30th April 1917

Gas all day - chlorine.
Three times tear gas.
Box respirators.
Sergeant J S Hunt of East Ham as instructor.
Pass to Harfleur and Havre - Montivilleurs. 4-9
Tea at Salvation Army Hut with Foster.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes
Google Maps entry for Harfleur here
Google Maps entry for Montivilliers here

29th April 1917 - Letter

Letter to Ernie's older sister Daisy ...

29th April 1917 (Sunday)

Church parade in cinema.
Foster of Somerset House, etc.
Two lectures. Captain Hiley.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

28th April 1917

Kit and rifle inspections.
Vapour bath and cold shower.
Half holiday.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

27th April 1917

Extended order on "Pimple".
Trench defence.
50 rounds blank.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

26th April 1917

Bombing and more bombing.
Lecture on German bombs.
Service at YMCA.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

25th April 1917

Trench routine, wiring, etc.
Lecture - Relieving Trenches.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

24th April 1917

Musketry, etc.
Bombing - smoke bombs.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

23rd April 1917

On the pimple all day.
Bayonet course, musketry, etc.
Draft of QWRs up the line.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

22nd April 1917 (Sunday)

Church Parade.
Sleep in sun.
Salvation Army Hut service.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

21st April 1917

Musketry and squad drill.  The morning was spent on the ‘Pimple’ but this being Saturday we were unexpectedly granted a half day off.  Having made my will by completing the relevant page in the Pay Book I gave attention to lighter matters.

The camp abounded with canteens run by the YMCA, Church Army, Salvation Army and some other bodies.  Here we stocked up with the minor necessities of life.  A good briar pipe cost only 1.50 francs, a pouch, about 50f, was purchased solely to take advantage of the free army ration of tobacco which bore the romantic name of ‘Verbena mixture’.  In addition we also received a free issue of cigarettes variously named ‘Ruby Queen’, ‘Red Hussars’ and ‘Trumpeter Brand’.  I was fairly new to smoking and my requirements were small but the addicted were unsatisfied with the ration even with the ‘spares’ which were always passed round.  In harder times dried tea leaves were a revolting substitute.  Other purchases included a safety razor in place of the army issue cutthroat made of soft iron and the necessary tinder lighter that smouldered until extinguished by a little ball and chain.  The only gambling game permitted was ‘Housey-Housey’ (Bingo) and the compound was covered with little schools of devotees most of whom played out of sheer boredom.  In the darker corners of the camp the real gamblers indulged in ‘Crown and Anchor’ and more rewarding card games.  From them in later days I learnt to play ‘Slippery Sam’ and Brag – a necessary accomplishment for anyone who lived with the troops.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

20th April 1917

Reveille at 5:15am heralded the commencement of an intensive course of physical training and musketry that lasted for eighteen days on the ‘Bull Ring’ (or the ‘Pimple’) which was situated on a high plateau some distance from the camp.  In blazing sun the daily march up to the Bull Ring was exhausting.

With the newly acquired tin hats the cord and hard leather lining bit deeply into closely cropped heads.  At the top we were at the mercy of the ‘Canaries’, the base instructors in their bright yellow jerseys.  Until late evening squad drill and bayonet work alternated with barely a break.

The midday meal was taken on the training ground and this was the signal for the influx of large numbers of elderly and decrepit market people to proffer their wares at exorbitant prices.  I paid my franc and indulged in an orgy of saffron cakes.  The high spot on these days on the Pimple came when the sun was beginning to sink in the West and the squad were lined up for the return journey to the camp.

Music played an important part in the life of the soldiers.  Throughout the lengthy period of the march-off by the many hundreds of men the massed bands of the Guards played those military marches only the Guards could play until the last man had departed with the setting sun.  I minded not how long our squad stood there awaiting its turn to march off and to this day martial music brings back a picture of the sun disappearing behind the ‘Pimple’ and hundreds of men passing one day nearer the unknown.  In later days we marched to the music of our own Regimental Band – it was not quite up to the standard of the Guards but at times of depression and near exhaustion the first notes of the band striking up always revived our spirits and gave new impetus to reluctant feet.  If the solo bugle produced a false note occasionally, which it did, our release from the cares and fatigue of the hour was enhanced.

