Less than twenty miles to the south where the troops were assembled for the start of the ‘big show’ on which the French and British Commands had pinned their hopes the night was clear and starry. From the Aubers Ridge, a thin pencil line against the luminous sky, past the black-etched slag heaps of the Loos coal fields, across the chalky foothills of Artois to the ancient towers of Arras at the limit of the French attack, the French and British armies were poised and waiting for the morning. They had assembled by stealth, but it was an open secret, for the preparations for battle and the movement of tens of thousands of men could hardly be concealed and only yesterday the Germans had erected a taunting notice in their trenches in front of Aubers Ridge that was clearly meant to rile the British a hundred yards away: ‘Attack postponed until tomorrow.’ The implication that the enemy was ready and waiting was clear and the snipers had relieved their feelings by firing at the notice and reducing it to matchwood.
In a front-line trench on what was once the road that led from Sailly to Fromelles Charlie Burrows was sound asleep for, like all old soldiers, he had learned the lesson of resting when he could. Charlie had been in it from the start, he had landed with the 7th Division at Antwerp, he had fought through the first Battle of Ypres, and he had been fighting ever since, but as a gunner this was his first experience of being in the front line with the infantry. It was hardly surprising that he was exhausted for they had moved up earlier in the evening, man-handling the guns into positions that had been secretly prepared for them close up to the German trenches. The wheels were fitted with rubber tyres to reduce the noise as far as possible, but it was nerve-racking heavy work to drag them in under the very noses of the enemy. But every man was a volunteer and nobody had grumbled. Now, there was nothing to do but wait. They had been left in no doubt of the part they were to play and they were well prepared for it.
Gnr. C. Β. Burrows, 104th Bty., 22nd Brig., RFA.
They’d pulled us out of the line on 28 April to somewhere about three kilometres north-west of Merville and we stayed there for four days. Our left section of two guns did some experimental firing on barbed wire entanglements there. We heard that it was an exact replica of the German front line immediately in front of us in our old position. Dozens of Generals and Staff Officers came to watch us firing and after we’d finished they went to inspect the result. We practised and practised, and moved back to our old position on 2 May and on the night of 8 May we went into action right on the front-line parapet. Plenty of excitement. We are to cut the German barbed wire with our shrapnel shells the same as we experimented with at Merville in front of the Generals. We get the guns into position all right and cover them as best we can. I bet we will cop it hot here – there’s only about a hundred yards distance between ours and the enemy front line. All our gunners are eager for the fray. The 7th Battalion Middlesex Regiment are in the trenches behind us – they belong to the 8th Division and this is their first attack. We are to attack in the morning.
Not since the Battle of Omdurman had guns been deliberately positioned in the front line with the infantry, but desperate measures were called for if the battle was to be won. Guns were scarce. Ammunition was scarcer still and three weeks of fighting at Ypres had depleted reserve stocks to an alarming level. There were not enough guns and there were certainly not enough shells to cut the wire and batter the German line across the length of the battle-front, so a full-scale frontal attack was out of the question. It was useless, in the circumstances, to attempt to repeat the tactics employed across the same ground in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle two months earlier, and Sir Douglas Haig and his staff had come up with a new plan. The guns would be concentrated in two groups and, firing as fast and as hard as they could, would attempt to cut the wire and pierce the line in two places, on the left in front of Fromelles and on the right to the south of Neuve Chapelle and the Bois du Biez. Then the troops would dash through the gaps, fight their way beyond and sweep round across the Aubers Ridge in a pincer movement that would trap the Germans behind them. The troops had also been placed with care – the Meerut Division, well blooded and experienced, on the right, and the 8th Division two miles to the north. When the battle began every gun would be trained on the German line in front of them. The gunners would drive the breaches, but it was up to the hardened and experienced infantry to follow through and exploit the gains.
Between these two vital sectors the troops holding the front line that looped round Neuve Chapelle and ran north in front of Fauquissart to meet the 8th divisional sector were neither hardened nor experienced. The West Riding Territorials had been in France for exactly three weeks and two days but they had already had one casualty.
