Scott McFie passed a miserable day. A few more men had straggled in, but there was not much to do. The survivors slept. There was tea on tap all day, and bully-beef sandwiches for any who woke up, but it was almost evening before they roused and began to stumble bleary-eyed out of bivouacs. A meal had been prepared, and the stew had been simmering since dinner time. McFie stood beside the boiler as it was dished out with hefty hunks of bread, and with so many absent there was more than enough to go round. There was good strong tea to wash it down, and afterwards he saw to it that the men had a ration of rum and walked round with the Sergeant as he measured it out, murmuring the suggestion that he might be generous. And he lingered to chat with the men. They were eager to talk and the Quartermaster marvelled at their spirit. When the camp had settled down for the night, he retired to his own office-tent and, weary though he was, wrote a letter to his father.
They told tales of the greatest heroism and tales of unutterable horror. Excepting the mistake of great haste, our men did nobly – but the gains are not very great, and the cost is terrible. They are queer chaps. You would imagine that our camp is plunged in gloom. Not a bit of it! After a good sleep and a good meal the men at once recovered their spirits and they are peacocking about in German helmets, taken with their own hands, and proudly showing their souvenirs, and showing off the rents in their clothing and recounting how they bayoneted Huns, or how they had narrow escapes. Of course this disaster has brought much work to me. Will you please tell Cyril Dennis that his biscuits arrived safely, Jenny that her parcel came and is now in the process of consumption, and Charlie that I received his letter in the tent in which I am writing at 11 p.m.! And now to bed in my other tent – the rough and ready blanket one.
The ‘rough and ready’ blanket bivouac was exactly the same as the men’s but McFie was perfectly happy with it. He was never a man to pull rank, and certainly not in the present circumstances. The blankets, and packs and overcoats had been retrieved and next day when the hospital returns came in and the first rough casualty list was made up, he and his storemen would begin drawing up an inventory of unclaimed possessions. There was a large quantity and it was the Company Quartermaster’s responsibility to sort them out, to return those that were the Army’s to battalion stores, to go through the packs of the dead and the missing and, in due course, when all hope of news had been given up, to see that their personal effects were sent home. It was a dispiriting task which McFie was not looking forward to, and when he woke to another glorious day, even the fine weather did little to cheer him.
It was 18 June, and the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Across the Channel at Berkhamsted the Inns of Court Battalion was drawn up on Kitchener’s Field for a special parade. There were thirteen hundred of them, but more than half as many again had passed through the ranks and were now serving as subalterns in almost every Battalion of the New Army. They had recently reached the remarkable total of two thousand commissions, and it was to mark this achievement that Colonel Errington invited their honorary colonel, Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, VC, to inspect the battalion. The Field Marshal had set 18 June as a suitable date, not merely because it was Waterloo Day but because it was a date he had particular reason to remember, ‘For,’ as he explained in his letter of acceptance, ‘I got a big hole in me that day sixty years ago.’
Sir Evelyn Wood was eighty years old, he had got ‘a big hole’ at the siege of Sebastapol in 1855, and to the men in the callow ranks of the Inns of Court he was a historic figure. He had been in the Ashanti wars, had won the Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny, risen to be Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army and had retired a mere twelve years earlier with the rank of Field Marshal. He took the keenest interest in the Army although, to his bitter regret, he was considered to be too old to serve in the present war. But on Waterloo Day the Field Marshal was in his element. He insisted on taking the salute mounted, stopped frequently during his inspection to speak with gruff good humour to numerous soldiers, and later cantered round the field, as the Colonel remarked admiringly, ‘as if the day had been really sixty years ago!’ He addressed the troops in the most complimentary terms, and if his speech was a little rambling as he recalled his own bygone days of soldiering, and if his voice cracked at times and did not quite carry to every corner of the field, the Inns of Court were delighted and rewarded him with three hearty cheers.
There were other Waterloo Day parades and celebrations in various parts of the country, and especially in schools, but the centenary was not celebrated as it might have been in peacetime. It passed virtually unnoticed at the front, but on the same day, by coincidence, a shell exploding near Essex Farm on the Pilkem Ridge uncovered an ancient cannon-ball, buried since Marlborough’s wars. The following evening the 4th Gordon Highlanders were relieved and U Company thankfully handed over the trenches in Y Wood and went back to rest. There were many faces missing on the march back to the fields round Brandhoek and they only got there in the small hours of the morning, dog tired, but extremely happy. Their glorious rest was to last for almost four weeks.
