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Q.6.a and Other places Part 9

We were now quartered in some old wooden huts, possibly constructed by the French; and though very comfortable inside they were hardly bomb-proof. At nights all the back areas round Ypres were heavily bombed and a lot of horses were killed every night and a certain number of men as well.

On October 27 the poor shattered remnants of my battalion passed B.H.Q., very weary and very few in numbers. Besides the Battalion H.Q.

Company there were just enough men to make one decent-sized company.

Lieut.-Col. G. Scott Jackson stopped to speak to me, and the tears trickled down his weather-beaten face, as he said 'Buckley, this has fairly done me.' Only those who have had a fine battalion cut to pieces can realise the feelings of their commander at such a moment.

I set to work with my observers packing a wall of sandbags round the wooden huts, as a protection against bomb splinters. It was not possible to protect the roof, but these sandbags were effective against anything but a direct hit.

I have never known German night bombing more persistent or more heavy than it was in the Salient just at this time. And although we never got a bomb in the same field as our camp they dropped close enough to be disturbing. A camp with some of the Divisional details was struck some little way from us, and the same night D.H.Q. at Elverdinghe Chateau were bombed, several motor-lorries being set on fire.

It was too far back for us to be troubled with much shelling, and the German long-range guns fired mostly over our heads at the more attractive targets of Poperinghe and Proven. One day during this short rest, October 29, I had a ride round with Lieut. Odell in search of a field-cashier's office where money could be drawn to pay Brigade details. After a long ride to different places we landed up at a Canadian Cashier's Office near Poperinghe; at this time the Canadians were on Passchendaele Ridge. About November 5 the Brigade returned to the line for a few days before the Division was taken out. On that day I returned with the Staff-Captain and Capt. G. Bell (6th N.F., Assistant-Staff-Captain) to Huddersfield Dugouts. On the following day I walked nearly as far as the Steenbeke at Martin's Mill, and the ground around Langemarck was about as dreary and shattered as any that I have ever seen. It was well described to me once as 'utter squalor.'

Next day I went to the camp of the 4th N.F. south of Langemarck and to Marsouine camp, to arrange certain details of the relief. The same night the Brigade was relieved, but I was left in charge at Huddersfield Dugouts till the evening of November 8 when I returned to the camp at Ondank. On November 12 the Brigade entrained at Elverdinghe station and were taken through St. Omer to Watten station.

We marched from there in the dark to the little village of Serques. We were now to have about a month's rest and training before returning again to the Salient.

XXVII

DIVISIONAL REST NEAR ST. OMER

Serques was quite a pleasant little village to stay at, but the arrangements for training were very scanty. I had to search round for suitable spots for rifle-ranges, and to agree with the owners for suitable compensation. Also I had to make some of the arrangements for a ferry boat to convey the troops across the Canal De L'Aa to a good training-ground between Watten and St. Momelin. On November 14 I paid my first visit to St. Omer, which is a nice town with plenty of good shops.

Lieut.-Col. G.R.B. Spain, C.M.G., of the 6th N.F. came to command the Brigade during the absence of Brigadier-General Riddell on leave. He was a man of remarkable erudition and a collector of prints and other things. And I soon found that we had many things in common and many interesting talks I had with him on a variety of subjects.

We discovered together several early flint implements and arrow-heads about Serques, and he told me a lot about the early Stone Age, which interested me greatly and set me looking for these interesting relics wherever we happened to be quartered.[15] Shortly after this time Lieut.-Col. Scott Jackson left the 7th N.F. to join the R.A.M.C. and to take command of a base hospital. He was succeeded by Capt. H.

Liddell, M.C., who now became Lieut.-Col. in command of the battalion.

After staying at Serques for about two weeks the Brigade moved to the area around Tournehem. This was not such a flat watery country; and we had better quarters in the house of the cure of the place.

It was decided to hold Brigade Sports here, and I was sent off to Boulogne to buy the prizes. I went there and back in a Divisional Staff car. I had lunch at the Officers' Club, where the W.A.A.C.'s were serving as waitresses; and very nice it was to see their fresh English faces again. A visit to Boulogne when you are not going on leave brings back rather melancholy feelings, and I was glad to leave the place.

An incident happened at Nortleulinghem, which was rather unfortunate for it spoilt an unbroken record. The 7th N.F., who were stationed at this place, were ordered to provide a field-firing demonstration for the Divisional Staff. The demonstration was to include the firing of a number of smoke-bombs--rifle-grenades with a small can of phosphorus at the end. Their successful discharge required considerable practice and nerve.

As Lieut. H. Richardson, the Bombing Officer of the 7th N.F., was away I was asked to come over and instruct the men how to fire these new weapons off. There were only two mornings in which to instruct them before the demonstration came off. Of course it was a very hurried proceeding, and I was rather horrified to find that the men knew practically nothing about rifle-grenades. (Most of the trained rifle-bombers had become casualties in the battle at Houthulst.) I did what I could to explain the working of the smoke rifle-bomb; but on the first practice taking place one of the men succeeded in blowing off the forefinger of another man, through firing too soon. Of course that was not a fatal accident, but it put the man out of action for the rest of the war--my only serious accident in bombing of any kind.

