31st August 1917 - Letter and postcard home

Letter home to Mum and Dad

Postcard home to Ernie's sister Daisy
Ernie's sister - Daisy Acton

31st August 1917

2am in the morning and in spite of the lateness of the hour a sizeable crowd of onlookers stood silently, peering closely as every stretcher was carried to the string of waiting ambulances.  No doubt they were hoping with mixed feelings to recognise some face dear to their hearts.

At the army hospital inside the confines of Whittington Barracks the members of Queen Alexandra’s Nursing Service forgot for one brief moment the dignity of their commissioned rank and each one dashed from bed to bed, as did the civilians at the station, searching for a familiar face.  It so happened that out of the large intake on that night I was the only Londoner and it was apparent that the majority of the nursing staff were Londoners.  All I wanted to do was sleep but that was denied me until I had replied to all their questions which covered the whole field of the London Territorial Battalions which comprised the 56th and 47th Divisions and the individual members thereof from Colonels to humble privates.  I could not help and as they drifted away I had my face washed and “London” went to sleep.  My status had improved; I was no longer ‘number 27’, a mere cipher.

When morning came the nursing sisters at Whittington had regained the dignity of their calling and patients had to conform to strict discipline even though they were bedridden.  After all it was a pukka military hospital.  The weeks at Whittington were grim.  I missed the wonderful food of “No 1 Canadian” but that was understandable.  The unearthly silence of the ward was almost unendurable.  We had no visitors except two ancient crones who appeared each Sunday morning and presented every patient with one small, wrinkled apple and a religious tract.  Even the Sergeants’ voices and the rattle of arms on the barrack square would have been a source of perverse enjoyment but no sound penetrated the ancient walls of the hospital.  We had one moment of light relief each morning when the baker’s cart drew up outside the main door and not even matron could still the hearty cheers with which his arrival was greeted.

The elderly matron, a kindly soul no doubt, visited each patient every day with a few words yet oddly enough she was disliked by every man for a particular reason.  During her daily round she would plonk down on the patient’s bed her revolting pet, a snuffling, beady-eyed King Charles spaniel.  This seemed extraordinary behaviour for the matron of a large hospital but we endured and suffered in silence until she departed from the ward.  On one occasion only did I see the matron show her claws and I was the cause of her displeasure.  I was still a ‘bedcase’ and she plumped her wretched animal on the counterpane saying “Good morning London, still in bed?”.  She passed on to the next patient.  Sensitive to any suggestion that I might be “swinging the lead”, which I am sure was not implied, I was up and standing by my bed rather improperly dressed when she arrived the following morning.  She dealt with me thoroughly.  Her verbal onslaught was superb.  No sergeant major could have improved on her masterly performance.

Google Maps entry for Whittington Barracks here

30th August 1917 - Back to England

At 1am I was awakened by the light of the hurricane lamp and the sister whispering in my ear that I was being transferred to England.  As the two bearers adjusted the blankets on the stretcher I hurriedly appropriated the Field Medical Card which hung at the head of the bed and popped it inside my little red bag of personal belongings.  The quest for souvenirs was still strong.  On that night I alone made my final goodbye to K Ward No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, leaving behind in that grim marquee many desperately ill men, most of whom I feared would remain in France forever.

On the 19th April 1918 the newspapers reported as follows.  “Two squadrons of Gothas attacked British hospitals at Etaples causing over 300 casualties.”  Among the published list of Canadian nursing service killed in the bombing I was shocked and saddened to read of the names of those two nursing sisters from whom I had received so much kindness and attention in K Ward.

For some reason which I could never understand the only article of uniform and other clothing which the RAMC considered should remain in my possession was that terrible pair of boots, size 8 and size 9 respectively.  To my disgust they were placed on the stretcher close to my feet.  The night was dark and the arc lamps strung high above the compound gave only a glimmer of light.  The distance to the Red Cross train was considerable and the RAMC men congratulated each other on the fact that the burden was lightweight.  Determined those boots should never reach England I took advantage of the good humour of my bearers and gently edged number one boot off the stretcher.  It fell with a plop on the concrete.  “Did you drop something chum?”  I answered in the negative.  Acting on the assumption that the greater the distance between the two boots the less likely my bearers would be inclined to make the journey back to recover number one, I waited until we were nearer our destination to dispose of number two in the same way.  It hit the ground with a crash but my bearers made no comment.

Once again I was in the top berth of a French Ambulance train but I remember nothing of the journey to Calais harbour.

It was now broad daylight and the scene was one of immense activity of German prisoners, with their soft round hats and large coloured patches on the back of their jackets, who were stretcher bearing from the train to a magnificent white steam yacht moored at the quayside.  From the top deck of the Belgian Royal Yacht “Stad Antwerp” a very wide staircase extended down to the bowels of the ship.  The stairs were completely boarded over and the stretchers released by one orderly to career speedily down the slope to be caught by two seamen at the foot.  Across a large landing and again to career down a second wide chute, then I was comfortably placed on one of the benches which lined the side of the ship.  The time was 3pm and we were quickly away.  Through a convenient porthole the water rushed past almost at eye level.  Positioned as we were in the bowels of that beautiful ship my normal aptitude for seasickness was non-existent.

HS Stad Antwerpen

Crossing the Channel in broad daylight was a hazardous undertaking for British ships and through my porthole I was comforted by the sight of a destroyer which overtook and passed us with cheeky abandon.  A second followed and a third and by the time the fifth destroyer disappeared from view I realised my stupidity.  What I supposed was a complete flotilla escort was in fact no more than one or two or at most three ships of the Dover patrol literally making rings around us.

In forty minutes we were in Dover harbour and comfortably ensconced in a Red Cross train bearing the old familiar chocolate and cream colours of the London and North Western Railway.  After a hot bowl of soup, a blessed sleep – until awakened by the jolting and jarring of the wheels slowly negotiating the points of what must have been a junction.  It was not pitch dark and as we slowly passed through a blacked out station I could just discern the nameplate “South Kensington” picked out in dim blue lights.  I speculated as to which London hospital would have the pleasure of my company and happily resumed my slumbers.

I woke suddenly to the sound of a raucous voice shouting “Lichfield”.  Lichfield it was and miles from London to which I belonged.

