Great War diary
We shall probably never know what prompted Clarence Percy Ahier to volunteer for the British Army on 18 October 1915. It may have been for patriotic reasons that the 23-year-old strode into the Army District Office in Rouge Bouillon, along with five chums and signed up for the Royal Artillery. Or perhaps there was a financial motivation behind the decision. The demand for plasterers like Clarence may have declined due to the war, which had been going on for almost 15 months by that time.
It could have been that the death of a family member or close friend affected him, and he sought some kind of revenge on the enemy. Or there may have been a white feather pressed into his hand by a well-meaning but cruelly misguided girl — a sweetheart perhaps or a complete stranger. Whatever the reason, from 18 October 1915 Clarence Ahier was a soldier in the British Army and it was time to leave his island home and go to war.
In 1908 Clarence would have joined the Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey, as a 16-year-old member of the 2nd Battalion, which recruited from five eastern parishes, including Clarence's home of St Clement.
On 30 July 1914 the men of the East Battalion, as it was popularly known, paraded for duty, mobilised by the order of the Lieut-Governor 'in view of the state of feeling among European powers'. War was coming, although Jersey made its first preparations five days before Britain formally declared its intentions to join the conflict.
As a member of the Militia, Clarence had no choice in the matter. Jersey's law was firm: it was the duty of all men between the age of 16 and 45 to defend their Island in times of war, and to train for such duty in times of peace. Immediately after the outbreak of war he also had no choice about where he fought (if it came to that). In August and September 1914 Britain wanted to keep its now strategically important possessions of the south side of the English Channel resolutely defended, while the war of movement on the Continent ran its course.
It was only with the German retreat from Paris after the Battle of the Marne, and indications the epicentre of the fighting was moving north away from Normandy and Brittany, that the British War Office relented and allowed individual and then groups of militiamen to leave Jersey and join the British Army or Royal Navy.
Clarence Ahier decided against volunteering during the early months of the war, when a first recruitment campaign gathered momentum. Not everyone could go — the East Battalion still had to guard some 17 miles of the Island's coastline, from Ronez in the north to Green Island in the south. And Jersey still had to function as a community, with men needed to undertake the day-to-day work, especially in the agriculturally-dominated eastern parishes. The pressure to volunteer would progressively increase as Britain demanded more and more men to expand its army and replace the exponentially growing losses incurred at the front.
The Lieut-Governor, General Alexander Rochfort, championed a second recruitment campaign in the autumn of 1915. On 8 October he and other prominent Island leaders addressed an assembly of the East Battalion drawn up in front of Grouville Arsenal. It was going to be the last time he would ask for volunteers, Rochfort assured the hushed ranks.
If Britain could not find enough men to sustain its armies at the front, Parliament would pass a compulsory military service law forcing men to join up. As a loyal Crown Dependency, Jersey would assuredly have to do the same. Avoid the shame of conscription, the Lieut-Governor urged, by volunteering for the army now. Clarence Ahier may have been present that day listening to the appeals and warnings. Or he may have heard it second hand-over a mug of tea while coming off guard duty. However it was, ten days after the Lieut-Governor's address, he left the Militia and signed up for service in the British Army.
Like millions of other men, the terms accepted were to remain with the colours for the duration of the war. Clarence Ahier would not return to his island home for another four years, one month and one day — a full year after the war ended.
Clarence Ahier chose to keep a diary of his wartime exploits and experiences. In a calm and lucid fashion, he would describe his battles on the Somme and at Passchendaele. He would relate to being wounded, to travelling home on leave, to being transferred to India for garrison duty and to witnessing the nascent shoots of nationalism in the Subcontinent.
For Clarence's forethought, we must be grateful.
Enlisted 18 October 1915, arrived Hilsea Barracks, Portsmouth, fitted with clothing etc and joined 43rd Reserve Battery at Christchurch, Hampshire. Left Christchurch with battery and completed training at Swanage, Dorset. Came home on leave on 21 December, returned to duty on the 28th. Left Swanage for Woolwich and embarked for France at Southampton on 18 February 1916; landing in the early hours of the next morning.
