CORNWALL CAMP – 12th OCTOBER 1917
We hear our Brigade (the 14th) is to go in to support its sister Brigade (the 15th) on the day following. Cornwall camp is a staging camp close to Ypres.
SUNDAY, 13th OCTOBER 1917
Our Battalion moves out from Cornwall at 2.00 p.m. The road is deep in slush and lines of vehicle traffic splash up mud. We march in single file on each side of the road and arrive at our tea camp before sundown just near the remains of Hooge. German shrapnel was not considered as effective as our own as it bursts high.
Some high bursts were over our tea camp and Companies adopted Artillery formations as a precaution.
Nearing the setting of the sun we move again and have about 2 miles to go to reach Westhock Ridge. Our road now becomes a shambles; it leads like the Menin Road into a main feed line of the Ypres Salient. G.S. wagons and trucks carry squared timber to corduroy the mud and so make a road as they go. This road is to carry supplies to artillery in the Salient. Disabled wagons dead horses lie on either side but the work goes on plank after plank being laid amidst a slow but constant shell fire. Beyond the timbered road go only the pack mules that carry shells for our field guns. Dead mules dot the roadsides with their packs of shells left wasting in the mud. Enemy fire was by map reference or balloon directed otherwise work could not have proceeded.
We are moving on to a wide valley or plain of mud looking like a huge pig root. The Ypres Salient lies ahead of us when the British Armies under General Haigh had pushed week after week and day after day, each week gaining more pill boxes and more torn up mud. It was rain, no doubt, which had much to do in bringing Haigh’s great push to a finish. Here I would ask liberty to say something regarding this push. General Haigh, I believe, should not be condemned for his costly attack. He was not by the senior Army men and not by the men he commanded. It was a necessary if costly attack. It delayed a repetition of such an attack by perhaps a year.
This was a front prepared for defence littered with concrete pill boxes or various shapes and sizes mostly built underground, the cellars of destroyed houses being made use of. These pill boxes were built to defend so that Fritz could move big armies away to attack where it suited his purpose and his purpose was to attack on the French and break through there with 80 or 90 spare divisions ready for such a break through.
It was much thought at that time that the French were in no position to withstand such an attack as the Germans could have made and it is natural to believe that the great British counter move saved the situation by holding the big German Armies down.
They dare not move from the ground that they had fortified a hinge joint and which was stormed at each day by constant heavy attacks. These attacks cost the British very heavy battle losses but they also cost the Germans heavy losses especially in prisoners. At the time when my Battalion was moving in the great nest of German pill boxes had about been captured and they became useful cover for our support and reserve troops during the winter to come.
Let me now return to my diary. Back now to my Company and my platoon. We march in single file on each side or the muddy track. We have passed while daylight lasted the end of the corduroyed road but still the mud track and dead mules and spilt ammunition goes on. With the failing light the geysers of mud thrown up by the shells change to flashes of fire as shells burst in darkness.
It is quite dark when we reach Westhock ridge that was only a very low rise of ground crossing our track. We turn off here to the right of our track enter a trench where we are met by Company Sergeant Major Jones. He being of the advanced party and positioned all C Company men to their possies, two men here, three there and so on, into niches cut in the muddy wall of the trench.
Finishing up with the three officers of C Company who were Captain Cromby, Lieutenant Agnew and myself. We were all put into the same dugout and the space was about 6 x 8 feet and height enough to allow of sitting up only. The roof was a sheet of galvanised iron. Captain Cromby (an artillery officer transferred to us for his first time with infantry), Lieutenant Agnew (my senior by a little) and myself we had not long been in and were still sitting up when gas shells began to fall.
The order was “put on gas masks”. After suffering the gas mask for a minute or two I became restless and crawled to the trench and bumped into Sergeant Major Jones who said “you go that way and I will go this way and see that all men are awake and have their gas masks on”.
This was a lucky move for me as being a new officer in line for the first time it brought me into contact with the men.
Jones was an old Peninsula man and a first rate soldier. After my visit to the men in possies I remained in the open trench until shelling was over I slipped the mouthpiece of the mask out at intervals when shells missed falling to windward for a time. This gas shell fire last about hour coming at a slow rate as one shell bursts we hear the next one started on its way. It has a song of its own, and warble in its howl, has a small explosion containing high explosive only to blow out the base of the shell and thus let the liquid gas flow out and not be blown to the winds. They are small gas shells mostly about 4.2″ at a guess.
SUNDAY 14th OCTOBER 1917
We repaired our position and became a little acquainted with the method behind his shell fire (not gas now). 5.9″ and 4.2″ explosive shells fell singly each little while during the day.