Their casualties, though bad enough, had been less severe than those of the battalions in the forefront of the attack, but their 8th Brigade had held the trenches on the Menin Road for the best part of four weeks, and Colonel Tommy Ogilvie intended that his Battalion’s rest should be a good one. Muscles were soft from lack of exercise and the Army decreed that when men were relieved from the front there should be a stiff programme of training and exercise to toughen them up for going back again. Captain Hopkinson, who now commanded U Company, interpreted this order in liberal terms and the platoon commanders taking their cue from him were determined that the men should enjoy themselves so long as the fine weather lasted.
Sgt. A. Rule.
We were camped in hessian bivouacs and we enjoyed a spell of almost unbroken sunshine and glorious summer mornings. The term ‘early morning parade’ was broadly accepted by our Platoon Commander as embracing gentle strolls past promising field crops, and physical exercises in the morning sunshine, just strenuous enough to stimulate our digestive juices. Training took place after breakfast and our Platoon Commander had taken a university course in agriculture so perhaps for that reason he had an eye for a well-sheltered training field. Through pastures green he led us where, instead of wearisome drill, we could enjoy a private sun bathe and a siesta. Unfortunately, after about a week of this pastoral idyll, the commander of another company blundered into our preserve and, although he and his men did have the good sense to follow our example, our sanctuary was robbed of its privacy.
There was good food, plain, but plenty of it. There were estaminets in Brandhoek where the beer was thin but abundant, there was money to jingle in their sporrans – four weeks’ unspent pay – there were letters from home and parcels galore whose contents includedthe occasional bottle of whisky which certainly helped to enliven camp sing-songs in the warm evenings.
Best of all there were baths. Baths were arranged at Poperinghe for one company at a time, and although water was plentiful and U Company had been able to wash regularly, a cold water wash in a bucket could not be compared to a bath – even if the bath was a communal one in the vats of a brewery. U Company’s turn came at the end of their first week’s rest and it was a red letter day. It was their first trip to Poperinghe and, after a blissful scrub, a lot of horseplay, and an invigorating cold douche from a two-inch hosepipe, the men were allowed the indulgence of two hours to explore and to enjoy the novelty of a town that still contained shops and civilians and was only slightly battered by shell-fire, for many of the refugees and tradesmen had returned. Since they had existed entirely on army fare for the past five months, most of them explored no further than the cafés and restaurants in the square, and once the novelty of being presented with menu cards had evaporated, and given the limitations of time and money, they set to and did their utmost to work their way through them. Stew was not popular, but there was good hearty soup, gargantuan omelettes, veal, steak, sausages, and mountains of golden chips, so cheap that even the less provident, who had spent the lion’s share of four weeks’ deferred pay on beer, could afford several large portions of chips, if they could afford nothing else.
By the time they fell in for the three-mile tramp back to Brandhoek, U Company were new men. They were pleasantly replete with decent food, washed down with quantities of beer and wine, but best of all they were clean – and felt properly clean and spruce for the first time in weeks. During the past days they had spent hours smartening up. Kilts and tunics had been dried off and brushed clean, buttons and boots were polished, puttees were free of mud, faces were scrubbed and shining beneath khaki Tarn o’ Shanters perched at a jaunty angle on gleaming slicked-back hair. They stepped out smartly, for the pipes were playing them along the road to the lively strains of ‘Cock o’ the North’, and U Company, who knew a variety of versions, was in excellent voice. It would have been hard to find a happier-looking bunch of Jocks. Just as the tune came to an end they caught up with a battalion of Kitchener’s Army. They were the first New Army men they had seen and they were not an alluring sight.
Sgt. A. Rule.
