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