Left Le Havre on the 22nd, and stopped at Rouen for a few hours on the next day. The whole of the next day we spent in the train (cattle trucks) and reached the 23rd Divisional Ammunition Column on the following morning. Left DAC and got posted to the 103 Brigade Headquarters at Lyndes while brigade was at rest. On the march on the 28th, and arrived at Fiefs on the next day.
It was at this period that the French were hard pressed repelling determined massed attacks on Verdun; the fall of which would, no doubt, have altered the whole history of the War, Verdun being the strongest link in the Allied chain, which stretched from Switzerland to the sea.
It will be seen by the above rough sketch that the fall of Verdun would most probably have severed the allied line, the rupture of which would have meant a continuous German line against two naturally weakened Allied forces; but the French, with almost superhuman bravery and determination, held the key, and the enemy onslaughts gradually faded away.
We were on the way to help the French, but when at Fiefs, we had news that the defence had prevailed, and we were not required. We left Fiefs on 7 March and went into action at Carency, which was part of the British line. We had a fairly rough time at Carency; the fighting was not very severe but the weather was very cold, snow and sleet falling every day, which made things rather trying to those of us fresh from comparatively comfortable barrack conditions. On 19 March we left Carency, and arrived at Dieval on the following day, for a much needed rest. We left Dieval on the 24th, and went into action at Bully Grenay, ½ mile to the right of Loos.
I had an experience here which still lingers in my memory; we were on horseback, in half sections, ie two abreast, one man, two horses, and were about 50 yards from a railway bridge when a salvo, (six shells fired simultaneously) crashed just over the bridge. The corporal in charge decided, "after a little observation as to the interval between each salvo" to rush the bridge and chance to luck. All went well until the corporal reached the bridge, when, horror of horrors, his horse stopped on hearing the ever-increasing roar of the next salvo approaching.
Naturally we were following at a gallop, and the sudden stopping of his horse caused us to barge into him, with the result that we were in a hopeless tangle when the shells which were intended for the bridge burst; but the slight miscalculation which caused the German gunners to overestimate the range proved our salvation, the shells falling about 15 yards past their objective, which meant they cleared the bridge by 2 or 3 feet only. 15 yards may seem a lot, but as a splinter from a shell of the calibre which Jerry was using can kill at a quarter of a mile, we were very lucky to get off with no casualties. The only splinter to hit anything was a piece which shattered the pummel of the corporal's saddle.
Needless to say we did not linger to discuss the probability of the next salvo being more accurate, but disentangled ourselves and galloped away. A slight explanation may not be out of place here: A shell which falls short of its objective is more likely to spray it with splinters than one which falls beyond. This fact being caused by the impetus of the flight of the shell. This happened on 1 April, and possibly the leading horse, which had caused all the trouble, could not resist the idea of having a little joke on us.
We continued in action until 19 April, on which date we left for, and arrived at Dieval once more. While we were at Dieval, I was detailed to leave Headquarter Staff and report to C Battery of our brigade, 103rd, (A brigade of field artillery consisted of four batteries, A, B, C, D, the first three batteries being 18 pounder guns, and D battery was a 4.5 inch howitzer battery.)
C Battery was still in action in the vicinity of the bridge at Bully Grenay, and we remained in action until 5 May, when we left for La Thieuloye for rest. Our rest lasted until the 22nd, when we went into action once more in Bouvigny Wood.
A few days afterwards I had occasion to be near a French battery, and was invited to fire a couple of rounds at Jerry from a big French howitzer, which I did with pleasure. A few days later, during an artillery duel in which we were doing our little bit, the Huns landed a big shell in an ammunition dump a little to our rear, which went up with a terrifying roar, the ground shaking as though an earthquake were taking place; several batteries were nearer the dump than we, and suffered heavy casualties. The vicinity of the dump was very unhealthy for some time afterwards, as shells were bursting and flying in all directions.
