30th June 1917 - Postcard

Postcard home to Dad ...

Same scene of Arras, France in 2016 on Google Streetview

30th June 1917

7am physical.
Walking along a contour line.
German badges, etc.
Afternoon off.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

29th June 1917

7am physical.
Sniping under Mr Chilton. Judging distance.
No afternoon parade.
Posh parade "Fire picket".
Divisional General present.

Original diary entry
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28th June 1917

From 7am the usual round of P.T., bayonet work on the sacks and ‘bombing’ continued for five hours without a break.  The throwing of hand grenades was a cunningly planned exercise guaranteed to provide the necessary incentive to maximise effort.  Two teams faced each other at a carefully judged distance of thirty yards.  At the word of command everyone let fly at their opposite numbers.  There were no rules to the game and thereafter it was every man for himself.  The heavy missiles flew through the air at all angles.  Self-preservation demanded a quick eye and fleetness of foot and a fighting spirit.  Fortunately the grenades were not live otherwise the damage to personnel would have been great, as it was we thoroughly enjoyed it.

In front of the ruins of the Town Hall of Achicourt the Battalion , dressed in clean fatigue, was drawn up on parade.  Spit and polish was called for and the presence in the Square of the large Foden Steam Wagon, together with several ancillary boilers on wheels had the troops puzzled until, with one accord, they were ordered to strip – ‘Operation De-louse’ had commenced.  In happier times the sight of several hundred bodies lined up in a complete state of nature would have been a fantastic spectacle for the worthy citizens of their ancient and, no doubt, dignified town but they had long since departed and we, if not they, were spared much embarrassment.

Every stitch of clothing was removed and each bundle tied with string to which were attached our identity discs.  The bundles were then thrown into the steam chambers and, cold and miserable, we waited interminably for the Army Launderette to discharge our particular consignment.  However it was all in a good cause and we consoled ourselves with the prospect of being clean and wholesome once again.  We opened our bundles joyfully anticipating the sight of massive slaughter.  The treatment must have been intense for the moulded black buttons on crumpled uniform jackets had not only lost all trace of the regimental crest but were misshapen lumps of ebonite.  The coarse woollen vest and pants were examined but there were no corpses.  The families which had attended on us for their food and lodging over the past months were still with us, a little excited perhaps and hungry, otherwise they appeared as happy as Larry and thereafter continued to thrive.

7am physical, musketry, etc.
Bombing - 30 yards.
Afternoon, clothes fumigated by Foden tractor.

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27th June 1917

7am physical, bayonets and musketry.
Afternoon kip.

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26th June 1917

The evening was dry and a session on the range was welcomed by the snipers of B Company but not by the markers assigned for duty fiddling with paste pot and little pieces of paper whilst others had the fun of an attractive pastime.  The exercise became even more arduous when the Lewis Gun team held a practice shoot because there was always the chance of ricochets.  The weather being fine the Officers of B Company strolled up to watch and also to pop off a few shots with their Webleys.

At the end of our shoot the markers were relieved of their duties and the snipers moved down to the butts, a degrading duty we thought for specialists of our calibre but the man on the next target to mine was quite pleased with the opportunity unexpectedly presented.  He was a truculent individual and it was apparent that his rebellious attitude to Army discipline had not gone unnoticed in the past.  The Officers produced their Webleys and a running commentary by my friend on the right went somewhat as follows.  “Who’s this – it’s that old bastard X, got an ‘inner’ has he – I’ll give him an ‘outer’.  Here comes Lieutenant Y – first one an ‘outer’ - nice fellow Lieutenant Y – I’ll give him a ‘bull’ – no, mustn’t overdo it – give him an ‘inner’.”  ‘Rebellious’ continued in the same strain for all his customers and at the finish he was eminently satisfied having blasted several reputations in the Mess and provided a minor boost to the morale of the less competent.

7am physical fatigue dismantling German wire.
On range. 32 points. 2 - 6pm.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

25th June 1917 - Postcard

Postcard home to Mum ...

