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Q.6.a and Other places Part 2

On February 3 we were relieved and A Company stayed four days in the railway cutting at Hill 60 in close support. The second day I went with Capt. Welch and Lieut. Greene to the trenches north of Mount Sorrel which were called Canny Hill. That journey was full of incident, we seemed to be shelled or bombed all the way to Mount Sorrel and back, and Capt. Welch has often humourously suggested that I was the Jonah. It also meant crossing the dismal swamp in daylight, and how we did it without being seen and shot I really do not know.

During our stay in the cutting I explored the old broken trenches behind our support line at Hill 60, and found a fine dump of English bombs of early types. I spent quite a long time drawing their teeth.

One little incident I remember at this spot. About 1 A.M. an elderly R.E. officer came into our shelter, and told us in a voice shaking with joyful emotion that he had just blown up a German counter-mine which had been threatening our mine galleries at Hill 60.

On February 8 we marched back to Canada Huts, and had another four days' rest. This time the bombers carried out a good deal of live practice with Mills bombs at some bombing-pits about half a mile from Canada Huts. It was my first experience of the sort; but Sergt. Moffat kept me up to the procedure at the firing-pit. Also it was the first time I had the chance of throwing a live Mills bomb myself. On February 12 we were due to take over the trenches at Canny Hill, and I went up early and by myself, riding to Cafe Belge and thence on foot to Hill 60, Mount Sorrel, and so on to Sanctuary Wood. It was a long way round but I knew no other way. My dugout was in the wood, rather far from the front line and from the H.Q. of A Company in Davison Street. Our front line trenches were about quarter of a mile away from the German front line, but there were signs that the Germans were digging a forward trench along a hedge about 200 yards away from our front. This activity gave the Staff some uneasiness, and considerable interest was taken in these forward workings. I went out with Capt.

Welch for a short visit in that direction the first night, but we saw nothing of interest. The next night Capt. Welch brought back a revetting stake from the new German trench. I believe it was on February 13 that the Germans attacked and took the 'Bluff,' some trenches south-west of Hill 60. About 3.30 P.M. our own trenches were bombarded for about two hours continuously with field artillery, and a lot of pieces were blown out of the top of our trenches, but no infantry attack developed. After this a small mine was blown up under our old trenches at Hill 60 and a platoon was wiped out there. But an attempt by the Germans to occupy the crater was frustrated through the initiative of a machine-gun officer. I saw and felt the shock of this mine going up, and a wonderful sight it was in the evening light. The shelling went on for some time after dark, whilst to our right our artillery thundered away in support of several fruitless attempts to recapture the lost trenches at the 'Bluff.'

On February 14 I was told to organise a series of bombing parties, one from each company, to visit the German advanced trench at different times during the night and if possible to bomb German parties working there. I decided to accompany the first party, from A Company, between 8 and 10 P.M. Sergt. Dorgan, an experienced patroller, went with me, also L.-C. Lowes, Ptes. Austin and Gibson, and two other bombers. As it was very wet, I had a sandbag taken by each man to lie down on. The scheme was to creep right up to the new trench near the hedge, and await the arrival of the German working-party. So we crept out along the wet ground and got to the trench, which was about two feet deep.

We found no one there, and Pte. Austin went on into the hedge to keep a look-out. In the hedge were found a German sniper's plate, a steel shield with a loop-hole in it, and a German entrenching tool, like a small spade. These were at once annexed. Then we lay down again on the sandbags and waited with eyes and ears straining for about an hour. But no Germans came, though we had one warning from our sentry to get ready to fire. After that, cold and thoroughly soaked, we returned in triumph with the sandbags and our spoils, which we placed in our own trench. The other parties went out later but found no Germans at work. Possibly the wet night or the battle on our right prevented them from coming out to work that night. The object of these forward trenches was afterwards apparent, when four months later the Germans attacked and took Mount Sorrel. On February 16 we were relieved and went back into support for four days. I have forgotten where we went, but I think it was to the Canal Dugouts not far from Swan Chateau.

