The diary of a British Doctor on the Western Front
The following are taken without alteration from daily enties made in an Army Book 129 whilst Dr. Helm was the medical officer attached to the 2nd Battalion Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
I mobilised with the 2nd Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 5th Division, stationed at Portobello Barracks, Dublin.
On August 14th 1914 at 5 p.m., we left the barracks for the last time, on our way to the quay. I shall never forget the cheering crowds lining Grafton Street and the bridges. (I wondered at the time how many of the men would come back with the Battalion. Little did I think that within four months, hardly any of them would still be present.)
We embarked on the S.S. Buteshire, an old cargo boat, which ordinarily carried rails to New Zealand. There was no accommodation for officers and we had to sleep on the deck, without any shelter. Luckily it was beautiful weather and the trip round Le Havre was very enjoyable. We arrived there on the night of the 16th, disembarked and had a few hours sleep in a shed. We entrained the next morning and left at 8 p.m., arriving at Landrecies at midday on the 18th.
Our food on the train consisted chiefly of sardines and French bread but we thoroughly enjoyed it. All were as cheery as possible, regarding the future with absolute equanimity, in fact looking on the whole thing as the realisation of the dream of every soldier.
The small village where we detrained was afterwards to become famous in connection with the magnificent stand of the Guards on the Retreat.
We marched to Maroilles that afternoon, where we spent two happy days. The men were given a splendid time in the farms in which they were billeted. People gave them as much butter and milk as they wanted, also fruit and eggs. In fact too much, as I as M.O. found out to my cost.
It was difficult to realise all this time, that in a few days time we were going to be in the midst of the bloodiest war that has ever been known.
The day we started again we were going through the beautiful Foret de Mormal for the greater part of the time. That night we stopped at Houdain, the Officers Headquarters' Mess being in a jolly chateau, where we were royally treated to champagne by the owner.
Up early next morning and off again towards Belgium and the Germans. About 11 o'clock, we crossed the frontier and entered the most hideous type of country I have ever been in, coal mines, slag heaps, and miners' cottages sprinkled about in the utmost confusion.
About 2 p.m. we reached Boussu, a place about one mile south of the Mons-Conde Canal. This was as far as we were destined to go, although we did not know at the time. The inhabitants were overjoyed to see us as they thought they were now free from the advancing terror. They brought out all they had in their houses in the way of cigars, drinks etc. and gave them to the Tommies. The scene was very different the next night when we left the town, going in the opposite direction.
Our Battalion was billeted in a brewery; all us officers shared a loft which was quite dry but unfortunately was full of rats. As soon as we arrived, the rest of the Brigade were sent off to dig trenches along the canals as it was reported that a German Army Corps was approaching us from the direction of Brussels. (This eventually turned out to be Four Corps. The French had given us wrong information.)
The next morning, August 23rd, all was quiet until 1 p.m. when a shrapnel shell burst over the billet. This was the first warning we had that Huns had arrived and it was my first experience of being under fire. The Brigade, was now holding a section of the canal and K.O. Y.L.I, were in reserve and we were at once ordered up to closer quarters. As we marched along the road, the shelling was all on our right but bullets were now coming unpleasantly close. However, we got to our destination, a field about two hundred yards behind the canal, without any casualties. There we lay, flat on our bellies, until evening. Meanwhile, heavy rifle fire was going on all along the line. Bullets and shells were thick and near.
The K.O.S.B.s in front of us were losing rather heavily and about 5 o'clock we went to reinforce them. Our Machine-gun Officer, Lieut. Pepys, was sent across the canal to fire from the upper storey of a small cottage. He did terrific damage to the Germans, as we heard afterwards, before he was killed. The fire then slackened down and as soon as it was dark, the order came to retreat. First of all, the bridges had to be blown up. An R.E. Subaltern laid his charge which, however, refused to go off and he did one of the bravest things I have ever seen: he took his revolver and fired point black at the charge. Again it refused and the bridge was left intact.
The Retreat, one of the most famous in history, had now begun. I had to stay behind the others to bring up a few wounded and I must say it was rather a nervy business as there was nothing between us and the enemy. Their bugles started and call was taken up all along the line. I can remember it distinctly and frequently whistle it to myself. I eventually found the Battalion at Boussu; It was then having a scratch meal of bully-beef and biscuit in which I joined. We were soon off again, going no-one knew where. After four hours, we lay down in a corn field for two hours' sleep and then on again. Just as day broke we were to fight a rearguard action, having found ourselves at a place called Wasmes. The whole district was a mass of slag heaps and the Battalion was placed on three of these. My troubles then began, as I had to find a suitable place for a Dressing Station. After consulting with the Colonel, I chose a cottage behind the middle slag heap. This was quite a good place but as luck would have it, a Howitzer Battery came and placed itself about 200 yards away; this I knew would draw fire but it was too late to move away then.
I brought the Maltese cart with the medical equipment down and unharnessed the horse. I had the surgical dressings etc. brought into the cottage. No sooner was this finished than there was a fearsome crash close by; on looking out I found a shell had burst right in the middle of the battery horses. I rushed down and found a most horrible mess. Several of the horses had been blown to pieces but luckily only two men injured; these I dressed and brought up to my cottage. A gunner officer who was there, on my invitation came up to the cottage for some food; the eternal bully-beef and biscuits eaten with the aid of a pocket knife. As soon as he had left, the Stretcher Bearers brought in two cases from the slag heaps. After this I sat down to write up a few notes but was not allowed to do this as the cottage next door was sent sky high by another shell. I thought it was high time to clear out, but where to go?
Time was not be wasted so we started off, the Stretcher Bearers bringing the wounded. The driver of the cart brought the horse, the cart and the medical panniers being left for the time being. The shells were coming over pretty rapidly then, but we managed to get into a village about a quarter of a mile away. The Brigade by that time had started to move back and I saw I was in danger of losing my cart and panniers, so I decided to make an attempt to get them.
The driver and I, with the horse, started off again and got within about 200 yards of the cottage when over came a shell which burst in the field, not more than ten yards away. We flung ourselves on our faces and escaped with the exception of being covered with dirt. On we went to harness the horse, load the cart and came back at the gallop.
I found the Battalion already marching along the road, which was in a fine state of confusion. Artillery, transport, infantry, all going along together. We were told that the Germans were hard on our heels, but nothing more was seen or heard of them that day.
We marched until about 5 o'clock, then halted for the night, or rather until 3 a.m. We made ourselves comfortable under a hedge and managed to put in a few hours good sleep. Next morning we were off again, still not knowing anything of the situation, except that everything was going very well; a little bit of news which was dished out to us regularly every day to keep our spirits up. We had a tremendous march that day, past the Foret de Mamal again, through the town of Le Cateau and on to the Plateau about two miles the other side. My task was hard that day, encouraging the men who were falling out from sore feet etc. One knew perfectly well that once they were left behind they would never return as they were certain to fall into the hands of the Germans within a few hours. It was a wearying task, trying to cheer up some and cursing others, anything to get the poor devils along. All the way we could hear the guns busy on our right, and could frequently see the shrapnel bursting. I also saw the first Air Fight, two of our machines chasing a Taubel. Towards the end of the day a lot of French Curassiers passed and we thought that we were now all right as they were probably the advance guard of a large body coming to our relief. We were to be bitterly disappointed, however, as next morning there was not a Frenchman in sight or within miles. (It came out afterwards that a French General had been ordered to bring his men to our relief, but instead of coming towards us he had gone off in the opposite direction. It turned out that his wife was a German and that he was in their pay. He was given 24 hours in which to shoot himself, which he did).
The country in this region was beautiful, miles and miles of rolling hills covered with ripe corn. The wild flowers were gorgeous and all the vegetation most luxurious. By this time we were as brown as berries and well on the way to having quite respectable beards, as of course there were no opportunities for shaving. That night we spent in a field, in the most appalling rain and soaked to the skin, which did not help to make us feel any more cheerful. Next morning the news came that, instead of going on, we had to hold the position until night at all cost.
Men were sent out to dig-in on the Crest, facing the town. When I went to see what was going on about an hour later I found what were called trenches but were really only scraped out hollows. Three Brigades of guns were posted behind in a very small area. From a Gunner's point of view the position was hopeless, as there was no cover; all of the guns being in full view of the enemy on a forward slope. This was the last kind of position a Gunner chooses.
I had now to choose an Aid Post and the only place I could find was a shed on the main road, on a level with the support trenches of my Battalion. The Maltese cart with the panniers I had had to send right back with the remainder of the transport, only keeping surgical haversacks, dressings etc.
At 7 a.m. the first German shell burst somewhere in the front and this began one of the most ghastly days in the war. Our guns were soon hard at it, including a battery of Sixty-pounders which were well behind somewhere and firing over our heads. I had a splendid position and could see everything. The Germans had no difficulty in spotting our guns, one of their observing officers undoubtedly .being in the tower of the Hotel de Ville in Le Cateau, which overlooked the whole of our position. Why our Sixty-pounders did not blow this tower to hell was a mystery to all of us, but they never did nor did I see them sending any shells into the town at all. Of course, they knew there were hundreds of civilians there so probably refrained for that reason. Also as far as we could gather, the bulk of the German infantry were coming along a road which just missed the town; the same road by which we had come, the day before. Their shells burst in salvoes, directly over our guns and it was a marvel how they managed to keep going as long as they did.
The wounded from the Batteries soon began to swarm in through my Aid-Post, but so far none of my Battalion had suffered.
It was a ghastly sight eventually, seeing our guns silenced one after the other. From one Battery only one man escaped, all the officers being killed. As soon as the enemy had silenced most of the field guns, they began on the trenches and the Infantry tried to advance, but our men gave a wonderful account of themselves. The shells at this time were falling pretty thickly round where I was; I moved a few hundred yards further back. The stretcher bearers from a Field Ambulance, at this time started to come up and took most of the wounded away. The Heavies were still hard at it and I believe did an extraordinary amount of damage to German Infantry, massed behind the hill in front of us.
About One p.m. the men on our right started to retire. The K.O. Y.L.I, held their ground until about 3 p.m. and until they started to retire, had had very few casualties. As soon as the supports started I went off with what wounded I could take with me and made my way as quickly as possible to the village, where the Field Ambulance had an advance Dressing Station, namely Mavrais. (I heard afterwards from a wounded man, who fell into the hands of the Germans, that they treated them abominably. The greater bulk of the wounded lay out in the open until the French civilians came and took them into the town, where they were treated until they were hurried off to Germany. A good many of the wounded died of exposure, there were a good many authenticated cases of murder as the Infantry swept over the field but in a retreat, it is absolutely unavoidable. As it was nearly a whole Field Ambulance was captured on that day, thus depriving the survivors of any assistance in any subsequent fight).
The road was now in a most indescribable state of confusion; Infantry, Cavalry, guns, Limbers, wagons, Ambulances, Staff Cars and every other conceivable form of vehicle, all going as hard as they could and all mixed up together. Things were not improved by the fact that the Germans were starting to shell the village and the word came along that the General had said that there was no time to be lost and every man was to shift for himself. I looked into the church which had been used as a Dressing Station and found it packed with wounded, who together with three R.A.M.C. officers, eventually fell into the hands of the Germans. All cases that could stagger along were taken on limbers, etc. all the ambulances having been sent back full of wounded some time before. It was impossible to find my Battalion as there was none as such, only a few groups of men scattered about the endless retreating column. I suppose the average pace was about one and a half miles per hour. As luck would have it, I managed to find my horse; that was the most extraordinary piece of luck, as many officers and men were left behind on the road absolutely worn out through want of rest and food.