The photograph on the postcard is of Arras, France

25th June 1917

Company parade.
7am physical, squad and extended order.
Gas helmets tested.
Fire picket.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

24th June 1917 (Sunday)

The Battalion was now completely ‘at rest’.  Not even Church Parade with its inevitable regimentation.  Unfortunately the day was spoilt for me when detailed as mess orderly.  A duty all detested, although if the cooks were in a good mood it had its compensations.  The worst part of cookhouse fatigue was the cleansing of innumerable pots, bins and other utensils without the aid of either hot water or cleansing materials.  Gritty earth and newspaper had to suffice for the removal of half an inch of cold, solid grease and the Sergeant expected miracles.  The only bright spot of the day was cheerful music played on the bayonet course by the Divisional Band from 2 until 4:30 pm.

Mess orderly.
No church parade.
Divisional Band 2-4:30pm. "The Broken Doll" (1)

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

(1) 'A Broken Doll' - a song popular during World War 1. Written by Clifford Harris and composed by Jas W. Tate. 1916.

23rd June 1917

We were now due for a quiet spell away from the line.  The half trained men who filled the gap after the slaughter of Easter Monday were good enough to man the trenches in the Arras sector during the lull after the storm.  Apart from casual parades for inspection, a bath of sorts and the issue of clean underwear, the only event of any importance was the arrival of a fresh draft from Redhill.  I was glad to welcome many old friends from D Company including rotund and jovial Tolliday who, alas, failed to make the return journey.

Rifle inspection and bath and change.
New draft joins.
Tolliday and Murphy of D Company (Redhill).

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

22nd June 1917

Morning came and the problem of the puttees was quickly solved by winding them on inside out.  If the M.O. had been present he would probably have diagnosed elephantiasis but to the casual observer I had the cleanest pair of puttees on parade.  Unfortunately the R.S.M. himself decided to take the parade that morning and ‘Spiky’ with the waxed moustaches was a fearsome being to the lowly rifleman.  He, with Sergeant Partridge in attendance, passed slowly along the ranks – “Do that button up” – “Take that muck out of your pocket” – “Put your belly in” – and similar remarks dear to the hearts of all sergeant majors.  At last he was level with me – a quick glance up and down, a slight hesitation and the great man himself bent down and quickly turned down one fold of a puttee.  He said exactly what one would expect.  For some unaccountable reason Sergeant Partridge found difficulty with his notebook and by the time his pencil was poised the R.S.M. had moved on several yards.  In a quiet voice ‘Birdie’ spoke, “I know your name, you’re Polkinghorne" and hastily scribbled something in his book.  Needless to say the mythical Polkinghorne never appeared on a charge but he spent the rest of the day removing all traces of mud from his person.

Rifle inspection - and kit inspection.
Pay day.
Afternoon sleep.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

21st June 1917

Not until 9am on the morning of the 21st did we reach the ruins of Achicourt, formerly a small town a mile or so to the west of Arras.  It was here we were told that the QWR had suffered heavy casualties when a surprise bombardment during the battle of Arras reduced the whole side to a shambles.  The Battalion losses were particularly heavy in the Town Hall and a QWR cemetery was sited outside the town.  Apart from the rifle and kit inspection there were no parades but we all attended a memorial service at a French Protestant church.

Kit inspection was the usual pantomime as performed, no doubt, by the British soldier throughout the ages and we have it on good authority that the time honoured practice still exists.  In two ranks facing, each man displayed his kit on the ground before him whilst the platoon commander with NCO in attendance gave individual attention to the articles set out for inspection.  Since few men could produce their full quota of army issue, especially after a spell in the line, it was necessary to employ a little ingenuity if beer money was not to be wasted in making up discrepancies.  At the commencement of operations frantic signals passed from one rank to the other after which socks, brushes, cutlery and other miscellaneous articles flew through the air to the other side.  On the return journey of the inspecting officer down the other rank the borrowed articles were returned in like manner, together with any additional articles requested by sign language.  The whole blatant exercise was carried out with much joyous abandon.  It seemed impossible that the inspecting officer and NCO were not aware of the farce being performed under their very noses.  There can only be one possible explanation.