On February 20 we returned to the same trenches at Canny Hill and held them for five days. The first night in, Capt. Welch was badly wounded through the shoulder whilst bringing in a wounded man who had been hit whilst outside wiring. He was a great loss to the battalion, and was sadly missed by the men as well as by the officers. It now turned very cold, and we had a fall of snow several inches deep. This made it difficult for parties to work in the trenches without being spotted. I had an unpleasant experience of this. I was looking for an emplacement for a grenade-rifle stand, and I selected a likely-looking spot just behind the front line. Then I brought a party of bombers to dig the place out. We had not thrown out five shovelfuls of earth before a shell came whistling just over our heads. Fortunately I dispersed the party at once along the trench. Then the fun began. Shells came whizzing in all round the unlucky spot, till a direct hit right in the middle of it apparently satisfied the German gunners and the storm ceased. After that I chose another place farther along the trench where no digging was required.

On February 25 we left Canny Hill and went back to Canada Huts. On this occasion we had to make rather a detour to allow the troops of the 3rd Division to use the roads; and in so doing we passed Ypres railway station.

On March 1 we moved into the support dugouts at Transport Farm, called Railway Dugouts. We were told to expect a bombardment by our guns that night, as the 'Bluff' was to be attacked and retaken early next day.

The bombers of the 7th N.F. spent some time detonating grenades by candlelight in the bomb store at Transport Farm. Sure enough there was a terrific bombardment for half an hour. It was the first of the kind that I had seen, and I believe that at least 500 guns of all calibres were collected for the occasion. The whole of the landscape seemed to be alight, every hedge flickering with flame; whilst away towards the 'Bluff' there was a sullen red glare where our shells were bursting.

Nothing further happened that night. But at dawn next morning the 3rd Division attacked the 'Bluff' without bombardment and surprised the garrison, taking many prisoners and recapturing the lost trenches and some more ground besides. I saw one or two droves of prisoners coming back past Bedford House, the first time I had seen any live Boches.

The bombardment by our guns started again soon after the attack, and our guns kept up a slow rate of fire all day. In reply the German heavy guns shelled the back areas freely, especially the road past Transport Farm, and we got a few shells near the railway. We got orders to take over the trenches at Mount Sorrel the same night. I left with a party of bombers soon after 1 P.M., going along a C.T. to Sanctuary Wood and then back through the trenches to Mount Sorrel.

We found the trenches in a sad mess. That morning there had been a demonstration with all arms along this part of the front, and the enemy had naturally retaliated and done a lot of damage. To increase our troubles it became very cold, and the snow fell inches deep. But there was no more shelling on either side for the next week. Apart from sniping, which was assisted by the snow, we were left in peace to bale out the mud and repair the trenches. This cold snap caused a lot of sickness, and it was not improved by our having to hold these trenches for over a week--a long time under such wintry conditions. At last, on March 9, we were relieved and moved back to some dugouts near Bedford House. Here we stayed for some days, taking working-parties up to Hill 60 at night, from 7 P.M. to 1 A.M. One night we were shelled off the roads, and had to come back with nothing done. Another time I took a party to mend a breach in the front line at Hill 60. I think we went back to Canada Huts about March 16--at any rate we had a longer rest than usual. Sir Douglas Haig came over to Canada Huts to inspect the battalion. Amongst other things he inspected A Company who were drawn up in their hut, 2nd-Lieut. Gregson and myself being the subalterns there in charge. The General spoke to Gregson first, and asked him how long he had been out. He replied: 'January 14, sir'--meaning January 14, 1916. His reply was, however, taken to mean 'January 1914,' and quite a little discussion took place, which amused me much, as Gregson stuck to his point. Afterwards the General came round to my end of the hut and asked me how long I had been out.

'January '16, sir,' I replied. 'That's all right,' he said, 'well, I wish you the best of luck.' There was an amused twinkle in his kind sympathetic face, as I was still half-smiling over his little controversy with Gregson.

