It is midday; the deep trench glares…
A buzz and blaze of flies…
The hot wind puffs the giddy airs…
The great sun rakes the skies.
No sound in all the stagnant trench
Where forty standing men
Endure the sweat and grit and stench.
Like cattle in a pen.
By the end of June the Gallipoli campaign had cost some forty-two thousand casualties, killed, wounded and sick. The support of the government was still half-hearted and, although Sir Ian Hamilton had been promised another division, it had not yet been decided to go all-out for Gallipoli or to send reinforcements in sufficient strength to tip the scales. With the military effort divided between two theatres of war the politicians were in a dilemma and there were those who believed that, in the light of the disappointing results and the heavy cost, it would be best, even now, to cut their losses. The decision was postponed, and postponed again. The question of supplies was a major problem – and particularly of supplies of ammunition. Scarce as they were, was it wise to split them? In the second week of May, when the Gallipoli force was battling for Krithia, when the soldiers on the western front were attacking Aubers Ridge, when hopes were pinned on the result of these two battles thirteen thousand miles apart, the lack of ammunition had stymied them both. If the eighty thousand shells fired at Aubers Ridge had been available for the attack on Krithia the troops on Gallipoli might well be in possession of Achi Baba, if not the whole peninsula. And if the shells that were fired on Gallipoli in the first two weeks since the landing had been available at Aubers Ridge, it was not entirely impossible that the troops on the western front would have broken through to open the road to Lille.
After what, in the circumstances, had been a profligate expenditure of ammunition in the battle for Ypres and the attacks on Aubers Ridge and Festubert, ammunition was scarcer than ever. On 28 May, after the battles in north and south had petered out, Sir John French was forced to order the First Army to limit its operations to ‘small aggressive threats which will not require much ammunition or many troops’.
East of Ypres the line had settled down. But it had settled down to the disadvantage of the British Army. The Germans had captured the whole of the Bellewaerde Ridge and north of the Menin Road their front line was established well down the slope. From their observation posts behind it the skeleton of Ypres was in full view and, although the battle had died down, the guns never ceased to shell it and the ruins shivered and shook and tumbled, crumbling a little more with every explosion. Ypres was a dead city, but now that the civilians had cleared out it was also a happy hunting-ground for the troops in the line nearby. Looting was strictly forbidden by the Army on pain of severe penalties but, since the goods left behind in the half-ruined houses were there for the taking, when they could be of no possible use to their departed owners and were likely to go up in smoke with the next explosion, why should a provident Tommy not help himself? His philosophy was as clear as his conscience, aptly summed up in the shoulder-shrugging phrase picked up from the French: ‘C’est la guerre.’ In recent months fate, in the shape of ‘la guerre’, had not been particularly kind, and now that she was doling out a crumb or two to set against a soldier’s normal tedious lot, it was only right to take it in the same spirit as he put up with leaking billets, miserable trenches, inadequate rations and the persistent attentions of the enemy.
The first fortunate scavengers, exploring prosperous dwellings through holes conveniently blasted in their walls, had quickly become connoisseurs of fine wines and expensive cigars, and some entrepreneurs among the engineers and transport drivers with handy wagons at their disposal, had managed to remove sufficient bottles from the cellars to set up a profitable sideline with shopkeepers in surrounding villages.
Capt. B. McKinnell.
Tuesday 1st June. We had to go and inspect trenches, so Thin, the Adjutant, Dickie, Rennison, Graham and self rode off on horseback. Got a great send-off, the last three being anything but accomplished horsemen; Graham’s last steed had been a donkey, and it was only my third ride. We had a most painful hour’s ride and then a mile and a half walking across country, where we were shelled twice. We left the huts at 2.30 and got back to where we left our horses at 9 p.m., having had a bad shaking with shells en route on the way back. Going through the village of Kemmel we met ‘Buster’ Birkett, who was looking for a wine shop, the one and only within miles and miles. We all found it and had the best of claret (possibly and very probably ‘salvage’ from Ypres) at two francs a bottle. All sorts of stuff could be bought at a price. We only had three bottles between six of us, but we’d had nothing to eat since mid-day, so when we got out of the shop horses held no terrors for us. I learnt riding in an hour, as I trotted and even galloped the whole way home in the dark!
No one felt inclined to look a gift-horse in the mouth, and even if the Military Police took a different view, qualms were easily overcome. But when the opportunity arose, some bolder spirits were not averse to giving fate a helping hand when they came across items whose owners – though absent – had not, strictly speaking, ‘abandoned’ them.