Etaples to Calais and Blighty.
"Stad Antwerp".
Lichfield Military Hospital.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

Google Maps entry for Calais Harbour here
Google Maps entry for Dover Harbour here
Google Maps entry for Lichfield here

29th August 1917 - Letter from home

Letter from Mum

27th August 1917 - Letter home

Letter home to Mum and Dad

23rd August 1917 - Letter from home

Letter from Ernie's Mum
Ernie's mum - Anna Elizabeth Bates

22nd August 1917

Across the courtyard was the operation theatre and here no time was lost in getting down to the business in hand.  The anaesthetic was applied and long before it was given a chance to function I was on the slab surrounded by white gowned figures in masks, the surgeon with scalpel at the ready.  I heard the sister say “he’s off” and fearful lest the bloody work should commence at once I waggled my hand furiously.

Back in bed number 27 I awoke to see the big moonface of the day sister grinning at me from the end of the bed.  I asked for my tea and was told not to be silly, teatime was finished hours ago.  I had to be satisfied with one sip of water and two kidney basins for which, to her surprise, I had no use.  I was annoyed because, so I thought, the shattered remains of my finger had not been amputated – I could move it under its wrappings.  It was not until the 28th August when the bandages were removed that I was duly convinced.

For some days I had been fidgety to get back to England but the weather was stormy and I was told that with the rough seas in the Channel the danger of peritonitis could not be risked.

Finger amputated and stomach wound cleaned.
No 1 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

17th to 21st August 1917

For the next fourteen days I lost my identity.  In due course I was able to turn my head and take stock of my surroundings.  The man on my left was in a very bad way.  His right arm had been blown off at the shoulder and for most of the time he was delirious.  On my right was a little artillery man whose chest was no more than one pulpy mass of raw flesh caused by the searing liquid from a gas shell that has burst at his feet.  He was a cheerful soul although his agony must have been acute.  The only other patient within my view was a very young Canadian in the bed opposite who continually groaned and called loudly for the sister.  Experience had taught us that dangerously wounded men lay quiet and still and by the same token the noisy ones are, to say the least, not on the danger list.  It is pertinent to note that in K Ward with perhaps forty to fifty occupied beds almost complete silence reigned throughout the day and night except for occasional outbursts from the young Canadian.

Although I had to remain flat on my back I was reasonably comfortable, but the hours passed slowly and I had all the time in the world in which to review the happenings of the last few months.  I recalled particularly that sun-drenched Sunday evening on the road to Ivergny when much to Bradley’s disgust I had opted for a blighty.  The gods had been good to me – they had met me halfway with a gentle reminder by way of the solar plexus that it was not for mere mortals to strike a bargain.  I remembered the impetigo that on the 16th August practically covered the whole of my face despite the efforts of the Regimental MO.  My fingers explored the affected parts and I was surprised to find the skin completely free from those nauseating scabs.   Clearly the art of blood letting as practised in the 18th century still had something to commend it!

Remembering Bradley, Forster, Willis, Killick (who loved to talk of his wife and two small girls) and a host of others I had left behind and wondering if I should ever see them again I felt helpless and alone.

Dressings began at a fantastically early hour and my purgatory usually lasted for about three-quarters of an hour.  The hole in the stomach was cleaned and after much probing with tweezers the sister proceeded to stuff it with masses of cottonwool, plugging into all corners with a gold probe.  Next came the placing of four rubber “Canoll tubes” over the wound and these were tightly secured with many layers of rat-tailed bandage.  The other end of the tubes broadened out into little funnels which were attached at the neck by adhesive tape.  The next operation, repeated every few hours, was less painful but incommoding.  One half pint of warm Lysol was poured into each funnel, reached its allotted target and overflowed in all directions.  Occasionally the sister, a hefty Scottish Canadian woman, would change the bed by lifting me bodily with one arm, whipping out the sodden sheets and replacing them with dry ones – only to return shortly afterwards to pour in two more pints of Lysol.

For those who were fit to take everything on the menu the food was superb.  Breakfast usually consisted of boiled eggs which often had pencilled on them get well messages with names and addresses of kind old ladies back in England.  For elevenses one glass of Guinness together with jelly and blancmange.  A second glass of Guinness preceded a chicken lunch.  Most of the men were hand fed by the one ward sister who attended to all the dressings and it was not until evening that her duties were finished.  Tremendous effort by a wonderful person.  Occasionally an RAMC orderly would assist in the more menial tasks but his appearances on the ward were rare.

As darkness fell the night sister took over.  Lights were extinguished except for two low powered bulbs at either end of the marquee.  With a hurricane lamp more appropriate to the days of Florence Nightingale the sister walked down the quiet ward and briefly inspected each patient who should by then have been asleep.  On the third night she stopped at my bed, held up the lamp and said “Why aren’t you asleep number 27?”  I could think of no reason and she promised to find something to send me off.  She returned with a large glass of rich ruby port, a most efficacious draught!  The next night and the following night number 27 was again wide awake.  The same question and the same comforting glass of port ensued.  After several nights of this the sister wearied of making a special journey back to the dispensary and during the rest of my stay in K Ward she came on duty with the hurricane lamp in one hand and a glass of port in the other.  I was invariably awake.  We both understood the situation perfectly.  There was no need for conversation.

News sent back to England

Postcard home to Mum (17th August 1917)

Letter home to Mum and the family (17th August 1917)

Postcard home to brother Percy (19th August 1917)

Letter to Ernie's Dad from his best friend Bradley (21st August 1917)

Note that it was usual for those serving together to call each other by their last names,
and so Bradley wasn't aware of Ernie's first names or how he was known by his family.

Official notification (23rd August 1917)

16th August 1917

Just before dawn the men were issued with a generous ration of rum.  Too generous – a few of the lads, no doubt unused to such potent drink in large doses, appeared to be unaware of their surroundings or the purpose for which they were there.  In the light of what followed to many of them one could only hope that the agonies of the spirit and the flesh were to some extent alleviated by the blessed state induced by the strong liquor.  One lad offered me a generous part of his ration, for which I was grateful but I dare not risk more than a tiny sip.

