Preface by Rick Coxen
I joined the Western Front Association (WFA) after reading my grandfather's World War One journal. I wanted to learn more about America's forgotten war. In the States WWI didn't make the impact that WWII did, perhaps it is because we didn't enter the war until it was near the end. For whatever the reason I knew very little about the war.
My grandfather joined the Royal Field Artillery's special reserves in 1905, soon after he graduated from school. He was called into active service when England declared war on Germany in August of 1914 and was assigned to the 40th battery, 43rd brigade. The brigade was part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) when it was deployed to France.
The story of the journal began in 2008 when I was given a box of documents that had belonged to my grandparents. Among the documents were his war journal and a letter he wrote in 1945. These two items consumed the next four years of my life. What started out as a family history project turned into a book, "The Great Promise".
The book centers on a promise my grandfather made with three chums prior to the Battle of Mons and his journal contains the answers. Through the process of writing I began to fully understand the historical value of the journal and I decided to share it with those in the WFA that would understand and appreciate its contents.
With this thought in mind, I contacted WFA Web Editor to see how to go about accomplishing such a large under taking. I explained that I had both digital images as well as transcriptions of the entire contents of the journal and in return he said that I could submit both.
The WFA is very grateful to Rick for sharing this material. I have not yet been able to verify the accuracy of Frederick Coxen's place namings and actions, nor Rick's transcription. However, whatever warts and all there may be, it remains a fascinating individual record of the early part of the Great War.
NB You can view a slideshow of a facsimile of the Diary at the foot of this article.
It was August 4th when my dear wife first gave me the news of the General Mobilization; I had conflicting thoughts between the sadness of leaving my dear ones, and the fascination that I was going to participate in a real scrap; until then I never realized what it all meant.
On August 5th I was to report for duty so my wife and dear baby daughter walked with me to the train station where I was to catch the train to Newcastle on the Tyne.
Drawing kit, passing Doctor, was detailed to join the 39th Battery RFA. Surplus Details, as acting Quarter Master Sergeant at Borden Camp. Was very disappointed, for this meant that I should not go to the front yet. As I was informed that we should form the nucleus of a Reserve Brigade at Shorncliffe.
August 8th - 14th
Arrived at Borden, gave great satisfaction to CO - and volunteered for immediate service, after a little trouble and help of Brigadier Clark, I was detailed to join 43rd Brigade RFA at Deepcut - I was glad to meet a couple of chums, in the battery and joined - 40th battery RFA
Getting ready to embark - "where", that was the burning question for all orders were secret.
Embarked at Southhampton on the 55 City of Chester - uneventful trip - dis-embarked at Boulogne next morning - I know well that I was in France. Grand reception
August 17th - 19th
In rest camp outside Boulogne we thought it very tame for active service
In train for unknown destination, passed through Avras, Amiens, and numerous places - everywhere the stations were crowded by people, who showered, flowers on the troops, and many Tommies had their first kiss from a French Lady - we de-trained that night at Macquigny
Started our march to the Belgium Frontier, at every village we had a splinded reception, especially the fortified town of Maubeuge, everywhere the French people gave us hearty welcome, perhaps they realized more than us what events were impending.
While halted outside Maugeuge the French caught a women with two pigeons concealed in her basket - one she had already dispatched without ceremony, the French shot her, in a field just on our left.
We dropped into action, at what I knew after to be Mons, we could hear very heavy gun firing and knew "something" was doing, we remained in action, it was a beautiful day, and towards evening advanced a little on to a ridge from where I had a decent view of the battle, it was thrilling, and I was enchanted I think watching the German shell bursting, we only fired a couple of rounds and retired to our previous nights bivouac, which was in an orchard.
The battle still in progress, at dawn a section of our guns went to shell a village just by the town of Mons, they all but got captured, or "put out", a large force of German Uhlans came to within a couple of hundred yards, but owing to a rise in the ground, they fortunately got safely away, and rejoined us about noon - then came the order "general retirement" our small army was hopelessly outnumbered in every detail, it was due to the splendid aerial reconnaissance of our aviators that saved our army, but for that we would have been outflanked and the results too awful to imagine - the troops on a whole were greatly against the idea of running away - how much we had to thank our splendid leaders for the way the gigantic thing was carried out. Was indeed marvelous - we were running away - we incurred very heavy losses, but the Germans did not have it all their own way, for they paid dearly for every mile of ground.
Rear guard action at Frignies, battery stampeded enemies supply column. Day of alarms - bivouacked
Marching form early morn to late at night - through Marbaix, Goelle to Oisy - rain all night, no water for horses - am sorry for infantry, we give them a lift now and then on horses and vehicles, am glad to stretch legs after long days in saddle.
Marched via Etreux - Guise to Bernot, came into action several times to cover retirement - was pitiful to see refugees at Guise they were all horror stricken, and removing what they could carry on any kind of cart, and all rushing from the town for the Germans came in the town as we went out - long night march was lucky to stop to water horses near a bakery and managed to secure a loaf of bread, I was very hungry food had been very scarce for a few days - I needed no butter on the bread, and put the remainder in horse's nose-bag for next day. Bivouacked in field about midnight
Marched at 4:30 am, came in action near Brissy to cover retirement and later to support Scots Greys and Infantry fighting way across river, continued retirement, everybody men and horses dead beat - weather very hot.
Slowed up, had rather easy day and much needed short rest, and wash - overhauled telephones etc - St Gobin hard news of 600 Manchester Fusiliers and section of 118th battery getting wiped out
Marched to Pinon, long, very hot march, bivouacked, had a dip in lake
Marched at 3:30 am long hard, hot march, infantry falling exhausted, at every halt men go to sleep, sitting, standing, lying, all seem near knocked up - marched till late at night, I slept for hours on and off in the saddle.
Marched 5:30 am, long march to Marolle Bridge, at 6:30 pm, I went to sleep by my saddle - we were aroused by alarm at 11:30 pm to move for engineers were waiting to blow up the bridge - we got across just in time and up went the bridge - German cavalry were very close, we marched through the night and halted on the roadside about 3 am in less than a minute I was sound asleep on a friendly heap of stones - up again, marching again, how I longed for a sleep - anywhere. Continued retirement reached Meaux at 5:30. Compeignie about a mile in our rear was attacked at dawn L Battery getting knocked out, we moved just in time, but did not know how near we were to be cut up until later.
Marched via Varreddes - Germigny - and bivouacked near Jouarre. Long and weary march - very hot.
Halted nearly all day east of Sammeron the rear guard was slightly engaged - weather hot.
Marched to Coulmmiers, bivouacked early, washed my underclothing. Thought we were going to have days rest - but had to move quickly in the morning to take up position SW of Coulmmiers, we dug in and remained in action all night, leaving position at dawn marched with Division to Rozny.
In position at Rozny, no contact with enemy, we hear that the retreat is over, with the French we are to advance, how glad we were - anything but that continual marching.
We were advancing, occupied a position east of Voinsles to cover advance of 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigades - moved forward and occupied line Le Plessis - Andnoy - I dismounted behind a farm house, and went inside, there I first saw a house sacked by the Germans, everything was destroyed - outside I saw one of the Coldstream Guards killed by shrapnel, poor chap, I thought then, I wonder if this means the breaking of a woman's heart, or had he little children - it was my first close contact with a dead man and it set me thinking - and my thoughts were all with my dear ones at home - I shall always remember that hour - my real first initiation into the horrors of war, I cannot say I was afraid, it all seemed so strange, but we were advancing that was our cry we've got them on the run and we are going to have our own back. - bivouacked south of Voudnoy
Marched 3:45 am joined advanced guard to Faleys where engagement was in progress between out cavalry and the enemy, but the enemy retired before we could drop into action, continued advance to Jouy-sur-Morin.
Fighting was in progress on our front, we hurried to find German battery at Montslagiel - the Germans retreated - thunderstorm - we bivouacked in rear of 2nd infantry brigade - sounds of heavy fighting in front all night.
Marched at 4 am with advance guard of 3rd infantry brigade to the river Marne, Cavalry crossed the river and we finally stopped two and a half miles north of Charly.
Marched at 6 am at head of main body and was soon in the thick of the fight known as the Battle of the Marne, we dropped into action in the open, my chum and I decided to run our telephone wire, over a small ridge from our observing party to the battery - a French Cavalryman galloped past me with blood running from himself and house - I laid out my wire quickly to the guns and as I was about to connect my instrument, I heard a loud whining sound and a horrific explosion, it was our christening of heavy artillery fire and for two continual hours it was hell, I crouched beneath a gun limber and thought each moment was my last, I was like a jelly man and must confess my nerves were for the time gone, I wanted to run anywhere, and it was only by the greatest effort of will power I stood to my work and yelled out the orders to the battery gunner for the firing of the guns - the Northhampton and Sussix Regiments retired right through our guns and drew the enemy's fire on to us - nothing was between us and the enemy - their retirement developed into a hapless rubble and panic, our CRA General Finley and Colonel Sharpe with a few more artillery officers tried to stop them and urge them to go forward, but it was no use, while trying to stop them the General was killed and two officers wounded and both regiment lost very heavily - the infantry in their mad rush broke my telephone wire - I thought my chum at the other end had got knocked over, he thought the same of me - so the battery for a few moments was out of action, but the orders were passed down by semaphore by two more chums, and we set out to mend our wire, mean time the 60th Rifles advanced where the Northamptons and Sussix retired and the enemy continued their retreat, how thankful we were.
Advanced to Mont Notre Dame and when into action with French battery on hill overlooking River Vesle, from wounded coming down, things are warm in front - everywhere are signs of the Germans flight, dead men and horses, discarded equipment, overturned motors are everywhere the houses have been locked, and the inhabitants seem overjoyed to have us, for they have suffered bitterly at the hands of the enemy.
Battle of the Aisne - Marched at dawn, pouring rain, no food, or time to get any, took up position near Paissy, from there to Chivy Valley, to meet a German counter attack, our infantry suffered horribly, many wounded being near me, the battery dropped into action, and we found an observation point on a high hill, directly in front, in running our wire old George and I were very lucky to escape the bullets, for we were in full view of the enemy - they all but got us one, a bullet coming between our noses, as we were deciding the best way to run our wire - we laid down, for they were shelling very heavy all around, this was in the afternoon, and the sun was very warm, - I couldn't move, I must have been tired for I actually went to sleep. A staff officer later was talking near by - he must have thought I got bowled over - we made our observing station under the shelter of a small rock, which undoubtedly saved us from getting completely wiped out of existence. We fired heavy all day, and in the night the battery moved a little to the right - I remained on the hill on guard and posted double sentries with orders to shoot anybody who approached without giving prompt reply to challenge - towards dawn I lost two sentries and had a very uncomfortable time searching for them, for the enemy were again very active.