Cpl. A. Wilson, 1/5 Bn. (TF), West Yorkshire Regt.
We went more or less straight into the trenches in front of Aubers Ridge, about ten days before the battle. Of course it was all quiet then compared to what came later, with just the odd bit of shelling and sniping, and we went in in batches to get us accustomed to it. The very first night we were there my Company Commander, Captain Lansdale, was shot in the neck. He hadn’t been in the trenches half an hour and out he went! He wasn’t killed, or even very badly wounded, though I remember we were horrified seeing him streaming with blood. I wasn’t far away when it happened, but it could only have been a flesh wound. Anyway, out he went, and that was our first casualty. Strangely enough he came back several months later, again as our Company Commander, and he hadn’t been in the trenches another night when he was shot in the shoulder! We could hardly believe it! His total service in the trenches didn’t even amount to a day and he ended up with two wound stripes. We thought it was a great joke the second time it happened – of course we were a bit blasé by then – but the first time he never got anywhere near the Battle of Aubers Ridge. We had another temporary Company Commander for that show.
The West Riding Brigade did not expect to play a very active part in the ‘show’ a few hours hence for, if all went well and the Germans in the trenches on their front were cut off by the troops converging behind, they would surely give up with no more than a token fight. The night turned chill as they waited for the dawn and the start of the battle, and sitting with their backs to the wall of the trench Arthur Wilson and his friend Walter Malthouse huddled together for warmth. Despite Arthur’s elevated rank of Corporal the two boys were inseparable. It was almost exactly a year since they had joined the Territorials and Walter, marginally senior in age if not in rank, was still apt in moments of levity to annoy Arthur by calling him ‘little lad’. This was a reference to the day of their mobilisation.
Cpl. A. Wilson.
We were at Scarborough on our annual camp on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend and I happened to be promoted to Corporal and that day I was acting Battalion Orderly Corporal, so I was with the Colonel in the Battalion office. In the afternoon a motor-cycle dispatch rider arrived with special sealed orders to say that the Battalion had to mobilise immediately and strike camp and return to York. There were loads of us there – West Yorks 5th and 6th Battalions, 7th and 8th Battalions, Leeds Rifles, and also the West Yorks Rifle Regiment from Leeds. Well, we packed up and we marched into Scarborough late at night. Of course with all the troops going through the town, and all the excitement, people were coming out of their houses to see what was going on – some of them already in their night attire. I was marching behind the Colonel, who was on his horse, and I had four men each side of me with fixed bayonets. Well, being Battalion Orderly Corporal I was carrying dispatches and my rifle was put in a truck, so that I was marching through Scarborough with these four armed men round me, while I was carrying the boxes. One old girl looked out of her door and she was standing there in her nightdress and she shouted out, ‘Yon little lad’s off to prison!’ Well, that was me of course. Walter thought it was a huge joke and he never let me forget it.
The Yorkshiremen had also brought their guns and, although they were hardly up to date, they were thankfully received. They were better than nothing but, like many others, the guns of Norman Tennant’s battery had seen service in the Boer War and also at the Battle of Omdurman.
Gnr. N. Tennant, 11th Howitzer Bty., West Riding Brig. (TF), RA.
They were five-inch breech-loading Howitzers – great, clumsy old weapons. And they fired 561b high explosive shells. You had to thrust the shell into the breech, ram it home, and then push in the charge that would fire it, which was explosive held in a canvas bag shaped something like a mushroom with two smaller charges in canvas bags behind it. They were called the ‘cores’ and it was hard physical work. The gun-drill was just as it had been in the old days and the weapon was really obsolete. Once you’d loaded the gun it was fired by pulling a lanyard and, of course, the guns themselves took a fair bit of man-handling. I did my share of gun-drill in the early days, but I was more than happy when I was made a signaller.