After this we moved off to another rest camp not far away, for a few days. On March 24 we were due to take over the trenches at Hill 60 again for three days. I went up early in the day and 'took over' the various bombing arrangements. The trenches now included some on the south side of the Railway Cutting, and I had my dugout there in the top of a small hillock called the 'Mound.' From 7.30 P.M. to 10 P.M.

that night the trenches and Cutting were heavily bombarded, but the relief was not much delayed. The 7th N.F., however, had great luck in having only two men wounded whilst coming in. They were unfortunate casualties, it is true, 2nd-Lieut. J.H.C. Swinney[4] and Sergt.

Dorgan, both good men and a loss to the battalion. The next three days were bad days for us. The battalion had over fifty casualties, much above the average. Four days in the line generally gave about seven or eight casualties. On March 25 British mines were exploded at St. Eloi, and the mine craters were occupied by the 3rd Division. The explosion took place just before dawn, about a mile or more to the south, but it woke me all of a shake. I thought at first that I was going to tumble down into the Cutting the ground heaved and rocked so much. The German heavy artillery took the precaution of bombarding our part of the front, and caused many casualties and much damage in the front line.

The whole of C Company batmen were killed by a shell, and 2nd-Lieut.

Burt, a new arrival but an old friend, was also killed. Poor lad, he was always certain that he would be killed as soon as he got out to France! I saw in the trenches a pile of our dead, three or four deep, waiting for removal to the rear. The shelling was severe at times during the next two days. Lieut. Platt, a forward observing officer of the 50th Divisional Artillery and a well known and welcome figure in the trenches, was killed by a shell just below my own dugout. We had cause, indeed, to remember our last visit to Hill 60. During this visit I first met some Canadian officers who were looking over the line before taking it over from the 50th Division.

On March 27 we were relieved and I went back with A Company to some dugouts near Bedford House. Our first day there we were shelled out of these dugouts and had to take refuge for a time in Bedford House. A Belgian battery had just arrived close to us, and unfortunately they gave the position away. In the afternoon I went a long round to various reserve bomb stores to check the stores. Next night I paid a last visit to the Cutting at Hill 60 with a working-party.

Second-Lieut. E.W. Styles was also there on a similar job.

He had just come out; and being anxious to see something of the famous Hill 60 trenches he went off by himself into the front line, and, I suppose, asked various questions of the sentries. Anyway, when next I saw him he was coming back down the Cutting followed at an interval by a sentry with a fixed bayonet, who asked me if I knew who he was. My reply was no doubt disappointing to the soldier, who thought he had really captured a spy this time, and earned his two weeks' leave--the reward for arresting a spy.

On March 29, before leaving the area, I acted as guide to some Canadian troops, from Cafe Belge to the Canal Dugouts. They seemed to be fine fellows and well up to strength in all their companies. The same night our battalion went back to Scottish Lines at Ouderdom, but we moved back to Canada Huts next day.

FOOTNOTES:

[4] A special friend, who unhappily was killed at Wancourt in 1917.

VII

KEMMEL

On March 31 I rode over with various company officers to Kemmel, and we looked over the trenches H2-K1 below Wytschaete Ridge. We were to take over this part of the line from the Canadians in two days' time.

It was once a quiet spot, and I think we were sent there for that reason. But we soon found that we had come out of the frying-pan only to go into the fire. The battle that was still raging at St. Eloi about a mile to the north was destined to alter the character of the once peaceful Kemmel area. I had now changed my mess. All the old officers of A Company had disappeared since I first joined the battalion; so I accepted an invitation from Capt. G.F. Ball to join D Company mess. I was glad to do this, for not only was Capt. Ball the kindest and best of fellows, but there were old friends there--2nd-Lieuts. Peters and J. Robinson--whom I knew well at Alnwick.

On April 1 the battalion set out for the new area, marching first to Locre and halting there for the midday meal. Later on, towards night, D Company proceeded to R.E. Farm, a support billet just vacated by Canadians, and stayed the night there. The Canadians left a lot of excellent ration tobacco behind them both here and in the trenches.

[Illustration: Wytschaete Ridge--Trench Map, April 1916.]