Heavy fighting all day, our little rock proved a haven of refuge, all day we were heavily shelled by "coal-boxes" Major Johnson was killed near by, and Major Madocks slightly wounded - some chaps dodged under our rock for shelter and gave us some tobacco, we were smokeless and foodless, my feast being that day a half biscuit left from emergency ration.
Same as yesterday, the 113th and 46th batteries on our left, were heavily shelled, having many casualties, we were more fortunate - very hard fighting all day - was by this time getting used to the thunder like clap of the coal-boxes and other sundry missiles the Germans were flinging about wholesale - their artillery was splendid, we had no heavy guns to compare to them, nor anything like their number - we suffered greatly, for sometimes it was like Hell let loose.
Heavy scrapping in the afternoon we took up another position on top of Mount Gourtonne, which commanded a good view of the enemy's lines. I galloped hard from our little rock and was sickened to see the dead horses lying around, as soon as the guns left the old position, the enemy peppered it with shell, for we had been spotted by aeroplane - we took up position at night, was raining hard - was wet through, but had got used to that now and slept under a gun limber. I would have given anything for something hot to drink and a good fire.
September 17th - October 13th
We have effectively formed our battle line known as the Aisne River. This long period of fighting all day and almost every night, seems to come to one as a second nature we fire an average of 250 rounds per day - it is really siege warfare, night attacks take place almost nightly - I have dug a hole at the back of the limber, as my home - all days seem to be alike - some days the fighting more severe than others - they shell us occasionally and it is never safe to move from one's dugout or the shelter of the guns - our wagon line are in the great caves - which are wonderful work of nature, but even there we have had quite a few men wounded and several horses killed. At time when they shell us severely we have had to desert the guns and take refuge in an adjacent cave which undoubtedly has been the means of saving some lives - I slept in the cave one night and on going to the guns before dawn next morning lost my way and wandered towards the enemy's lines, when it became light, I was lost and in a valley between us and the Germans, I was confused, and hardly knew what to do, I could hear riffle bullets whizzing uncomfortably near and the ground was full of great holes caused by the German heavy artillery. I knew that when it became light it would be a veritable death trap, I was hopelessly lost and was unarmed, so I decided to take refuge in a shell hole and await throughout the day until nightfall and try to make my way back, but after awhile I decided I would chance it and whether got to our own lines or meet whatever came my way, and after a deal of wandering and exciting moments, I met an office who was forward observing and he directed me to where he thought our guns were - and I reached them without further mishap, and my off man and the others thought I had got swallowed for nobody saw me go - and tracing the path I took from the cave took me within 10 yards of the guns, by which I could see now daylight had well advanced - well I laughed.
Was a well remembered day of this period, during the morning things were a little more quiet than usual, we were sitting around the guns and I left my telephone, which was beneath a gun limber and we were having a feast of Bully Beef and potatoes - (potatoes did not come our way often) and a battery of German artillery found us with shrapnel - the first round burst directly over number 3 gun, which was just by me, we scattered. Poor old Bramwell, who was by my side, ducked and got it in the head. I dove under the limber to the phone my chum Collins and two more gunners dragged Bramwell to the limber for what shelter it gave - the two gunners were hit and Collins and I did what we could to poor Bramwell, but it was useless - the bullets simply hailed on the limber and we expected to be hit every second, but it saved us. After the shower stopped, we removed poor Bramwell, it was an unpleasant sight to see a chums brains by one's side - a shell case was stuck in the ground 2 yards from where I lay - lucky it didn't splinter for Collins and I. Everything seemed to bear marks of that lively hour excepting we two - we dug a hole that night and many times while there the hole saved us, for when it was most quiet, invariably they would switch over on to us. Several were wounded at different times when it was least expected and about this time night attacks were very frequent and sever, often 3 attacks during the night, my wire often got broken by shell fire, through a wood to the observation point, in spite of a double line and was unhealthy at times to repair. On the morning of the 8th October a coal-box dropped by number 5 gun - killing one gunner and wounding four - we were shelled in the afternoon - they flung no fewer than 40 dud shell over us in an hour. It was amusing to feel the thud when they struck the earth and no explosion ensuing - we lost several horses and a couple wounded in wagon line. A party was sent out to prepare a new position, but were shelled out - the Major asked us at night, would we prefer to move as the position was warm, but we decided at once to stop, for our place was as good as another.
Was the anniversary of my wedding, and the thoughts of my dear wife and child was more to me than the scrap that day - had a long chat that night with Lieu Marshall on the duration of the war - we thought about X-mass
I went with two sections of the guns to position on Beauline Ridge. We arrived about midnight, pitch dark and heavy going. Could not use lights or even smoke owning to close proximity of enemy. We got into position without mishap, at dawn next morning it was a sight almost indescribable - one could not walk for three yards unless he was in a great shell hole - a small bank about 10 foot high was the only shelter and the guns and wagons were well dug into this. We had trenches dug by the side - the guns we relieved must have had a terrible time - this place was called by us "Pepper Hill" and the infantry called it "The Devil's Own" - Collins and I worked like slaves and dug a small cavity under the bank, and it felt quite at home. We were in fact like rabbits when not firing - we remained in this position until the night of the 16th. While leaving a terrific night attack was in progress - we were relieved by the French, and marched all night, rested for a few hours, until morning and marched to Neuilly-st-Front and entrained for unknown destination. What a great relief it seemed to be away from the ceaseless sounds of battle
October 17 - 18th
Travelled by train through Ameins, Boulogne and Calais, detraining at Hazebrouck - 25 miles from the Belgian Frontier, where we bivouacked.
Marched to Cassel and had days rest - during march my charger had a severe choke, came down with me, but I managed to keep him up - we were greatly elated to be in a town and feasted ourselves on cakes and sweets etc. After the hardships of the previous weeks, this was a grand change indeed.
Marched to Poperinghe, once again we were in Belgium, it was awful to see the pitiful sight of refugees streaming into the town from the outlying towns and villages where the enemy were advancing rapidly - I happened to stop to pat a pretty little child and gave it some biscuits I had in my pocket. The poor little mite was simply starving - in a minute I was swarmed by children. I emptied my pockets and haversack. With a couple of chums, we collected all the biscuits and Bully Beef in the battery and gave it to the women and children. It was pitiful to see them struggling to get at us. We had a job to keep the men away - for we had not any to give them and the women and kiddies had everything we had in the food line - bivouacked outside the town.
Marched before dawn towards the village of Langemarke, the village was being heavily shelled, we reconnoitered but for some time could not find a position. Finally two sections took up position just in rear of the church - I went with remaining section through the village. As I passed through there were a lot of wounded French in the open by the Churchyard - we dropped in action by the railway - as we could not find an observation station, I stopped by a deserted power house and later was ordered to regain the two sections and remaining battery staff. As we went towards the railway crossing a shell burst in the center of the road, 30 or 40 yards ahead. As we galloped past the church the wall saved us, for a shrapnel burst against the wall which but for the wall would have been right among us. As I galloped past the spot where the wounded Frenchmen were just 2 hours before, the whole lot was dead and in pieces - it was a horrible sight. We rejoined the guns without mishap - George and I were ordered to lay our wire to a large disserted Convent which was by our infantry - we were sniped at pretty hard by Germans in houses to our left, one missed me by inches. I went the next morning and got his bullet for a souvenir - I was on guard with 12 men in front of the guns - the French infantry had retired in the afternoon - our infantry went up to hold what they lost, they were greatly outnumbered, but held on grandly. We were firing at very short range, which we know would be observed by the enemy - neither were we mistaken as the next two days showed - the night passed quickly, we dug in by side of a stream, which effectively screened us from the continual prescience of rifle bullets - had no food all day and was not at all pleased with events.
