from me. This time we moved back to Locre. But I was sent to B.H.Q. at Bruloose with my servant, as Lieut. W. Keene was away on leave, and it was intended that I should act for him till he came back. However I was not long at B.H.Q. before it appeared that Lieut. Keene would be returning that night. Before going off to Locre, however, I was asked to stay to dinner with the officers of B.H.Q. which I did; and it was a pleasant experience. The battalion had good quarters in Locre in the Convent School, and we soon found that a good lunch or dinner was served by the Nuns at the convent to weary officers. They also let you use the convent baths. On April 20 we held a battalion dinner there in commemoration of the Battle of St. Julien.
On Good Friday we had an Easter service, as we were to be in the trenches again on Easter Day. Our padre was Capt. Rev. J.O. Aglionby, C.F., whom we came to know and like very well. The bombers had a day's training at Bruloose, and we were asked to bring our steel helmets, which had just been issued. So I wore mine for the first time. After the practice was over, I was asked to come and see the Brigade Bombing Officer fire off some Mills rifle-grenades, which were a novelty then. Whilst this was going on a grenade burst prematurely soon after leaving the rifle, and a piece came back and struck my helmet, cutting the lining and scratching the metal. After that I would never part with that helmet, though newer ones were issued later on. Our last visit to the trenches was to be shorter, and we were to be relieved by the 3rd Division in three days. We set off on Saturday, April 22, and arrived in the C.T. all right, for the Germans seldom shelled the roads in this area. But when we got there we found things rather lively. A shell killed two or three men of D Company as they were approaching K.1.a; and Capt. Liddell and I had a splinter from another shell between us as we passed up Rossignol C.T. On arriving I got a message from the Adjutant saying, 'The G.O.C. orders that you use the greatest vigilance by day and by night.' The next day, Easter Day, the enemy shelled the trenches all day. Capt. G.F. Ball and I had an unpleasant experience in K.1.a, after lunch. For nearly two hours a howitzer battery shelled the place slowly and methodically, working up and down the little trench. Many times dirt and rubbish came flying into our shelter, but the only direct hit was on a minor structure which of course disappeared. Next day our cook-house was blown in and the crockery all smashed, but fortunately it was empty of men at the time. In these trenches it was difficult to get artillery retaliation, for the fighting at St. Eloi swallowed up most of the spare ammunition, and the allowance of shells for the batteries was small; so the enemy had a free hand in shelling our defences. Early on the Monday morning the enemy fired a shallow mine between his trenches and our own. It was a method of gaining ground, for the craters were fortified and turned into a trench. In this way the Germans began to approach fairly close to us at K.1 and J.3. I had to register with Newton rifle-grenades on the crater, but as we were short of cartridges it was not possible to fire at night.
On April 25 we were relieved by the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, and I got away from the trenches with the last of the bombers about midnight. There was a big bombardment of these trenches next day, causing eighty casualties to the new-comers. My own little shelter was blown to pieces by a howitzer shell and the occupants killed. Nearly two years elapsed before I was again living in front line trenches.