The only occasion when little pleasure was derived from marching behind a band was when, still as part of the Brigade on draft, the column was led by the bagpipes of the London Scottish.  Being a rifle regiment the QWR were trained to march at 140 steps to the minute and in the early days as recruits the pace seemed entirely beyond our capacity.  Gradually, however, we became so used to 140 that we found difficulty in slowing down the tempo.  In slow time the march behind the wailing bagpipes of the London Scottish was agony and possibly regimental pride suffered a little.  There was a reason for this.  Owing to the close proximity of the respective Regimental Drill Halls in London there existed a strong, not unfriendly, rivalry between the two regiments which was somewhat enhanced by the feeling that, in our opinion, the Scottish were regarded in Fleet Street as the blue-eyed boys of the London Territorials and received more than their fair share of publicity than was afforded to the other regiments of the ‘Grey’ brigade.  The story goes that one day a QWR rifleman fed up with yet another picture in the daily papers glorifying the London Kilts walked into the drill hall in Queen’s Gate, apologising for his intrusion, and said “Excuse me but is it really true that the London Scottish sank the Emden”.  No one could vouch for the truth of the story*, be that as it may, whenever the regiments came together on the march the London Scottish were unfailingly greeted with a chorus of “Who sank the Emden?".

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

*  "... newsboys hawking papers on the streets of Britain did full-throated justice to two items of information, newly released by the Press Bureau, which appeared on their billboards in happy juxtaposition.

It gave rise to a joke that persisted for months.
  Question: 'Who sank the Emden?'  Answer: 'The London Scottish'.

The German battlecruiser Emden had been sunk by the Australian navy, and it was Australia's first spectacular contribution to the war effort ...."
1914: The Days of Hope - Lyn MacDonald - Penguin UK - ISBN 9780241972199

19th April 1917

A few hours later we had disembarked and it was on the quay that I first met one Arthur Forster, another civil servant from Somerset House.  We teamed up and soon found a common bond.  By a strange coincidence, one of several that have bedevilled me whilst in the Army, our respective elder brothers were close colleagues in the City Tax Office.

The march took us through the docks into the grimy back streets of Le Havre.  The early workers had already departed to the war factories and the dockyards on bicycles or on the tramcars with their tinkling bells, leaving behind the very old and the children.  Almost everyone was dressed in black – mourning for the sons of France, mourning for France itself.  If they deigned to look at us at all their stares appeared hostile.  “Another contingent from L’Angleterre” but L’Angleterre had not suffered invasion at the hands of a ruthless enemy.  The children ran wildly alongside the column demanding “booly biff” and “beeskits” whilst mongrel dogs scampered between our legs and departed only when addressed with appropriate terms in their own language.

Passing through the village of Harfleur we arrived at Camp No 14, 7th Infantry Base Depot.  Here the draft was housed in bell tents of which there were many hundreds spread over a vast slope.  Nine soldiers were allotted to each tent and of my eight companions on that first day of active service five lived to make the return journey.  The big fellow Scammel and the little chap Stone, men in their forties, friends of happier days, both received snipers’ bullets through the head.  Bromidge survived after severe gassing and Williamson lost his life through an accident.  Dyball, Mansley and Coombs were lost sight of but Forster and I remained in close companionship until the Boche broke up the partnership.

Sleeping in such close quarters was a problem.  Heads on packs around the outer perimeter was comfortable enough but nine pairs of feet meeting at the centre meant that the latecomers were resting their toes halfway up the tent pole.  In sloping lanes between the rows of tents were latrine buckets, each one shared between several tents – a useful if somewhat unsanitary arrangement.  Unfortunately towards evening these receptacles over reached their capacity with disastrous results to the tent dwellers at the receiving end on the lower slopes.  Hasty action with entrenching tools was called for and the competitive spirit entered into the exercise.  The idea was to channel off into the adjoining tent before the occupants became aware of approaching danger – sometimes only to find that competitors from another quarter had meanwhile performed a disastrous outflanking movement.

On this day we were issued with rifles and sword bayonets, tin hats, PH gas helmets (1) and box respirators.  With the departure of Lieutenant Ivison, the officer in charge of the draft, our last link with Redhill and the 3rd Battalion was severed.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

Google Maps entry for Le Havre here
Google Maps entry for Harfleur here

(1) Wikipedia entry for PH gas helmets here.