George and I laid our wire to the convent - it had been described heavenly it was well stocked with provisions, we found biscuits, butter, jam - ate and had a good feed, brought some away with us - was pretty warm getting back to the guns - they sniped at us across a large scored field - wasting good ammunition, two signalers digging a shallow trench by the edge of the field and amused themselves putting their hats on a flag pole for the Germans to shoot at - we fired hard all the morning - the enemy replying on the village - they did grand shooting on the church, shell after shell passing through the steeple. Finally it caught fire and was soon one mass of flames, and the steeple from the clock collapsed with a crash. It was an awe inspiring sight - but it seemed they wanted to get at us for they shelled the fields in front and behind very hard and our wagon line, some distance behind had a few men wounded and horses killed. Fortunately at the guns we had only one man wounded - our infantry had been forced to retire, we sent for an infantry escort for our guns of 100 men, but all we could get was one platoon or 20 men. At dark, George had gone along wire to forage for food, bullets were very plentiful and I stuck to our little trench awaiting for him to get into communication and return with the spoils - things seemed to quiet down for about half-an-hour, when suddenly the Germans played a machine gun dead on us - we all thought they had us, but the infantry were on our left now, although we did not know, while waiting for George, I heard strange rustling sounds in the bushes the other side of the stream. I thought for a moment it was some of the German snipers getting in our rear - I crawled very cautiously on my knees to a small bridge crossing, and along the stream, and found after no little time - the sound I heard, was caused by some tame rabbits which the chaps had released from an adjoining farm, it was amusing to think of it after, but not at the time - Old George returned loaded with goods, when I mentioned the machine gun and the rabbit stalking, he said B- the guns and rabbits too, have a bit of this strawberry jam old china - it's the goods! I declined the food for I was too dry to eat, and nothing drinkable was to be had, except the water in the stream and that was dirty - but I had to drink it next day - The night passed rather quickly
October 23rd - 24th
At dawn George and I went along our line, which had broken during the night - some small houses by the road, which the previous day had been occupied by our chaps, were utterly destroyed - one great hole in the center of the road was the largest I had seen and must have been caused by a very large shell - by the terrific bursts in the village, they were putting the same like there, for with every shell a complete house seemed to go in the air - we reached the convent and connected the telephone in the attic. We had to get in a ditch on the way back for the shelling was rather hot. We reached the guns and fired a few rounds, the wire was broken again by a coal-box. We kept up communications by flag. Our wire was broken no less than five times during the morning and it was very unhealthy work repairing it. A little on our right was a small farm and it had chickens, rabbits and all provisions had been left by the inhabitants when they left so hurriedly. There were also a couple of goats, which we collared for milk. I prevailed upon George to nip over to the farm while I attended to the firing to make a can of tea - no sooner had he left than a German horse artillery battery opened dead range upon us. They kept up a hot fire, it was horrible and nothing could have lived above the ground by the guns. We were absolutely tied to our little trenches, it was impossible to fire. This went on for two hours, I thought old George must have been caught by the farm and I was greatly surprised to see him come crouching along by the trees with the can in his hand. About 5 yards by my trench our two officers were, one of them Lt Marshall, stood up to shout to George to get under cover. I was talking to George, as Marshall shouted - whining bang - Marshall collapsed with seven shrapnel bullets in him, and it all happened in a flash. Old George must have had a charmed life then, for how he lived through it, back from the farm is to me marvelous. We had the tea anyway, it cost near one life and a dozen very narrow escapes. We enjoyed it for tea with real milk was good. We were shelled very heavily all day - several were wounded, and the wagon line and hospital in our rear caught it also. The position was unbearable, we received orders to retire at nightfall - at dusk George and I resolved to wind in our wire, we would need it as no other was obtainable, I had just started when a "Johnson" burst immediately in front, rather more close than where they had been bursting in salvos of four all day. I laid down and splinters and lumps of earth passed over my head - I heard the other three coming and dodged behind a large tree by the stream, in my hast fell into the stream - perhaps it was well for me that I did, for the splinters took some pieces out of the tree. That seemed to be the German's final salvo for after waiting awhile, we started again and an occasional bullet was all that passed to the convent. It was dark when we got there and we hurried down to the cross roads where we were held up by French Cavalry but eventually got to our horses only to find that another fellow named Houge, who was to meet us from the convent, was not there - we decided to go and look for him. On the way, we heard him coming along the road and we hastily arranged to give him a scare - turning our hats with peaks to the rear, we waited. It was very dark when he got near us, we both jumped to the head of his horse. Old Houge thought Germans had him - it was not until we burst out laughing, he wondered who we were. We marched back and joined the brigade, then marched through various villages and finally bivouacked about 12 miles, from our recent, hard scrap. It was great relief to sleep on straw and above damp ground.
A day of rest - the farm was inhabited, had a feast of bacon and tomatoes, also some boiled milk, the first since I left home. Busy in morning overhauling phones and in afternoon writing letters. It rained hard at night - no shelter and wet through. George and I made our bed on some hay straw, but was near washed away before morning.
October 26th - 30th
In position of readiness at Houge, 3 miles from Ypres, very quiet but for an occasional shell. Are in the grounds of a beautiful chateau, the ornamental lakes and gargens being used for horses. Everything is wrecked. On the night of 25th, shrapnel burst over us, the flash of shell bursting woke me up. Some of the chaps ran into the woods for shelter but George and I decided to remain where we were and we soon asleep again. At daylight we found two chaps were wounded, one after died, and five horses killed and several wounded; all within 20 yards of where we laid. On the afternoon of the 29th, we went into action, we ran a wire and when I went to connect up, I was greatly surprised to find a shrapnel bullet embedded in my telephone, which had laid by me the previous night. I fixed it up and managed alright. We fired a few rounds and returned to the chateau and remained until the morning of 31st, heavy firing seemed to be all round, and a ceaseless stream of infantry wounded going towards Ypres. The weather was horribly wet and nights very cold.
October 31st - November 6th
Marched though the beautiful old town of Ypres, which contains some very fine buildings, notably the Cloth Hall and Cathedral. Took up a position of readiness outside the fortifications of the town, we dropped into action in various places around and doing little firing. The enemy commenced bombarding the town on November 2nd with their great 17" Howitzers. The noise of these shells passing over our heads is almost indescribable. On November 5th a few of us in the morning had made one of our famous "Bully" stews and we were about to commence the feast when we heard some of these monster shells coming. They fell in the fields on our right and rear. We had to move as we moved we heard more coming and they dropped almost in the same place. One shell burst near a cow and threw it bodily about 30 yards. One came by the sound directly for us, it was like an express train roaring through the air. We crouched behind one of the ammunition wagons. The shell landed about 15 yards and exactly in line on our front. The concussion was horrific and the wagon rocked as if it were near a minimum earthquake. We afterwards measured the hole, it was gigantic, 23 foot deep and 20 foot in diameter, fully these were for times as big again as the often met "Jack Johnson's". * I afterwards found out that these shells were 11.2" and not the 17" as we thought. We moved by the river and although very cold, I had a plunge, the first since the time of the retreat. It's a very common thing to go a week or even more without having a wash. Since the time of the Aisne food is a little plentiful. Weather very wet and the whole country is a veritable sea of mud. The enemy seem to shell everywhere haphazard, especially at night. On the morning of 6th we were read an appeal from General French urging us to hold on despite the overwhelming masses of the enemy until reinforcements could be brought up. Attacks were twice daily and thrice nightly occurrences - our losses were very great but despite the fact of our trenches being so thinly manned, and our guns so few; our line was formed and maintained. As the enemy were stopped in France, so were they in Belgium. Thanks to the splendid leadership of our little army and our chaps love for dangerous scraps, the splendid infantry in the trenches who suffered infinitely more than us in every way.
The battery was assigned to the HQ 25th Brigade for three days. The battery returned each night to a field off of the main road. Things were very quiet except for an occasional shelling.
On the night of the 10th, I waited at the 25th Brigade for my horse to be brought over. After some time George came and told me that it was impossible to bring over horses. He suggested we walk over to them instead. We started out on foot to find our battery. After traveling some good way we knew we were lost.
It was very dark and the road was being shelled. We came upon what seemed to be a deserted farm. We discovered it was occupied by some of our infantry and decided to anchor there till morning. They gave us food and hot tea. Then we placed our blankets on some straw from a stack of hay. This was the best bed we had for some time.
The next morning we were relieved to find our battery. There had been the usual speculation, as well as a few wagers, as to whether or not we had gotten nipped.
On the night of the 12th we came through the most severe storm I have ever experienced. Without a cap I was blinded by the force of the rain and wind. We all looked like drowned rats. It was an awful march in the pitch darkness and blinding rain. I simply held on to the saddle and let my old charger follow the rest.
We were too uncomfortable to sleep in the cold rain and mud. After a great deal of scrounging, George, Collins, and I got into a deserted establishment, and remained there till morning. It was a miserable night. The shelter we got was acceptable, but it took me two days to get dry. I would have given a great deal to have sat before a fire in dry clothes.
One section of the battery found action near Zonnebeke. I went with the other two sections to a position by a small wood, about 3 or 4 miles NE of Ypres. We did a little firing.
Towards evening I ran a line to K battery of the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) to get into communication with the trenches. It was wet and everywhere was bog and mud.
The CO of K Battery and I were standing beside a railway embankment. He was giving it to me hot about the troubles he was having with communications. That didn't set with me well. He and I had high words about the subject, to where he promised to give me 5 years or have me shot. At that point I told him to get on with it, etc. He and I parted before things got out of hand. When I saw him the next morning he treated me quite differently.
That night it rained again so everything was drenched. Because I couldn't find a dry spot to lie down, I had a wet "standing up sleep" by the railway embankment.
I went with Left Section to a position beside the 51st battery. They were located on a ridge a thousand yards to the rear of the trenches. From this location we could see the Germans firing from their trench and watch our own lyddite bursting near the enemy's position.
We had hardly begun to fire when they had us spotted. The Prussian Guard made a big attack and our guns, with the 51st, did great slaughter. The ground in front of the trenches was covered with dead Germans along with many of our own chaps.
During the morning they peppered us but we kept on replying. The 51st, with the quick-firing 18 pounders, did grand work keeping up a wall of fire on the Germans' foremost trench.
Early in the afternoon we had to desert our guns. The shelling was so hot it would have been suicide to stay. We took cover in some of the small trenches we dug about 30 yards behind the guns.
About every twenty minutes we would jump out of the trenches and run up to the guns. We would shoot off a couple of rounds then run back to cover. The new 18 pound guns of the 51st were so fast that the crews could rush up and let go six rounds in grand style before the men ran back to cover.
I was with the 51st for two days of training on how to fire the new 18 pound guns. During the two days I was without a drink of any description. My thirst was troubling me more than the shells and bullets.
On one occasion, while I was running back from the guns, I came across the officer's cook. He was in a dugout that was about 50 yards to the rear of the guns. I asked him if the officer had water he could spare. The cook gave me a mug of rather dirty-looking water but it tasted grand.
I went back to the 40th Battery with the Sergeant Major of the 51st. While getting there a shell dropped within 10 yards of us. The concussion rather shook us and we immediately fell down to dodge the splinters. On getting up we were both surprised to find that the other was not hurt. I was fortunate, for the shell had cut down a tree that fell across my overcoat which was lying close beside me.
We kept up firing until dark. George, Collins, and I were standing beside a wagon getting something to eat when the enemy's infantry attacked. Their rifle bullets rained down on us as we ran to the gun for shelter behind its shield.
Collins pushed me a little aside. A few seconds later he got a bullet in the foot. Luckily the thickness of his boot diverted the bullet's course. Had he not pushed me I should have caught it, and perhaps not with such lucky results.
After a while George and I managed to get into a small trench that he had dug during the day. The attack dropped off, but they shelled us throughout the night. Although it was cold and wet, we had a good sleep because we were severely exhausted.
In the morning the ground all around was peppered with shell holes. We were indeed thankful that one did not drop into our little trench for quite a few had fallen very near.
The section commenced firing during the morning. In return we were shelled a little, but it was nothing in comparison with the previous day.
I went over to the 51st battery to get my telephone, which I had left it in a dugout the day we were receiving new gun instructions. Upon arriving, I found it was occupied by two other telephonists. I heard the sound of an incoming shell and the three of us ran for it. The shell dropped plumb into the dugout and destroyed the instruments. Having fled, we undoubtedly avoided the fate of our instruments.
I returned to my section, and was told that we had orders to take up a position further on the right. The 51st battery remained in its position and had it as bad as, or worse than, the previous day. Two of their guns were put out of action, and the casualties were heavy. One shell killed five men. While they were being buried another shell dropped among the burial party, killing four more.