At dawn, to the shrill blast of the whistle, 2nd London rose as one man and scrambling forward into Glencorse Wood, scorned the murderous fire of the German machine guns from the heights above.  In a matter of seconds Jargon Trench was again cluttered with the wounded and the dying.  The first casualty being the Platoon Commander who, with arm upraised in the act of waving his men forward to the attack, fell backward and lay beside me with his lifeblood spouting from a bullet wound in his chest.

No pen can adequately convey the supreme heroism of those young lads of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd London Regiment.  As a helpless onlooker it is possible only to record, with deep feeling, the slaughter of the innocents I witnessed that early morning of 16th August 1917.  It was the most heart-rending experience I endured during my brief spell in the line.  They were mostly teenagers, barely out of school, whom fate had brought into the world just one year too soon.  Bitter as my feelings were to those ‘bastards’ on the ridge, I found time to direct a few uncomplimentary thoughts to the British top brass, far away from the smoke and flames, who were responsible for the bloodbath of Glencorse Wood without having the remotest idea of the unspeakable condition of the terrain or the utter futility of the operation.

With Jargon Trench a shambles and many badly wounded men requiring urgent attention, my position was desperate.  Lack of food, drink and sleep for the best part of four days and loss of blood had taken their toll.  I resisted the impulse to try to escape from that hell.  The shooting was now mainly concentrated on the upper slope and the hazards of crossing this vast area within the Salient were considerably lessened but the body refused to obey the natural instinct of survival.  I lay supine, content to await the next turn in the wheel of fate.

The return to reality and reason came suddenly.  The advance was not proceeding too well for the gallant 2nd Londons and many of those who survived were falling back to the relative safety of the jumping off ground.  The time had come to move and, retrieving tin hat, I crawled out on hands and knees and, carefully negotiating the craters, commenced the long haul back.  The enemy were too busily employed nearer their home ground to bother with one lone figure on the way out, although for the first hundred yards rifle and machine gun bullets hit the mud with disturbing ‘plops’.  Meanwhile, on the slopes behind, the massacre continued and the farewell and faintly disturbing message from my companions of the last few days was simply “the LRBs have been turned on the right”.

The white tapes, which had been laid out for the guidance of the incoming troops to the jumping off position for the attack, had disappeared except for a few shreds sticking out of the mud here and there.  However, in daylight the general direction to safety was clear enough.  Progress was slow but sure and occasional rests on the edge of waterlogged craters gave me the opportunity to survey the whole grim picture of the Salient for the last time.  Sitting thus after a journey of perhaps half a mile without seeing a living soul I became aware that in the adjoining crater not three feet away lay the body of a German soldier – arms outstretched, glassy eyes wide open to the skies and legs partly submerged in the waterlogged shell hole where he was taking his final rest.  There was no sign of mutilation of the flesh and the calm features showed none of the anguish of suffering.  His release from the earthly hell must have been quick and I was glad.  I kept him company for several minutes until gradually my hatred of the German hordes began to evaporate.  Indeed, owing no doubt to physical weakness, I became soft and maudlin in my attitude toward that piece of rotting clay.  A mental picture of the Hun in his home in the Fatherland, his family, maybe young children, came before me and I lost all sense of reality.  Pulling myself together came the realisation that he was away from it all while I was still alive with a long way to go.

Glencorse Wood behind was still an inferno and “the LRBs had been turned on the right”.  That right flank on the southern slopes by Inverness Copse was not far distant and presented a threat that could not be denied.  I moved on.

I remember passing one First Aid Post, hurriedly erected since the commencement of the advance on 31st July.  Nearby was a disabled tank.  A number of walking wounded were hanging about but since no ambulance could travel over the shell-pocked ground there was little point in my joining the queue.  The kind, garrulous Brompton had administered first aid days and nights previously and with the threat of gangrene time was my only enemy.

The vast expanse of open ground which lay ahead appeared deserted and the complete aloneness in the strange world around was uncanny.  The emptiness of the landscape was not entirely surprising since the whole area was now overlooked by unfriendly eyes from the high ridge towards Passchendaele – watching every move by the British Army along the Menin Road and the remains of the tracks leading to the frontline positions.  It was across this ground that on 31st July the British attacked and the Third Battle of Ypres commenced.  On that very day the heavens opened and torrential rain continued incessantly through day and night until the deep craters filled to overflowing, transforming the whole low-lying area into one vast swamp through which we floundered twelve days later.

Where were the dead?  Apart from an occasional khaki or field grey figure grotesquely spread-eagled in the mud there was no real evidence of the slaughter on both sides.  Progress was slow for perhaps another quarter of a mile but at length the dead came into view.  They lay in one long mound which, straight as an arrow, stretched away to the north as far as the eye could see.  The spectacle of that mangled pile of humanity, gruesome as it was, by its very magnitude failed to stir the emotions as did the little German in the shell hole.  The temporary resting-place of those thousands of khaki and field grey together was, I believe, the road to Westhock.  One thing was certain, I had no recollection of negotiating that mountainous heap on the way in and with the realisation that I was off course I veered to the left.

Progress was very slow and the effort painful but at length the first evidence of sanity in those troubled fields singled me out for special attention.  In the far distance a tiny moving object was approaching at great speed.  I sat down and waited for the visitor.  Bubbling over with the sheer joy of life, free from the hates and bitterness that beset his masters, the affectionate, if boisterous, greeting of that little brown mongrel put new spirit into the weary traveller.  Having completed his mission he scampered off in the direction from whence he came and where he led I followed.  He was already home and waiting for me at the support trenches where a long line of faces peered apprehensively over the parapet towards the smoke and flame to their front.  Here were the QVRs awaiting the order to advance to the support of the LRBs.  To their shout of “How’s it going up their chum?” one could only repeat the parting message of the LRBs that they had been turned on the right.  Cold comfort with the prospect of a dim future for the lads of the QVR who by all appearances had already shared in the slaughter of that futile operation.  The Germans knew very well the precise location of the British support lines and we ourselves had witnessed the intense bombardment of that region from our own position in Jargon Trench.

