Chapter 12


On the door of a broken-down barn a little way behind the front, some wag with nothing better to do had chalked a notice: ‘LOST, STOLEN OR STRAYED. KITCHENER’S ARMY. £5 REWARD TO FINDER.’ This was considered to be a good joke and similar notices, some of them less polite, sprouted up all over the place in villages behind the line. But if the promised flood of men had not yet arrived to help the troops in France, there was at least a hearteningly steady trickle of Territorial Battalions. Their arrival and the coming of spring had lifted everyone’s spirits. The air was warming up, the ground was drying out, there were buds on the trees and in places, when the sun shone, Plugstreet Wood took on an air of sylvan beauty. The men who had newly arrived in this quiet sector to take up soldiering in earnest found life tolerably pleasant, if not comfortable, with just a dash of danger to make it interesting. They learned to beware of snipers and to keep their heads down. They learned the importance of silence, to be vigilant on sentry duty, to take bombardments in their stride. But the bombardments were predictable, for the Germans shot ‘by the clock’ and, barring occasional accidents, casualties were light. There were listening patrols to spice things up and after dark there were exciting forays into No Man’s Land, close up to the German trenches. Ostensibly the purpose of patrols was to gather information. Their real purpose, as often as not, was to satisfy adventurous new officers in their desire to make their presence felt and show the enemy what was what.

CSM W. J. Coggins, D.C.M. 4th Bn., Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (TF).

I used to go out with my company commander, Lieutenant Pickford. He was a master at Brackley High School and he was a silly sod really when it came to patrolling. Of course, usually you would go out at night and, of course, you were supposed to volunteer for these jobs. But he came to me one morning not long after we got there and he said, ‘I want you to come out with me this morning.’ It was thick with fog, you couldn’t see the German line and it was more or less an order. I was only a bugler then and I’d be just turned nineteen, because I’d joined the Ox. and Bucks. Territorials in 1912 as a bugle boy aged sixteen, so I wasn’t going to argue with the officer. I said, ‘All right, sir.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give them a bit of music over there this morning.’ I thought, ‘What the devil with?’ I thought he wanted me to blow the bugle or something, but he said, ‘Look, I’ve got an old gramophone here and some old records.’ I don’t know where he’d got them from. Of course there were old broken-up houses around so maybe someone had scrounged them. He said, ‘I’m going to get out as close as I can to that German trench and shove some records on for them.’

Well, it was a damn silly thing to do, but I was game, so off we went over the top and out into the fog. It was a good long way, it must have been nearly four hundred yards, but we were able to walk most of it because the fog hid us from the Germans. When we got maybe twenty or thirty yards from the German line we stopped and put down this gramophone I’d been humping, and it was a fair weight, because it was one of these old things with a big horn on it. We didn’t wind it up (he’d done that before we left the trench) so he fished out a record and put it on and set it going. I can’t remember what it was, some old scratchy band music, but the Germans must have got a fair old turn hearing it blasting out through this fog-horn thing almost right next to their trench. But we didn’t wait to see. We started back again the way we came, moving a lot faster this time! But on the way the blooming fog lifted and before we got back to our trench a machine-gun opened up. The Germans gave us music all right! You should have heard these machine-gun bullets going swish, swish, swish. We both got down on the ground and you could hear the bullets going straight over the top of you, just above your head. We had to lie there a long time before we managed to get back into the trench and I was glad to get back in one piece.

Lieutenant Pickford was delighted with himself. Not for long though! He got a real bollocking from the Colonel for going out and doing that, because after they fired this machine-gun they started shelling like the devil and two or three of our men were killed. No, he wasn’t popular! It was a silly thing to do and we got no profit out of it. But people did things like that in those days before we learned better sense.

Pte. Η. Κ. Davis, 5th Bn., London Rifle Brig.