A few days later, I had to carry a dispatch to our wagon line, (where battery's horses are kept) and had a rather exciting journey dodging shells, but reached destination safely. We came out of action on 16 June and marched to Clarques for rest. We left Clarques on 25 June 25 and marched to Aire, where we entrained for the Somme, arriving at Amiens at 11.30 on Sunday Evening.
After a few hours sleep in the street near our guns, we marched to Belloy-Sur-Somme; stayed there two days, then received orders to march into action, but the order was cancelled as we marched off. We left Belloy on 30 June and arrived at another small village (Great Somme Offensive commenced on 1 July 1916).
We are gradually approaching firing line, and the sky is one blaze of light. On 3 July, while bathing in a brook, we were ordered to dress as quickly as possible, orders having been received for brigade to go in action.
We packed up quickly and went through several villages at a gallop, until we reached a cluster of bricks, stones, timber etc. all that remained of the village of Fricourt, the Huns having evacuated it shortly before. The last 500 yds of our gallop into action was over ground littered with corpses, chiefly British.
The West Yorks, to which these poor chaps belonged, had suffered very very heavily at this spot, and callous though it may seem, we had to gallop over them, the darkness, as well as their number, making it impossible to do otherwise. We were in action soon afterwards, and commenced a bombardment which lasted three days and nights, without any lull whatever.
We managed to keep going by working in reliefs, two men to each gun for three hours, while the remainder were resting. The rest generally consisted of filling sandbags, or humping ammunition.
A few yards to the left front of our battery was a very gruesome reminder of the terrific struggle that Jerry had put up before yielding this ground. I refer to a patch of land about 30 square yards with rough notice boards around bearing this far from happy caution (Human remains, do not dig).
I must go back a couple of days to explain how this came about. For about 12 months before this offensive commenced the British had been mining beneath the enemy trenches, and fixing tons of high explosives beneath the unsuspecting Hun; when everything was ready, and just before the infantry went over the top, on 1 July a button was pressed, and up went hundreds of tons of earth, and hundreds of Germans. The crater formed by the explosion measured, in official figures, 350 feet in diameter and 180 feet deep. All around the lip of the crater were Germans' arms, legs, boots, etc. These were all collected under cover of darkness a huge hole dug, and the lot covered over. This having been done in a great hurry, the remains were not buried deep enough, and the surface of the ground was saturated with blood.
I will now continue where we were in the three-day bombardment, which we commenced on 4 July 1916. This bombardment really lasted until the 16th, when the Hum finally gave up their hold on the village of Contalmaison, and retired 1 or 2 miles on a wide front. Our horses were immediately brought up, and we advanced into the village over a crest in full view of the enemy, who were really too busy getting away to pay much attention to us.
This didn't prevent them from sending over a few at us, but with the exception of a couple of horses, and three men wounded, we reached the village, which was situated in a hollow, little the worse for our mad gallop. We dropped into action and started pouring shells into the retreating Fritzes. He didn't hit back much for a few days, but, when he did, he let us know all about it.
On the morning of our second day in Contalmaison, while we were snatching a mouthful near the gun, I was hit by a shell splinter on the head, which nearly knocked my steel helmet off, and dazed me for a moment. I consider myself very lucky indeed, for this reason. The infantry had been supplied with helmets, but we had not, up to this date. But something told me to pick up one of the many which were strewn all over the ground, and I thank my lucky stars that I did so.
Had I been wearing the ordinary soft cap, I'm afraid my number would have been all up. On this day, 17 July, we were heavily shelled, and lost more men than we could afford. About midday an Australian field kitchen came up on the road just near the battery, and started lighting their fires to prepare food for their men in the trenches; we warned them of the risk, but they only laughed.
In less than 20 minutes after their arrival, all that remained of the kitchens and wagons was bits of scrap iron. A few of the men got away, but many of them were blown to pieces, as the Germans simply rained shells of every description fairly into the midst of them, and so suddenly that few could possibly escape.
