Gunner Herbert Walker from Gorefield
Words or phrases in yellow are spelling errors or regional turns of phrase.
Words in green are town names.
Words or phrases in blue are places, such as Horse Sand Fort, Burgoyne Fort, some of which I could find, some, such as Death Valley and Artillery Valley, I could not. I presume these were names given to such areas by the army. I could find no trace of Kiteheuer Wood (?). ( Unfortunately the colours that Angela used in her original have not transferred to this copy, so I hope these comments make sense!!!)
I have inserted paragraphs where it seemed appropriate and used best guess for words where the right hand side of the text had been cut off by earlier photocopies.
Any underlining shown and punctuation are as originally written.
For Read as
River Anker River Ancre
Mauripass Ravine Maurepas Ravine
Henin Henin-Beaumont or Henin-Sur Cojeul (?)
La Cushie La Cauchie
St Emilie Sainte Emilie
Baphume Bapaume (?)
Gathers GothasNB. Herbert mentions the Howitzers and lifting 200 lb shells. I found references in “Handbook of the BL 8 inch Howitzers, marks VI – VIII on travelling carriages 1920”, or www.landships.info/
My Experiences in the Army
Gunner H E Walker
Royal Garrison Artillery
1916 – 1919
There is no doubt there will be some wonderful stories related by different individuals who took some part in the Great European War of 1914 – 1919. Stories of extraordinary adventures, excitement and tragedies in fact it was one whole tragedy from beginning to end. Undoubtedly many books will be written on the subject including, of course the whole History of the War from beginning to end, and as I said before, stories will be told by different individuals of their own personal experiences, but I don’t think I shall be wrong in saying that the half will never be told. And I thought it might interest a few of my friends, if I wrote a somewhat detailed account of my own experiences, while with His Majesty’s Forces. We all know that time is a great healer, but there is no doubt there are things that have happened in all our lives, which will never be forgotten as long as we live. Sometimes we seem to forget them for quite a long time, and then all at once they come back to us again as fresh as ever. But I am quite sure that there are some of my experiences during the war that will never be erased from my memory.
It is now over twelve months since that wonderful Armistice was signed, but anyone would hardly believe, that sometimes when I am in bed, or alone quietly thinking how plainly I can hear that awful scream of a shell coming over, and then followed by the terrible crash, with the too well known results. I don’t suppose anyone dreamt on that eventful August 4th 1914 that the awful struggle would last over four years, and that about 1,000,000 men would be called upon to make the supreme sacrifice.
When Lord Kitchener hinted that it might last three years, I think we was all very much astonished, and thought such a thing was impossible. And then when volunteers were asked for, there was such a rush to the colours, so much so that it was impossible to clothe and equip them fast enough, we thought that Germany must soon be beaten, and the war would soon be over. But, alass, that was not the case, and after a few months the excitement began to die down, and other inducements had to be made to get men to the colours. So that in the Autumn of 1915 Lord Derby came along with his group scheme, which was the means of getting a good number into the Army.
I think I might say here, and I say it honestly, that for several months I had not felt satisfied with myself at home, while so many had gone to do their bit. I couldn’t seem to get away from the fact, that if ours was a righteous cause, and if, as we were told, that it was a war of right against might, and if other men were doing right by going, then it seemed quite clear to me that if I was physically fit, it was my duty to go and help them. So after a lot of very careful thought, and thoroughly weighing over the consequences, I decided to join the Derby Scheme, as a volunteer. This I did on Dec 9th 1915. First of all I went to the recruiting office, and from there a party of us was sent off to go before the Doctor. Then after a long spell of waiting, I was thoroughly examined by Dr. W. Groom, and passed as fit. We then went back again to the recruiting office, and after answering numerous questions etc, and taking the Oath of Allegiance to King George the Fifth, we received 2/9 each, and were considered in the Army reserve, to await being called up. After that I seemed a little more satisfied with myself, and settled down, until I should have to join the colours.
I might say that I had always had a perfect horror of war, and thoroughly detested the very idea of an army life. I had often tried to picture in my own mind, what a battle field was like, with all the horrors and hardships connected with it. And I found out afterwards that it was quite as bad or even worse than I had ever been able to picture. So that when I joined the army I was not looking forward to a very pleasant and enjoyable time, but rather the opposite. My only idea was that it was my duty to go, and I was prepared to take all risks, and chance my luck with the rest. So after the various single groups had been called up, I finally received my orders to report at the recruiting office at Wisbech on the morning of April 20th 1916. This of course I did, and after going through the usual formalities, a party of us were marched down to the Gt Eastern Station en route for Bury St Edmunds. We arrived there in due course, and were marched to the Barracks, where we was provided with a meal, and after that was free to spend the evening in town.