We were in Plugstreet Wood for about six months and we had a very quiet time there. Of course we had some casualties, but the main difficulty was keeping awake – especially when you were on these listening posts. In the early days, when the weather was bad, that was no joke. They were a waste of time as far as I was concerned. You’d get out of the trenches at Plugstreet, take the bayonet off your rifle and stick it in the scabbard so as not to catch any light that might be going, put one round in the breech of your rifle with the safety catch on, so that all you want to do is slip it off when you want to fire. The most important thing was a waterproof sheet. You take out the waterproof sheet and you put it on the ground and you lie on this thing and start listening to see if there’s any activity going on. We always went out in pairs and before very long the man I was lying with would be kicking my legs, because I’d fallen asleep. Shortly after that I’d be doing the same to him, so we kept each other awake. But in the winter months – even sometimes when it came to spring – it was usually wet and while the waterproof sheet stopped the water coming up it also stopped the rain from going away, so before very long you were lying in a pool of water. We did three or four hours at a time like that before we crawled back to the trench. There was no way of getting dry. But, never mind, we just had to put up with it.

Even if the old hands were not so inclined to take risks as the newcomers, they were not lacking in bravado. For reasons of their own the Germans had annoyed the London Rifle Brigade by planting a flag in front of their trenches. It flapped at them defiantly from the other side of No Man’s Land two hundred yards away, and this piece of impertinence was not to be borne. It was Corporal Jenkin who crept out on another misty morning to capture the flag and bring it triumphantly back to delight the battalion. Corporal Jenkin was the hero of the day, the flag was sent back as a trophy to London Rifle Brigade Headquarters in Bunhill Row in London and the story went with it. It even reached the ‘Charivari’ column of Punch.

We are not surprised to hear that Corporal Jenkin of the First Battalion London Rifle Brigade succeeded in capturing a German flag at the front. Corporal Jenkin is an artist, and it was only natural that he should make for the Colours.

It all helped to boost morale, but in the spring of 1915 in this quiet sector, morale was high. For once it was the Germans who were in the open. Facing them from their trenches on the edge of the wood with the sheltering depths of the wood itself behind them, with the undamaged trees coming into leaf and even some shell-shattered trunks showing an irrepressible tendency to push out new shoots, there were times when the British Tommies felt that the war was unreal. There were still civilians in the houses and hamlets close to the line and beyond the communication trenches and support lines that ran through the sun-dappled glades, disfigured though they were by barbed wire and the trampling of many feet, there was still a semblance of normal life.

Just two kilometres to the south, where the railway line ran through the village of le Touret, a local train from Armentieres had puffed into the station bound for Comines and all stations east to Courtrai. It had stood there all winter long, and there it would stand for the rest of the war. The wooden carriages were holed and splintered, the engine was bullet-grazed and streaked with rust beneath a grimy coat of mud, with its wheels rusting into the few rails that still lay on the battered track, and coarse weeds poked through the layer of mud and cinders where the track ran into No Man’s Land. The sleepers had long ago been carted off and used to strengthen dug-outs. But every morning on the dot of seven o’clock a railwayman picked his way across the debris and climbed into the signal box. And there he sat, trains or no trains, war or no war, until it was time to go home at six o’clock in the evening. It had apparently not occurred to the railway authorities to pay him off.

Sgt. B. J. Brookes, 1/16 Queen’s Westminster Rifles (County of London Regt.).

The station was about three hundred and fifty yards behind the trenches, and the trenches ran through the village, at right angles to the road. To get to the front line one went into the first house along the road, and a passage had been made by knocking big holes in the side walls of the houses. Two of these houses were still occupied, and were open to the troops as estaminets, and it was quite possible to come out of the trenches for a quarter of an hour to get a glass of beer. In one of these houses two old women and a young girl were carrying on the business (which, needless to say, was very brisk) and it was remarkable how they stood the strain. There was a curve in the road which prevented bullets from hitting the house, but they continually whizzed by as it was easily within range and the people didn’t dare go out of their house. The beer was brought to them by army transport when it was available. I think I can safely say that in no other part of the line were civilians living so near the danger zone.