In the early hours of April 20 the battalion reached Locre and spent the rest of the night in billets. By 8 A.M. we resumed our march, and went through Bailleul to Meteren. It was pleasant indeed to see the inside of a town again, and to get away from the area that was broken to bits. We were to be out of the line, we hoped, for at least a month, so naturally every one was feeling light-hearted. The bombers of the battalion were collected in a company about eighty strong, and they were billeted together under my charge. Our quarters were at a large French farm, called on the map 'Fever Farm,' and near to it was a fine set of bombing trenches. Lieut. W. Keene was also living at this farm, in order to be near the bombing ground. And we had our little mess together in the farm parlour, and our bedroom in a nice dry attic. No bombing work was done for the first three days, in order to give time for the men to get rested and to clean their equipment. The bombers were billeted in a large barn just across the yard, with plenty of clean straw inside. The French farmer and his wife were pleasant bodies, nice and friendly to us, and glad no doubt to be able to sell their light beer and eggs to the English soldier-man. The other companies of the battalion were billeted in farm-houses near Meteren. In case of an attack by the Germans on the Corps front the battalion had orders to go forward and man the trenches on Kemmel Hill. I received a paper of instructions as to what to do in case of alarm. We could tell that the Germans were causing trouble up the line, for we heard a heavy bombardment going on beyond Kemmel. About 1.30 A.M. on Sunday, April 30, the bombers' sentry came and woke me up, and I went downstairs to find a messenger had arrived with the code warning 'Kemmel Defences.' So I quickly roused the men and warned them to be ready to start in half an hour. We hurried into our war kit and formed up in the dark outside, and soon marched off to join the rest of the battalion outside Meteren. We learned that the enemy had loosed off a lot of gas beyond Kemmel, and we were to man the defences as soon as possible. The battalion marched along as far as the entrance to Bailleul, when just as day was breaking a cyclist orderly rode up with orders for us to return to our billets. No infantry attack had followed the gas cloud, and we were free to return to rest. The Brigade had another alarm next day, but it was quickly cancelled; and after that we were not called out again. Every morning was given to bombing practice, and I offered a small prize each day for a competition in throwing. If it was wet the men stopped in the barn, and had a lecture on English or German grenades. One afternoon I walked over to Bailleul and had a bath at the Corps baths. They were rather primitive but the water was hot.
It made a nice change to get back to civilisation once more and to have a meal at a restaurant; and the shops of course were a great attraction.
About May 5, just as I was about to set out a second time for Bailleul, a letter came in for me from my brother George. It was dated the previous day and said that he was billeted with his unit close to Meteren. So I set off at once to find him, and had the good luck to meet him as he was cycling round on some medical inspection duties. His unit had just come out to France and he had no idea I was so near at hand; and I think he nearly fell off his bicycle with surprise when I first appeared in that country lane. He could not wait long then, so I asked him to come to tea with us at Fever Farm next day. And two days after that I dined with the H.Q. Mess of his unit, the 15th Hants Regiment, which I enjoyed very much. Unfortunately I saw no more of him at this time, as I left Fever Farm about May 11.
It was now decided that I should hand over the bombing to 2nd-Lieut. E.G. Lawson, a most cheery and energetic bomber, and return to company work. So I was put in command of C Company and returned with them to Locre, where I stayed for about a week. I had not much to do here, except the daily inspection of the company and orderly room. The men of the company included many of my old recruits of C Company at Alnwick whom I was glad to see again. About May 19 I got my first leave, it was for seven clear days. And I suppose there was no happier man in France just then. The train started from Bailleul station about 6 A.M. so I had to leave Locre the night before and stay the night at an hotel at Bailleul. I had a comparatively quick journey to the coast, for we reached Boulogne at 10.45 A.M. just in time to catch the 11 o'clock boat. I arrived in Folkestone about 1.45 P.M. and in London about 3.30 P.M. the same day. Though short, it was a happy time, and I returned on May 26, staying one night in Boulogne and reaching Bailleul about midnight on Saturday, May 27. I found that the battalion was still at Locre, but the Brigade had gone back to the line, holding the same trenches on Wytschaete Ridge. An unfortunate accident had just happened in our old trenches. Lieut. W. Keene and 2nd-Lieut. Toon were both badly injured and an N.C.O. killed in the trenches by a Mills rifle-grenade, which, through a defective cartridge, fell out of the rifle and burst in the trench. So when I got back to the battalion I was told I had to proceed to B.H.Q. at Bruloose and take over the office of Brigade Bombing Officer in place of Lieut. Keene. This closed my immediate connection with the 7th N.F. for twenty months.