What struck me very forcibly in the early part of my army career was the manner in which one made friends. I went to Bury absolutely on my own as regards friends, but by tea time of the first day, I had got two or three very nice chums. With these I had a look round in the evening, arriving back at the barracks at bed time. Then there was the process of making the beds, & this, on army lines, was a novel experience to me. This we was shown how to do by an old sweat (old soldier) who at very frequent intervals during the process, kept expressing himself in language that would not look well on paper. He seemed to get very excited sometimes, as I thought about nothing, but we took it all in good part, and finally we got to bed. That was the only time in the army that I slept between sheets and they was not particularly soft, as they was made of some coarse material something like towelling. I am afraid it is impossible for me to describe my feelings, the first night in the army, but needless to say I didn’t sleep much, one reason was because I was too cold, and the other reason was the thoughts that would come.
Next morning we got up, had a wash etc, packed up the beds, and prepared for breakfast, which consisted of a lump of bread, and a slice of fat shag (boiled bacon), then after that they took us for a short rout march. That was Good Friday morning, but it seemed rather different to any I had experienced before. When we came back, we had to prepare for a medical examination. This proceeding I won’t attempt to describe in detail, but just say that we had to parade in front of five or six doctors, for about half an hour, in nothing only our birthday suits, and I might say it wasn’t a very hot job. However, I got through the ordeal alright, and was pronounced fit, and then after going through a few other formalities, I was told I was in the Royal Garrison Artillery, where of course I wanted to get. Then after another meal I was taken to the Station and dispatched off to the Depot at Dover.
I left Bury about three o’clock in the afternoon, and I might say it was anything but a pleasant journey, seeing that I was all on my own, being the only one for the R.G.A. I landed at Dover about midnight, where of course I was absolutely lost, but after making repeated enquiries I found my way into a hut over Fort Burgoyne (1), and soon got down to it. In the morning I was taken to the office in the fort, and was kept there all day waiting for my papers to come through. To make it better it poured with rain all day, and I think that was about the most miserable day of my life up to then. After tea my papers came through and I was taken to my quarters in a hut, then of course I soon found some more pals, and we went out into the Town together, and that terrible lonely feeling soon left me, and I was soon settled down to army life.
The next day of course was Easter Sunday, after breakfast we had to parade for vaccination, a none to pleasant operation, then report at the stores for our uniform etc. then came dinner. After dinner I donned the Karki, rather a sensational experience, for the first time. I don’t know how I looked, but I know I felt very strange as I went out for a stroll that afternoon. I dropped in a Y.M.C.A. Hut for a short Service, and then after tea went down to a Primitive Methodist Chapel. After the Service I stopped to the Prayer meeting, and there I found my first real Pal. And here I give a tip to anyone who reads this, that if ever you are in trouble, or feel very lonely and fed up, try to sympathise and help somebody else, and you will soon feel better yourself. I found that day that my chum, and we were all chums in the army, had just about the same kind of feelings as I had myself, and by the time we got back to our billets we were great friends. That brought to a close rather an eventful day, my first Sunday in the Army. The next day of course was Bank holiday, and I met my Pal from home, A. Missin, and then we had a few nice times to-gether.
Next morning I had my first drills, and it was some job. The Sergt. In charge of us got very excited several times during the process, I can’t put down here his various expressions, for they would not look well, and another thing I haven’t had sufficient education to spell them correctly. But he would now and then keep bawling out, as though we was all deaf, Wake up you _______, I’ll buck your _______ ideas up. I’ve tamed lions I have, you broke your mothers’ heart, but you won’t break mine, (double). I remember he paid marked attention to me, for he told me that fish was a good thing for brains, and by the time I had eaten five or six whales, I should begin to have a little sense. But of course after a few days I began to get more used to the proceedings, and got to know which was my left foot without looking at it, which was rather a clever feat. Then after about a week at Fort Burgoyne, we were moved up to the Duke of York’s Schools (2), about a mile further up the hill. From the road leading to that camp, in the evening you could see the cliffs of Calais, and hear the guns in France quite plainly. Altogether I had about a month’s stay at Dover, & on the whole not an unpleasant time. I had several very good pals, and on one or two occasions was entertained to tea on Sunday evenings at the Primitive Methodist Chapel, which was a very nice change.
About a week before we left we had to parade for innoculation, another not very pleasant operation, followed ten days later by a second edition of the process. However on the 18th of May I was sent with a draft to Portsmouth. That was my first experience with a troup train. It is a very pleasant train ride through Kent, via , Deal, Canterbury, Ashford etc. to Waterloo, & then on to Portsmouth. Arriving there we were marched to Clarence Barracks (3), where we was served out with rifle, bayonet, and equipment etc, then split up into different parties & sent to different forts on coast defence. I was marched with several others on to a boat, and sent to Horse Sand Fort (4). A round stone structure in the centre of the Channel, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Having landed there I thought I should never be able to endure that prison life for a week, but of course that feeling soon wore off and I didn’t dislike it so much before I left. Perhaps I ought to describe the Place a little, it was several stories high, with rooms built round for sleeping quarters etc. & several twelve inch guns, pointing seawards, always loaded for action, beside one of these I used to sleep for about a week. Then on the top of the fort was three six inch guns, and an anti-aircraft gun and a fine searchlight, so that we could see right across the channel, to the Isle of Wight one side, and to Portsmouth harbour on the other. And we used to have to take our turn on watch, day and night, and report all ships coming into the harbour, or leaving the Solent. In the bottom of the fort was the magazine where I did my first shell humping. Hundreds of six and twelve inch shells we had to get down there. However I did not like myself very much there, as we only got ashore once during my three week stay, so I decided to volunteer for a Siege Battery in the hope of getting away. So on the 8th of June I was sent ashore to Clarence Barracks, where the 156 Siege Btry was formed. The next day we was served out with Artillery equipment etc. and the next day sent to Aldershot. Portsmouth is rather a nice Town, but very gay, as you might expect, with so many soldiers & sailors there. In the harbour is Nelson’s old Flag Ship The Victory, which I had hoped to have a look round, but we left before I got the chance.