Sgt. G. Butler, 12th Machine Gun Coy., 4 Div.
It was my first guard as a lance-corporal and I took the responsibility very keen. About 2 a.m. the sentry reported to me that a 36-gallon barrel of vin blanc was stood on a farm cart at the back of the estaminet. We couldn’t see the sense of it being out in the cold all night so we decided to move it. We got some old bags out of the warehouse we were billeted in, and a brush. It took about five of us to get it off the wagon, and we rolled this barrel along the cobbles on bags all the way to a well, just past the village, one man sweeping the road behind, so you couldn’t see any marks where the barrel had been. When we got to the well, a dixie and half a dozen mess tins suddenly appeared – of course the lads only took a drink just to confirm that it was vin blanc! Then they put the bung back into the barrel and we lowered it down with some ropes and the chain attached to the well handle.
When morning came I had difficulty getting the guard up. Of course, I put it down to the smell of that stuff in the barrel. The fumes must have gone to their heads! About nine o’clock we heard a hell of a noise and two gendarmes and three or four men appeared. They informed us, to our great surprise, that they had lost a barrel of vin blanc so, of course, we helped them to look for it. Well, they searched here and they searched there – they even looked down the well, but there wasn’t a Sherlock Holmes among them. Wewatched them look down the well! The following night we pulled the barrel up again to see how it had fared, down under. You never saw such a game! But that was the last of it for our lads. We went in the line next night and we never saw the barrel again. We never got back to that billet again, that was the trouble.
Lt. J. D. Pratt, U Coy., 4th Bn., Gordon Highlanders (TF), 8th Brig., 3rd Div.
I had to send a platoon from my company into Ypres – a party of sergeant and seven men, and they went in and they were supposed to be relieved after twenty-four hours. But the sergeant came to me and he said, ‘Can we stay another twenty-four hours?’ And I said, ‘Why, Arthur,’ I said, ‘do you like it?’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘We’re having a wonderful time! You see, the population’s all fled and there’s any number of people from all sorts of regiments in there. They’re grabbing stuff like hell and we’re getting plenty of booze all over the place. We’re having a grand time!’
I believe that lots of lads pinched quite a bit of valuable stuff from Ypres and they went and buried it and hid it away in various places where they thought they would find it later, and a lot of them – probably most of them – got killed. So it’s likely that for years to come people will be unearthing all sorts of caches of jewellery and other stuff, quite accidentally.
The army called it ‘plunder’. The soldiers called it simple common-sense. Even though the first rich pickings had run out there was still a treasure trove of desirable booty going begging (as the Tommies saw it) in the ruined streets of Ypres, and if officers seldom overtly encouraged theft it was not in their interest to ask searching questions when a mattress, or an armchair or a much-needed table was found for a Headquarters billet, or even for some damp and smelly dug-out near the line. On the whole they shared the Tommies’ view that, when welcome creature-comforts were so easy to come by, only a fool would refuse to take advantage of it. Even senior officers found it convenient to turn a blind eye and were occasionally not above conniving to arrange a few unofficial acquisitions for themselves.
Major Cowan, who was in charge of 175th Tunnelling Company and had just been forced to move from the pleasant village of Terdeghem to an undesirable dug-out in Vlamertinghe close to Ypres, was only too happy to take any opportunity of improving it.
Major S. H. Cowan, 175th Tunnelling Coy., Royal Engineers.
About 11 a.m. Hart and I set off. We called first of all at 171st Company to see my NCO in charge of stores and then on into Ypres to the HQ of the 7th Brigade which was established in some old casemates under the ancient ramparts of the town. Beds, tables, carpets even, had been salvaged from the ruins and the place was really very comfortable indeed. As we were coming up towards the square where the Cloth Hall was, Fritz began to unload some ‘hate’ and we turned off hurriedly into a more secluded route. Just as we had started along there was a deuce of a bang fifty yards away and a badly wounded horse rushed past us. I took refuge with Benskin who gave me tea, and I stayed till the row stopped and Hart reappeared for me. He had a tale to tell! He had just got a very nice stove out of a ruined house and into the lorry, and very luckily the tailboard was up, when round the corner came a Brigadier and a Provost Marshal. Now, looting was a crime of the first water, but Hart had a real flash of genius and he ordered the two Army Service Corps drivers to get under the lorry and start ‘tinkering’. ‘What is this lorry doing here?’ said the Provost Marshal. ‘We’re waiting for Major Cowan of 175th Company, RE,’ replied Hart, ‘but something has gone wrong with the lorry and the drivers are trying to find out what it is.’ And as soon as the Staff were round the corner, would you believe it, that lorry seemed to get better all at once and was off and away out of Ypres by another route. I got back to the car where my intelligent driver had found time to souvenir a coffee-mill for our mess! The stove was a great acquisition, and if we hadn’t got it, a shell would probably have damaged it beyond repair the next week.