We reached our right section in the afternoon. I remained with the wagon line on guard duty. It was very wet and cold. Making matters worse, the enemy continued shelling us all night.
I moved some wagons into an adjacent wood for airplane cover. While doing so I noticed a ruined farm nearby. I walked over to it. As I passed along the wooden fence a bullet hit a nearby wooden gatepost. I dodged behind the post fearing a sniper had me in his sight. It must have been a spare bullet for nothing else came near me.
During my look around the farm I got a tin of "Bully Beef" in order to prepare a dinner, which I had not had for a considerable time. I had just got it nicely on the go when I was ordered to run a line to the reserve trenches of the Gordon Highlanders. With George's help we reached the trench, where I remained, while George returned to the battery.
Since I didn't bring an instrument with me, I had to borrow one from a Sergeant of the Royal Engineers.
Walking through the trench I reached a dugout, where a Gordon Highlander named Bruce helped me setup communications. (I learned afterwards that Bruce was a famous runner). He warned me to keep low because snipers were active. Almost as he spoke, a fellow coming towards me got a bullet in the chest. The bullet just missed me so I took Bruce's warning and kept low.
It was terribly cold. Bruce asked if I was hungry; he gave me some bread and cheese which I gratefully took.
I sent orders to the guns until after midnight, when things seem to calm down. It was getting so cold at night that I pitied Bruce in his kilt with bare legs. However, he slept sound while I could not sleep a minute. I was glad when morning came. Although I was stiff from the cold, I got up and decided to run up and down the trench for a few minutes. I needed to warm myself, even though I was daring the snipers to hit me.
I was still with the 51st battery under the direction of Major Baird of the Gordon Highlanders. He had me send the orders for our guns to cover the trenches as much as possible. Shortly after dawn the enemy made a forceful attack. Considering the small number of men in the trenches, it was marvelous that the enemy didn't break through. About 9:00 a.m. they started to shell us.
The first shell went into a dugout a few yards in front of me and killed a Lt. Colonel as well as his servant. Another shell fell 10 yards to my right and buried Bobby Glue and 3 officers.
We ran over to the dugout and tried to dig them out. Uncovering the officers we discovered that they were either killed or wounded. I was frantically digging, when I found Bobby's lower torso. I tried to pull him out, but his legs had separated from his upper body. This presented an agonizing sight that I shall not forget. Many men were wounded during the first few minutes of this attack.
An artillery officer and a man that I didn't recognize rode into our battery position. Upon dismounting, the officer rushed off to find the commander, while the man hitched the two horses to a tree about a yard from my dugout.
Almost immediately afterwards the familiar whine of an incoming shell sent the man jumping into my dugout. The instant he landed inside, a shell burst right over us and killed the two horses. One fell dead right on top of the dugout. Its blood started to flow inside. There wasn't anything we could do but move to a spot in the dugout away from the incoming blood.
The shells were falling like rain with such horrific force that they caused all the Gordons to run for it. The shelling was so murderous that I also felt like running. However, I realized that if I left my instrument that our guns would not be able to return fire. I stuck while the Gordons ran, all except Bruce. He asked me if I was going to stay and I said yes. He replied, "If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me."
As one chap was running past us a shell exploded, sending a splinter deep into his leg and a bullet in his arm. I dragged him into the dugout and Bruce and I bandaged him up. He stayed with us throughout the day.
Two more attacks took place and every available man was pressed forward, which amounted to very few.
During the day Bruce was telling me that of the 1400 in his regiment that left Plymouth in September, all that remained were he and 34 others. He went on to say that they had had some horrible times but this was worse than any of them. I fully believed him, for I also was sick of being shelled and tired of the smell of gunpowder and blood.
Whenever I received information from our observation post I would write a note. Bruce would run it to Major Baird's location and return with the Major's order for the guns. All day the enemy kept up the fierce bombardment. That night when Old George came to relieve me, I was fairly done in. Having experienced Bobby's death I felt sick. On top of that I hadn't had any sleep and very little food for four nights.
When I reached our guns, Collins took on the instrument while I wrapped myself up in my two wet blankets. Even though it was freezing cold and snow started to fall I slept like a top. The next morning I felt a little better, so I was quite able to carry on with the business.
I remained with our guns while George stayed with the Gordons. We did considerable firing and occasionally an enemy shell would pass over. It was peace when compared with the previous day. We were informed that we were to be relieved by the French. Therefore we could withdraw from the battle for a rest, as well as to be refit with more horses and men.
When the battery was assembled, I was also told that our center section had a warm time of it. Hodges, my lube-off man, was killed. Farmer along with several others were wounded.
We were overjoyed at the idea of a rest. A change from the ceaseless scrapping of the past few weeks would be very welcomed.
We left our position at dawn and marched to Ypres. On the way I couldn't help but notice that the whole countryside was in a horrible condition. Not a building was standing, either on the farms or in the town itself. All of the beautiful buildings were destroyed. I thought of how different it was when we marched through the town less than a month before.
The battery marched safely through the town. All day we continued to march forwards through the cold.
My old charger had a hard time keeping his legs under him because the roads were slippery. So I walked most of the time.
It was dark when we arrived at a farm located a few miles from Merris and billeted there for the night. How strange it seemed to me to be away from the ceaseless roar of gunfire, etc., and be transported to the peace and quiet of a farm where the sheds, barns, and cow houses seemed like mansions. It was a blessing to be able to sleep in a building and off of the miserably wet, cold ground.
November 22nd-December 12th
Our period of rest was greatly appreciated for a time, but soon it became monotonous.
Some of our officers received short leaves. Through the good graces of Major Madocks I was given a 48 hour pass to Boulogne.
The Major took his leave in England. When he arrived he was kind enough to give my dear wife instructions on how to get to Boulogne in time to meet me. I left camp on the evening of the 1st of December, and rode into Hazebrouck to catch the train to Boulogne. My wife's train was scheduled to leave at 7:00 a.m. the next morning, therefore I was expecting to meet her at 5:00 p.m. I didn't know that she had arrived earlier, so I was delighted when we met at 11:00 a.m. instead.
Our stay together was about the shortest 28 hours of my life. To leave her the next day was the hardest thing I had experienced through the whole campaign. It was a very sad train ride back to Hazebrouck. All I could think about was how grand it was to hold my dear wife, to be someplace peaceful and safe, and to take in the smell of clean linens instead of the stench of rotting flesh.
Upon arriving at camp the next day, I immediately noticed that all the men were getting impatient to get back to the business of ending this war. We were all pleased to hear that on the 11th of December we were heading back to the firing line.
We marched to Pon de Neippe and billeted in a farm just outside the village. In the distance we could hear the old familiar sounds of artillery fire and rockets deployed from the trenches.
We marched through Ploegstrestte and chose a location beside the 35th Battery, positioned in what was once a beautiful garden behind an old chateau.
George and I ran our line beyond the chateau to some ruined houses. From there we had a good view of the German trenches and beyond to the town of Messines.
On my way back to the battery I found a partly destroyed house and went inside. I was surprised to find a young woman and her five little children, along with the woman's brother. She told me that her husband was a soldier who had been killed and the house was all she had left.
The baby reminded me of my own baby daughter, so I asked if I could take the baby from its bed and hold her. The woman agreed and gave me some hot milk to feed to the baby.
Before leaving I tried my best to induce her to leave her house to move to a safer place, but she refused. All I could do was give them my peppermints and all the odd money I had left. On my journey back I was rather upset, thinking about the poor little kiddies. I never had time to go that way again so I don't know the outcome of their circumstance, but I thought about the kiddies often.
Upon my return I met some old chums from the 35th Battery. It was nice to talk over the old soldiering days we spent in the reserves.
The battery remained in position for the bombardment of Messines, although we did little firing until the 20th when the actual bombardment started. Our wagon line was shelled out in the morning but fortunately only one man was wounded. However, we lost most of our ammunition. Later in the morning when we were heavily shelled by the Germans we had few shells to return fire vigorously. We remained in position until 5:00 p.m. when we marched back to our rest billet.
The battery remained at the rest billet until the morning of the 23rd, when we marched to Bethune and billeted in a schoolhouse.
We arrived at the schoolhouse as the sun was setting. George and I were unpacking our things when we discovered that in our haste, we had left our blankets at the last billet. The thought of spending another night on an uncomfortably hard surface didn't conjure up warm feelings. We resolved that we were going to find a bed somewhere. Upon leaving the schoolhouse we happened upon a Frenchman. Using our best French, we inquired about lodging. Just as our negotiations were faltering his daughter arrived. She invited us to stay at their home nearby.
When we entered the house we immediately realized that the family was very poor, but they treated us handsomely. The mother was an elderly woman who doted on us. She gave us as much as we could possibly eat and drink. Afterwards she made up a bed on the floor near the fireplace.
Knowing that we had to report back to camp in the morning, she woke us at 3:15 a.m. giving us time to drink some hot coffee before we left. We wanted to pay her for her hospitality but she became indignant and refused.
When we arrived back at camp at 4:20 a.m., the battery was preparing to march towards La Bassee where we were to take up a position.
We arrived at Cambrai, where we established our position with the towns of Cuinchy and Givenchy on our left. Each town was in a state of ruin from the heavy scrapping that had recently taken place.
George and I were very busy firing up our communications after taking over the wires of the 47th Battery. We had a grand observing station that was in the ruins of a brewery. It was beautifully furnished at one time but now everything was destroyed, including the lovely carved furniture, ornaments, a piano, and a large gramophone. Everything had been left where it stood. I went into the kitchen and secured a few plates, cups, and an assortment of cooking utensils that I took back to the guns.
Late that night I was ordered to get into communication with the 2nd Infantry Brigade. This required me to lay down additional wire, an uncomfortable task.
Rifle bullets kicked up dirt as they fell around me. However, I did the job without mishap and got back to my dugout.
It was Christmas Eve and my thoughts were far away, recalling Christmas Eves of the past. Sadness and loneliness overcame me and I went to bed with a heavy heart.
I forgot it was Christmas Day even though I remembered last night being Christmas Eve. Perhaps I intentionally forgot it was Christmas Day, not wanting to revisit the sadness of the night before.
For whatever reason, I kept busy firing up communications the entire day. I was so busy that I didn't notice how quiet it was. Then some of the chaps got together to fix a Christmas dinner.
It suddenly came to me why it was so quiet. A mutual truce was declared in order to celebrate Christmas. One of our chaps secured a chicken and some vegetables to make a Christmas feast.