They were resting by the wayside and looking unutterably weary and dispirited. We later learned that they had just received their baptism of fire on the Menin Road and had been relieved – after just forty-eight hours in the line. They were probably misled by our ‘shining morning faces’ and took us for a newly arrived Territorial unit, anyway they began to shout caustic comments and we catcalled back at them. One woebegone-looking sergeant called out, ‘Just wait till you’ve been up there, lads, and you won’t be singin’ then!’ Well, we soon put him right. I’ll never forget his look of utter incredulity when we informed them we’d just come back after holding the Menin Road for weeks on end. It sent us into roars of laughter.
To add spice to the joke someone sang out in a high falsetto voice ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go…’ It set U Company off again and when they had recovered they favoured Kitchener’s unfortunate soldiers with another mocking ditty which struck them as peculiarly appropriate, bellowing as they swaggered down the road:
Send out the Army and the Navy,
Send out the rank and file,
Send out the good old Territorials,
They’ll face danger with a smile!
Send out the Boys of the Old Brigade
Who kept Old England free,
Send out my brother, my sister and my mother,
But for God’s sake, don’t send ME!
It was a touch unkind, and the Kitchener Battalion shouted insults and imprecations until U Company was well down the road. They were the 9th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, of the 14th Light Division – the very troops who had relieved U Company’s own brigade a few days before. The riflemen had been in Flanders for just over a month and, if they did not at present appreciate the joke, they looked forward to getting their own back. As the second of the New Army divisions to reach the front they too would be acting the old sweats before many weeks had passed, lording it over newer arrivals as the pace gathered momentum and Kitchener’s Army began to arrive in significant numbers.*
The vast bulk of the ‘First Hundred Thousand’ of Kitchener’s Army were champing at the bit. In their opinion they had been ready for months, and the last weeks of waiting had been weary. They were sick of drilling, sick of route-marching, sick of training, sick of mock attacks and if they were not exactly sick of the Army, they wanted to get on with the war. It had not been easy to equip them but now, at last, they were garbed in respectable soldierly khaki and could say goodbye to the suits of ‘Kitchener’s blue’. At long last they had rifles, and some who were natural shots could fire them. Others had been dragged through the final musketry tests on which the proficiency of the battalion depended. It was an open secret that a well-meaning instructor, seeing that a man was firing an unacceptable number of outers – or even missing the target altogether – had his own system. ‘I think there’s something wrong with that rifle, lad,’ he would say. ‘Let me try it.’ And, on the pretext of testing the weapon, he would pump enough inners and bullseyes into the target to make sure that a soldier got the required score. They would improve with practice – and they would get plenty of opportunity to practice in France. But they were fit, and they were keen and, ready or not, in the opinion of many Commanding Officers, as eager as their troops to get to the front, they were in danger of going stale with the long delay. Now that things were hotting up and there was a real prospect of getting going, the anticipation was unbearable as the days dragged and the troops chafed at the bit, waiting for the final inspection that would signal their departure.
The King was working hard, for he was anxious to inspect as many Kitchener’s Brigades as possible to wish them Godspeed. He was a modest man and he regarded this as a duty, for Kitchener’s men had been exhorted to join up in his name ‘for King and Country’, and even if he was exhausted by the end of June, his effort had given enormous pleasure and satisfaction.
Sgt. J. Cross, MM, 13th Bn., Rifle Brig., 37 Div.
King George was coming down to inspect the Division before we left and we’d been told that we had to keep a sharp look out. Well, at ordinary times the police used to do the guard for the camp because we were busy with our training, but this particular week we had to do camp guard for twenty-four hours and this particular day I was in charge of it (I was paid Acting-Sergeant at the time) and of course the other lads pulled my leg about this because I’d never done a guard in my life before, not even as a rifleman, because we hadn’t been anywhere to do one. I told my sentries, ‘You keep your eyes peeled. And if you see a cavalcade of horses come along there and if His Majesty is there there’ll be a chap riding along with the Royal Standard, so don’t forget to give us the word right smart!’ Well, suddenly a voice rang out, ‘Guard, turn out!’ And we jumped out and stood to attention. The King’s party passed along between the road and the camp, riding on the grass. When they got round more or less to my front, I pulled the guard to attention, ‘Royal salute. Present arms!’ – and the bugler sounded the royal salute. They stopped and the King wheeled his horse round and he saluted the guard and something was said to one of the aide de camps, and he came galloping across to me at the guard post. He said, ‘What regiment are you, Corporal?’ I said, ‘Thirteenth Battalion, Rifle Brigade, sir.’ ‘All right,’ he said, ‘you can stand the guard at ease.’ So I gave the order. ‘Guard – order arms. Stand at ease!’