An ordinary soldier of the line whose duties did not take him into Ypres had little opportunity for souveniring expeditions. Off-duty, the town was strictly out of bounds and on their way to and from the trenches it was an unhealthy place for troops to linger.
Sgt. A. Rule, U Coy., 4th Bn., Gordon Highlanders (TF), 8th Brig., 3rd Div.
A party of us detailed for fatigue duty went through Ypres on our way to the front line. Brick dust from shell-shattered buildings lay thick in the streets, muffling our tread, and as we marched on in this silent, almost ghostly, fashion, we felt like mourners assisting at the funeral rites of a city of the dead. Tumbled masonry, and occasional street barricades, constantly slowed us up. In some cases the front of a house had been sheared off as if by a gigantic knife. Floors, precariously supported by splintered joists, looked as if they only needed a touch to topple them into the street. Even the foliage of the trees in the streets had been blighted by shell-fire, and there was a foul stench of corruption from neglected sewers. The great Cloth Hall with its magnificent facade had also suffered badly. Its square tower offered a splendid ranging mark for the German guns, and at the base of it lay the clock, a twisted maze of works. The interior was completely gutted.
Near the Grand’ Place, we came on the Church of St Martin, where an altar among a tangled wreckage of oak pews had miraculously escaped destruction. In front of the church stood a vacant pedestal, and at its base, just as if it was in the act of taking cover, lay the stone statue of some civic dignitary – staff in hand and complete with robes and chains of office. To our irreverent minds it appeared as if the old boy had gone to earth, and must now be cursing the corpulent stomach that had doubtless been his pride in many a bygone civic function. That wonderful tummy alone prevented his lying flat.
The sight of the statue so unceremoniously cast down caused many sniggers and ribald remarks in the ranks of U Company whose spirits were never cast down for long. They were a light-hearted lot. Although officially Territorials of the 4th Gordon Highlanders, ‘U’ stood for University and they were all undergraduates of Aberdeen whose studies had been abruptly interrupted by the war. Although they had been soldiering more or less in earnest for the best part of a year they still considered themselves to be students rather than soldiers and claimed licence accordingly whenever they could get away with it. The officers, all graduates who not so long ago had been students themselves, were remarkably tolerant.
Lt. J. D. Pratt.
On parade – discipline all the time – you addressed an officer as ‘Sir’. Off parade you could call him ‘Jimmy’ or ‘Jock’ or whatever his name was. There was no ceremony.
The senior officer was Colonel Ogilvie, and Tommy Ogilvie was, I think, a solicitor. He was a very human individual, hail – fellow-well-met, and he was the life and soul of the party in the mess when we were at camp in peacetime. Freddie Bain, who later was Sir Frederick Bain and who died a good many years ago when he was chairman designate of ICI, he was sergeant of the guard, and Tommy Ogilvie was Captain of the Day. So Tommy went down to the guard tent and said, ‘Sergeant, anything to report?’ So Freddie said, ‘Yes, sir, I’ve got a prisoner.’ Oh, what’s the trouble?’ ‘Oh,’ he said ‘he’s drunk.’ Tommy said, ‘Let me see the prisoner.’ So he went into the tent and there was a fellow lying completely helpless, completely blotto. So Tommy stood swaying backwards and forwards, looking down at the fellow, and he said, ‘Sergeant, that man isn’t drunk. I saw him move!’ That gives you the idea of Tommy! But when we mobilised and he became Commanding Officer he cut the whisky bottle right out, and he cut down very heavily on his officers drinking in the mess. Complete change.
