31st July 1917

Sick. Mess orderly.
Morning - snipers parade.
Patrol work - copse taken.
Afternoon off.
Firing on the range in evening. 200 yards.
Very wet.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)
The battle opened at 3:50am on July 31st, and in the north considerable progress was made; but 'the difficult country east of Ypres, where the Menin road crosses the crest of the Wytschaete-Passchendaele Ridge, formed the key to the enemy's position, and here the most determined opposition was encountered.' (see Sir Douglas Haig's despatch of January 8th, 1918)

In this area the German first-line system (which included Shrewsbury Forest, Sanctuary Wood, Stirling Castle, Hooge and Bellewarde Ridge) was captured; but the advance was held up in two small woods, known as Inverness Copse and Glencorse Wood. These woods were destined to be the scene of the fighting in which the Queen's Westminsters were engaged twelve days later.
The weather broke a few hours after the attack, and for four days the rain came down in a ceaseless torrent. No words can adequately describe the awful condition to which the ground was reduced. 'The low-lying, clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned into a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except for a few well-defined tracks which became marks for the enemy's artillery.' (Sir Douglas Haig's despatch.)"
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

30th July 1917

Another wet morning and, after the usual makeshifts involving rifle, ammunition and kit inspection, preparation for battle was further improved by more lectures.  Lt Lowndes, who always knew his subject, spoke about “Outposts” but Lt Marsh on “Naval Badges of Rank” raised little enthusiasm.  We deduced that those in authority were running out of subject matter.

In the afternoon, under Lt Chilton the company snipers established outposts with a view to observing movements some half a mile away across a valley.  Each post was manned by two snipers; in theory one man kept his eye on the telescope whilst the other noted down each incident as it took place.  In practice Rfn. P.E.Walter and I devised a less exhausting scheme.  The job we dreaded could easily be done by one person and taken in short spells whilst the other was free to doze or gather the wild strawberries which abounded in the woods behind us.  We were later commended on the accuracy of our report!

1:57 Shot fired.
2:05 Man appears at left hand end of trench.
2:10 Shot fired.
2:11 Running man, left of trench.
2:12 Shot fired from extreme left.
2:14 Signs of digging, left end of trench.
2:15 Shot fired.
2:16 Man appears in shirtsleeves, handkerchief on head, smoking and carrying sandbag at left of trench.
2:17 Second man, rifle at the trail, enters trench at point where parapet repaired.
2:18 Signs of digging at same spot. Two men appear repairing parapet.
2:20 Sniper’s post erected. Men disappear.
2:21 Signalling from sniper’s post.
2:24 Tin hat fixed on parapet.
2:25 Tin hat removed. Signalling from sniper’s post.
2:26 Shot fired from right of sniper’s post.
2:27 Shot from sniper’s post.
2:28 Man appears from top of hill and disappears into sniper’s post.
2:29 Shot from sniper’s post.
2:32 Hat-less and carrying coat, man appears left of sniper’s post, runs towards hill and disappears in trench.
2:34 Same man, apparently, returns to sniper’s post.

The value of the exercise was dubious.  Normally telescopes and telescopic rifles were safely locked up in Quartermaster stores and there they remained out of harm’s way when the Battalion was in the line.

Original observation report

Wet. Sick again.
Rifle, ammunition and kit inspection.
Lectures Lt Lowndes and Lt Marsh - "Outposts".
Observation under Mr Chilton in afternoon.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

29th July 1917 (Sunday)

Very wet.
Wrote letter home.
Card from DM. Letter from Percy.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

28th July 1917

Reveille 5:30am.
Paraded at 8am.
Patrol work - diamond formations, etc under Mr Slade (LRB).
"Soon be open warfare"
New boots.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

27th July 1917

One hour's march.
Company do extended order over (growing) crops.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

26th July 1917 - Postcard

Postcard to Ernie's brother Percy ...

26th July 1917

Sick. Bad foot after march.
Light duty. Helped cooks. Cut up meat, etc.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

25th July 1917

Reveille was not sounded until 8am – some small recompense for the fatigue of the previous day.  Bayenghem was one of a small cluster of villages astride the Calais Road.  Formal parades were excused but heavy and persistent rain kept us immobile for the day.  Bored in the extreme we lay on filthy bundles of straw in yet another cowshed.

