The Battle of Ypres May 1915
1 January 1915
The diary opens with a number of calculations and geometric diagrams. January 4th is filled with morse code. Seabury is training to be an officer of artillery.
Wednesday 27 January
Today I joined no.2 Reserve Brigade RFH at Preston Barracks, Brighton, having been gazetted a second Lieutenant one week before. Mrs. CC and Esther called for me in their motor, and Mother and Irene also accompanied me to the station. It was strange to be leaving Ettie after two years of the closest companionship and stranger still after so many vicissitudes to be embarking upon a military career. What will be the outcome of this war? Shall we see the destruction of European civilization and the grass growing in all the greedy pleasure palaces of its great capitals? I am afraid that the struggle will be long and bitter. In a few weeks spring will be here and men will be killing each other where the wild flowers grow. Many will give but yet a little while and they too will have passed into the unknown with those they mourn, and over the grave of a generation’s sorrow the great wave of humanity will sweep pitilessly on toward its unknown goal.
February to April
During this period Seabury was training on the South Downs and on 18 April he married Ettie (Esther Capel-Cure). By the end of April we find him in Le Havre waiting to join the IVth Division of the Royal Field Artillery.
Friday 30 April 1915
Two officers arrived in the night suffering from the effects of gas poisoning. One of them is a mere boy in the West Kents, the other a promoted sergeant major. Both were rendered unconscious and seem very shaken with their experience. A painful event occurred at nine thirty this morning.
Saturday 1 May
Doctor Palgrave informed us at breakfast that the A.D.M.S. had issued an order to the effect that no officers were to go outside the hospital in the morning; this is a senseless and troublesome order such as old base fogeys love to make in order to assert their authority. Ettie came to meet me on the parade opposite the hospital at 11 oclock, but I had to run out and tell her that I should not be at liberty until the afternoon. Spent the morning reading and talking. Palgrave shewed me some microbes under the microscope. They looked like minute particles of seaweed.He also told me that a doctor recently exposed some gelatinous matter spread on cardboard in Piccadilly for a period of one minute with the result that it became covered with the germs of at least half a dozen deadly diseases. We should indeed avoid living in towns. Holmes was discharged from hospital this morning. I spent the afternoon with Ettie.
Sunday 2 May
A somewhat cold and misty morning; a convoy of at least a dozen transports is looming up in the mist bringing reinforcements for the British army. They are said to be carrying territorial divisions while another version has it that the first of Kitchener’s armies is beginning to arrive. When one sees all the thousands of men and tons of stores, provisions and requisitions pouring in every day one realizes how the Germans are doomed inevitably to defeat and destruction by the sheer weight of the odds arrayed against them. The pitiful imitators of Bismark have placed their country in a sorry position.
Went for a walk with Ettie in the afternoon. As we were returning along the front we met the irrepressible Rawling in a motor car which he had commandeered. It belonged to some colonel in the A.S.C. who had dismissed his chauffeur until 5pm. We went for a very jolly run in the car to the depot and then home to the hospital by the road which was behind Havre. Esther enjoyed herself very much indeed and took great interest in all that she saw. She was particularly amused by the picturesque uniforms of the French soldiers. They are indeed quaint and variegated as Joseph’s coat. Some are in baggy red trousers, Turcomen in fezes, chasseurs alpins with poetical blue berets on their heads, dragoons in steel cuirasses with horses tails in their helmets, huzzars in sky blue and crimson, and infantry of the line in ragged red trousers and shabby dark blue overcoats. Then there is the new light blue uniform rather more ridiculous than the old.
Captain Murray joined us for tea in the hospital. He is the best type of Englishman. Strong, honest and intelligent: such as he have built up our Indian Empire by reason of their honesty and strength of character. Rawling conducted himself in his usual impossible and gay manner. He sang “two eyes of grey” in a falsetto voice, making such a good imitation of a woman that one of the officers in the smoking room bet a sovereign that Esther was singing. I dined with Esther at the Angleterre. Not a bad dinner but the service execrable and terribly slow. We spent a very happy and busy hour together in her room afterwards. The Angleterre resembles a match box rather than a hotel but is fairly clean. Ettie has a funny little oblong shaped room with walls that look as though they might be demolished with a few blows of the fist. This is on the fourth floor where the air is fresher. We were both impressed by the insanitary condition of Havre and, indeed, the same applies to nearly all the French towns that I have seen, where people in the poorer quarters nearly always live in picturesque buildings wholly unfit for human occupation. France is years behind England and Germany, and in every hand one sees evidences of squalor and poverty which are unknown in the former countries. Yet France is a rich country, so one is forced to conclude that bad government must be responsible for the conditions of the people. I suspect their educational system of being very bad, but their being chiefly an agricultural people makes the difficulties of educating the people greater than in more industrial communities.
I returned to hospital at two o’clock and found eight or nine captains in the 58th Bhopal infantry, and a doctor from no. 9 camp, where venereal disease patients have their habitation. The captain was a hardy, grizzled veteran of the type that the Indian army alone seems to produce. Like Murray he was intelligent, natural and strong of character and limb. He belonged to the Newport (?) brigade and like Murray he had been marched from the neighbourhood of La Bassee to Ypres to take part in a counter attack against the Germans who had….sentence unfinished
Monday 3 May
This morning most of the officers who were admitted to the hospital last night went off to England in the hospital ship Carisbrooke Castle. Murray went with them. I got my discharge papers at a quarter to eleven and went at once to report myself at headquarters in the Place de L’Hotel de Ville. The staff captain to who I reported was young Higginson of Harry Higgins of Covent Garden fame. I had met him when I went to stay with old Lady Burnham at Hall Barn on my return from the Balkan War. He told me that I should proceed to no. 13 camp and there await orders. I then went to Ettie and we went for a walk around the docks before lunching at Tartine’s. We saw the large liner Vestis of Liverpool come in: she is engaged in carrying frozen meat by the French Government. After lunch I went out to the hospital to see about getting an ambulance to take me to the camp at Harfleur. Had to wait until 2.30 when a small French motor turned up. At the same moment the doctors and sisters were leaving to attend the funeral of Sister Purse who committed suicide a few days ago by jumping out of the third floor window. Her father had come over for the funeral and I have seldom seen a man look more broken up with grief and not without cause for in addition to his daughter’s death, he has had to bear the loss of two sons killed in action. War is indeed a very terrible crime.
I had to lie on the stretcher inside the ambulance as there was nowhere to sit and the jolting over the rough roads made me feel very sick. I can imagine now what the wounded must suffer during the process of evacuation. It had begun to rain hard and the camp was a dreary sea of mud. Having reported to the adjutant I deposited my kit in hut no. 22 and then walked to the tram on the Harfleur road about a quarter of a mile away. Got very wet and muddy in the process. After waiting for some time in vain I stopped a passing motor ambulance and got a lift into Havre. Found Ettie in her match box room at the Angleterre. She had been to the British Consulate to have her passport visaed. The Vice Consul was very kind to her, refused to accept any fees, and promised her all sorts of facilities on her journey. We had tea together in her room. I suppose that we should both have been feeling very sad, but as for myself even on the eve of our parting I found it impossible to realize its full significance and I think that with Ettie it was much the same. We dined together at Tartines at six thirty, so that I could see her on board the Vera early and catch the last tram to Harfleur at 8 o’clock. Unfortunately we learned on arrival at the quay that no one was allowed on board before nine o’clock, and so we had to return to the hotel and I had to leave Ettie to embark alone. I did not feel much anxiety because she can drive as far as the quay in her taxi and then the Vice Consul will see her safely on board. I hope she will arrive home safely but feel some anxiety on account of German submarines. She has enjoyed her trip very much and took great interest in all that she saw, saying like so many other people that we only begin to realize what the war means when we put foot in France.
Found on arrival at no. 13 camp that my companions were mostly promoted soldiers who were very decent fellows. Spent a rather restless night not being accustomed to sleeping on the floor in a bag.