18th April 1917 - Across the Channel to France

We marched to the station to the everlasting “Sarah” and entrained at 11:15am.  It was beastly wet and miserable.

By 3:30pm on that miserable April day we strolled along the quay at Southampton Docks looking at the majestic liners at anchor, reminiscent of those troop ships which as a small boy I saw pictured in the Illustrated London News in the not so distant days of the Boer War.  True the bunting was missing from the ships and there were no waving handkerchiefs or weeping relatives but, nevertheless, this was our moment and we relished it to the full.

At 8pm the draft embarked on a note of anti-climax.  Our majestic troopship proved to be a miserable little paddle steamer named ‘La France’ which, prior to its promotion to sterner duties, no doubt conveyed ‘les petits enfants’ to sea at the holiday resorts.  Lifebelts were served out and adjusted.  Standing only was possible since the troops were packed in as closely as a football crowd at a cup-tie.

Down the Solent as dusk fell gave us a farewell and, to many, a final glimpse of England.  Against the faint and murky shore a Union Castle liner lay at anchor, ghostly white except for the broad green stripe from stem to stern and the large, red cross just above the waterline.  An ugly, jagged hole was a reminder that already we were near the danger zone.

At the mouth of the Solent our escort of two destroyers was waiting and full steam ahead we sped into the darkness.  There was nothing to do but stand and wait.  The continuous spitting and sparking from the wireless aerial strung between the masts was eerie but comforting in so far as we still had some link with the Navy.

After a time the ceaseless chatter of the radio became somewhat disturbing in its possible implication.  In addition I had to contend with worries of a strictly personal nature.  The ship was plunging and rolling in the choppy sea and I was not a good sailor.  Standing in such close proximity to my fellows there was no question of taking avoiding action.  There was nothing I could do to solve the problem and the inevitable happened.  Together with seventy five percent of the troops on board I passed the buck to the ship’s company to deal with later as they thought fit.

At dawn the coast of France appeared out of the mist, low and dismal.  But the promised land was not yet within our grasp.  The ship suddenly turned about and pursued a zigzag course at full speed until the inviting coastline disappeared from view.  At 6am precisely on Thursday 19th April, three hours overdue, ‘La France’ entered the harbour at Le Havre in company with our two British escorts and three French destroyers which, unknown to us, had joined in the night’s fun and games.  A miserable, depressed crowd of soldiers disembarked across the low decks of one of the destroyers much to the delight of the Royal Navy who had obviously enjoyed the night’s proceedings and revelled in our discomfiture.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

17th April 1917 - Letter

Letter home to Mum and Dad ...

17th April 1917

Three transports sunk in the channel.

Gas in modern warfare was one aspect of our military training which had so far been neglected apart from one afternoon wholly spent in putting on the masks by numbers.  The deficiency was hurriedly attended to.

Gathered together in a sealed off tunnel, the box gas respirators were adjusted as per instructions followed by an examination by the NCO in charge who undoubtedly took much pleasure in his assignment.  Having made much play with the errors and the tragedies which would ensue in the event of faulty adjustment he proceeded to turn on the gas.  For a few moments we breathed deeply and all was well then tragedy threatened one of our companions who was obviously in trouble.  His frantic signals could only be interpreted as a matter of a leaky mask.  Any moment we expected to see the poor fellow writhing in his death agonies on the floor.  Everyone dashed out of the tunnel and the unlucky individual was relieved of his mask.  The victim, pale and sweating and weeping copiously, soon recovered.  The incident was, of course, staged by the NCO to be a lesson and for the benefit of our morale – with perhaps an element of vicious intent!  The tear gas was quite harmless but he had tested our masks and his pupils.

At tea time we were warned for the draft to France on the following day.
We paraded at the E company office and were served out with a pay-book, “QWR” jack knife and field dressing with an iodine phial – causing a terrific wind-up.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes *

Ernest wrote up these original journal notes soon after his return to England. He completed the final journal that comprises the main part of this blog, and was based on these early notes, during his later years.

16th April 1917

The draft paraded complete with overseas kit for inspection by General Monkman, GOC London District.

The purport of his speech apparently made no impact.

Original diary entry

15th April 1917 (Sunday)

With the approach of the fateful day preoccupation with preparation for the coming journey resulted in a sparsity of entries in the diary.

It is recorded that church parade was held at St Matthews and also, for what it is worth, my good friends Smith and Offer entertained me to a farewell tea at ‘Tickners’.