About 7 o'clock we reached a village and on the other side of it were some staff officers, directing the way. They collared hold of me and told me to help them. It appeared that they were trying to get the rabble into some sort of order and various fields were allotted to the remains of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions. As each wagon or man came up he was asked what Division he belonged to and on answering, he was directed into his field. By 9 o'clock most of the column had been sorted and the men and horses were given a few hours rest, prior to starting again at 12 o'clock.
I found the remains of my Battalion in a corner of a field and was horrified to find that we mustered seven officers and about 150 men. Roughly speaking 18 officers and 700 of our men were killed, wounded or missing on that day. The Colonel and Adjudant were reported to have been killed by the same shell. It turned out afterwards that they were only stunned and were taken prisoners.
The way they let their friends and relations know they were safe in Germany was very clever. The Germans had asked them for a subscription to the Red Cross; the officers hit on a brilliant scheme. They said they would give a subscription if they would take a cheque. This was agreed to and ten of them signed a cheque which eventually found its way to Cox's. This was the first indication that was received in England that they had not all been killed.
A drizzling rain started which did not raise our spirits, in fact, I do not think any of us had ever spent such a miserable evening. Luckily the cooker had arrived so we managed to get plenty of hot tea.
At midnight we took to the road again and none of us were feeling any too comfortable about the situation. We knew that there was nothing to prevent the Germans coming up on either side of us. We also knew that if they turned a machine gun on us at the head of the column, the whole thing would be up. Afterwards I heard that two French Corps were coming up to our relief and called a halt for the night. The French did not turn up, so we had time to get away. We marched all night and passed through St. Quentin early next morning. We halted for the night on the other side of the canal at Ham. Trenches were dug as a rearguard action was expected. Luckily none came! The Germans were supposed to think that the British were completely demoralised and not worth bothering about!
The way the remains of the army was reorganised the day after Le Cateau, is perhaps, one of the greatest military achievements in history.
At the end of the day's march I, of course, always had to see the sick! I was the only M.O. in the Brigade. Of the other three, one was wounded on the Mons Canal, another was taken prisoner at Le Cateau, the third disappeared somewhere. I think he went down to the Bases with his nerves shattered!
Seeing the sick of four Battalions, on days like we had then, was no light job. Often having settled down for a few hours' sleep I was hauled out to see some poor devil. It was my job! I had to make the best of it. The Maltese cart was usually utilised for this purpose. My corporal, Whitley by name, was invaluable to me through that time.
We had three hours of sleep that night, on some straw in a barn, and very welcome it was, as we had not slept the night before. It was a dreadful wrench having to turn out again at 3 a.m. to start on the apparently never ending trek.
As far as I can remember, we got our first English mail that night. At that time, letters from our folks at home were more inclined to worry us rather than cheer us up, as of course, every line told of the terrible anxiety they felt for us. We knew they were getting none of our communications.
That day we had a very long march but the weather being perfect, made it bearable. The custom on the march, was to halt for ten minutes every hour. Our blessed ten minutes during the day time was always occupied by eating the apples which were given us by the peasants or picked up at the side of the road. About midday we passed through Noyon, a very pretty town, then on to cross the Oise, at Pontoise; the river here being very broad, extremely rapid and very difficult for navigation. About this point the sides of the road were strewn with addles and boxes of ammunition. We heard later, that some Divisional Ammunition Column had heard that the Uhlans were upon them, panicked, thrown out all their loads and galloped off as fast as they could. About two miles the other side of Pontoise we halted until about 7 that evening. By jove! we made the most of it. My Battalion was allotted a nice farm in the middle of some trees. The Mess cart was brought up and the Mess Sergeant soon got us a good meal of eggs, fresh butter, bread, milk etc. This we ate round a table in the middle of the farmyard.
I was the Mess President and it was my duty to see that we got as good a meal as possible. After eating, I saw what sick there were, mostly men with sore feet. Then I lay down for a few hours sleep.
One of the most marvellous things at this time was the way the Regimental ration cart used to roll up every night with our grub and sometimes mail. Frequently it had to go for miles and miles before it found our position, several times running the gauntlet of Uhlan patrols.
After my nap I had my first shave for about a week. I retired to a quiet spot in a wood and had a bath, the first for many a day. On getting back to the others I found everybody very excited. Two supposed spies had just been caught. Whether or not they were spies I do not know. They were marched along with us for the rest of the Retreat as no one had time investigate.
We fell in at 7, reached our starting point and then had to wait about an hour before we got under way. We were supposed to be going into billets in a village about three miles away. We never got there! We marched for about a quarter of an hour and then stopped for an hour. The reason, we found afterwards was that another Brigade was crossing our road a mile or so ahead. After several halts, word came along, we were going to halt till daylight, and this after we had been on the road only three or four hours and had only got a mile from our starting point. However, there was nothing for it but to make the best of things. I got the coat off my horse and lay down in the ditch with my head against the bank and was soon fast asleep. I woke up an hour later, wet to the skin, with my teeth chattering and found that good fellow Sergeant Spooner, the Mess Sergeant, handing me a mug of tea and a bully-beef sandwich. Almost immediately, the road being clear, we got under way again. I marched the whole time to get myself warm and dry. We went on steadily until about two, when we arrived at a place called Jauzy, where we halted for the night.
My task, on arriving at a place was to hunt round and find water fit to drink and to see that the billets were fit for the men to go to. It was sometimes a very difficult job to find water that was good but in any case I always insisted on its being filtered and boiled.
The village was very pretty, with a river running through. This we had to cross by a ferry boat which the passengers worked themselves. Our mess was in a dirty little cottage which improved very much in appearance as soon as there was a good meal on the table.
By this period of the Retreat, we had all become very cheerful, in spite of the fact that we had only got such a few officers left. Of course, there was plenty of grumbling, but I must say that at that period I was really rather enjoying life! The weather, which was glorious, was undoubtedly the cause of my well-being., together with healthy exercise. We officers were on very free and easy terms with each other, always ready for a little ragging.
That night, I remember, I had an awful nightmare! I woke imagining that the Germans were upon us. I leapt out of bed, put on my clothes and went out into the street, only to find that it was all a myth, so back to bed I went.
Just before we started next morning, I was told that one of the Majors was ill; I rushed across the ferry and found he was too bad to carry on. I just managed to get him down to the Field Ambulance in time. He got down to Le Havre I believe, and joined up again with us about a week later.
We had a long and hilly march that day, resting for dinner, in the glade of a wood. In the afternoon, we passed the famous Chateau of Pierrefonds, close to Conpiegne. We were told that we were going to stop for the night about four, but unfortunately, about that time a report came that German Cavalry were hot on our heels and only about 12 kilometres behind us. We went on for several miles more until we got to Crepy-en-Valois. Our Brigade was to fight a rearguard action here, so we stopped on the near-side of the town.
Two Battalions were left to line the ridge close by and my Battalion was billeted in the largest and best kept farm I have ever seen. The owner was charming man and showed me all over it; he was extremely proud of his white oxen which were indeed noble beasts. I tremble to think what probably happened to the place next day when the Huns arrived. We were rather expecting to be attacked during the night but nothing happened and we had a good night's sleep.
In the morning, 1st September, the Battalion was turned out to scrape up some shallow trenches for itself, while I made the farm into a Dressing Station. Having arranged things to the best of my ability, I strolled off to see how the others were getting on. I found that there was nothing doing, so I came back and almost at once our guns started firing at a wood, about a mile away where Cavalry had been seen. The Germans had no Horse Artillery with them luckily, so could only reply with a desultory rifle fire. During the morning a most extraordinary thing happened. A German car dashed up the main road, obviously unaware that we were holding the Ridge. Our men waited until it was close up and then turned a machine gun on to it. It was of course stopped and some of the men went out to examine it.
They found it contained four staff officers (all dead, of course) and a good many bottles of looted champagne. Unfortunately, they could not get the car to go and it had to be left behind. Our guns had evidently done a great deal of damage in the wood as no advance was made. We started to retire about 1 o'clock. My lot had only two casualties, which I took away in a bullock cart, commandeered from the farm. I was very glad the Germans did not press on as, unavoidably, I was about the last to go having been delayed with the cart and the wounded.
As I passed along through Crepy, the few inhabitants about the streets shouted warnings to me that there was a Uhlan Patrol up one of the side streets. I hurried on not bothering much about it but sure enough a bullet whistled past my ear; goodness knows where it had come from as I never saw anybody. I soon caught up with the others who were retreating over the open country in extended order in case of an attack. Nothing happened, however, and at dark we halted and billeted in some village. The state of the villages at this time was pitiable. All the houses were bolted and the windows shuttered. They were like cities of the dead. There were a few old women about, who were, for the most part weeping.
That night we got another mail, which helped to cheer us up a good deal. Soon after a scratch meal I dossed down in a loft and put in some good sleep. At three a.m. we moved off again and continued on steadily until 10 a.m. when we halted until the air got cooler, about 6 o'clock. The day was a scorcher and we thoroughly appreciated a few hours rest which we spent in an orchard with as many ripe apples as we could eat.
The next day, 3rd September, we crossed the Marne at Isles Les Villenoy, some five miles to the west of Meaux. The bridge by which we crossed it was blown up with a tremendous explosion shortly after we got across. In the afternoon as we were halted for several hours, I went to scour the country for some eggs and butter. After a long search I managed to get a dozen, which we had for tea. One thing, however, I did find, was an acetylene lamp for the operating tent of a Field Ambulance. A complete store wagon, for some reason or other, had been abandoned and most of the medical stores had, by the time I got there, been looted. The lamp remained so I took it, presenting it to the mess. We used to start it going early evening whether we were in the open or under cover. With the lamp burning and a fire blazing, an evening meal in the middle of a field could be quite a cheery thing. That evening, I went on to look for a billet for the officers, and by Jove, I found one! It was some billet, as they say, and the finest one I have ever been in. I suddenly came on it near the village of Magny Saint Luz; it was a huge big chateau standing back in a big park and belonged to an old lady who was then at Meaux. I went into prospect and found an old caretaker who was only too delighted to give me the run of the house. She opened up all the rooms and handed out sheets by the dozen from the linen cupboard and actually showed me two priceless bathrooms. I really think I deserved a large vote of thanks for that find.
We spent the night there and all the next day until evening. Most of the day we spent wandering round the flower garden and also, I am ashamed to add, in the kitchen garden. For the first time in my life I gorged myself to depletion on the most perfect peaches I have ever seen; they were in the pink of condition and growing there by the score. If we did not take them the Germans would the next day so what did it matter. I should like to go back to that chateau some time after the war, when the peaches are ripe.
Reluctantly, we left that night and went to some hill close-by, where we were to act as a rearguard for the rest of the Brigade. (Every Battalion doing this delightful job in turn.) I hung about with the C.O. until the allotted time was up. No Germans appeared so we packed up and followed the rest of the Brigade, who were three hours ahead. Rather an amusing incident happened during the night. At every hourly halt everybody, as a matter of course, always lay down at the side of the road. At one of these halts we all lay down as before and it appears we went fast asleep; at the end of about half an hour someone woke up and discovered that, with the exception of the last company, all the remainder had gone on about 20 minutes before. As at this time there was little distance between us and the enemy, it was deemed advisable to go "hell for leather". However, all's well that ends well and we had had half an hour's sleep into the bargain.