When the demonstration came off, there were to my great relief no further regrettable incidents of that sort.

On December 9 we began to prepare to return to the Salient, and I went with certain advanced details to Watten, where I spent the night in one of the houses. I managed to get a very passable dinner at the best local inn. We entrained next day at Watten station and were taken by rail to Brandhoek; marching to a camp quite close to the station.

I had seen in some of our Intelligence papers that the 14th Division was in a Corps immediately on our left, and I therefore knew that I might have a chance of getting in touch with my brother George.

Accordingly I walked to Vlamertinghe next day and heard that his battalion was stationed in a camp at St. Jean. On December 12 I was sent forward to take over B.H.Q. in Ypres, at a convent at the N.E.

corner of the city. The higher floors of the convent were all in ruins, but the ground floors were more or less intact, and in these we had our rooms and offices. The mess room was under a pile of rubbish outside. Having made the arrangements with the 150th Infantry Brigade, whom we were relieving, I had still an hour to spare before B.H.Q.

would arrive. So I decided to walk over to St. Jean and inquire for my brother's battalion. It took me about twenty minutes to get there, but there was no difficulty in finding the battalion or their H.Q. So I marched up to the H.Q. hut and asked to see Capt. Buckley. He came out at once and was very surprised to see me, for he had no idea where I was at this time. It was a hurried but exceedingly pleasant meeting. I had only twenty minutes to spare, and he was just going forward to the front line that night. So we had to 'swop yarns' very quickly. And he walked back part of the way with me towards Ypres. I thought he looked very worn out and depressed. He had had a very hard time in the Salient, and in a few days he was back in hospital with influenza.

FOOTNOTES:

[15] At Coigneux I found a series of early implements in which the British Museum took considerable interest.

XXVIII

THE PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE

The 50th Division were holding the line in front of Passchendaele Village and a little to the south. On our right were the West Riding Territorials, the 49th Division, commanded by Major-General Cameron (once one of our brigadiers); on the left the 14th Division. Only one brigade was in the line at a time--another remaining in support around Ypres and the other back at rest about Brandhoek. Thus a brigade went to close support for four days, to the front line for four days, and then back to the rest area for four days. This seems to be an easy method of holding the line; but, owing to the nature of the ground and to the heavy shelling that went on most of the day and night in the forward areas, it was impossible to keep a brigade very long in the front line. The battle on the ridge had been over for some time, but neither side was yet prepared to disperse its heavy concentration of guns. But the heavy firing was gradually, very gradually, becoming less severe.

Ypres itself had been badly knocked about during the great battle.

Most of the troops billeted in Ypres lived underground, but whilst I was living there it was never severely shelled. Shrapnel was fired occasionally at the balloons over the city, and also about the Menin Gate and the roads leading towards the east end of the city. But there were no heavy guns in Ypres itself, and there was at present no particular reason for shelling it. We therefore had not an unpleasant time ourselves in the city. I believe that the H.Q. at the convent were shelled whilst we were in the front line, but that only happened once.

On December 13 I went for a walk of inspection as far as Dan Cottages, some old German pill-boxes, where the forward brigade had their H.Q.

For the first mile or so from Ypres the ground seemed to be recovering from the heavy shelling it had received, and there was a good deal of grass now growing about the old British front line trenches. But as you got farther forward to the area of the heavy guns, the ground was badly shattered and every shell-hole full of water. Between this point and B.H.Q. the conditions were simply awful. A vast swamp of yellow-brown mud divided into craters of large size--all full of watery slime. And so it went on as far as the eye could see.

Here and there there were oases of dry ground, generally holding several heavy guns and dumps of ammunition. Whilst at intervals the swamp was intersected by a wooden road, used by the lorries to bring up ammunition, and by two or three duck-board tracks which ran winding through the awful mess of mud and water. These tracks were supported on wooden piles driven into the mud, and were more like wooden bridges than tracks. Sometimes they rested on firm ground, but mostly they were held up in the air by the wooden piles. Again right through the devastated area ran a good paved road from Ypres towards Zonnebeke.

Here and there in some of the drier spots you could see queer white mounds--the concrete pill-boxes, some of which were still sound enough, but others broken in and waterlogged. The pill-boxes and the road and the wooden tracks were of course well known to the German artillery, who lavished a great deal of ammunition every day on each of these targets. But owing to the methodical way in which the Germans fired on the tracks, it was always possible to mend them wherever they were smashed. Between 2 A.M. and 8 A.M. practically no shells came over on to the tracks, and during this time each day gangs of men went out and mended the damage done to them.

When the frost came and solidified the mud, travelling became safer if not so easy; for it was then possible to leave the tracks and go across country by walking round the edges of the shell craters. All along the road there was ceaseless activity day and night. Lines and lines of lorries going backwards or forwards, limbers, wagons, men.

When the enemy shelled the road, generally some damage was done, and it was not uncommon to see pools of blood in the road and the litter of broken vehicles. At intervals along the road there were vast dumps of ammunition and stores, and on the side tracks huge piles of every sort of salvage.