Arriving at Aldershot, or rather Farnborough, we were marched to Tournay barracks, where we did our training in gunnery. There I had a fairly pleasant time for six weeks. I had some excellent Pals, and made several friends in the town, and I was very sorry indeed when we left. I had one week end leave after I had done three months in the army, and then six days over seas leave, and that was all, before I went abroad. On July 26th we moved to Lydd, in Kent for our fire practice, and after a month there we went to the White City, Bristol, to be mobilised. We only had a fortnight there, and that time was taken up in getting new clothing & equipment etc. ready for going abroad. And on the evening of Sept 8th we were packed up ready for a start. We had a kind of flare up party in the canteen before leaving, several were a good bit the worse for drink, and the rest of us were trying to be light hearted, but in a good many cases with little success. I shall never forget that march to the Station, we managed to make enough noise to wake the people up, several were in the streets, shaking hands with us and wishing us luck, others gave us a hearty send off from the bedroom windows. We got away from Bristol about midnight, and arrived at Folkestone about seven in the morning. We had some breakfast, and a stay of two or three hours, and then marched on to the boat. After a time we got a start, and as we lost sight of old England, no doubt a good many of us was wondering if we should ever see it again, and I am sorry to say a good many didn’t.
I am not a very good sailor, but it was a smooth sea, so I got though the ordeal very well, without being sea-sick. We landed at Boulogne about dinner time, and then had a march of about three miles up a big hill to St Martins’ Camp, with full kit, in the broiling sun, and it was some job. Having arrived at the camp we were counted off, about a dozen to a bell tent, where we soon settled down for a rest. After a while we was served out with one field card, each, which we soon dispatched off home, to let them know we had landed, then we soon prepared for the first night abroad, Sept 9th 1916.
Two days later we were packed up early in the morning, and marched down to the docks at Boulogne to unload the guns etc. The Battery was composed of about six officers and about 170 F.C.Os and men. We had four 8 inch howitzers, weighing nearly nine tons apiece, and twenty six three ton moter lorries, together with the necessary stores etc. and a good many rounds of ammunition. Each shell weighing 200lbs without the charge. After this lot was unloaded from the boat, and dispatched off up the line, we was then marched to the Station, and packed in to a train. We left Boulogne about 12.30 and travelled till dark, then we stopped and was served out with some tea and rations, and then went to sleep as well as we could sitting in the train. Next morning after breakfast we set off again about 7.30 and travelled via Abbeville to Amiens. We arrived there about three in the afternoon, & unloaded the guns etc from the train and they were attached to the four caterpillers and sent off up the line by road, and we loaded the lorries and did the same. Then soon after that the excitement began. After we had been jolted about, and nearly choked with dust for a few hours, we began to get within sound of the guns, and that for the first time, is an experience hard to describe and never forgotten. As we got nearer, and it began to get dark, we could see the flashes quite plainly in the distance, and then they gradually got plainer and plainer, and the rumble of the guns got more distinct and there seemed to be a shudder come over you and a cold feeling run down your back bone. At last we pulled up for the night, and I believe we had some tea, and then we got down for the night. We had to sleep in the lorries as well as we could, and lay on eight inch shells for a bed, which allow me to say was not very soft, in no way resembling a feather bed.
Next morning we got up and had breakfast. I am not quite certain of the spot where we were, but I know that morning I had a wash in the River Anker, although it wasn’t much like a river just there. We stayed at this place during the day, and then at night we packed up ready to go up to our first position. That was always the worst part about going into new positions, it nearly always had to be done in the dark, so that we didn’t know where we were, or where to go, and it was horrible. However we got on the move, and we soon got to where guns were in action by the side of the road, and I might say that is rather a queer sensation for the first time, as there is no little noise going on.
After a few hours travelling we pulled up at our first position, at Carnoy valley, commonly known as death valley. I don’t suppose I need explain why it was given that name. We had only just stopped and commenced unloading ammunition, when we were startled by a peculiar scream, one which became familiar afterwards, but that first one made an impression never forgot and then there was a terrible crash not far away from us, and that first Jerry shell that we heard had dropped in a camp close by us and killed five or six men. Of course we were naturally a bit startled and began to look for somewhere to get under cover, but the Sergeant in charge of us bawled out, It’s no use ducking your B_____ heads, it’s only a shell, and you’ll soon get use to them, get on with your job, and then of course we realised that we was at the war, and if we got killed, we got killed, it was no use worrying about such trifles as shells, so we settled down to our shell humping and thought as little as possible about the dangers around us.
