From 1st January 1915 until 31st May 1915
Orders were received early this morning, Friday 1st January 1915 that we were to relieve the Durham light Infantry in the trenches at night. Our Brigade consisted of the Durham Light Infantry, East Yorks, West Yorks, and Sherwood Foresters - all Regulars, and ourselves a Territorial Unit attached to the Brigade, which system of 4 Regular Battalions and 1 Territorial Battalion to a Brigade was in vogue all along the line.
It was a very gusty day, and during the afternoon the rain commenced to fall in torrents, and by the time we had reached the trenches (which were knee-deep in water) we were wet through. With two other signallers I was attached to the "A" Company, but there were no lines yet laid on to the Signal Station, so we turned in our "dug-out", which we had "collared" on account of its size and dryness, and slept through the night.
2. 1. 1915
Saturday 2nd January was quite fine, and a change from the previous day, but the trenches were still full of water. During the morning I made a tour along the length of the line we were holding, and in these pages is a sketch indicating the various points of interest.
The line extended from a Farm which had been badly shelled, and which was therefore designated "Shelled-out Farm" at one end, and the Right Bank of the river Lys on the other. Between the river and the road, which ran parallel with the banks, was a cinder path (which when not flooded we used to walk along to the trenches on the left of the road), and a few houses with long gardens. The House nearest the Germ lines was used by our officers for a "dug-out", and named Buckingham Palace, there being a room in the rear which had not been badly damaged. Behind a wall the signallers had an outhouse which proved to be a very comfortable signal office. This station was officially called Q. W. D., but unofficially KYBNOOT KABIN, which being translated is, Keep Your Blooming (?) Nose Out Of This KABIN.
Beside Buckingham Palace there is a yard where the men would come to stretch their legs from the trench which ran right in front of the Palace. The Germ trench was about 35 to 40 yards away. Whilst we were here the Germs did not shell this House, as to do so would mean firing over the village of Frelingheim (which was in their possession) and their own trenches being so near to ours, it was too risky to send shells over in case they hit their own men. But we on the other hand had open ground to fire across, and could put shells into any part of their trench and we used especially to fire heavily at a Brewery which was said to have accommodation in its cellars for a thousand men. When I first went to these trenches this brewery was practically undamaged, and had a high roof from which the Germs would snipe into our trench. By the time we left however, there was no brewery to be seen, and in its place merely a mass of bricks and wood.
"Buckingham Palace", which was facing this brewery, was brought down by rifle fire making holes in the wall; but this was after a period of four of five months.
In the yard of "Buckingham Palace" there was a pump which, to use from one side was quite safe, but from the other, certain death, as we had illustrated only too well until we discovered that a large portion of the wall which would have made effective cover for the pump, had been cut away by Germ bullets, for they were always firing at this point as they could hear the pump being worked. After a time we had pipes fitted across the road to Headquarters, so that in these trenches there was always a large supply of water. (If used for drinking purposes it had to be boiled). In fact there was water in abundance, the river having over-ridden its banks and filled the trenches to the road, for three months from the time we arrived. The Moat round the Farm at the other end of our line was also flooded, so plenty of water was there and incidentally in the trenches nearby in consequence. In case even then there was not enough water, in the centre of the line there was a brook which did its utmost to swamp us out, and although it did not quite succeed in its object, it kept a party of men working day and night for 3 months pumping the water out of the trench. After our first few days in these trenches the field at the back, being slightly below the level of the trench, was flooded, so on the whole we could not complain of shortage of water.
Along the road there was a house with the wall facing the Germs painted white, and at this wall they used to fire quite considerably. After a time we put a quantity of mud in a circle on this wall, providing the Germs with a good target, and incidentally wasting their ammunition.
Further along the road towards Houplines was the Dressing Station, to which the wounded were first taken for attention.
When going into the trenches, one branched off the road by the White House either to the left taking the cinder path, when not flooded, for Buckingham Palace; or to the right across the field to Southend Pier.
Perhaps it will not be out of place to give a few other names to the ''Dug-outs" and other points in the trench.
MORSE HOUSE (Q.W.A. Signal Station)
ST. MARTIN’S LE-GRAND (Headquarters Signal Station)
KUMINGSUR (Officers’ Servants)
WANDSWORTH PRISON (Miners)
SUMSWANK (Adjutant’s “Dug-out”)
LA MAISON VERTE
THE BLACK CAT
LUDGATE HILL (A rise in the trench)
WESTMINSTER BRIDGE (planking over brook running through trench)
FACINE WALK (path behind trench lined with facines)
SOUTHEND PIER (planking for entering trench near Headquarters)
BOMB STREET (bombing post)
CHICKEN RUN ( row of outhouses in Germ lines)
FRED KARNO’S (house in Germ lines)
HERBERT’S (house in Germ lines)
There are many other names which it would perhaps be better not to mention here, but they were very funny and descriptive of the position.
These names were used when desiring to stipulate any portion of the trench, whether speaking one to the other, or in communication with the artillery. For instance we might record that there were a large number of men working in the trench by the "chicken run" (as could be seen by planks moving above the level of the trench, or water being bailed out) and we would ask them to shell just in front of the "chicken run".
Soon the weather had become absolutely vile, the rain continuing practically without a break for three days, and on Monday 4th January, one of the men on Q. W. A. Station with me had an attack of Rheumatism, which caused him to leave the trench, and eventually got him returned to England. We therefore had to carry on with only two men on the station.
The Germs celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany by shelling the Cemetery in our rear, which by no means improved the atmosphere.
During the night of 7th January we had a terrible rain storm, and many "dug-outs" fell in. The trenches were in an awful condition. Fortunately the "dug-out" which we had was very well built, and a fair amount of wood had been used to hold up the roof, so that as we sat by our instruments we did not have any rain through the roof, and remained dry. This is one advantage of being a signaller. Another point to be noted is that a signaller does no digging, fatigues or any work other than on the wire. In the trenches food is brought in by the company's fatigue party for the signallers attached to the company. In the case of the Signallers attached to Headquarters, their food comes with the rations for the officers, and perhaps that accounts for the fact why the signallers attached to Headquarters get so fat, and I have often heard of cases when rations for the officers were missing, and I could give a pretty good guess where they might have been found.
Early in the morning of Friday 8th January we had a double tragedy. A corporal had been to get some water a short distance behind the trench (for the pipe was not yet laid from Buckingham Palace) but he had left it rather late, and when he was coming back across the field it was beginning to get light, and about 20 yards from Southend Pier the Germs saw, fired and hit him. He was seen from our trench, and immediately the Stretcher Bearers were called for, and one man went out, but the Germs fired and hit him as he was in the act of bandaging the corporal. Before the order had been received that no other man was to go out, a man from my Company crawled out on his stomach in the mud, and succeeded in reaching these men, but immediately he commenced to dress their wounds the Germs fired, and he had to return. For this attempt he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. When I went to Headquarters during the afternoon I saw these two men both dead lying in the water (for the field was flooded), the Stretcher Bearer lying with his arm round the neck of the other man.
Even after dark next night we could not get these men in for a long time as the Germs were firing heavily in their direction in the hope of catching anybody who went out to them.
The rain continued on Saturday 9th January, and the trenches were absolutely awful.
The artillery were desirous of shelling a Redoubt behind the Germ lines which was being strongly fortified by the enemy, and an officer from the Battery came to the trenches to direct the shooting, which he did over the wire from our station. It was very interesting to see the shells burst in different places according to whether the officer wired degrees and minutes to the right or left, increasing and decreasing the range until the object was hit.
Unfortunately our men had not got used to being so near as 40 to 50 yards to the Germs, and many a man during these days put his head to the loophole instead of using a periscope, which invariably meant death or at least a wound in the head, for the Germs could see and fire at us from holes in the walls of houses in Frelingheim, and we could not see them.
Several casualties were recorded in this manner, and on Saturday 9th January the first officer to be killed was caught through looking through a loophole at something which a man had seen and reported. He was my Company Captain and the Officer who had been in charge of the recruits when we first joined the Battalion. He got us to sign our names under his when undertaking Foreign Service and it was largely due to his remarks and advice that so many men agreed to Imperial Service. He was liked very much by both the Officers and men being always ready with a joke, and the Battalion lost a good soldier when he was killed. A Sergeant of the same company was killed two days previously practically at the same spot, and amongst the men, this part of the trench had a heavy toll.
Sunday 10th January opened fine and sunny, but after we had cleaned the trenches and bailed out the water, it commenced to rain, continuing through the night.