I shuffled along until in the far distance, away to the right, I espied a party of twenty or thirty men trudging slowly back towards the British rear.  As we converged I was intrigued to notice that every other man was carrying on his shoulder what appeared to be a long pole.  They could hardly be walking wounded and my guess was that a party of pioneers was leisurely returning from some task in the field.  As we drew closer I was spotted and immediately half a dozen broke away from their party and raced towards me.  At last I was face to face with the enemy!  Flinging their rolled up stretchers to the ground and quickly opening them up they arranged blankets and I was invited to take my pick.  Competition for my patronage was keen and I was bewildered by the verbal onslaught and gesticulation of those half dozen unarmed and unwounded Germans.  No doubt they were more concerned with their own safety than my immediate wellbeing since unescorted Germans in process of surrendering to the enemy were treading a dangerous ground.  I was to be their insurance, their passport to safety.  What additional benefits they may have thought would accrue from their synthetic display of humanity is a matter of conjecture.  This was not the moment for fraternisation.  We spoke no common language but a few well-chosen words in good British Army language sufficed.  Quite unperturbed they bundled up their stretchers and hurried back to their companions.  Incidentally, not one of my visitors wore the brassard of the Red Cross.

So far the way back had been comparatively peaceful, if slow and tortuous, but now there was the smoke of bursting shrapnel in the dull grey sky.  Although hitherto there had been no path or track in the wilderness there now appeared the remains of the white tapes laid out for the advance to the infamous Menin Road.  As I progressed I was overtaken, walking wounded began to appear from all directions.  A crowd of several hundred weary, dishevelled and bloody remnants staggered along until the ambulances were reached at a spot beyond which no vehicle dare venture in daylight.

Just as I arrived, one crowded ambulance drove off at breakneck speed in the direction of Ypres.  The second one, crammed with screaming Huns was ready to move off whilst many patient British ‘Tommies’ sat around awaiting their turn.  Overhead the vicious whiplash crack of bursting shrapnel showered its deadly splinters from the air amongst the crowd of waiting men.  Jerry had got the range to a ‘T’.  I was not so patient as the rest.  I took exception to the priority the wounded Germans were receiving.  I took further exception to the brusque manner of the RAMC Corporal when in reply to my request he looked at my bandaged hand and said “You can walk”.  When I explained that it was not my intention to do any more walking he softened.  “All right chum, we are full inside, you can sit with the driver.”  I sat with the driver.  Speed was sacrificed to comfort as was essential having regard to the mounting casualties continuously filtering along through the Menin Road to Ypres.

At last the Ancient Cloth Hall came into view.  We had reached Field Ambulance Station number 55 at Dickebusch.  The journey was rough and long and with every bump and lurch of that primitive conveyance I felt my body was breaking into pieces.  So far as I know Dickebusch was the first substantial Field Ambulance Station at which the casualties from the battle area could receive proper attention to their wounds.  The fact that Dickebusch lay some miles from the battle area of Glencorse Wood was an indication of the complete domination of the Ypres Salient from the heights above and it follows the only justification for launching the Battle of Langemark.  However I am no historian and my theories are derived from a purely personal interest.  It was a hell of a long way back.

At Dickebusch the constant stream of bloody and exhausted wounded were directed to a large hut inside which were rows of long trestle tables and forms.  Unlimited supplies of bully beef sandwiches, chocolate and cigarettes were laid out and orderlies repeatedly filled mugs with hot, sweet Army tea.  I had not eaten or drunk for over three days and set to with a will.  My thirst was insatiable.  Feeling decidedly better and resting on the hard forms, my thoughts dwelt on the good fortune that had been my portion in that hell which lay behind.  “Lay quite still and on no account eat or drink”.  Brompton’s parting message, which I had quite forgotten, gave me a few moments anxiety but feeling none the worse for that overdue repast I was past caring anyway – though Brompton could have been right.

It was time to move this dirty, ragged individual with uniform in shreds, puttees trailing away behind, jacket in ribbons and jacket sleeves ripped from the wrists to the shoulders by the blast of the 5.9.  Outside the canteen three or four queues of Tommies stood patiently in single file whilst in the distance could be seen a cluster of white buildings which proved to be Field Ambulance Station number 55.  I attached myself to the nearest queue and prepared for a long wait.  Nobody talked.  All stood quietly, immersed in their own thoughts, waiting for some relief from the pain and exhaustion.  I indulged in a little mental arithmetic.  Assuming there were at least 200 men in that long line before me and, say, four doctors available for each queue, my potential would be decreased to 50.  Allowing an average of 15 minutes for each patient for jabs, cleaning, surgery, bandaging and recording formalities, I might expect to enter the portals of that distant building in about 12 hours.  Hopefully deciding that my working hypothesis must be faulty the mental exercise was abandoned.  Meanwhile the queue continued to lengthen behind and the forward movement was negligible.

The pain in the stomach and hand was excruciating and with every beat of the heart the finger pumped in unison.  By now the outside of the bandage was jet black with dried blood except for an unpleasant sheen of phosphorescent green in places.  The whole ensemble was the size of a toy balloon and as hard as iron.  Considerable relief was obtained by resting the packet on the top of my shoulder and thus I was standing when a white spot emerged from the distant building.  As it came nearer the white spot proved to be a young surgeon, obviously fresh from the operating table from the bloody state of his white gown.  He was no doubt on the way to a rest and food.  His eyes were red-rimmed with lack of sleep and his step was weary.  He plodded down the line with now and again a quick glance at those who stood and waited.  He passed by me but after a few steps he was back.  Pointing to the black bundle on my shoulder he said “How long have you had that?”  I told him two and a half days.  “Come with me” – and retracing his steps he walked all the way back to that far off building.  I had jumped the queue by about 200 places!

Inside I sat at a rough wooden table and was inflicted with 75cc A.T.  The hand was immersed in a large enamel trough filled with hot antiseptic and the process of unwinding the lengths of coagulated bandage and gauze commenced.  For the first time I saw what Jerry had done to my finger, from the knuckle to the nail it was split exactly down the centre with splinters of white bone at right angles resembling the skeleton of a fish.  With infinite care and patience the MO slowly unthreaded the interwoven gauze and bound it up.  He commenced to write in the details on my Field Medical Card.  I asked him about the other wound, pointing to my stomach.  His profanity was excusable in the circumstances and yet with the same care and attention he cleaned and plugged and bandaged.  With my Medical Card in a waterproof cover he wished me good luck and was out of the door in no time.  I trust he kept his eyes averted during his second attempt to reach his own particular refuge.