At that time I had got very expert at sleeping on my horse. I used to have my coat and Burberry made up into a sort of cushion on the front of the saddle. I used to lean on this and twine my arms under the ends, the horse following after the others automatically. Many a good sleep did I have in this way.
We passed through Crecy-en Brie that night and a very nice town it looked. We pushed on steadily all next morning. Passed through the beautiful Foret de Crecy, up one of the glades of which a Uhlan patrol was seen. At this time they were all over the country, but of course they never came very near us. Later that morning we met our first reinforcements which consisted of two officers and 100 men. They were very welcome and we began to feel we were very strong again. About 2 o'clock in the afternoon we came to a large park where we halted; it appears that this place was southeast of Paris - only about 10 miles away.
Just as we were sitting down to a meal the most glorious news came to hand. We had finished retreating and were going to turn and push the Germans back across the Rhine. What had happened was this:- Von Kluck, instead of continuing straight to Paris had suddenly turned off to the south-east for some reason. Joflre took advantage of this and rushed out the Paris Garrison in taxis, buses, lorries, etc., and threatened the German flank. Von Kluck, fearing a bad defeat, ordered a general retreat all along the lines and thus ended a period of great anxiety for the Allies. The date of the turn of the tide was the 7th September, which curiously enough was my birthday.
The Retreat was over and then came the interesting part or period of the war up to that time, chasing the enemy and finding traces of him almost every yard of the way.
That night we spent in the open under the trees and very nice it was too! On a hot summer night I cannot imagine a pleasanter way of sleeping than in a valise in the open air. As soon as it was dark we got the acetylene lamp going and had a very cheery evening. At 5 a.m. we were off again but retracing our steps this time. The spirits of the men were very different to what they had been the day before. We were all itching to get after the Boches as quickly as possible. Everyone was conjuring up in their minds visions of prisoners in thousands, guns and booty, abandoned at the side of the road and goodness knows what else. However, we were to be disappointed in a lot of things.
The villages we passed through that morning were full of the delighted and cheering populace; the day before they had seen what they thought was a beaten and retreating army and had expected the enemy at any minute. Now that same army was coming back with the faces of the men flushed with the anticipation of the victories to come. We were looked upon as the saviours of France and Paris, heroes of the hour. When we arrived at the place where we had inadvertently been left behind through being asleep two nights before, we came on a wretched Uhlan who had just been captured. He was a miserable looking youth of about 18. I think he was very surprised at the kind treatment he was receiving. Why he had not got off with the rest of his tribe I do not know. Shortly after this we turned off to the south of the road we had come by and went to the northwest.
My Battalion was the advance guard of the Brigade that day and had therefore to go carefully, as of course, had the country in front, composed of the North Irish Horse, who kept in touch with us. In the course of the afternoon we were informed that some Uhlans had been seen in the village on a hill which we could see. The Battalion was halted to enable the Cavalry to reconnaitre and to clear them out if possible. This they did after a short scrap in which a German officer and two men were killed, one of whose lances I eventually got and carried on about a baggage wagon for several weeks, using it meanwhile as a standard to hang our acetylene lamp on.
We were not going further than the village that night and I went on to find out what fields had been allotted to us. When I went into the village the Cavalry had gone and I was about the first of the Infantry to appear; of course the people were overjoyed to see us and I passed a profitable half hour getting eggs and cider off them which were to be delivered a little later. I went to a chateau then and found that it belonged to a famous Paris surgeon who was still there. He cam out to talk to me and asked me the news. He invited us all to dine with him, which unfortunately, we were unable to do. We got to our field and started to prepare for dinner, when to our disgust a dispatch rider arrived with orders to move on another two miles. The reason being, that we were to follow up the Germans as hard as we possibly could. It was rumoured that there was a chance of cutting off large numbers of them. The country in which we then were had no infantry there, only cavalry, so there were very few signs of them, but the next day we were to pass through rough places, where there were traces of the swine every yard of the way.
I slept that night under a stack and did not wake up until the sun was full on my face and beautiful it was! I have never been so brown in my life as I was then, almost the colour of old brown boots. As far as I remember, we did not move off until the middle of the morning as we were said to be too far ahead of the French on the flanks. When we did get under way we were passing through continuous orchards for several hours. Girls and women were picking the most delicious ripe peas and apples as hard as they could, filling baskets with them and allowing us to take as many as we could carry. Personally my haversack was soon full to overflowing and my pockets as well.
In the afternoon we came to the first German bivouac; it was a choice sight. The remains of cattle, geese, chickens, etc. which they had stolen and killed were lying all over the place, intermingled with old paper and every kind of rubbish. Amongst other things there was a dead horse, the smell of which, together with the stink peculiar to any place the Germans had been in, nearly made us sick, hardened as I was to most things by that time. They seemed to make a point of leaving a dead horse or two whenever they could; some of them could be smelt nearly a mile away. I do not know what the smell is which one connects with the Huns; it was very definite and everybody who was on the Retreat will tell you the same. I used to make a point of leaving the column and riding through these bivouacs, partly out of curiosity and partly to study their field sanitation which appeared to be nonexistent, as I never saw a trace of any.
We made a very useful find that afternoon, namely a little hooded cart which had been abandoned. It had obviously been used as a mess cart. We took it and put it to the same use. It went about with us wherever we went and always rolled up at the halts with bully-beef sandwiches and wine ready for us. It had been looted from some place in Belgium.
That evening we passed through Coulommiers and halted for the night just the other side. The town was a pitiable sight and some of the worst orgies the brutes ever had had taken place there. I believe they had committed some of the most appalling atrocities. The Germans had only been there one night but they had made the most of it, having broken into every shop in the place, got blind drunk and afterwards proceeded to amuse themselves in the ways which have now become so notorious. The streets were always filled with straw. This I assumed the men slept on. There was no rejoicing in Coulommiers at our appearance. On the contrary, it was like the city of the dead. The souls of the poor people had undoubtedly been killed for the time being. I do not wonder, if, even half the tales I heard were true.
That night we again slept in an open field. The more I think of it, the luckier I think we were to have such extraordinary weather throughout that awful time. Out of all the nights we slept out only four were wet.
We awoke in the morning to be greeted with the news that we had got several German Divisions absolutely wedged up this side of the Marne; it appears there was only one bridge by which they could cross; this being so small it would have been impossible for them to get across in time. We were soon trekking along and very cheerful too at the thought of getting at the enemy once more. One could not lose one's way as there were thousands of broken bottles spread across the sides of the roads. We passed through a village about three miles away which had only been evacuated the night before. It was a sight for the blind and is worth a short description. To start with there were the usual dead horses. We knew of these long before we saw them. At the time of passing they were being buried by some ancient civilians. The main street was strewn with straw, broken bottles and furniture from the houses; the doors and windows of which had all been smashed. I looked into several of them and never shall I forget the unutterable and appalling state of confusion and mess. The mattresses from the beds upstairs, had been brought down and spread on the floors presumably to sleep on, but when I saw them they were covered with the most unutterable collection of filth, including the remains of the soldiers' dinners. The floor and tables were covered with bottles and glasses, most of which were broken. The whole place reeked of the peculiar German smell which probably was partly due to the filthy sauces they use and which they upset over everything. I am glad to say we did not wait there long but pushed on about another mile extending over the country in preparation for a fight. The Germans were holding a line of hills about two miles away and had got to be driven out. Our transport was to be left behind so I got held up. My corporal was with the Medical Companion, etc., went off to the Battalion. We had to mark time for a bit to enable the guns to come up. Some Horse and Field Artillery were taking up their positions just in front of us and a Battery of Sixty-pounders on a small rise to our rear.
We were to advance in extended order and go on until the Germans were compelled to retire. The M.O., in an attack like this, is in a difficult position and there are two courses open to him: (1) to stay in the rear and form an Aid Post, sending the stretcher bearers forward to bring back any wounded; (2) to keep up with the troops and attend to cases as they occurred.
As we were to advance some distance I decided to go with the men and I certainly got plenty of excitement out of it that morning.
When we got level with the Horse Artillery the Germans started to shell us with shrapnel; we were advancing over open country in full view of their observers and must have made a splendid target. When you know you are not seen, shelling is not half so bad! Men were dropping out here and there, but our casualties were few owing to the bad shooting. The battery that was firing at us was somewhere behind the hills in front, but our gunners unfortunately were unable to spot it and got badly mauled themselves in consequence. We kept on until we got to a wood down in a hollow and the only way of getting it through was by one narrow path; this the Germans obviously knew about as the shells came crashing through the trees right on top of us. I had a very lucky escape there: two men who were walking on either side of me were both hit but I somehow escaped. When we got well down in the hollow we were safe, as the angle of fire was too acute. As we debouched from the wood we came to a very pretty little village, St. Cyr. A patrol was sent on and came back minus two men and reported that there was a machine gun on a little bridge in the middle of the village, which completely covered the main street. This had obviously to be dislodged, so an officer and two or three men were sent round to try and work their way up the bed of the stream and take the Germans in the rear. They managed this but much to their disappointment, when they reached their goal, they found that the bird had flown. We were now able to continue on our way.
In the village I found a convent with a Red Cross flag flying and the good sisters said they were all prepared to take in some wounded. (I was very relieved at being able to leave some of my friends in such good hands). They also produced some very nice little peaches, which were very welcome as it was a scorching hot day and we had had nothing to eat or drink for many hours. The battery on the hill in front, had by now ceased firing so on we went and found the place where it had been in a pit behind a a large farm. Only an aeroplane could have possibly spotted it and it had evidently got away without having a shell near it. A little further on, in a corn field, we were halted and then extended again, being then told to lie down and wait until the ground had been reconnoitred again. During this time, an orderly came up and told me that there were two wounded German officers in a house on the right and that as soon as anybody went into the room they shot at them. However, as I had a Red Cross on my arm, I thought I would risk it. Just outside the door there were two dead horses which had been blown to bits by one of our shells. I braved the house and vainly searched every room. Somehow or other they had got away and as far as I know were never caught. All I can say is that their wounds must have been very slight. I found a lot of blood on one of the beds so I have no doubt they had been there. One extraordinary thing I always noticed, was that the Germans managed to get their dead away. Occasionally we saw one or two but it was quite the exception. It was said that they pile their dead at the bottom of their ambulance and they put the wounded on top. Whether this is true or not I do not know.
We advanced about another mile and then halted again. At that time there was a great deal of shelling on our right and I was told afterwards what it was due to. Our Divisional Cyclists, numbering about thirty, had suddenly come on 300 Ulhans. The latter surprised and thinking themselves outnumbered, had surrendered. Whilst they were being collected our gunners spotted them and not knowing they were prisoners opened fire on them. About half of them were killed and the others got away. Of course, a lot of our men suffered as well. This was one of those unfortunate occurrences which are bound to happen occasionally and were really nobody's fault.
We bivouacked for the night in an open field and it was a most miserable business too, as it was pouring with rain and we got soaked through. I remember that night well as I had a splitting headache and was hauled up to see an officer in another regiment. It meant a long walk and I lost at least an hour of the four we had to sleep.
We were now close to the Marne again, and after an hour's march next morning we were halted on a hill overlooking the river. We spent several hours there and very interesting it was too. Another Brigade was advance guard and we could see it climbing the hill on the other side of the river as German shrapnel was bursting all around it. The right wing particularly caught it and had to fall back several times. The German gunners, at the beginning of the war, were perfectly marvellous. The rapidity with which they found a target and spotted our guns, was always a source of amazement for us.