Men get careless under this sort of fire. As each shell is heard on its way we do not worry about it when the howl is of longer duration. The nearer the shell falls the shorter the warning. On towards midnight comes a repetition of his gas shelling of the night before.
During this fall of gas shells I was in the trench with Corporal Murphy we were talking and watching the drop of the shells and I slipped the. mouthpiece from my mouth each little while when no shell fell to windward. We were expected to keep the mouthpiece in all the time but the discomfort of the thing caused me to break the order.
Presently a gas shell passed between Corporal Murphy and me and burst in the rear wall of the trench. A very close shave, on the full, as we were only two or three feet apart. It was also strange that the liquid from the shell splashed a little on Murphy’s leg and left me untouched. Murphy was sent to hospital and I later heard his leg was very badly burned with the gas (mustard gas). This surprised me after that which I had seen was such a small little patch.
MONDAY 15th OCTOBER 1917
The Boche kept up his shelling all day long on Westhock ridge and all day long he shelled the Salient and he can send them from three sides.
The bursts are marked by mud and smoke during the day and by flash of fire at night.
The wastage of ammunition is remarkable.
The enemy wishes to seek out roads and gun pits while shells from our artillery howl over head in reply.
C Company is on fatigue moving screw pickets and wire and Corporal Tipper goes out wounded.
TUESDAY 16th OCTOBER 1917
Much the same as day before only that I am warned to go this evening with the advance party to our front line. Corporal Farrel, Privates Nicholsen & Galway go with me to make up the party.
The front line is being by 59th Battalion of the 15th Brigade and they are to be relieved by the 54th Battalion of the 14th Brigade on the morrow. The 54th Battalion will take over from the 59th Battalion C Company of the one relieving C Company of the other.
The advance party has the job of taking stock of the positions and guiding the Company in on its arrival.
Captain Reg Downing is in charge of the Battalion party.
Just before time to move shell fire on our ridge becomes more severe and one of our lewis gun teams has collected a shell. I do not remember all names but young Gad was one of the two gunmen to be killed, two others were wounded.
As I was about to leave for Battalion Headquarters to pick up with Captain Downing and his party, I could be used as the message carrier to the Medical Officer (Captain Leidman). Our Battalion Headquarters was in a pill box now being heavily shelled. Vanity kept me on a straight course and I was much relieved when I made cover. In the pill box were Major Street, C.O. Captain Lovatt, adjustment, Captain Downing and the medical officer, Captain Leidman. The moment Leidman heard my message about the wounded men he moved out without any hesitation. That was ever his way. Shells were making a great racket and each little while one appeared to burst right on of pill boxes concrete roof and casualties on Westhock amounted to 17 per cent or more. Shell fire had eased off as we moved out on our mile or more trip to front line.
Our parties being gathered up, each party went under its own head we moved up the duck boarded track mostly by daylight – but waited for darkness to fall before making the last quarter mile or more.
Corporal Farrel is my guide. I report to the Captain in charge of C. Company, 59th Battalion who had his headquarters in a pill box which would hold 5 to 20 men. It was completely under ground and a flight of steps starting at ground level led into it. The Captain was very sick with Dysentery but he marked the front on my map and his Lieutenant came and took me round the front to explain it to me. We had reached the top of the steps when a shell burst very close ‑ a small piece glanced off the heal of my boot and we moved quickly out into the darkness. About 60 yards distant we reached our front trench system which was three or four slit trenches in a staggered line sheltering one platoon and each trench had a cloth covering to conceal it from the aircraft.
The officer informed me that he stayed with his platoon mostly through the night. He had a bunk in the Headquarter pill box to sleep in by day there was a bunk there also for me but I decided to stay forward. We would only watch the distant fireworks and on towards morning sleep found my weakness. I lay on the ground and slept so soundly that I did not hear the bombardment before dawn and had be informed that two men had killed in a possie just behind me by a shell falling right on them.
Now with daylight can see the situation. We are on the forward crest of Broudeiend ridge and at head of the Salient green fields lie across the flat valley in the distant front. Behind us is all mud and holes and we can move out in daylight one at a time but if more do so and a worthwhile target presents itself to Fritz he immediately opens on us with his whiz-bang (whiz-bang was the name given to German field guns of our eighteen pounders).
A Company is to be positioned on our left, C & A being the two forward Companies of the Battalion.
Our Battalion Headquarters is back on the dead ground side of the rise about 150 yards away in a large pill box of about three rooms. Since all the pill boxes had been captured from the Germans the entrance door was always on the wrong side for us.
The Headquarters pill box has been used by the Medical Officer occupying a back room as a casualty room. On the day before we arrived a 5.9” shell had come through the door of the back room and made an awful mess of the room killing the doctor and his assistant.