Field Medical Card

The diary records that lorries conveyed the casualties from Dickebusch to No. 7 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station at Poperinghe passing hundreds of German prisoners on the road.  After food, drink and a second inspection I slept in a tent.  However, today, I have no recollection of that part of the journey.

I awoke from what I suspect was an induced sleep to find myself on the luggage rack of an ancient French railway carriage converted for use as an ambulance train.  We were ambling along at a steady pace.  Periodical stops were made at wayside British Army halts where our wounds were inspected, food and drink administered and, of course, the ever ready hypodermic was in action.  For every inspection the Medical Card should have been noted accordingly but mine shows a complete blank except for the AT prod I received at Dickenbusch.  I remember peeing out of a top window at one of these halts.  Several elephant huts jutted on the line whilst in front beautifully tended gardens ablaze with the colourful flowers of late summer were enclosed with freshly painted white fencing heralding the first promise of approaching civilisation and comfort. 

We detrained and ambulances completed the journey to No 1 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples on the coast.  Around my neck still hung the Field Medical Card reporting a battle casualty resulting in “shell wounds to right hand and abdomen”.  The ward sister arrived.  “What happened to you number 27?”  I reported the diagnosis on the card.  She said “Don’t be silly, boy, that’s not your abdomen that’s your belly”.  Lt A V Ledger RAMC of No. 55 Field Ambulance Station may have slipped up in his anatomy but he dealt with me handsomely.

The tattered remains of my uniform having been removed with scissors, my body washed down by an RAMC orderly, clothed in a night-gown of sorts and blanketed, I was carted away on a stretcher tightly clutching the little red bag containing my personal treasures.  Entering an enormous marquee labelled K Ward, bed number 27 brought me to the end of my day.

British attack (2nd Londons).
Michael ... makes a dash out.
CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) Dickebusch.
Tea. Wounds dressed (Ypres).
CCS Poperinghe.

Original diary entry

Original journal notes
Google Maps entry for The Cloth Hall, Ypres here
Google Maps entry for Dickebusch (Dikkebus) here
Google Maps entry for Poperinge here
Google Maps entry for Etaples here

15th August 1917

When daylight came I was shocked to find that most of those around me were thin, pale faced youths, eighteen years of age and maybe younger.

The 2nd Londons failed no better than the QWRs and the tragic lessons of the past few days had to be learned from scratch. Their advance Lewis Gun posts were soon wiped out and intense shelling throughout the day continued to pound the mutilated flesh.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

14th August 1917

Forster and I were bemoaning our lot when the 5.9 shell (1) burst not many yards to my right.  My companion was untouched but I felt a slight clip on my right hand and another in the solar plexus.  My first thought was to get rid of the hitherto forgotten grenades that I now regarded as a menace. Forster removed them from my pockets and expected me to tell him what to do with them – my reply was not in the best of good taste.  Stretcher-bearer Brompton was soon on the spot and I offered him the packet of field dressings, which each man had sewn into the bottom edge of his tunic.  “Mustn’t use that stuff old boy, just had information from top brass that iodine on open wounds destroys the tissues.”  This was a remarkable discovery by the medics after three years of bloody warfare but it gave me the opportunity to add one ampoule of iodine to my collection of souvenirs.  Brompton applied his own brand of antiseptic before he left to get stretcher help.  He instructed me to lie quite still and on no account to eat or drink.  Meanwhile the shelling increased and the promised stretcher never came.  Someone, I know not who, laid me in the ditch inside the “Dugout” and thoughtfully covered me with an enormous field grey overcoat.  It was here that Bradley, cheerful as ever, sought me out and kept me company as long as he dared.  I was never to see his beaming face again.

Throughout the remainder of the night Jargon Trench was subjected to intense bombardment rising to crescendo at dawn when the Germans attacked.  By this time, as a result of the continuous explosions, the shelter had disintegrated and collapsed.  I was buried under a mass of wooden planks, corrugated iron and mud.  I buried my head like an ostrich.  From Jargon Trench came the continuous rattle of machine gun and rifle fire.  Our men were soon driven back from the advance position and Jargon Trench became cluttered with men and casualties.  Corporals Taylor and Johnson, both wounded in the legs, joined me but what happened to them afterwards I never found out.

Sometimes in the melee shouts of “Gas” were passed along.  I reached for my respirator and realised for the first time what a blessing that encumbrance had proved to be.  The iron canister, from which dribbled what appeared to be carbon granules, had taken the sting out of the shell splinters.  The hole at entry of the container was the size of a penny – the exit hole was the size of an orange.  Later, when my belongings were removed from my breast pockets, I found that a steel mirror, a fountain pen and other miscellaneous objects had also helped in the good work.  I threw the respirator away.  There was no gas.

From my prone position I could see but little of what was happening but I knew without question that many of my companions would never return from that morning’s work and for the first time in my brief military career I experienced a strong urge to kill.  Not perhaps the thirst for blood which the ‘Canaries’ of Harfleur had tried to instil but an overwhelming desire to revenge the slaughter of those I had so quickly learned to regard as my brothers.  In the event my training had gone for nought and there was I, a qualified sniper, denied the opportunity of even one pot shot at the Hun.  Today, fifty years later, I still do not know whether to be glad or sorry that, by force of circumstances, I fired no shot in anger.

The enemy attack was eventually beaten off but the concentrated bombardment of Jargon continued unceasingly until, with every burst, my hopes of survival receded further and further.  It was during the German attack that someone, whose voice I recognised, panicked and, shouting “we shall all be killed”, trampled over my now camouflaged body a number of times.  Sergeant Yarnold came to my rescue but just what he said to the offender is best omitted from the record.

With every new explosion following each other in quick succession came an uneasy sensation of being slowly raised some distance from the ground, suspended in mid-air for a few seconds, then gently lowered down to earth.  Although the shelter was by now virtually destroyed, by some miracle the field telephone and the wire remained intact.  I became aware of a heated argument in progress between Sergeant Yarnold and B Company located in the support trenches.  In the course of the conversation I gathered that Yarnold had been instructed to send out a party of men in broad daylight for the purpose of establishing an advance Lewis Gun post.  His refusal to order men to undertake an operation which could only result in almost certain death was both emphatic and colourful.  The consequences arising from his refusal to obey an order whilst on active service was never put to the test because the line went dead.  It transpired later that a shell had landed on the Company HQ and Lt Mackle and Sergeant Priest were both killed.  The story would not be complete without mentioning that the valiant Sergeant Yarnold made several journeys by himself in daylight in the face of intense rifle and machine gun fire and successfully brought in a number of wounded survivors, including my friend Schneider with a bullet wound in the chest.