George came down from the observing station and together, along with a couple of other chaps, we went to a large house nearby. We collared a piano and brought it back to the guns. One of the chaps played Christmas carols. It wasn't a great success but we made the best of it, for we knew there were many poor devils that were worse off than us.
It was a rather quiet day with only an occasional shelling. I took this opportunity to warm some water for a wash. I was sorely in need of a wash since it would be the first I had in four days. The battery did a little firing during the day.
It had been raining and our dugout was swamped, so we moved into a small shed that was located at the rear of the farm. The day was very cold with drizzling rain that continued throughout the day.
Nothing unusual happened today, except we fired in intervals at German working parties. Meanwhile, the German artillery searched all over for our gun placement. Every now and again they fired a shell, but nothing came near us.
Throughout the night we kept up a very slow rate of fire with long intervals between salvos, making it difficult for the enemy to locate our position.
I've been on duty day and night with the phones, but I'm used to it now and it takes little or no effect. Just the same, I'm exhausted from the lack of sleep for I never have a complete night's rest.
The battery did a lot of firing today and we were credited with smacking up a German field battery near La Bassee.
The morning was rather quiet. At 2:30 in the afternoon we were subjected to a fierce bombardment along with a heavy infantry attack. The enemy captured our central tower, or keep , which was located by the railway embankment. They took it from the King's Royal Rifles, although later that afternoon they recaptured it.
Around 10:00 p.m. the Germans attacked and regained the keep, as well as the redoubt.
Even though it was very cold our battery was firing heavily all night. At 3:00 a.m., after two counterattacks, we succeeded in retaking the ground we had lost. Unfortunately we couldn't hold it.
The Kings Royal Rifles (KRR) were bombed out soon after they gained possession. Throughout the night we kept up a hot fire until about 8:00 a.m. We brought the New Year in with a real "Bang"!
After a long night manning the telephone I was exhausted, so I was delighted to hand over the instruments to Collins.
After leaving the dugout I found a stable to sleep in and slept throughout the day, even through a little shelling that took place.
During the past 20 days it has been the usual give and take of obtaining small patches of land that cost dearly in human lives. Every day we fired at any targets that were presented to us. At night the enemy would return the favor.
The redoubt was taken and lost many times. Each attack resulted in a couple hours of fierce scrapping. Since neither side could hold on to the redoubt, the land between our trenches and the enemy was termed "No Man's Land".
At night the rifle bullets made it rather uncomfortable to sleep. The weather has been very wet and cold; in fact we have even received a few heavy snowstorms.
Many of the men were coming down with fever. Eventually I got a fever high enough that it caused me to vomit in a bucket, but I was still able to carry on with business.
The night attacks were becoming very frequent. We suffered very few casualties except for a few wounded. We lost more men to sickness than from enemy gunfire.
One day during this period I went into Bethune and found a place to take a much needed bath and a change of underclothing. I knew that I was beginning to smell like livestock so taking a wash must have been a relief to my chums.
During the day the enemy used their eight-inch Howitzers to bombard the docks on the canal. They also shelled the railway line which was by our observing station. They must have sent over 129 shells but did little material damage. One shell fell plumb on the railway line, flinging about a 4-foot piece of the rail a thousand yards. It sailed right over our guns falling a few yards from where I stood. When I heard it coming through the air I thought it was a shell, so I fell to the ground.
Later I read about the incident in the papers, I smiled to see how much the reporters made of it. When it actually happened we took little or no notice. We were rather more interested in watching the effect of German fire on the canal lock. Wagers were pending on their ability to hit their target.
The night passed quietly with less than the usual amount of shooting. Around 7:15 a.m. I received a message from the 25th Battery that a German observer was captured. They found out from him that the Germans were planning a big attack on our front at Givenchy and Cuinchy around 7:30 a.m. He also revealed that the attack would be preceded by a heavy bombardment.
I immediately sent a message to our observing station, then hurriedly roused the gun detachments and the officers. When the bombardment started it was more horrific than any of the other ones I experienced. The sound of artillery fire was continuous, except when they fired their 17 inch guns.
The whine of hundreds of shells going through the air, mixed with the explosion of both above and ground level shells, was deafening. All around me great mounds of earth were uplifted by bursting shells.
We rapidly replied with gunfire of our own, which added greatly to the unbearable noise. The smoke from gunfire and bursting shells was so heavy, that at times we couldn't see our target.
The enemy captured our first line of trenches and our infantry fell back towards our observing station. Two out of three of our phone lines were cut by shells. While I attended to the instruments Collins ran a line to the left gun section. During the process Collins got knocked on the knee by a shell fragment. The same shell wounded two men and killed the young officer, Mr. Watkins, who had only joined us 8 days previous.
I sent two of my chaps along the observing line. Soon after they left the line to the 25th Battery was broken. I hastily got Collins, who was limping, to attend to the phones while I went along the line to the 25th to try and locate the break.
We were being heavily shelled, so I was very uncomfortable while following the line and listening to the shrapnel and bullets striking the ground around me. I found a couple of yards of the line that had been cut by shrapnel. The break occurred where the wire went through a vine that ran along the top of a wall. So I climbed up on the wall, but had to drop very quickly when a shell seemed to whiz inches from my head. I noticed that a piece of wire was holding the vine to the wall. I cut the wire and the vine fell, which allowed me to repair the line. I was very glad when I reached the 25th to find that communication was coming through.
I took a while recovering my breath before my return to the 40th Battery. On my way back a shell exploded directly in front of me. I had a very clean shave from one of its splinters, but after that the rest of my journey went without mishap.
I just arrived when another big shell burst right on the farm, about 20 yards from the building where my chum was sitting. Luckily the shell didn't do much damage except to the building.
Then another shell fell right into the shelter where the telephones for the left section were located. It severely wounded one man. All in all I had one horrific morning.
The heavy bombardment forced our infantry to retire. Since our battery position was the foremost battery behind their trenches, I knew if our infantry lost the small ridge in front of us, it would be the finish of us and our guns. We were fortunate that our third line stood, allowing us to keep up firing at near ground level. Our guns performed splendidly, doing great execution among the masses of advancing Germans.
The Guards Brigade, consisting of the London Scottish, Seaforths, Camerons and Royal Guards, were brought up as reinforcements, to stop the German advance. However, the Germans entrenched themselves behind our original line. In spite of all of our attacks, the Germans, with overwhelming odds against them, held on to the ground they had gained.
At 7:00 a.m. our battery put down a fierce bombardment that lasted about 3 hours. Then the Guards made a counterattack to try to regain the ground we had lost the day before. They recovered a little but failed to accomplish their main objective - to get back to our original five trenches.
We fired feverishly and were shelled in return, with one 6-inch shell going right into the cellar of the farm close to the battery's left section. Out of all the shells that fell on or near us, only two men were wounded.
The fight went on more or less all day. We failed to get any further forwards, but we did manage to repulse an attack from the Germans.
In the afternoon the 1st Siege Battery, which was positioned to our left rear, got it hot. One shell went right into the farm building where they were in action. It set the building ablaze. I watched the gunners running to and from the burning barn removing the wounded in spite of the heavy shelling.
After a while they managed to put out the fire even through the persistent shelling. It was grand to watch them, although my view was obscured from time to time from the smoke being emitted by both the shells and fire. They stuck to it grandly. After putting out the fire they started shooting again with greater intensity, as if they wanted to inflict great damage on the enemy in retaliation for those that were put out or wounded.
After two days of attacks, counterattacks, and very severe scrapping, we regained all the lost ground. A large number of prisoners were taken.
There were no further casualties at the guns, which was lucky considering the shellfire the enemy was putting over us.
The Germans did a great deal of entrenching during the nights which gave us some good targets to shoot at during the day.
Our guns were still working dandy in spite of the enormous amount of shooting they had done throughout the campaign. They remained perfectly accurate which accounted for much of our success.
January 29th-February 5th
We had a rather quiet period with very little interaction with the enemy. There were times when we would fire and they never replied. Our attacks of the previous week seemed to have quieted them considerably.
We bombarded the Germans' front line trenches from Brickfield to the Railway Triangle. Our firing was so effective that the Royal Guards advanced and captured the trenches without losing a man. Afterwards our artillery was highly praised in a letter from the field commander for the splendid work we did.
There was special inference given to the way communications were maintained by the telephone operators. Undoubtedly it was meant for our battery. As an example, one time I was receiving and sending firing orders to three other batteries besides our own. We had also quickly repaired all three lines that had been broken by shellfire.
The next day the battery received orders to move and relieve the 56th Battery RFA.
On arriving at the 56th I reported to the Captain. Together we proceeded to the town of Croix Barbette. I was ordered to take over the wire and communications for our battery that would be arriving about midday.
One of the telephonists from the 56th took me along their observing wire which ran to the trenches. While it was rather quiet, save for the occasional bullet, the chap with me was rather merry. At one point, because of snipers, he advised me to crawl on my hands and knees across a part of the ground that was just to the rear of the trenches.
I followed his advice for a little ways. But on seeing the Royal Engineer fellow walking about unconcerned, I figured if it's safe enough for him, it is safe enough for me. So I stood up and walked-much to the other fellow's disgust.
Momentarily he got wild when I insisted upon him helping me to mend a broken wire that I had propped up on some trees. Afterwards he angrily crawled back, which was quite unnecessary considering I walked back without anything coming near me. Then he took me along some reserve trenches where a few light shells fell.
He and I traced a wire into a redoubt and quickly dodged inside when a shell whizzed over. There was an infantry telephonist inside the redoubt, who in a rather unconcerned voice stated, "Just in time, mates. Three of ours were put out just outside a few minutes ago." He was working away like he was unaware of the goings on outside the redoubt. So we had a chat for a few minutes before we started back (much to the relief of the chap with me).
Meanwhile the enemy was shelling Richebourg Church with coal-boxes. It caught my fancy. I stood on the road and watched about 20 shells go over, although each failed to reach the church.
At night I went into the village and had a few drinks of rotten trench beer before returning to the 56th.
I found a barn and slept in the loft, getting the best night's unbroken sleep that I have had since we were at rest seven weeks before.
I had much of the day on my own to stroll about while waiting for the battery to arrive. The battery reported in about 6:00 p.m., but we couldn't bring them into action until after dusk because of an enemy observation plane flying about.