When we got underway again, we kept right on, crossed the river and climbed the main road up the hill which we had been watching from the other side. I may as well say here that our hopes of catching large numbers of the enemy at the Marne had all but vanished the day before, as we had been held up for too long by their rearguard. As we climbed the hill the same wretched Howitzer battery started on us. As it was obvious that it had to be silenced somehow, my Battalion was detailed to try and take it. So we turned and went down through some woods into a valley which separated us from the hill where the German guns were. All this time our guns were trying to find it, which they eventually did before we arrived. When it was found, twelve officers and men were lying dead round the guns which had to be abandoned. Working our way along the lower road, we came to a bend further on where we were ordered to stop as the woods in front were full of Germans who were firing on the road. A horrible thing had happened there shortly before we had arrived. Two of our Battalions had marched unexpectedly into an ambush and had been frightfully cut up by machine guns. I went along later and found the road in a most ghastly condition, with the bodies of our poor fellows strewn along it. As soon as the woods had been cleared the stretcher bearers went through it and along the road bringing back the wounded, who were loaded into ambulances and sent back.
We slept where we had halted, as orders had come that we were to attack and occupy a certain village, about four miles away by dawn. I think it was about two a.m. when we started and it was, of course, pitch dark, raining as well so anything but pleasant. We went along in single file for a long way through a wood. It occurred to me how awfully jolly if the Germans prepared an ambush for us and concealed a machine gun! As far as I could see there was nothing to prevent them as we had come out on the flanks.
Soon after leaving the wood, we passed a burning farm which had obviously been set on fire a few hours before. It appeared to be deserted and the desolation of the whole place brought home to one the way in which the horrors of war affected the civilian population. We soon got on to the main road and saw plenty of signs of the Germans, who had evidently been retreating in a great hurry. The sides of the road were strewn with coats, caps, belts and all forms of equipment. We now had patrols out on the flanks but they were quite unmolested and we got to within sight of the village without any trouble. One company was sent on ahead whilst the remainder of us went into a farm to get a rest and some food. The house had obviously just been left by the enemy as it was sacked from top to bottom and was in the same indescribably filthy condition as the others we had seen. One could not possibly sit down in such a place so we made the best of a straw barn which had been used as a hen roost. The straw was damp and dirty. The stench was revolting, but it was only that of chickens and was certainly preferable to the house. The cook made a fire, soon having some breakfast ready, after which we had a short nap. When I woke up I was told by our patrol who had been in the village, that there was a cottage full of German wounded. I went there as quick as I could but found no trace of them. It was evidently only a rumour and probably referred to another village.
The Battalion came up as I was leaving, so I joined them and we were soon up with the whole Brigade. The Cavalry had, meanwhile, gone on ahead to harass the German Rearguard which they did pretty effectively as we afterwards found. We kept on steadily without anything exciting happening until about three in the afternoon when we entered a village in which there was a Cavalry Field Ambulance. They were extremely busy and I asked one of the officers what was going on and was told that there had been a pretty fierce tussle on the hill behind the village. It appears, that our guns had shelled a German transport column and thrown it into disorder. The Cavalry then following up and having their turn. As we went on up the hill we saw a good many Germans dead by the side of the road a fair number of prisoners also, many of whom were wounded. At the top, the thickest part of the scrap had evidently taken place. We halted here and had a great time helping ourselves to the contents of the wagons which were scattered about the place, with the usual dead horses. These were German wagons filled with provisions looted from the French. There was one full of tinned meats, asparagus, petits pois, coffee and sugar etc. It had been hit by a shell as the two horses were lying dead there and very much knocked about. I whistled up our Mess Cart and filled it to overflowing. For many a day we appreciated the petits pois and asparagus. One wagon was full of new saddlery which the Transport Officer soon found a place for.
There were several badly wounded prisoners sitting at the side of the road waiting to be taken away by the ambulances. Altogether that day 700 prisoners were taken by our Cavalry. We didn't go further that night as it had then begun to get dark. Our bivouac, as usual, was a cornfield and I must say one can make oneself extremely comfortable on a pile of recently captured booty and the mere fact of it's having been taken from the Germans made it appear all the nicer.
We were off at our usual time next morning but the day was quite uneventful. During the course of the morning we passed through a village where the enemy had dug trenches and gun pits. It was a very good position and they had intended to put up a fight there but for some reason or other had abandoned the idea at the last moment. There was a dead German by the wall of a house close to the trenches. It looked as if he had been shot by his own people.
That night, we halted in a charming little village called Bartennes, where we found a most obliging woman in a cottage. It had been pouring with rain all the afternoon and this good soul took endless trouble in drying our clothes.
The Cavalry at this time were in touch with the German rearguard on the main Soissons road. They did a good deal of damage I believe and took four prisoners. While we were at tea the Scots Greys passed our house on their way back from the scrap. After tea, as the rain had stopped, I and a few others went out for a stroll, particularly to look at some German baggage wagons which had been abandoned just outside the village. Unfortunately the villagers had arrived before us and taken everything of any value. On our way back an orderly met me and asked me to go and see a wounded German who was in a house close by. I got some dressings and then went to have a look at him. He was shot through the thigh and I think the bone was fractured. He was a Bavarian and struck me as being a very nice man. At any rate, he was extremely grateful to me. In the village, the Germans had written up on the doors, "Good People" and things like that! This was for the benefit of their friends when they came to the same place looking for billets but luckily they did not stay there long. The Adjutant and I shared a bed that night, or rather lay down on one in our clothes.
Next morning, the 12th September, we arrived within a few miles of the Aisne. Here again just as at the Marne we were supposed to be going to take whole divisions prisoners but somehow or other nothing came of it. The Germans were said to be crossing the river by several bridges and our guns were busy shelling them. On our left, in the direction of Soissons there was a continuous roar from the French Seventy-fives. This was the first I had heard of them in action. That evening when the French entered Soissons they got considerable numbers of the officers of the Prussian Guard blind drunk in some of the houses. The French kept up their fire all night but we stopped at dusk. No further advantage was to be attempted that night so we went back to a small village, Serches, to find billets. After a long and wet search we got the men housed and found shelter for ourselves and very soon we were sitting down to dinner. That night I slept on a mattress on the floor with three others. I could sleep on anything in those days without a murmur.
13th September, next day, we were destined to start a very unpleasant week. In fact from that time onward the war for us took on quite a different aspect up to then, with the exception of the first week of the Retreat. There had been very little fighting but now we were going to learn what the German artillery fire could be like.
We started off early next morning and after going about a mile we started to descend a long hill into the village of Ciry. This same hill later on in the day was destined to be turned into a horrible shambles but I shall come to that presently. We halted for two hours in the village and I had time to look around. On the other side, towards the Aisne, there was a high wooded hill which hid us from the Germans who were at that time entrenching on a hill just the other side of the river. To the right, the country was flat and stretched away towards Conde and Braine. Eventually, my Battalion was ordered to proceed and went along the above-mentioned wooded hill to occupy it in case of an attack. I looked round and decided to make an Aid Post in the part of the village nearest to it. Having settled on a moderately clean cottage, I was proceeding to get my equipment into it when and behold! the Germans started dropping high explosive shells into the village. This was my first experience of the destructive Five Point Nine Inch Shells. One dropped plum in the backyard of a house opposite where I was and blew the house right across the road and almost immediately afterwards another one blew up a house a little further off. As most of them seemed to be falling in my street I decided that it was not a healthy spot for a Dressing Station and that we should be decidedly better off up the hill with the men. We proceeded there without delay and quite a nice place it was too. We were comparatively safe from high explosive, as the angle was too acute. Shrapnel could get us all right which it did next day. The men were all along a road which ran along the side of the hill and they were busy scraping out holes for themselves in the bank at the side. I found several of the officers lying on the grass on the opposite side of the road so I joined them.
We were destined to have plenty to watch. I had not been there very long before my attention was attracted to the road on the opposite side of the village, down which we had come an hour or two before. When I looked I saw masses of transport. This was obviously a sighting shot for immediately afterwards they came over our heads in fours, falling right in the road and in the middle of the Field Ambulance. The transport at once scattered and the ambulance cleared out as quickly as it could but not before some awful damage had been done. About forty officers and men were killed, including an R.A.M.C. officer, a Captain, who was a great friend of mine and to whom I had spoken only the day before. Another R.A.M.C. officer was frightfully smashed up and died a few hours afterwards. This road was obviously in full view of the Germans and it struck us as madness to have brought all that transport along it by daylight. The shells continued to come over our heads all day and to drop into Ciry which was at our feet.
That evening, I and a few others went up to the top of the hill to a place where we could see the whole of the German position on the Chivres Ridge. This position was an extremely strong one and had been prepared as a precaution during their advance on Paris. I believe there had been a big fight there in 1870. From where we were we could see for miles and it was a wonderful sight just as it began to get dark. On the left, the French shells were bursting hundreds at a time and in front of us a few of our shrapnel ones could be seen. The flashes of the German guns were plainly visible as well. We remarked that under such a hellish fire it would be impossible for the enemy to hold that position and we expected them to clear out that night. Little did any of us think that they would still be holding it a year and a half later.
I had some bad news that night, namely that three R.A.M.C. friends of mine in one of the Divisions on our right had all been killed the day before.
Nothing happened to us that day and we had a good sleep that night under the trees. Next morning the shelling started again but avoided us and continued to drop into the village. About midday, however, the men stupidly lit some fires, the smoke from which must have been seen above the trees, for almost at once we had salvoes of high explosive shrapnel bursting beautifully all along the road. They caught us absolutely unawares and killed four and wounded a good many more. We soon got under cover of the bank and then were more or less safe. The wounded I had brought up to a small quarry where they were fairly safe and remained there until after dark when I got some ambulances up for them. The date now must have been about 15th or 16th September but I am not sure of it. Orders came that night saying that a pontoon bridge was being built across the Aisne and that we were to cross it and dig ourselves in on the other bank by dawn. We started off about 3 a.m. and marched down through the village of Sermoise to within a few hundred yards of the river. Here we halted whilst the Adjutant went on to reconnoitre. Half an hour went by and we could not work out what was the matter as the first signs of dawn were appearing in the sky. We all knew that if they were still there when day broke, we were in full view of the Germans, without any cover, and only a few hundred yards away from them. Well! day broke and we were still there and the tidings came along that the R.E. had been unable to build the bridge. We had to make the best of it and put up with whatever was going to be meted out to us. By Jove! It needed some putting up with too. The men were spread out along a single line of trees and told to lie down. We knew that we had been seen by the German observers and almost immediately four high explosive 5.9 shells burst together, exactly over our heads. They were beautifully timed and only a few yards above us. The scene after that was appalling. A great many men had been killed. The groans of the wounded was too nerve racking for words. Men started to get up and run to a flank but this was no good as there was no cover. They had to be kept down with a very strong hand. I felt like running away. I expect everybody did but it was no good and I knew it was up to me to set an example to the men. I tried to encourage them and tell them it would be all right if only they would lie down.
My thoughts were indescribable as I realised that lying on my belly, the next shell might blow me to smithereens. A minute afterwards, another salvo came and my Orderly Corporal, who was with me, only a few feet away, was frightfully shattered; one of his legs being completely blown away. Of course his death was instantaneous! The shelling gradually died down and I ran back to find some place for the wounded. The only cover available was four haystacks about 400 yards in the rear but right in the open. I collected the stretcher bearers and we eventually got the wounded back behind the stacks. The bearers had an awful time as they were being fired at the whole time, there and back.