We rarely had any contact with the French people.  Indeed, in the small villages where billets were invariably unused cowsheds, the inhabitants kept out of the way.  This was understandable enough since three years of war made the presence of British troops in their midst emphasise the miseries and desolation that still lay ahead for France.  On this night, to our surprise, we had visitors.  Standing in the doorway, shyly peeping in at ‘les Anglais’ stood a quaint little party of village folk.  The head of the household was a very old man with long white whiskers.  Two old women and two very small girls about four years of age were no doubt the instigators of the expedition.  Timidly and silently they watched, ready to scuttle if their reception by the soldiers was unkindly.  The situation was easy to understand – grandparents caring for the tiny tots while father was away fighting the hated Boche and mother was away slaving in the fields for the sake of France and a small pittance to keep the family from starvation.  We had no food to give them until someone remembered that when army rations were scarce the Quartermaster resorted to his precious reserve stock and the issue of one particular commodity came all too frequently.  Canned pilchards in tomato sauce were no doubt nourishing food but as a routine diet the stomach revolted.  Even so we were loath to destroy food of any kind and we stowed each issue out of sight at the bottom of our packs.  Hurriedly every man delved – and between us we produced a dozen or more cans.  Even war has its moments and the look of sheer joy on the faces of the little group as they tottered off with their treasure was unforgettable.  Knowing our worthy Quartermaster was what he was, I am sure that had he witnessed the offence against army regulations by 8th Platoon B Coy he would have turned a blind eye.

Reveille 8am.
Wet all day - no parades. One village shop.
Billet in shed - straw, etc. Fairly good.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

24th July 1917 - Heading north to Ypres

Reveille sounded at 1:30am and by 3am the Battalion was on the first stage of the long trek northwards to the grim and bloody region promised by the Colonel.  Bouquemaison was reached by 6am and an hour later the Battalion entrained for Wizernes.  Standing room only on the French cattle trucks was a pleasant change from pounding the French roads for mile after mile with shoulders drooping under the heavy burden of pack and equipment.  Moreover, by train it was possible, by the good graces of the aged French engine driver, to indulge in the occasional brew-up.  The train stopped frequently for lengthy periods and at the first sound of squealing brakes hordes of khaki clad figures chased up to the front where the kindly driver obligingly turned on a tap and boiling water poured lavishly from a pipe below the engine cab.

The train ride, acceptable as it was, unhappily conveyed its sombre message.  Those frequent stoppages and side trackings were due to the priority given to urgent traffic on the line coming from the opposite direction.  Silently we watched all too many trains thunder by, every carriage bearing significantly the large symbol of the Red Cross.  We detrained at Wizernes at 12 noon having covered the distance in exactly five hours.

Three hours later packs were humped on shoulders and the long trek northward recommenced.  The route took us through several largish towns and on the outskirts of St Omer we broke off for a short rest at the side of the street.  It was a crime to drink on trek.  It was permissible to take one sip from water bottles provided the liquid went no further than the mouth.  Any man caught in the act of swallowing was booked by the lynx-eyed NCO.

Near at hand was a little shop with various oddments displayed in the window and the NCO grudgingly gave me permission to make a purchase.  Suspiciously he watched my movements and made no comment when I came out with a bundle of picture postcards of St Omer and an innocuous bag of sweets.  The postcards were bought for a purpose.  Although “St Omer” would be deleted by the censor, I cherished the hope that the receipt of a never-ending stream of photographs of a large and attractive French town (probably taken in 1901!) might perhaps set my mother’s mind at rest, disturbing her less than the rather forbiddingly worded ‘Field Postcards’.

As for the sweets, even Bradley didn’t guess that the innocent looking chocolates contained alcohol – so I was responsible for him breaking the pledge for the first time in his life.  As thirst quenchers they were a failure but our spirits were fortified for the rest of the journey to Bayenghem (La Commune) where the twelve mile trek ended at 10:30pm.

Reveille 1:30am.
Left Sus-Saint-Léger 3am.
Marched Bouquemaison (6am).
Entrained 7am.
Arrived Wizernes 12 noon.
Marched to Bayengham (La Commune) - 12 miles, 3pm - 10:30pm with tea rest.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"On 24th July, the Battalion left Sus St. Leger and moved to La Commune, about seven and a half miles north-west of St. Omer and in the Fifth Army area. The Battalion paraded at 2:30 in the morning and, after tea had been served out to the men from the cookers of the Q.V.R., marched to Bouquemaison station. Here the Battalion entrained, and, after a five hours' journey, attended by the usual discomforts of the cattle trucks, reached Wizernes, three miles from St. Omer, about noon. Dinners were served in a field near Wizernes station, and at 3:15pm the Battalion paraded again and marched to La Commune, where it arrived at ten o'clock at night. The total distance marched during the day was about eighteen miles."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

Google Maps entry for Wizernes here
Google Maps entry for St Omer here
Google Maps entry for Bayenghem here
Google Maps entry for La Commune here

23rd July 1917

In full marching order the Battalion paraded for inspection at 9am and were then dismissed for the day.  With packs at the ready most of us were bedded down by early afternoon.  Bradley was once again his usual, cheerful self.