Now as I have the whole day to put in before the relief troops arrive I was able to look round and inspect our positions.
I started down to Battalion Headquarters and about half way there a stretcher bearing party passed me on their way up forward. Evidently Fritz thought it a worth while target put us all to ground with a few whiz-bang shells. This over I resumed my way to the big pill box which stood all above ground.
Reg Downing was there and I go talk to his and so pass time away.
I about two yards from the open doorway when the short savage hiss of a shell that was near made me spring for the doorway. As I did so there plunged into the earth only a few feet away a “dud”. I delayed a minute or two in the passage before entering in case my face showed too much sign of “wind up”. Dud shells did fall occasionally perhaps one per thousand.
As our men cannot move in by daylight my job does not start until darkness comes.
Corporal Farral has remained with me to guide in half the Company, Nicholson & Galway had to return earlier to report our arrival and guide the whole Company up. Here I did a silly thing not realising the change that night would make and it came in a very black night. My job was to guide C Company Headquarters to the underground pill box then to take about l5 men to a shelter which had an earth bank towards the enemy and concrete protection on one side which was the wrong way about. This cover was not more than 30 yards from headquarters pill box and now in the blackness of night I could not find it and twice went back to the starting point to correct my error. The sweat was starting from my face and I pushed each man to the entrance, a black hole in a black night. Shells started to fall, which caused me anxiety. Much relieved I returned to join my platoon that had been guided in by Corporal Farral. The shell fire, short lived, had now practically ceased. I noticed a number of men standing in single file. They were A Company men with Lieutenant Charley Wood and had left without a guide. A Company’s position was just left of mine and Wood was relieved when I said, “I can take you there”.
Returning from delivering Wood’s platoon I walked on to a dead German and then sprang clear and hastened on my way. Strange that one should be so scared of the dead.
THURSDAY, 18th OCTOBER 1917
We did not receive much shell fire this day but it was heavier during the night, short bursts at intervals.
FRIDAY 19th OCTOBER 1917
Much the same as day before but more shell fire. Many shells can fall about without any falling on to a trench in the midst.
There was some luck with a shell about midday. About 6 men of my platoon and myself were having a drink of tea, that was made on a tommy cooker, ad finding some scraps of biscuits in our pockets we sat with our back to the side of the trench. A shell bursting a few feet away blew the trench in on us and we were half buried in earth reeking with fumes and smouldering fragments. We had to dig a new trench. Scotty Finlayson was very concerned for the next day or so and repeated, “I can’t make out how that shell missed us”. I replied, “Its hard to kill the wicked Scotty”.
SATURDAY, 20th OCTOBER 1917
The morning went not far without shell fire. It started soon after breakfast. “A” Company had some casualties. Stretcher bearers passed near enough for me to recognise the features of Lieutenant Charley Wood on a stretcher. Wood and I had become with the same reinforcement on the troopship “Anchises”. He was junior to me and was a staunch companion. He was my brain while on the ship and he had great ambition to be a good soldier. It was hard that he should be cut down so early. His pluck and the speed with which he was taken out saved his life. He had lost his right hand, one foot and three toes off the other foot. Another fine young A Company officer Lieutenant Pollock, was wounded the same day. Wood was in due course supplied with an artificial arm, hand and leg and was able to carry out his work after the war as a Magistrate.
SUNDAY, 21st OCTOBER 1917
Tonight we are to be relieved by the 29th Battalion. We are now a rough looking lot, by our eight day, with scarcely a wash and mud all the time.
Our position is on the forward crest line of Broudsciende ridge in short trenches covered with wagon covers. Fritz was not dug in close to us, how far back I would not say. Our patrols had gone out a quarter of a mile and could not find him. Germans could be observed on the opposite rise and he could observe our movements from green fields. If more than one or two of us moved together his field guns were on us immediately. Fritz planes would fly over us and we were not to look up at them as our faces would give us away. This, our last day, Captain Cromby asked me to post a lewis gun out by itself to try and deal with these planes. I put Churchlands team out in a detached little trench. Churchlands fired on a plane and in a moment his position was showered with wizbangs. I did not ask him to fire on any more planes.