That morning, twenty were killed and about fifty wounded. It was a horrible business and would never have happened if the bridge had been there and the Acting C.O. taken the Battalion where he was ordered to. I dressed the wounded as well as possible, everything being very rough and ready under such conditions. We were left in peace all the morning, the shells passing over our heads and dropping in Sermoise. About two in the afternoon, the Brigadier came to share the stacks as he said they were the only available cover. His arrival was the beginning of our trouble. To start with his horse, startled by a shell, ran away. Several men tried to catch it. The Germans evidently saw this and assuming there was a Headquarters behind the stacks, started to shell us hard. The shells dropped behind and in front and on both sides, all of them so close that fragments kept on dropping close by us. This went on until dusk when they lengthened their range again on the village. It was a miserable time, crouching down behind those beastly stacks wondering whether the next shell was going to get one. To make matters worse I had nothing to eat or drink and had had nothing since the early morning. The rain had started and I felt about as wretched as it was possible to feel. I sent an orderly to tell the ambulances where to come, then went to cadge a piece of bread and jam off the General. After this I went and lay down on the soaking ground to try and get a little sleep. It was pouring all the time and my clothes were soaked but in spite of that I managed to get a little sleep. About 2 a.m. the ambulances arrived and I got rid of my wounded and returned to my wet bed. I know of no greater relief than that experienced by a Regimental M.O. on getting rid of the wounded; in this case they had accumulated since the night before. Thus ended the first of my "Stack days"; the second was to be even a little more exciting.
After a horrible wet night I got up next morning, wet through, shivering with cold and the only thing for breakfast was two biscuits and nothing to drink. Luckily, the sun came out and I gradually got dry. The Battalion had retired a few hundred yards, dug itself some dugouts and fortunately for them, had no casualties that day. In fact they were not shelled at all. We were not so lucky and were shelled all day. Lying behind a stack, on an empty stomach, waiting for the next shell to blow you to smithereens is anything but pleasant and I do not advise anybody to try the sensation. About three in the afternoon there was a tremendous crash and the next thing my Corporal and I knew was that our stack was lying on top of us, the full weight of it not being on us as it was partly taken off by a small tree in front. Having been extricated from the debris, we found that a shell had hit the side of the stack and burst onto the road a few yards away, wounding a horse and man who were behind another stack. The Germans evidently thought they had done us in that time as they lengthened their range again into Sermoise.
I heard that there was a Regimental Aid Post in this village, so as soon as it was dark we went there and joined up with them. They had a rotten time of it as well, but had found a sort of half cellar behind a wall in which they had been. It was called the "Funk Hole". I passed a week there and we had no casualties. The sick were brought to me in the morning. Each evening I went to the Battalion who were ensconced in some good dugouts. They never had a shell near them. As a matter of fact, I came off much worse as there was a battery just behind us which was being continually shelled. As soon as the first one came over, we used to retire to the funk hole until it was all over. This wretched battery used to start as soon as it was light and consequently irritated the Germans so that they fired back. This meant our having to get up very early so as to be prepared to take cover if necessary.
At the end of the week, on September 24th, we were ordered to cross the river and relieve the Battalion in the village of Missy, about half a mile the other side. That night, as soon as it was dark, we crossed by the Pontoon bridge which was almost continually under fire, leaving the transport behind. When we arrived in the village we were told the most harrowing tales of how it was shelled every day and sniped into continuously. The situation there was most extraordinary as the houses were at the bottom of an almost perpendicular hill, at the top of which were German trenches, from which most of the village streets were in full view.
Our Mess had been a doctor's house and was so close up to the hill that it could not be shelled. I chose for a Dressing Station, a very large vaulted cellar and slept myself in a sort of dog kennel just outside. As soon as it was dawn I got up and went round to see what the sanitation of the place was like and found it appalling. My work was cut out trying to improve it.
Our defences consisted chiefly of loopholes in the houses and in places where there were a few trenches. One soon found that one had to move about extremely carefully as bullets from the snipers were continually pinging against the walls. Frequently one found that without knowing it one was in full view of the hill. About two o'clock they started to bombard us with a big old French gun which was in the Conde Fort somewhere at the back of the hill. They only gave us about ten shells a day from this thing and the rest of the time, at odd intervals, they contented themselves with annoying us with Whiz bangs. As soon as it was dark however, I am glad to say it all stopped and we had some very cheery evenings. In those days there was never any artillery fire at night, a very different state of things to those existing a few weeks afterwards.
On the whole, we had a very good week in Missy, which had been a very delightful little village and I was extremely sorry to hear a few months afterwards that the Germans had got it back again. I remember one episode that happened there. There was a chateau belonging to a French Admiral situated near the river between the lines. Patrols reported that some Germans used to come down every night and loot wines from the cellars. So one night we sent an officer and ten men down as soon as it was dark. They got into the house and waited for their prey. Two Germans finally turned up and finding themselves trapped, started to fight. Both were shot. Meanwhile another large enemy detachment was seen approaching and our party had to flee as hard as it could, getting back eventually without any casualties and bringing with them a shoulder strap of one of the men who had been killed.
One night a wire came through that the enemy were crossing Conde Bridge in force. This rather put the wind up us as if it was true it meant that we were trapped as we could not possibly get back across the river. However, luckily it turned out to be false. During that week our rations had all to be carried by hand across the Pontoon Bridge and usually arrived in the middle of the night. As Mess President I had to run the gauntlet of the Snipers and scour the village for vegetables. I generally managed to find some and also escaped the pot shots.
On the 1st October, we handed over Missy to the French and after three days marching entrained at a place near Compiegne, called Lonqueril St. Marie. We knew we were going up north to stop the Germans rushing for Calais. We did not know our exact destination. We traveled all one night and detrained at Abbeville next morning. I remember that morning well as an order came round that all officers and men were to shave off their beards. This caused terrible consternation to half of our Mess who had by that time some very fine specimens of shaggy beards and looked like nothing on earth. While the transport was being got off the train, I went into the town and bought some fish for our dinner, (the first we had had since we came out). We moved on in about two hours time and rested most of the following day in a pretty little village about five miles N.W. of Abbeville.
In the evening, we marched about ten miles to a village called Gueschart where we were to have a day's rest. I had a splitting headache that night and lay on top of one of the baggage wagons the whole way. One of our Majors had gone on ahead to look for a billet and as he had a good eye for comfort managed to find the Mayor's Chateau.
The Mayor was a charming man. When we arrived he prepared a very recherche little dinner with champagne. As I was feeling anything but well I could not do justice to it and quickly turned into a comfortable bed. We stayed there all next day and in the evening marched again about ten miles to a place called Haravesnes where some French motor buses were supposed to be going to take us to St. Pol. We hung about for several hours in the pouring rain and as our vehicles showed no sign of turning up we hunted round for some place to doss down in. The only available spot was a filthy barn which was also a hen roost. However, as there was no choice we had to make the best of it. Next afternoon at Fillievres, the buses arrived and took us to a place called Valhuon, the other side of St. Pol where we spent the night in a cafe. Next day, we marched nearly to Bethune. We were supposed to be going north of this but intelligence came that there was a gap between our lines and the French due east of Bethune and that the Germans were making for this, so our Division was detached to fill the gap.
That night we found a most beautiful chateau belonging to a French Artillery Officer. His wife was still there and was one of the most charming women I have ever met. She did her best to make us comfortable, producing the most beautiful linen, silver and wine and gave us an extremely good dinner. Next morning we were off early and marched through Beuvry to Annequin, which was being shelled hard at the time. We were there among coal mines and slag heaps which reminded us of the Mons days. Our Battalion was to remain in reserve that night so we made ourselves as safe as possible behind some stacks. I and a few others slept in a filthy little cottage close by.
The next evening half of the Battalion was sent up to hold a part of the line at a village called Cuinchy a few miles away. The stretcher bearers and I went with them and broke into quite a nice little house which we turned into a dressing station. Of course all the inhabitants had gone as the place was being heavily shelled. Luckily the Germans were only using shrapnel which was spattering against our house all day and sometimes smashing up the windows, chimneys etc. without doing any damage. The enemy made a big attack that evening but got a bad knock. They left 200 dead in front of our trenches. I got about 30 wounded in and made them as comfortable as possible on mattresses etc. I knew that the French were going to relieve us that night so I sent urgent messages to a Field Ambulance in Beuvry to send some wagons out to me. However, none of them seemed to have got there and I was in the rotten position of having a lot of wounded with no means of getting rid of them. The course I decided on was to get them, if possible to a cottage in Annequin, about three miles away. I sent on all cases that could walk with an Orderly in charge and directed them to the place. The twelve lying cases I hoisted on stretchers and as soon as the two companies in the trenches were relieved, started them off. Unfortunately, there was no road to Annequin. We had to make our way across fields. To my horror four of the stretcher squads got lost; the remainder, however, turned up and I managed to get some wagons to take them into Beuvry. By this time the Battalion had moved on, so I left a Corporal and a wagon and followed on. I and the remainder then chased after the others and caught them up just as they were getting into billets the other side of Bethune. I am thankful to say that the last squads eventually turned up after a very unpleasant experience.
I caught up with the Battalion, halted in a village N.E. of Bethune, stayed there the night and moved off next morning at 09.00. During the day (16 October) we passed many signs of recent fighting such as shell holes, ruined houses and graves of British and German soldiers. However, all was quiet and we heard no guns. Towards evening, we came to the village of Richebourg St Vaast which had been recently vacated by the Germans. As usual it was in a most revolting condition and had the characteristic smell. We decided to take an Estiminet as our Mess and at once turned the Mess servants and a Fatigue party on to clean it out. After an hour's good work we were just able to sit in it and have some food. The villagers who were left told us awful stories of the horrors that had been perpetrated there and as the village priest corroborated most of them, I have not the least doubt they were true. We stayed there until the following afternoon and then only went to a village about three miles away. In this village there was a smoking ruin and on investigating the place the charred bodies of two Uhlans and their horses were found. They were a horrible sight and several members of the party vomited on seeing them. Probably, these two men had got blind drunk and accidentally started the fire.
That night we had no sooner lain down to sleep than orders came that we were to move off at once and relieve some Battalion in the trenches before dawn. We soon got moving and with the two men as guides threaded our way through the Bois du Biez which was soon to become famous in connection with Neuve Chapelle. In this wood my servant lost my great coat and for weeks I had to make shift with a Burberry which is none too warm an article of clothing. I have no doubt the Huns found some good use for my coat when they occupied the wood a few days later. We got to our destination just before dawn and I took over the cottage which the M.O. of the Battalion we were relieving had used as a Regimental Aid Post. It was by no means an ideal spot and he told me it was in full view of the Germans and only about 300 yards away. Among other delights he left me 50 severely wounded cases which had not been collected by the Field Ambulance the night before. They completely filled the place and were a serious handicap for me when my own men began to come in later on in the day. We spent several hours getting things into ship-shape condition and luckily nothing much happened but in the afternoon things were very different and rather unpleasant. Men started to crowd in and I was working hard right up until the middle of the night. Shells were falling all round us but that day none actually hit the house. The ambulances luckily came up well and by daybreak I had got rid of all the wounded. I had managed to snatch about an hour off the previous evening for a little dinner. I joined the other headquarter officers in a small farm where the servants had got some food ready. In the middle of the meal I remember an R.E. officer coming in with a bundle of hand grenades which he gave to the C.O. This was the first time we had seen any and they were looked on with grave suspicion, especially as this officer's directions were of the briefest. He said "You just remove this little pin and then the grenade explodes on contact with anything". (They appeared to be far more dangerous to the thrower than to the Germans). I do not think the C.O. made any use of them at that time. When we did start to use them they caused heavy casualties amongst our own men.