An Infantry Brigade Head-quarters in France could be a happy home; but only if the Brigadier was liked and respected by the rest of the Staff, and tried to make them feel at home. It seems almost an impertinence even at this date for me to say anything whether in praise or in blame of the man who controlled the immediate destinies of the 149th Infantry Brigade when I first joined it. But as I became much attached to Brigadier-General Clifford I may perhaps be forgiven for describing him rather closely. Tall and dignified, with a cold exterior and a penetrating grey eye, he had the power of commanding the respect and obedience of all. His fatalistic contempt of danger took him into the trenches wherever shelling was hottest; and it is difficult to imagine how he escaped being sniped at Hill 60 or on the Wytschaete Ridge.
He was loved by the men of the 7th N.F. as one who was willing to share their dangers, and always ready with a word of cheer in the hottest corner. 'We could have gone anywhere and done anything for him, if only he had been there to see it.' Such was the epitaph that the gallant Northumberlands gave him when he fell. I found his old-world courtesy of manner and aristocratic bearing most inspiring. And he knew the right way of getting a thing done without being cross or overbearing. A splendid type of chivalrous soldier, he stands out in my memory as a beacon of light when I have felt inclined to grumble at the Army system. I can call to mind a score of acts to me, which revealed the kindly, generous heart beneath that cold exterior. One of the first things he said to me when I joined the Brigade was this: 'Buckley, mind you make your authority felt with these adjutants. Remember, for the purposes of bombing, you are the General.' How could he have shown more generous confidence or encouraged me more for the new role I had to play?
Major Rowan, our Brigade-Major, was another typical officer of the old Regular Army, who was generally liked. I did not get to know him so well, as he left us for higher Staff duties before two months had passed. I always found him kind and considerate.
Capt. D. Hill had been Staff-Captain ever since the Brigade came out to France, and what he did not know about the job was not worth knowing. He often astonished me by his knowledge of what could be done, and by his serene confidence when things were looking difficult. Never ruffled, the kindest and most genial of men, he often proved a good friend and counsellor.
Capt. G.E. Wilkinson stayed with us a short time and then left to join a mess of his own Machine-Gun Officers. A man of the brightest good-humour and gaiety, he always kept us lively and amused. He went far in the war—from 2nd-Lieut. to Colonel of a battalion in eighteen months. I need say nothing further of his qualities as a soldier. He was at Oxford when I was there, and I remembered seeing him at our Law Lectures.
Lieut. G.S. Haggie, the best of fellows too, was always a kind friend to me, and made me feel at home in my new surroundings. I saw a lot of him both now and later on when we did many a strange hunt together for ammunition dumps in the most impossible of places. He was a tremendous walker and could get over really bad muddy ground at an amazing speed.
I was destined also to see much of the Brigade Signaller, Lieut. A.E. Odell, who was quite a remarkable character. He was a lion in the guise of a dove, an autocrat in the guise of a radical, a rigid disciplinarian in the guise of an army reformer. He won the M.C. and Bar and earned them both. He worked his men hard but himself harder still. He had the curious faculty of being able to work for hours by day and to spend the whole night in some muddy ditch up in the front line. His kindness to and consideration for his signallers, were only exceeded by his conscientious devotion to duty. He made me respect and like and envy him, even if he occasionally made me smile.
Major Rowan left us, I think, at La Clytte or Dranoutre, and Capt. W. Anderson became Brigade-Major in his place. He had joined the 6th N.F. at the outbreak of war and got his company and the M.C. at the Battle of St. Julien. In January 1916 he was appointed G.S.O. III at 50th Division H.Q. 'Bill' Anderson was a great man, and combined the fearlessness of the Northumbrian with a great brain. He was probably the best 'civilian' tactician in the Army, and had he decided to join the Regular Army I should have expected him to rise very high indeed. I know what the 149th Infantry Brigade owed to him; but I doubt whether many others know quite as well. And I have always thought that he was never given full scope for exercising his wonderful ability. A tall soldierly figure, with noble features and piercing blue eyes that could harden almost to ruthlessness, I carry him in my mind as my ideal of a Staff Officer. He could get men to do anything for him; his kindly tact and sympathy, his rare appreciation of your efforts, however clumsy, made you ready to work for him like a slave. He has been a good friend to me throughout, and he has done more for me than any other man in France.