After a time we got our shells unloaded, and our guns pulled into position, and then we were told we could get down for the night. That was about midnight, and we had no idea where to go, the Battery that had been there before had dug holes in the chalk long enough to lay in, and about four feet deep, and had them for dugouts, but unfortunately for us they had taken the roofs away with them, so that night we had to be satisfied with the blue sky for a roof. However we got down to it in one of these holes, and remember we had no blankets, nothing only just our waterproof ground sheet and our overcoats. It was a lovely moonlight night, and a sharp frost for the time of the year, and that night I laid in one of those holes, and shook with cold and counted the stars and watched the moon, and wished it was morning. Unable to sleep, as soon as it began to get light, we got up and ran about to get warm, soon afterwards we went into action for the first time, that was Sept 15th, and I suppose we did such good shooting, that as an honour we were allowed to take the most forward position of any heavy Battery on that part of the Somme front.
Next night we tried to scrounge a roof for our Bivy, but it wasn’t much of a success, although a little better than the previous night. Next night we pulled out to go up to our forward position. We left Carnoy about dusk, and travelled all night, or at least we was on the road all night and arrived at Longeval about five o’clock on the Sunday morning. That was a most dreary journey, before we had been on the road long on of the caterpillers pulling one of the guns broke down, and we laid on a stone heap and had a little nap while it was getting repaired. Then we went jogging along; walking most of the way, and taking stock of things as well as we could as we went along. It was bright moonlight, again, and all along each side of the road we could see dotted about those little wooden crosses, reminding us of the fate of those who had been there before us, and then every now and then a great old rat would be seen dodging about looking for his supper, apparently not much alarmed at our approach.
After several hours travelling we eventually landed at Longeval, just as it was getting daylight. We were then 1,500 yards behind the front line trenches. Here we was in what had formally been a decent sized village, but it was such a picture of devastation and ruin, that it is almost impossible to describe. Every house was leveled to the ground, not a brick left standing, just the shattered woodwork lying in heaps was all that remained here and there were dead bodies that had been buried and blown out again by shells, and there was not a single tree that was not shattered by shell fire.
Of course our first job on arrival as usual was to get our guns into position ready for action, and then after a time we got some breakfast. Our next job was to prepare ourselves some shelter. Four or five of us directed our attention to a big shell hole five or six feet deep, we scrounged some broken timbers and started to get a roof on it. We worked away at it most of the day, but the only roof we got on it that day was wire netting, intending of course to put some wood or corrugated iron on as soon as we could get some. However when it got dark we got down for the night in our shell hole, but alass before morning it came on to rain and we had to clear out. Next day it poured with rain nearly all day, and we couldn’t seem to get rigged up with a better shanty, so at night time we were soaked with wet and practically no shelter to cover us. That night I did my first guard on active service abroad, two hours on and four off. I had to walk up and down the road in front of our gun positions, nearly up to my shoe tops in water and mud, and soaked with wet, and I might say I have had much pleasanter nights, but I was never much more glad when it was morning.
Next day however was fine and we got our clothes dried again, and what was better found some iron for a roof, and I was lucky enough to get a duck-board to lie on, so that next night we considered we were in clover. That old shell hole was my first real home in France, and it proved to be a real lucky one. Four of us took up our abode in it, and we lodged there for nearly three months. All my life I have had a perfect horror for rats, and it was in that dugout that I had my first experience with them in France. Of course everyone knows that in all the ruins of villages etc, they are absolutely overrun with them. The first night I was disturbed with them, I had lent a paper to one of my pals who was sleeping next to me, and soon after I had put the light out, I heard some paper tearing, and on striking a match I saw a great old rat just above our heads trying to carry off my paper. After we had been laid down again for a little time, I thought I heard something moving near me, and on striking another match I found another homely old boy about a foot long dodging about against my elbow. Always after that I went to sleep with my head covered up, for I didn’t fancy their cold feet pattering over my face, it wasn’t so bad just to have them running over you now and then, but you would be surprised how heavy they feel when they come and sit on you while you are in kip.
After we had been out about a fortnight we received our first pay in French money, the noble sum of ten Francs, total value in English money about 6/8, for this you have to salute an officer when you march up to the table, sign the roll, take two paces backwards, about turn and off you go, some gag eh.
Perhaps it might interest my readers if I mentioned a few of the narrow escapes I had about this time. One day we was making a new platform for our gun, when Jerry stared to shell us, so we took cover in a trench just behind the battery position. After a while he left off and we went back to work, however a few minutes later he started again and two men were killed in the trench where I had been a few minutes before, that day we finished the platform, and the next day he dropped a shell on it and blew it up. One morning we had a straff on, and our team was helping the others who were on duty. I was doing cartridge number, and for some time was disputing with the other cartridge number who was on duty, a few minutes later on of our other guns which was behind us had a premature (namely a shell burst as soon as it left the gun) and the chap I had been talking to was killed while I only received pieces of bricks etc and a scratch on the nose.