8th Battalion was billeted in the ruins of an estaminet open to the sky which on the day was gloomy and depressing.  On dismissal for the day our final injunction was to get “cleaned up”.  I tackled the job with little enthusiasm.  By the time rifle and sword were cleaned, boots dubbined and the assorted lumps of chalk from the Arras trenches, together with candle ends and other miscellaneous treasures, removed from the box respirator it was time to turn my attention to my puttees which were in a sorry state.  Those night excursions to the river for water had resulted in a layer of dried mud a quarter of an inch thick and hard as iron.  By this time the rest of my billet companions had given up their labours and were stretched out for the night on the hard stone floor.  I quickly followed their example.

Arrived early morning Achicourt.
Rifle inspection only.
Service in French Protestant Church ruins.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes
Google Maps entry for Achicourt here

20th June 1917

The day was quiet and as soon as darkness fell the QWRs were relieved by the Rangers and the London Scottish.

The whole of the area being a maze of deep trenches the way back was complicated and tiring.  In single file we negotiated the contours of the communication trenches by walking along the parapets and parades, occasionally crossing over the six-foot drop between in order to cut off corners.  Suddenly my foot caught in a section of telephone wires and I pitched headlong into a deep trench.  I was not badly hurt but two nasty gashes were bleeding on forearm and hip.  Cuts and wounds were a matter of daily occurrence, especially when handling the masses of German barbed wire which still created pitfalls for the unwary.  No doubt we had to thank the abominable A.T. injections by RAMC for the fact that such untended mutilations of the flesh healed without any sign of festering.

We plodded on for hours but the awaited road in the back area, which would take us to food, rest and sleep, failed to materialise.  B Company, Lieutenant May in command, was lost!

Fairly quiet.
Relieved at night by the Rangers and Scottish.
Back to Achicourt. Billet. Ruins of estaminet.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

19th June 1917

The rains persisted but apart from the usual 9am strafe the Hun was content to send over the occasional salvo during the rest of the day.  At dusk the company resumed its labours with pick and shovel in no mans land.  The light in the western sky was still sufficient for the NCO to keep our labours going.  I was busy, spade in hand, when a series of strange ‘plops’ sounded nearby.  On turning to seek enlightenment from my companions not one was to be seen and I was alone in the wilderness until one after another they slowly rose from the ground.  Thirty-four little ‘plops’ were, in fact, caused by a shower of rifle grenades with their steel rods sticking up like a fence surrounding me.  Fortunately they failed to explode.  I seemed we were not invisible from the German lines since a few minutes later several shells of 5.9 calibre exploded in the middle of the working party causing eight minor casualties.  Willis, who was shovelling the products of my pick, received a splinter in the neck and Coombe a slight wound in the leg.  Stretcher bearers appeared at the double and the casualties, most of whom were quite capable of walking back to the dressing station, were carted away at top speed.  This was textbook warfare, neat and tidy, and reminiscent of those thrilling battles which, with the help of Mr Brittain’s magnificent redecorated lead soldiers, my brother and I used to play on the kitchen table in the days when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

We were not unduly worried by the casualties but the sequel several minutes later really had us bothered.  Young C-----, normally a cheerful little cockney, had evidently brooded on the incident.  Suddenly losing his self-control he jumped into the air shouting “Mother” and dashed off to the rear as fast as his little legs could carry him.  Several men attempted to restrain him but he was too quick and disappeared in the gathering mist.  The incident was probably nothing new to the NCO in charge of the party and his remark was simply, “Let him go, he’ll be back”.  The truant was not in the trench when we returned from our labours.  Desertion in the face of the enemy was a crime which we understood could attract the supreme penalty and our concern for the popular little cockney was great.  In the afternoon of the following day he sheepishly returned to the fold.  We youngsters were always conscious of the sympathy and understanding displayed by the pre-war Territorial NCOs and once again we were not disillusioned.  “C-----, if you do that again I will kick your backside so hard you won’t dare sit down for weeks – get back to your post”.  The incident was finished and thereafter young C----- kept his two feet on the ground and eventually received the honourable scars of battle.