We had sampled a few of the Hun gas shells while at Fricourt, but at Contalmaison, he poured them all around us, and also right into us and more men were getting bowled over, and partly blinded with the fumes, which made the eyes sting and ache terribly.
Our only means of protection from gas, in any form, at that period, was the crude, and very uncomfortable H P Helmet, which consisted of a sort of sack, made of coarse grey cloth, saturated in some anti-gas chemical. These helmets were adjusted by unbuttoning the tunic, placing gas bag over the head, tucking the bottom into the tunic, and buttoning up same.
On the night of 18 July, we were shelling for over five hours with these things on, and it was nothing short of agony. The night was intensely dark, our helmet eye pieces were continually fogged with breath moisture, and what with the shattering explosions of bursting shells all around, and overhead, the roar of our own guns, etc, we were greatly relieved when dawn broke, and with it, a lull in the shelling.
The box gas respirators which were issued some months later, were of quite a different pattern, and what was very important, an anti-dimming paste for the eye pieces was served out with them. These respirators were very welcomed; to say they were comfortable would be an untruth, but they were certainly a great improvement on the others.
A couple of days afterwards as I was standing on the parapet of an old German Trench, near the guns, having a few words with a pal of mine, a shell burst practically under my feet, lifting me some feet of the ground; my pal was quite 12 feet from me at the time, and after picking myself up, feeling bruised all over, as I had been hit by boards, stones, and all sorts of debris, which had thundered down on me, I ran for cover, and collided with him at the entrance to old German dug-out.
He said "be careful, I think I'm hit", which I soon found to be correct, as one of my trouser legs was smothered in blood from him. I helped him down the steps of the dug-out, which called for all my strength, as he was weakening fast. At the bottom I lay him down with his head on my knee, and the Medical Officer was soon busy dressing all the wounded who were carried down.
To return to my pal's case: We noticed that his right leg was in a terrible state, and on cutting away the trouser leg, we found that half of his thigh had been shot away, leaving the bone exposed from hip to knee. I drew the MO's attention to his arm, which appeared to be twisted in an unnatural position, and, cutting his sleeve away, we saw that nothing but a shred of skin was holding the arm on. All this happened in a few minutes, at the end of which time poor young Hoyland died in my arms.
The doctor then asked me if I was alright, he having noticed me shaking rather badly; I explained what had happened to me, and he ordered me to go back to the horse lines for a few days. The horse lines were situated about a mile in rear, and, with the exception of a few stray shells, were comparatively safe. I was just setting off along the road for horse lines, but my shaken nerves failed me completely, and I could not face that road on my own, as it was being very heavily shelled.
Just at that moment an officer and a few men were passing the battery, and the officer stopped and begged a drink of water from our cook, but the cook was forced to refuse, as we hadn't enough for more than half ration for our own men: So they resumed their tramp to the rear, and I was glad of their company.
We weren't more than 15 paces from the tank, which stood in a trench, when a shell whizzed over, hit it fair and square, and blew it to pieces. I can still hear that officer say “Thank God, we didn't get that drink; it would have been our last!”
We ran along the road for about 100 yards, then took to a trench, which ran parallel with it, but about 150 yards away. Now the first 50 yards of the trench ran almost at right angles with the enemy lines, and, of course, was exposed to an enfilade fire, which made it almost a death trap. We had nearly reached the bend, into a less dangerous part, when we could go no farther. We kept shouting to those in front to move on, but with no effect: so we burrowed down on our stomachs, expecting every moment, that a shell would land right in the trench. The chap lying near me, an infantryman, was a very panicky individual, and each time a shell would crash near us, he would yell and try to burrow his head under my body; no doubt the poor fellow had been shaken up just before, and his nerves were all to pieces.