The 56th Battery moved their position more towards Richebourg. The newly-arrived battery took up their old position which included the farm. It was about the most comfortable billet I had ever had regarding our accommodations.
The farm building had escaped shellfire. This was strange considering that the village located at the back, the left and right of the farm had been "through it".
The battery did very little firing during this time. It was the calmest setting we had been in since the war began.
Except Collins having a couple of squeaks while repairing the line, nothing worth reporting happened. During this time not a shell came near us and we did very little night firing. We called it rest.
The battery was recalled from action to go to rest, which I found quite odd since our current billet was so peaceful. They could have allowed us to stay where we were. Ironically, we had to pack everything up and march some distance in order to rest! We marched via Bethune to rest billet near Lilliers.
I was fortunate in securing a billet in a house occupied by an old lady. She gave me a rather crude bed. Although it was hard, it still was a great change. I was greatly elated in hearing that I should be going on leave during this period.
February 19th-March 2nd
During our period of rest we were still well employed in overhauling all the equipment. It amused me thinking about the differing definitions of rest. To the army, rest means a rest from war but not from work.
I was to go on leave on March 3rd, but I was bitterly disappointed when the order came in that all leaves were stopped from March 1st.
We marched from our rest billet towards Richebourg and billeted at night near La Fosse. It was very wet and cold.
George and I went foraging and by using our good French, managed to get a good feast of eggs at a farmhouse nearby.
We started our march at 3:00 a.m. and came into action about 400 yards on the right of the Richebourg Church.
We were informed that we were to bombard Neuve Chapelle, a village that was on our left front. It had been in the hands of the Germans since October. We took a firing position and then engaged in digging a gun pit and fortifying our position as much as possible.
Our battery is preparing for the big bombardment that is to take place in a couple of days. We were joined by several other batteries and soon forces were everywhere. There were guns under almost every tree. Our giant 15 inch Howitzer was to make her debut, as well as quite a few of our new 9.2 inch guns. Communications would be critical so George and I made sure that we laid out double lines to our observing station, as well as lines to various parts of the trenches.
Large amounts of ammunition were distributed at each gun. Every preparation was made to give the Germans the biggest shock they had yet to receive at our hands.
The bombardment of Neuve Chapelle commenced at 7:30 a.m. along a four mile front. It was beyond description, listening to the tons of metal going through the air from all 476 guns. Our heavy artillery, a new 18 pound gun, was to concentrate on the enemy's trenches in order to cut the enemy's wire entanglement. All the batteries kept up their fierce rate of firing for three-quarters of an hour. The bombardment was only lifted around the Bois-du-Beiz area to enable our infantry to attack.
Our trenches were lined with Garhwalis, Gurkhas, and several other regiments of native troops from India. The Leicestershire Regiment made the first charge, capturing the German trenches in grand style. They were held up on the edge of an orchard outside Neuve Chappell until a regiment of Territorials' came to their assistance. With reinforcements a horrific battle of hand-to-hand fighting ensued, especially at a spot that we later called "The Street of Hell".
The massive scale and fierceness of the fighting was more than I can describe. We finally gained control of the village about midday.
While the Leicestershire Regiment made their charge, the natives advanced on the right and captured the trenches in front. However, they were held up by machine guns in a redoubt that was located on the left edge of the Bois du Biez.
The Gurkhas did grand work, especially with their wicked little knives, which accounted for many slit German heads. When the Germans ran from their trenches the little Gurkhas were right after them. Many of the little chaps would climb on the backs of the big Germans and cut their throats in the style of Sweeney Todd.
The Seaforths were brought up to assist. They made a splendid charge, which (according to our officers, and many old campaigners observing with us), was the finest sight they had ever witnessed. The Seaforths went into the murderous machine gunfire as though they were going to a picnic. In spite of the enormous losses they captured the redoubt, along with its contents of Germans and the machine guns. Meanwhile, British infantry on our left and beyond the village of Neuve Chapelle had dug themselves in, in front of the Bois du Biez.
During the afternoon the enemy launched several massive counterattacks inflicting heavy losses on our troops. However, our infantry did not budge an inch. We didn't lose any of the ground we had gained.
After witnessing how my observing line had maintained communications throughout the day, contributing to the accuracy of our artillery, the Major credited us with doing good work. Not including shrapnel rounds, we launched 1201 rounds of lyddite, making it a fierce day of firing.
We maintained a constant fire until dark, at which time we slowed down and searched for enemy reinforcements. We were glad when darkness came for it gave us a little respite.
Strange as it seemed, considering our heavy losses, we were a happy crowd that night. The feeling of jubilation was especially true for our battery staff. Even though the day's horrors were not forgotten, we rejoiced in the thought that we had given the enemy a little taste of the gruel that they so often gave to us. We had easily beaten them at their own game. As tired as I was this night, I managed to write my usual letter to my little girl.
In the light of the next day, we could see how our infantry had suffered horribly in return for the ground they gained. We were dismayed by the countless streams of wounded that were coming from the front.
From our observation post we could see the ground between our old and new line of trenches, covered with corpses of both our chaps and those of the Germans. This was especially true in Neuve Chapelle.
We immediately opened fire on the Bois Du Beiz, which was still held by the enemy. We learned that the 7th division had advanced as far as possible on our left, but had failed to take Aubers Ridge.
In an effort to coordinate our division our commander was ordered to consolidate the position we had won and hold it. We did this in spite of numerous German counterattacks.
It was awful to see the Germans mowed down by our guns, for they made attack after attack in close formation and were literally blown to pieces. Every attack caused the ground in front of our trenches to grow thicker with bodies. A column of their reinforcements were caught plumb by our 15 inch Howitzer. One round made a gap in the column of about 60 yards. Men, horses, and vehicles were gone into thin air, resulting in mass confusion amongst the enemy.
My phone line, marvel of marvels, still held only being broken once by shellfire. The day was much the same as yesterday with continual firing and streams of wounded and prisoners. As one batch of enemy prisoners made their way through the Rue-du-Bois, three of their own shells came banging into them, killing or wounding about 20 prisoners. What was strange was the shells never touched any of the natives who were escorting them. Our artillery observers in the vicinity thought it was funny to see the natives laughing at the Germans, because they were being ousted by their own chaps. This seemed to amuse them greatly - so much so that they made the Germans walk slowly and keep to the road. It was evident the scared prisoners would have liked to have run across country.
The battery kept up a steady rate of fire throughout the night, raising a little at dawn and throughout the morning.
We engaged various targets until the enemy commenced to bombard Richebourg, about 400 yards to our left.
They were using salvos from the 8.2 Howitzers (nicknamed "coal-boxes" or "Jack Johnsons").
In the afternoon my communication broke down. Consequently the battery had to stop firing.
Whilst along the line crossing a main road, shells were falling pretty thick. Nevertheless, the majority were landing in the village. Eventually I found the break in the wire, caused by a shell hitting it square, chopping a piece out of it.
To repair the line I jumped into my favorite cover, a hole made by the shell that broke the wire. Following the repair, I tapped in and found everything all right. Soon I discovered another broken line which I repaired. Attaching my phone to the line, I inquired as to who was on the other end. It was the 9th Brigade who profusely thanked me, for it had saved them an uncomfortable job.
The shelling was pretty hot when I reached the Battery, but the guns were very lucky for nothing fell between us and the village. The enemy was fiercely bombarding the poor old church. There we were, two telephonists and I, watching the effect of the fire. We were speculating which would be the next to go in the air. With every salvo several splinters whizzed over our heads. We took no notice until one small piece hit me in the muscle of my right arm. Luckily it did not penetrate.
The next salvo sent a good-sized piece that grazed my cheek, ultimately burying itself about 2 inches into the ground at my feet. After scratching it out of the ground, I thought to myself that if I had been a couple of inches closer it would no doubt have given me a nasty knock.
We realized that we had watched the fun long enough, so we went into our little house and had "tea" and milk, kindly supplied to us by some nearby cows. Nothing short of an earthquake would make us miss our tea time and milk with tea is bon.
In the morning the Manchesters' caught five spies in Richebourg. They were found hiding in an underground cellar and must have been there for months. They received scant ceremony, as I had no doubt they were soon put out of this world quickly. For spies, either men or women, were promptly dealt with - especially by the French.
The night was rather quiet and we did only a little firing. We had gained and consolidated our objectives so the Germans seemed glad to keep things quiet as long as we would allow.
Things remained rather quiet so we did little firing. However, Collins had a squeak on the 14th while going along a wire.
A shell burst missed him, but caught a Gurkha square, cutting him clean in two. During this period, I rode my charger into Richebourg to have a look around. I walked all over the deserted town, passing desolated piles of ruins that not long ago had been a pretty little village.
The church had suffered severely, for only parts of the walls and tower were remaining. The churchyard was pitiful to look at because shells had heaved up the graves and tombs, spreading skulls and bones about everywhere. The top of the steeple had been caught fair by a shell and had fallen. It stuck firmly in the ground by the church door almost as if it had been placed there.
Everywhere I looked there was a mass of wreckage that I can hardly describe. One would have to see it for themselves in order to understand the devastation.
We marched to Paqault where we billeted until receiving orders to move before dawn on the 17th.
Upon arriving at our position near the town of Laventie, the battery dropped into action although the town was partially in ruins already.
George and I were busy all day laying our line to a ruined house located near the rear of our trenches. From the house we could observe the German lines in the town of Aubers.
While laying the line, George and I went into an abandoned establishment that remarkably was still intact. The house was beautifully furnished. In the attic we found an abundance of women's clothes. In the downstairs kitchen I secured plates and cooking utensils, as well as several other things that would be useful, taking them back with us to the guns.
There was a field that surrounded the house containing a good number of graves of our chaps, much like a miniature cemetery. Every grave was fenced, complete with a cross bearing the soldier's name. I thought to myself that perhaps one day it would be consolation for some women to visit the site where their dear one was laid to rest. This idea stayed with me and caused my thoughts to wander far away to my family back in England. These thoughts brought on my unhappy mood for the rest of the day.
That night I slept but little, not because of the bitter cold, but due to thoughts of my dear wife and daughter visiting a plot of earth containing my own remains.
March 18th-April 3rd
The only time we fired our guns was when requested by either the observation post or a reconnaissance airplane.
I found it very interesting using a powerful light to signal information to an observation airplane. It assisted us in focusing in on doing damage to German gun targets. The German observation airplanes were also very active, but our antiaircraft guns firing 13 pound shells gave them a warm reception.
