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.