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).