Major Paul Petrie was our Commanding Officer, and actually we’d lost him a few weeks before we went to France. It was a strange affair, because he wasn’t called Petrie then. His name was Steinthal, a German name, and he’d been forced to leave the battery, because the powers that be were suspicious about his antecedents and thought he might have German sympathies. He was in the wool trade in Bradford, and there were a lot of families in that business who were German from generations back. Anyway, he was forced to give up the command while they checked all this out and we got a nasty little fat short-arsed fellow in his place. Nobody liked him. He had a high opinion of himself and he used to give orders in a high-pitched, snarling voice. I remember when we were on the march on the Great North Road, he called out, ‘Battery will trot.’ Well, away we went at a fair lick and I don’t suppose this little fat fellow was a very experienced rider because he was bumping up and down in the saddle looking extremely uncomfortable, going redder and redder in the face, and it was as much as he could do to hold on. It wasn’t long before he’d had enough. But he could hardly get the order out because he was thudding up and down so hard that he couldn’t get breath. Eventually he managed to jerk out the order, ‘B… b… b… battery w… w… walk m… m… m… march!’ We were most amused. I was delighted myself because I didn’t like him at all. He’d just given me fourteen days’ CB and the worst of that was that it lost me my embarkation leave.
It was all over a piece of nonsense. At stables one morning one of my horses was restless and started kicking the one next to him in the stall, so I picked up a broom – only a light affair – and gave the horse a whack to move him away. Well, as luck would have it, just at that moment this little Major came along, and he went absolutely purple in the face. He screeched, ‘Sergeant-Major, take that man’s name!’ Well, the Sergeant-Major, Billy Brown – a lovely chap – knew perfectly well who I was, but he had to come up and solemnly ask my name – as if he didn’t know! – and I was up before the Major on a charge of ‘cruelty to a horse’. And that’s how I lost my embarkation leave. All I managed to get was twenty-four hours’ compassionate leave, because I wrote to my parents and asked them to send a telegram saying my presence was needed to sign some business paper or other. Fortunately our own Major came back to us just before we left. He came back as Major Petrie. Someone who knew him said Petrie was his wife’s name and he’d adopted it to avoid any more trouble.
The Battery was dug in across the fields behind Richebourg St Vaast but Tennant and his fellow signaller Vallender were on permanent duty at the observation post in an empty house in the partly ruined village half a mile away on the main road to Neuve Chapelle. This suited them well. The Observing Officer seldom came to the post and in his absence the signallers amused themselves by scrounging, exploring, and souvenir hunting in the empty barns and houses. In the course of their wanderings they found an old drain-pipe and were struck by a brilliant idea for an emergency signalling system, and when they were next off duty they hastened to share this discovery with two gunners from the Battery. The first experiment was carried out next night, and it took them the best part of the day to prepare it. They built a bed of sandbags for the drain-pipe, laid it carefully in the direction of a pre-arranged fixed point to the left of the Battery, wedged it firmly into place and piled more sandbags on top. Morse code signalled through this narrow channel – a mere pin-prick of light – would surely be invisible to all but the recipients of the message and if the unreliable telephone line were to fail the drain-pipe would be worth its weight in gold. They were extremely pleased with themselves.
Unfortunately it was a large drain-pipe. The light that emerged from the other end was somewhat larger than a pin-prick, and when they began to signal at the appointed hour, the flickering beam flashed like a searchlight across the fields. The answering flash from the gunners at the battery was clearly visible in the observation post and doubtless just as visible to the Germans, since the gunners in the Battery were naturally signalling towards the enemy lines. The gunners had some difficulty in convincing the Military Police that they had not been signalling to the enemy and were not spies. Still chastened by the effect of a severe wigging from Major Petrie the signallers dismantled their ingenious apparatus, resigning themselves to conventional methods – and also to the weary prospect of crawling across the fields to repair the telephone line in the all-too-likely event of its being broken.
In the early hours of the morning Major Petrie himself had come to the observation post with the Observing Officer, anxious to see the bombardment and the battle for himself. The OP was crowded. The atmosphere was tense, but it was the tension of excitement for every man in the battery from the major downwards was thrilled at the prospect of taking part in the real war at last. From their post on the main road Tennant and Vallender had watched the build-up to the battle as the fighting troops trudged past towards the trenches. They were behind the Indians and their guns were to help to pave the way for the assault of the Meerut Division. In the last few days the fields and orchards round the village had been transformed into a panorama of the East that would not have been out of place on an Indian cantonment and from the tall bearded Sikhs to the cheerful little Gurkhas the Indians were a source of endless and colourful interest. They were troops of the Garhwal Brigade waiting in reserve for the coming battle.