On Monday the 11th January I received a parcel from home containing new under clothing, socks, etc. I put these on and felt nice and dry and desired to keep in this state as long as possible. Unfortunately "duty called" and I had to go along the trench, so rather than get my new things wet, I "paddled" in the way in which the kiddies like to at the seaside. I took off my boots and socks and tucked up my "trucks" and waded through the mud and water, (which was by no means warm), and I kept myself dry to a certain extent, -but not for long.
Orders came through that the General had decided to leave the holding of the part of the line opposite the village of Frelingheim entirely to the Westminsters. This was certainly an honour, for it was the most likely portion for an attack as there was the road leading through Houplines to Armentieres, and also it was the most dangerous. To do this it was necessary to halve the length of the line we were holding at present, so as to have one half of the Battalion in the trenches and the other half out. The line was therefore cut down to the space between A. & B. marked in ink on the map.
Every few days the half Battalion out of the trenches would relieve the other, and this would save an amount of confusion and work as every man would know which "dug-outs" to take over, and any portion of the trench to which he might have to go. It also tended to a man working harder to improve his "dug-outs" or portion of the trench, knowing that it was reserved for him next time. By the time we left Houplines for Ypres these trenches were in splendid condition, with good drainage and "dug-outs" most commodious and comfortable. Of course it meant hard work, but it was worth it.
Two companies, one being that to which I was attached, were informed that they would be relieved during the next night, and the other two companies would remain in until relieved by the out-going companies in a few days. (The system of 8 companies to the Battalion had been altered to 4, i.e. A and E became A; C and D-B; E and F-C; G and H-D)
At 4.30 am on Tuesday 12th January part of the Sherwood Foresters relieved the two companies, and after handing over the wires to their signallers, the other man on Q.W.A. station and I climbed out of the trenches and went across the fields to the White House, on our way encountering much mud, and I am sorry to say my new clothes looked new no longer.
We walked along the road to Houplines and called in at an "Estaminet" for some "cafe au lait", the proprietor having opened his shop as soon as our men began coming out of the trenches.
When we arrived at Houplines the company, who had gone before us, were waiting in the streets arranging billets. As we were tired and did not want to hang about, we went to the house where the Officers' servants were quartered and with whom we were rather chummy, and turned in about 5.30 am on the floor with them.
We "got up" about 10.00 am, had a good wash and brush up, and breakfast, after which we went to report ourselves in case we were being hunted for. Major Cohen, a Senior Major, to whom we reported told us that Battalion headquarters out of the trenches was to be the Chateau de la Rose, and that lines were being laid from the Chateau to Brigade Headquarters in Armentieres, and Battalion Headquarters in the trenches, and that by tomorrow we were to move into the Chateau and open up the signal station there. As the Q.W.A station in the trench was no longer in use for our Battalion, this call would be taken over for the Chateau.
Later in the morning I cycled to Armentieres to get a bath (which was so necessary) as I had heard that there was a Convent where one could obtain a hot bath. I found that there were many Convents in Armentieres and not knowing at which to apply, and feeling that I could not very well knock and ask the nuns, I had to go without.
I did some sight-seeing on my way back, and came across a Church, named St. Jean d'Arc, which had been terribly shelled.
It was a fine it building with a Norman tower, which although it had been hit several times, had stood the strain. The roofing and sides however, had completely given in. I entered by the door under the tower and looked on a scene of absolute ruination. The only article undamaged was a large Crucifix at the bottom of the Church. This Crucifix was massive and could not be moved easily which no doubt accounts for the fact that everything else had been removed from the Church except this crucifix and a few chairs and such articles. Shrapnel had damaged the woodwork of the Cross but the figure was in perfect condition. With so much destruction around, it is marvellous that this Crucifix was undamaged.
I have since seen several other cases of wholesale damage within a few feet of a Crucifix which however had not been touched. For instance in Ypres Cathedral (which has been practically raised to the ground) stands a large Crucifix over the High Altar, undamaged, looking down on the wreckage and ruin of that one time glorious Church.
Except for a few houses round this Church in Armentieres, the district had not been shelled, proving clearly the object of the Germs. I was told by some people who where living nearby that every day it was bombarded from the 6th to the 28th October 1914 and that on Sundays the germs shelled it with extra violence. Whether this latter observation is true or the result of a lively imagination, I cannot say, for it is possible that these good people imagined the heavier bombardment on Sundays
The next day, Wednesday 13th January, we moved into the "Chateau de la Rose"
The Chateau stands in its own fairly spacious grounds, with the rear bordering on to the river Lys and a few yards away from the Houplines Church, which is on the other side of the road. There is a small moat running round the two sides, and the front faces the "parc". It had not been damaged by shell fire beyond a few broken windows, which we had repaired before taking up our residence.
For the Signal Office and the sleeping apartments of the signallers, was fitted up a long oak-panelled room, (facing the river and Belgium) running the whole length of the house from side to side. On the North Side of this room opened three doors - The Hall, Dining Room, and a passage to the spiral staircase for some small rooms and the round Tower at this end of the house. The other end of the room had two doors - the Drawing Room, and a passage leading to another spiral staircase for a turret at the south side of the building.
The inhabitants had left their house and gone to Boulogne leaving a "domestic" in charge. Most of the smaller furniture had been removed, but such things as the grand piano, tables, chairs, etc, were still in the house.
We opened up the station, and I was on duty from 8.00 pm to midnight.
The next day, Thursday 14th January, I cycled with another signaller to Armentieres and had a bath at the "Covent des Soeurs des Pauvres". There was an Irish sister in the convent and we had a chat with her in our native tongue. After our bath she brought us a cup of hot milk each. We then paid a visit to the chapel which was very beautiful. The walls and Altar were painted white, and were spotlessly clean. The chapel had sustained no damage although buildings nearby including a Church, had been severely shelled. I went to Confession and Holy Communion in this chapel after my bath. According to the rites of the Church it is not permissible to receive Holy Communion on a day on which food has been taken, but a privilege has been granted by the Pope to soldiers who are on active service and in danger, for it is often not possible to receive fasting.
On returning to the Chateau an artillery duel was in progress, and one or two shells fell in our grounds, and branches hanging over the house were broken, but the Chateau itself was not hit. Our chief object was the brewery at Frelingheim, and the Germs were trying to locate the battery which was firing from a distance of three to four hundred yards behind the Chateau.
I took on the duties of Cook to the Section for a few days, which entitles a full night's rest, and no work on the "buzzer". After cooking breakfast on Friday 15th January, a few of us boarded an old boat which was in a worn-out condition, and had a row on the river, using the sides of ration boxes for oars. We had continually to bail out the water which was fast coming through the cracks until there was an overflow, and we had quickly to get to land to avoid the "ducking". We were just in time, and watched the sinking of the vessel, which however was not a very tragic site.
My birthday on Saturday January 16th was the next event of importance, the chief item being the "cutting the cake" received from home, which was washed down by the best Malaga which could be obtained from the Estaminet owned by Mesdemoiselles Suzanne et Alice.
Perhaps a few words about these two young ladies might not be out of place.
They kept a high-class establishment, the rear of which backed onto the grounds of the Chateau, and it was the "Headquarters" of the Signal Service Section. Many a time we had dinner cooked in delightful French fashion, and partaken of in a private room which was reserved for us. Mademoiselle Alice had received a Decoration for going into the street under fire when the Germs were driven through Houplines and dragging into her house a wounded soldier lying in the middle of the road, and so saving his life. I often had the pleasure of walking from Church with them, during which time I elicited various facts with regard to the occupation of Houplines by the germs.
The people living in houses nearby had permission to sleep every night in the cellars of this Estaminet as they also did in our Chateau, and at any time when the town was being shelled, shelter was afforded them in these cellars. Suzanne and Alice however, always refused to avail themselves of this shelter, preferring to take the same risk as the soldiers. The Estaminet had been hit by shells several times.
At five o'clock on Sunday 17th January we left for the trenches, and I was detailed for the station at "Buckingham Palace". The cinder track was flooded, so we want up the road until we were some 75 yards away from the Germs, and then turned off on to the swamped gardens and waded for the rest of the journey, arriving in a somewhat wet condition.
Doing the usual duty on the instrument, six hours on and six off, the night passed fairly quietly, and the next day was peculiar by having rain, snow, and brilliant sunshine at various intervals. A cat behind our lines occasioned much amusement to the Germs, who fired at it. It is said that a cat has nine lives; evidently this cat had already had eight.
Our water supply was greatly increased by Heaven during the next few days, and the flooding of the trench at one part was so bad that it had to be evacuated, and "Buckingham Palace" was cut off from the rest of the Battalion, the only communication being over the wire.