Now that things had settled down and to all intents and purposes there was a lull in the war and time to take stock, Sir John French was at last able to accede to General Joffre’s request to stretch his line northwards and take over another sector of line from the French. Groups of officers were sent up in advance of their battalions to familiarise themselves with the terrain and to ensure that the changeover would go smoothly. Second Lieutenant Jock Macleod went up with a party of his fellow officers of the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

This was a Regular battalion, but young Jock was not a Regular soldier. He was a student at Cambridge University and, although he had been commissioned into the Camerons at the start of the war, he was a ‘temporary gentleman’ of a few months’ training who, strictly speaking, was not yet qualified to be at the front at all. But the Camerons had suffered heavy casualties, Jock had wangled his way into a draft of reinforcements and, after two months at the front, regarded himself as an old campaigner. He had had an enjoyable time. There had been a few exciting days in the trenches at St Eloi, three weeks away from the line on a machine-gun course and, having passed out with flying colours, he now had his own command as the battalion’s newly appointed machine-gun officer. The battalion had been out at rest when Jock rejoined it, but the machine-gun section had been kept hard at it under the eye of this energetic new officer who was intent on sharing the benefit of his newly acquired expertise. He was having the time of his life and his letters home were virtual paeans of enthusiasm. The only slight disappointment – for Jock was a fastidious young man – had been the discovery that the army did not permit him to send his washing home from the front. But he quite saw the point that, if every officer did so, the weekly passage of several thousand sets of shirts and pants, socks and pyjamas, would overload the mail boats and put an unreasonable strain on the army postal service. In passing on this news to his family, Jock took the trouble to remind them kindly that there was, after all, a war on. To underline this observation he added a gleeful postscript: ‘We shall be going into the trenches any day now.’

It was in his new capacity as machine-gun officer that Jock was included in the reconnoitring party that rode out from Ypres and up the Menin Road to Herenthage Chateau where the French trenches ran through the wooded grounds.* It was a warm spring day and there was hardly a shot to be heard. It seemed almost like a holiday outing and the French treated them as honoured guests.

2nd Lt. J. Macleod, 2nd Bn., Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 81st Brig., 27 Div.

The first thing that struck you was their light-heartedness. It was most amusing to hear them speaking about the Germans opposite and when a German aeroplane went over they all got excited, and shouted insults, and three officers rushed out of their dug-outs, snatched up rifles from the men, and let fly at them! ‘Of course,’ they explained, ‘it does not derange the German airmen, but it shows what we think about the swine.’ We told them we had orders against firing rifles at aircraft, and they said they had too, but it was necessary to show the Boche that they were only Boche! In the afternoon their seventy-fives began shelling the German trenches, and the French officers in the support line leapt and shouted whenever a good hit was made.

They gave us a capital lunch – mackerel, ragout, bread, cold beef, vin rouge, and café with cognac. Our lunch party was very jolly. Four French and three British officers in a sort of semi-circular redoubt in a wood. On one side a roofless dug-out – the parapet protected with sandbags, and covered with branches – the firing trenches about two hundred yards away through the wood, and the Germans eighty yards further on in the same wood, but invisible from where we were. In the middle of the redoubt was a tree, and tied to it was a magnificent gilded eighteenth-century clock from the ruined chateau nearby. It was bright sunshine and the birds were singing and the officers were seated on the rickety remains of gorgeous chairs from the same place as the clock. Just beyond the wood was the shell-pitted remains of a golf-course, with a roller for the greens drunkenly straddling the side of a shell-hole – and all seven officers were uproariously cheerful, eating tinned mackerel with pocket knives, some off beautiful old china, others off war-worn mess tins. Every fourth tree was a splintered stump, for the Germans gave the wood a daily ration of shells. The French soldiers seemed very pleased with themselves, with us, and with everything. You should have heard them whistling The Merry Widow Waltz’ and The Marseillaise’ after lunch. They were very kind and polite to our little party, and altogether it was an admirable day.

In the afternoon they found some curtain pole rings. ‘Aha!’ they cried. ‘We’ll have a game.’ (Doubtless the poles themselves had gone the way of all curtain poles about here – for

firewood!) They stuck a stick in the ground and played quoits, and insisted on a most dignified major of ours playing too. One man got five out of six, so another rushed to the tree, snatched off the clock and offered it to him with a bow.

They wanted to get some water, and to do so it was necessary to cross an open space. So they chose a man who had been twice wounded already, and sent him, because, they said, it was clear that no German bullet could kill him! They explained this to the chap and he laughed happily at the joke and went across. Every time a bullet went near him everybody – himself included! – shouted with joyous mirth. He returned safely with the water I’m glad to say!