Tuesday 4 May
Heard this morning that I had been posted to the IV Division, 3rd Army Corps. I am glad to be going off at once as I do not want to stay in this camp with no work to do. Had a most excellent shower bath on getting up – there are about 20 for the same number of officers, both hot and cold water. I went for a long walk round the camp after breakfast and called on Holmes who is at no. 14 camp but he was out. He came to see me, however, just after lunch and we had a talk. The promoted soldiers in the mess are a nice lot of fellows, but the persistency with which they offer me alcoholic drinks is rather trying, the absorption of quantities of these poisonous beverages being their one and only idea of how to pass the time of day. Several of them have been at the box depot for some months with nothing to do. Spent most of the afternoon gaming with two of my mess mates. They are of the opinion that there is bound to be a strong outbreak of some disease or other at the front during the hot summer months partly because of the large number of dead bodies that are lying about unburied between the trenches and partly because of the insanitary conditions of the farms and villages in which the troops are billeted. At 3.45 I received orders to report myself at 9.30pm at the Gare Maritime in order to proceed to the front.
I packed up my kit and proceeded into Havre at about 5.30 with the camp quartermaster and another officer. The quartermaster an old soldier of 25 years’ service was extremely kind to me I might almost say paternal. He provided me with an identification disk, matches, pencils, cigarettes, and offered anything else that I might require. We commandeered an A.S.C. motor car and had a drive into Havre.
I visited the hospital where I found Rawling in a characteristic attitude lying on his bed gazing through field glasses at a pretty French girl who was dressing herself in front of an open window across the street. They soon began to kiss their hands and make signals to each other when they were interrupted by the arrival of Sister Clarke. I said goodbye to Sister Clarke, a most estimable woman and nurse who contains an iron nerve and inexhaustible fund of energy in a little shriveled frame. Went into Havre at 8pm to meet my friend the quarter-master at the Restaurant Moderne, Rawling (or is it Knowling?) accompanied me. Did not find the QM but was fortunate enough to find Robert of the ASC whom I had been in hospital with. We dined together and at 9.15 took a taxi to the Gare Maritime, which is situated in the docks. On arrival I reported myself at the office of the D.A.D.R.T. where I was informed by a corporal that I had to travel in a coach used for the North Midland Division. These directions were not only vague but inaccurate. Robert and I searched in vain for some time among the light or main supply trains drawn up in parallel sidings waiting for their turn to start for the various railheads of the army. Finally Robert met a friend of his in the ASC, Macdermott by name, who was conducting officer of the train in which I had to travel. He gave me a first class compartment to myself in the coach reserved for himself and servant. This was a blessing indeed for otherwise I should have had to travel in a second class carriage with half a dozen territorial officers. Robert and I carried my baggage into the compartment not without difficulty as it seemed to weigh at least one ton. It was by now ten minutes past ten, the train was due to start at 10.29 and I had still to draw my emergency rations from the other end of the yard nearly half a mile away. Robert and I did a sprint down the platform and by fortune were served before a long queue of officers. . My rations were put into the bottom of a large tea tin with which Robert and I doubled back to the train. I am most grateful to Robert for having introduced me to Macdermott and to the latter for his kindness to me during the journey, opening my valise and spreading out the sleeping bag and blankets. I got into my pyjamas and settled down to a comfortable if somewhat restless night. The weather had become very hot, and even with the window down I found it hard to get cool having become bathed in perspiration in the course of running up and down the station in search of my emergency rations. The latter consisted of a plentiful supply of biscuits, rather like ships’ biscuits only softer and more palatable. Three grocery rations of tea, sugar etc. a large hunk of Cheshire cheese, a tin of corned beef and another of Libby’s roast beef. The rations, indeed, left nothing to be desired and I do not suppose that an army in the field has ever before been fed as we are. I forgot to mention that there was also a tin of Dundee marmalade.
I dreamed a good deal in the night, chiefly that I had lost my way and was in a train being drawn at great speed by two galloping camels, while a lackadaisical Indian driver only shrugged his shoulders when I asked him where we were going and how could I join the third army corps.
Wednesday 5 May
Macdermott’s servant called me at 8.30 and brought me an excellent cup of tea. I then got up, shaved, washed and dressed to find that he had served me up a breakfast of ham and eggs, tea, bread, butter and juice which I ate with a good appetite and for which I was most grateful. I am travelling in a supply train of the 3rd Army Corps going to railhead at Stenerweeke (?) via Rouen, Abbeville, Etaples, St. Omer, Stazebonk (?). It consists of one first class coach in which Macdermott, his servant and myself are installede second class coach in which are some territorial officers of the Northumberland Fuzileers, and the the rest of box wagons loaded with food and other stores for the army. The country through which we travelled was, for the most part, flat and monotonous but none the less beautiful by reason of the mantel of spring with which it was clothed. The fruit trees were all in bloom and on all hands were to be seen the fresh green shoots of springtime. We did not pass actually through Rouen, for the French have built a loop line by means of which traffic is enabled to avoid the junction and a great deal of time is saved. At various other places on the line French engineers were widening cuttings or building embankments and sidings notably at Abbeville. A large British camp is being built at Etaples for what purpose I do not know unless it be for Kitchener’s army. We passed a British Red Cross train en route, and one belonging to the French containing for the most part wounded Turcos and Senegalese. I am conscious of little feeling of excitement or fear finding it indeed hard to realize that I am actually approaching the front. It seems to be a curious faculty of the human mind that the more closely it approaches things the less able is it to grasp the full significance. We heard at Herdingneul that the fourth division was actually in process of being moved from Trenoecke to Poperinghe in the neighbourhood of Ypres, so I suppose that we are in for a counter attack.
At Hazebruck at which place we arrived at about 5pm I was informed that I should have to leave the train as it was bound for Steenwerke, and that I should have to wait until midnight for a train to take me to Gottesanewelde the new railhead of the fourth division. I was walking down the platform after dining in the station hotel when I saw Kerr-Seymour sitting in a first class carriage. He is a captain in rank and a train conducting officer. We had a talk and he introduced me to an ASC subaltern who was bound for Gottesanewelde. A number of refugees came in during the evening, from Poperighe and other places that the Germans have been shelling. They were all Flemings and were in a terrible state of excitement, chattering, shouting and rushing here and there with no apparent object. Most of them were poor peasants but among them were several well to do looking people. About eleven o’clock who should come along but Macdermott himself. His train had been sent to Sternweeke in error and was now on its way back to Gottesanewelde, so in a few minutes I was installed once more in the comfortable first class carriage which I had left six hours previously.
Thursday 6 May
Woke up at eight in the morning to find the train halted in the station of Gottesanewelde, a god forsaken Flemish village with an abnormally large church and abnormally ugly inhabitants.
I reported myself to the R.T.O., a major of the line, at 9AM but was unable to obtain from him any information as to the headquarters of the IV Division. Waited about in the station yard until 1PM, when the ordinance major of the IV Division turned up in his motor car and offered to drive me over to headquarters which are situated in a large chateau not far from Poperinghe. Poperinghe, despite its distance from the battlefield, has been heavily shelled by the Germans during the past few nights, and most of the inhabitants have left. Last night several large shells landed on the principal square in the centre of the town, and caused a serious fire. The town which is of moderate size and in normal times prosperous, is now deserted save for a few British soldiers. We passed a great number of motor ambulances and I gathered from my two companions that the fighting round Ypres, especially since Sunday, has been of the most desperate character. Our casualties have been very heavy the men having suffered greatly from the poisonous gases which the Germans are using. We have had to draw back our line considerably in order to shorten the dangerous salient which it formed beyond Ypres.