On the 25th the Germans brought down one of our planes, which crashed into "No Man's Land". We were ordered to destroy the plane with our guns to prevent the enemy from getting any of the remnants.
Enemy planes frequently dropped bombs on the town of Estaires, which was 5 miles from us and Laventie. As in every town and village I've been, the churches have suffered greatly. I don't understand why the enemy selects churches of any kind, especially the beautiful old structures, proceeding to utterly destroy them.
On the 27th of March I rode through the town of Laventie at a stretch gallop for the town was being shelled.
I stopped a little ways outside the town and watched a church catch fire which always seemed to fascinate me. Even though I hated to see churches destroyed, I had to admit that the enemy did some grand shooting. They repeatedly hit the church until one shell cleanly cut off the only remaining pinnacle.
I learned that the 37th battery, including my old 55th battery, were in action near us. After a great deal of scouting I rode my old charger almost up to our infantry's trenches, but I was stopped by sentries and forced back.
I rode around and eventually found them, spending a pleasant afternoon with all of my old comrades, except Sergeant Major and two others who had received commissions and moved on.
Great changes had taken place during the last 3 years. Most of the old officers, except one, were gone. I learned that several of my old chums had been mortally wounded, and I was deeply saddened to hear that one of my old friends, Hayman, was killed. The last time I saw him was on Christmas Eve, 1913, when I was shopping with my dear wife.
I little thought then that the next time I would hear about him would be the news that he was blown to bits. They told me that their battery had been hotly shelled, and when the shelling stopped, they only found his legs with the rest of him in just bits and pieces. Regrettably I also learned that, just two weeks before the war, he had married a girl living in Lombard du Brittersca. Too many women became widowed of late.
On Good Friday George and I were interviewed by our CO. We were told that he was forwarding a strong recommendation for Old George and I to be granted commissions. Afterwards he "heartily" advised us to take the promotions this time and not refuse them as we had previously.
I took several rides on the wagon lines as they passed through Estaires and Laventie. I enjoyed this period of time for it was practically inactive as far as action with the enemy. Only two shells had come near the guns. The bombardment of Aubers was postponed when we received orders to take up old positions at Croix Barbette.
Collins and I proceeded to Croix Barbette to take over the wires and communications of the 35th Battery. We arrived about midday, and inspected the wire that went to the observation station. The station was located in what little remained of the brewery in Neuve Chapelle.
As Collins and I traveled along the wire, I found it interesting to scan the ground that we had won in the big scrap on the 10th of March. Everywhere I looked was in hapless ruin. Even the old German trenches were in very battered condition. I could not walk without stepping in a shell hole or on a grave. Many of the graves had been ploughed up by shells and the remains reburied.
There were still scores of dead German bodies lying on the ground between the trenches. It has been almost a month since the end of the battle. The smell of rotting bodies was not pleasant.
The church and churchyard were utterly destroyed, but strangely enough a large crucifix was standing intact, apparently untouched, while everything else within a mile from it had been battered to pieces. In the entire village there was not a house standing, only piles of debris and memories remained.
We were told that one of the lines was broken so Collins and I went along the wire to find and mend the break.
While following the wire, enemy rifle bullets were plentiful. At times we were in full view of the German trenches. However, we fixed up the line without mishap.
On the way back we came across the gear of a telephonist of the 35th who had been killed earlier. We were saddened for we knew him quite well. The worse thing was that he was killed by one of our own 6 inch shells that had fallen short. During this same event another one of our own shells had landed in a field in front of our battery, killing 2 and wounding several others.
Some other batteries had been ordered to remain at this location after our battery had left.
A few of these men reported that it hadn't been as quiet as it was when we were here before. From the devastated sights around us, this was quite evident. Even so, the buildings on the little farm were still intact.
All the inhabitants at the rear of the village had been cleared out. I walked around the deserted streets. In what was left of one house I found a woolen mattress. This made a grand bed, much preferable to the straw ones I had been using. The mattress was firm and warm, even when it was wet.
Our battery came in rather late. Although things seemed a little loud in front, it was only a "wind" attack. The batteries at our rear fired slowly all night.
We remained at our position and continued firing on the enemy's trenches and guns. Enemy aircraft were very active and often we had to stop firing so that we wouldn't be spotted.
Our observation station located in the brewery was a veritable death trap. It was continually shelled, but in spite of this, we stuck it out for four days. That is until one shell hit directly on the little cellar. The shell wounded Grogan and Smith (the two telephonists on duty), while Lieutenant Richie marvelously escaped injury. Later poor Grogan died, causing Smith to be so shook up that he was sent away.
We are now using the remains of a house, which we called the "Green House", for the observation post. It also was shelled repeatedly, but we had no further casualties. As far as action, nothing out of the ordinary happened, just the usual give and take between armies.
The batteries at our rear were shelled occasionally but nothing within harming distance of our guns. I can hear sounds of continual heavy fighting far away to our left towards Ypres and to our right towards La Bassee. By the sounds of it, there must be hard scrapping in progress on the French front.
The battery received orders to move with all speed to Ypres. We marched immediately towards Ypres and billeted for the night near La Gorgue.
Today we had a long march to Odderdum. I was ordered to go forwards with the billeting party.
There was very heavy fighting going on at Ypres. I heard that there was a gigantic German assault that caused the French to retreat, and at the same time, forced the Canadians to retire. The battle continued to rage fiercely all night. The sounds of heavy artillery fire were overwhelming.
The battery started to march about 8:30 a.m., halting outside the town of Vlamertinghe. As the battery remained outside of the town, George, Collins, and I went with the CO to reconnoiter a position for the battery.
As we neared Ypres we could hear the hellish bombardment going on. While galloping along the road we witnessed dead horses, overturned Lorries, and discarded equipment along both sides of the road. Hundreds of wounded were being carried down, or seen hobbling along, the road the best way they could.
As we directed our horses through the town, some disturbing sights met our eyes. It seemed that along every few yards of the road there was something dead, or bits and pieces of men and horses that had been blown apart during the bombardment.
Shells were still absolutely falling everywhere. The town was an inferno. It seemed that every second man we met was wounded. We said to each other, "I reckon we're on the last lap of this journey."
We found a likely position where a few old branches and some dugouts were still intact, about a half mile to the rear of St. Jean. Shells were bursting right over us, so we continued to search for a more favorable position. Yet everywhere we looked seemed to be the same. The captain wasn't comfortable with the area for there was practically no cover remaining.
We went a little closer to the town where a Canadian Officer stopped us and asked what we were wanting. When we explained that we were looking for a spot to bring the battery into position, he said, "For God's sakes, don't bring them here; this corner is hell itself. Get out of it as quick as you can." Shells were dropping all around us. It seemed astounding that none of us had gotten hit.
Afterwards I learned that this part of the town was called "Dead Man's Corner". It deserved the name, for many dead were there about.
We left the Canadian and returned to our prior position. We decided it would have to suffice for all places seemed to be equally vulnerable.
While the remainder of the battery was approaching, we started to lay out a wire to a likely observation spot. George took a couple of chaps to start from the observation station while Collins, Billison, and I ran wire from the battery position through the village of St. Jean. We managed to reach the village unharmed, but like everywhere else, it was being heavily shelled.
I was jumping over a small stream that was by the church when a large shell burst almost on us. We took shelter behind a building. We could not move an inch due to all the shrapnel bullets flying about. It was miserable, for we had to remain there for an hour as shells continued to fall.
I noticed that just a few yards from us an artillery man and his horse were lying dead. Nearby was a smashed motor ambulance with the driver burned to a cinder. The ambulance's petrol tank must have ignited when it was hit by a shell. A native from one of our battalions lay dead in a ditch. At the end of the building there were several other corpses.
After a time the shelling abated a little, allowing us to start moving again. I met up with George, who had been in much the same terrible show as we had gone through. I was thirsty and thankfully managed to get a drink of water.
As we made our way back, we didn't get far before the shelling started again. We ran for our previous little shelter and gained it just in time. Shells were bursting very near and I asked Collins, "What is that strong, stinking smell?" My eyes were watering and we all three began coughing. We decided to chance it and go anywhere away from where we were.
After an exciting half-hour we got to the guns, but by that time I felt very sick. Afterwards we learned from an officer that it was due to the gas shells the Germans were using.
It was very lucky that we hurried to get out of it when we did or undoubtedly the three of us would have been gassed properly instead of partially. As it was I had enough gas to sufficiently stop me from eating anything for three days.
Shelling around the guns was getting pretty warm but we started to return fire in good style. The wire broke three times, and each time communications was lost with the forward observer. Normally in this case the batteries would stop firing. However, it was agreed that if we lost communications, we would raise the range of our guns.
During the afternoon I traveled through St. Jean and while doing so I became uneasy, dreading any further exposure to the gas. The reoccurring images of my previous gas experience made me anxious and tense. By the time I returned at nightfall, I thought I had been very fortunate to make it through the day.
The enemy kept up hard shelling everywhere. It sounded like one continual roar of shells bursting over us, with bullets and splinters knocking lumps off of my dugout. I really thought that this place might be the finishing touch. Of all the places I had been throughout the campaign, this was by far the worst. It seemed impossible for one to live long in it.
I had a few hours' sleep, yet was awakened now and again when a large shell burst somewhere nearby. At daylight we were at it again. The first thing that met George this morning was a shell dropping just the other side of the hedge. It fell among what had been a Canadian Battery Wagon line.
It didn't matter that the shell fell there, because most of the men had been killed when the Germans bayoneted them while they slept. The enemy also hung a Canadian officer to a barn and used bayonets to crucify a sergeant of the Canadian Scottish army to the barn door.
The Canadians' wagon line once had 200 horses and now only a dozen horses remain.. If this wasn't enough, all of the Canadian guns were captured by the enemy. All this happened when the Germans broke through our lines the previous week.
Later the Canadians were revenged through a magnificent charge by their infantry. They are considered to be fine fellows and splendid fighters. They hated the Germans and cursed them for their murderous ways of waging war.
I was told that a couple of days previous the Canadian Scottish were ordered to retire, but refused to do so. Instead of retiring as ordered, they charged the enemy on their own. It was a mad thing to do for they lost over 500 men, although they captured 100 or more prisoners.