Wet and stormy.
Digging on the front line trench.
Two shells over. Willis (2 yards away) and Coombe wounded.
Six casualties.
Also rifle grenades over.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

18th June 1917 - Postcard

Postcard home to Mum and Dad ...

18th June 1917 - Letter

Letter to Ernie's sister Daisy and her husband Ralph ...

18th June 1917

The day broke wet and stormy.  Bivvies gave but little protection from the unending torrents and the glamour of those first few days in the line was no more.  The sodden chalky trenches became treacherous underfoot.  Burdened with picks and shovels the nightly stint was the construction of a new trench some yards ahead of the front line position.  The results were meagre and unrewarding but nobody seemed to mind.

Wet and stormy - otherwise quiet.
Trench digging in advance of front line.
Mr Smith leaves for the RFC.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

17th June 1917 (Sunday)

The comparative freedom of movement during the daylight hours invited liberties and Bradley and I soon found ourselves crossing the sunken road dividing the vast trench system from the rubble and masonry which had once been the village of Wancourt.  The devastation was not equal to the shambles of Beaurain and here and there remnants of buildings had survived the enemy guns.  Poppies abounded in the region but one hardly expected to see roses shining in Picardy.  On the far side of the road there was a garden encircled by a low brick wall surmounted by high iron railings.  A tall wrought iron gate gave entrance to what must have been the carefully tended rose garden of a house of some distinction.  The house, alas, was no more but the roses still flourished in colourful abandon.

Our main occupation was, however, to satisfy the urge to pour water down our parched throats and we were lucky.  Along the road a crowd of men from various units of the Brigade were milling around an ancient pump from which gushed a never-ending stream of water.  We filled our bottles and beat a hasty retreat before authority came upon the scene.

Night brought the usual wire carrying fatigue with a modicum of indiscriminate shelling from the other side, but the Company returned unscathed.

Buckshee water from Wancourt (Demolished).
Wire carrying.
Fritz shells us.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

16th June 1917

The day passed quietly.  In the reserve trenches there was ample opportunity to survey and actually investigate the immediate surroundings.  Every ration fatigue was a welcome break since the rendezvous with the supply column brought one to the outskirts of the ruins of Wancourt where the Battalion suffered grievous losses during the Easter fighting.  The nights fatigue entailed the manhandling through the narrow and winding trenches, at the cost of considerable laceration of the flesh, those cumbersome contraptions of heavy timber and barbed wire known as ‘knife rests’.  These were dumped in the shellholes of no mans land with the pious hope that one day Jerry might encounter them under less favourable conditions.

Move to Reserve trenches - "Buzzards".
Bivvy shared with Bradley.
Night work carrying wire to the front line.
Ration fatigue.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

15th June 1917

At 9am the Hun commenced his regular morning strafe on the support lines and the heavy shells bursting either side of the trench evidenced the accuracy of his gunnery.  We anxiously awaited the direct hit which seemed inevitable, at the same time not oblivious to the possibility of an attack following the long, intensive bombardment.

Suddenly the racket stopped and from our crouching position we rose up to the alert.  At once our NCO dashed up shouting “first six men, this way – quick as hell”.  Grabbing rifles and swords we ran, anticipating we knew not what.  The NCO said “Put those bloody rifles down, you won’t need them”.  After some ten or fifteen yards our progress was barred.  Straddling the trench was an enormous mound of huge boulders of solid chalk.  The shell which had caused the damage had burst some yards in front of the parapet splitting a seam in the iron hard ground so that the trench collapsed.  Ten or twelve feet below that mountainous heap of chalk one of our company was known to be in his bivvy and a second man was missing.  Throughout the rest of the day relays of men laboured with pick and shovel in the boiling sun until by evening the crushed and broken body of young Watson was discovered.  The other man, whose name I have forgotten, was alive but was said to have been blinded.