I lunched at headquarters and all of the staff whom I met were extremely kind. The officer commanding the IV Division is Major General Wilson, who is reported to be a good officer and a nice man. The staff are magnificently accommodated in a fine old Flemish chateau surrounded by a handsome park and wood. I thought that they were rather courting destruction by inhabiting a spot which must be so clearly marked on the enemy’s maps. They had only moved in on the previous day and during the night about 40 shells had landed in the neighbourhood. The Fourth d ivision has been split up temporarily. The two brigades of infantry had been moved from Steenweke to Ypres about a week previously and the 10th brigade especially had been cut up very badly. The staff and divisional troops had been left at La Menegothe six or seven miles from Armentieres. The artillery (32nd Brigade RFA) was due to arrive at Popecinque about seven o’clock in the evening, and I was handed over to the army service cops officer who was to lead them into camp so that I could report myself to the Colonel commanding.
I was feeling very seedy and a bad sick headache, having got, I think, a touch of the sun while waiting in the station at the rail head. Davis the A.S.C. officer was very kind and took me to the doctor and lent me his bed to lie on for an hour or two. By eight o’clock I was feeling sufficiently recovered to go over to the headquarters of the 32nd brigade RFA which was camped in an adjacent field.
I reported myself to Colonel Macarthy and dined with him and his staff. They all seemed very nice fellows and the colonel is, I believe, very popular with the whole brigade. One of the servants unpacked my sleeping bag and I did not delay to turn in. It was a beautiful warm summer weather and I lay for some time gazing at the stars and enjoying the beauty of the night. Close to us were the horse lines and along the neighbouring road from time to time a long line of transport wagons would go rattling past on their way up to the firing line. In the distance I could hear the muttering of many guns. Then the Germans started to shell Poperinghe with their heavy guns. First of all there would be a dull report followed by a noise like an underground train only hurtling through the air towards us and last of all a terrific explosion as the shell burst in the town about a mile away. They continued to shell Poperinghe at intervals throughout the night and at times the gunfire in the direction of Ypres became very heavy.
I heard that hill 60 had been lost and recaptured in the course of the afternoon. I am afraid that the infantry have been having a terrible time. The night was warm but the dew very heavy. If this weather continues living out of doors will be no hardship.
Friday 7 May
I breakfasted with headquarters and afterwards the adjutant told me to join the 134th battery which was encamped in a neighbouring field. I went over and reported myself to Major Ward who is in command. Spent a pleasant but idle day. My brother officers are Lieuts. Barclay and Skelton, regular officers, and Thatcher, Gale and Parsons, temporary commissions people like myself.
Saturday 8 May
Left camp at 7.45 with Major Ward to reconnoiter a gun position for the battery. The Colonel, Adjutant, Major Hawksley commanding 135th battery, his orderly officer, a subaltern from the ammunitions column and about a dozen horse holders completed the party, regardless of the fact that one shell would have annihilated the lot and that the reconnaissance would have been carried out equally well by two officers one from each battery. We rode via headquarters of IV Division in the chateau of Flamentinghe across country to the chateau of Reigesverg on the western outskirts of Ypres. Here we left the horseholders and made our way to a field beside the road that runs along the Eastern side of Ypres up to the canal branching into the ‘Chaussee de Dismule’ (?writing very small and difficult to read) We had some difficult in finding a suitable position as there are a great number of batteries, French, British and Belgian dotted indiscriminately over the countryside. The staff wished to position on the north side of the canal where the Canadian batteries are in action, but the gun positions there being exploded on both flanks owing to the salient which our line faces around Ypres, Colonel Macarthy on the advice of Major Ward prevailed on them to let us come into action on the south bank. The position finally chosen by Major Ward was along an irregular hedge at right angles to the road and about 150 yards distant from the Chaussee de B and the canal. Rather too close to the crossroads for safety for they, of course are carefully registered by the German artillery. While selecting the position we came on two occasions under shrapnel fire intended for a neighbouring battery. I was rather frightened but not as much as I had expected. We took shelter in a tumbledown farm, the interior of which was in a lamentable state of disorder. It had evidently been tenanted by some Algerian tirailleurs who had left evidently in a great hurry, for portions of their uniform, half cooked coffee beans, a new pair of rubber boots, various other articles of equipment were lying about the yard and in the rooms. The windows had been shattered by shell fire, the furniture broken up for firewood and all the cherished belongings of some hardworking Flemish forcibly scattered pell mell in desolate disarray. Such indeed is the condition of all the dwelling places in the neighbourhood. Doors have been torn from their hinges to form roofs for dugouts. The fine town of Ypres is itself little more than a heap of tenantless ruins among which meander stragglers from the army or half-starved dogs and cats. In the farm byre were two cows and their calves, and one of the poor little beasts, glad doubtless to see a human face, followed me about bellowing sadly. On all hands is desolation, ruin and death. Every square yard of ground is planted with shell holes.
I picked up a boot and dropped it again the next moment in disgust, for it still contained a bloody foot. Close to our gun position was a little wooden cross commemorating the grave of “five unknown French soldiers” killed on May 5th only three days previously. The roar of artillery, the hacking of machine guns and riflers make day and night hideous. A continual stream of wounded infantry asses in mournful procession along the road, crossing fresh troops trudging unwillingly toward the inferno beyond the canal. We picked up one poor fellow who had fallen on the road and could go no further. He had been blown into the air by a high explosive shell and suffered some internal injury being in the greatest pain. All round our position were some gigantic circular pits made by the famous German 17 inch shells. They are at least 40 feet in diameter and sometimes 20 feet deep.
We paraded at 6.45 and I led the battery past the chateau of Flamentinghe along the Britten road and then across the corduroy tracks which the engines have built to the chateau of Reigesburg where Major Ward met us as arranged. The chateau with its conical steeple is typical of the country. It is surrounded by a cluster of tall trees. I rode into the grounds in search of the Major. In the shadows of the trees it was almost dark. A ghost like lake shrouded in black shows, lay close to the house, and on it a punt with the oars and cushions lying in disorder as though abandoned suddenly. In the chateau iself was no living soul. The windows were shattered and within as everywhere else all was in disorder in what a few weeks before had been the happy home of some rich Flemish landowner. It was almost dark when we reached our gun stations. The guns were … in the position they were to occupy along the hedge and we set to digging gun pits. The pits are dug about two feet deep and the guns were put there with their muzzles sticking through the hedge. In fact they are protected by sand bags. On each side are covered pits one for the detachment and one for ammunition. The Germans burst several small shells over us when the …were dumping their ammunition. It seems that they were firing at the road along which a number of ammunition and transport wagons ran making a terrific din on the cobblestones. The effect of shell fire at night is particularly terrifying, we only had two men slightly wounded. At one AM the Major sent me back to the …line with Clarke and another man to fetch some more telephones. On some rising ground near Flamentinghe I could see the German star shells bursting in a horseshoe on three sides, and realized what a dangerous salient is formed by our position. Flamentinghe was another city of the dead, its shattered church spire standing our sadly against the sky of a summers night. .Dawn saw me back at the battery. All the guns had been dug in save the right gun of the right section. They had been delayed by turning up a dead horse and had to start a fresh pit in order to escape from the aroma. It is hard to dig anywhere in this country without turning up the decaying remains of a human being or an animal, too often, alas, the former.
Sunday 9 May
A quiet day. In the morning we registered the area over which we may be required to shoot in the event of an attack.Parsons and I dug ourselves a commodious dugout as henceforth we have to live underground like worms and other loathsome beasts. Received two sweet letters from Ettie, also a respirator which I fear will not be much good. There was a heavy bombardment by the allied artillery in the afternoon to which the Germans did not reply. News has arrived that the French are making a great effort between Arras and Lens having succeeded in capturing a number of German trenches while the British have broken through at Laventie.
The noise of guns firing all round is very trying and gives me a headache after a time. Living underground also is not all bliss, as one finds worms, beetles and other denisons of the earth peering resentfully at the intruders on their domain from tiny holes in the walls of the dugout, or crawling slimily across one’s face as if intent in forcing a passage down the nostrils or ears.
It is curious to see birds nesting in the midst of this inferno, and as I rode back from the wagon line at dawn the air was alive with their song.