Whether or not the Brigade headquarters had reason to believe that the enemy attack had been successful and that the Germans again occupied Jargon Trench is not on record but for some reason the British ‘heavies’ now lowered their sights.  Unfortunately for the QWRs their shooting was accurate and Jargon was at the receiving end from both friend and foe.  Communication by telephone was out of the question and a call went out for volunteers to take, in broad daylight, the hazardous journey across open ground bearing, I hoped, rude messages for the British gunners.  Three times the call for volunteers was heard but it was long after the third runner was despatched that the enemy was given a free field.

When darkness fell the QWR were relieved by the 1st Battalion of the Second London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).  As they quietly made way for the newcomers I was placed on a stretcher but the relief at the prospect of leaving that cruel and bloody region was short lived.  After a journey of a few yards a voice came out of the darkness, “Put that man back”.  Within seconds the QWRs disappeared into the blackness and I was left to my own devices.  Admittedly it would have been difficult and dangerous for heavily burdened stretcher-bearers to negotiate the slippery edges of the deep water-filled shell holes in the pitch darkness and speed was essential.  However it could be equally disastrous for a wounded man with only one free hand to make such a perilous journey by himself.  Anxious as I was to get away from the terrifying explosions the thought of drowning was equally frightening.  It seemed the odds were even and, taking the easiest way out of my dilemma, I buried myself in the mud and tried to forget everything.

Fritz ... and heavily ....
Wounded by shell in 2 places.
Fritz ... Gas ... repulsed.
Lay in dug-out.
Heavily strafed.
Battalion leaves the line.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"The story of one small band of Queen's Westminsters may be told; it is typical of what was happening all along the fighting front.

Corporal Skeate and seven men were holding a small post in front of the line, and, cut off from all communication with their company, without rations and exposed to the full fury of the enemy's artillery and machine-gun fire, their position seemed hopeless. Their orders were to hold the post, and for over thirty hours they clung on expecting to be overwhelmed at any moment. The situation was reported to the Brigade, and orders were received that the post was to be withdrawn. Sergeant E. Yarnold, M.M., then volunteered to make an attempt to take the message forward; and with conspicuous courage he made his way across the open, exposed to machine-gun fire at a hundred yards' range, and succeeded in reaching the post in safety. The party then withdrew, and on their way back to the front line five men out of the eight were hit and lay helpless where they fell. Sergeant Yarnold bore a charmed life, for he got back unwounded, though his clothing was pierced with bullets. Calling for volunteers, as soon as he regained the line he went out again with a few brave men and brought in the wounded.

In the evening (August 14th), the Battalion was relieved by the 2nd Londons and moved back to the trenches at Half-way House. During the day and the preceding night its losses had amounted to 24 other ranks killed and 54 other ranks wounded"

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

(1) Wikipedia entry for German heavy field howitzer here.
The British referred to these guns and their shells as "Five Point Nines" or "Five-Nines" as the internal diameter of the barrel was 5.9 inches (150 mm).

13th August 1917

Not until the dawn could we assess our true situation. Supposedly we were holding Jargon Trench but the guns had destroyed all vestige of cover. The diary refers to “Inverness Copse” which is what we were told was our position on taking over. The shattered remains of Glencorse Wood consisted of the stumps of broken trees, shell holes and marshland. The British line was in full view of the Germans comfortably ensconced on the ridge at the top of the slope. Behind, some half a mile away, we could see the murdered trees of Sanctuary Wood where the troops in support must have suffered badly from the heavy bombardment then in progress.

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

Owing to the weather, aerial cover was non-existent but during the afternoon one solitary enemy plane suddenly appeared from the right and low down, machine-gunning the line from end to end. We raised our rifles hopefully, anxious for the opportunity to take some action against the Boche but the order “no shooting” was passed along in case we gave away the British position! Since the Hun airman could see his prospective victims squirming in the mud the order seemed incomprehensible. The opportunity of a minor boost to our morale was denied. Having completed the trip and again sprayed us with hot metal from end to end he disappeared back to his home ground. Some fifteen minutes later a single British plane trundled up from the rear and, believing it to have been called up to deal with the marauder we cheered quietly in derision. In after years, having seen the remarkable aerial pictures of Glencorse Wood taken at that time, it could have been a British airman purely on a photographic mission.

Bradley suggested a brew. We had received no rations for 24 hours and he thought that with a piece of ‘4x2’ and rifle oil we might be able to boil water from the rain filled shell hole which lay between us. He dipped his canteen deeply to avoid the green scum but when a ghostly figure dressed in field grey floated gently to the surface ‘tea for two’ was abandoned forthwith. It was many hours before we were to see food and drink.

At dusk Lieutenant Marsh crawled along the length of B Company to explain that within the next day or so an attack was to be made from a new position on the lower slopes of Inverness Copse. In preparation for this a line of posts were to be established at a distance of 100 yards in front of Jargon Trench. Under cover of the posts a new trench was to be dug by one section of Riflemen, Rifle Grenadiers and bombers. Snipers would take up positions in outposts of two, 100 yards in from of Jargon Trench. Two snipers were issued with an additional bandoleer of 100 rounds and two Mills Bombs. The preliminary operation would take place that night. The strictest silence was essential. Zero hour was 9pm and we sallied forth with the faint glow of the western sky behind us. The outpost with Corporal Johnson in charge left the digging party behind, about to attempt the impossible task of constructing a new trench in the terrible morass caused by the swollen streams, further disrupted by the constant pounding of the guns.