Our own Company Commander who commanded U Company was Captain Lachlan McKinnon. He’d been a student – a law student – and he’d graduated about three or four years before. He was a tall, awkward-looking fellow, a little hunchbacked, but terribly conscientious, and he had absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever. That was his great weakness. Well, we did this joke on him. He issued an order that there was to be no smoking of cigarettes on parade. On the first morning after that we marched off from our billets and after a few hundred yards he said, ‘March at ease.’ So with one motion every member of U Company took out a clay pipe and lit it up. I was Company Sergeant-Major at the back. He came back to me and said, ‘Sergeant-Major, do you see that? Doyou see that? Members of U Company smoking pipes like ordinary council workmen. What will people think about my university men if that’s how they behave?’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m terribly sorry but, after all, you know, you barred smoking of cigarettes on parade but you didn’t say anything about clay pipes.’ Anyhow the order was countermanded. Poor old Lachie!
He was going round the cookhouse one day and there was a fellow called Chatty Donald – who I may say, when he died, was a Harley Street brain specialist and a Brigadier in the Territorials, and Lachie said to Chatty, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’m cooking the spuds.’ ‘Well,’ Lachie said, ‘how do you know when they’re properly cooked?’ ‘Oh,’ said Chatty, ‘that’s easy. You take one up, you biff it against the wall and if it sticks it’s cooked and if it bounces back, it isn’t!’ The Company Commander didn’t know what the bloody hell to do, or whether his leg was being pulled or what. In fact, it’s a very good rough test!
Looking back now, U Company should have been a reservoir – a first-class reservoir – for officers. Because when we mobilised, I myself, as Colour Sergeant, had two honours degrees and all my sergeants had degrees – some of them honours – and we had about a dozen fellows in the ranks who had degrees and had already got jobs and had come back to the company.
But the Commanding Officer, Ogilvie, set his face against anybody applying for a commission. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘if I once start allowing members of U Company to go for commissions,’ he said, ‘I admit they’d make good officers, but we shall never get overseas because they are the backbone of the battalion.’ And, of course, you must remember that, at that time, the talk was that the war would be finished by Christmas – or would be finished early in 1915. And everybody was, naturally, anxious to get out to France. And for that reason nobody was allowed to apply for a commission.
But nobody cared much. U Company was high on enthusiasm but, on the whole, distinctly short of military ambition, and few of them had any desire to be ‘temporary gentlemen’. They were perfectly content to be temporary soldiers, to rough it, to stick it out together and, on every possible occasion, to enjoy themselves as best they could. Their singing was renowned and their repertoire was wide. They knew every chorus in the Students’ Songbook by heart, they were well-versed in traditional Scottish airs, they could harmonise like angels, and their impromptu performances in estaminets at la Clytte were generally appreciated by their comrades-in-arms in the 8th Brigade, even if they were not always understood by the men of the Suffolks and Middlesex. For some reason which was hard to fathom, the Sassenachs were especially fond of one particular song in the dialect of U Company’s native Aberdeenshire which rejoiced in the title of The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre’. It had a catchy tune, it went fast and furious, and it had a long string of verses, not one word of which the English soldiers could possibly have understood, still less joined in. But they could stamp their feet in accompaniment, faster and faster as the pace quickened, and when it reached its thunderous climax and Geordie’s byre had been well and truly mucked, they raised the roof with cheers and applause. But the ‘language problem’ caused occasional misunderstandings. ‘Give us another one, Jock,’ a Suffolk man called out in the course of one jolly evening. ‘Give us “Where’s Me Fourpence Charlie?”’ This, after some puzzlement, was interpreted as a request for a plaintive Jacobite song, more familiar to U Company as ‘Wae’s Me for Prince Charlie’. The story quickly spread, U Company sportingly adopted the revised version, and if the song thereafter lost some of its Highland charm it was always good for a laugh.
But since they had come to the front in February U Company’s sojourn had not been entirely carefree. They had had their share of discomfort in the trenches in bitter weather and pouring rain and out of them, on what the Army was pleased to describe as ‘rest’, they had spent weary hours on irksome fatigues, supplied scores of working parties, staggered up to the line with sacks of coke, with rolls of wire, with timber, with stakes and ammunition, and the thousand and one weighty loads of supplies that were needed in the trenches. They had dug and dug and dug. They had also had their share of excitement – going out with wiring parties into the shifting shadows beyond the parapet, when the ping of stretched wire released by a nervous hand or the muffled thud of a mallet, even the click of a rifle bolt, seemed loud enough to rouse the whole German Army, let alone a German sentry in the trenches across the way. And there had been patrols when men crept deep into No Man’s Land, fighting the instinct to run when the flares went up, freezing in the brilliant light in the mild hope of resembling a tree, or playing dead among the grisly scatter of corpses lying between the lines. They had buried their own dead too, and in early May, when U Company marched off from the ‘quiet’ sector in front of Kemmel on their way to the less desirable sector at Hill 60, they had left a dozen or so of their comrades behind in their own small cemetery. Many more had gone home wounded, and in such a small cohesive company the gaps were all too noticeable.