Monday 10 May
Rode down in the morning in order to shift the wagon lines to their new position. Things seem a bit quieter but the Germans are playing their usual game of dropping a lot of high explosive shells into Ypres, and have set what remains of the town on fire in several places. I walked in to have a look at the cloth hall during the afternoon but did not get very close as the Germans were shelling it, and one of them splattered me with mud and thick dust. They continued to shell Ypres all day apparently from sheet “frightfulness”, and with the object of burning it down for so soon as the town was well alight in several places they stopped. A moderate wind was blowing from the north west before which the flames spread rapidly. As night came on the whole sky was lighted up by the crimson flames in the midst of which stood out the jagged remains of the cathedral and the cloth hall while clouds of black smoke trailed off into the night. As each fresh building took fire a cloud of sparks shot angrily up into the air; in other quarters I could see the flames lapping around the spires of churches and other tall buildings. Walking along the canal bank I penetrated into the outskirts of Ypres. Never have I seen such desolation combined with evidence of former prosperity. Row after row of tenantless houses shattered and wrecked. The Germans must have dropped not hundreds but thousands of shells into the town for not a house has escaped, and the streets are all pock marked with shell holes. A shell had shattered some great lock quarter close beside me. Down this canal only a few months before the rich produce of Flanders had drifted in fat barges down to the sea, now the dead bodies of men and horses are the water’s only freight.
With what object the Germans shell Ypres so furiously it is hard to say. They prevent us billeting troops in the town, and all the transport of food and ammunition to the trenches has to skirt the town and pass by devious routes, but it is hard to believe that these paltry inconveniences justify such and expenditure of ammunition.
We are very much tried by receiving every few hours contradictory orders, so that after Major Ward has spent hours registering a zone at great risk to his life, he is ordered to switch into a new area. It is the same old story of bad staff work. We seem to be muddling through this war just as we have muddled through so many in the past, escaping disaster only thanks to the excellent qualities of the rank and file. We have been now in our present position for three days and nights, the situation is admitted to be critical, and we have done so far nothing but register zones off which we are switched as fast as we have got on to them.
A heavy German shell, I should say an eight inch, came over while we were at tea falling just to the left of the brigade headquarters. A bit later the Germans started to shell the road in rear of our positions pretty heavily with “coal boxes”, so called by our men because they shoot a dense cloud of black smoke fifty or sixty feet up into the air. We had to take cover as large splinters were flying around. The Germans had put the fear of God into some wagon teams of the 100th battery which is in action across the canal, for they came galloping down the road on their return journey at the most reckless pace.
I sent one of the gunners out in search of a cow for the mess and he returned with quite a good specimen. There are quantities of the poor beasts wandering unmilked and forsaken on the far side of the canal. Only too many alas have been wounded and maimed by shell fire, while scores lie dead and add to the dreadful aroma of putrefaction which hangs about the countryside. Close to our gun position are some very fine greenhouses, or rather their remains covering an area, I should say, of at least a quarter of a square mile. Half a dozen heavy shells have sufficed to shatter all the glass and to lay them in various plants, vines, flowers and fruits of all kinds are withering and perishing for want of care and warmth. In one hour however, I found some beautiful white marechal roses growing like a memory of peace.
The road in rear of our position was shelled again heavily about and one gun of a Belgian battery was put out of action. Tonight Ypres is burning more furiously than ever, and as if nothing could satisfy their lust for destruction the Germans continue to pour heavy shells into the town.
Tuesday 11 May
A quiet day spent for the most part in doing nothing. Our new Captain Burnett Stuart by name joined the battery. He seems a nice fellow and has come from the ammunition column.The weather continues fine and life out of doors is very pleasant.
Wednesday 12 May
In the afternoon Major Ward took me with him in order to point out to me the way to the observing station and the position of the telephone wire leading from the battery to it. It is a long way nearly two and a half miles across country pitted with shell holes, intersected with trenches and foul with the rotting carcasses of cows and horses. All the villages and farm houses have been shelled until they are mere ruins. One of the worst sufferers is Wieltze which lies just behind our lines, and in which nothing but a few sheltered walls an piles of masonry remain of the erstwhile prosperous village.
The observing station is situated in a trench on a ridge to the north east of Wielze and commands an uncertain view of the German position in the area covered by our battery. We were sniped at as we looked over the trench but as the range to the German trenches is nearly 1000 yards, we had little to fear. Indeed one is quite as likely to be hit by one of the numerous stray bullets that are always flying about, as by an aimed shot.The countryside is in a terrible mess being littered with rifles, equipment, rations, clothes and dead bodies which testify to the desperate nature of the fighting that has taken place in the past few weeks.
In the evening after dusk, I had to lay a loop line, a by no means easy task in the dark and which I did not finish until near midnight.
Thursday 13 May
Woken up at 4AM by the shout of “battery action”. A miserable morning, cold and raining hard. The Germans were reported to be attacking in force the positions held by the 18th Huzzars and the East Lankashire regiment, and our instructions were to break up any masses that might attempt to form on our front. We continued to fire throughout the whole day expending over 1500 rounds, but it is impossible to say whether we did damage commensurate with an expenditure of ammunition. Major Ward, who spent the day in the observing station told us that at one time the Germans elected to climb out of their trenches on the front known as “the Chinese wall”, and tried to advance but that they beat a precipitate retreat when we opened on them with shrapnel, leaving some of their number behind on the ground.
In other parts of the front the Germans made several determined attacks throughout the day. They shelled the trenches held by the 18th Huzzars with their heavy howitzers until they had blotted them out, when they attacked and occupied them. They were, however, counter-attacked immediately and driven out again. The 18th Huzzars are said to have been cut up badly. The Germans played the same game with the East Lanks and here again two reserve companies counter-attacked and drove them back to their own trenches. A very large number of wounded men passed down the road in the course of the day. They presented a sad and melancholy spectacle, muddy, ragged and without equipment they walk unsteadily for the most part with a dazed and horrified look in their eyes. This is due to the effect of heavy shell fire which is more than men can stand. I had to start at 7.30PM to lay a new telephone line to the observing station – a terrible job. It was still raining in torrents and the mud was so slippery that it was hard to stand up. I had bombardier Clarke and two men with me. We had to cross the canal again and then run up on the right of the main road to the dressing station and thence to the observing station, a distance in all of about 2 and a half miles. It was very difficult on this wet and dark night.
Repeatedly I fell into shell holes, ditches or stumbled over dead horses and cows. Infantry were creeping in grey columns along the roads to the trenches, many of they with sacks wrapped around their heads and shoulders to keep off the pitiless rain.
All went fairly well until we arrived at the dressing station farm. Here we had to crawl across the newly turned graves of those who had died at the station and above whose graves wordless crosses had been erected by the pious attendants. Men were wandering to and fro like shadows in the darkness, lighted up for a moment in the jagged glare of the German star lights. Wounded men were being carried on stretchers to the motor ambulances waiting in the road, along which an infantry regiment was slowly winding toward the trenches. Their officers were passing word down in whispers that they must all throw themselves flat on their faces if flares went up as they were approaching the trenches. Every night machine guns which are trained upon certain spots along which the relieving troops must pass, or the snipers rifles, take their toll. All around us could be heard the “zip piss” of rifle bullets for the German snipers give no rest by day or by night. One bullet struck the road within a foot of me as we were laying the wire. No lights might be shown and no voices raised near the farm, or the Germans would probably open fire on it with artillery. The poor wounded. It is not until many hours after they have been hit, and they are eight or nine miles behind the firing line, that they are safe from shell fire. In fact the dressing stations which are necessarily in buildings are veritable shell traps.
I was uncertain of the way to the observing station after leaving the farm; Corporal Clarke however averred that he knew it. We laid about half a mile of wire accordingly across open country in the direction which he indicated, with great difficulty, however, because the succession of flares was almost incessant and on each occasion a number of bullets whizzed unpleasantly close to us. Then as we had lost our way and it was obvious that we were approaching the front line trenches and were in full view of the enemy I ordered the men to roll up the wire and to make their way back to the farm. I then made a further reconnaissance during which I was pursued by snipers like a hunted animal and being unable to find the observing station, and being now out after a 24 hour day, wet through and caked with mud I ordered the party back to the billet with the object of making a fresh start at dawn. Luckily Hutton who was going up to the observing station in the morning relieved me of this unpleasant task.