In due course our spell in the line was over and we were back in billets.  Naturally letters and parcels from home were our first concern.  In a corner of the barn stood a massive tea chest addressed to Rifleman Watson.  In private life Watson had been employed by a large grocery firm and they had generously despatched to him that enormous crate of comestibles which by wartime standards were luxuries indeed.  Why the army accepted such a huge consignment for delivery to the front intrigued us.  In accordance with custom the platoon had no compunction in sharing out the contents.  Our susceptibility to the tragedy of war was already becoming blunted.

During the night B Company was fully engaged in the wearisome task of erecting more barbed wire entanglements by the tributaries of the Scarfe and before the dawn various companies were moved to exchanged positions.  B Company now found itself located in Buzzard Trench in the reserve line.  This was an improvement in many respects to the support position although the night trips to the front line, laden with all the paraphernalia of war, were longer and more exhausting.

It was during this spell that an unusually solemn Bradley paid me a visit.  “I’ve been detailed as Gas Guard.  What does that mean?”  I said, “Fine, you have nothing to do but sit on your bottom all day by the Gas Gong (a shell case suspended on a bracket at the side of the trench) and sniff – you beat the gong with your entrenching tool handle, that’s all”.  He replied, “That’s alright but I can’t smell!”  Pointing to a small red mark on the bridge of his nose he explained that ever since a fall off a bike when he was a schoolboy his sense of smell had been non-existent.  He was very sensitive about this and I promised to respect his confidence and also act as his ‘nose’ during his spell on duty.  Actually I had been fully aware of his disability for some time but as he took such pride in his physical wellbeing I had kept the knowledge to myself.

During the trips we made together whilst guiding the Queen Vics wiring parties to the front line it was our custom to rest for a few minutes on the way back to our trench in order to partake of a little refreshment.  Invariably Bradley, who, by virtue of his additional years liked to be the leader, would dispose himself happily on the most revolting heap of cadavers, or perhaps the remains of some latrine, to open his bread and jam!  Tactfully I usually managed to get him to a less unsavoury spot, although there were not many to be found in that region.

Heavy morning strafe.
Shell over my bivvy.
Willis and Watson buried.
Guide to wiring party.
Wiring by Scarfe.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

14th June 1917

The position held by the QWR formed a dangerous salient and to prevent exploitation of this by the enemy it was deemed necessary to straighten the line.  This task fell to the lot of the 3rd Battalion of the London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers.

At dawn the attack on our left was begun.  The action was noisy but brief.  Word came through by the grapevine that the operation was a complete success.  Ninety-nine prisoners taken and all counter attacks smashed by the British guns.  This was cheering news but the Hun artillery retaliated strongly on the QWR lines as a quid pro quo.

Since Bradley was employed on other duties, I sallied forth on my own for the nightly jaunt.  At the rendezvous the QVR party were already waiting.  They appeared ill at ease, the young Lieutenant in charge was a newcomer and was himself decidedly edgy.  We had not gone far when he volunteered the information that he was scared stiff and told me why.  Lieutenant X was dead.  It appeared that on the previous night when returning in the half light before the dawn, no doubt uncertain of his direction, had gone ahead of his party.  On being challenged by the QWR Lewis Gun post by the copse he panicked and ran.  Tragically a burst from the gun killed him.

The security of the water ration was now acute.  Three quarters of a water bottle per man was quite insufficient in the boiling heat.  Shaving and washing were quite out of the question.  It was therefore natural that during the lonely hours of the night after guiding duties were finished and the rest of the Company were doing their stint in the front line my thoughts should dwell on the cool streams flowing freely near the Lewis Gun post by the copse.  I succumbed to the temptation and, retracing my steps, filled my water bottle to the brim.  By the end of the spell in the support trenches my nightly pilgrimage was loaded with a dozen or more bottles filled with the polluted streams which oozed their way through every known abomination covering the battlefield for miles around.  My companions were most grateful and I left it to each man’s discretion as to how he used it.  I just used mine for shaving.  An inexplicable outbreak of impetigo afflicted a number of men in the 8th Platoon on or about the 1st July.