We kept calling to those in front to move along further, but it was no use. I made up my mind to get out of it, so, in one of the intervals between the salvoes, I jumped out of the trench, and made a dash further up, running along the top. In spite of the certainty of another salvo, I felt curious to know why those chaps hadn't moved further along, and I soon found out. A shell had dropped right into the trench, and the place was just a shambles of shattered human remains, legs, arms, and blood-soaked clothing, which the chaps couldn't pluck up courage to run over.
I had gone about 20 yards past, when with a sickening rush, six more shells crashed down, but, thanks to experienced ears, I threw myself head first into the trench just before they burst. A couple more similar dashes and I had reached the other end of the trench, which opened out into the road.
I arrived at Wagon Line feeling just about played out, and stayed for three days; my job was to tend invalid horses on the sick lines, and I was very glad to have a change from the hell up at the gun line.
Of course, we weren't at a holiday resort, by any means, and no day passed but we had stray shells whistling about us. On the morning of the fourth day I was detailed to accompany the water cart with water for gun line. We had to get the water, if possible, from an abandoned well about 500 yards to the rear of the guns, which were still in the same position at Contalmaison.
The Germans had built a dug-out over the pumping mechanism, which was situated some distance below the surface. On decending about eight stairs, the driver and myself found ourselves in a dark musty passage in which hung a queer odour. We could hear the constant dropping of water, and proceeded along the passage, which was ankle deep in water. On reaching the top of well, we found that Jerry had cut the main pipe, and water was rushing about all over the place. I had my testing apparatus with me, and found the water quite good for drinking (I had passed a test under the Medical Officer, on testing, and purifying water, while I was with brigade Headquarters).
The driver had quite a shock while we were down there: while we were groping along one of the passages, he stumbled over what we found to be a dead German lying on his back: falling on top of him with his face flat on Jerry's: you bet he didn't stay in that position long. How he managed to get killed down there. was a puzzle to us. but we weren't worrying much over it.
I had an idea that Fritz would soon turn his heavy guns on this place. so we filled our cart and got away as quickly as possible. taking the water to gun line. About two hours afterwards the place was blown to pieces. When we reached the guns with the water, we were told by one of our officers, to clear away should the Hum start shelling. We had put about six buckets of water in the tank (which took the place of the one blown to pieces a few days before) when Fritz started dropping shells all around us. I told the driver to gallop away, and myself took cover in the dug-out where young Hoyland had died.
Now it turned out that, unknown to me, the driver had been entrusted with the mail from Wagon Line to guns, and in his mad gallop away must have dropped it off the cart. On his return, half hour afterwards to complete unloading, he discovered the loss and reported it. When the Major heard of this, we were sent for and this is the little dialogue which took place.
- Major — Do you know of any reason why you two men should not be court-martialled for cowardice?
- Driver — No Answer. He then put the question to me.
- My Answer — we were ordered to clear away in case of shelling.
- Major — Do you mean to tell me that any officer or NCO would give such a disgraceful order — to run away because a few shells were bursting about — who gave such an order?
- My Answer — Mr Knight Sir
- Major — Fetch Mr Knight
- Major — Did you give these men etc etc
- Mr Knight —Yes, Sir! On account of the risk to the horses and cart.
- Major — Acquitted.
I might add that the Major had been showing signs of wear and tear of late and was taking refuge in rather too lengthy pulls at the whisky bottle and he was some distance removed from the sober state during inquiry. He detained us a few minutes and gave us a friendly talk on the futility of running away when a shell was approaching. He told us that our lives were in God's hands, and if He wished us to be etc etc etc.
Now our Major was anything but a religious man, he was also anything but a slow runner when a stray shell burst near him, so I'm sure the whisky had a lot to do with his strange manner. Of course, nobody would attempt to run if actually in action, the penalty for which would be death.
On 2 August we came out of action and returned to wagon line to reorganise and receive drafts from England. We were badly in need of men, as the last two days in action, we were carrying on with one gunner and one driver to each gun; four days after, we gunners went back up the line to relieve B Battery gunners, who had had a very bad time of it.