The casualties had been mounting up although the past few days had been fairly quiet. But early in the morning of Friday 22nd January a relief was being carried out for "C" Company who had been in the trench for three weeks, which in our part of the line proved to be the record for some time past (a very unhappy distinction for the sufferers) when a man was hit. We wired at once for the Stretcher Bearers and could plainly hear the man groaning. This was very unsafe for the companies coming into the trenches for it would indicate to the Germs, who could also hear, that there were men moving about. The men therefore got quickly into the trench at any point and were just in time, for the Germs evidently called a "stand-to" and opened rapid fire all along our front. However, a miss is as good as a mile.
The outgoing signallers were relieved in the evening (for we were not necessarily relieved with the companies), and on my way out I slipped over the Bank, and had a short rest in the ditch, getting "some" wet. A bath next morning, however, put me right in this direction.
On Tuesday 26th January, I had a good look round the Church at Houplines and noticed that the Altar Rails and Confessional had been "gnawed" away. I made enquiries at a local Estaminet at which I had occasion to call, and learned that the Germs, when occupying Houplines, had billeted horses in the Church, with this result.
Much enjoyment was provided for the children of the district by an incident which I witnessed during the afternoon.
To prevent the Germs conveying messages by sending them along the river with the tide, an order was issued to the Guard on the bridge that all bottles, tins, etc were to be fired at, and sunk. The youngsters gathered round and watched the water spurt up as the bullets hit the surface. It was quite surprising the number of bottles there were in the water, coming with the tide as many as half-a-dozen at a time. Walking along the bank I discovered the reason. Round the bend of the river was a brewery which had been evacuated, and left behind was all the equipment of the trade. Large stacks of bottles were in the yard, and the youngsters were busy getting and throwing them into the water. I watched for a time and these children were "relieved" by others from the bridge, to take their turn at watching the shooting and pointing out to the century when they sighted the bottles coming along. This state of affairs went on for about a month or two when it was thought advisable to get a net to spread right across the river. The Sentries seemed to miss not having bottles to fire at, and this net certainly upset the plans of the youngsters who no doubt turned their ingenuity to other directions and caused more mischief.
Wednesday 27th January, the Kaiser's birthday, we expected some excitement to relieve the monotony. In the evening I was due for the trenches again, but we had no fun. It had been a lovely day, and the night was very bright, and dangerous for relieving troops. But the Moon shone brightly on the flooded fields, and they looked like mirrors, reflecting the light so that it was almost as bright as day. We had to go in singly as it was less likely that the Germs would see one man than a party. All the same, we had several casualties.
Snow, rain, and Frost was the order for the next day, but in spite of the elements a very lively time was experienced on the other side of the river. (Belgium)
We had a report over the wire on Saturday 30th January informing us that our aerial service had spotted a column of the enemy approaching from Lille, so we expected that something was going to happen, but nothing unusual took place until the following day, Sunday 31st January, when the Germs bombarded Houplines heavily with the result - one young girl killed.
The month finished with a heavy fall of snow.
1. 2. 1915
Monday 1st February opened bright and fine.
During the night the artillery on either side had been very active, and in the morning we took the opportunity of the fine weather to shell the Brewery with our heavy guns.
From a small hole in the wall of "Buckingham Palace" I watched the shells bursting in the Brewery, a matter of about 40 yards distance. The shooting was splendid, the object being hit every time.
The roof gave way and fell in; great masses of masonry tumbled into the Germ trenches; wood, iron, bricks, etc flew upwards to a great height, many pieces of which fell into our own trench.
After the shelling had ceased and the smoke and dust fanned away by the passing breeze, the change we saw wrought by some dozen shells was marvellous. The one-time presentable building was now no more than a heap of ruins, but in spite of this the great point was whether we had reached the cellars.
A draft of 250 men arrived from England to replace our casualties, and they did not choose a good day for getting near the firing line, for it was what is called a "lively" day, and an anxious period, as we were expecting an attack, the shelling having been so violent. This night I was relieved from the trenches.
2. 2. 1915
Our artillery had reported that from observations made, there were no civilians in Frelingheim but the following day, Tuesday 22nd February, we were told that a large number of French prisoners had been brought up during the night and were clearing the wreckage behind the brewery and some houses to which our shells had set fire. We therefore did not fire in that direction. These men, our artillery informed us, were quartered in a school which had suffered considerably from our guns on account of the fact that the Germs kept stores there, but we did not shell it again until the “civvies" had left. The question remains, whether the Germs quartered them there hoping that we would shell. I would not like to say.
General Congreave, VC, inspected our draft in the Chateau grounds to-day and made a short speech telling the men not to believe all the tales they had heard, such as the one which was prevalent at the time that the Germs were not good shots with the rifle. He said that if they did not believe him they could prove it for themselves by putting their heads above the parapet in our part of the line. He advised them, however, to take his word.
3. 2. 1915
Whilst on duty on the wire at the Chateau during the afternoon of Wednesday 3rd February, the Germs sent over a good many shells within 20 or 30 yards from our "home". One fell in the grounds on the path by the entrance door, but fortunately did not burst. The detonator being set showed the distance from which it had been fired, and we passed this information to our battery who gave the Germs a "hot" time, and knowing the range possibly found the Germ battery.
Another shell fell and burst on the tow-path of the river and broke our wires. When things quietened down slightly I went out, mended the wires, and brought in some shrapnel bullets as "souvenirs".
4. 2. 1915
At 7.00 pm on Thursday 4th February, the Germs attacked very violently after a three-quarter of an hour's bombardment, a mile or so on our left, but they were repulsed. We were all "standing to" and in readiness, the men out of the trenches having filled the reserve "trench" (ditch).
The noise of the enemy's and our guns was terrific, and the sky was lit up continuously, indicating the large number of shells fired. However, it quietened down after a couple of hours, and we were able to turn in.
I have indicated the general monotony of trench life, and after this I will only state briefly incidents worth recording. Trench work consists of Digging, Guards, Fatigues, with casualties, expectations, realisations (oftimes so terrible), wet, cold, shortage of food, and many other discomforts. A signaller has continuous duty on the telegraph instrument, with all the discomforts except the first three.
7. 2. 1915
On Saturday 7th February we fired some grenades from the yard in "Buckingham Palace" (which I had re-entered yesterday without anything special taking place) but as we were not yet initiated in the art of using them, they did not explode on reaching their destination in or near the Germs’ trench.
8. 2. 1915
Monday, 8th February saw the return of the grenades which we had fired, and this time they did explode, but no damage was done, but they hit the roofing of the Palace and brought down to the ground a rafter from the roof, which I promptly collared and chopped up as we were very short of firewood. I am afraid our Officers were not pleased with the signallers on this day, as we had a fire, and they did not on account of a shortage of wood. What we had over we gave to our friends along the trench.
13. 2. 1915
On Saturday 13th February, I cycled to Armentieres (having come out of the trenches on Thursday) and had a much-needed bath at the Convent, received Holy Communion, and "served" at Benediction in the afternoon.
16. 2. 1915
On Tuesday 16th February, I was again due for the trenches, so in the afternoon, to prepare ourselves, a few of the section went to a concert in Armentieres given by a company named "The Follies". This party was composed of Officers and men of various regiments who were, or had been, professional artists; and two Belgian girls, and so as to give the soldiers some pleasure when out of the trenches, they where detailed to give a high-class entertainment twice daily at the local theatre, instead of doing trench work. They wore a Perrot’s costume, and half-a-franc was the charge for a jolly and bright concert. From generals to "Tommies" patronised these concerts, and every effort was made to get the latest London songs and jokes.
We enjoyed the concert immensely, and walked back to Houplines and prepared for the trenches.
We had practically forgotten that "there was a war on", but on getting near the trenches we were reminded very vividly that there was. In fact the Signal Section had a narrow escape from in "wiped out".
The previous day had seen much rain, and to avoid going over the swamped fields we decided to walk down the road up to the front trench. Other men, and fatigue parties were doing the same, and they would now and then rest awhile and perhaps place on the ground, not to gently, a tin of tea or anything they might be carrying; for by this time we were hardened to danger and took great risks for the sake of personal comfort.
As we were getting near, a man at the rear stumbled, and made a fearful noise by dropping his rifle and other things he was carrying. The Germs a few seconds later sent up a star-shell, which fell on the road some distance behind us, and lit up very brilliantly a large area. There were quite a number of men on the road, and they showed up distinctly. Each man threw himself into the ditch on either side and the Germs opened rapid fire straight down the road, and as there was very little cover even in the ditches, we had to "chance our luck" as to whether we got hit of not. The tin of tea which had been left in the middle of the road reflected like a heliograph from the star-shell, and the Germs riddled it with bullets.