One night we was asleep in the old shell hole when over came a great old shell and dropped a short distance from us, of course everything goes up in the air and then the debris came clattering down on our old dugout, soon another one came closer still, and then another came and seemed to lift our old shanty up, and then we laid waiting for the top to come in, but it managed to stand the jar, and we only got smothered with dirt. However one of the other shells had dropped in one of our dugouts and killed three of our men and wounded a fourth, another on seeing them went off his head. They had to be dug out, and then we went back to our old shell hole and slept till morning.
One night I was standing just outside my dugout when a shell came over and dropped in a dugout belonging to another battery the other side of the road about forty or fifty yard from where I stood, in the dugout was five men, next morning when they was sewn up in blankets ready for burial there was five bundles. On another occasion he dropped a shell in a dugout about twenty yards from ours when I believe two was killed and others wounded. On another occasion an old dugout was partly burnt down by a cartridge fire, caused by a premature from another battery behind us and when we moved from that position we left the old dugout about five o’clock in the morning, and the same night he dropped a shell in it and knocked it in, but he was too late we had gone.
On Nov 20th I went with an Officer for the first time to the observation post. To get there we went through that noted delville Wood, commonly known as devils wood. Every tree is shattered by shell fire, and many great trees are torn up by the roots. We went into what was known as switch trench, and we had a very lively day there in slush and mud dodging shells. Anyway I got the wind up, and when I got back, and got to kip at night, I couldn’t hold a limb still. But of course we got used to that later on, that was nothing unusual to be fixed like that, although it is rather an uncomfortable feeling.
On Nov 29th we left Longuval for a short rest. We went back to a little village called Bonnay, not very far from Albert. On the Sunday morning we went to a Church Service in a barn, that was the first religious Service I had the chance of attending after leaving England, about three months. While at Bonnay we was billeted in old houses, very draughty and cold, and slept on a brick floor. So of course I got a cold, and my old complaint a terrible swelled face & abcess. A few days later we went back into the line again at Mauripass Ravine. Soon after we had landed we was told to move our kits to our own gun stores, and while doing so the old Sergt major, commonly known as parrot nose, saw me and said I was (swinging the lead) vis, dodging the work, and ordered me to be put on guard next night. So of course I had to do the guard next night with a face like a full moon, and that was for doing what I was told. Of course I couldn’t say anything but I thought a good deal, and I shouldn’t mind meeting the old bounder now just to wipe off a few of the old scores, that little incident was only one of many that I have against him.
It was at the position in Mauripass Ravine that I spent my first Xmas from home, and I might say it wasn’t a very happy one. We hadn’t received any mail for several days, and I hardly need say how eagerly we looked for that, at any time. I have heard it said that the infantry when going up to the trenches have sometimes found it impossible to carry both mail and rations, and they have preferred to leave the rations and take the mail. However that first Xmas we began to think we was going to get nothing for Xmas, not even a letter from home, but however we got the mail up on Xmas morning, with bags of parcels etc, so that we didn’t run short of eatables. I will remember the first thing I heard that Xmas morning as soon as I was awake, was an eight inch battery next to us sending over to Fritz Xmas greetings in the form of eight inch shells. What a contrast between that and the greeting of the angels to the shepherds on the plains of Bethlehem, on that first Xmas morning in the long ago. However that Xmas day was anything but bright, for our thoughts were certainly not in France. They managed to get us a fairly decent dinner of boiled pork and tinned vegetables etc, but nothing more. Of course we had Xmas pudding etc in the parcels from home, so that by that means we was reminded of the festive Season. For my own part I was feeling very unwell, so next morning I reported sick. I think my temperature was 108 so I was told to keep warm that day, next morning I felt no better, but was given medicine and duty, so of course I thought it was no use reporting sick anymore, and in time I got better.
On January 11th 1917 we left Mauripass to take over a French position on the Curlu Road. And then we had a month of terribly sharp weather, the sharpest I believe for about thirty years. At any rate I shouldn’t like to be much colder than I was some nights there on guard, and to mend matters we was on reduced rations. At that position also we was severely pestered with our old friends the rats. However we managed to live through it, and on March the 9th we left from Bray, a small dirty town a little further from the line. And there we was able to get to a Y.M.C.A Hut, quite a treat for us. Of course on active service every day is alike, and at that particular time we was absolutely lost to know if the next day was Sunday or not until we asked the Chaplin to make sure. However on the Sunday morning March 11th we got to a Nonconformist Service, and that was the first of the kind from leaving England in Sept.