Gnr. N. Tennant.
I can remember how excited I was that night. We all were. Of course, in the run-up to the bombardment – our first bombardment – there was no question of going to sleep. We couldn’t have slept anyway! You had the feeling that something tremendous was going to happen. Of course we had no idea what it was and we’d been told nothing. I hadn’t the faintest inkling that they were going for Aubers Ridge. I’d never heard of Aubers Ridge and I didn’t hear it mentioned for a long time afterwards. All we knew was that we were going to take part in the big breakthrough and we were going to push right through to Lille. That’s all we were told. I didn’t even know that the French were attacking too. We were raw and inexperienced, but we were wildly enthusiastic and we had no doubt that we were well on the way to winning the war!
Not all the gunners were so sanguine as the enthusiastic new arrivals.
Bdr. W. Kemp.
When the ammunition came up it was sealed in strong heavy boxes which could only be opened by hefty men with pickaxes, and it took some time. There were not many rounds. Next week the Battery was turned out one night to unload ammunition. There was one wagon and when it was all unloaded there were ten rounds – and they were all armour-piercing shells from the coast defence batteries. That’s all they could give us. We didn’t find it reassuring. We thought it was a disgrace.
The heavy guns were intended to fire on specific targets where strongpoints had been spotted in the German line. The task of the massed field-guns was to batter the line itself, to cut the coiled barbed wire that protected it and to carve a passage for the infantry. The bombardment was timed to last for thirty minutes rising for the last ten to a crescendo of concentrated fire. It had worked initially at Neuve Chapelle, and although reports had indicated that the Germans had now improved their line Sir Douglas Haig had little doubt that it would work again.
The full extent of the ‘improvements’ was not visible from the air. Pilots, and even observers on the flat ground opposite, could see that the belts of wire were thicker than before but they could hardly guess that beyond them lay another obstacle. The breastwork parapets of the trenches had been built up and widened – they were seven feet high and as much as fifteen, even twenty feet across. It had all taken a prodigious amount of labour and throughout March and April hundreds of working parties from troops supposedly at rest, helped by squads of recruits brought from depots as far away as Lille, had shifted incalculable tons of earth to fill the sandbags that made up the new defences. Between the parapets and the visible belt of wire the excavations they had left behind were filled with sunken barbed wire, close-coiled and lethal. Even if the outlying belts of wire were blown away these man-traps lay beyond. They were invisible. And they were almost indestructible.
The trench-defences were constructed with equal skill and forethought. Every few yards in both parapet and parados large wooden boxes had been buried cave-like, deep into the thick wall of sandbags, each one large enough to shelter two men and calculated to protect them from even a direct hit from all but the heaviest of high explosive shells. A whole garrison could survive bombardment uninjured and largely unperturbed. And there were machine-gun posts ingeniously constructed from V-shaped wooden frames burrowed deep into the protection of the sandbagged parapet with the embrasure at the point of the V, with its steel-rail loop-hole directed towards the enemy. They were placed every twenty yards, carefully positioned at corners and traverses to increase the field of fire, and they were entirely invisible from the British lines.
With ten times as many guns and fifty times as many shells, and had the bombardment lasted hours instead of minutes, it would still have been a tough nut to crack. As it was, many guns were old and of obsolete design, many more were inaccurate, suffering from such wear and tear that their shells failed to reach their targets in the enemy line, and many were of too small a calibre to make much impression on it when they did. To add to the difficulty a great deal of the ammunition was faulty.
Bar. W. Kemp.
We opened fire at twelve hundred yards behind Fauquissart at targets spotted for us by an aeroplane, and we put out a very large letter L, with the long shank on the line of fire to assist the observer in the plane. What we fired at during the battle I just don’t know. My bombardier watched the attack and he said that the infantry were met with machine-gun fire as soon as they showed themselves. They never even took the first trench at Fauquissart.