When the firing had died down somewhat, we made a dash for the trench and just succeeded in gaining our object when the Germs re-commenced.
17. 2. 1915
Ash-Wednesday, 17th February wept bitterly, and the river rose to such a degree that we were again flooded out.
18. 2. 1915
Thursday, however, was quite a nice day, and the Commandant of one of our Armoured trains decided to have another "go" at the Frelingheim brewery. There is no doubt about it, we did not want that brewery to adorn the country-side, but joking apart, we wanted to be certain that the cellars were smashed in preparation for an attack on Frelingheim which we were contemplating. The armoured train carried some heavy pieces which had lately arrived from England, and a significant message to the following effect was received:-
"Armoured train bombarding Frelingheim brewery at 2.30 pm, sometimes shooting inaccurate so be well down in the trenches and pray all the time".
Considering the fact that the gun was firing from Erquinghem (about 4 miles per crow) and our trench was so near the brewery, we did not quite like the idea, for it is quite reasonable that the shell might fall 40 or 50 yards short in such a long distance and it would not be a big technical error.
However, we moved from behind "Buckingham Palace" into an Officer's "dug-out ", and the Officer entertained us with some yarns about the South Africa Campaign, some of which were not of the Drawing-room character.
We did not watch the shelling, but the noise of the bursts was ear-splitting, and great lumps of "brewery" were driven into our trench, embedding themselves in the mud.
During the evening a company of the Canadian Highlanders who were attached to our Battalion came into the trenches for 24 hours for the first time, and we had to "show them the ropes".
Our object was to get past the Germs trench and blow up certain buildings in Frelingheim, but we left before this operation had taken place, and I do not know the result of all the work done. Months, sometimes, are spent mining and through miscalculation, seen or unforeseen circumstances, the mine, when fired, causes little or no damage, but at other times many men can be put out of action and trenches captured by this method of warfare.
I had been in the trenches in conditions of torrential rain, drizzle, snow, fog and mist, and on Saturday the 20th February, 1915 a thunderstorm. In my opinion the noise of thunder, whether near at hand and loud; or distant and rumbling, is not like the bursting of shells as so many writers indicate, but it is quite distance from the short sharp explosion of a bursting shell. A considerable amount of rifle fire at a distance of about half a mile resembles very accurately the noise of rumbling thunder.
On Sunday, the 21st February, it was very misty during the morning, and the guards were doubled, for it was a good opportunity for a local attack, but towards mid-day it cleared, and finished up a beautiful day. In the evening I came out of the trenches and was on duty at the Chateau from 11.0 p.m. until l.00 a.m. on Monday the 22nd.
On Tuesday 23rd February, I went with a chum for a walk onto Belgium and crossed the river into France by a boat which the Royal Engineers provided. The R:E's were reconstructing a bridge, which some months before had been blown up after crossing by the Germs.
Some more Canadian Highlanders came into our trenches for 24 hours on Wednesday 24th February, and they had their first experience of trench life amid snow.
Friday, the 26th February, I went to the trenches for duty at Headquarters Station. It was a very light night, beautiful but dangerous, and one half-company of some l00 men had nine casualties in as many minutes, whilst crossing the flooded fields to the front line.
Whilst I had been out of the trenches the Durham Light Infantry had commenced mining operations and the next day, Saturday, 27th February, I went down one of the mines as far as they had bored. It takes months to dig a mine and if the distance between the trenches is considerable it is useless taking the trouble unless a very important object is in view. A mine is laid in this manner.
Three of four tunnels are bored at right-angles to the trench for a distance of about 20 yards (this varies according to the distance of the enemy's trench) and then the heads of these saps are connected by boring to the right and left, parallel to the trench, to prevent the enemy boring past you, and also to provide a listening gallery should the enemy be also mining. If sounds of digging are heard and it is certain that counter mining is taking place, this gallery would be fired and so stop all operations. The mine is lined with wood, and mud and water is brought out of the mine on trolleys which are pulled along by ropes. Machinery worked by hand provides fresh air for the men working in the mine. The depth underground would be 15 to 20 feet.
A large factory chimney had been the cause of a considerable number of our casualties. It had been hit by a small shell which made a hole near the top, from which the Germs would occasionally fire at us. We had reported this matter and on Sunday 28th February, our "heavies" informed us that they were going to "try their luck" and see if they could remove this obstacle. These guns were from four to five miles away behind Erquingheim and of course could not see the object at which they were firing. The shooting was directed by an artillery officer from the observation post. The shells fired were I was informed, the "9.2's", and weighed with 240 lbs.
The first shell went some 30 yards to the left of the chimney. The second shot went too much to the right, but the third caught the chimney a few feet from the bottom and it fell to the ground raising a great amount of dust. The Germs greatly objected to our demonstrating our satisfaction by cheering, and opened rapid rifle fire and we kept low in the trench until they had finished their "hate".
I was on duty in the evening, and the second month of 1915 drew to a close with me sitting in my "dugout" on a ration box, smoking a pipe, with my instrument by my side and wondering when I would see home again.
Monday 1st March 1915, opened fine, and much artillery was in vogue on either side. In the afternoon there was a thunderstorm. The evening was very brilliant and the Germs entertained us with selections on a bugle. Music under such conditions is rather popular. The bugler would play a tune right through, and the Germs would sing to it and if it was a tune we knew, (for they played several English songs) we also sang. Whilst the music was in progress neither side fired, but, as applause, each man fired a few rounds from his rifle to which the Germs replied. After this "applause" the music would start again-and again no firing. After a couple of hours of this the Germs shouted "finished" and both sides cheered the Bugler lustily.
I came out of the trenches in the evening of Wednesday 3rd March.
On Thursday 4th March with a signaller from the 18th Brigade I cycled to Armentieres and as I had heard much about a village, by name Bois Grenier, which had been completely wrecked by shell fire I suggested that we should go and have a look at it. We therefore cycled through Chappelle d'Armentieres, L'Armee and Griespot arriving at Bois Grenier about noon. Our front line ran about 20 yards in front of Bois Grenier and to get there one had to go down a road which was under rifle fire and could be seen by the Germs. It was however hedged, either side but by keeping low and riding fast we anticipated that we would not be spotted. Of course we were not allowed to come down this road or to go to the village in daytime.
Just before we arrived the Germs had been shelling the village and set fire to some cottages, which were blazing away merrily.
Up to this time I had not seen such havoc and destruction and I was greatly struck by the air of desolation. Not a soul in sight, and nothing but wreckage and ruin could be seen. The Church, which at one time had been used as a hospital, was one pile of bricks and there was hardly a house with the upper story still standing.
I must say this first insight of wholesale destruction made me feel very miserable for one could not help thinking of the homes broken up and the misery involved and I did not feel any happier until I had partaken of a large portion of steak and chips with a certain amount of the red wine in a cosy Estaminet in Armentieres.
In the afternoon we paid a visit to the "follies".
The Westminsters had a good concert in a school (which had been shelled) in the evening of Friday 5th March 1915.
One grenade fired by the Germs the next day caused 8 casualties.
Both the British and Germs gunners tried to put some of us "out" on Wednesday the 8th March, the germs by shelling the Chateau grounds during the afternoon, and our own battery dropping a few shells into our trenches in the evening just after I had re-entered the firing line for duty.
About 3.00 am on Wednesday 10th March we were called up to give the Germs a lively time as an attack was being made at Neuve Chappelle.
Our men did a considerable amount of rifle firing, the reason being to make the germs think that we were going to attack and thus prevent their moving troops from this district to where the attack was actually in progress.
We heard the guns and watched the brilliant flashes, which reflected beautifully against the low clouds causing a variety of colours.
During the day we kept up continual firing, and the evening was a relief as things were quieter.
The noise of continued firing is very trying and causes violent headaches and the smoke of the powder from bursting shells and bullets being fired adds greatly to the uncomfortable pains in the head.
We were very unkind to the Germs, Friday 12th March, by repeating an early morning attack, and this time capturing the village of L'Epinette a distance of two or three miles on our right. Again we gave our assistance by opening fire just as the morning light appeared, and this time the germs got a "severe wind up", sending up flares by the score.
The signaller on duty with me was wounded early in the day and I had to continue on duty from 2.00 am until 10.00 pm - a matter of 20 hours without rest. To add to this the headquarters wire of the Durham Light Infantry had been broken by a bullet, and all their messages had to come through my station.
Unfortunately overtime is not allowed in the army, but surely a shilling a day is good enough pay, and if one gets "knocked out", what does it matter how much money one has received?