Then on the 16th of March we left Bray to move up by road to the Arras front ready for that Spring offensive. We went through Amiens, and Daulons, and then on the 21st of March we arrived at our position at Agny, a village about two and a half miles from Arras. We arrived at the position about dinner time and of course the first job was to start digging gun pits, after a while they made us some stew, and then we worked until dark. Then when we couldn’t see to work any longer, they gave us a few sheets of corrugated iron and told us to make ourselves comfortable for the night. So a pal and myself stood a few sheets up against a wall, and got a ten foot plank to lie on and got down to kip. Next morning when we crawled out the ground was covered with snow. Then after a few days we managed to scrounge some wood and iron and build a little shack for four of us, two lying above the other two. Then on April 9th 1917 about five o’clock in the morning we opened out a terrific bombardment, when that wonderful Vimy ridge was captured. It was a terrible morning for wind, rain and snow, but we managed to get 130 rounds through our gun before breakfast, and for the day we averaged about 300 shells per gun, and each shell cost £15.
Then on April 15th we moved up to Henin, and there we saw the terrible havoc made by our own shells a few days before. It was a terrible picture, the village itself was levelled to the ground, it was nothing but a heap of ruins, and dead bodies were lying about in all directions. At that time too we had to go on iron rations for nearly a fortnight, nothing but bully beef and biscuits for breakfast bully stew for dinner, and biscuits and bully for tea for a change, no bread whatever and only now and then a little fozzie (jam). It was very hot weather at the time, and of course bully makes you very thirsty, so we was very glad when our days of fasting were ended.
On the 5th of May we left Henin for artillery valley, a position about a mile or two further forward. That was a quiet place for about a week until Jerry found out where we was, and then we dropped in for a terrible rough time for a month or two. However we didn’t get many casualties for a few weeks and then one day he started pelting us with 11 inch armour piercing shells, they would make a hole about 6 or 7 feet deep and about 15 feet across in a hard road. From that time he had got us spotted and whenever we went into action he started pelting us with them and we didn’t miss many days without some casualties. However they wouldn’t let us move our guns until one night he dropped a shell in one of the gun pits as they were loading up, when six were killed, eight wounded and two shell shocked. Then of course we pulled the guns out, and made another position a few hundred yards away, after working all night for two or three nights, we had just got them into action again, when he spotted us again, and one evening he put about two hundred rounds into our position, and blew up our gun pits, and ammunition, but this time we escaped with few casualties, although we had altogether about thirty in a fortnight. And it was reported that at that section of the front there was about 8,000 casualties in the artillery alone in about six weeks. However we pulled out again, and made fresh positions further forward, working all night for several nights. This time we were about 700 yards behind that wonderful Hindenburg tunnel, and managed to stick there for several weeks.
On June the 20th we pulled out for a week’s rest, to a little village called La Cushie. Here we was able to get among the French people, and to gather a little knowledge of their language and ways. We was also able to get a good bath and a general clean up, and another thing I remember, I slept with my trousers off, for the first time since leaving England nine months. We also managed to get to a couple of Services on the Sunday, that made the third time after going out.
Perhaps a few remarks here about the customs of the French people would be of interest. In most of the villages the houses are very poor, many of them built of wood and plaster instead of brick. The people too in the poorer districts especially, are very shabby and dirty, worse than you would find in any of the most out of the way places in England. The buildings generally are built next to the road, the entrance mostly consists of two large doors, through which a load of straw etc could pass. Then beyond that is a kind of crew yard, with heaps of manure etc as it is thrown from the cow sheds and stables, and then beyond that and opening into it is the house. Of course we often used to visit the houses for lait (milk) or, oefs (eggs) etc, possibly on the path would be a lovely peacock, with his tail outspread, then lots of rabbit hutches with umpteen rabbits, pigeons, guinea pigs, fowls, ducks, geese etc, not forgetting of course, the domestic cat and dog. When you got into the kitchen, and of course you would go in, possibly in one corner would lie a dog on some straw, in another corner would be the swill tub, and the necessary utensils for feeding pigs, then there would be an old table and a few old chairs, and heaps of dirt and other old lumber, and then to top it up a dirty looking old man and woman and probably a few lost looking picanninies (children). Of course you would sit down and make yourself at home and chatter to the old fogees as well as you could until the milk was brought in, very probably by the mademoiselle then it would be emptied straight into small basons, or your dixie if you wanted to take it away, possibly it would be about 20 or 25 centimes, two pence or twopence halfpenny, per bason or about half a franc, five pence a dixie. In most cases the cowshed is under the same roof as the house, only a threshold to cross to get from that to the kitchen. Of course there were exceptions where the people are a little more respectable and not quite so dirty. Then all their agricultural implements etc are very much out of date, in fact they are hundreds of years behind the times in almost every respect.
Then every village has its Church, but a chapel I have never seen, but of course it is a strictly Catholic Country. The interior of the Church for the most part are kept nice and clean and there is mostly a lot of lovely carving and also pictures adorn the walls. Of course in the big towns the Churches and Cathedrals are magnificent, some of the finest in the World. Then some of the grave yards are very elaborate. I have counted as many as forty crucifix’s in one little cemetery. And then there are a great many big wreaths, and on close examination are found to be made of small beads, threaded on wire, and in different colours so that they look like flowers. Then there is also a large Crucifix erected at a crossroad or some other prominent position in every village.