At Bruloose the officers of the Brigade had small wooden huts of the Armstrong type for offices and sleeping rooms. The mess room was in the farm-house. Naturally it was a great change from the rude accommodation of a Company Mess. M. Bunge, the French interpreter, looked after our comforts well.
Next to B.H.Q. was a large and fairly useful bombing ground, where the Brigade Bombing School was carried on; and I spent a good deal of time there, as I was in charge of the school. On two days out of every four I spent the morning there, and in the afternoon I was free to visit the trenches, some four miles away. On the other two days I could go up to the trenches in the morning.
I did not miss a day's visit to the trenches and once or twice I went up twice in the day.
The journey was done on foot, so I had quite a good day's exercise. My duties in the trenches were to see that the battalions in the line had a proper supply of grenades; these were taken up by the battalion transport at night. Also that the grenades in the trenches and all bomb stores were properly stored and cleaned. I had also to see that sufficient rifle-grenades were fired at night to harass the enemy's working-parties, and that our bombing-posts were properly manned.
During our stay at Bruloose I had nearly 2000 grenades taken out of the trenches and replaced by new ones; this was hard work for the transport. But the transport officers were very obliging; and I found on firing these old grenades at the school that about 30 to 40 per cent did not burst properly or even at all. The situation in the trenches was getting very bad. Shelling by the enemy's artillery was now less frequent, but the annoyance from enemy trench-mortars was something cruel. Not only large oil-cans, full of explosives, came over both by day and by night, but a horrible 9-inch trench-mortar now made its appearance and blew large craters in the C.T.s and supports. I had two of the oil-cans pretty close to me at different times, and they were not pleasant. Eventually the trench-mortaring got so severe, that the V Corps had a 12-inch howitzer brought up on the railway, and several of these huge shells were fired into Petit Bois when the German trench-mortars started. Another feature to be reckoned with was the approach of the enemy towards K.1 and J.3 by means of a series of fortified mine craters. These craters were worked on at night, and by the General's orders they had to be kept under constant fire from rifle-grenades. Several nights I went up to the trenches to see this carried out, once accompanied by the General himself. I had at the Bruloose bomb store a fairly good stock of smoke and incendiary bombs, like large cocoa tins, only containing red or white phosphorus. It occurred to me that they might be used with effect against the Germans working in the craters. So I carried a number of these bombs up to the trenches, and they were duly fired from the West spring-thrower or from the trench-catapult. The Germans did not seem to like them, as their discharge always drew a lot of machine-gun fire in reply. We also tried to get some more noxious bombs (e.g. 'M.S.K.'), but no supply could be obtained from the Base. The Bombing Officers of the 6th and 7th N.F. carried on the harassing fire with such effect that eventually the Germans took to sending showers of 'fishtails' whenever a rifle-grenade was loosed off. The 'fishtail' was a small trench-mortar bomb, which the Germans substituted for the rifle-grenade and used with great effect. Needless to say our demonstrations were not very popular with the infantry in the front line. But Capt. Vernon Merivale, M.C., appeared to take a special delight in these harassing shoots.
 Brigade Transport, Capt. Kinsella; 7th N.F., Capt. B. Neville; 6th N.F., Lieut. F. Clayton; 5th N.F., Lieut. M.G. Pape; 4th N.F., Lieut. W.M. Turner.
 2nd-Lieuts. Toon and Thompson (6th N.F.) and Lawson and Woods (7th N.F.).