Original diary entry

14th April 1917

Sick parade.  Three blisters lanced and bandaged.

Original diary entry

13th April 1917

All day route march with packed rations.  Not a good day – the o/c misjudged the direction at a cost to the weary of several miles and blistered feet.

It was Friday 13th!

Original diary entry

12th April 1917

The issue of draft kit gave us the clue to our destination.

Not for us the khaki shorts, the pith helmets or the sands of the deserts.  The long woolly pants, the thick shirts and the overcoats could only mean the Western Front and with the newspapers making the most of the victory of the Rimy Ridge we had no qualms – the war was nearly over.  The embroidered QWR shoulder flashes, the insignia of the overseas man, were sewn on with schoolboyish enthusiasm.  The stiff Broderick cap was converted into the overseas ‘soft’ variety by removing the stiff wire with less enthusiasm.  The packet of first field dressing complete with iodine phial was stitched up in the small pocket at the bottom of the uniform jacket.

Original diary entry

11th April 1917

Our allotted ‘six weeks’ were up and at the first parade came the anticipated preliminary warning.

Those who fell out for the overseas draft were in theory highly trained men, physically fit and in all respects qualified to do battle with the foe.  We ourselves had no doubt on the question of health and strength (that much at least was owed to the army) and it may be assumed that our youthful exuberance refused to admit any deficiency in the military sphere.  On dismissal little groups of excited men foregathered to discuss the one overriding question – not when but where?  The scheduled night hops were cancelled for the overseas men and apart from the issue of another new rifle we were free to ponder upon the future and to stock up on the minor necessities for travel that were not provided by army issue.

I took the opportunity to clear up a little matter that had bothered me for several weeks past.  Before joining up I had purchased a wristwatch – “one which would stand up to really rough treatment”.  Unfortunately the glass was soon broken in the course of training.  Behind the counter of a small watch repairer shop a very old man with a long grey beard made several attempts to fit a new glass but regretted he had not one in stock.  If I would return next week he would “contact the wholesalers for the correct size”.  The watch was returned to the makers to be delivered next week.  By the time I was free to visit the old man again we had been warned for overseas draft on the following day but the watch “had not been returned from the makers, the war you know”.  I had been slow on the uptake but at last the penny dropped.  My immature appearance was perhaps mistaken and I had been subjected to gross trickery.  The little bit of Irish came to the fore and I demanded my watch immediately or I would “fetch the Gang”.  Without a word the old man opened a drawer and handed over my watch complete with fitted glass for which, incidentally, I refused to pay.  I wonder how many Queen’s Westminster’s at Redhill went overseas never to return - with their watches still in the possession of that old man.  I might perhaps add that my ‘Cyma’ with its solid steel case, now pitted with rust, gave sterling service and survived the mud of Flanders.

Warned for Draft. France or Mesopotamia? (1)
Gas drill all day.
New rifle D.P.
No night hops.

Original diary entry
(1) Wikipedia entry for Mesopotamia here

10th April 1917

Dental parade all day. Two teeth extracted.
Rifle and sword No. 939.

Original diary entry

9th April 1917

Squad drill morning.
Afternoon free.
Offer and Smith.
Great advance - Vimy Ridge captured. 11,000 prisoners, 100 guns. (1)

Original diary entry
(1) Wikipedia entry for Battle of Vimy Ridge here

8th April 1917 (Easter Sunday)

Church Parade at St. Matthews.

Original diary entry

7th April 1917

Paraded full pack, etc.
"Lecture" from Captain Martin.
Transferred. E Company 18 Platoon.
Billet. Empty house. "Ellora", Devon Crescent.
Smith and Offer.

Original diary entry
Google Maps entry for Devon Crescent here

6th April 1917 (Good Friday)

Back to Redhill.
8:05 from London Bridge.
61 Frenches Road.

Original diary entry

5th April 1917

Goodmayes, Chadwell Heath, Ilford, Cranbrook Park, Forest Gate - Daisy's.

Original diary entry

4th April 1917

Dug garden.

Original diary entry

3rd April 1917

To lunch with Rigden and Western.
Tea in Office.

Original diary entry

2nd April 1917

Original diary entry

1st April 1917 (Palm Sunday)

Passed fit.
Home on draft leave.

Original diary entry