The Orderly Sergeant came round at night. He says, ‘Jack, you’re for orders in the morning. Belt and side arms,’ he said. ‘Do yourself up well.’ So, next morning’s Orderly Room, before they saw the prisoners, I had to go in. Colonel Pretor-Pinney sat at the table and he looked at me straight. He said, ‘I’m very pleased with what happened yesterday and the way you conducted the guard as His Majesty passed by.’ I said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ He said to me, ‘What is your rank now?’ I said, ‘Paid Lance-Sergeant, sir.’ So he said, ‘From now on, I promote you to full Sergeant,’ and that come out in Battalion Orders that night. So I went to France as a full Sergeant.
Jack Cross’s comrades of the 13th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, had been gratified by the King’s visit, but the visit of Duggie Jones’s mother had given even greater pleasure to at least a dozen of his particular chums. They thought it was particularly civil of her, for Duggie was only sixteen, although his large bulk and his height of six feet had easily deceived the recruiting sergeant. Unlike many mothers of under-age boys, she had sportingly connived at the deception, and even more sportingly arrived two days before their departure to give Duggie and his friends a memorable send-off. Mrs Jones was rich, her son Douglas was a public schoolboy, but he was ‘one of the lads’ – and what a night the lads had! Duggie’s mother had reserved a private room in a local hotel and treated the boys to such a dinner as they had seldom enjoyed. There was smoked salmon, there was caviare, there was turbot followed by a joint of beef large enough to go round half the battalion. There was trifle, there was ice cream, there was even a savoury of roasted cheese. There was good wine to wash down the meal and, as if that were not enough, Mrs Jones presented each of the dozen guests with a half-bottle of whisky to take away with him. It was a wonderful evening. She had also had the tact and foresight to charm Colonel Pretor-Pinney in the course of a personal visit and to beg his acceptance of a case of champagne for the officers’ farewell dinner, thereby ensuring that there were no recriminations when the merry diners returned to camp, long after lights out.*
Kitchener’s Army had basked in the glory of the first weeks of the war, when the flags waved and the bands played and every volunteer was hailed as a hero, but the euphoria had evaporated over the weary months of slog and marching and training – and waiting, waiting, waiting. Now, on the eve of their departure, now that they were real soldiers at last, and now that they were on the brink of the long-awaited adventure, there was a new sense of bravado in the air and it came through proudly, if a little selfconsciously, in farewell letters home.
Rfn. J. Hoyles, 13th Bn., Rifle Brig., 37th Div.
My Ever Dear Mother and Father,
I started writing a letter this afternoon, dear Mother, but in the meantime I have been so busy drawing ammunition (a hundred and twenty rounds) and other jobs.
First of all dear Mother I wish to thank you for the cake and socks. The cake was ripping and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My chief news, dear Mother, is to tell you we are going tomorrow morning after breakfast either to Southampton or Folkestone and we embark on Sunday for the front. The King sent a message down, which the Colonel read out on parade, in which he wished us every success in the future and by the grace of God his protection over us, at which our Colonel broke down. He is such a nice gentleman, a man liked by everyone, and we cheered him to the echo.
Dear Mother, we had our photographs taken yesterday and if you should see it in the illustrated papers I am just behind the Marquis of Winchester.†
Mother dear, I know at times you must feel sad, but I know you will keep a cheerful appearance for my sake. It does not seem that we are going out, somehow we cannot realise what lays before us, the hardships and dangers of real warfare. Mother dear, I ask of you that you will say a prayer beside your bed (every night) for me, asking God to protect me through all the dangers I have to traverse. As you say, Mother, you will leave me in the hands of God, which is a kind thought from you for me. Take care of everything of mine at home as I prize everything I possess.
Dear Mother, I am glad to hear you are going to Liverpool for a change, but I am so sorry to tell you, owing to the rotters not paying us the billeting money, I shall be unable to send you anything as they are going to credit it to us in our pay books. I think the reason is because of the men getting too much drink and kicking up a row before we go. They owe me £2.