Forward again of B.H.Q. the country was perhaps not so badly smashed, except in the spots most exposed to shell fire. But the shell-holes were often full of German dead--I counted nearly 100 within a quarter of a mile of Dan Cottages. And on the forward wooden tracks used by our transport, the ground reeked like a slaughter-house. Fragments of everything just swept off the tracks. The limbs and bodies of the pack-mules lying sometimes in heaps sometimes at intervals all along the route. Of course the nearer you approached to Passchendaele Ridge the drier and firmer was the ground. But that awful swamp behind has probably no parallel in the history of war. How the Engineers overcame it is really a marvel. And great credit indeed must be given to this very efficient branch of the Army, and to the men who laboured there under the terrible conditions around them. I have mentioned the German dead; there was no doubt little time to give to them. But I hardly saw one body of a British soldier who had been left without burial.

On December 15 I went with General Riddell to visit the 5th N.F.

Battalion H.Q. at Tyne Cottages, some pill-boxes about half-way between forward B.H.Q. and Passchendaele. It was a long walk, and we went up the Zonnebeke Road till we were in the neighbourhood of that village, then along the mule track to Tyne Cottages. Whilst we were talking with Major A. Irwin at the pill-box a few light shells came over and sprinkled us with earth. It was best to be either inside or well away from a pill-box: but as the entrance to this pill-box was like a rabbit-hole and close to the ground General Riddell preferred to stand outside. After that we paid a visit to Dan Cottages, and returned back along the wooden tracks to Ypres.

[Illustration: Plan of B.H.Q. (Judah House), Dan Cottages.]

Next day B.H.Q. went forward to Dan Cottages and stayed there for four days. The Brigade observers were employed in two ways, partly as observers and partly as a gas guard for the B.H.Q. pill-box. This pill-box had already stood one or two strong blows from shells, but it still appeared to be pretty sound. The door of course faced the enemy, but was protected by a stout concrete wall and a bank of earth outside that.

It will be seen from the above plan that the quarters were very confined--the bunks being roughly six feet long and the room rather over six feet high.

One observer stood in the narrow passage outside the door as sentry and gas guard. He was of course relieved every four hours, and at night there were generally two on duty. The other observers who were not on this duty held a post about Hillside Farm about a mile forward of Dan Cottages. This was not altogether a healthy spot, but a good view was obtained towards Moorslede.

In this area observers were asked to pay special attention to the enemy's shelling, noticing the direction from which the sound of the firing came and the areas shelled and approximately the number of rounds. I had of course to write out the Brigade Intelligence Report each morning. The last night we were in these quarters a number of gas-shells were fired round the batteries and B.H.Q. They made the atmosphere very unpleasant; and though they were not thick enough to necessitate wearing the respirator, I suffered, especially the following night, from their effects.

On December 20 we were relieved and moved back to the rest area at Brandhoek, where we were glad to have four days' rest. On Christmas Eve we moved to our old quarters at Ypres, and the following night we had an excellent Christmas dinner thanks to the good services of Lieut. Behrens, our French interpreter, an old machine-gunner of Verdun. On December 28 we again went to the front area and held the line for four days. It was always the custom for one of the officers of the Brigade to keep awake on duty during part of the night. We took it in turns and did two-hour shifts. On the morning of December 31 it happened to be my turn to be awake on duty just about dawn. And this saved me from a very rude awakening. That morning the enemy had decided on a bombardment of our Divisional front and he commenced proceedings by shelling Dan Cottages with a battery of 4-inch naval guns, a very accurate weapon. We got a shell on the roof of the pill-box which gave a nasty concussion and put all the lights out.

That woke the rest of the Staff up except the Artillery Officer. I had hardly got the lights on again when we got another shell on the roof.

Again the lights went out, and this time a piece of concrete fell out of the roof and crashed on to the floor, knocking over some of our belongings, but fortunately missing the officers inside.

A few small fragments of concrete also dropped on the face of the Artillery Liaison Officer who had slept peacefully through the first concussion. He woke up then with a comical look of surprise, as if some one were playing a joke on him. Although another shell struck the bank at the doorway we had no more on the roof, and no casualties--only we found that all our telephone wires had been cut. I wonder whether our roof would have stood another direct hit! Later on in the day I filled the holes in the roof outside with blocks of ice and frozen earth, in fact anything I could find to act as a 'burster' in case of further shelling. At 12 o'clock midnight, being the beginning of New Year's Day, our artillery fired their usual reminder at the enemy. It has been a point of honour with us to fire off all our guns as soon as possible after the New Year came in. On the evening of January 1 we were relieved and moved back to Brandhoek. On January 3 the Division was taken farther back for a rest, and the Brigade marched to the district about Watou on the French border.

Having served for two years abroad I applied for a month's leave--it was a privilege granted to Staff Officers who needed a rest. My leave warrant reached me on January 5, and next day I left Watou and entrained at Poperinghe for Boulogne.

XXIX

GOOD-BYE TO THE 50TH DIVISION

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