Company parade full marching order.
9am dismissed for day.
Full pack ready.
Afternoon kips.
Reveille - 1:30am.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

22nd July 1917 (Sunday)

The day was hot and cloudless as we lay in the fields and orchards of the quiet countryside around Sus St Leger.  There were no parades, a disturbing portent in itself, and we had all the time in the world in which to ponder over the Colonel’s homily of the previous Friday.  Moreover, no post from home had been delivered for some days and our spirits were low.  This was the mood in which Forster, Bradley and I wandered that evening along the deserted road to Ivergny towards the blood red sun sinking in the west.

We were completely alone in the silence except for an ominous rumble far away to the north.  We kept our thoughts to ourselves and no word was exchanged until at length the sun tipped the distant horizon and we rested awhile by a five barred gate leading into the deserted Picardy fields.  I said “I wonder where we three will be in a month’s time”.  The other two made no response and I blundered on.  I spoke of all the possibilities the future held and felt much better for having aired my hopes and fears.  On the assumption that one’s chances of getting through unscathed were slight I suggested a preference for the little finger of the right hand.

Bradley’s reaction was immediate.  His face registered anger and bitterness such as I would never have dreamed possible.  He spoke at last and his words shocked me to the core.  “I want no ‘blighty’.(1)  I won’t have those bloody bastards over there mutilate the body God gave into my keeping.  If they do get me I want complete oblivion.”  Forster and I accepted this outburst in silence.  There was nothing more to be said.  Anyway, I regretted opening my big mouth in the first place.  The incident in itself was not one ever likely to be forgotten but the aftermath, some few months later, not only registered the memory of that day for all time but created in me a sense of wonderment which in my lifetime on this earth will never be resolved.  We returned to Sus St Leger in complete silence.  It was dark by the time we reached billets and the subject of the day was thereafter taboo.

In orchards, fields all day.
No post out for three days.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes
(1) A 'blighty' wound was one which was sufficiently serious to merit being shipped home to Britain.

21st July 1917

A hard morning spent on physical and bayonet work including a practice advance in extended order through the dense greenery of Lucheux Forest nearby was, perhaps, the best medicine for dispelling sombre thoughts.  With the afternoon free from all duties the platoon bedded down at an unconscionable early hour.

Physical, bayonets extended order in forest, etc.
Afternoon off - kip.
Lt Lowndes out from England.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

20th July 1917

Route marching, squad drill and sundry other forms of hard labour which were normally the lot of the foot slogger had no attraction in the broiling heat of the day.

It was with considerable relief that B Company snipers were paraded separately for their specialist training.  The art of sniping and observing involved a considerable amount of time spent in the prone position and that was always acceptable.  On this occasion Lieutenant Chilton led his charges into the sunlit fields well away from the unfortunate squads on the bayonet course who were jumping trenches and prodding synthetic Huns in the solar plexus.  Moreover we were completely out of sight of those in higher authority.  Lolling comfortably in the hay we listened to Chilton discoursing amiably on “Taking Cover” and “Observation” as well as many other subjects not to be found in the military textbooks.  A little practical work followed the “lectures” but on the whole it was a pleasant morning’s work.

Back with the Battalion the afternoon was given up to “football parade” but I have no recollection of participating.

A regimental concert booked for the evening held the promise of a happy ending to a perfect day but, in the event, the stage was set for a finale which left us in a state of gloom and despondency.  The performers did their best but their style was cramped by the presence of the Colonel himself (1) seated on the hastily erected stage and beside him, his guest, the Colonel of the Queen Victoria Rifles.  It was patently obvious to performers and audience alike that the Queen’s Westminster Rifles were on show and woe betide any man who sullied the fair name of the Regiment.  To the youngsters of the 8th Platoon “Spindleshanks” (2) was not held in great affection.  To us he was a remote figure lacking the common touch and, because of his addiction to ‘spit and polish’ both on and off the parade ground, someone to be avoided whenever possible.  I myself spent one miserable day in the back area solely because the small piece of red flannel, which should have been in place behind the black cap badge, had disappeared.  That was a crime!  The Colonel was well in evidence that day so after making numerous details around the village to avoid his eagle eye I retired to my billet and sulked in solitude.