Firing at point-blank range from the British front trench a hundred yards from the German line Charlie Burrows’s guns had done well – better even than the gunners realised, for if they had not made the only gap in the wire it was certainly the most effective. They were so close to their target that it would have been difficult to miss.
Gnr. C. B. Burrows.
Attack starts at 5 a.m., our section fire for about an hour and blow all the wire entanglements to blazes. They then lift their fire further on, and the infantry go over. Enemy reply with intense fire. Heard that our infantry were doing well and that some prisoners have been taken by the 2nd Lincolns, and that in parts they have reached the enemy second line. Fighting lasts all day, the infantry do not seem to make much headway. They have plenty of casualties. Our section very lucky up to now, only two gunners wounded out of eight. The German artillery could not have spotted them yet. Heard that our Captain is wounded in two places, but he still carries on.
It was the two leading companies of the 2nd Rifle Brigade who had got through the breach, but they were almost on their own. Then things began to go wrong.
Capt. R. Berkeley, MC.
A number of ‘shorts’ caused severe casualties in the advanced sap where Β and D companies were assembled to lead the attack. At 5.40 a.m. undismayed by this misadventure, they swept across to the German trench taking it in their stride and pushed on to the battalion objective, followed by A and C companies who occupied and consolidated the German trench. Battalion Headquarters crossed immediately behind the support companies but the enemy machine-gun fire was terrific and they had heavy casualties. The battalion machine-guns were unable to get across. Battalion Headquarters were dispersed and the bombing and blocking parties, so carefully organised beforehand, were at once broken up and could not be re assembled. Nevertheless, the task had been performed swiftly and well, and they were just enjoying the afterglow of success when they suddenly realised that, apart from a handful of the Royal Irish Rifles, they were entirely alone. Where were the turning movements to right and left that were to enlarge the gap? Where was the advanced guard ‘including some mounted troops’ that was to press on as soon as the first objective was secured? The Rifle Brigade were on the first objective. Where were the East Lancashires on the right, and the Sherwood Foresters beyond them?*
The answer was not hard to find. As Captain Berkeley sadly recorded, ‘They were lying out in No Man’s Land and most of them would never stand again.’ From their burrows, well protected by many square yards of earth-filled sandbags, the German machine-gunners had begun to fire even before the bombardment ceased, catching troops like the East Lancs as they crawled out from their trenches preparing to assault. The battle orders had made no bones about the fact that success depended on ‘a continuous forward movement of fresh troops’. Most of the ‘fresh troops’ of the second wave and support battalions were shot down as they cleared the parapet. The battle and the troops who fought it died in No Man’s Land.
Bdr. W. Kemp.
I was asked to go forward with some signalling gear, because the Major had asked Lieutenant Brian to go forward and observe the fire using his periscope. We were nailed down for a start by a 77 mm battery. So the officer spoke to them and said, ‘I can’t move from here. They’re shelling where I want to go.’ Well, we got into the line and it was terrible there. There we were with our ten rounds, and the German shells raining down in hundreds! It was all so hopeless and useless. I didn’t like my position where I was with the telephone. I don’t know why, I just had a feeling I didn’t like where I was. So I moved a little bit away from the officer, and it must have been a premonition, because next minute a shell came over, there was a terrible explosion and Lieutenant Brian was killed. We should both have gone if I hadn’t moved.
What a waste of life! He couldn’t do anything or even see anything. I was with him at the OP and all I could see was that it was all a dismal failure. Away on the right beyond Neuve Chapelle, the attempt to exploit a second breach in the line had been no more successful. By seven in the morning both attacks had come to a standstill and as more and more troops were sent forward, as the casualties mounted and the hours passed, the battle-field descended into chaos.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.