I had to scrape the mud off my hands and clothes with a knife before I could get into my sleeping bag.
Friday 14 May
A quiet day. Part of the morning was spent in registering new targets. The weather is still rather wet and unpleasant.
Saturday 15 May
Another quiet and fine day. I found a beautiful garden of tulips of which I picked a bowl for the mess. I also collected some bulbs which it is my intention to send home to Mrs. Capel Cure to be planted in the garden at the Grange. The battery band held a concert in the evening in the sergeants’ mess which adjoins ours. It was extremely good disclosing much musical talent and several very good voices. Sergeant Renny, of my section, and Gunner Dunn have both of them fine natural tenor voices. Several topical songs were sung some of which had been written by men in the battery and set to popular airs. The part singing was also very pretty and at times pathetic.
The concert was altogether a great success, and we enjoyed it all the more because we had an issue of rum of which we partook only too freely.
The cows are milking very well now and give nearly two dixies (?) full each day. One of them has a bad eye having received a shell splinter in it. The doctor gave me today some disinfectant in which to bathe it and the poor beast seemed to obtain considerable relief as the result of its application.
Sunday 16 May
We were turned out at 4AM for battery action, and were kept hanging about shooting and registering until after nine o’clock. After breakfast I had a splendid bath in a large wooden tub which Rogers my servant had filled with hot water and placed in the loft. This is the first time that I have had my clothes off since leaving Havre a fortnight ago. Later on in the morning I walked into the town of Ypres with Stuart, our new Captain. I have never seen such destruction. Great holes 14 feet deep and thirty in diameter pit the streets, while the fonts of the houses have been rent asunder leaving open to the eyes of all the sacred interior of many an erstwhile happy home. Not a single street and not a single house has escaped. The cathedral and the cloth hall are both in ruins. Above the former hovered a flock of doves, as if to remind mankind that there was once a time when peace reigned on earth. The sacred images have been thrown down from their niches and lie broken in the dust. Dogs wander homeless among the ruins, the nauseous smell tells too surely the tale of many bodies buried beneath the ruins. In one house on the outskirts which we visited, we found everything left just as if had been when the first shells put its inhabitants to flight. It was a happy summer villa with a large garden in which many fair flowers are blooming. Women’s clothes were lying about in the bedrooms, music was scattered round a shattered piano; the body of a large and valuable sheep dog lay in one corner of the drawing room.
Nothing living remains in Ypres save a few half-starved dogs and cats whose disconsolate cries as they wander in search of food, are the only sounds to be heard in the city. The bodies of dead horses are to be met with in most streets. In days after the battle towards the end of April, Canadian soldiers driven mad by shellfire and horror, wandered amid the flames and ruins firing at every living person whom they met. At the entrance by which we entered Ypres was the remains of a travelling circus; the heads of the shattered roundabout horses grinned as if in mockery of the tragedy around them.
Monday 17 May
A wet day which passed quietly, there being little to do but read. |I went in search of some candlesticks for the mess and finally found a pair in a long row of flats just beyond the canal to the west of our billet. One end of the buildings had been completely wrecked and the others all abandoned and more or less ruined. I will take this opportunity of describing our billet at the farm which lies on the right hand side of the road skirting the west of Ypres and which joins up with the “Chaussee de Dismonde” about 100 yards beyond and just south of the canal. It is a two- storied white-washed building, the upper part consisting of a high and roomy loft, and the lower of two fair sized rooms, and a third room slightly raised above the others and approached by a small flight of stairs. The first of these rooms was used as the sergeant’s and the second as our mess. Beyond is a cowshed in which we kept our two stalled kine. The place is devoid of furniture save for some chairs, a wooden dresser containing much china, a large table which I had caused to brought fom a neighbouring house, the inevitable china image of the virgin – I may add in parenthesis that no house in this part of Flanders is without its crucifix and image of the Madonna. The ruin is very dirty; the windows are all broken, the ceiling in holes, and a large part of the wall of my room which gives onto the high road has been demolished by a shell. We have to put blankets over the windows to hide the lights and keep out the draughts at night. The cooks are installed in a little outhouse at the back, while our kits are stowed in various parts of our living room.
Tuesday 18 May
Rained out of my dugout at about 6.30AM. The rain continued to fall heavily throughout the morning. I made my way, after breakfast, to a farm about one mile to the south of Ypres where I succeeded in buying nine new laid eggs from an old Flemish woman. After lunch Barclay and I went for a walk through the northern quarter of Ypres. Here the havoc is even more appalling than in the southern districts. We examined several of the houses, and in each saw the same old, tragic picture of ruined homes with treasured belongings of the inmates scattered in rank disorder. In one place a 17 inch shell had made a direct hit on a house and nothing remained where the house had been save a deep pit surmounted by debris. We went into one very fine place; on the large coach doors were the words “La maison de Monsieur Le Juge d’Instruction”. The doors, which were intact, being locked we had to climb through the window of the porter’s room. The house was large and richly furnished, but was now in disorder and more or less ruined. The oak panelled dining room with all its furniture was wrecked. The candelabras in the drawing room were smashed, and the wall scarred with shrapnel bullets and shell splinters. The safe in the judge’s private room had been broken open and his papers scattered about the floor. Upstairs, in a fine bedroom, we found the clothes and other personal belongings of the judge’s wife, scattered about on the floor and on the large four poste bed. She must have been fat and middle aged to judge by her toilettes. A prosperous Flemish hausfrau not without her share of feminine vanity as a fantastic Spanish hair comb and sundry stray locks testified. She had also abandoned a lot of quite new underlinen of a solid cut and some handkerchiefs. I fear alas that she had shirked her full duty to the community, for there was also a vaginal syringe of sinister aspect, but then she may have seen enough of the law to make her hesitate to bring yet more little lawyers into the world.We returned to the battery just in time to find the two battery cows being led off by a band of blue coated Belgian brigands who call themselves engineers. The battery had turned out to a man to die, if necessary, in defence of these faithful milkgivers, and a riot threatened. The Belgians were determined to carry off the beasts and produced a written order authorizing them to carry off all abandoned cattle. I pointed out that the kine in question were not abandoned but were receiving every care and attention, so after a protracted argument they agreed to waive their claims.
Corporal Clarke was wounded by shrapnel outside the dressing station farm while laying a telephone wire. The wound, a nasty one in the calf, is not dangerous. He will be no loss to the battery.
Wednesday 19 May
A wet day spent in doing nothing. The band paraded in the evening dressed in kilts and highland caps which they had obtained from the military police. They marched up and down the road playing popular airs to the great amusement of ourselves and of a Belgian battery up the road. They had found a large churn amid the ruins. One of the parchments being broken they very ingeniously shaved a goat skin which they had found in the inn, and stretched it across the churn with excellent results. They now have sixteen mouth organs, two drums, a mandolin and a violin. Our men are a jolly lot, N.C.Os and men fraternizing with each other on the best of good terms.
Tuesday 20 May
A fine and hot day. Went up to the observing station with Stuart after breakfast, where save for some promiscuous sniping we passed a quiet day. The observation trench smells very bad. An unfortunate infantry officer who had not had his clothes off was sleeping in it, thinking himself in heaven compared to what he had experienced in the first line trenches. He had a thick beard and looked very ill and dishevelled. Poor infantry! Their lot is indeed terrible.
Returned to the battery about 5PM. I am glad to read in the newspapers that Churchill is to be turned out of the Admiralty, as I have always considered him a most rash and dangerous politician quite unfit to have the fate of our fleet and consequently of our existence in his hands. This talk of a coalition govt. Seems to portend conscription – probably this is a condition imposed on us by Italy as a reward for her cooperation in the war.