Next day we went forward to the new trenches. They were a change indeed from those in the Salient, and it was evident that there had not been much heavy shelling there. Instead of the high narrow trenches at Hill 60, they were mostly mere breastworks with little or no back protection. And the C.T.s were hardly deep enough to afford protection from sniping or indirect rifle fire. Fortunately the Germans did not snipe these trenches. There were three gaps in the front line, and two small posts in No Man's Land. A long winding C.T.

brought you from Battalion H.Q., which were at Rossignol Farm about a mile from the front line trenches. The main features of the landscape were the Wytschaete Ridge and Petit Bois--a thick wood on our left front. The German trenches were not at first at all close to ours; and both their wire and ours was thick and solid. We had a big mine shaft in the supports, but a good way back from the front line. The Canadians told us that there had been little fighting there except between patrols and during raids. And it was evident that they had spent more time and labour in draining the trenches than in fortifying them. I had my quarters with most of the bombers in a support trench, H.5, about 250 yards from our front line. We had the trench all to ourselves and during my first visit to these trenches, which lasted six days, it was a quiet, happy home, with a green field behind and an occasional pheasant crowing in the hedges. Unfortunately for the bombers, emplacements for 60-pounder trench-mortars (worked by the R.F.A.) were already being dug at either end of our trench, and I knew there would soon be trouble for H.5. We had a curious little bombing-post outside the front line at H.4, which was only held at night. It was inside our wire, but you could only reach it by clambering over the top of the parapet after dark. The post was connected by a string to a sentry-post in the front line. And various signals were arranged to warn the sentry in the front line as to what was going on, for example, two jerks on the string: 'Man returning to trench,' three jerks: 'Enemy patrol on right,' and so on. A similar bombing-post was also held at night for the first time during this visit. This was in an old broken-down trench outside our wire, called 'J.3 Right.' It was more difficult of approach owing to the mud and to its distance from the front line, and of course more dangerous because it might be attacked by the enemy's patrols. Capt. Hugh Liddell of B Company found this old trench whilst patrolling No Man's Land. It was probably once part of the front line which had become waterlogged and then abandoned. Capt. Liddell had his H.Q. in J.4 at this time. The first night he went with me to this trench with a party of bombers, and we stayed from 2 A.M. till dawn was breaking. Capt. Liddell was a great tower of strength to us in these trenches, one of the most fearless and pugnacious of men, with a taste for wandering about No Man's Land o' nights. It did you good merely to look at him.

On April 8 we were relieved by the 6th N.F., and D Company moved to a billet at R.C. Farm. One of the buildings had recently been fired by a shell, and the bodies of several horses that had been cremated inside made the air rather pungent. Whilst we were out of the line, the German artillery started shelling the trenches severely, inflicting heavy casualties on the 6th N.F., and punishing especially the support trench at J.4 and the bombers retreat at H.5. During our rest I went with Capt. Liddell and a working party of B Company to dig and fill in some cable trenches behind the supports of the 'L' Trenches. During the work I first made the acquaintance of Lieut. A.E. Odell, the Brigade Signalling Officer, who later on became a great friend. We went back to the old trenches on April 13, and I found the bombers of the 6th N.F. had moved their quarters from H.5 to Turner Town (left), two rows of small splinter-proof dugouts behind the mine shaft. The trenches were badly knocked about, and the German artillery and trench-mortars were still causing trouble. I now messed with D Company at their H.Q. in K.1.a. On the evening of April 10, I had to patrol the ground near the mine shaft with a party of bombers, to look out for a German spy who was thought to be making back this way. We saw nothing of him, but I believe that 2nd-Lieut. J. Robinson arrested a Canadian Mining Officer, who in the dark was unknown to him.

On April 18 we were relieved by the 6th N.F. their Bombing Officer, 2nd-Lieut. A. Toon, taking over from me. This time we moved back to Locre. But I was sent to B.H.Q. at Bruloose with my servant, as Lieut.

W. Keene was away on leave, and it was intended that I should act for him till he came back. However I was not long at B.H.Q. before it appeared that Lieut. Keene would be returning that night. Before going off to Locre, however, I was asked to stay to dinner with the officers of B.H.Q. which I did; and it was a pleasant experience. The battalion had good quarters in Locre in the Convent School, and we soon found that a good lunch or dinner was served by the Nuns at the convent to weary officers. They also let you use the convent baths. On April 20 we held a battalion dinner there in commemoration of the Battle of St.