Then I might mention that practically every house has its cellar, and I have been in scores and nine out of ten contain heaps of empty bottles, of course that is in the war zone, or no doubt the bottles wouldn’t be empty. Of course everyone knows that the French people drink a lot of wine and very weak beer, and think no more of it than we would of drinking tea. That of course they never drink at all, always coffee for a hot drink. Then every house has its quaint old fashioned well, umpteen feet deep, and the water you have to crank up on a windlass, some job too when you are in a hurry. And let me tell you some of them are noble structures, the like of which I have never seen in this country. Well I think I must leave the French people now for a bit. I think I have said enough for anyone to be able to form some slight idea of what the French customs are like. I may have something to say about the Belgians later on.
Well after our weeks rest at La Cushi we got back into the line again on June 29th. Then after another month at Henin Ridge, on July 28th two guns, one section of us moved up to Wancourt. Here we only stayed a fortnight, and then on the 11th of August we pulled out and joined the rest of the Battery to go by road for a straff at St Emilie. We had one night at Boyelles, next day we went through Baphume to Beaulencourt, next day through Le Transloy and Peronne to Aizecourt-le-Haut. Here we stayed two nights, and next day via Hamel to St Emilie. That morning we had our breakfast about five, and arrived at St Emilie about eleven. Then of course we had to start digging gun pits, some time in the afternoon they gave us some bully and biscuits, then I believe they gave us a drink of tea later on, and that was all till next morning, and we was working all night in the pouring rain. About five o’clock next morning after we had got the guns into position, and soaked with wet they told us we could have a lay down if we could find anywhere to go, of course everywhere was slush and water and there was nowhere to get under cover, so we could either walk about or lay down in the wet, and most of us did the former. However during the day we set about making ourselves a shelter and four of us rigged up a canvass sheet under a hedge, close to our gun, and there made our abode for about a week. Here we got on fine for a week or so, and then all of a sudden one morning about nine o’clock, jerry got us spotted, he dropped a few shells close round us and we got the order to clear, and a few minutes later he dropped one in our gun pit where I had just left, and sent up our ammunition etc, and on returning later I found a dozen shell holes in my overcoat as it was hanging up in our shelter. He poured hundreds of shells into our battery position all the rest of the day, and at night after he had left off we had to go and pull the guns out, and gather up our stores what was left of them, and start digging a fresh position a few hundred yards away. We worked all that night until day break and then went and laid down under a hedge for a sleep, this we did every night until we got all the guns into action again. Then we had a fairly quiet time for several weeks, very few shells coming near us.
On Sept 6th we had a church Service in the ruins of a large sugar factory at St Emilie, only a short distance from the battery position, that made the fourth time in the first twelve months abroad. On Oct 5th 1917 we left St Emilie travelling by lorries, one night we stopped at Aisecourt-le-haut, next night we slept in tents just outside Baphume, and the next night we stayed in Arras Barracks. The next day we went up to our new position to the left of Wancourt, we got there in the afternoon, and of course commenced making gun pits. Then it came on to rain, and we had to keep at work without anything to eat or drink until we had got all the guns into position. It was then nearly midnight and we was soaked to the skin. However they made us a drink of tea and then we was told to break off. And I remember two of us crawled into a hole dug in the chalk, just room enough to sit up but not enough to lay down, but still we considered ourselves very lucky to be able to get under cover at all. Then after a few days shell humping getting ready for a straff, we got the order to change over with another Battery in Belgium. We left that position on Oct12/17, we went by lorry to Arras, and got on the train there, about thirty of us with all our kits packed in trucks about ten o’clock in the morning, and got out at Poperinghe in Belgium at two o’clock next morning. Then after a spell of unloading stores etc, we got into lorries again and landed at a rest camp a few miles out, about seven o’clock. Then after breakfast and a few hours rest, two sections were sent up the line into action, two more went up the next day, and the rest the following day, and I was fortunate enough to be with the last lot. I was very glad of that for it gave a pal and myself the chance to get to another service in a Y.M.C.A. Hut on the Sunday evening, which was a great treat. We had heard a very poor account of the Belgian front, and we soon found that most of the reports were true. The Belgian people around that part looked rather poor, and old fashioned, to a great extent like the French, although the land looked better, and was in a better state of cultivation. There was several patches of hops grown around there trained up on poles and wires similar to how they are grown in Kent. But the roads were simply awful, nearly up to your neck in slush and mud, and going out in the dark you had to be very careful to be able to find your way back. However after a couple of nights at the camp we set off in lorries to go up the line.
They took us as far as salvation corner, then we had to walk and carry our kits umpteen miles to the Battery position, which was about two miles to the left of Ypres, and about a mile behind Kiteheuer Wood. Then began four of the most horrible months I ever experienced in my life. In the first place that part had been a battle ground since 1914 onwards, every inch of the ground had been torn up by shells, so that it was a mass of torn up barbed wire, and huge shell holes as far as you could see, and they were all full of water. That is accounted for by the fact that the greater part of Belgium is below sea level, and the canal that used to drain that part was to a great extent out of working order so that there was really no means of getting rid of the water. And to mend matters it had been a very wet autumn, so that at the time we went everywhere seemed all wet.