Now U Company was on the move again and marching through Ypres towards the salient they had no illusions about what lay ahead and, for once, they marched in silence. Even if they had felt like it, it seemed inappropriate to sing in the awesome desolate streets of Ypres. But there was one light moment. Rounding a corner they passed the remains of a large building. It was roofless and the walls were battered, but the doorway was intact and above it, in letters of brass, was the inscription ‘English Ladies’ Seminary’. As U Company crunched morosely through the dust and rubble one man began to whistle. He was whistling ‘Gaudeamus Igitur…’, and he broke off after the first few bars, but it was enough to bring a smile to every face. There wasn’t a man among them who had not lingered after lights-out outside the women students’ hostel in Aberdeen whistling that well-known signal, guaranteed to bring girls to the window to indulge in a little banter and flirtation. Grinning broadly, U Company marched past the ladies’ seminary and on through Ypres.
Sgt. A. Rule.
Our route towards the Menin Gate was blocked at intervals by wrecked limbers and by the swollen dead bodies of horses, stinking to high heaven and covered with loathsome flies. We breathed more freely when we had passed through the city wall and crossed the moat.
Near a water tower (it later became a well-known landmark) we dodged an enormous shell-hole flanked by an abandoned perambulator, and skirting the shelled cemetery we carried on across country on tracks which the German gunners seemed to know by heart. Finally, after many delays and a wearisome march, we reached the trenches south of the village of Hooge, and almost at the tip of the salient.
They marched past Hell Fire Corner and moved into trenches on the right of the Menin Road at the place they called Birr Crossroads. The 8th Brigade was not to be in the forefront of the attack. But the 7th and 9th Brigades were, and for the past ten days they had been busily engaged in training and practising in fields behind the line – advancing wave by wave in ‘open order’, attacking imaginary trenches, represented by rows of sticks in the ground and ‘consolidating’ while the next wave passed through in their turn to attack the imaginary enemy with bombs and bayonets. It made a change from the monotony of weary stints in the trenches the weather was fine, the exercise was healthy, and although Bryden McKinnell, commanding Y Company, was pleasantly fatigued at the end of each strenuous day, he even managed to put in a little badly needed riding practice in the twilight of the long June evenings. Occasionally there were thunderstorms and it was then that Y Company blessed their company quartermaster – and not for the first time. QM McFie took good care of his company and, insofar as the limitations of active service allowed, he was solicitous for their comfort. He made sure that they were well fed and, returning damp and ravenous to their field outside Brandhoek, they discovered with joy that the Quartermaster had arranged to have tea dished out on their arrival to tide them over while they waited for the evening stew, and had thoughtfully arranged for tent and blanket bivouacs to be erected in their absence. It was some compensation for the fact that it continued raining all night. Parading in damp uniforms in the morning, McKinnell’s men were only slightly cast down by the news that the leave they had been eagerly awaiting was indefinitely postponed. It was Sunday 13 June, and at least there was a day off to look forward to. That evening the colonel called the officers together for a conference.
Capt. B. McKinnell.
Sunday June 13th 10p.m. Our orders are definite now and we know what we are in for, though not in detail. I think we are all very glad now the suspense is over. It had to come sooner or later, and very much better that it has come as an honour, namely, to be among the chosen few to do a special job, than to be among a crush. Strange to think, will I see next Wednesday at 10 p.m.?
Tuesday June 15th. We have got all our instructions. We have a trench to take, in fact the enemy’s second line, together with the help of the Lincolns. I’m afraid it’s going to be a very difficult job. The men are all cheery and we all rag each other as to how we will look with wooden legs, or tied up in an oil sheet for burial. All the plans have been explained today, Tuesday 15th, to all ranks.
All stores have been issued and we are waiting to march off. Hope we win! Unfortunately the Huns must know almost everything, as it has been so widely discussed. I am beginning to suspect it is done with an object. Sacrifice a brigade here and push hard somewhere else. However we are going to justify our existence as Terriers and men – we middle-class businessmen! God Save the King!