Heavy shelling.
Guied for Queen Vics working party.
Heavy strafe on our trench.
Shrapnel on tin hat and arm.
Bivvies blown in.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"Nothing further of interest occurred until June 14th, when the 3rd Division, on the left, delivered an attack at 7:20am on a German position, known as the Mound, about 1000 yards to the east of Monchy le Preux. The attack, which was made without previous artillery preparation, was very successful and resulted in the capture of two trenches, known as Hook and Long, some 200 yards from the front line."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

13th June 1917

At 9am precisely the morning strafe commenced as usual.  Heavy shelling of the support lines continued at intervals throughout the day but the range was poor and apart from a few near misses so far 8th Platoon were lucky.

By afternoon news reached us of an air raid on London.

At night Bradley and I were again engaged on our conducted tour on behalf of the QVR who, as before, returned from their labours under their own steam.

Heavy shelling.
Guide party for the Queen Vics.
3rd London over the top.
Counter attacks fail.
99 prisoners and 2 officers.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

12th June 1917

Having slept in the bivvy from stand down until 10:30am I was awakened by delivery of post from home.  A trivial matter for the record perhaps but an outstanding event for those on active service.

The defences in the ‘Harp’ system were sadly in need of repair and reinforcement.  Willing parties from all Companies spent most of the night-time in no-mans land screwing in heavy pickets and unwinding recalcitrant rolls of barbed wire.  To help in this work the services of  the Q.V.R., located in the reserve trenches at the rear, were co-opted and it fell to the lot of Bradley and myself to act as their guides.

Our way lay to the left; leaving Boar Trench we negotiated the devious route via Lion Trench, Tiger Trench, Jungle Alley and Shikal Lane and arrived at the field dressing station which was to be our rendezvous with the Queen Vics.  From here the way led past the two derelict tanks, round the QVR Lewis Gun post, snugly tucked away in a small copse by a tributary of the River Scarfe.  There in no-mans land beyond the front line trench the Queen Vics were left to toil with their pickets and barbed wire.  Their guides returned leisurely to their own quarters only to find that during their comfortable stroll with the Queen Vics the rest of B Company had departed to the front line and were also engaged in navvying.

The trenches nearer to the region of the Scarfe had shown evidence of much wear and tear from the attentions of the enemy.  In places the damage to the parapet had obviously been repaired hurriedly and here and there a hand or a foot in various stages of putrification protruded grotesquely from the side of the trench.  In one spot the parapet had been blown away to the extent of about one square foot thus leaving the head of the casual passer-by completely exposed to the German snipers rifle, no doubt already clamped in position.  A couple of sandbags would have cancelled out the danger but the ways of the army are past understanding.  The solution to the problem was the erection of a painted board which read “Keep your head down”!

Towards the dawn shelling commenced and the rattle of small arms fire not far away suggested that the QVR were engaged with the Boche at close quarters.  A sudden commotion to the right brought us to our feet and a voice urged everyone to “make way there”.  Pressing closely to the wall of the trench two heavily built NCOs appeared pushing and pulling through the crowd of men one undersized pale faced German wearing the large, round-lensed spectacles which, to the Hun, appeared to be an accepted part of his general issue.  Fear and apprehension were commonplace enough on the battlefield; we were all subject to those emotions in times of stress but most men succeeded in disguising their weakness.  Stark terror, however, cannot be concealed and the white face, staring eyes and slavering mouth of the trembling Hun were distressing to see.  As he was rushed past the onlooking troops he piteously held out to every man in turn a large, turnip watch dangling from a silver chain.  What he hoped to gain by the offer of this precious gift nobody could guess.  I was glad to note there were no takers.  Clearly he regarded the British as barbarians prepared to submit their captives to every conceivable atrocity, an attitude of mind probably inspired by the German General Staff.  I personally found no joy in the capture of that little man.

Rose 10:30am.
Harrison's pomade from home.
Guide party at night for the Queen Vics.
Heavy shelling.
Patrol fights.
QWRs take a prisoner - Prussian Guard.