On Sunday 14th March 1915 we received a wire telling us to prepare to move to Fleurbaix, a distance of some 20 miles from Houplines.
Our officers went to inspect the new portion of line, and "packing up" was well in hand when the order was "washed out".
Good resulted from this however, as many farewells had to be drunk, and the receipts of the local Estaminet thereby increased.
After church, I went with a chum to the 43rd Battery and had a close inspection of our 4.5 Howitzer gun, and its various parts, including a very marvellous and delicate sighting arrangement.
A few rounds were fired whilst we were there which enabled us to see the height to which a Howitzer shell can go.
When standing behind one of these guns it is possible for an instant to see the shell in the air, looking like a black speck. Unless directly behind the gun one never sees a shell in progress-it travelling at such a great speed. A good idea of the rate of moving can perhaps be gathered when one takes into consideration that some shells weigh nearly one ton, and to keep such a weight in the air against gravity must require a terrific speed.
Whilst this gunnery was going on the germs sent over a few shells hoping to find the Battery, and on our returning to Houplines, we were informed that one of the Germs shells had fallen in a large room where there were a number of men, killing seven and wounding about 30, and we saw the men being transferred on stretchers to the dressing station.
Monday 15th March was a bright clear day, and I accepted an invitation of some artillery signallers to go to the artillery observation Post, (the position of which, for obvious reasons, I must refrain from stating), and with the aid of a powerful telescope managed to see many objects of interest. The observation station was very tall, and one could see over obstacles, and watch men working both in our and the Germs trenches.
We were shelling the Germs position and it was very interesting to watch the result of the explosion of the shells, whilst an officer corrected the range.
There was a large Germ party about 800 yards behind their line, and we were able to scatter them, leaving a few on the ground.
By this time the Germs had commenced defensive operations, and through the scope I counted no less than eight lines of trenches, with a great thickness of barbed wire in front, which shows what a big task it is to advance any long distance.
Carts, cycles, ambulances, etc were moving behind the Germs lines, and on my enquiring why we permitted this, I was informed that it was not worth while wasting a shell in the hope of catching one or two men, and another reason was that we could not afford to use the shells. This did not make me feel too comfortable, as an infantry man likes to think that the artillery has plenty of ammunition to "back him up" in the event of trouble. Thank goodness that this state of affairs has now been altered.
In the evening I repaired the wire in the reserve trench connecting us with the mountain battery.
We received a very interesting message whilst in the trenches on Friday 19th March (I had re-entered last night) the text of which is as follows:
"You will be pleased to know that the Germs call the portion of line in front of your gallant Battalion, the 'place of death', and they don't like being there at all-Paley. (Brigade major)".
This information-which also appeared in the London papers-was obtained from a prisoner, but I think that it must have been due to the accuracy of the artillery fire more than to our work with the rifle, as it was not possible for us to do much on account of the positions taken up in the houses by the Germs.
The next day, Saturday 20th March, we spotted a dead Germ between the lines. He had evidently been on patrol overnight and been hit. The Germs left him there for several days before they fetched him in.
"Buckingham Place" suffered severely from grenades today, but upon our replying by shelling, that Germs "gave over".
We heard of the fall of PRZEMZYL on Monday, 22nd March and made it the occasion of a demonstration by sending up star-shells and cheering, thus "putting the wind up" the Germs.
At 3.00 am on Tuesday 23rd March, a general "stand to" was called, over the wire, by Brigade. The idea was to see if everything was ready in the event of an attack being made upon us. The message received was to the effect that we were to be ready to repel an attack at once. The reserves were called up to fill the second line of trenches, and the gunners were ordered to fire a number of shells. It was a good test, and everything was done smartly, for as a matter of fact we did not know but information had been received that the Germs were about to attack us.
In the evening I came out of the trenches. It was pouring with rain, and I was not sorry to get to the Chateau to dry my clothes.
27. 3. 1915
After having a walk into Belgium on Saturday 27th March, half a dozen signallers "challenged" the rest of Houplines to a football match. It was a great game, especially as many of the "Froggies" did not know the rules, and as the time went on all of the younger generation joined in, and we had the utmost difficulty not to fall over them. We finished the day with a lively discussion round the fire in our room.
Palm Sunday, 28th March, was an ideal and cloudless day. Aeroplanes were very busy in consequence, and on account of the blueness of the atmosphere, one could see the full effect of the shells bursting round the machines.
The blessing of the "Palms" at Church was rather a unique, owing to Palms not being obtainable, and evergreens, which the congregation brought with them, substituted.
The evening saw me back in the trenches, which were reached without undue excitement.
The weather continued fine, and artillery was very active, especially our "heavies" which were continually bombarding Frelingheim.
We were informed that our Sappers had discovered that the Germs were counter mining, and that we might have to blow up her own saps, or be blown up ourselves, which was not too pleasant to know. This counter mining was only taking place in one portion of our line, so we continued working on the other.
My chum on the signal station at "Buckingham Palace" with me had been queer with an attack of influenza, and on Tuesday 30th March I managed to catch it, and had to come out of the trenches and go to the Dressing Station. If one is queer, I can assure anybody who might think otherwise, that a trench is not the most comfortable place in which to be.
I saw the doctor and received some "number nines" (an infallible remedy given by military doctors for all illnesses), and "turned in" on the floor to try and sleep through the night.
I believe I mentioned that the dressing station is the first aid post, and is a house about eight hundred yards behind the firing line, so necessarily the accommodation is by no means perfect. The food, however, is of a superior quality, and it is a treat to get a hot meal.
I began to mend her on Thursday 1st April and was feeling very "fed up" at being kept in a room like a caged lion, so on Good Friday, 2nd April, I told the doctor that I was better, and he let me go to the Chateau as there was an empty room in which I could sleep. This permitted me to have some of my chums with me (for it will be remembered that when one half of the section is in the trenches, the other half is out).
Orders were received that I was not to go to the trenches until I was quite better to prevent spreading any illness, and I did not complain by any means.
In the afternoon Mademoiselle Suzanne took my photo in the Chateau grounds.
I cannot say whether this latter event affected me in any way, but I had a very bad night, and when I went to the doctor the next morning Saturday 3rd April, he said "Damn me if you haven't got it again", so I had to have more "Number Nines".
Easter Sunday, 4th April I did not enjoy as I was feeling so queer. I went to Church however, in the morning, so no doubt I was better spiritually, if not bodily.
Our motto for Easter Monday, 4th April, was "business as usual", and our artillery carried out this principle to the letter, and the Germs had a very rough time. I was feeling much brighter, and went for a walk into Belgium with a chum.
Tuesday 6th April, I had a look at some "eighteen pounders" (quick firing field gun), and a new anti-aircraft gun on a motor lorry which had lately been attached to our brigade.
I was due for the trenches again on Wednesday 7th April, but the doctor would not let me return, and I was quite satisfied to abide by his decision.
In the afternoon with two of my chums I went for a stroll into Belgium.
Much excitement was occasioned in Houplines on Thursday 8th April by the Germs shelling the town with a new gun, the shells being of the "coal-box" variety and having a very loud burst.
This was our first experience of very big shells as Houplines had lately only had shells of a smaller calibre fired into the town. With several others I went out into the street to watch the effect and we saw a shell go through the roof of the house at the end of the road and burst sending into the road a large amount of household furniture, belongings, and bricks.
Several of our windows were broken but the Chateau luckily was not hit.
After a couple of hours of this, and our guns trying to find the new battery, the shelling died down and we went round examining the size of the shell holes, and some of the holes made by shells falling on soft ground would comfortably accommodate four motor buses and were nearly as deep as the height of the bus.
The effect of this bombardment was that during the next few days a large number of the inhabitants applied for permits to go to a safer place - a very wise procedure.
Early next morning Friday 9th April, the Germs attacked on our right and left and the amount of artillery fire was enormous. In case the noise of the guns was not sufficient it was augmented by a thunderstorm which commenced almost as soon as the guns.
As the Germs were counter-mining we had to blow up one of our saps today, but little or no damage was the result of all the Labour spent in digging. The Germs got a certain amount of "wind up" over this operation and consequently commenced firing heavily causing several casualties amongst our men.
A German aeroplane hovered over Houplines about six o'clock on Sunday evening 11th April, and our anti-aircraft gun succeeded in hitting it, but the machine was not very severely damaged.
The plane was high in the sky and as we saw it "topple" the result of it being hit, a hearty cheer was raised and the aeroplane began to descend rapidly. The airman however managed to right the machine and glided down behind his own line and our gunners tried to complete their good work, but the machine managed to escape without again being hit.