Early in the afternoon the Liverpool Scottish marched out of camp on their way to the line. The field cookers had gone ahead and McFie had arranged for them to halt on the far side of Ypres to give the men a hot meal while they waited for darkness to cover the last mile of their progress to the front. He had been on the go since early morning, riding with his wagons to the dump near the transport line, checking long lists in the Lieutenant-Quartermaster’s office, drawing supplies, seeing that they were speedily stowed in the wagons and properly sorted out when they returned. By the time Y Company had breakfasted the stores had been set out at intervals along one side of the field. McFie had detailed extra men to help and two of them stood by each pile to hand out the goods, while Y Company paraded to receive them in a long crocodile, moving along the field, a platoon at a time. As one man remarked when he got to the end, they were loaded like blooming Christmas trees’. Every man was issued with two extra bandoliers of ammunition to be slung cross-wise across each shoulder, two empty sandbags, a waterproof sheet and a day’s extra ration in addition to his iron ration to be stuffed into his haversack. The trench-stores had been seen to. There were hand-grenades to issue to the company bombers, wire-cutters to distribute, and shovels to be carried up to the front by one unlucky platoon. It all took a long time. Then there were overcoats to be rolled and stowed on a wagon, and packs to be dumped, for Y Company was to go into action in ‘light order’. At last it was finished, dinners were served, and Y Company was ready to go.
They lined up on the road to take their place in the battalion, and McFie went to stand at the fence to wave them off. They were in high spirits. Even before they got well into their stride mouth organs had been produced and some of them were singing as they went by. They broke off to wave and shout as they passed the quartermaster. ‘We’ll bring you a souvenir, QM. What’ll it be?’ ‘We’ll bring you back a Hun or two to cook for breakfast!’ ‘Keep the cookers going. Quarters, we’ll be back soon’, then, Are we down-hearted?’and the obligatory answering roar – ‘NO!’ It may have been bravado but they gave every indication of being glad to go. Marching at the head of the column, smiling as he returned the Quartermaster’s salute, Bryden McKinnell was to all appearances as happy as his men. There was no time now, on the eve of the battle, to brood on the thought he had recently confided to his diary: ‘Will I see next Wednesday at 10 p.m.?’ It was Tuesday evening and at ten o’clock, as darkness began to deepen, they moved into trenches in front of Y wood. The ‘special job’ was to recapture the Bellewaerde Ridge. It was an important objective in itself but the attack had a secondary purpose which, in the view of the Commander-in-Chief, was of the utmost importance – to divert the attention of the Germans from an important assault on Givenchy in the First Army sector some thirty miles to the south. The attack on Bellewaerde was referred to as ‘a minor operation’.
The British front line now lay across the longest arm of the Y-shaped copse north of the Menin Road and ran across open ground to bisect the wood that lay immediately south of the Ypres-Roulers railway. It was a long time since any trains had run along that track for the town of Roulers a dozen miles away was well behind the enemy lines* and there the railway was busily working for the enemy. Roulers was an important junction and from it the lines led south into France, north into Holland and linked up through Brussels with lines that ran to the heart of Germany. But if Roulers was an ace in the German hand, in the salient the Bellewaerde Ridge was a trump card.
A month had wrought many changes. Chateau Wood, the lake, the farm, the ridge itself that Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry had fought so hard to hold, were now part of the German defence system. Their front line now ran along the farther edge of Y Wood to the top of Railway Wood. It was linked by a web of communication trenches to two other fortified trench-lines, one midway up the slope, the other on the crest of the ridge itself. Even Hooge Chateau was in the hands of the Germans – if it could still be called a chateau now that only two walls were left standing. A stone’s throw from it, no more than fifty yards away, the British held on to the chateau stables and to the pulverised brick heaps that were the ruins of Hooge village. But they only just held them, for here the line looped out across the Menin Road and swept back in a deep semi-circle across the fields to Zouave Wood, and round again to Birr Crossroads. It was a nasty kink in the line for, as the British trenches ran back, so the German line ran forward, curving across the lower slopes of the ridge with all the advantage of high ground behind them. The task of the 3rd Division was to straighten the line and capture it. Between and beyond the two small woods that marked the limits of the attack, the slopes were entirely open with little dead ground and no cover. Captain McKinnell had been right in surmising that it would be a difficult job.
But hopes were high. This time a good deal of thought had been given to the possibility of a breakdown in communications, and lines as far back as brigade headquarters had been laid in triplicate. Eight rows of jumping-off trenches were prepared, so that consecutive waves could move speedily into action, but they were dug, unavoidably, in full view of the enemy, and the enemy had conveyed his displeasure by shelling them by day as fast as the working-parties had dug them by night. They were still discernible as shallow tracings on the ground, but they offered little shelter to the assaulting troops as they waited uncomfortably for morning. The attack was timed for dawn.