Original diary entry

Original journal notes

"On the night of June 12th, an enemy party, consisting of a corporal and two men, who were patrolling from Cherisy to Vis en Artois, lost their way and blundered into the Battalion lines. A thick mist had prevented the sentries from seeing them, but a working party in the trench fired on them, and the corporal was captured by Sergeant Plummridge and Sergeant Oliver (D Company)."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

11th June 1917 - Postcard

Postcard home to Mum and Dad ...

Same scene of Arras, France in 2016 on Google Streetview

11th June 1917

From the early hours and throughout the day ‘Boar’ and ‘Bison’ were subjected to heavy but intermittent shelling.  The shattering noise and the black bursts from the ‘Jack Johnsons’ (1) left us quivering but, in our sector, the occasional near misses did no more than shower tin hats with fragments of hot metal and chalk which dropped from the skies.  To add to our discomfort Jerry mixed tear gas shells with his blessings and this was immediately interpreted as evidence of an impending attack.  Although none developed, the variation doubtless had its nuisance value, particularly where fresh troops were at the receiving end.

During the height of the bombardment Forster was a near casualty.  In the initial scramble for bivvies Bradley and I had succeeded in acquiring adjoining foxholes and Willis took over the remaining empty one next to me. Forster had been slow in his endeavours to join us and was obliged to accept the only bivvy for which there were no takers.  He settled in about 20 yards further along the trench.  On the parades behind him was the latrine bucket.  The presence of this article we regarded as an unnecessary refinement in trench life but orders had to be obeyed even at the cost of exposing oneself to the distant sniper.  A heavy explosion in the direction of Forster’s side brought Bradley and I to our feet and dashing to his aid.  We feared the worst.  Forster was shaken but unhurt and we rejoiced that he was safe if no longer fragrant!  His dilemma, however, made no appeal to one’s sense of humour.  We were only too conscious of the spectre of death lurking just round the corner to appreciate the jolly atmosphere of the Western Front as portrayed by Bruce Bairnsfather cartoons (2) drawn for home consumption.  Behind us in the open ground still lay the bodies of many who had died in the Easter massacre during the battle of Arras. 

As night fell a burial party sallied forth under the direction of Captain Thurston, the Company OC.  The operation was conducted speedily and with scant ceremony.  Identification was the first essential; the Corporal removed one of the red and green identification discs which hung from the dead man’s neck.  From the pockets of his uniform a paybook and a few personal belongings were quickly extracted and stowed away.  Preliminaries over, the squad, working in pairs, dealt with the disposal of the remains.

I grabbed the ankles of the nearest corpse and my companions lifted it by the shoulders.  We heaved together and our burden parted in the middle.  That was an unfortunate beginning but we were concerned solely with the unsavoury nature of the task.  I am ashamed to say that sentiment did not overrule the annoyance at choosing the wrong victim.  Eventually with the help of spades we deposited the remains in the nearest shellhole and lightly covered them with the broken chalk which abounded.  The final act, adding the only touch of dignity to the ceremony, was the planting at the head of the mound the victim’s rifle, sword and tin hat.

We looked around for the next body and got to work.  In all the squad disposed of 25 to 30 bodies in this way.  A squalid exercise but no doubt good training for those of us who had not acquired the callous outlook that was demanded.

For many days the sweet cloying scent of death clung to our bodies and saturated our clothing.  A suggestion was made to the Captain that the unsavoury nature of our duties called for small issue of rum – it met with no response.

Heavies over.
Burial party at night.
Buried four British in shell holes.
Wind up attack.
Tear gas over.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

(1) A 'Jack Johnson' was the British nickname used to describe the impact of a heavy, black German 15-cm artillery shell.  Jack Johnson was the popular U.S. world heavyweight boxing champion who held the title from 1908-15.
(2) Wikipedia entry for Bruce Bairnsfather here.

10th June 1917 (Sunday)

Fortunately that first night in the trenches was quiet, maybe the Boche was also engaged in relieving his front line troops and was not inviting trouble.  I awoke to the glorious song of the skylark high above in the clear sky and experienced a strange feeling of elation.  Under the hot sun with no responsibilities of a personal nature, good friends on either side, I was happy with a new-found freedom – tomorrow could wait!