THE BRIGADE BOMBING SCHOOL
The staff of instructors at the Bombing School consisted of three highly trained sergeants—two of these had been instructors at the 50th Divisional Bombing School which was now given up. Sergt. Hogg of the 5th N.F. and Sergt. P. Flannigan of the 4th. N.F. took it in turns to be at the school and at the Brigade Bomb Store. So with Sergt. Moffat, who was now appointed Brigade Bombing Sergeant, I had always two to help me at the school.
On the two bombing days sixteen untrained men came from the battalion resting at Locre and sixteen others from the battalion resting at R.C. Farm.
During the two days these men had to be sufficiently instructed to throw three live Mills grenades. Generally they threw one live grenade apiece after the first day's instruction, and the two others the second day. The first thing was to give a lecture to the men, explaining the nature of the Mills grenade and the proper way to hold it and throw it.
After this a party of sixteen men were lined up in two lines, about forty yards apart, and each of the eight men in turn threw a dummy grenade towards the man opposite him. The instructor had to be careful that the man threw in the correct way and held his grenade right. The action of throwing the grenade was more like bowling overhand than throwing. After about an hour of this the first party of men, eight in number, went down to the firing-trench, which had to be 200 yards clear of any troops. There were two sandbag walls, breastworks, about five feet high—the one in front with a small traverse wall. At the front wall stood the recruit, the sergeant-instructor, and the Brigade Bombing Officer. In front about thirty yards away was a deep pit, mostly full of water, which had been excavated by innumerable grenades thrown into it. The other seven men took refuge behind the second wall, until it was their turn to throw. Before the grenade was thrown the officer had to blow two blasts on his whistle. The first meant 'Get ready to fire'—i.e. draw the safety-pin, the second meant 'Fire.' Some men of course were more confident than others; but on the whole the Northumberlands were easy to teach, for many were miners and accustomed to explosives—in fact, it was sometimes difficult to make them take cover properly. When the grenade was thrown, every one ducked down behind the wall and waited for the explosion. If it went off all right, all was well; and the next man came along for his turn. If, however, the grenade did not go off, it had if possible to be retrieved and the detonator taken out. This was the most exciting work I had to do. Generally the sergeant and I took it in turns to pick up these 'dud' grenades as they were called. After some experience it was possible to tell the moment the grenade was thrown why it did not go off, for example the fuse might be damp and never light; or the cap might misfire; or, worst of all 'duds,' the striker might stick fast through rust or dirt.
Before I gained the experience of picking up these 'duds' and drawing their teeth, I had one lucky escape. The grenade in question had a 'hanging striker' and burst on the ground within five yards of me. It was not, I think, a very good explosion, but one of the pieces caught me on the thigh—happily it cut into the seam of my breeches and then turned, following the seam out and leaving me with a bruise and two holes in my clothes. I never liked picking up these 'duds,' but later on I got to know from the sound what was the matter with them; and then it was just a matter of experience getting them to pieces safely. The live grenades when they burst in the pit, sometimes threw out old 'dud' grenades lying in the mud. One of these latter burst in mid-air, but hurt no one; and another time the grenade dropped right into the firing-trench but did not go off. Another nasty thing was when the grenade burst too quickly; many men have been killed by premature bursts during practice. But though some grenades went off too quickly, I never had one burst in less than a second, by which time the grenade was fairly well away from the trench. Besides these thirty-two untrained men, the bombers from the battalion at Locre used to come and practise on the ground under their own Bombing Officer. But if any of these men wished to pass the live firing test, to qualify them to wear the Bombers badge (a red grenade on the right arm), I had to test them with six live grenades. Three out of the six had to fall within a narrow trench about twenty-five yards from the firing point.
Of course I had to watch the grenade till it reached the ground—and pray that it would not burst prematurely. What a blessing those steel helmets were during live bombing practice! They were proof against bomb splinters and gave you a feeling of confidence.