Judging distances and directions around the shattered tree stumps and through marshy ground in the pitch-blackness of the night was a chancy undertaking. We had no idea how near the German lines might be but without question every step took us nearer to the terrors of the unknown. Before we had found a suitable spot, which offered a modicum of protection from small arms fire if nothing else, the enemy revealed his own state of tension when a cluster of star shells burst high above, lighting up the whole grisly scene. According to the drill book we should have stood perfectly rigid, even though one foot be raised off the ground, until the blessed darkness again covered up the moving targets. With one accord we ignored the theories of the experts and quickly flung ourselves down into the slush. “Grandmother’s Footsteps” in the middle of Glencorse Wood was not a practical proposition. The Boche machine guns opened up at once. Clearly the enemy was as jittery as ourselves and in response to their red and green rockets and the orange flares which spread over the sky like golden rain all hell was let loose.

After the machine guns came the mortars, ‘minnies’ and finally the 5.9s and the heavies joined in. The really big stuff concentrated on Jargon Trench behind us. Since the outpost was in the foremost position its greatest danger was from the spitting machine guns as we pressed faces and bodies into the mud with tin hats tilted backward in the hope that the stream of bullets passing inches above our heads would be deflected if Jerry lowered his sights. In such conditions time was indeterminate but it seemed an eternity. For a brief period the heavy bombardment eased but one very persistent machine gun slowly traversed the entire wood through an angle of ninety degrees. As the sound receded with each sweep we breathed again, then as the sound came nearer on the return journey bodies were pressed yet deeper into the mire.

Against the continuous flashes from the guns along the whole front I at length ventured a peep at my companions spread-eagled around me so quiet and still and a terrible sense of loneliness came upon me. But the dead do not speak and to my immense relief a hoarse whisper from Corporal Johnson ordered the outpost to retire to a position less exposed to the harassing fire by then increasing in volume. We rose, all that is except poor Robinson, and quietly moved back some 50 yards nearer to the digging party. Here the outpost was established but the snipers were not yet in their allotted positions 100 yards in front of the post.

With beating hearts, bulging pockets and extra bandoliers, Forster and I attempted to retrace our steps back to square one. We were soon in difficulties, for the marsh, which in places covered our thighs, had not been encountered in our first expedition and with little or no sense of distance or direction two very worried riflemen came to the conclusion that they were completely lost in the evil wood. Clearly we had digressed but the terrifying thought was to decide in which direction and to what extent we had overshot the mark, maybe wandering dangerously near to German outposts. Any further advance on our part would have been inviting disaster. In one sense we were better off than our companions back in Jargon who were still at the mercy of the incessant shelling from the enemy artillery. By the same token, however, the mere fact that the centre of no-man’s land was an oasis safe from the heavy bombardment proceeding on the lower slopes conjured up other perils.

The machine guns were ominously quiet at last. In these conditions the possibility of German patrols prowling in the neighbourhood could not be dismissed and frequent quick glances betrayed the state of our nerves. We saw nothing except those creeping figures in field grey that came from our imagination. We had not been told what was expected from us in the event of contact with the Hun but we were under no illusion. We were the stooges. Our main function being to provide ample warning to the Company behind when trouble was afoot. We ourselves had little faith in our ability to annihilate the enemy if and when he showed up, even overlooking the fact that our most potent weapons were still reposing in our pockets. This forgetfulness was not surprising since until zero hour on that day we had had no opportunity to handle a live Mills Bomb, let alone throw one.

During the lonely vigil in that accursed wood we experienced one very disturbing moment. Out of the darkness far away to the right came a distant cry of “Help”. However the voice did not convey the impression of a man sorely wounded. The intonation was wrong and the casualty, if such it was, had very sound lungs. We listened carefully for the cry to be repeated but none came in the now silent wood. Huddled together, we discussed in whispers what action, if any, was required of us in the circumstances. We thought of every reason why we should do nothing except the really valid one. We concluded that since we were in the most forward position of the entire Company it seemed unlikely that one of our own men had strayed so far from the fold. We could also not dismiss the thought that Jerry might be attempting to lure some unfortunate Englander to give away the position. The enemy were patently aware that something to their disadvantage was brewing and the capture and interrogation of a British soldier would have been invaluable. Finally it was decided that any attempt to find one lost soul in the dense blackness was doomed to failure anyway. Our reasoning told us that any investigation on our part would be tantamount to deserting our post whilst on active service even though it was questionable whether anyone in the rear knew exactly where the said post was located.

Time passed slowly. Many hours passed and we had no idea when and how we were expected to return to the Company. Release came suddenly – although by the manner of its coming it added yet one more ‘butterfly’ to those already circulating in our insides. Somewhere in the immediate neighbourhood was a prowler and, as the rustling grew close, fingers on triggers took the first pressure. Lt Van der Lind, a brave man, had undertaken the difficult task of finding in the pitch darkness the two jittery youngsters who themselves had little idea of their location. His mission was to escort us back to Jargon Trench for the purpose of guiding a ration party to the outposts and the trench diggers. The officer’s initial success in finding us was miraculous but he was not confident about the return journey.

There were now three of us lost in the wood. Each had different ideas on direction and we wandered on aimlessly until at length sounds of a body of men approaching came from the right. Silently we waited, stretched full length in the slime. The intruders were a noisy crowd, spades and other implements clanged and the sound of muffled voices came nearer. As the intruders came nearer, tripping over the broken ground, the mutterings and oaths were, to our great relief, not spoken in the guttural German tongue. On the other hand it was not pure English as taught at school, but there was no misunderstanding the thoughts expressed so colourfully by those simple British soldiers. It was in fact our own digging party with Lt Lloyd in charge. It soon became apparent that we three were not the only QWRs lost in that blasted wood. We breathed again, but the danger was not yet over. In the jumpy atmosphere disclosure would have been utter folly – so, lying doggo, we let our noisy friends pass by almost within arms length.

Our discussions were renewed but the only point on which we reached agreement was that Lt Lloyd was leading his men in the wrong direction. The natural slope of the wood away from Jerry’s enviable position on the ridge was of no assistance in the dark owing to the uneven terrain, the bogholes and the broken trees which had to be negotiated – all resulting from the myriad shells which had pounded the area for days on end. We had no compass. Even the enemy was not prepared to be co-operative since his star shells were no longer bursting in the heavens. We continued to grope in circles. Actually “home” was nearer than we thought and it was Lt Lloyd and his diggers who eventually put us on the right path to HQ. During the homeward journey we did not come across any signs of the night’s trench digging.

