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