After dusk, as a great favour, they were going to show us one of their flares – magnificent flares they said, that lit up everything like day. After much rummaging they found a flare. Unfortunately, it was not a normal flare, but the SOS signal for artillery to open fire as hard as possible, on account of a dangerous German attack. The artillery, hearing no particularly heavy fire from the trench, telephoned inquiries, and after much jabbering on the telephone the affair ended with roars of happy laughter! If a mistake like that had been made by British infantry, our artillery would have been most annoyed, and sheets and sheets of paper would have been covered with official correspondence, giving reasons (or otherwise!) in writing.

It was a quiet night but after dark the flares went up intermittently, as they always did, all round the German line, and the flickering flashes, the fiery fingers stabbing into the sky to bathe the night in a brief glow of luminescent green, showed the outline of the German positions. Now a sentry on the fire-step of the shadowy trenches, turning cautiously to look about him, could see the arc of the salient etched in fire – stretching in a long straggling semi-circle that hugged the ridges from Hill 60 to Herenthage Wood, crept round to enclose Polygon Wood and Zonnebeke and, far to the left, curved down and trailed into the distance. It marked the line where the remnants of the British Army had stopped and held the Germans in the dying days of autumn, giving ground but holding fast to the beleaguered city of Ypres, fighting to keep open the vital route to the sea and to prevent this last small corner of Belgium from being swallowed up by the Germans as they had swallowed up all the rest.

Over tumultuous centuries of warfare in Flanders, Ypres had been threatened by invaders many times and the thick ramparts that were built round the town to keep them out had been designed by the famous Vauban – prince of military architects. Within its stout walls and ancient gateways Ypres had slumbered in safety and prosperity. Merchants grew rich on the wool trade and built grand houses, gabled and curlicued with statues and carvings. They raised churches, a cathedral, and fine civic buildings round the wide market square where the great Cloth Hall towered over them all. The towers and spires of Ypres could be seen from every part of the salient but they were sadly battered now, for they presented an irresistible target to the German guns.

There were empty spaces in the streets like unsightly gaps in a fine set of teeth, and heaps of rubble where a house once stood. Here and there a whole wall had been blown down to expose some abandoned doll’s-house interior with furniture teetering askew on sagging floors. There were ugly holes that exposed the ancient timbers of steep red-tiled roofs, and broken chimneys that had slithered down and pitched into the cobbled streets. There were sightless windows gazing from the empty shells of burnt-out buildings and others in still habitable houses hastily patched up with wooden panels when the panes and shutters had been blown away. The central tower of the Cloth Hall, blackened by fire, lacked two of its four spires, the embrasures of its high arched windows were innocent of glass and the end wall of the medieval town hall they called the Kleinstadthuis had been blown away. But Ypres still lived and although many of its inhabitants had fled during the November bombardment, much of the population hung grimly on. The town was far from empty and large numbers of the refugees who had flooded in as the Germans advanced across the surrounding countryside had simply stopped there, squatting in the ruins and abandoned houses because they had nowhere else to go.

People managed as best they could, taking their chance by day when stray shells fell from time to time, retiring at night to cellars for fear of heavier bombardments. There was business to be done and there was a large new clientele for the town was stiff with soldiers – headquarters troops, engineers and signallers who lived like troglodytes in the catacomb passages of the old ramparts, troops passing through and briefly resting on their way to the line on the salient, sightseeing groups from nearby rest-camps and billets, curious to see the heroic town for themselves. The fame of Ypres had spread and its name was fast becoming a byword in the British Army.

For the permanent inhabitants life in Ypres was far from easy. The town water supply was drawn from two lakes, Zillebeke to the east and Dickebusch to the west, and they were so polluted – by exploding shells, by rubbish and ordure and, in the case of Zillebeke, even with bodies – that an epidemic of typhoid was unavoidable. It had been raging now since January and despite the valiant efforts of the Friends Ambulance Unit, the nuns at the convent, the RAMC, and the town authorities themselves, it was raging still. Vaccination was compulsory and more than seven thousand people had been treated – almost five thousand of them at the convent alone. Water barrels were set up at the entrance to the town where the road to Menin and Zonnebeke led through the ramparts and people were forbidden on pain of a heavy fine to use water from any other source. But the epidemic could hardly be contained and every day there were fresh cases. It was rife among the unfortunate refugees, crammed into the doubtful shelter of ruined houses, living in unsanitary conditions. Lacking running water, with no means of washing and often with no possessions but the clothes on their backs, they went down like flies. The refugees were the despair of the town authorities. They could not force them to move on, they could not provide them with adequate shelter, and while they could do their best to ensure that they drank clean purified water, they could not oblige them to change their clothes for clean garments they did not possess.