Next day, 18th October, the scrapping started off very early and we were pounded away at all day. Casualties poured in and I was soon working all out with coat off and sleeves rolled up. About four o'clock in the afternoon I was sitting down just inside the door when there was an awful crash and I thought the whole place was coming down. Looking out at the back door I saw the cause of it. A small high explosive shell had burst on the ground about two feet away from the back wall. This worried me a good deal as the place was full of wounded with no protection for them. I knew what the Germans were trying for. There was a battery of Field guns about 200 yards behind us placed in between some stacks. Shells were coming over pretty rapidly and as I returned to the front door I saw a direct hit on one of the guns. A few minutes afterwards I thought our end had come! A shell went slap through one of the rooms full of wounded without bursting. It was a narrow escape as two great holes were torn in the walls and nothing could have saved us if it had exploded. Two officers who were leaning outside with their backs against the wall were both killed. I am glad to say nothing more touched us. The joyful news that we were to be relieved that night came round soon after this. It was none too soon either as we had had two hundred casualties in the two days. The particular spot where we were was so hot that a Battalion, if it could possibly be managed, was never left there more than that time. I got rid of my wounded that night and then after being relieved at dawn we trekked of to get some rest. As far as I can remember the place we went to was a little west of Neuve Chapelle.
The men were put into barns and having comfortably settled them we went to our own little mess. Our ration cart had arrived with the mail and we passed a restful hour or so eating and reading our letters. The rest of the day passed uneventfully and after an early dinner our valises were spread out on the floor and we turned in.
Next morning we marched to Festubert, a village which afterwards was to become famous. We thought we were going to be there for a few days rest but luck again proved against us. We got in some lunch and then the news came that we were to move off again at 4 p.m. to relieve the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry at Lorgies. I and a few others, after lunch, climbed the church tower where we got a splendid view of our position. Shells were bursting all along the line which was about two miles away from the village. A few hours after we left the Germans knocked this tower down and destroyed most of the houses. We reached the neighbourhood of Lorgies about dusk and halted until it was dark. Entering this village was anything but a joyful business for just as we got a quarter of a mile away the Germans started to shell it hard. Shells were bursting all over the place and we had to go right into the thick of it which was a very cold blooded business. It was a weird scene as several houses and stacks were on fire and lit up the whole place.
The D.C.L.I, had been badly knocked about and their Dressing Station was full of wounded. I did not like the look of it so we hunted about for a better place. I eventually decided on a biggish house with a shell hole through the top storey. It had a fairly good cellar which was what attracted me. The back of the house was in full view of the German trenches which were only about 200 yards away. The night was spent in barricading the windows and doors to stop stray bullets but were of course no good against shells. There was no sleep for anyone that night but this was nothing as frequently for two or three nights on end one never lay down.
Casualties soon started to stream in and it was not long before the cellar was full. The upstairs room having then to be used. Luckily no shell hit us that day though they came very close. The C.O. and Adjutant had their quarters a little way up the street and I ran the gauntlet there to get my meals. While we were at our evening meal I can hardly describe it as dinner, orders came that our line was to retire two or three miles that night, to a previously chosen position. It appeared that our present one was untenable without reinforcements which were not available. I have no doubt that if we had not gone back the enemy would have swallowed us up next day as they greatly outnumbered us. As soon as it was dark we left the place, half the Company remaining as rearguard.
An unfortunate incident happened to the K.O.S.B.s who were on our right. The M.O. and his stretcher bearers were not warned that we were retiring and they got left. The Germans came and found them all asleep in a house. Of course, they were all caught and were soon on their way to Germany. They were exchanged a year later and I met their R.A.M.C. sergeant at Aldershot some time later. There was rather a row about this business naturally, as it was due to great carelessness on somebody's part.
The position chosen for us to hold was just east of Richebourg L'avuue, a name which will always be engraved in my memory. The men were immediately put to dig trenches. Poor devils they had had no sleep for two nights but their lives depended on their having some good cover before day broke. I chose a farm for the Aid Post and this was situated a hundred yards behind the fire trench and just in front of the supports. As it turned out afterwards I could not have chosen a worse place but at the time I could find nowhere better. One naturally has to be as near the men as possible.
There was a very poor cellar there only three feet of it being below the level of the ground. The upper rooms were large but were no protection from shell fire as the farm was only one storey high. The farm people were still there and I had to use force to get them to go. They would not realise that the place would probably be blown to pieces in a few hours. The poor woman naturally was distracted and begged me to look after her cows and pigs. While the house still existed I did but the poor beasts were not destined to live very long. As soon as the place had been cleared out ready for the wounded I went out to see how the trenches were getting on. They were practically finished and appeared to be pretty good considering the time was so short.
Only a few German patrols had so far been spotted. About eight o'clock the first shrapnel shell burst over our lines and then began the worst five days I have ever spent. "Hell" would be a tame word to describe what we went through. The first day was comparatively speaking, quiet, as the Germans had not had time to get their big guns into position. We had deluges of shrapnel which knocked all the tiles off the roof but did nothing worse. In front of the trenches the enemy had crept up in some places and brought machine guns through the long grass and periodically traversed our lines. On this day we did not have very many casualties. From a side window of my farm I looked directly onto the trenches of the West Kents who were on our left, Neuve Chapelle and Bois de Biez. Occasionally I saw Germans hovering on the edge of the wood. At dusk the shelling ceased and all was quiet. We had our Mess in a house on a level with the support trenches and a quite cheery one too as we did not one bit realise what was coming. I slept in a room in my farm and had stupidly had all my kit taken there. Next day about ten o'clock the fun began. The Germans started to register on our trenches with 8 and 12 inch guns. All round us they fell, behind, in front and on both sides. Three fell in the little garden at the back, the ground round was dotted with shell craters. Many fell in our front line trenches, causing awful casualties. Men were buried alive whilst others were just dug out in time and were brought to, unable to stand with their backs half broken. My cellar was soon packed but I could not put up with any wounded upstairs as any minute I expected the place to be blown up. In the "Apology" for a cellar, our chances seemed to be extremely poor but it was the best that could be done. All day this went on and we listened for the shriek of the shells which came over in salvoes about every three minutes. There is nothing that I know of more trying to the nerves than to sit listening to the shells and wondering how long there is before one comes and finds your hiding place. The wounded were praying to be taken out as they knew they were really no safer here than in the trenches. When I was hard at work dressing, the shelling did not affect me but when I sat down and listened, trying to be cheerful for the sake of the men, my feelings were indescribable. We all counted the minutes until sunset as then we knew the shelling would slacken. At last when the sun went down and there was peace the sigh of thankfulness that went up from everybody was worth hearing. Upstairs we went, fires were lighted and soup was made for the wounded and men actually started to sing. In the middle of the night the bearers from the ambulance arrived to take my poor fellows away. They had to carry them a couple of miles as no wagon could be brought nearer. In the middle of that night the Germans made an attack but were driven back.
The next day was exactly the same, shelling without interruption went on all day. It was all large Howitzer high explosive fire. The day was spent in dressing the wounded and counting the minutes until dusk. The ground all round was by this time a mass of shell holes and both the fire and support trenches were mostly obliterated, the men occupying the shell holes instead. That day I had several who had gone stark mad and it was awful to have these poor fellows among the wounded as they were screaming the whole time and crying out that there was no hope for us, that we should all be killed. I think we all agreed with them but we did not want reminding of the fact.
We escaped again that day but our nerves were gone. I was told afterwards that the officers of the Ambulance, after coming to take the wounded went back and told their C.O. that they thought the shelling had affected my brain as I simply sat down and refused to talk to anyone. I do not think that there was any foundation for this except that I was worn out.
We were not to have a peaceful night unfortunately. The Germans attacked and a hundred or so broke through between us and the West Kents. We managed to form up our line again but the fifty or so surviving Germans were all round us firing wildly. The C.O. sent a message to me to arm my Orderlies and guard the entrance to the farm. Arms were scarce and so I gave my revolver to a Corporal and told him to search the back garden. He came back with three prisoners, all absolutely panic stricken thinking their end had come. We agreeably surprised them by giving them out cigarettes and rations. I must say I thought we were all bound for Germany that night but somehow our fellows carried on until dawn. It was an awful business as it was impossible to tell who was a friend and who not. All night a German machine gun played up and down the road outside my place, the bullets striking the walls with an awful clatter. Of course, they came slap through the doors and windows and one had to be extremely careful how one got about.
When day broke our position could be properly seen. The ground was dotted with dead and wounded, some moving, others quite still. I got ten wounded Germans in and an awful state the poor devils were in. The surviving Huns had scattered all over the place, some were in shell holes and others in half ruined cottages. Wherever they were they were a great menace as they were sniping into the backs of our fellows in the trenches. Parties were sent out to get hold of these men which were in some cases successful. The German shelling got so hot that our men were obliged to take cover. An extraordinary state of things then started. The German shells were falling thickly round the cottages where the snipers were concealed, and when one of them was hit they immediately came out in a panic. A man was then posted in the upper room in my farm and it was his duty to pick off these fellows as soon as they were shelled out. He did noble work that morning and effectively put an end to the sniping menace. Those that were not hit came to give themselves up. I was kept very busy with the wounded prisoners who were extremely grateful for any attention they got. They were astonished when we did not take their watches and money. One man insisted on presenting me with an electric torch, which no doubt the had looted from some French town. They were all young and of good class, well fed and in possession of good clothes throughout. One could speak a little English. He begged that they might be sent to the rear. They were in absolute terror of their own shells which were still falling all round us. Needless to say they had to put up with it until the evening and by that time they were in a state of collapse through panic. That day had passed off without our being hit but the day following was to be our great one.
The little back garden of the farm was now a mass of graves. Any man who died during the day was laid out there until he could be buried at night. That day there were at least ten, both German and British, these of course were only men who had died from wounds in my Dressing Station.
A most pathetic thing happened that afternoon. A young gunner Subaltern was on his way up to observe a machine gun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in his agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such a noise as he really could not help it. Pitiful as nothing could be done for him except an injection of morphia. I always will remember that incident, particularly as he was such a fine looking boy, certainly not more than nineteen.
That night passed off quietly but our numbers had shrunk dreadfully. We had now only just enough to hold the front trenches with no reserves. It was rumoured that we were soon to be relieved by the Indians. Our officers were dwindling too. An Adjutant, a great friend of mine was hit that day and greatly did I miss him afterwards. The West Kents on our left were commanded by a Subaltern, all the other officers having been killed or wounded. They were in a rather critical position as their trenches were hopelessly visible from the Bois de Biez. We all of us knew that if the Germans could make another big attack it would be all up and we should either be laid out or go to the Fatherland.