The barrage started just before three o’clock and, for once, it was a good one with sufficient high-explosive shells to wreak havoc on the German trenches, and the noise of the shells flying close overhead, the boom of explosions not far ahead, was a distinct comfort to the men, crouching tense and sleepless, waiting for the guns to lift, for the first light of dawn above the Bellewaerde Ridge, for the sound of the whistles that would send them over the top. Seasoned soldiers though they were, after four months in France, not a single man of the 3rd Division had gone over the top before. Excitement hung so thick in the air that it might have been cut with a knife.
At zero hour the first wave went over the top and took the German front line with ease.
The bombardment had done its work. The German wire was shattered. The enemy was in disarray. The barrage had lifted from the first German line to start thundering on the next, and the second wave was waiting to go. When the signal came they were to rush forward to follow the first wave, now in the front enemy trench, and to pass through them and over it to attack the next one. When the signal came the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment went forward with the Liverpool Scottish to do the job. Captain Bryden McKinnell led Y Company across the open ground, through the skeleton trees on the edge of Y Wood, and started up the slope past the communication trenches where a few cowering German soldiers had been cut off by the barrage. They should have halted there, close to the second enemy line, waiting for the barrage to lift before they tackled it. But things had gone wrong. The 7th Brigade, in reserve behind the 9th, were only intended to go forward if they were absolutely required to help. No signal was given but excitement, like panic, easily spreads. A few men started it, carried away by the thrill of the moment, and, seeing the Liverpool Scots and the Lincolns rush on and disappear into the smoke, they leapt forward and ran after them, cheering and yelling and desperate to get into the fight. After that there was no stopping it, and soon the whole 7th Brigade was on the move, running like the wind to catch up. They leapt across the first wave in the captured German trench and caught up with the second, waiting beyond it for the barrage to lift. And they carried them forward by sheer impetus, breaking into their spread-out ranks so that companies, platoons, even sections were split up. Now they were all running – and they ran into their own barrage. In the confusion of smoke and dust, the Artillery Officers observing the bombardment had no means of knowing that the shells were falling on their own troops. When the barrage finally lifted the survivors of the carnage advanced and took the second trench. But it was the death-knell of the attack – so promising in its beginning – that might have won them back the Bellewaerde Ridge.
Even the first wave, reorganising in their newly captured line, was so confused by the sudden appearance of the third wave passing through them that they too had advanced soon and joined in the melee. The result was total confusion. A small group of Royal Scots Fusiliers managed to reach the final objective on the top of the ridge, but under fire from their own artillery they could not possibly hold it for long. All along the line small groups of men were fighting the enemy with bombs and bayonets, but by half past nine the survivors were forced to fall back to the first captured line of German trenches. They had been beaten by their own artillery, by their own bravery and, tragically, by their own blind enthusiasm.
The German guns were bombarding furiously to prevent reinforcements getting up, and U Company was ordered forward from the trenches across the Menin Road.
Sgt. A. Rule.
We crossed the Menin Road under a steady hail of machine-gun bullets. In our old front line we were up to the knees in liquid mud and all but trampling on the dead and wounded on the floor of the trench. The badly wounded – poor devils! – moaned agonisingly at the slightest touch as we squeezed past, and we were sniped at continually when we mounted the firestep to avoid treading on them. Our attack had disturbed a hornets’ nest for, in addition to the deadly hail of bullets, whizz-bangs were bursting on the parapet every few yards and shrapnel fairly sang about our ears. Some of the attacking troops were now falling back in disorder, and we received instructions to move forward on Y Wood in order to provide a stiffening effect and help to allay panic. Our line of advance was a partly dug communication trench running towards our objective and it was unhappily chosen, because we became a concentrated target for whizz-bangs and its bottle-neck entrance from our own front line gave unlimited sport to the German gunners. I remember vividly pausing there under cover for a moment, while a brace of whizz-bangs crashed just ahead, and then hurdling the parapet with a desperate rush and just missing the next salvo. Two men following me hesitated just a fraction too long and mistimed their jump. A whizz-bang caught them fair and square. Littered as it was with dead and wounded, the trench was even more congested with two streams of men moving in opposite directions.