On 14 August we came out of action and marched to Querrier. We left Q on the 16th and arrived at Amiens at 4 am on the 17th, where we entrained for Ballieul. We left B and marched to Steenvoord. Left S on the 21st and went in action at Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Belgium. This was ½ mile to the left of Armentieres.
This sector was heaven compared to the Somme, as no offensive had been made here, and we were in action in cultivated fields, and our guns were camouflaged under what appeared to be haystacks, but what was really only a skeleton of haystacks. This little paradise only lasted about eight days, when we left once more for the Somme, arriving at Amiens on 12 September, having passed through Calais and Boulogne on the journey.
We went in action on the following day near the dear old village of Contalmaison. It was called a village but there was only one gable standing and the remainder was just brick dust. The enemy had made powerful counter attacks while we were away and our line had been pushed back a little so our new position was 600 yds or so further to the rear than that which we held in July.
The shelling was still very terrible, in fact worse than six weeks before and we were shelled out of our position on the 25th, after having two guns damaged and one destroyed. I shall never forget that day: we were in a place called Death's Valley and a furious artillery duel lasting about five hours ended in the British guns being silenced for the time being; silenced but by no means beaten.
We were ordered to cease firing, I believe, in order to deceive Jerry and to make him believe we were no more. As we cowered in the narrow ditch behind the guns, with enemy shells tearing up the ground all around us, one big shell grazed the top of our ditch and crashed into the telephone dug-out, four yards behind, smashing everything and everybody inside to pieces, the fumes nearly chocking us.
There were several telephonists in dug-out, but very little of them was found, they being blown to atoms. Towards evening the enemy quietened down gradually, until the silence was perfect. It was then that an incident happened which caused a lot of coughing and looking the other way.
The valley was bathed in moonlight and the silence could almost be felt (after the hell of the day) when somewhere to the rear, where Headquarters was situated, the clear tones of a cornet was heard playing "The Lost Chord" followed by "Nearer My God, to Thee". One of our mates, noted for his hard swearing, remarked, with tears in his eyes — If God spares me to the end of this War, I'll go down on my knees in my little kitchen and thank Him from the bottom of my heart.
Such a saying would, no doubt, have raised a laugh in billets behind the lines, but a scoffer just then would have fared badly, as every man present knew that they had been as near to death as man can go.
About an hour afterwards, the Germans recommenced shelling with renewed energy and we were ordered to abandon the guns for the time being and seek cover in some deep trenches a couple of hundred yards to the flank. We had to rush across the open in twos, losing a couple of men in the process.
When we reached the trench, we found it occupied by the gunners of another battery and we felt much more secure than in the vicinity of our guns. Looking across to where our guns were, we wondered whether they had all been blown to pieces, as the place was a raging inferno. Had the SOS gone up for artillery support from the infantry, a thing we were expecting to happen any minute, we should have had to plunge into that hell and man the guns which would have meant the wiping out of practically every man in the battery; something similar did happen a little time after, or rather, three or four months after. At about 2 am, when the shelling had slackened down, we were ordered back to guns; we hardly recognised the place, as the guns were smothered with mud and spitted with shrapnel and only one of them was serviceable. We collected a few things and proceeded to the Wagon Line.
During that bombardment from Jerry, we were eye-witnesses of a very brave deed. While the valley was being churned by shells of every calibre, a driver and a water cart were caught in the midst of it; the inevitable happened; a shell burst quite near him and he fell off his horse, wounded, or perhaps killed, as he lay motionless. This happened about 200 yards from Headquarter dugouts, where the cornet soloist was.
It required a brave man to leave cover just then, but a minute after the man fell, out ran the Medical Officer, who must have had a charmed life, dashed across to the fallen man, examined him quickly, put him across his shoulder and carried him to safety. This action deserved the VC as half the time the MO was lost in clouds of debris and smoke from bursting shells.