It soon came through the telephone to say the first line had been taken, only to be contradicted afterwards. We waited in the redoubt from 3 a.m. to 2 p.m., when we were ordered forward. We had to advance about two thousand yards across open country to start with, but we were not fired on until we reached a long communication trench leading up to the front trench-line. Of course we advanced in artillery formation. Toward the last hundred yards or so German ‘Woolly Bears’ began to burst overhead, and ‘Jack Johnsons’* close by, but I had only one man hit at this point. We then got into a long communication trench leading up from Lansdowne Post to the Gridiron Trenches. Here we were blocked for a long time, shelling increasing every moment, wounded trying to get by us. After a time we got into the Gridiron where it was absolute hell. Hun shells, large and small, bursting everywhere, blowing in the parapet here and there, and knocking tree branches off. Here there was fearful confusion. No one knew the way to anywhere. There was such a maze of trenches, and such a crowd of people, many wounded, all wanting to go in different directions, one regiment going back, ours trying to go forward, wounded and stretcher-bearers going back, etc. I presently went on to a trench called the Pioneer Trench. There I had twenty-six casualties from shell. Havildar Manbir had his leg blown off, and was in such agony that he asked to be shot.
As one got further to the front trench, the place got more of a shambles, wounded and dead everywhere. Those who could creep or walk were trying to get back; others were simply lying and waiting. The ground in front was littered with Seaforth bodies and 41st Dogras. From the Pioneer Trench I went on to the front trench, occupied by the 41st Dogras, who, however, had very few men left so heavily had they suffered. One of their British officers had completely lost his nerve, and was rather a pitiable sight. I tried to comfort him a bit. We had to set to work at once to try to clear up the trench. It was full of killed and wounded, equipment of all sorts, and the ground in front was strewn with dead Seaforths, who made the charge this morning at 5.40 a.m. from this trench, also 41st Dogras, who made a second attempt. Towards dusk the 41st moved out. Through the night we were at work repairing the trench and cleaning up generally, while out in front, parties were at work searching for their wounded.
One of the dead Seaforths was Lieutenant Charles Tennant who had written his last letter to his ‘Darling Lucy’.*
Between the two assaults, in the trenches in front of Fauquissart, Arthur Wilson and Walter Malthouse had hardly enjoyed a grand-stand view of the battle for the incessant shelling had kept their heads well down. All they had heard was the noise of the guns, the spit of machine-guns not far ahead and a spate of rumours that died away as the day wore on. It was late in the afternoon when a shell exploded in the trench.
Cpl. A. Wilson.
Of course we were standing to all day, ready to go, but about three o’clock in the afternoon we were stood down and told we could rest a bit in the trench, and it was fairly clear that nothing much else was going to happen. Well of course we were exhausted, and I got down in the trench next to Walter and I dropped off right away. All of a sudden there was an almighty explosion, right in the trench, a direct hit just a little bit further along from where we were. I was right next to Walter – touching him even. I was stunned of course, but when I got my wits together I could hardly believe it. I was covered in blood – saturated – and I really thought I’d bought it. But it was Walter’s blood. I didn’t have a scratch myself. Walter had taken the full blast and somehow or other it hadn’t touched me. He was blown to bits. A terrible sight. I don’t think there was a bit of his body bigger than a leg of lamb. I gathered up what I could, put him into a sandbag and later on when it got dusk, a few of us got out of the trench and buried him a little way behind, about twenty-five yards back, because we couldn’t go far. I had my prayer book and I read the burial service – the whole thing, prayers and everything. We had several men to bury of course but we saw that they got a proper burial. We were all friends in the Territorials, joined together, been together all along. We felt pretty bad about it. The worst of it was that from the direction of the shell we felt almost sure it was one of ours. Of course the authorities wouldn’t have that! But I got a few of the men digging and it only took us half an hour to find the nose-cap. Sure enough it was marked ‘WD’ – War Department. It was from a naval shell fired by one of our long-distance guns mounted on an armoured train. So we proved the point. But it didn’t do Walter any good.*
Many hours before, the remnants of the 2nd Rifle Brigade had been pushed back to the German trench where they had first made the breakthrough and held a hundred yards of it in the face of assaults from either side. It was the only small gain of the day. But at two o’clock in the morning of 10 May the enemy attacked in force and from three sides. A little later, Colonel Stephens, arriving with troops to relieve his Battalion, found that there was no battalion left to relieve. The Germans had made good their losses and closed up their line. The battle was over.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.