Frank’s division is following us out in about a week’s time. Tell him, dear Mother, I am gone.
Well, dear Mother and Father, I think I have told you all and I will write as soon as we land. Kiss all the children for me and Goodbye to Jack and all friends at home and look for the time when I, Frank and all are reunited again after this war.
Goodbye to all. With fondest love and my first thoughts for you, from your ever loving son,
Joe (of the Rifle Brigade).*
Gnr. D. A. Pankhurst, Stokes Mortar Bty., RFA.
We were given twenty-four hours’ leave and I went home. Father left for work very early in the morning and he came into me before he went and woke me and said (these are his exact words. I shall never forget them), he said, ‘I know you’ll do your duty, but don’t forget, Mother will be worrying about you.’ Those words went with me through the whole of the war. ‘I know you’ll do your duty’ – so I had to do that if only for him. And my mother.
The first two hundred thousand were ready to go to war. The problem that faced the Government was where to employ them to the best advantage – whether to send large reinforcements to the Dardanelles in the hope of tipping the scales and ensuring success, or to concentrate resources on the western front in the hope of eventually breaking through the German line. The long-postponed decision had at last been taken – but it was still in the nature of a compromise. Three New Army Divisions would be sent to the Dardanelles, with more to follow if necessary. The political crisis had caused four weeks’ delay and the first of the three embarked in mid-June, the third on 7 July. The voyage was long, the temperature on the peninsula was rising, the new troops could not possibly take the offensive before August and by then the blistering heat would have reached its peak.
In the early evening of 5 July a special train left Victoria Station carrying the Prime Minister, with Lord Kitchener and other members of his Cabinet, to Dover en route to Calais for a meeting with their French counterparts. Sir John French travelled from his GHQ at St Omer to join them. It was not an entirely satisfactory conference, for the proceedings were in French, a language in which not all the British delegation were fluent, but they believed that certain agreements had been reached. The Dardanelles campaign would be continued and, in the near future, there would be no large offensives on the western front, although ‘local attacks’ would be carried out vigorously, as the British understood it, to harass the line – but not to break it. In view of their still-meagre stocks of rifles and ammunition and the amount required merely to hold the line, they calculated that no all-out offensive would be possible within a year. Lord Kitchener had forecast that by the spring of 1916, he would be able to have seventy divisions in the field – although in the opinion of Lloyd George this optimistic estimate showed a cavalier disregard for the problems of equipping them with rifles or supplying them with the guns and ammunition without which, as he acerbically pointed out, they might as well stay at home. Nevertheless, the army in Flanders had now swelled by three divisions of the New Army, and thirteen more would follow before autumn. The British were therefore able to agree to hold a longer front and to extend their line north of Ypres and south towards the Somme.
The meeting ended amicably. If Marshal Joffre still nursed ambitious ideas for renewing the offensive on the western front he did not succeed in communicating them to the British staff and their political masters, and they departed well pleased. The Prime Minister, wishing to have a look at the war for himself, stayed on in France, with Lord Kitchener and the Secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Maurice Hankey. The highlight of their short stay was their visit to Ypres.
General Plumer was not at all happy about it. For one thing, protocol demanded that he should personally escort the visitors, and he could ill spare the time, and for another, Ypres was far too dangerous for sightseers although the Prime Minister did not seem to appreciate the risks. He lingered for a long time at the Menin Gate chatting amiably to some soldiers while Plumer, standing by on tenterhooks, could only express his displeasure by ‘looking daggers’ at his hapless Chief of Staff, General Milne, who had arranged Mr Asquith’s programme. The Prime Minister lingered even longer in the square, shaking his head over the ruins, asking an inordinate number of questions which might as easily have been dealt with in a safer place, cocking his head as he listened for shells and inquired about their calibre. He even insisted on personally measuring the largest of the shell craters. Lord Kitchener was rather more interested in casting a connoisseur’s eye over two small statues which still stood miraculously intact in their niches, on the wrecked facade of the Cloth Hall. He was clearly itching to get hold of them and his interest was so unabashed, his desire so palpable, his dilemma so obvious, that General Milne and Hankey shook with silent mirth. ‘I rather think,’ murmured Milne, ‘those statues are in greater danger now than they’ve ever been from German shells!’