The roads too were in a terrible state, many of them they were draining and then laying wood down and making plank roads for miles. But owing to the tremendous amount of traffic, and the fact that they were so often being shelled and blown up by the Germans, it was a job to keep them in a very good form. And then as the ground was so wet it was impossible to dig down and make a dugout as we had been used to doing in France, so that it was almost impossible to get any cover from shell fire. And to make matters worse Jerry held most of the higher ground in the distance, so that he had the best observation and pretty well he made use of it. Hundreds and thousands of our men lost their lives on the Ypres front, and I have seen acres and acres of graves by the side of the canal bank. However soon after we arrived at our new position we had some tea, and then I was fortunate enough to get put on guard for a start. We hadn’t been on long before Jerry came over with his Gothers and started dropping bombs, that was the first time I had been close to them but unfortunately it wasn’t the last. On coming out we couldn’t see anything for smoke etc, but afterwards we found that two of our men had been killed and several others wounded. One of the killed was a great pal of mine, and he had been telling me only about half an hour before what he was going to do when he got home. So that I was very much upset at his death and felt his loss very keenly. I never liked bombs after that, and almost any men would get the wind up much quicker with bombs than they would with shells.
After that we had rather a rough time for several weeks, in the first place we had nowhere to sleep, or at least to lie down. We had to fetch our ammunition up on a light railway, laid over shell holes full of water, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. We used to be in action all day, and then after dark we had to fetch as many shells up as we had fired during the day, that would often take us till nearly twelve o’clock, and then we could sit under a tar-paulin sheet until morning. One night I was sitting there and a piece of shell cut a piece out of the scabbard of my bayonet as it stood behind me. However after a week or two a pal and myself managed to rig up a little dugout on our own, just long enough and wide enough for the two of us to lay down in, and high enough to sit up and that was our home for several weeks. There was a lot of hand fighting going on about that time, in one of the stunts Pachendale Ridge was captured. Soon after this I was on guard one night about the end of November, when I got the order to report at the office next morning at six o’clock to come home on leave. That was the best news I had heard for about fifteen months, and needless to say I wasn’t late on parade that time.
We arrived at the railhead at Poperinche just in time to miss the train that day, so we had to stay there that night and left the next day for Boulogne. After a slow jolly ride in the train for about seven or eight hours, we arrived at Boulogne. We stayed there that night, and next day we were marched up that terrible hill again to St Martins camp. After a sleep in tents for a few hours we was up to breakfast about 2 am and then stood outside from five till nine to get our passes stamped, and marched down to Boulogne again and on to the boat. All went well for a short time, and then as it was a very rough sea, I got my first taste of sea sickness. And that to say the least of it is not a very pleasant experience. However, I was alright again on reaching England, and then after a bit more charging about, I eventually found myself at home, and in my own bed once more.
The next fortnight seemed to pass very quickly, and I soon had to begin to think about going back again. Of course while at home I had tried to forget the war, but the last day or so at home was simply awful. Anyone who had been through the same experience will bear me out, that going back off leave was the most horrible experience imaginable. The fact of knowing what we was going back to made it so much worse than it was the first time we went out. And of course you couldn’t help wondering if that goodbye would prove to be the last. However I got away on the eleven o’clock mail, which I had to do to get into London early enough to catch the boat train. I arrived in London about four in the morning, & had a doss in the waiting room until it was time to get ready for the train journey. We left London about nine for Folkestone, on arriving there we had some dinner, & then marched on to the boat. This time it was a smooth sea & a pleasant journey as far as the conditions were concerned. We arrived at Boulogne about five, and was then marched up a hill to a camp. I might mention that during the march through Boulogne the was young girls & children running along the side of us trying to sell bottles of beer & often beds, a thing that would seem rather strange in this country.
Arrived at the Camp we was formed up on the parade ground, & told what to do to go back to our units. Then we had some tea and a rest, & served out with rations for the next train journey up the line, and was on parade again at ten o’clock ready to march down to the Station. However our train was too full to take us so we very willingly marched back to camp again & had a night’s rest. The next day we had in Camp, which wasn’t at all bad, & then at ten o’clock was marched to the station again & again the train was too full, of course we didn’t try very hard to get in, & then we repeated the previous night’s proceedings, but the next night we managed to get in & about seven o’clock next morning we found ourselves at our nearest railhead Poperinche. Then we started off on our tramp back to the Battery, & landed there about tea time & started duty again next morning.
Date of coverage1916-1919
PlaceFrance and Southern England
- 11th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (243)
- Hidden Stories (22)
- Memorials and monuments (39)
- Peace and peace celebrations (11)
- Soldiers – before, during and after the war (235)
- Families and War (49)
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- Music, art, culture and the Great War (19)