I went to the trenches next day Monday 12th April and except for a considerable amount of artillery activity nothing of consequence took place.
A great deal of digging was ordered on Friday 16th April and we were told later that an attack was to be carried out by the Westminsters against the village of Frelingheim. Many rumours started and it was stated that the General had said that he would not trust any other battalion with the work. It was only fair that if an attack were made that we should carry it out as we had solely been holding this part of the line and our men were getting anxious to try conclusions with the Germs and wanted to get into the village which for so long we had been facing.
Every evening as dusk began to fall large working parties of the Royal Engineers and the regiments in our Brigade started digging and after a month a maze of trenches beautifully made, were in evidence. Several communication trenches were made, some wide enough to bring up a small gun undercover, one running through the Chateau grounds from the trench. This trench of course was not used as the width made it dangerous, but if an attack were successful the guns would advance this way instead of using the road.
The number of trenches behind the front line would permit a large quantity of troops to be in readiness with comparative safety.
Of course the Germs noticed this work and firing at night increased considerably and our casualty list mounted proportionally. No work was done it in these new trenches during the day, but the Germs would shell them and to a certain extent do damage, which would have to be repaired; and Houplines was very severely shelled as a means of the Germs revenge.
On a Saturday evening 17th April, I came out by a new communication trench and bought some stores, including oranges, eggs and pork chops for tomorrow's dinner.
I came back with some of the signallers-and there was a big attack being launched at Ypres where the British took Hill 60, and we could see the reflection of the guns which made very vivid colours in the sky.
We got a message about 11.00 pm stating that we had captured the position after exploding mines and we had suffered few casualties. We were also informed that we had forced a Germ aeroplane to the ground and captured the machine and pilot.
Sunday 18th April, was an ideal day with plenty of artillery to remind us that there was a war on.
The fighting up North continued during the day and increased in violence towards the evening.
On Monday 19th April, the Germs shelled the Church at La Bizet (just across the river in Belgium), for although it had been greatly damaged the walls were still standing and I suppose the Germs objected to this.
A Germ shell set fire to a large farm in Belgium and it was indeed a sight to watch the effect.
There was a large quantity of hay and straw for the army horses kept at this farm and once the fire got a good hold the flames amounted to a great height and dense masses of smoke rolled heavenwards.
During the afternoon some of the signallers at the Chateau were hunting for "spuds" in the kitchen garden when they came across a couple of beer barrels buried in the ground.
Upon opening these barrels they disclosed large quantities of gold and silver plates, the owner of the Chateau evidently burying these goods before quitting his house. We sent all the articles to the Bank of France where no doubt they will be safer.
In the evening I came out of the trenches after a period of 10 days.
On St George's Day, Friday 23rd April, I was on duty from 4.00 am to 8.00 am and later on had a much needed Bath.
The Germs attacked at Ypres using gas and thereby succeeded in driving back the French. We received a message a couple of days later:-
"Germs succeeded at Ypres through asphyxiating gas making the French think the devil was playing some tricks and the French bolted aaa.
The Canadians stood ground".
On Tuesday 27th April I returned to the trenches through a new communication trench, which was beautifully made.
This communication trench was very useful, for it permitted the signaller off duty to go out to Houplines and have a meal when feeling so inclined. I need hardly say that no authority was given for this procedure.
On Wednesday 28 April, as some changes were taking place in the British line, the half-battalion out of the trenches had orders to go into the trenches across the river; so for the first time the Westminsters held the line in Belgium.
I came out of the trenches at 5.00 pm for three hours and managed to get some eatables.
On Saturday 1st May the battalion was relieved under a new arrangement.
With another signaller I was detailed for signalling duties with the Royal Engineers (1st London Field Company) who were near Erquingheim and we came out of the trenches at 2.30 pm.
It was terribly hot and we did not quite know where to find the Engineers, and with full pack, rifle, and equipment, started to march.
We had not gone far when the Post Cart came along and we managed to get a lift as far as Armentieres.
We marched from there and eventually found the Royal Engineers at 5.00 pm and had a welcome cup of tea.
As I have already mentioned, Erquingheim is some two or three miles from the firing line, and the Engineers are very busy here making trench-boards, parapet protectors, sand bags etc; and a large number of French people, men and women, are also employed.
So far Germs shells had not found their way here, so we reckoned on a nice quiet time.
I was on duty from 2.00 am to 8.00 am on Sunday 2nd May after which I went to Mass at the cathedral in Armentieres.
In the evening I had a trip up the river on a pontoon boat to Erquingheim.
I was on duty from 8.00 am until 11.00 am and by then cycled to Houplines to get any letters there might be for us.
Along the road to Houplines a large number of men, women and children where hurrying towards Armentieres crying aloud. Upon my asking the reason, I was informed that the Germs were shelling Houplines very heartily, and that a large number of soldiers and civilians had been killed. Many wounded men and horses were afterwards brought along the road.
I was fairly used to shells, and I made up my mind to "carry on", and when I got to Houplines there was no one to be seen-all having cleared out, or taken to cellars.
I could see from the smoke of the shells that they were bursting near the Chateau, and I therefore decided to go to the lodge-a distance of some 50 yards from the house-and see if there were any signallers there who could give me any details of the bombardment.
I had just arrived at the gates when several men came running along the path from the Chateau and told me that everyone except two signallers-one on duty, and the other as orderly-had been ordered to leave the Chateau as it was being shelled and also the Church just across the road.
They also told me that the last shell had burst just outside the room in which the signallers stayed, and that they had all been thrown to the ground by the percussion.
Shells rained in at the Chateau and Church for about an hour, and in the meantime we had dinner in the Lodge to prepare ourselves should this be the beginning of an attack.
Our artillery were by no means silent whilst this was going on, but at the end of about two hours the firing suddenly ceased, and everything was still.
I then went round the town to see the results, and I will never in all my life forget what I saw.
The Church built in 1575, which, a couple of hours before had been hardly damaged, was now full of shell holes and completely wrecked. Houses and shops were also terribly smashed, and the roads were strewn with wreckage of all descriptions. A bilious yellow-the result of the Luddite in the shells-was in evidence everywhere, and many people who had come in contact with it had yellow skins.
Women were running about crying for their husbands and children, and vice versa-for many were buried beneath the ruins.
The site was indeed ghastly, and an atmosphere of death pervaded the town. Not a dog barked, not a bird sang, for even the animals seemed impressed by the awfulness of the scene.
I learnt that the parish priest, Father Bailleul had been told that the Germs were shelling the Church and he went out of his house to go to the Church and remove the Blessed Sacrament, when on his way he was hit by a shell and killed instantaneously. This fact added greatly to the general mourning of the town.
The Westminsters suffered many casualties-many of the men killed being personal chums of mine, as the company to which I belonged suffered the most severely.
Considering the violence of the bombardment, the Chateau came through the ordeal very well, for although the Church was only a few yards away, the Chateau was only hit a few times by smaller shells, and was still habitable.
It was with a very heavy heart that I set out at three o'clock to return to Erquingheim.
On my way I met the Catholic Chaplain attached to our division, and received absolution in the street.
He had not heard of the death of Father Bailleul, and when I told him he went to Houplines where he took up duties for a time.
In the evening I was on duty from 4.00 pm to 8.00 pm.
Tuesday 4th May, the Germs heavily shelled the Q.W.D signal station in the trenches (known as "Buckingham Palace"), and both the signallers on duty were killed.
It will be remembered that this was the station where I had spent most of my time in the trenches, and whilst the Westminsters were there the Germs had hardly shelled it. Under the new arrangement the Sherwood Foresters were holding this part of the line, and it is quite possible that if we had been doing so, I might not have been able to write these experiences.
The trenches in front of "Buckingham Palace" on which our men had worked so hard were terribly broken down by shell fire.
There is no doubt that the Germs shelled the town and trenches because of the work we had been doing, and they wanted to "put the wind up" us, and put us off attacking.
I mentioned a page or two back that the Germs had not shelled the Royal Engineers factory, but about 6.00 am on Thursday 6th May 1915 they dropped three or four shells about 20 yards away from where we were sleeping and caused a fair amount of damage. Although the shells fired from a distance of four to five miles away burst so near, they did not wake me-which shows how one can get used to conditions at the front.
The French employees would not work during the day as they were afraid the Germs might shell again.
I went over the building, which in peacetime was a cotton factory, and had a look at the shell holes and saw their looms which are used in the process of cotton spinning.
Later in the morning as I was off duty, I walked over the fields into the village of Erquingheim and visited some friends which I had made whilst staying there. On my way back I had a look at the armoured train which had been brought up to do some shooting.