Next morning the shelling started at the usual time and the same nerve racking business started again. The crumps were coming just over and then short until about twelve o'clock when there was a blinding flash and a roar. The next thing I knew was that I was leaning against a wall in pitch darkness with the air full of dust and acrid fumes. Shrieks and groans were coming from all round. Of course, I knew well enough what had happened. A large shell had penetrated the wall of the house and burst just at the commencement of the steps leading down into the cellar. I did not know how many of us down there had been killed and nothing could be done without light. We were evidently buried as all the windows were extremely obscured. It was a dreadful position to be in. We all thought it extremely unlikely whether any of us would get out alive. After some time we heard tapping and eventually saw light through one of the windows - somebody was trying to get us out and we set to and helped the rescuing party to clear the window. What a relief it was to see the light again but what a ghastly picture was revealed. Six lay dead about the cellar and many wounded. One poor R.A.M.C. Orderly who had been standing next to me when the shell burst was lying dead with his chest smashed in by a huge fragment of shell. We got the wounded into the fresh air with great difficulty. I was then hauled out myself, my coat being badly torn in the process. From here we were directly facing the ruins of our farm. The whole place was blown to smithereens and it seemed a miracle that any of us remained alive. All my kit was buried under the ruins and I had nothing but what I stood up in. We were by no means out of the soup. Shells were still falling all round us and fragments coming down with a whiz at our feet. The day, 28th October, really was a sort of nightmare. The effect of it was still hanging round me for many a day. As soon as the wounded had been collected that night I went to another farm a little further back and took up my quarters there.
The 29th October passed with very little shelling and in the evening we were relieved by the Gwaria Rifles, tiny little men, like the Ghurkas. They came up at the double, jumped into the trenches and started blazing away for all they were worth. They were so small that they had to get things to stand on before they could see over the top of the trench.
No Battalion had ever needed a rest more than ours did but very little were we to get. That night we went to a village a few miles away and had a sleep, the first for many days. My personal troubles now started. I had no kit of any sort, nothing to sleep in, no razor, tooth brush, change of clothes or anything. The Quarter Master was my salvation. He gave me an old mail bag as a valise, a new supply of ration blankets, a pair of men's boots, an old Burberry, razor and brush, belonging to an officer who had been taken prisoner. The five remaining brother officers in the Mess each gave me some garment of underclothing. The result was that in a few days time I was more or less set up again but in a very rough and ready fashion. My kit being enclosed in an old mail bag made everything but an elegant turn out.
We had a good rest that morning and after an early lunch set out for Merville. There we were supposed to have at least three days rest. We arrived after dark and found a most delightful billet. I had a bedroom to myself, actually with sheets, the first time I had come across them for many weeks. I had visions of spending several comfortable days there and went to bed with that idea, but it was not to be.
About four in the morning I was woken up and told that we were moving at 7 a.m. How we all cursed! What was the use? We were all pushed into L.G.O.C. buses and rushed off at once. It appeared that the Germans were pressing very hard a Cavalry Division which was holding them up east of Bailleul. We were being sent to reinforce it. The Cavalry, the day before, had been driven out of Messines. We were to take it back again as it was an important and commanding position. About midday we were bundled out of the buses. A shell burst just in front of us! This was rather a nasty jar as no one had any idea that we were as close as that. On we went through the village of Wulverghem, halting just the far side. The village was the Headquarters of De Lisle's Brigade of Cavalry who were holding the ridge just in front of us. The programme was that our Battalion and the K.O.S.B.s were to advance in extended order over the Ridge and take the Messines Ridge which was about two miles the other side. They started about 4 and by 6 had taken a portion of the Ridge and held the village. I followed and took up my position in a farm just at the foot of the Ridge. When it was dark I went up into the village where I found an extraordinary state of things in existence. The Germans had got half the place, the dividing line running through the churchyard. The streets were of course all barricaded with furniture etcetera out of the houses. The place was lit up by burning houses set alight by the shells. There were a great many wounded scattered about the place, one house being full of Germans. One German officer with a fractured thigh tried to be most affable to me and insisted on shaking hands. I think he was highly delighted at being taken prisoner. When the wounded had all been seen to and carried back I retired to the farm for a few hours sleep.
29th October. Next morning, early, I was astounded to see men streaming back from Messines without any order at all. I asked some of them what it meant and they told me that the Germans had broken through and that they had been told to clear out as quickly as possible. This struck me as very extraordinary as I had heard nothing of it, so I went out into the road and found a Staff Captain with a drawn revolver, trying to stop the men and get them into some sort of order. He could tell me nothing except that the enemy had broken through the London Scottish during the night. The whole thing rather reminded me of Le Cateau and I did not like the look of it at all. It seemed to me that if we did not clear out soon we should run a great risk of being caught and so take a trip to Germany. So I rushed back and piled all the wounded on to all forms of vehicles and started off across the fields. When we got to the ridge in front of Wulverghem we found some trenches had been dug and were already lined with men, so evidently we got away none too soon. I put all the wounded in an estaminet in Wulverghem and sent a message for ambulances to come for them. Having got rid of these, things began to quieten down for a bit and we began to think of lunch. The Infantry were holding the ridge between us and the Germans and as the village was not under observation we thought we should be quite snug. Just as we were starting to feed there was a hellish clatter above us. Slates, tiles, windows, etc., were all falling on our heads and into the road. It appeared that three high explosive shells had burst immediately over the estaminet. I thought it was time to get out which we did like lightning. We were not a second too soon, for as soon as we had got under cover of the houses on the opposite side of the road a Jack Johnson (the name given to big Howitzer shells) fell slap on the house we had just left and blew the whole place to the ground. Several R.A.M.C. men who were standing in the road close by were unfortunately killed by fragments from it. (Those days were full of excitements of that sort and it now seems to me extraordinary that one's nerves held out at all).
After this little incident I and the stretcher bearers trekked a few hundred yards up the road towards Neuve Eglise. We found a nice little deserted farm there and I decided to make it my Headquarters. There were no more wounded that day at all I am glad to say. Wulverghen was shelled hard all the afternoon and evening but that did not worry us as we were well clear of the place. As soon as it was dark I walked up to the trenches and had some tea and heard the cheerful tidings that some Cavalry were relieving us that night. It was arranged that I should join the Battalion when it fell in at the foot of the hill. I call it the Battalion, there were not two hundred in all and only five officers. The Quartermaster and I were the only two remaining of those who left Dublin. Many new officers had been sent up to replace casualties but had themselves been killed or wounded. It had been appalling seeing one's friends picked off one after the other and I can only marvel now that I survived. At times, when I realised all those, my pals had gone, I nearly went off my head. The Quartermaster did not run very much risk as he stayed back with the transport.
We got back that night to Neuve Eglise, found quite a comfortable billet, no beds of course but mattresses on the floor. Next morning was very peaceful, and I had a good loaf, the first for many days. We seemed to be nice and quiet and out of mind that is experienced on getting out of range. One feels as if one can breathe again and look about and take interest in things instead of grovelling in some dirty ditch, trench or cellar not daring to hold one's head up.
The first day in Neuve Eglise passed very pleasantly and we thought we should not mind staying there for some time. The next afternoon however, the dear old Germans started to shell the town and we had to clear out across the open country with shrapnel following us. A few men were wounded, not seriously I am glad to say. After several hours' shelter in a ditch we returned to our old billet. On getting back I found an Orderly waiting for me with a message that I was to be given a rest from a Regiment and would go to NO 15 Field Ambulance. I was not sorry as all my friends were gone and the few officers remaining there were comparative strangers to me. If any of my old friends had been still there I should have applied to stay, hating the thought of leaving them. As it was, I was badly in need of a rest and welcomed the change. I left that night and went to join my Ambulance at Bailleul. (The date was somewhere in the middle of November or perhaps the first week. November 1914).
Life in the Field Ambulance is very different from a Regiment, sometimes it is strenuous to an extreme and sometimes slack. In the slack times I was always fairly busy as I was Transport Officer and had about seventy horses and this always kept me pleasantly employed. The C.O. I had been under before at the Curragh and I also knew several of the other officers and soon shook down in my new surroundings.
A few days after I arrived we moved off towards Ypres. We had a long trek and eventually arrived at Elverdinghe, a village close to the Yser Canal. We had not been there two hours before we were shelled out and had to move to Vlamertingue on the Ypres, Poperenghe Road.
The first Battle of Ypres was now in progress and we thought we should get in for a hot time. We were to be kept in reserve and next day took up our quarters in a filthy little farm at Ouderom, where we remained for a month doing nothing. It was the filthiest, smelliest place I have ever been in and my sleeping quarters were in a draughty, rat infested loft, and anything but comfortable.
From there we moved to St. Jans Cappel, close to Bailleul. The move was carried out on a day when the roads were frozen hard. As Transport Officer, I had an awful task getting wagons up a certain very steep hill on the frontier between Belgium and France. It took about three hours before all were up. We billeted in a Convent that night and a very nice place it was too. An English nun who was there did her best to make us comfortable. She told us that a German General and his staff had been there and had made the nuns wait on them. They had to provide flowers for the table, ducks etc. for dinner, receiving no payment.
We spent the next five months going backwards and forwards between the Convent and working up at the Dranouter. Three weeks working, five days resting back at the Convent.
Drenouter, a small village about three miles from the trenches, Neuve Eglise being somewhat closer. Our work consisted of going out at night with the ambulances leaving them when close to the trenches, then taking the bearers across fields into the Regimental Aid Posts and bringing back the wounded from there. It was very cold blooded work as bullets were whistling round one the whole time. No cover was available. Some of the Aid Posts were much worse to get at than others. They all had names such as 'TEA FARM", 'TRENCHMANS FARM", 'THE BAKE HOUSE" etc. The Frenchman's Farm was a horrible place to get at - a walk of about two miles over open fields, ditches etc. Our feet sometimes sank in over a foot and progress was extremely slow in consequence. There were also more stray bullets across that bit of country than one met at the other places. A good many men were hit there at one time or another. The Bearers had an awful time getting the lying cases back across the sodden country, the worst part being the negotiation of numerous ditches full of water. We usually went out about nine at night getting back at any time after midnight. The cases were then attended to and kept until the morning when they were taken away to the Casualty Clearing Station by Motor Ambulance. When we were at Dranouter we were with one Brigade and when at Neuve Eglise with another. Both of course belonging to the Division.
Our billet at Dranouter was a school house which looked on to Mont Kimmit, a famous hill in that part of the country. The Germans shelled the top continuously as they thought we had some guns there. As a matter of fact there were none and they wasted thousands of rounds on it. We used to walk to the top as from it one could see for miles into the German lines. When we were shelling the Messines Wijtschate Ridge it was a fine sight as it seemed to be just at one's feet.
About a mile behind our billet there were two six-inch Coast Defense Guns which fired directly over our heads at Warneton and Messines. They were an infernal nuisance; whenever they fired the house nearly fell down, windows fell open, plaster from the ceilings came all over the table and one's head felt like it was bursting.
Neuve Eglise was much the nicer of the two places. It was rather a jolly little town when I first saw it but its beauty was soon sadly marred by the daily dose of shelling with which it was subjected. Our dressing station there was in a convent and a very convenient place it was. There was a small theatre attached to it which was made into a ward for the wounded. Our Mess was up a side street close by and on the whole was not bad. The collecting from Neuve Eglise was much easier than from Dranouter. It consisted of going down the road three miles to the village of Wulvergern round which the Dressing stations were situated. This village was then a mass of ruins and very different to what it was when I had first entered it. The churchyard was torn up by large shells and the graves in many cases were laid completely open revealing some very ghastly sights. This village was not a pleasant place at night as there were an enormous number of stray bullets about and occasionally, particularly by the church, machine guns used to play into it. Just outside the village, were two dead horses which lay there for months. One became aware of their presence a great distance off. Eventually, they were covered over with chloride of lime but we could never make out why they had not been buried long before.