But at night, when the inhabitants went to ground, when the skeletons of towers and turrets stood silhouetted against the tremulous horizon where the flares flashed and distant guns boomed, when the trundling of wheels and the tramp of the troops echoed across the cobbled square, there was a ghostly grandeur about the place that deeply impressed the soldiers passing through.

Capt. B. McKinnell, 10th (Scottish) Bn., King’s Liverpool Regt. (TF), 2 Brig.,1st Div.

A splendid march to Ypres, everybody feeling awfully fit. What a strange sight, a clear sky, new moon, and half the Battalion in kilts lying on the square in front of the famous Cloth Hall, every three or four men clustering round a candle and drinking hot tea supplied by our field cookers. The ruins make a most impressive sight. Silently glides past a battalion of Frenchmen in their quaint uniforms and heavy paraphernalia, which they are invariably encumbered with. Then our pals the Lincolns pass and we get up and follow, our men singing at the top of their voices all the way back.

From 26 March to 4 April we stayed in Ypres and had beautiful weather all the time. I took the opportunity of so much extra leisure to visit all the most interesting sights. Bullen and I climbed up what remains of the Cloth Hall and managed to get up above the clock into one of the small turrets, getting a splendid view of the surrounding country. Some jackdaws were building there and were very much perturbed at our paying them a visit. I also explored the cathedral, which dates back to the thirteenth century. We all meet at a place which we have named ‘Marie’s’ after the barmaid. Any drink can be had there. Dinner or lunch can be got at ‘Julia’s’, and tea at the ‘Patisserie’, which they say means ‘Among the Ruins’. Headquarters billet is a very fine one, 64 Rue de Chien, belonging to a local brewer. The brewery has been smashed by a shell and his private house is all that is left. We have a piano and a gramophone and all sorts of crockery.

All this uplifting of spirits is the result of good weather and in spite of our casualties being heavier this last week than ever before – with every prospect of them becoming heavier still.

Even in the day-to-day routine of the trenches, even when there were no battles and none of the raids or minor actions the army called ‘stunts’, with the constant shell-fire and eternal sniping, casualties were inevitable. The old hands were accustomed to them and accepted them with dull resignation. To the new men arriving, the first sight of wounded soldiers could come as a shock.

Trpr. P. Mason, 1/1st Yorkshire Hussars Yeomanry.

The first station we landed at where we could get out and water the horses was a place called Hazebrouck. I remember it well. A biggish town in Northern France on the way to Ypres. So we said, ‘Who’s going to get the water bottles filled?’ I said, ‘Give them to me.’ I was always a willing lad! They put the water bottles around my neck and I had about eight or ten water bottles from the lads in the truck. There were two or three taps in the station yard, you see, and I found my way there. Oh, Christ! I started to walk among wounded soldiers on the ground. Bloody terrible. Some fellows with arms off – and blood! All their clothes were soaked in blood. There were dozens of them waiting for the ambulances and the Red Cross trains. I wanted to be sick, seeing all these poor buggers, some of them with their faces bashed and all. You never saw anything like it. It frightened me to death, I don’t mind telling you.

I got these ruddy water bottles filled and put them around my neck again and I had to walk across fellows – pick my way between them to get back to the railway where the trucks and horses and our lads were. I think I was nearly going to faint and Jack Hutton, an old pal of mine, grabbed hold of me. I heard him shout, ‘Give us a hand here. This lad’s going out, you know.’ I broke out in a sweat and was really sick. I had seen such terrible injuries to so many men. I thought, ‘My Christ, if this is war!’ It makes you think. But, you know, after a fortnight you got hardened to it. That’s the funny thing.