This evening I had the good fortune to witness the rare sight of a German aeroplane being brought down by one of our anti-aircraft guns. The German machine was flying above our positions at a height of some 6000 feet, and the anti-aircraft gun was firing at him from the road which runs parallel with our position about 400 yards to the rear. I happened to be watching the scene from my dugout, where I was standing waiting for the aeroplane to depart before walking across to the billet. The blue sky all round the monoplane was dotted by white patches of bursting shrapnel, which at that distance look like balls of cotton wool. At last I saw a flash just above the machine, which the next instant swerved and dived vertically toward the earth leaving a trail of dark blue smoke behind it. After falling about 1000 feet, the machine appeared to loop a complete loop and then to right itself for it glided for a time on a fairly even plane, only to plunge again and fall like a stone among some trees beyond the canal where the Turco’s trenches are.
Friday 21 May
Another quiet day spent in reading and idling. Went into Ypres with Stuart in the afternoon and took a number of photographs of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall. Most of the houses on the outskirts have suffered more or less severely from the German bombardment but it is only when one gazes upon the collected ruin of the whole town from some vantage point that one realizes the dreadful significance of militarisms latest crime. Before the war Ypres was one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities of Flanders, sheltering under the wings of its great Gothic cathedral some 30 or 40 thousand deeply religious and industrious people, if a little addicted to beer drinking and the pleasures of the table. Ypres suffered much from the bombardment which accompanied the first great battle fought in the neighbourhood during the latter half of October and the beginning of November, but only isolated buildings had been demolished and when the fresh German assault upon the allied position began some three weeks ago, life had resumed almost its usual course and the streets of the city were thronged with peaceful Flemish citizens and British troops. Today Ypres is in ruins; the cathedral and the incomparable cloth hall stand mere skeletons, their noble outlines still shewing the glory that was theirs; fifty thousand German shells have destroyed every house in the town and those of its 30,000 burghers and their families who did not perish in the first cataclysm are driven penniless and mourning into foreign lands.
It was sheer spite which caused the Germans to turn the torrent of their heavy artillery onto the open town. Baffled fury because the allies had broken their latest offensive movement on its outskirts. Excuses might have been found for them if any military purpose had been gained thereby, but they stood to gain nothing by this wave of destruction. Indeed if these 50,000 heavy shells had been rained upon the sorely tried infantry in our trenches, they might have attained a far greater measure of success.
I am not exaggerating when I state that in the course of my long and repeated wanderings throughout the length and breadth of the town I found not one single building remaining intact. The streets themselves are pitted with holes made by shells of all calibres, from the humble 3 inch of the field gun to the gigantic 17in howitzer high explosive which leaves a crater thirty feet in diameter and 15-20 feet deep. The force of the explosion had, in some cases where a direct hit had been obtained, demolished the whole house, but where a large shell had burst in the roadway the result was generally to rip off the face of a building as though with a knife-razor. It is wonderful and very sad to see so many prosperous middle class homes exposing in section all the sacred belongings of their inhabitants to the vandalous eye of every idle passer-by. In most cases the inhabitants had fled with precipitation leaving even their most treasured and intimate effects in the greatest disarray. Here was a woman’s bedroom with her clothing lying about in every part, letters scattered over the floor, the bed unmade as though its occupant had been asleep when the storm broke, and had rushed to fling on some clothes and seize a few possessions at random and flee into exile. Here again was the remains of a drawing room with the piano in two pieces and music scattered about the floor, or a kitchen with the pots and pans still standing over long burned-out fires.
Each of these homes which represented the fruit of generations of patient industry had been destroyed wantonly by a few minutes bombardment.
The square in which the cathedral and cloth hall are situated looks as though it had been visited by a violent earthquake, save that no natural phenomenun could account for the craters with which the paved street is pitted. In one of these pits directly before the cathedral doors I counted the mutilated remains of ten dead horses and three times their number could have found place in this grave. The outer framework of the cathedral is still standing, but the walls are pierced in many places, little remains of the roof, a shell has demolished the altar and the images of Christ and his saints lie broken and neglected in the dust.
The cloth hall is in an even more pitiful condition, and when one looks at the delicate outline of its remains still dignified and beautiful in their ruin, it is hard to restrain one’s fury at the thought that all this havoc has been caused needlessly and ruthlessly. Even now that the city is in ruins and aflame in all its quarters the Germans continue to pour tons of high explosive projectiles into this inferno of their own making. Surely it is the action of some mortally wounded wild heart, that madly gnaws and rends all that comes within its grasp, tearing up even the earth in its death agony and .
While I was in Ypres I saw no living person, but the unpleasant aroma which hangs about the streets, tells, alas too surely, that many human bodies lie buried beneath the ruins of their homes. There are, too, dead horses lying everywhere with abandoned and famished curs gnawing at their putrid flesh while lean cats crawl weakly about the ruins wailing sadly like children in pain. Yet round the tower of the cathedral there hovered a flock of doves, even the German shell fire having been unable to drive them from their usual haunts. A night an occasional shot is to be heard in the town. It comes from the rifle of a Canadian for a number of these have fellows driven mad by the horrors of the fighting took refuge in the city where they lurk in cellars or amid the ruins, firing on all who attempt to approach their place of refuge. For the past two days and nights the city has been in flames. A vast sheet of fire has swept from north to south before the rising wind, while dark clouds of smoke trail across the scene until lost and merged into the night. Whenever some fresh building takes fire, a tongue of flame capped by a halo of sparks shoots high in the air. It is a grandiose spectacle, such as is given happily to men to see but seldom: the giving over to destruction by barbarians of the fruits of centuries of civilization.
As if nothing could satiate the lustful fury of the Germans they still pour shells into the heart of the flames where nothing living could exist.
Saturday 22 May
A beautiful day. The newspapers note that Italy has joined the triple entente. This should, I trust, shorten the desecration of the war considerably. Spent a pleasant afternoon reading and sleeping in Tatiana’s Bower, as we have christened a little garden overgrown with grass and wild flowers close beside our inn. After tea Stuart and I walked down to the wagon line. The country all round is rather bad, as there have been thousands of men and horses camped upon it for months. In the evening an amusing incident occurred. The sergeant major came to me and reported that the goat which had attached itself to the battery had eaten a number of official documents including the pay sheets. I reported this alarming accident to the major who sent me to ascertain exactly what the goat had eaten. I called the pay corporal and he, drawing himself up and saluting, reported in his best official manner:“The goat, Sir, has eaten a packet of army forms, and all the official summaries for the month of August last.”Someone suggested to the major that the animal might be tethered in the mess and used as a waste paper basket.
At eleven PM, just as we were turning in, the French on our left treated us to a fine spectacular scene. They suddenly opened a terrific artillery fire on the German positions with both heavy artillery and field guns. A thunder storm rolling down from the North added its rumbling to the tumult, but the continuous and deafening roar of the artillery dwarfed the spasmodic clashes of thunder, which were indeed scarcely audible amidst the tumult of the guns. The sky was lighted up by bursting shells, star lights, and flashes of forked lightning which seemed to split the very heavens asunder. After half an hour the tumult died away, and only the usual sound of sniping and occasional gunfire was to be heard. I cannot understand how infantry can stand such an inferno of shell fire which fills even an observer with mingled terror and nerve.
What a change has come over the world!!
Twelve months ago the most extravagant and luxurious London season ever known was at its height. Balls at the Ritz were taking place nightly.
Where is the Russian Opera, Covent Garden, the concerts and all the old life. Gone for ever I am afraid.
Whit Sunday 23 May
A quiet day. A parson arrived on the scene in the morning and held a service in Tatiana’s Bower. It was a gloomy performance for he possesses a flat voice and insipid personality. I rode down to the wagon line with Barclay in the afternoon and had tea there. The weather is turning very hot. Poor Barclay he little dreamed of what the morrow had in store for him.