Fortunately for General Plumer’s peace of mind the few shells that came over that morning exploded well away from the centre of the town, but he was heartily thankful when the party drove off with General Milne to tour the heavy gunline and to inspect some reserve trenches at a good safe distance from the line.
Visitors to Ypres were not encouraged. Civilians could not enter the town without the permission of the military, and could not even come into the war zone without a pass from the civil authorities. It had taken Aimé van Nieuwenhove ten wearisome days of form-filling and string-pulling before he managed to secure an official permit that allowed him to spend three nights in Poperinghe and another that enabled him to spend six hours and no more in Ypres. He fervently hoped that it would be long enough to retrieve the family fortunes.
It was more than two months since he had locked his front door for the last time and wondered, ‘What will be left when we return?’ In view of the news that had reached him in Paris he had a fair idea that the answer to that question would be ‘Not much.’
Aimé van Nieuwenhove.
The purpose of my journey was to excavate in the garden of Uncle Pierre Liebaert, to find all the stocks and bonds the old man had buried in August 1914, which he had had to leave behind and which added up to hundreds of thousands of francs.
Although I wished to perform this service for Uncle (also a refugee in Paris and becoming more and more miserable each day at being parted from a large part of his fortune) I also had a strong desire to see for myself the ruins of our home and of our unhappy town in general. On 17 July, three days after leaving Paris, I came into Ypres at seven in the morning, with a one-horse wagon and two workmen I had picked up in Poperinghe. On reaching the outskirts of Ypres, I confess that I felt apprehension flooding back. Of course I had lost the habit of risking life under bombardment. Fortunately for me it was not very heavy that morning, although the previous evening a policeman had been killed by a shell near the prison.
It is impossible to describe the appearance of the town. It was a dreadful sorrow to find nothing but burnt-out shells and charred walls where there once were houses. At last we arrived at the site of our house in the rue de Lille. The gable-end of the house facing on to the street was still standing, as well as some of the inner walls. I quickly clambered in to inspect it. The cellars were filled up with a pile of bricks and debris. With the help of the workmen I started to dig, but everything I found was charred and useless – even the bronze of the clocks that I pulled out of the debris had melted and the bottles in the wine-cellar turned to cinders as soon as one touched them. After that I dug up a big zinc container buried in the garden which contained books of designs for lace. Then I went round to the rue de Chien to Uncle Liebaert’s house and there we started to dig. Although I myself had buried three strongboxes containing his stocks and bonds and part of his silver, I couldn’t find the most important strongbox because one of the party walls we had used as a marker had disappeared. The shell which had struck the wall had left a huge hole where the wall had been – and where I believed the box had been buried as well. However, after digging in it for less than an hour in drizzling rain and with shells coming over from time to time, the box came to light. It must have been because of the great depth at which it was buried that the shell had not reached it – although it very nearly had. ‘Well,’ I thought to myself, ‘Uncle’s in luck!’
It was not quite ten in the morning. The men took their cart to the water-tower to load up some furniture belonging to one of them, and I had still three hours in hand before I was obliged to leave at one o’clock. I spent them walking round my garden to see if anything was left of my plants and trees and on the lawn I found the three cages of the canaries just where I had left them at the time of my departure. The big garden seat is still at the foot of the garden. Despite the rain I wanted to make the most of my time so, with a full heart, I tore myself away from all that had once been my delight and, accompanied by the Belgian policeman I had been obliged by the authorities to bring as an escort, I took a melancholy walk round all the streets of the town, ending up at the water-tower. We went into an abandoned house while we waited for the men to finish loading and made a snack of some food which we had had the forethought to bring with us.
We left Ypres about half past one and arrived at Poperinghe at five in the evening, just twelve hours after leaving it. It had been some job! Nevertheless that evening I felt great satisfaction at having succeeded so well, and looked forward early next morning to sending a telegram to Uncle Liebaert to let him know that all his fortune had been retrieved intact. I spent the whole of Sunday in Poperinghe with friends I met there.