HQ was located in a few yards of a one-time trench that had miraculously survived the bombardment. The roof consisted of a few lengths of wood planking across the ditch that supported a piece of corrugated iron. Roughly fashioned doors completed the erection. In occupation of this doubtful refuge, christened the “Dugout”, we found Lt Marsh, Lt Lloyd (who had returned to report progress), a few batmen, Company runners and stretcher-bearers. In fact everybody except the ration party which had not materialised and, I suspect, never did.

Forster and I duly reported and, sensing that our presence was not welcome, gladly removed ourselves from the overcrowded hole. We took up a position in the comparatively fresh air a few yards in front of Jargon Trench. I looked at my watch. It was precisely 3am – we had spent six hours in that accursed wood with the prospect of a further voyage of discovery if and when the rations were delivered.

Original journal notes

"On the night of August 13th, the 169th Infantry Brigade attempted to gain a little ground by establishing a line of posts in a ride in Glencorse Wood, one hundred yards in front of the position. The intention was for six posts to be established by the Q.V.R. on the right, and three by the Queen's Westminsters on the left, with an additional post if necessary, in order to keep in touch with the 176th Infantry Brigade on the Battalion's left. Each post was to be manned by one section.

The advance was timed to commence at 9:00pm. At that hour A Company and the Q.V.R. on the right were being heavily shelled and their advance was delayed, but on the left B Company succeeded in establishing a post. Seven minutes after the advance started the enemy put down a heavy barrage on the British front line; and that, together with the counter-barrage which had been called for by lamp signal, had prevented any progress being made by A Company and the Q.V.R.

Continuous and heavy shelling went on all through the night, and, through it all, men hung on to their lonely shell-holes with an heroic endeavour that is beyond all praise."

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

Google Maps entry for location of Jargon Trench and Glencorse Wood here

12th August 1917 - Letter

Letter home to Mum and Dad ...

12th August 1917 (Sunday)

Heavy rain was still falling when reveille sounded at 9am and the morning was spent in dumping heavy packs, which by rights should have contained all possessions likely to be of interest to German Intelligence.  My own breast pockets remained stuffed with diary and notebook.  The front page of the latter bearing the regimental crest, proudly proclaiming that the owner was a ‘Sniper Observer’.  What my fate would have been had I been taken prisoner was never put to the test but rumour had it that the Boche was not too kind to the Sniper fraternity.

At 2pm we moved off behind the “heavy” positions along the edge of Zillebeke Lake past the light railway.  This well-defined track confined between marsh and lake was a well-favoured target of the German long range guns.  As a precaution the Companies proceeded in single file, two yards between each man.  Following behind were the Queen Victoria Rifles who, according to the grapevine, lost one whole platoon when the German guns suddenly plastered the rear area with high explosive.  To the left of Hooge we waited and rested, watching the continuous stream of shells pounding the Menin Road, making rubble and dust of what used to be a town.  Behind the distant ridge an enemy observation balloon rose high in the sky and from the dust and smoke ahead a battery of R.F.A. came straight towards us driving hell for leather.  The pounding hoofs, swaying guns and limbers’ wheels bumping three feet off the rough shell pocked ground was exhilarating to the onlooker but dangerously close for comfort.

At dusk the Battalion moved on through Hooge, from whence the R.F.A. had come and guides led us into the front line position at the base of Glencorse Wood.  All through that night the Battalion crouched and endured on the edge of the numerous deep shell holes brimful with the filthy slime of mud and flesh.  Intense shelling went on continuously throughout the night and the torrential rain never ceased.  The shattering noise of the ‘minenwerfers’ created havoc to the nervous system.  In the trenches at Arras the light of the ‘minnies’ fuses approaching could be spotted and in daylight the “Flying Pigs” themselves could be seen tumbling over and over through the air.  In the deep uncluttered trenches of the Hindenburg Line there was room to move and with luck it was possible to take evading action.  At Ypres we could only hold on to our slippery perches and wait.  The slightest movement and men ran the risk of slipping over the edge of the six-foot deep craters of mud.  Weighed down with their heavy equipment they had little chance of ever emerging.

Rose at 9am.
Packs taken away.
Left 2pm through Zillebeke. Into front line.
Heavily strafed.
Letter from home with photo. Wrote letter home.

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"The next afternoon (August 12th), the Battalion moved forward by cross-country tracks to Yeomanry Post, on the west of Sanctuary Wood and about 1000 yards north-east of Zillebeke Lake. It arrived there about 5:00pm, and three hours later guides led the companies forward to relieve the 6th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment (53rd Infantry Brigade, 18th Division), in the left sector of the front line west of Glencorse Wood. The state of the ground and the incessant shelling had stopped all attempts to consolidate the position; there was no cover from shell-fire, and the British and German dead were still lying out in the open. The 'line' was roughly that reached on the first day of the battle and was quite indefinite. It consisted merely of convenient shell-holes, with here and there a disconnected length of trench, and in these the companies with their supports were distributed in two rough lines. A Company was on the right in touch with the Q.V.R., and B Company on the left in touch with the 7th Middlesex (167th Infantry Brigade), with C Company in support north of the Menin Road, and D Company in reserve in a trench north of Yeomanry Post."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

Google Maps entry for Zillebeke Lake here
Google Maps entry for Hooge here

11th August 1917
Into the trenches - The Third Battle of Ypres

Left billets in Abeele at 12 noon.
Half hour train journey.
March through Dickebusch to bivvies.
Wet. Strafed. ("Shrapnel Corner")

Original diary entry
Original journal notes

"On August 11th, the Queen's Westminsters moved by train from Abeele to Ouderdom (about seven miles south-west of Ypres), and then marched to Chateau Segard. Here they bivouacked for the night in a muddy field, with no better cover than could be obtained from their ground-sheets rigged up into rough shelters. In spite of the discomfort and continuous shelling throughout the night, the men were in good spirits and were kept interested by the guns of the 8 inch Howitzer batteries which were in action all around."
Excerpt from "The War History of the 1st Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles 1914-1918" [ISBN 1-84342-610-2]

Google Maps entry for Ouderdom here
Google Maps entry for Dickebusch (Dikkebus) here
Google Maps entry for Chateau Segard here
Google Maps entry for Ypres here