The concert proceeded with unaccustomed decorum but the troops soon wearied of the everlasting “Eleanor” and “My Old Shake”.  Suddenly the Sunday School atmosphere changed like magic when Rifleman X, quite oblivious to the presence seated immediately behind him, launched out with a ‘humorous’ song with a decided element of the bawdy.  The audience applauded but the Colonel did not appreciate the subtleties of the rendering.  There were no doubt many verses to this masterpiece of obscenity but we were not permitted to hear the complete version.  In the middle of one verse “Spindleshanks”, with tight lips, raised his hand and stopped the show.  Moving forward he addressed the assembled Company somewhat as follows.

“Now men, you have had your bit of fun but we must now turn our thoughts to the sterner times which lie ahead.  In a day or so the Battalion will be moving off to another sector.  We shall trek northward and when I tell you that the fighting there will be grim and bloody you can perhaps guess our destination.  We are in for a tough time.  I suggest you now return to your billets and get all the sleep you can.  Goodnight.”

We knew without being told that “sterner times” must necessarily be out lot in the not far distant future and it was now clear that the promised trek northward could only mean the dreaded Ypres Salient.  So far our reaction to warfare had been to ‘live for the day and to Hell with the future’.  Indeed, no different attitude of mind was conceivable if we were to retain our sanity.  A few words of encouragement from the Colonel was the least we expected.  In effect all that he said was “you’re for it”.  The apostle of doom departed with his guest – his men were silent.

Such were the immediate feelings of the men on the 20th July.  But on reflection came the realisation that youth, so far untried and untested, had failed to recognise the sorrow and bitterness of an elderly Colonel who had borne the immense tragedy and disillusionment of seeing his beloved Regiment decimated on more than one occasion.  The Colonel was a sick man both in body and spirit.

Sniping parade.
Lt Chilton - observing and taking cover, etc.
Afternoon football parade.
QWR concert in evening in field.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes
(1) Lieutenant-Colonel R Shoolbred
(2) "spindleshanks" is a person with long, slender legs

19th July 1917

Brigade route march about 8 miles through Sombrin, etc.
Afternoon parade for football match.

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

18th July 1917

Mess orderly.
Brigade route march cancelled through rain.
One hour's route march. Beaudricourt.
Parade 8pm.
Fire picket.

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

17th July 1917 - Postcard

Postcard home to Mum ...

17th July 1917

Full pack to bayonet fighting ground.
Second day of brigade sports.
Rifleman Lee of A Company first in the mile.
QWRs win the championship.
Competitors boozed.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"The climax was reached when on July 17th the Queen's Westminsters, after a very keen struggle, won the Brigade Athletic Championship for the second year in succession.
Amongst the events won by the Battalion were the hundred yards and the mile. The latter provided the finest race of the day, and it was won by Rifleman J.Lee of the Transport, who finished 80 yards in front of the favourite, Lance-Sergeant Winterbourne of D Company, the runner-up in the event in the previous year. Rifleman J.Stanton of Transport was second in both the high jump and the long jump, and Lance-Corporal Smith won the bomb-throwing. In the tug-of-war the Battalion team was placed second.
The arrangements on the ground were excellent. In addition to the Divisional band, there were numerous side-shows, amongst which the 'Bow Bells' entertainment and a 'coconut shy' were specially popular. Tea was served in the grounds, and a 'wet' canteen did a roaring trade. Throughout the day the mounted competitors provided themselves and all spectators with plenty of amusement, and one notable race was won by Captain Mackenzie, the transport officer of the Q.V.R., who rode one of the Battalion's mules. At the end of the meeting the prizes were presented by the Comtesse Kergolay, and in the evening the winners of the championship returned in triumphant procession to Sus St. Leger.
The procession was headed by the bugle band, next came the mounted officers, followed by the regimental sergeant-major and the competitors, who rode in G.S. wagons. Many members of the Battalion brought up the rear on foot. On entering the village the victors were hailed by the rest of the Battalion with cheers and confetti, the guard turned out and presented arms, and the competitors were carried shoulder-high to the transport lines, where celebrations of the day's success were continued until the early hours of the morning."

Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

16th July 1917

Sick again and missed sniping parade.
Route march full pack 8:30am-11:30am.
Brigade sports. Grand Rullecourt.
The colonel a first. QWR Cookers second.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"The Battalion sports were held in the grounds of the Chateau at Grand Rullecourt on July 14th, and these were followed by a Brigade horse show on the 16th, and by a Brigade sports meeting on the next day. A spirit of enthusiasm and light-heartedness, which is difficult for those who have not experienced the ups and downs of war fully to realise, was in the air, and never was a series of entertainments more thoroughtly enjoyed."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

Google Maps entry for the Chateau de Grand Rullecourt here

15th July 1917 (Sunday)

Sick parade was unquestionably something to be avoided if possible.  It was always the first parade of the day and was held at an ungodly hour which deprived one of breakfast.  Those with minor ailments were likely to get “Medicine and Duty” which helped them not at all, or “Light Duty” which, in its performance, could very often prove more arduous than duty in the ranks.

The impetigo on my face had now spread to such an extent that my neck glands were swollen and painful.  Reluctantly I paid my first visit to the MO.  Inside the first aid tent a Corporal was treating a line of patients for a variety of minor ailments.  He adopted the moving belt system.  As the line moved forward the Corporal, using one jar of Iodine and one brush, quickly painted over sores, pimples, cuts and bruises, etc from toenails to tonsils.  My own case called for special treatment.  The MO ignored the swollen glands and the filthy scabs of the impetigo were pulled off with tweezers together with any beard which I had succeeded in growing in my youth.  The open wounds were then smeared with what I believe was sulphur ointment.  In order to avoid a repetition of similar visits during the weeks that followed I should perhaps anticipate and mention that as the heat of the day caused the ointment to run over the unaffected parts of the face, the impetigo, loath to be ignored, spread with it.  On this occasion I was given “Light Duty” and told to report again for medical treatment the following day.

Sick with impetigo and swollen glands.
Light duty. No parade.
Evening services by Tiplady CF (Wesleyan) in village school room.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

14th July 1917

The trek went on and on.  With each mile the 95lb pack became heavier and heavier.  Feet were sore, back ached, knees felt none too secure and I was thirsty.  No one could spare the effort to sing and the only sound was the incessant beat of iron-shod boots on the hard French roads.  My thoughts wandered back to pleasanter days until the immediate surroundings gradually faded and I became a complete automaton – Rifleman 554720 was asleep!

For how long he remained in that blissful state I shall never know but the awakening was sudden.  A loud voice from the rear of the column was shouting and his words were far from complimentary.  Someone was obviously heading for trouble.  Quickly assessing the position I found myself still in line with the man in front, properly in step and a quick sideways glance confirmed that I was well dressed by the left.  Nothing to worry about.  Clearly I was not the object of wrath from that noisy person behind.  My first uneasy sense of guilt evaporated but the accusing voice came nearer.  The Band struck up the Regimental March which meant that the column was approaching habitation, a town or village.  Then the light dawned.  During my very pleasant nap the Battalion, according to custom, had been ordered to march to attention and there I was comfortably marching ‘at ease’ with the rifle sling over my shoulder, thumb comfortably entwined.  I quickly came to the ‘trail’ but found the voice still coming nearer.  He had noticed the discrepancy in the ranks from way back but was unable to identify the culprit.  He demanded to know who it was but no one told him and, remembering the old axiom, I did not volunteer.  Unfortunately, in his haste to properly fulfil his duties, my persecutor came to grief.  With eyes glued sideways on the ranks he tripped and sprawled face downwards in a foul, muddy pond by the wayside.  We had arrived at the ‘clean village’ of Le Souich.  I heard no more of the incident and have long since forgiven the NCO concerned for all those improper names he called me on that tiring afternoon in July 1917.

Parade 7:30am.
Full march order.
Route march through Le Souich.
Home 11:30am. Very wet.
Afternoon kip.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

13th July 1917

Fatigue all day - filling up trenches in cornfield.
Posh, cider! (ad lib from the farmer)

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

12th July 1917

Examination Paper

Parade 10:30am.
Examination on preceding course.
Left Le Cauroy at 3pm.
Back to Sus-Saint-Léger.
Company sports.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

11th July 1917

Parade at 9am.
OP established at wood NW of Le Cauroy.
Reports, etc.
Baths in Berlencourt - posh!

Original diary entry
Original journal notes