Everything is fairly quiet now. At night parties from regiments behind who took part in the attack come up to my trench and go out in front to search for their dead to bring them in and bury them behind. We don’t fire much by night or day. By day there is nothing to be seen to fire at, and by night it would only be a chance shot.
Gnr. C. B. Burrows.
Nothing much doing on the 10th. Our guns have narrow shaves, but do not do any more firing, and we pull them out of action about 8 p.m. in the dark. The battery move off at 11.15 p.m. and march all night to Festubert. There we heard that the French had done good near Arras, and that our attack had been a washout. Heard we were supposed to have been after Aubers Ridge. Well, all I can say is that concludes the Battle of Aubers Ridge and no mistake.
The stretcher-bearers, as always, had done sterling work and they had rescued most of the wounded, for the men of the second waves and succeeding attempts had been hit as they advanced from the assembly trenches across open ground.
Pte. L. Mitchell 24th Field Ambulance, 8 Div.
I did my share of bringing men off the battle-field but by the time it came to Aubers Ridge I’d been transferred to the nursing Division, working in the main dressing station a little way back from the line. I remember watching the infantry going up for the battle and they were singing ‘We beat the Germans every time, we beat the Germans at Mons. We beat the Germans at Neuve Chapelle and now we’re going to give them hell.’ They weren’t singing the same at the end of the battle. It was a real disaster, that attack was. The Germans smashed the whole thing up.
Our division, the 8th Division, had the heaviest casualties of any of the divisions that took part in the attack and it was an appalling affair. For three days we never stopped dressing the wounded men as they were brought in, and at the end of those three days we still had something like sixty or seventy stretcher cases outside. We just didn’t know what to do with them. The Major I was with dropped on the floor exhausted and I had to give an anaesthetic for the removal of an arm and I had never given an anaesthetic in my life. I didn’t actually see very many die because as soon as you dressed them they were taken out and put in ambulances and lorries and taken away down to the Casualty Clearing Stations. The vehicles were packed jam-full, and sometimes they were comingback full from the Casualty Clearing Stations because they were full up and the ambulance drivers didn’t know where to take the wounded.
I never saw any attack with so many men who had bullet wounds as at Aubers Ridge. The Germans just mowed them down and most of the bullet wounds were through the legs. We had a lot of splinting to do, splinting, splinting, splinting. But one man was brought in with his face covered with a bandage and when the Major came in to look at him and see what was the matter he went out and was violently sick. When he took the bandages off we saw the man had no eyes, no nose, no chin, no mouth – and he was alive! The Sergeant called me and said, ‘The doctor says I’ve got to give him four times the usual dose of morphia.’ And I said, ‘You know what that will do, don’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yes. And I can’t do it. I’m ordering you to do it.’ So I had to go in and give him four times the dose of morphia. I laid a clean bandage on his face and stayed with him until he died. That stayed in my memory for a very long time. It stays in it now.
It isn’t very nice to go and kill a man, is it? And I had to do it again after that. A man was brought to us with a piece of steel, a big chunk of shell, sticking out of his breast-bone and sticking out of his back. He also had an arm smashed up and very severe head wounds – and he was still alive, how I don’t know because the steel was running right through him. Well it was quite impossible to do anything for him, and I was only too glad to put him out of his misery. Of course I didn’t do it off my own bat. The Officer tells you to do it and you do it – but you don’t forget! When I got home after the war I sometimes used to have a nightmare and wake up in the night thinking my arms were covered with blood. It wore off eventually.
For the troops like the West Yorks who remained in the line, the most enduring memory was the sight of the countless rows of dead. The battlefield was one vast charnel house and although many bodies lay where they had been struck down between assembly or support trenches and the British front line, so long as the German machine-gunner ruled the battlefield it was risky work to attempt to bring them in for decent burial.
It was a beautiful month of May, and as one warm day succeeded another and swallows dipped and soared in the cloudless sky the sickly smell of putrefaction seeped into every trench and dug-out, permeated every article of clothing, and tainted every morsel and every mug of tea that the troops consumed.