Julien.

On Good Friday we had an Easter service, as we were to be in the trenches again on Easter Day. Our padre was Capt. Rev. J.O. Aglionby, C.F., whom we came to know and like very well. The bombers had a day's training at Bruloose, and we were asked to bring our steel helmets, which had just been issued. So I wore mine for the first time. After the practice was over, I was asked to come and see the Brigade Bombing Officer fire off some Mills rifle-grenades, which were a novelty then.

Whilst this was going on a grenade burst prematurely soon after leaving the rifle, and a piece came back and struck my helmet, cutting the lining and scratching the metal. After that I would never part with that helmet, though newer ones were issued later on. Our last visit to the trenches was to be shorter, and we were to be relieved by the 3rd Division in three days. We set off on Saturday, April 22, and arrived in the C.T. all right, for the Germans seldom shelled the roads in this area. But when we got there we found things rather lively. A shell killed two or three men of D Company as they were approaching K.1.a; and Capt. Liddell and I had a splinter from another shell between us as we passed up Rossignol C.T. On arriving I got a message from the Adjutant saying, 'The G.O.C. orders that you use the greatest vigilance by day and by night.' The next day, Easter Day, the enemy shelled the trenches all day. Capt. G.F. Ball and I had an unpleasant experience in K.1.a, after lunch. For nearly two hours a howitzer battery shelled the place slowly and methodically, working up and down the little trench. Many times dirt and rubbish came flying into our shelter, but the only direct hit was on a minor structure which of course disappeared. Next day our cook-house was blown in and the crockery all smashed, but fortunately it was empty of men at the time. In these trenches it was difficult to get artillery retaliation, for the fighting at St. Eloi swallowed up most of the spare ammunition, and the allowance of shells for the batteries was small; so the enemy had a free hand in shelling our defences. Early on the Monday morning the enemy fired a shallow mine between his trenches and our own. It was a method of gaining ground, for the craters were fortified and turned into a trench. In this way the Germans began to approach fairly close to us at K.1 and J.3. I had to register with Newton rifle-grenades on the crater, but as we were short of cartridges it was not possible to fire at night.

On April 25 we were relieved by the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, and I got away from the trenches with the last of the bombers about midnight. There was a big bombardment of these trenches next day, causing eighty casualties to the new-comers. My own little shelter was blown to pieces by a howitzer shell and the occupants killed. Nearly two years elapsed before I was again living in front line trenches.

VIII

DIVISIONAL REST

In the early hours of April 20 the battalion reached Locre and spent the rest of the night in billets. By 8 A.M. we resumed our march, and went through Bailleul to Meteren. It was pleasant indeed to see the inside of a town again, and to get away from the area that was broken to bits. We were to be out of the line, we hoped, for at least a month, so naturally every one was feeling light-hearted. The bombers of the battalion were collected in a company about eighty strong, and they were billeted together under my charge. Our quarters were at a large French farm, called on the map 'Fever Farm,' and near to it was a fine set of bombing trenches. Lieut. W. Keene was also living at this farm, in order to be near the bombing ground. And we had our little mess together in the farm parlour, and our bedroom in a nice dry attic. No bombing work was done for the first three days, in order to give time for the men to get rested and to clean their equipment.

The bombers were billeted in a large barn just across the yard, with plenty of clean straw inside. The French farmer and his wife were pleasant bodies, nice and friendly to us, and glad no doubt to be able to sell their light beer and eggs to the English soldier-man. The other companies of the battalion were billeted in farm-houses near Meteren. In case of an attack by the Germans on the Corps front the battalion had orders to go forward and man the trenches on Kemmel Hill. I received a paper of instructions as to what to do in case of alarm. We could tell that the Germans were causing trouble up the line, for we heard a heavy bombardment going on beyond Kemmel. About 1.30 A.M. on Sunday, April 30, the bombers' sentry came and woke me up, and I went downstairs to find a messenger had arrived with the code warning 'Kemmel Defences.' So I quickly roused the men and warned them to be ready to start in half an hour. We hurried into our war kit and formed up in the dark outside, and soon marched off to join the rest of the battalion outside Meteren. We learned that the enemy had loosed off a lot of gas beyond Kemmel, and we were to man the defences as soon as possible. The battalion marched along as far as the entrance to Bailleul, when just as day was breaking a cyclist orderly rode up with orders for us to return to our billets. No infantry attack had followed the gas cloud, and we were free to return to rest.