Whit Monday 24 May
I hope that I shall never spend another Whit Monday such as this has been. At 3AM we were turned out by the familiar shout of “battery action.” A message had come from Hutton at the forward observing station to say that the Germans were attacking our trenches under cover of a dense cloud of gas over forty feet high. We at once opened at “battery fire two seconds” in order to make a curtain of shrapnel in front of our positions through which it would be impossible for the Germans to advance. A few minutes later I became conscious of an acrid smell, rather like a tincture of ammonia and ether, to which I did not attach much importance deeming it impossible that the effects of gas could be felt seriously at a distance of four thousand yards from the German trenches. The smell became stronger, however, until in a short time I found myself reeling and staggering like a drunken man. The sergeant major ran past me shouting,“Everybody put their respirators on.”I ran in search of mine but it was some minutes before I could find it. I longed to be miles away from these suffocating fumes to somewhere where the air was pure.
As I came out of the billet with my respirator I met the major who told me that as the wire to the observing station had gone I was to take two telephonists in order to reinstall communication with Hutton. My orders were to proceed along the old line. I set forth in fear and trembling, thinking that all must be up with the infantry since, if we to the south were almost overcome by the gas, how was it possible for anyone to survive north of the canal. It was by now nearly four AM and broad daylight. On reaching the far bank of the canal by way of one of the pontoons, I could see German shells bursting in clusters all over the countryside . They employ an impressive quantity of high explosive in order to interrupt the communications of the enemy.
The roads leading toward the trenches were littered with infantry who had been overcome more or less by the gas fumes, which were especially strong about the canal banks and other low lying ground. These men were all supports who were endeavouring to make their way up to the front trenches. I could tell from the heavy rifle and machine gunfire that our infantry were still holding their trenches, but could not understand how this was possible after the terrible gassing that they had had. When I reached the observing station farm situated about a quarter of a mile from our observing station, I realized that the Germans were employing a quantity of gas shells, which accounted for the fumes being so deadly at such a distance from the front line trenches. From two to three hundred men were sitting or lying round the farm, which was a veritable death trap lying as it did in a hollow into which the Germans were dropping high explosive shells filled with gas at the rate of about ten a minute. First one would hear a noise as of several underground trains approaching, then one after another would come terrific shocks and reports while clouds of dust, sticks and smoke shot some fifty feet into the air. Out of the heart of these terrible explosions crept vicious gas fumes of a grey, yellowish hue, which clinging close to the ground spread out in an ever broadening belt of poison. Both my telephonists were overcome temporarily, and I saw that it was impossible to reach the observing station along the old line, the Germans having drawn a belt of gas shells across the valley in order to prevent our supports reaching the trenches. I felt sick and dizzy mastering with difficulty a desire to lie down and go to sleep. I felt in fact as if I was being slowly chloroformed. Leaving the two telephonists at the farm I made my way onto some high ground to the Eastward, where the shells did not appear to be falling quite so quickly. There I met Major Hawkesley commanding the 135th battery, who told me that he did not think it possible to reach the observing station at present. At this moment while I was debating what to do, Major Ward arrived on the scene and with him Barclay who had ridden up from the wagon line when he heard the sounds of a great battle. They brought news that Hutton had been wounded. The Major, realizing that it was impossible to repair the old line, ordered me to join it to the new line and to establish an intermediate station close to the pond about 300 miles (?yards) to the S.E. of Dressing Station Farm. For this purpose he sent with me gunner Kelly, a young telephonist. We had just connected the two lines and were sitting in a shallow dug out which was filled with every sort of indescribably filth left by the infantry, when the Germans opened a very heavy shellfire on this particular sector of the ground. In the course of half an hour they dropped some fifty high explosive shells – about 8 in – filled with chlorine gas in our immediate neighbourhood, many of which deluged us with earth, stones and debris. When the bombardment had abated somewhat I made my way up the line to see whether it was intact. I had eaten nothing since the previous night it was now 10AM and I had been in the gas since dawn. Weak as I was the gas fumes had almost overcome me. I felt sick and dizzy and longed to lied down and sleep, being in fact, only half possessed of my senses.
I found that a ? had burst near the air line and blown about ten yards of it away. I had no spare wire, or tools of any sort on me save a blunt knife. Fortunately after some searching I was lucky enough to find some spare wire on the ground, even then it took me nearly half an hour to repair the line owing to the bluntness of the knife which the telephonist had lent me, and during the whole of this time I was subjected to the fire of high explosive and shrapnel shells. Many infantry were straggling down the road from the front trenches, all of them either wounded or suffering from gas poisoning. Many had lain down beside the road being unable to proceed any further. Nor is it possible to collect these wounded stragglers until night time as shell fire on all the roads makes it difficult for motor ambulances to get near the dressing stations where the number of wounded during a big action is so great that no organization can deal with them effectively. After mending the wire I made my way up to the support trenches from which Major Ward was observing, he having been forced to abandon the old observing station owing to the amount of gas in the vicinity. About this time a message came through from the battery to say that they had been obliged to abandon temporarily the guns owing to the quantity of gas shells that the Germans had dropped in the vicinity. At 12 o’clock (noon) the Germans delivered a massed attack upon the Dublins who were holding the line between shell trap Farm and Wyltsche. We could see them coming over the ridge in masses. The Dubliners who in addition to being gassed had been hammered with high explosive shells since dawn and had repulsed already several determined attacks were compelled to fall back leaving a broad gap in the line.
Shortly after this we saw two companies of the Warwicks debouching on our left to deliver a counter attack on shell trap farm, in which the Germans had gained a footing earlier in the day, and which since their latest success lay in rear of their present line. For some reason we sent our infantry up into the firing line so loaded with packs and accoutrement that their mobility is reduced by about 50%. As soon as the Warwicks got out into the open the Germans spotted them and started dropping high explosive stink shells among them, without causing very heavy losses. This perfectly futile attack had been launched by the staff, in ignorance of the fact that the Dublins had been driven out of their trenches, and that in consequence an attack with anything less than a brigade was useless. Luckily it was stopped before the Warwicks had proceeded very far. I cannot describe in detail the remaining events of this memorable day. Despite the fact that the Germans made no further attacks our line was drawn back to the divisional support trenches. The artillery attack did not abate one whit before night fell. I was on the go continually up and down the line until 5PM. I remember noticing in particular the amount of ammunition and rifles that were lying about. Directly a man is hit he proceeds to disembarrass himself of his rifle and equipment. I remember also a shell bursting in the trench not ten yards from where I sat and blowing two men to pieces – and how I thought how pitifully small and weak man seemed in comparison with these death dealing titans of his own creation. The day was swelteringly hot. I could not touch a morsel of food until 5PM owing to the nausea caused by gas fumes, and I suffered considerably from thirst. Towards evening after being violently sick I began to feel better and was able to take some food. Barclay was wounded in the leg early in the day; while he was lying in dressing station farm a shell burst in the room after penetrating the wall but did not injure anybody. I spent the night with Major Ward in the support trenches and had to keep watch until morning. The sun went down blood red, and in the purple half- light the outlines of the twisted poplar trees assumed strange shapes as of animals and giant men. A cow was grazing peacefully amid the ruins of Wyltsche between the German and the British lines, where the fighting had been heaviest. Gradually the noise of battle died away and gave place to the vicious cracking of the snipers’ rifles, the hiss of their bullets as they whizzed past like snakes in the grass. From time to time I could see a vivid flash away in the distance, followed by the boom of a heavy gun, and the zoom of a projectile passing over our heads on its way to the German trenches. I had the greatest difficulty in keeping awake, and I would find my eyes closing and my head falling forward as I tried to count the shadowy infantry as they passed in the moonlight on their way up to the trenches.
Towards dawn all eyes were turned towards the summit of the poplar trees for a sign of their stirring before a south wind which would render a gas attack innocuous. There was no stirring of the tree tops, but luckily neither did the enemy renew his attacks.