By this time our casualties were fairly heavy and the two platoon commanders who led us in had both been wounded, but our NCOs carried on. Of course, the Germans counterattacked but they were beaten off, mainly by the heroic efforts of our solitary machine-gun team, and it stayed in action when, by the law of averages, it should have been blown sky high! Salvo after salvo rained down and, although many of us were buried more than once, we escaped without much harm because our soft crumbly parapet seemed to smother the shell-burst. But often we had to lie low, clinging on grimly, and praying that the next one would miss us.
Sandy Gunn was U Company’s hero of the day. Sandy had left his native Caithness two years ago to enrol as a medical student at Aberdeen University. He was now a lance-corporal and although he was no athlete and was not even officially a company runner, he had run like the furies across the dangerous shell-swept ground to take messages back and forward. It was a dangerous job and a man had to move fast and take his chance, but even on his last trip when the Germans had recovered and were spraying machine-gun fire in every direction from the trenches up the hill, Sandy spared a thought for his thirsty comrades and, although it slowed him down considerably, he brought back a gallon can of water to slake their thirst. Later, although they were pleased that Sandy had been Mentioned in Dispatches, there wasn’t a single man who didn’t firmly believe that he deserved at least a DCM.*
The new line was consolidated – and at least it had been advanced a short way. They had paid a heavy price for it in this ‘minor operation’. The attack on Givenchy had been equally expensive and only partially successful but, like the men who had fought at Bellewaerde, no one among the survivors doubted that they were still on the winning side.
The rest of the 8th Brigade moved up to join U Company in the trenches beyond Y wood to take over the captured line and the remnants of the 9th and 7th Brigades were relieved late in the evening. The Quartermaster had been waiting for many hours for Y Company to come back.
CQMSR. S. McFie.
Towards evening we packed up rations for the trenches and set out for a place on the other side of Ypres where we expected to be able to hand them over to our men. Outside the town, shells were dropping rather uncomfortably near the road, but we reached the chateau used for a dressing station, which was our destination, without accident. There we waited, and as we waited men of ours stumbled haltingly down the road to have their wounds dressed. We did not believe their stories! Only one officer, possibly two, was left. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so wounded. The total strength of the battalion could not be more than ninety, and so on.
After a time, orders came that the Regiment would be relieved and that rations were therefore not needed, but that the camp was to be pitched at once in readiness for the return of the men. We hurried back and found the shelters and tents all pitched and set to work to prepare a good reception for the boys. A friend at home had sent me about thirty fine boxes of delightful biscuits, so I put them in the tents, a box for every five men. We set out the letters and parcels, candles, food, and prepared tea and pea soup on the cookers. Of my own company a hundred and thirty men had gone to the trenches and I was ready to feast them all when they came back.
At last we heard the distant sound of pipes and after a while there passed through our gate a handful of men in tattered uniforms, their faces blackened and unshaved, their clothes stained red with blood, or yellow with the fumes of lyddite. I shouted for Y Company. One man came forward! It was heart breaking.
Gradually others tottered in, some wounded, all in the last stages of exhaustion, and when at last I went to lie down at about 5.30 a.m., I had only twenty-five of my hundred and thirty who had gone out thirty-six hours before.
I fancy there was a great deal of bungling. At drill an attack can be practised in an hour that in real warfare should take two days, and I fear that in their eagerness our men rushed forward much too far and much too quickly. It is terrible! The Regiment is practically wiped out.
The whole of the 3rd Division had suffered badly. The 9th Brigade alone had lost seventy-three of their ninety-six officers, and more than two thousand of three and a half thousand men. The Commanding Officers of four Battalions were wounded, and another had been killed.* The total casualties of the 3rd Division, killed, wounded and missing, were more than three and a half thousand.
The exhausted survivors sank thankfully into bivouacs to sleep, and far out in the line U Company held on to the trenches captured the previous day. They cleaned up as best they could. They carried out the wounded, and munched on iron rations in lieu of a hot meal. They posted sentries every few yards and the rest settled down to snatch what sleep they could in the few remaining hours of the night. Presently the gun-fire tailed away. The night was almost quiet, but there was a rustle of movement in front. Reinforced by fresh troops the Germans had crept back down the hill, and the clink of shovels and a stealthy stirring in the dark told that they were working through the night to strengthen their battered line. Out in front, where the ground was littered with the silent dead, Bryden McKinnell’s body was lying among the scattered bodies of his men. They had been killed before ten o’clock in the morning.