Together we peered over the parapet towards the enemy trenches in the hazy distance – fascinated by the vast white expanse of the chalky landscape covered with millions of brilliant red poppies under the deep blue sky.  “In Flanders fields where poppies grow”* – but this was Picardy; we saw no poppies in Flanders.

In Flanders Fields is a war poem, written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

With Forster, Bradley and Willis the day was spent happily conversing and writing home.  Letter writing was a problem.  Conscious always of the censor’s blue pencil hovering in the background, it was impossible to relate anything but the most trivial activities of the daily routine and difficult to express one’s personal feelings.  My own correspondence was stilted in the extreme and consisted of a stream of white lies which bore little resemblance to actuality in my earnest endeavours to allay the fears of those at home.  I now know that I underestimated the perspicacity of my mother who often tramped the deserted Essex fields in the dead of night listening to the murmur of the guns across the water.  The printed field service cards were a blessing.  By the deletion of a few lines of print the troops were able to send out frequent, brief messages to those at home that all was well.  Moreover the censors were relieved of much labour and, it must be admitted, so were the writers.

Rose 9:30am.
Stand to at dusk.
Front line - digging trenches.
Stand down at 4am.
All night shelling.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

9th June 1917

A day of waiting until 5pm.  The battalion moved forward along a well-defined track to the left of the remains of the village, Neuville-Vitasse.  Through a deep cutting above which an unexpected salvo from the British Heavies wrought havoc with our nervous systems, we reached a maze of deep trenches - the beginning of the massive defensive works of the Hindenburg Line.

Laden as we were with additional burdens consisting of panniers of ammunition for the Lewis guns, barbed wire, pickets and other miscellaneous war material the going was heavy and fatiguing.  From the guides at the head of the column a constant stream of directions was passed back from man to man – “Mind the wire”, “Don’t lose touch in the rear”, etc.  The journey seemed unending, inevitably large gaps appeared in the line of men struggling forward.  This was a golden opportunity for the humourists of the company and by the time the garbled messages reached the rear portion of the column the orders were not only incomprehensible but quite unprintable.

The support line, located in front of Wancourt with a sunken road between, was eventually occupied by B Company.  As we took over the previous occupants departed hurriedly with the usual soldier’s farewell.

The trenches were six feet deep in solid chalk with communication trenches, saps and bays branching in all directions, well constructed by the Germans.  There were no dugouts but every few yards ‘bivvies’ or ‘foxholes’ had been excavated from the side of the trench at floor level below the parapet.  Each bivvie would just allow one man to obtain a little cramped comfort, if not privacy and an ostrich-like sense of security from the attentions of the enemy.

However we were allowed no time in which to take stock of our new home.  Spades were distributed with orders to deepen the trench.  Since the tallest head was already six or more inches below the parapet we assumed the operation to be purely psychological.  After scraping away at the iron hard chalk for several hours the trench had not visibly deepened.  One hour before dawn we ‘stood to’ after which we retired to put our respective ‘houses’ in order and get a little sleep.  Off came my equipment but within seconds it was on again.  Precisely what the NCO said is best not recorded.

Rose at 9am!
Mucked around up the line.
In the trenches.
Up all night.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"On the following night [June 9th] the Battlion moved up to the front line, where it relieved the 6th Somerset Light Infantry (14th (Light) Division) in trenches astride the railway about 1000 yards north of Cherisy. The trenches in this area had been named after animals or birds. C Company held the Jackdaw trench, south of the railway, and D Company occupied Spoor and Ape tranches north of the railway. B Company was in support in Boar and Bison, about 400 yards in rear of the front line; and A Company was in reserve in Buck and Lion, another 400 yards further back. These trenches were for the most part old German defences. They had been hastily dug and were in bad order, and there was practically no wire in front of them. A great deal of work was done by the Battlion, during its tour of the sector, in widening and deepening the trenches and in putting up barbed-wire entanglements."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

Google Maps entry for Wancourt here