Monday 31 May
Was woken up at about 6.45 by hearing some heavy German shells bursting in the neighbourhood. I climbed out of my dug out and from the step saw some of the men of the battery running along the hedge from the direction of the billet. Major Ward was, if I remember rightly, standing by his dugout, and I have a faint recollection of his shouting to the men to keep under cover as a German aeroplane was up. I saw Rogers, my servant, crouching close to the hedge and shouted to ask if my bath was ready, having ordered it for seven o’clock the night before. He laughed I remember and said “Bath, you can’t ave no bath sir. The Germans have blown us out of the billet”. Almost at the same time I heard the noise of what I should estimate to have been an eight inch shell approaching. I could tell that it was coming very close, and waited to hear it burst. I never did hear it however, for something struck me a violent blow on the left temple. I remember thinking that the whole shell must have hit me on the head, since I had not heard the sound of its explosion, and that I must be dead. Simultaneously, I realized that this could not be so. I recollect staggering away from the dugout through a cloud of dark shell fumes, a sickening feeling of pain in my head and the blood blinding me and pouring in torrents over my shirt and breeches. I heard Rogers shout out “Mr. Bartlett is hit sir”. Then someone seized me, and after that someone else ran up. I discovered afterwards that they were Gale and Sergeant Dean. They started to carry me Sedan fashion toward the dressing station, but the pain in my head was such that I begged them to put me down and allow me to walk. This they would not do, however, and at the road two more men met us with a stretcher upon which they placed me and carried me down to the Brigade Head Quarters, where Somerville the doctor was waiting. After injecting something into my arm, Somerville at once started to bind up my head. I was shivering with cold, the result of shock, I suppose, and my nerves must have been shaken to pieces for hearing more shells bursting outside I cried out like a child begging the doctor not to let them come near me. I remember holding Gale’s hand. My clothing was deluged in blood, and I was conscious of a dull pain in my left shoulder, and on examination it turned out that I was wounded there, also in the chin, but I had only been conscious of the blow on the head at first. Captain Stuart had been wounded in the shoulder by the same shell, and when I had recovered my senses in a measure I found that he was beside me in the dressing station. As soon as my wounds had been dressed I was carried off on a stretcher to the Chateau de Regesburg, where both Stuart and I were placed in a motor ambulance and driven to Valemtinque. After receiving an injection of anti-tetanus serum, I was placed on a bed until such time as an ambulance could take me on to the clearing hospital at Bailleul. A chaplain came to see me and kindly wrote a letter to Esther telling her that I had been wounded. I was suffering acutely from nausea and was sick repeatedly. About noon an ambulance took me to Bailleul, where, after my blood soaked upper garments had been cut off me I was put into a comfortable bed in a cubicle of what had been formerly the dormitory of a boys’ school. Soon afterwards I was removed to the operating theatre and given chloroform so that the wound above my eye could be sewn up and cleaned. Being chloroformed is a hateful sensation, more than German gas. In a few seconds after I had lost all power of sight, speech, or movement. I could hear the doctors and nurse speaking. It was as though I heard them from beyond the grave. When I came to I was in a lamentable state of nervous excitement.
One of my first impressions on regaining consciousness, was the face of Mr. Asquith, the Premier, who was standing at the foot of my bed, he being at that time on a visit to the British Army. So comical was the expression on his red countenance that I could not restrain my laughter. He has a weak face, and that of a charlatan and man of no convictions – a thoroughly bad and drunken expression. The poor fellow in the cubicle next to me, Lt. Head of the Dublins, was dying from the effects of gas poisoning – a victim of the attack at Ypres on Whit Monday, May 24th. All night he was coughing, choking and crying out in delusion. Who can tell what terrible dreams were passing across his darkened consciousness. They gave him oxygen repeatedly but at 6 in the morning he ceased to cry out and died.
Tuesday 1 June 1915
Was moved to hospital train and taken to Boulogne, leaving Bailleul about 11AM and arriving somewhere round about 5PM, after a comfortable journey. The journey from Bailleul to Boulogne was made as comfortable as possible for the wounded by means of the admirably equipped hospital train in which we travelled. The car in which I was placed, had beds arranged in double tiers, one above the other, and although the heat was unpleasant and the slowness of the train rather tedious, yet such minor inconveniences were merged in the greater joy of travelling once more home to England. The doctor in charge of the train was a dear old fellow, a regular man of the world, full of good cheer, and solicitude for the comfort of what he called his boys. With him were some charming nursing sisters, handsome, strong, magnificent specimens of womanhood. Indeed nothing more impressed me than the nursing sisters that I saw in the military hospitals in France. They were super-women, strong, of magnificent build and proportions, capable of prolonged hard work, always cheerful and full of resource and comfort. I could not help thinking what magnificent children they could rear, were they not, for the most part, cut off from the functions of maternity, owing to the profession which they have adopted.I was taken to no 7 stationary hospital at Boulogne, where I was under the care of Captain Sinclair of the Indian Medical Service, a very pleasant gentleman and efficient surgeon. He had been with the Coldstream Guard on the retreat from Mons, and had been for some days a prisoner in the hands of the Germans, until released by the French who recaptured the village in which was the hospital where he was working.
Spent the day and night in hospital. Feeling much better.
Friday 18 June
Esther and I left Paddington by the twelve o’clock (noon) train for Salcombe. Mother came round to Manson Place at eleven o’clock to come with us to the station, Mrs. Capel-Cure also coming to see us off. Mother is curious in that she regards me as having been stolen by the Capel-Cures by main force, and looks upon me as one who is dead to her and the family. She jealously guards her old privilege of looking after my clothes, personal belongings and the rest, nor is it easy for me to induce her to part with any of them by sending them round to Manson Place.
A comfortable and rapid journey. It is pleasant to enjoy once more the peace of an English countryside, the roses growing in profusion in the garden, the velarium in wild and vigorous bloom, the green trees, and the water of the creek down below widening to the open sea beyond Bolt Head, produce in me a sensation which is restful and harmonius – a feeling of peaceful contentment which it is useless for me to attempt to describe. This sensation is probably increased by the fact that I am still very weak from my wounds.
Jarvis and Hobbs were both at the gate to welcome us, looking askance at the scars and bandages.“A most ‘orrible dangerous wound” was the latter’s comment “I du ‘ope ee won’t ‘ave to go back again.”
Saturday 19 June
A fine day with rather cold wind from the East. Had a chat with Jarvis in the morning. He says that there has been a scarcity of fish and that it will continue until the prevailing East wind dies away. There are never, he says, any fish to be caught in an East wind, and thinks that they are driven by the cold to deep waters, or lie buried in the sand so that even the trawler’s nets fail to catch them. We got, afterwards, onto the question of spies. He was of the opinion that Salcombe was a hotbed of them, without having formulated in his mind any clear reason why they should infest this secluded, arcadian spot.
“There due be one family, what was out Bakers Well way. They said they was Belgians, but I could see un was Germans. The Missus always would laugh at me, but I told er she would be sorry for it one day. They was most terrible suspicious people. Always reading papers and letters and when you comed upon them sudden like in the lanes they would hide them away and whisper among theyselves. There were a young feller there what give out he were a Dutchman, but ee weren’t no more a Dutchman than I am. You could see by the shifty look in his eyes he were a German. He used to bicycle into Salcombe of a morning for the newspaper and ee would fall on it like a hungry animal. I due ear as now they have disappeared sudden like. Most terrible suspicious persons I call they.”
We visited Dr. Twining in the morning for the sake of having the wound on my chin dressed. He advised lotis ruka (?) in place of fermentation as it was beginning to look fairly clean.In the afternoon Esther, Jarvis and I went out upon the water in the Gannet, the engine of which now runs well after two years of repeated break downs. We went a mile or two out to sea and ran along the coast line to the North. A brisk wind from East made the sea choppy and we did not succeed in keeping altogether dry.
The beacon on Bolt Head is now dark green giving it an unusual hue.
Sunday 20 June
A cold and boisterous East wind, playing havoc among the blown roses, and giving an autumnal appearance to the garden. Spent most of the morning writing an essay with the purpose of proving that war is an unmitigated evil. Visited the Jarvis’ just before lunch. Mrs. Jarvis was very curious saying:“When I seed im with is ead all bound up and that terrible wound on is forehead, it went through my head an spine just like electricity it did.”