The battalion bombers were also trained at the school to fire live rifle-grenades. No risks were taken with the Newton rifle-grenade; during firing all men had to be behind a barricade and the rifle was fired off with a string and held in position by an iron stand. But we used to think the Hales rifle-grenade quite safe, so that men were trained to fire off these grenades holding the rifle to the ground in the kneeling position. On one occasion several of us had a lucky escape. The grenade burst at the end of the rifle, instead of bursting 120 yards away on contact with the ground. Sergt. Hogg and another bomber of the 5th N.F. were holding the rifle and both got knocked over, Sergt. Hogg with a slight cut on the head, the latter shaken but unhurt. The Bombing Officer of the 5th N.F. and I both got scratched on the face with splinters.
During our stay at Bruloose about 420 men went through the recruits' course and over 1700 grenades were fired.
Later on I had to be content with much less elaborate bombing grounds. Sometimes they had to be improvised from nothing, at other times a bombing-pit of a sort was found, and we had to make the best of it. After the battle on the Somme far less attention was paid to bombing; but for a time it was thought desirable to have every man trained in bombing, even at the expense of the rifle.
ST. ELOI AND NEUVE EGLISE
About July 2 the Brigade came out of the line for a short time, and B.H.Q. moved to a camp between Mont Rouge and Westoutre. During this stay I was able to carry on the training at the Bruloose Bombing School. There was a fine view of the trenches from Mont Rouge. We could of course hear the sound of the bombardment on the Somme, but at this distance it was more distinct some days than others.
On July 14 the Brigade went into the line again, south of St. Eloi, the support trenches being in Ridge Wood. B.H.Q. moved to a camp at La Clytte, farther than ever from the front line trenches.
At La Clytte there was a small bombing ground, but it was not very safe for live practice, and I was glad when we left it. We did not stay long in these trenches; but before we left them the bombers of the 6th N.F. killed a German and he was brought back to our trenches. It was the first dead German that I had seen.
Our next move was to a quieter part of the line, namely to Wulverghem, below the Messines Ridge. B.H.Q. went to a canvas camp at Neuve Eglise, but moved soon after to Dranoutre, where we were billeted in houses. Lieut.-Col. Turner, O.C. the 5th N.F., came to command the Brigade for about a week, in the absence of General Clifford, who went to England on leave. He was a regular officer, with a keen sense of humour and with an extraordinary dislike of parsons. These new trenches were quiet enough, but the sniping of the enemy was far too good. I was nearly caught out before I realised that fact. I was looking over the parapet the first day with L.-C. Austin, when a bullet caught the edge of the parapet just in front of us, tearing the sandbag along the top and stopping within a few inches of our heads. Of course we dropped down quickly into the trench, but L.-C. Austin waved his cap over the top to signal a 'miss.' He told me it would never do to let the German sniper think he had scored a hit. The 'flying pig,' our large trench-mortar, was first used in a bombardment of the German trenches here, and I believe our Stokes mortar battery did a record rate of fire on the same occasion. We had a lot of gas cylinders stored in the front line trenches ready for use. But they were not required and we had the pleasant job of removing them. They were always talked about as 'rum jars.'
There was no bombing ground at Dranoutre, and I had to make a place for live practice in a farmer's field, much to his disgust. 'C'est la guerre, monsieur!' was all we could say to his expostulations. We could now hear the great cannonade on the Somme going on to the south almost day and night.
A large number of wooden ammunition huts were erected along the roads near Dranoutre, and heavy gun emplacements were being made about Kemmel. Perhaps it was intended that the Fifth Army should make a big push here, if the battle on the Somme had been more successful at the start.
About August 7 we were relieved by two shattered divisions from the Somme, one of them being the Ulster Division that had seen hard fighting south of Serre. We had a good idea whither we were bound. But at first we moved off to the Meteren area, where B.H.Q. were quartered in a camp of wooden huts for about five days. The censorship now became very strict, no inkling of our movements was to be given to anyone at home. Valises too had to be lightened by sending home all spare kit; and all papers and maps relating to the Kemmel area had to be destroyed or returned. Amongst other things I sent home my 'slacks,' and never wore them again in France. About August 11 we moved off to Bailleul railway station and entrained there, leaving about midnight. Next morning we reached Doullens, where we left the train. The R.T.O. at Doullens was Capt. Rearden, whom I knew as a boy at Wellington College and had not seen for sixteen years. But he recognised me and claimed acquaintance.