To glance at casually, one would take an armoured train to be an ordinary passenger train, but on inspection the deadly guns show their heads, peeping from the sides and the roof.
In the evening I went into Armentieres which when I arrived was being shelled out rather heavily. Several buildings were set on fire by incendiary shells and the Military Fire Brigade was ordered to attend to a fire in some schools, which was gaining a rapid hold. As there was a shortage of men on this work I gave a hand to get out the engine and pull it along to the scene of the outbreak, where I also assisted with their hose like a full-blown fireman.
As a matter of fact the whole business was rather a joke for it was not proposed to put the fire out, but merely to prevent it spreading, and a Military Fire Brigade is very different from the brigades at home.
A heated argument about the hoses was started by an Irishman giving a hand, which delayed the work somewhat; and by the time we had lit our pipes, tied rags around the holes in the hose, and dodged the shells knocking about, the fire had a good hold. I directed the jet of water where the flames were bursting but I honestly believe that some of the holes in the hose did better work than I.
After an hour or two of this I was thoroughly soaked and the whole "brigade" had had enough, so we "packed up" and let it burn itself out.
I don't mind putting out fires, but when one has to keep one eye on the fire, one on the shells coming over and one on the water emitting from where it should not, it is about time and extra "ration" of eyes be issued.
After this I went to the Cinematograph Theatre which had been opened for the troops.
On Friday 7th May, I was due for the trenches so after dinner, as a pontoon boat was going to Houplines I boarded it at one o'clock for my return journey.
At 6.00 pm I left for the trenches at Le Touquet (in Belgium) these trenches are on the left bank of the river Lys and to get to them one has to go over the bridge by the Church and follow a railway track.
On arriving at the railway station one sees a train with the engine attached as if ready to move off, but the number of holes in the carriages would not permit of great comfort for passenger travelling. There is a small signal box nearby, and punctually at 7.00 am the signal man comes on duty and remains there with his head on his hands until six o'clock in the evening. In a soldier’s expression this signal man is "ten a penny"-the war having affected his brain-and it will no doubt be a relief when a shell or a bullet puts an appearance in his box-if it has not done so by now.
The station is about 350 yards behind the trenches, and to get to the front line, one goes into the first house along the road, and a passage, running parallel with the pavement, has been made by knocking big holes in the side walls of the houses. There is also a communication trench nearby in case of trouble.
Two of these houses were still occupied, and are open to the troops as Estaminets, and it is possible to come out of the trenches for a quarter of an hour to get a glass of beer.
In one of these houses two old women and a young girl carry on the business (which needless to say, is very brisk) and it is remarkable how they can stand the strain. There is a curve in the road which prevents bullets from hitting the house, but they continually whiz by, as it is easily within bullet range, and the people dare not go out of the house. The beer is brought to them by army Transport when it is available.
I think I can safely say that in no other part of the line are civilians living so near to the danger zone.
The trenches run through the village, at right angles to the road.
We arrived about 7.30 pm, and relieved the signallers of the Sherwood Foresters, and opened up our station in the cellar of a house in the Fire Trench.
I was on duty from midnight until 8.00 am Saturday 8th May, and after breakfast I walked along the trenches to a spot on the left of the road called be "Post of honour"-a broken wall in a house 15 yards from the Germs. The next house along the road was in possession of the Bosches.
Now and then greetings are exchanged between the enemies, at other times bombs, bricks, stones and such like are thrown across, causing an unpleasant time for the occupants of the post.
The trenches here are some 100 yards in front of those across the river, and one can get a good side view of the village of Frelingheim and see the damage wrought by our guns and observe the effects of any shelling of the village which might be in progress.
In the evening we received a message relating to the torpedoing of the "Lusitania" and also that Italy might be entering the arena and a few days time.
As we were going to blow up a minor early in the morning of Sunday 9th May at 2.30 am we shifted our station to the company officer's dug-out, the cellar in which we were, not being considered safe as it was certain the Germs would shell it.
We got our wires fixed and at 4.30 am the mine was exploded on our left. The result was a "rise" for some of the Bosches.
At the same time artillery and rifle fire commenced and for about an hour we had some "fun".
In the evening the Germs played a "dirty trick" on us by shelling the House, the cellar of which we occupied, and worrying us just as we were in the midst of supper. They did so much damage that we had to clear out of the cellar, and build a "buggy" hutch.
During a the afternoon of Monday 10th May, as the weather was a very fine, I went out with another signaller by the houses communication trench and through Belgium to Houplines. We took this opportunity of looking at the damage done to the inside of the Church by the bombardment a few days ago.
The Altar, pulpit and confessionals were smashed; chairs were strewn about; pillars and walls fallen down, but amongst all this ruination the crucifix stood undamaged over the altar, and one at the rear of the Church was intact as far as the figure was concerned, although the woodwork of the cross was riddled with shrapnel.
Tuesday 11th May, was very hot and as things were fairly quiet, I again went out of the trenches to Houplines and had a bathe in the Lys and dinner at "L'estaminet d'Alice et Suzanne"
At four o'clock in the morning of Ascension day Thursday 13th May, the Germs blew up a mine.
It was not quite under our trench, but a few yards in front so fortunately our casualties were not very heavy and from a military stand point would not repay the time taken and the work done.
We were relieved by the East Yorks in the evening of Friday 14th May.
As the Chateau was not considered the "healthiest" spot in which to be, next day headquarters were moved to a house in rue gambetts, and the signallers took possession of an empty house nearby.
To celebrate the occasion we had a "house-warming", with dinner at 7.00 pm and I acted as cook.
As there were some 20 signallers and not enough tables, chairs, glasses etc. to go round, we had to make a rapid raid on some of the houses which had been shelled and help ourselves to the amount of furniture required.
The dinner was a great success, and we finished the evening with a "sing-song".
I cycled to Erquingheim in the morning of Tuesday 18th May, to relieve the operators for the trenches, and in the evening I went to Battalion Trench Headquarters (in a Chateau a short distance behind the firing line, and very comfortable).
A division of "Kitchener's Army" arrived in Armentieres and one Battalion came into our trenches for 24 hours experience on Thursday.
Shelling had been a very heavy during the past few days, and as we came out of the trenches during the afternoon of Saturday 22nd May, we had one or two narrow escapes from "whiz-bangs".
As the Church had been smashed, our pioneers built an altar and decorated a room in a school, which had been shelled, opposite the signallers abode.
During breakfast the next day, we saw a number of civilians going into the schools and we wondered at the reason, when somebody mentioned that it was a Sunday. There being a certain amount of doubt about this, I turned up my pocket diary to discover that it was Whit Sunday, 23rd May 1915. I therefore hurried over my duties, and went across the road to the chapel.
In the left-hand corner at the rear, Father Bailleul, who had been killed in the bombardment of his Church, was buried, and as this was the first service since then, a sermon relative to the occasion was preached and there were very few people with dry eyes amongst the congregation.
At the end of Mass everyone turned round towards the grave and recited the "De Profundis", and all the other services I attended here finished in this manner.
Later in the morning we had a swim in the river which ran at the bottom of the garden of our house.
The regiment opposite us in the trenches was the 133rd Saxon, and on Monday 24th May we received a message as follows:-
"Italy has declared a war on Austria aaa. Addressed all units, repeat if possible 133rd Saxon regiment."
During the night the East Yorks put up a notice board between the lines for the benefit of the Bosches in informing them of Italy's entry into the arena.
In the evening of Tuesday 25th May we had an excellent concert in the grounds of the school (A Room of which had been converted into the chapel) and I attended for a short time only as I was on duty from 9.00 pm until midnight.
Wednesday 26 May was a glorious day, and in the morning we had a swim, and the afternoon at saw us struggling along the communication trench, perspiring freely, in our endeavour to reach the firing line and relieve the East Yorks.
We received a rumour that we would in all probability be moving into a "Gas Area", and this was the first indication of the fact that we were about to move to Ypres.
We had heard much about gas being used by the Germs and we were by no means overjoyed when we heard officially that we had to leave Houplines for Ypres. On the other hand we had got rather tired of the monotony round our way, and we were rather keen on "having a go" at the Bosches. Our feelings were therefore somewhat mixed, but had we known what we were to go through, I do not think many men would have been at all keen on shifting.
After a very hot and tedious day on Friday 28th May we were relieved in the trenches by the Cambridgeshire Regiment at about 7.00 pm. They had come from Hill 60, and they told us tales of gas and fighting there to cheer us up.