On the following morning the British guns commenced a murderous bombardment, which Jerry replied to for a time, but finally gave it up altogether. The infantry then commenced a big push which resulted in the capture of a strongly fortified place called Thiepval, and a general advance in our sector.
Our next position was between High Wood, and Bazentin Le Grand, about ¼ of a mile advance. The weather was then on the change, and we were having rain every day, with its accompanying miseries. It took us all our time to get the guns into position, as in places we would sink knee—deep in sticky mud, and it was only by unhooking two other teams from the guns that we managed, with 18 horses to each gun, to get them into position.
Just as our guns were in position, we noticed a little altercation in the air between three of our planes and one German. Our pilots were trying to force him to land by ‘sitting’ on him; which means they were spread out in such a way above him as to make it impossible for him to rise; this was about 200 ft up.
All of a sudden we noticed the German bank steeply and come down, seemingly out of control. But it was only a ruse, for when about 30 feet from the ground, he flattened out and dashed away to his own lines. We actually threw stones at him, but we were much too slow. I daresay our pilots said things about it, and I don't suppose they were too eager to report the affair when they got back.
That German must have spotted our guns, as sometime after, we were subjected to a lively shelling, but no damage was done.
Our worst enemy in this position was the mud, and it was giving us lots of trouble; three of our wagons came up with shells for us, and one team of six horses fell and were so hopelessly tangled up that an officer shot the lot to save them from suffocation in the mud.
We remained in this position for three weeks, but the fighting had slackened quite a lot, the weather making operations on a large scale very difficult. We came out of action on 20 October and marched to St Gratien. On the 29th we were back in action once more near Martinpuich.
The distance from Fricourt, where we were first in action, to this position, on 3 July, to Martinpuich was no more than 5 miles, which means that we had taken nearly four months to push Jerry back 5 miles.
It must be remembered that they had fallen back on their specially prepared Somme defences in October 1914, when the Allies had forced them back from near Paris. They had been improving these defences ever since, so one can easily realise the difficult job facing the British to dig them out of their burrows.
Some of their dug-outs were 60 feet deep, furnished with beds and every comfort, including electric light, etc. It was only after very heavy losses that the offensive had gone as far as it did. But it was quite a success, as the morale of Fritz had been badly shaken, he having imagined his positions impregnable.
On 23 November we came out of action and were put on working parties in Mumetz Wood, under a desultory fire every day. Five days afterwards I was sent with one of our damaged guns to the ordnance workshops at Albert, which place also came in for its daily portion of Krupps "iron rations".
It was amusing some days when we were all at work in shop, to hear a couple of shells whiz over the roof, and burst a couple of streets away. Then there was a stampede for the dugout, built under the floor of the shop. He never succeeded in hitting the place during the few days that I was there, but he went very near on more than one occasion.
I left Albert on 5 December and rejoined battery at Frehencourt, from which place was commenced the long march to Ypres, a distance of about 100 miles, which we reached on 16 December. This march was carried out under the most trying conditions imaginable, as we had rain, snow and sleet every day. We also had to put up with dysentry, which knocked up some of our men.
One driver fell out of saddle dead cold, another was taken to hospital half dead, and died later, and, on the whole, it was about the roughest fortnight I ever had. A long march with a battery of field artillery was not quite the cake-walk some of the infantry thought it was. For instance, if the horses have been rather heavily worked in the preceeding weeks, the gunners have to walk every yard of the distance, and following a horse drawn battery on foot, means that one has to go along at a slow trot, best part of the distance; add to this, the handicap of full equipment on the back.
The field artillery equipment was totally unfitted for marching, as it swings about too much, which brings on sore hips and all sorts of discomfort, while the infantry have the great advantage of marching in orderly ranks with usually some sort of band or musical instruments of some description; a very great help indeed on marches of sometimes 30 odd miles a day.
I saw more than one gunner fall of absolute exhaustion. Foot trouble was only a minor thing with us, as most of the men who did fall out, collapsed, like marathon runners, while running to keep up with their vehicle. When the march was half completed, I mislaid my diary, but two days after it was given to me by a corporal who had found it in an old chateau where we had stayed one night (keeping a diary was strictly forbidden and meant a court martial if discovered).