We marched that day to Fienvillers, and stayed there two days in a French house. The next move was to Naours where we spent one night; and the next night we stayed at Pierregot. On August 17 we marched to the wood at Henencourt.
The whole Brigade was encamped in the neighbourhood of the wood. We had at last arrived in the rest area of the Somme front, and it could only be a matter of days before we were involved in the great battle. But before that could happen there was a great deal to do to prepare the men for their ordeal, and perhaps not a great deal of time in which to do it. The Division was served out with the short rifle for the first time. Hitherto we had only had the long rifle such as was used in the South African War.
The battle on the Somme was to me the great tragedy of the war. A glorious noble tragedy, but still a tragedy. Both sides of course have claimed the victory, the British a tactical one, the Germans a strategic one. The net result to the Allies from a material point of view was the recapture of some hundreds of square miles of France, for the most part battered to bits and as desolate and useless as a wilderness; and the capture or destruction of so many thousands of the enemy at a cost altogether out of proportion to their numbers. The Germans claim, and claim quite rightly, that they frustrated our attempt to break through their line. On the other hand it can be little consolation for them to know that a nation of amateur soldiers drove them out of the strongest fortress in the world; drove them out so completely that they were glad to take refuge, morally as well as physically, behind their famous Hindenburg Line.
No doubt our grand attack lasting from July to November 1916 cemented the Alliance with France and saved Verdun from falling. No doubt it paved the way, in knowledge and morale, for further attacks at a later date. The fact remains that before its lessons were learnt the slopes of the Ancre and the Somme were sown with the bodies of thousands of the finest specimens of the British race. What a cost was paid for the example and the lesson! Never again during the war had Britain such fine athletic men, such gallant and heroic sons to fight her battles. No horror or hardship could subdue their spirit. Again and again, through shattered ranks and over ground covered with the fallen, they went forward to the supreme sacrifice as cheerfully and as light-heartedly as if they were out for a holiday. They knew they could beat the enemy in front of them, and they went on and did it again and again, in spite of the wire, in spite of the mud, in spite of thousands of machine-gun bullets and shells. The tragedy of it all is written in one word. Waste—waste of lives, waste of effort, waste of ammunition. The fact is now clear that in 1916 the resources of the British Nation were not sufficiently developed to smash the German war machine. That was undoubtedly the hope of every one who took part in the battle, to deliver a final knock-out blow. But this hope failed, even if it failed by a little. Our artillery, mighty as it undoubtedly was, was not mighty enough yet to destroy the enemy's defences and to shatter his power of resistance. Alas, it was a blow that could never be repeated again with such magnificent human resources!
After the supreme effort by all ranks a terrible wave of depression naturally followed. And can this be wondered at? For a time there was lack of confidence which made itself all too apparent in 1917, a year of unparalleled disasters. No one who has not set out with such high hopes can know how awful that depression can be.
The effort of the British Army was never so united, never so intense as it was in the battle on the Somme. Later on reverses brought knowledge and knowledge at last brought victory. But for some that victory had its sad side too; for thousands upon thousands of those gay and gallant comrades in the Great Endeavour were not there to share it.
The part of the 50th Division in the battle was not a small one. Briefly the Division went into the Somme area on August 17, 1916, and left it about March 10, 1917. Their first attack was launched on September 15, 1916, in company with the Guards and some of the finest divisions in the British Army. After almost continuous fighting they were withdrawn about October 5, and went back to the rest area around Henencourt till October 21—after having advanced their line from High Wood Ridge to the edge of Le Sars.