The train shunted on to a siding to make way for the hospital train that would carry the wounded to safety, and after an interminable wait it began to trundle slowly north. Their journey was almost over. The odyssey which began the previous August in Middlesbrough and had taken Mason to Hitchin, to Bishop’s Stortford, and across the channel to France, at the end of that last long day finally brought him to Ypres.

A little way south-east of Ypres – an easy stroll away across the meadows – was the knoll they called Hill 60, and the Germans were firmly ensconced on top. One could hardly call it a summit, for it was a mere sixty metres high, an artificial hillock, man-made by the engineers who had dug the railway from Ypres to the small country town of Comines and had dumped the spoil on a convenient piece of ground close by. This was the hinge of the salient. It was from Hill 60 that the German line began, on the one hand, to wind north-east across the ridges encircling Ypres and, on the other, to swing south like the leg of a crooked question mark, along the Messines Ridge. These ridges above the flat Flanders Plain, insignificant though they were, gave the Germans an overwhelming advantage and Hill 60 was the keystone of their defence. Ever since they had taken over this sector from the French who had lost the hill to the Germans, the British Army had been anxious to get it back. Skirmishing and infantry attacks had been fruitless and, since conventional methods had not worked, it was decided the unconventional must be tried. In the first days of March they began to burrow into the earth a hundred yards from the German line to construct long tunnels that would reach out to Hill 60 and store up the explosives that would blow the Germans off. It was hard perilous work and, although some professional miners had been recruited for the job, progress was agonisingly slow. They had never before encountered conditions such as these.

Aeons ago, in the millennium before the oceans receded, the plain had been washed by the Northern Sea. Water lay just ten inches beneath the thick unyielding surface that turned to mud with every shower of rain. Far below the miners hacked their way through a stratum of thick clay, close-boarding the tunnels with stout timber as they went, fearful of the layer of running sand that lay underneath and the liquid mud that seeped from above and spouted through the slightest crack or cranny. As the tunnels lengthened it was hard to breathe in the fetid dark, working by the light of candles that sank and often guttered out for lack of air. Their stints at the tunnel face were short – they had to be – but many a man was dragged to the surface, blue and collapsed, long before his shift was due to finish. These miners, hastily co-opted into the army and thrust into uniform, were sent to France in a hurry. They were not soldiers, and many of them were neither young nor fit. But they were paid at a higher rate than the luckless soldiers of the working parties who dragged the spoil back to the shaft-head by day and carried it off by night for fear the Germans would spot it.

The Germans already suspected that something was up and they too were sapping and digging beneath their own line, listening and probing to find the British tunnels and blow them up, if they could, before the British succeeded in blowing up their own positions. There were many false alarms, there were many genuine heart-stopping scares and there was the constant fear of being emtombed if a lucky shell should demolish the entrance and cut off the way out. But the work went on.

As the tunnels drew near the German lines they splayed out in minor branches and six charges were laid. The worst job was bringing up the explosive, more than four tons of it packed in bags that weighed a hundred pounds apiece – half the weight of a hefty man. It took two men to lift a bag on to the shoulders of a third and every hundred yards they had to halt to change over. They were nightmare journeys, staggering by night across dark fields on a track of broken duckboards with bent knees quivering and muscles straining beneath the dead weight of the sacks. They moved as quietly as was humanly possible, praying for the next halt, praying that the enemy was not on the alert, that no flare would pierce the dark to give the show away, and hoping against hope that no shell would land nearby as they stumbled towards the mine shaft.

But at last the job was done. The charges were set, the mines were ready, and the plans were laid. The mines would be exploded at ten-second intervals, the guns were waiting to open the bombardment, and the infantry was standing by to go into the assault when Hill 60 went up.

It was seven o’clock in the evening of 19 April. Everything was quiet and the air was still warm at the end of a fine day. The mines were detonated precisely on time. The infantry watched transfixed and the ground shook beneath their feet as Hill 60 erupted like a volcano, throwing debris and the bodies of the German garrison high into the air. The shock waves were still rippling as the guns began to boom. The infantry sprang from the trenches and the gentle sky of the April evening died in a dense black pall of smoke and fumes. In less than fifteen minutes they were digging in beyond the reeking craters and consolidating their position on the battered crest of Hill 60.

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