We got into Houplines at about 7.30, and started round to say "goodbye" to Suzanne et Alice , Antoinette, the cake-shop girl, and the other friends of the Signal Section. Tears were plentiful for the inhabitants were sorry to lose us, and we on the other hand were sorry to leave before attacking Frelingheim.
At 10.30 pm we massed in a field in front of the 43rd battery, and at 11.00 pm moved off. The Germs seemed to have some knowledge of our movements and "got the wind up", firing very heavily into the field just as we had left, and fortunately there were no casualties.
We passed through Armentieres, where we had our first rest. All was still, and no one was to be seen. The roar of gunnery and rifle fire could be heard, intermixed with the steady flow of the marching of the battalion. We were gradually getting further away from the firing line than we had been for six months.
I might here mention that many of our bicycles had "been put out of action" during the past few months, and therefore as there were not enough to go round, some of the signallers had to March instead of cycle. I volunteered to do the march on the first day, and on the second day I cycled.
We crossed Pont Nieppe, and passed through the village of Nieppe, and at 4.30 am, just as the light appeared, reached Bailleul, after passing the aviation station, and various A.S.C (Army Service Corps) depots, where there was a lot of work being done, for night time is when most work is done as regards rations.
We "put up" at an empty house for the "night". We had marched some 12 miles, which considering the fact that we had been in the trenches with out exercise for a number of months, and had come straight out of them, was no small matter, especially with full pack, rifle and equipment, and by the time we reached our billet, we were for the most part, absolutely "done".
We "got up" at 9.00 am and I was on cycling duty for of the Orderly Room all morning.
At 2.00 pm we paraded and marched to a field a mile or so away where we were inspected by Sir John French, who made an appropriate speech, during which time an aeroplane started from an adjacent field for the firing line, making a considerable amount of noise, and preventing us from hearing the latter portion of this oration.
In the afternoon I continued on duty as the Battalion cyclist, finishing at 8.00 pm, by which time I was fairly exhausted, the roads being hilly and cycling tiring, especially after the march of the evening before.
I got my things together preparatory to moving off tomorrow, and "turned in" on the floor for a night's sleep undisturbed by shell fire - the first for over six months.
We arose at 3.45 am on Sunday 30th May, and the Brigades paraded and moved off at 5.00 am; the Queen's Westminsters leading the brigade; the signallers leading the Battalion; and I leading the signallers.
It was a fairly warm, and although I cycled, it was a very tiring journey as we were all feeling the effects of the past two days.
We passed through the borders of France and Belgium, as the people of the village were going to Church, and reached Poperinghe at 9.00 am -a distance of 15 miles.
We were allotted a field about a mile from Poperinghe in which to spend our time and we began making things as comfortable as possible for our night's rest.
We were not allowed into Poperinghe, but with the aid of an official envelope and my cycle, I managed to get out and have a look round the town.
Poperinghe is a fair sized town, and one is at once struck with the atmosphere of cleanliness - very different from Armentieres. At this time it had not suffered very severely from shell fire, but the Church had several gaping holes in its roof and sides.
In the evening we had a "sing-song" in the field, and as night began to fall we lit fires, and continued our impromptu concert.
We were about to "turn in" when it commenced to rain, so under cover of darkness, I stole into the next field where there was a partially cut hay Rick, and took up my quarters there for the night. It was very comfortable, and much better than the open ground, and I would be pleased to recommend this form of bed in the event of one not having the real thing.
There was a terrific bombardment during the night, and we all thought that there was a big battle raging around Ypres, but we afterwards discovered to our cost that it was quite usual for the district, and this evening was by no means out of the ordinary.
We "arose" at 7.30 am on Monday 31st May, and after a wash in a very dirty pond felt much refreshed, even though somewhat wet, for our "Bivvy".
I went for a cycle ride during the morning across the border into France to a village by name Abelle where I purchased some "grub" for dinner.
During the afternoon we made our preparations for moving up to the trenches.
At 6.30 pm with "D" company, I boarded a motor bus marked "Shepherd's Bush", which took us to the outskirts of Vlamertinghe. On our way we spotted a Zeppelin very high in the air, and this was the first I had seen.
Along the road on either side were marvellously strong defences in case of our having to fall back, ammunition columns, batteries of artillery, resting places for men back from the trenches, and the whole route was lined with khaki life, and men full of cheerfulness.
The name of Ypres to us who so far had not seen any severe fighting, was enough to make us quiet and thoughtful, and as an indication of my personal feelings I wrote in my pocket diary whilst travelling in the motor bus - "Motor bus to Ypres" - so that in the event of my terminating my earthly existence the destination I was making for would be known.
I am not a sentimentalist but neither my, nor any other man's Pen, could describe what we saw and felt during the next few hours sufficiently to indicate or convey the sights, or our feelings to another with any degree of reality. I will however in simple language do my utmost.
We marched through Vlamertinghe as the day was drawing to a close, and no longer did we see men stationary, but along the road we discerned through the darkness men returning from the trenches, either relieved from the firing line, or having been taking up rations, ammunition, stores, or any other of the numerous requirements.
Indian troops marching with unearthly quietness, Scotch and Irishman with a strong brogue saying cheerfully "good-luck boys" and other expressions - their spirits being high on the being relieved from the trenches, having come through safely in such a terrible portion of the line.
It was a pitch black night and we were still a mile away from Ypres, when we halted for a rest in a field on the side of the road, where we got our final directions about going through Ypres, the chief being that we were to "double" over a bridge across the Moat, at which the Germs continually fired and had the range; and that we would not get another rest until we reach the trenches.
We were sitting on the ground when all of a sudden there was a brilliant flash and a tremendous explosion about 50 yards to our rear. It was one of our big guns firing from a short distance behind us, but at the time we could not tell whether it was our guns or a bursting shell. Our nerves were very highly strung and in a soldiers expression "that did it".
At 10.00 pm we "fell in" and on a our way marched up a slight Hill and from the top saw Ypres in flames in four or five places.
We went down the other side of the field and entered the outskirts of the town, and experienced more shells during the next few hours than we had seen in all our time on active service.
We past the picturesque water tower on the left, which was the only object nearby which had not been hit, the asylum and the jail almost in ruins, and saw at the end of the road the Tower of the Cathedral looming in the light of a house on fire just opposite, the sparks of which fell on us as we marched past. We turned to the right and saw the remnants of the houses - once such fine buildings, but now a mass of ruins - and on our left the Cloth Hall which at that time had a couple of pillars standing at either end, although all the higher portions of the centre were gone.
Such a scene of desolation as I shall never forget met my gaze. The beautiful Cathedral, the grand old Cloth Hall, the mansions, business houses, all treated in the same manner, and yet the Germs did not seem content, for all the time shells were screaming over our heads and falling into portions of the town.
Great holes were in the roadway, and masses of masonry had fallen across our path, and as we came to them we passed the "word" back, "mind the shell-hole", or "mind the bricks", all in a whisper for although we were still a mile away from the Bosches, the awfulness of the scene so impressed us.
We turned to the left in front of the Cloth Hall into the wide market square and then into a narrow road which was completely in ruins, leading to the bridge across the Moat over which we ran in small parties, not only "as if our lives depended upon it" but actually our lives did depend upon a our getting across the bridge quickly.
The cemetery was on a our left, and had been shelled terribly, and the smell was very obnoxious. Ypres itself smelt vilely on account of the number of people buried beneath the ruins, but it is as a bottle of scent compared with a strong cheese or a bad egg when the cemetery is concerned.
We were now in open country and it was a treat to get a breath of fresh air.
We got down at the hill by Potiejze wood along which smashed houses were dotted at intervals, for their Germs had done their deadly work with great thoroughness worthy of a better cause, and in at the district of Ypres and the Salient there is not a house even slightly damaged - all as far as possible raised to the ground.
We reached the third line of trenches at 11.30 pm and got "sorted out" by midnight, when I went on duty on the wire for a couple of hours, after which, in spite of the terrible noise of the shelling, I fell into a deep slumber.
These details red in the daylight do not perhaps cause great emotions, but the night on which we made our first entry into Ypres was one of the worse I have ever known. I have since been through the town of Ypres many times, cycling and marching, and except when there was a battle raging in the vicinity, the shelling has had not been so severe as on this night, and the town is not always on fire. Added to this was the darkness, and our nerves, which left much to be desired, and one's feelings on seeing such solitude (for of course there is nobody living near) are very sentimental, and the fires, with no one attempting to arrest their progress caused a sensation as never before experienced.
I have several pictures of the destruction of Ypres but they are not for me-I do not want anything to remind me of the ruins of the Ypres-for the sites witnessed on this evening will be with me to my dying day as vividly as they appeared on the night on which I made my first entry into the town of YPRES.