The shelling of Neuve Eglise usually took place in the afternoon and was generally in the neighbourhood of the church so we did not frequent that part much in the afternoons.
The convent was eventually completely destroyed by some heavy shells and the ambulance (14) which was then in it got badly cut up, a good many officers and men being killed or wounded. One shell had landed in the yard of the officers' mess but had not burst. As I have said before the ambulance spent several months pottering round between these three places.
Christmas Day, 1914, was spent at Neuve Eglise and there we all received Princess Mary's gift and card from the King and Queen.
A good deal of February and March I spent back near Bailleul in a farm. I was Transport Officer and as the horses were suffering from the wet and sodden ground I took them back to a place where they could be looked after better. I rather enjoyed those two months. I had jumps put up in a field and spent a great deal of the time on horse back trying to train the riders to jump.
One night whilst I was there I was coming back from Headquarters and it was pitch dark and the road was very rough. The old grey I was on suddenly stumbled and went down on her knees shooting me over her head into a ditch full of icy water. I was soaked through and arrived back in anything but a good temper.
The old farmer and his wife at the farm were the most charming old couple I have met in France. I used to go and sit with them of an evening and talk about the war etc. They always insisted on my drinking coffee and several glasses of excellent cognac, of which they seemed to have plenty. They had had the Germans in the farm who had behaved in the usual way taking several hundred bottles of wine and everything else that they could lay their hands on. If I ever go to that region after the war I shall most certainly look that old couple up.
On Easter Sunday, 1915, we went up to Ypres. It was a soaking day and we had a march of 15 miles. We started early and entered the town in the afternoon. Never shall I forget my first sight of the place. There was not a house that had not been hit and the majority of them were level with the ground. There was a horrible musty, mouldy, damp smell about the whole place that depressed one beyond words. The Cloth Hall and Cathedral were of course mere skeletons. We went past these and turned down the rue de Lille which was the most damaged part of the town. Our abode was to be the remains of the convent close to the Pont de Lille. We were relieving another Ambulance which was extremely glad to clear out. They greeted us with the cheerful news that the night before three shells had come into one of the buildings where they kept their wounded and had killed a good many of them as well as the Orderlies.
Our Mess room was an old oak panelled one, quite comfortable but extremely spoilt by the fact that all the windows had been smashed, the glass being replaced with paper. This and the kitchen were about the only part of the building left standing.
Ypres must have been a beautiful town. It is almost completely enclosed by a wall and moat which was in a nearly perfect state of preservation. The Cloth Hall and Cathedral stood in the centre of the town and on a slight hill, all roads directly leading up to them. The Pont de Lille, which crossed the canal was not more than one hundred yards from where we were and was the only way by which supplies, troops, ammunition, etc. could get out of the town in the direction of Hill 60. The Germans had fired thousands of shells at it but up to that time had never hit it. At the back of us were the Cavalry Barracks which were also a very favourite target for the Huns. So between the two of them, our situation was anything but a comfortable one.
A week after we left the Hill 60 business started. This hill was about two miles south east of the town and in our Brigade area. The importance of it to the Germans was that from there they had a splendid artillery observation post and could see the whole area between the trenches and the town. The R.E. had mined this Hill and at a given time it was blown up. Of course it was known that hell would be let loose afterwards and that our casualties would be large. So, in order to deal with these an Advanced Dressing Station in dug outs was formed behind a railway embankment about a mile behind the Hill. The idea was that stretcher bearers could follow the line to the Railway cutting through the Hill where the Regimental Aid Posts were. They would then bring the cases down to the dug outs from where they would be taken by motor ambulance. This idea sounded well in theory but when it came to the real thing difficulties were appalling. The whole of the area together with the town and the roads leading out of it for a distance back of ten miles were swept by the most infernal shelling that has ever been seen.
The mines were sprung at the prearranged time and the West Kents occupied the craters and the Hill with very few casualties. The Germans were taken completely by surprise and made no big counterattack for 24 hours. They turned every imaginable gun and trench mortar on to the remains of Hill 60. It was hell for the men there and the casualties were awful. All reinforcements had to go up to the railway cutting which was swept by shrapnel. The craters and the cutting were a mass of dead whom it was impossible to bury. The state of things there was too ghastly for words. After two days I was sent down there to relieve the M.O. in command of the Advanced Dressing Station. For two nights and three days I was there without any sleep in fact without lying down at all. Our bearers were bringing the wounded down by the hundred. We had no shelter for them and as shells were raining all round us many of the wounded were hit again. The bearers were wonderful and kept on night and day agood. Many were killed or wounded but that made no difference to the others. The ambulances came down through Ypres as far as Brigade Headquarters and then we loaded them up. Shells were dropping right amongst them and very few did not show some damage. The corner where we loaded was a sight, packed with wounded, ambulances, stretcher bearers, wagons etc., shells coming into the middle of the mass every few seconds. Gradually the night wore on and by midday most of the wounded from the night had gone. Other cases continued to come down but the awful congestion was over for a few hours. We had time to eat a little bully beef and biscuit and to have some tea made.
In the afternoon the shelling got heavy again, the Germans made another attack and took back part of the Hill. The same awful time started again and went on through the night. A lot of our Bearers were hit and we had great difficulty in carrying on. However, by midday next day the wounded had all been got rid of. About three in the afternoon I was relieved and started to make my way back towards Ypres. An ambulance was to meet me at a crossroads about a mile away. To get to it we had to cross some fields. Before we had got halfway across shells started to drop round us so we doubled our speed. My servant, who was carrying my kit soon got exhausted so I took a turn at it. We eventually got to the crossroads before the ambulance and had to wait. It was a very unhealthy spot and was shelled day and night. When the car did arrive we were thankful but our troubles were not over; as we were going up the rue de Lille there was a roar like an express train and a deafening crash. It was dark as night and we were choked with dust. As soon as the air got clearer I saw that a house had been knocked down and was lying across the street. It appeared that a 17 inch shell had landed in the garden at the back of it. As there was no time to waste we got the ambulance across the wreckage and cleared out of the town as fast as we could and just before another 17 inches arrived.
Life in Ypres at that time was very extraordinary. There were hundreds of civilians there and in between the bouts of shelling they opened what remained of their shops and came out themselves in all their finery. It was an absurd sight to see pretty girls dressed in the latest fashions looking into hat shops which consisted of one storey only, all the rest having been blown away. In the Grande Place were any amount of stalls selling cakes, and jewellery etc..
The Colonel and I used to do a great deal of walking about seeing the sights. Among other things there was quite a flourishing restaurant in the rue de Lille. I lunched there once and a very excellent lunch I had too.
The shelling used to come at any old time sometimes in the middle of the night and sometimes in the day. While I was shaving one morning they pur over about 100 into our street and killed and wounded 110 men from some Highland Regiment which was in a billets close by. The station they used to shell every afternoon with great regularity. Needless to say it was always empty so the Boches wasted a great deal of ammunition.
Collecting the wounded from that cursed Ypres Salient was most unpleasant work. Shells and bullets were coming over the whole time from about three different sides, in far greater numbers than they ever did in the Neuve Eglise neighbourhood. All the Regimental Aid Posts were miles away from any road with no paths leading to them. It was a matter of hours getting the wounded back at night.
The Salient was so acute at that time that one seemed to be almost completely surrounded by the star shells. One night a bullet came down into the ground practically between my legs. I cursed because it had not gone through my foot and given me a nice comfortable wound to go home with. Bullets which come close to one's head are the most unpleasant. If they are very close they almost deafen one. One feels naturally inclined to duck on hearing one, but of course if it is going to hit one it would do so long before one could get out of the way. All the same, shells are much worse than bullets. I do not think there can be any comparison. I suppose it is the deafening row that puts the wind up one.
That was just about as near to a shell of that size as I ever want to get. I heard them going over my head when I was in the dug outs but had never had one burst near me before. That night I went back to Reningheldit and slept the sleep of the just. I was absolutely worn out and was very thankful for the rest.
It was a great relief to get into bed at night after these collecting trips even though the bed was in a top storey in Ypres. One morning the A.D.M.S. came up to see us and saw two wretched little Ford Motor Ambulances in the yard. He was awfully angry and said they were to be taken out of the town at once as they might be hit by a shell. This annoyed us very much as the Fords appeared to be far more important than our own lives.
There was a little cafe at the back of the Cathedral in the rue de Dixmude that the Colonel and I used to go to and while away a short time. One would meet Belgian and French officers there who were always full of spirits and we had great larks with two pretty girls who were there.
After we had been in the town about a week the shelling got much more intense and all the remaining civilians cleared out. How they stuck it as long as they did was always a mystery to me as any amount were killed and wounded every day.
About the end of the month things got so bad that all the troops were sent out of the town. We went to a village called Reningelst, leaving some officers and men in Ypres to form an Advanced Dressing Station.
Shortly after this the Germans launched their first gas attack on our line north of Ypres. The gas was chlorine and at that time we had no protection from it and in some cases treatment was of no avail. Dozens of cases lay choking and dying. Within a few days we were supplied with tow and grease soaked in some solution.
Shortly after this I was evacuated sick to England.
After two months at home I was given command of No. 15 Motor Ambulance Convoy. We were posted to the Sixth Corps in the Third Army and took part in the Battle of Arras.
Early in 1917 I was given command of the 42nd Field Ambulance, 14th Division, during the absence of the C.O. who had been evacuated sick. He returned for a few months and then I was put in charge of Advanced Dressing Stations in the Inverness Copse and Passchandale Sectors. I then resumed command of the Field Ambulance and remained with it until the end of the war. During this time we were posted to the Fifth Army and took part in the German breakthrough on the St. Quinton Front. The Division was badly cut up and had to refit and eventually took part in the final attack that finished the war.
* Cyril Helm. b. 7 Sep 1888 at Hampstead, Micldx. MRCS Eng LRCP Lond 1912. (Camb & Middx). Lt 24 Jan 13. Capt 30 Mar 15. A/Lt Col 5 Jun to 18 Jul 17 and 23 Dec 17 to 31 Mar 19. Retd and granted rank of Lt Col 7 Dec 21. TA: Maj 20 Nov 29. Resigned TA i Apr 34. Rejoined i Sep 39. A/Col ii Sep 41. T/Col n Mar 42 to i Aug 43 and 16 Oct 43 to 6 Aug 46. Ceased employ 7 Aug 46. TA: Maj 10 Oct 50 (4 Jun 31). A/Lt Col 10 Oct 50. Retd TA (Hon Col) i Jun 52. BEF France & Belgium 1914-15 (invalided) and 1915-19: CO 42 Fd Amb 1917-19. CO 19 CCS 1940- . W Africa 1941-43: CO 46 Gen Hosp 1941-42, ADMS HQ Gold Coast Area 1942-43. CO 79 Gen Hosp 1943-44: NWE 1944-45: ADMS HQ L of C Area 1944, CO 101 Gen Hosp 1944-45. MELF: CO 30 Gen Hosp 1945-46, ADMS HQ 15 Area 1946. CO 11 (Southern) CCS TA 1950-52. OBE i Feb 45. DSO i Jan 18. MC i Jan 15. Despatches 19 Oct 14, 17 Feb 15, 30 Dec 18. 1914 S. BWM. VM.