I dare say that not one of the captured Germans was brought down as a prisoner. All the soldiers in the Allied Armies started fighting like the enemy, no quarter given, and the Canadians gave none. As evidence of this, just to the rear of our guns, there was the corpse of a husky Prussian guardsman- a fine figure of a man who stood fully at 6 foot 3 inches in height. The Canadians had pinned him to a tree with a bayonet. They stuck a postcard on his forehead that said, "Canada does not forget!" Then someone had written, "We'll give them crucify" next to the word "Canada".
The cruel and barbaric happenings around this period would fill a book with horrors of all descriptions. The merciless style of war created by the Germans carried over to their enemy. The centuries that it has taken to develop the meaning behind the word "civilized" has only taken a couple of years to reduce to "barbaric."
I was pleased with the splendid fighting of both the Canadians and the Indian troops and proud that they were fighting with us. By the end of November, truly enough Canadians had served in the battle of Ypres as did the 7th, 8th, and 1st British Divisions.
The shelling and firing continued today at about the same level as yesterday. The only difference was that the enemy started to send over their great 17 inch Howitzer shell into Ypres. These mammoth shells were hitting our artillery and infantry over a mile to our rear. The Germans must have been preparing for this battle for months because the amount of ammunition they were launching at us was increasing.
George and I found another observation post near St. Julien. It was located in the remains of a house about 200 yards in the rear of our trenches. However, it was almost useless for our wire was constantly getting broken. Its location made it impossible to use signal flags.
Our captain was a perfect brick. He stuck it out with us until he got carried away when one shrapnel burst landed nearby. The burst caused him to leave the house and run to the safety of a fire trench. Right after his departure a 17 inch came right into the house and almost propelled it into the air.
When the smoke cleared, the house was reduced to a pile of wreckage. Several natives had been killed, but Captain Donahue was fine having made a lucky escape. Three natives were horribly wounded and were pinned down under the wreckage. An officer mercifully shot them to put them out of their misery.
With our observation post destroyed, we continued to fire the rest of the day using a map. During the day several shells fell on us. One pitched right in the heart of George's wagon. Luckily nobody was hurt.
In the afternoon the thought struck me that it was my birthday.... Gee! It was a very grim and bloody one! Old George and Collins had an exciting afternoon while going along the wire. They were forced to take refuge in a shell hole and had to stay in it for a long while. They eventually got back safely.
About midnight on the 27th, we got orders to move at once to a position that was absolutely suicidal to hold. The battery got away all right but I remained behind, along with my horse holder, Albert. We were waiting for George and Collins to return from infantry headquarters where they went to reel in what remained of our wire.
While waiting for George and Collins to return, I was entertained by the combination of bursting shells, artillery fire, and rockets being launched from both our and the Germans' trenches. They lit up the heavens like a gigantic fireworks display, similar to the ones I watched as a child. I waited behind the shelter of a building for what seemed a long time. After a while I started to think that they must have gotten knocked over, so I resolved to go and look for them.
It was a nasty job as the road to the village of St. Jean was being heavily shelled. Even though the road was deserted I crept from tree to tree for protection from shrapnel. Everywhere I stepped there were dead horses and an occasional body.
When I got to the village, two infantry chaps were coming down from the other end of the village. I asked them if they had seen anything of my chums, and they denied seeing anyone. They advised me to go no further if I wanted to live. Taking their advice I decided to return to where I had left the horses, thinking that George and Collins were goners.
I was greatly relieved to find that they had returned safely. They told me that they had chosen to come back a different way, because it was too hot to go through the village and walk on the road. I thought to myself, "Good show, old chaps" We returned to our battery.
I had hardly been back 10 minutes when a shell struck the roof of the shed. Unfortunately we were inside when the tiles, bricks, etc. fell in on us like a shower. George and I escaped injury, but Collins got a whack in the shoulder although it was not serious. Nineteen shells followed, all within 40 yards of us. It was amazing that not one of us was touched.
The shells seemed to decrease their range on the road leading through Ypres. Therefore we resolved to go for it and did so with the maddest gallop I had ever requested from my steed!
My old charger never moved so quickly as when we galloped round "Dead Man's Gulch". On our way through town we didn't encounter anyone, just dead horses and bodies. We made it through without mishap. But our troubles for this night were not over yet.
I had only a faint idea of where our battery was going. We continued to follow the road until meeting a point where it split. Unaware of the battery's direction, I opted to proceed to the right. Eventually we found ourselves just on the left of hill 60, which was being subjected to a fierce bombardment from all directions. At this point I knew I had selected the wrong road. We turned around and made a mad ride back to where the two roads joined, taking the alternate route.
We didn't ride very far when we found a reel of wire alongside the road. It must have fallen off one of the wagons, so I knew we were on the right track. Eventually we caught up with the battery just as dawn was breaking.
We went into action on the edge of some woods located on the left of Ypres. This spot seemed quieter than the place we had just vacated.
In the afternoon George and I ran our wire to an observation point just over the canal. Everywhere I looked was a scene of desolation. There were half-starved cattle and pigs roaming about or lying dead. Along with the animals all sorts of farm commodities were tossed about.
The French infantry had held this front and just to the rear of the trenches were four of their abandoned Howitzers, indicating how far the enemy had advanced.
We stopped to observe some big shells that were bursting near us. This was the first time we had experienced this type of shell. We promptly named it "Black Jack" because of the great volume of black smoke it gave off. While we were watching, one these shells burst directly over the heads of a few Frenchmen. It scattering them even though I didn't think any of them were harmed.
When we got back to the battery the large caliber shells were continually passing right over our guns. Only one fell near me, landing about 20 yards from where I had made my dugout.
During the night two batteries of French 7.5 inch guns took a position about 50 yards in our rear.
Our wire was broken in several places from the continuous shelling. It had been impossible to get to the observation post. We had to use maps and wireless communication between us and the observation airplanes in order to fire.
We must have been spotted by an enemy observation airplane, for the German artillery gave it to us warm in the afternoon.
In the evening the officers made a bivouac beneath a layer of trees, just a few yards on my left. A few shells, real coal-boxes, were bursting very near the officers, so they moved into a dugout further over to the left. This was good fortune because a few minutes later a shell hit the tree and snapped it like a match.
Since other shells followed we had to leave the guns for a while. When the shelling was over, we went back to where the officer's dugout had been. The hits had blown the place to pieces. The two coats that hung on the tree were absolutely in ribbons and almost everything else was ruined.
One of the officers had been sitting on a box of biscuits that was now blown yards away. The box was reduced to a piece of twisted metal with not even one biscuit remaining. Everything was almost unrecognizable, including the bodies of the officers.
Mr. Dowling, one of the officer's servants, got both his arms badly splintered. All night the enemy continually shelled the roads to our right rear.
This morning we still didn't have communication with the observation post, so we used wireless communication with one of the observation airplanes. Our goal was to fire a bombardment in support of an attack by the French, which was said to be successful.
In the afternoon we were expecting a German counterattack after being heavily shelled.
The 57th who were just a little ways on our right got it worse than us. One shell pitched into their communications dugout, killing four telephonists and leaving several men wounded. They got it so fiercely that they were compelled to desert their guns, as we did yesterday. In spite of this they soon returned.
The French napped (as per usual) when one 17 inch shell dropped by their guns. Several shells fell in front of us. One shell dropped 30 yards from our left gun where I was standing. It is impossible to describe these monsters coming through the air. They sound like an express train going through a tunnel. When they burst, it is like a terrific clap of thunder causing the earth to sway, as if shaken by a small earthquake.
Later we measured one of the shell holes. Amazingly, it was 25 feet deep and 43 feet across. The force of the explosion scattered lumps of earth and rock many yards from the shell hole. It seems impossible, even to someone like me who understands artillery, that this great eruption could have been made by a shell. We picked up several shell splinters that weighed anywhere from a few ounces to several pounds.
The Germans' counterattack was repulsed and towards dark it became a little quieter, except for the usual nightly, dozen per hour shellings.
The Germans' 17 inch shells must have put the wind up the Frenchies, for they moved during the night and never came back.
We continued to fire from the same position even though the enemy was shelling us constantly day and night.
During attacks and counterattacks, which go on twice daily, we directed our fire mostly by using the wireless to communicate with an observation airplane.
On May 3rd the gun batteries on our left seemed to get it jolly hot. In spite of the gases and their preponderance of artillery, we were informed that we had stopped their march on Calais. We were ordered to move with the Lahore Division (which was now sadly depleted in numbers) on the night of the 4th.
Mr. Donahue and I left about 5:00 p.m. and after a hard ride found billets some 1.5 miles from Ypres, in a village whose name I never learned. I left at midnight to conduct the battery to the new billet.
All night I rode through the rain on my way back to the battery. As I passed through a small village, I decided to stop and try to find something to eat and drink. I tied my horse to the railings of a churchyard, then walked around determined to find something. After a while I came upon an establishment and vigorously knocked on the door. The door opened slowly. On the other side of the door was a staff officer. I think he was as surprised as I was.
He asked me what I wanted and I replied that I was searching for something to eat and drink. He was very good-natured about my intrusion and motioned me inside. To my pleasant surprise he then fixed me up with a much appreciated meal. Upon finishing I left. Even though it was still raining and cold I felt refreshed.
About 4:30 a.m. I met up with the battery and guided them to the village. We arrived at the billet about 6:00 a.m. where I got some breakfast from the officer's cook of the Ammunition Column. After a long night and a good breakfast, I was exhausted so I found a place to lay down and slept until about 10:00 a.m.
After a couple of hours of rest I proceeded to secure a new billet with Mr. Woods, in the direction of the town of Estaires. This proved to be a long ride. We located a good spot. I had a little dispute with the farmer, which delayed me from fixing up billets before 7:00 p.m. However, after a stern threat and the help of an interpreter, I managed to secure the place for the battery. Mr. Woods volunteered to ride back to conduct the battery to the billet.
Fatigue had set in. After caring for my charger, I went in a barn and dropped just as I was into a sound sleep.
The battery arrived at dawn. After organizing them I was informed that our orders were changed. The battery was to take up our old position at Croix Barbette by nightfall in support of an attack in the region of Festubert. The orders to march were received in better spirits by the farmer than I.
It was a beautiful day which I spent mostly in a much needed sleep. After I woke up I moved the battery over to our old position, arriving about 7:30 p.m. We were replacing a section of the 30th Battery. Then it dawned on me, it was here that I had left my mattress. I was elated to find that my woolen mattress was still where I left it.
All material generously contributed by Rick Coxen
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