Another thing on this march which didn't improve our tempers was that, on ending a days march, about 9 pm, generally soaked through, we had to get the lines for the horses, all stretched out, feed and water the horses (which was quite understandable), turn to, carry all harness into the barn where we had to sleep, then dry and polish every bit of it before we had a mouthful to eat.
An Infantryman would have been asleep two hours before we could think of anything to eat; but a thing which is drummed into a field artilleryman's ears from the day he enlists is that a horse costs £40, while a man costs nothing. Anyway, on 17 December, we reached Steenvoord once again, which meant we were in the Ypres area, but some miles from the firing line.
Three days after, we were inspected by Sir Douglas Haig, who complimented us on our good work on the Somme, and said lots of nice things about our division, the 23rd. We stayed here nine days, spending Xmas 1916 at this place. I can't say it was a very happy Xmas, as my section were sleeping in a barn with only part of a roof, and, as it was snowing every day, things weren't over comfortable.
On Boxing morning, the battery started on the short march to Ypres, but a few of us were left behind to clear up. On the evening of Boxing Day, my pal and myself were sitting in the barn quite on our own, we being the only two left behind of our section, when the happy idea struck him of going up to the Quartermaster to see if there might be a letter or parcel for either of us.
We strolled up and, to our great joy, found two fat parcels addressed to me. We went back to our "apartment", unpacked, and found them full of good things including candles, sweetened milk, chocolates, cake, etc, not forgetting "fags". We lighted six candles, (we had been sitting in the dark before) spread sweetened milk on cake and gorged till there was very little of anything left, but a pleasantly uncomfortable feeling in the regions below the belt.
You notice we were rather extravagant with the parcels but, as we were going in action on the following morning and as all sorts of things are liable to happen while in action, it was best to make sure of them. On the next morning, we set off, munching a hunk of sugar cake, and with pockets nicely stuffed with fags.
I had been looking forward to seeing the old town of Ypres and what a sight it was. One part of it was not too badly knocked about, but, near the station, and Cloth Hall, in fact all one end of the town (called the Dead End) it was indeed a sad sight; with high, tottering gables piercing the sky, seemingly held up by some invisible hand.
Somehow Fritz had paid most attention to this part, no doubt owing to the fact of the railway station being situated there. The remains of the station were still being used by the British, a tram called the Ghost Train rushing up once a night with men and material, the driver subsequently being awarded the DCM, and well he earnt it.
It must be understood there was not even a headlight on the engine, and he didn't know the moment he was going to run into some part of the track shattered by shell-fire. Fritz knew where the line was, and shelled it heavily every evening; whether the train was ever hit, I don't know.
Contrary to our expectations, things were fairly quiet in the sector just at that time, the battery being in gun pits under an old disused railway, near a place well known as the White Chateau.
I well remember New Year's Eve. I was walking on guard at midnight, between the rails, when, owing to the horse shoe formation of the salient, one was exposed to fire from the front and two sides. The first shell to come uncomfortably close to me, came from the front, so I dug a little funk hole between the rails; a few moments after one came over from the right which forced me to dig one on the left of the embankment.
Shortly afterwards I got a visitation from the left, which made me scoot to the right, and I had quite an exciting time, varied a little in exchanging New Year greetings with passing parties of infantrymen. One of these parties stopped for a few moments and talked to me, and what they told me brought back memories of that Somme incident when we had that little turn out with the Major over the mail.
This party had just been down to Ypres from the trenches, they having formed the firing party for the execution of an officer sentenced to death for some incident (cowardice, it was supposed to be) but, whatever it was, he paid the penalty. What really made them stop was because I had wished them a happy New Year, which made them turn back and ask me how I thought they could feel happy having started the year in that manner.
- This diary is scheduled to be continued in a future edition of the Annual Bulletin