The Brigade had another alarm next day, but it was quickly cancelled; and after that we were not called out again. Every morning was given to bombing practice, and I offered a small prize each day for a competition in throwing. If it was wet the men stopped in the barn, and had a lecture on English or German grenades. One afternoon I walked over to Bailleul and had a bath at the Corps baths. They were rather primitive but the water was hot.

It made a nice change to get back to civilisation once more and to have a meal at a restaurant; and the shops of course were a great attraction.

About May 5, just as I was about to set out a second time for Bailleul, a letter came in for me from my brother George. It was dated the previous day and said that he was billeted with his unit close to Meteren. So I set off at once to find him, and had the good luck to meet him as he was cycling round on some medical inspection duties.

His unit had just come out to France and he had no idea I was so near at hand; and I think he nearly fell off his bicycle with surprise when I first appeared in that country lane. He could not wait long then, so I asked him to come to tea with us at Fever Farm next day. And two days after that I dined with the H.Q. Mess of his unit, the 15th Hants Regiment, which I enjoyed very much. Unfortunately I saw no more of him at this time, as I left Fever Farm about May 11.

It was now decided that I should hand over the bombing to 2nd-Lieut.

E.G. Lawson, a most cheery and energetic bomber, and return to company work. So I was put in command of C Company and returned with them to Locre, where I stayed for about a week. I had not much to do here, except the daily inspection of the company and orderly room. The men of the company included many of my old recruits of C Company at Alnwick whom I was glad to see again. About May 19 I got my first leave, it was for seven clear days. And I suppose there was no happier man in France just then. The train started from Bailleul station about 6 A.M. so I had to leave Locre the night before and stay the night at an hotel at Bailleul. I had a comparatively quick journey to the coast, for we reached Boulogne at 10.45 A.M. just in time to catch the 11 o'clock boat. I arrived in Folkestone about 1.45 P.M. and in London about 3.30 P.M. the same day. Though short, it was a happy time, and I returned on May 26, staying one night in Boulogne and reaching Bailleul about midnight on Saturday, May 27. I found that the battalion was still at Locre, but the Brigade had gone back to the line, holding the same trenches on Wytschaete Ridge. An unfortunate accident had just happened in our old trenches. Lieut. W. Keene and 2nd-Lieut. Toon were both badly injured and an N.C.O. killed in the trenches by a Mills rifle-grenade, which, through a defective cartridge, fell out of the rifle and burst in the trench. So when I got back to the battalion I was told I had to proceed to B.H.Q. at Bruloose and take over the office of Brigade Bombing Officer in place of Lieut. Keene. This closed my immediate connection with the 7th N.F.

for twenty months.

IX

BRIGADE HEAD-QUARTERS

An Infantry Brigade Head-quarters in France could be a happy home; but only if the Brigadier was liked and respected by the rest of the Staff, and tried to make them feel at home. It seems almost an impertinence even at this date for me to say anything whether in praise or in blame of the man who controlled the immediate destinies of the 149th Infantry Brigade when I first joined it. But as I became much attached to Brigadier-General Clifford I may perhaps be forgiven for describing him rather closely. Tall and dignified, with a cold exterior and a penetrating grey eye, he had the power of commanding the respect and obedience of all. His fatalistic contempt of danger took him into the trenches wherever shelling was hottest; and it is difficult to imagine how he escaped being sniped at Hill 60 or on the Wytschaete Ridge.

He was loved by the men of the 7th N.F. as one who was willing to share their dangers, and always ready with a word of cheer in the hottest corner. 'We could have gone anywhere and done anything for him, if only he had been there to see it.' Such was the epitaph that the gallant Northumberlands gave him when he fell. I found his old-world courtesy of manner and aristocratic bearing most inspiring.

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