A question cast come to any observers mind. Since Fritz was so far back why could we not move forward and thus escape a lot of shell fire? The answer to this question would be that our S.O.S. (signal of support) line was close in front of us and if an alarm went up we would be right under our own gun fire which is to protect us against attack. Now to our relief, which is to take place at nightfall. The relieving Company sent their advance party up in the daylight. The party consisted of an Officer, a Corporal and a runner. I showed them over our position and the Officer was slow at noting numbers of men to be placed, but he was asking for too much detail that could be supplied better under cover. I felt we were too many bodies exposed for safety. I said, “now you have seen the position come down into Company headquarters and I can supply all details from there”. We had only turned to go when it chanced that our forward artillery decided to register the S.O.S. line and for this purpose they put down nine smoke shells along our Battalion front. The enemy’s response was immediate. He naturally thought we might be attacking again and he showered his shells just over the rise about where Battalion Headquarters and Company Headquarters were placed.
I showed the relief party down steps into Company Headquarters and by the time the last man was on the stairway the crash started. Gun fire from both sides competing. Our pill box was good cover taking much shell fire and our candle was repeatedly blown out. I would light it up to show that my hand was steady but I was most anxious about my platoon being forward and we suffered from close confinement.
The bombardment did not last very long as it was soon discovered by the Huns that the smoke shells meant nothing.
Being imprisoned in a pill box by shell fire is not nice, and as soon as the fire eased I made for the stairway and passed on it, coming down, Tommy Garrat. He had a grin on his wide mouth and said, “all our equipment is blow to B_ _ _ _”. He was one of those placed in a dark semi-pill box of which the entrance was so small that they had placed their packs outside ready to pick up as they came out on relief. A shell had landed right on the packs. Passing Garrat I made for my platoon and found them all well. The shell fire had been mostly behind them, which was natural as were forward of the rise in the ground and therefore no attacking could mass there. Captain Cromby had asked me to take my men out as soon as relief was complete. Agnew had been taken out as a casualty, gassed two days back. I would doubt if I knew my way out as we had came up much of the way by night so I enquired of the men as to who knew the way and a prompt answer came, “Lutton knows the way Sir”. So Jimmie Lutton with his lewis gun on his shoulder led the way out and I brought up the rear and there was a lame man who caused me and a few others to become disconnected. It must have been quite five miles we had to trudge that night back to a tent camp near Dickiebush and back behind our heavy guns. When we had passed the heavies and back behind long-range shell fire, I suddenly knew I was weary. My batman, Scotty Finlayson, had been sent out ahead of us, as suggested by Captain Cromby, and he had a dixie of soup made from tablets which was shared Captain McNab of A Company. We had duckboards to lie on to keep as off the wet ground and I fell into a half sleep. Scenes passed as if an a moving stage and one picture was of a landscape strewn with flags and rifles up on the ground and in the midst of all this destruction on a throne sat the Queen of Harlots. The camp where we rest is Zillibeke camp.
MONDAY 22nd OCTOBER 1917
We move back to a camp of huts and there we get back our kits.
TUESDAY 23rd OCTOBER 1917
We rest in a camp, many of us have lost our voices from gas and we become nearly a company of whispers.
WEDNESDAY 24th OCTOBER 1917
We march back to ruined Ypres. It is a bathing parade, hot showers and clean underclothing that arrive in bales back from the delousing works.
Coming to England with me in the same reinforcement was my good mate Charley Wood. He and I had charge of a reinforcement of 150 men. We both attended a course of 5 weeks at Tidworth Barracks and we both arrived in our Battalion about the same time that was after the hard punches it had received at Bullicourt.
Wood was the first to be sent to the Avelong School, near Albert, I was not detailed for this Corp School until Wood had returned. The term was a month and we were just on the finish of the school when our Division moved up to the Ypres Salient,
Lieutenant Wood of A Company was in support at the attack on Pollygone wood that was one of the many advances made in the Salient. As this was taking place I had returned to the Battalion then in Brigade Neucleus and my first entry into the front was the occupation of Broudciend ridge that had just been taken by our 15th Brigade.
General Haighs push at Ypres went on for weeks and the main part of the British Army was tested there. Our 5th Division has now been withdrawn and we move on to other fronts and changing scenes. I will now revert back to the dates of my diary.
THURSDAY 25th OCTOBER 1917
We march into Billets near Abelle on the Belgian border.
FRIDAY 26th OCTOBER 1917
Only a day of rain.
SATURDAY 27th OCTOBER 1917
Our details rejoined us. They are the 33 1/3% which is always taken out of a Battalion when it goes for a term into the front line. It is a very wet day.
SUNDAY 28th OCTOBER 1917
I visit Popperbinge and have a bath there at the Club. There are many Canadians in the town. They are relieving the Australians in the Ypres Salient that means that the Australians will be taken out.
MONDAY 29th OCTOBER 1917
On parade all gas helmets are tested for leaks.
TUESDAY 30th OCTOBER 1917
Rumours are about as to where we go next.
WEDNESDAY 31st OCTOBER 1917
C Company marches to showers for a bathing parade.