It took the whole morning running hither and thither to get my passports stamped for the return journey, and in the afternoon I went to see a servant of ours at Crombeke. At last, I set off at one o’clock on Monday for Hazebrouck and from there caught the train for Paris the following morning, arriving at seven in the evening.
After having placed Uncle’s possessions in his hands I took another train for Neuilly-Plaisance where, happy and pleased with my journey, I found the whole family at the station. I brought back a suitcase containing our jewellery and table silver which a fortnight earlier I had asked a friend, R. Clinckemaille, to dig up from our garden, because at the time I had not expected to be going to Ypres myself. My journey was not accomplished without difficulties on every side, but its result made quite a few people happy – and even more will be happier still when the war at last gives way to peace.
That time was a long way off, and it was just as well that van Nieuwenhove had managed to recover the hidden money and valuables, for living in Paris was expensive. It would be almost four years before he came again to Ypres, and by then it was almost razed to the ground. It had taken exactly seven days to accomplish his mission. He reached Paris on 19 July. In the Ypres salient, two hundred miles to the north, it was a day of notable excitement. They intended to blow up Hooge.
Major Cowan of 175 Tunnelling Company was in charge of the project, Lieutenant Cassels was in charge of the work, and a detachment of coal-miners, newly co-opted into the Royal Engineers, was responsible for actually doing it. They were not young men, they were untrained and, to say the least, unskilled in soldiering. They were also unused to marching and it had been a wearisome business getting them from the railhead to the front. But they were experienced miners and once they had reached the line and were given a job to do, they knew precisely how to do it. The pit-men were not particularly enjoying their strange surroundings and when the Germans shelled, which was most of the time, they were clearly happier underground – and that was all to the good, for the tunnels had to be dug at top speed and there was no time to be lost. After several false starts and many alarms the work was completed in less than a month. But there had been anxious moments.
Major S. H. Cowan.
A wire was brought to me saying that Cassels had heard mining under our own trenches. After convincing himself that the Germans were under us, he had reported to the infantry officer in command and had organised a retrenched line round their probable ‘crater’. It was too late to attempt to blow their mine as they were already under our feet. Cassels then withdrew his men – who are not trained soldiers – to Battalion Headquarters, then, on the advice of the Colonel, to their back billets. I consider he did right.
It would be pathetic, were it not so absolutely absurd, to count how many people there are who are willing to swear that the Germans have actually mined under our trenches from no other evidence than lying on the ground and listening to every blessed overground noise there is. One case we traced to a sentry kicking his heels together twenty yards away. Two other scares were traced, one to a nest of young rats, the second to a loose shutter in a ruin about a hundred and fifty yards away which kept on ‘dabbing’ irregularly in the wind. But I must own that everyone’s nerves are at their very worst between midnight and the very welcome dawn.
There is only one way of hearing real underground sounds and that is, dig down about six feet, then forward for about ten feet under your own parapet. Next, hang a curtain to shut out noises from your own people, who should be sent away for twenty yards or so. Then, at last, lie down and perhaps you’ll hear the Germans. If you do, it’s time to send for the Corps Travelling Company, but meanwhile, you’d better keep on listening, remembering all the time that so long as you do hear him you are safe. When he stops work all you can do is to clear out and wait, ready to rush his crater before he arrives.
It was one of many false alarms, but it was an understandable mistake, for the Germans were indeed working underground – but they were working beneath their own line, burrowing dug-outs and constructing the first of the concrete strongpoints they believed would make it impregnable. It was perfectly obvious to the German Command that their tenancy of the high ground around the salient would not go unchallenged for long. The British had tried once to wrest it back, and they would certainly try again. Since the capture of their old front line on the lower slopes of the ridge, the Germans had been working day and night. They had built a tangle of new trenches, strong and deep, looping back on themselves to form four-sided redoubts, girded with stout wire, and pushed forward to enclose the remnants of Hooge Chateau, left in No Man’s Land after the fight on 16 June. All that was left of the chateau was a few tumbled walls, little more than fifty yards from the furthest point of the British front line where it reached out round the ruins of the old stables. The chateau was the original objective, for it was suspected that the Germans would regard it as a stronghold. But every day, as his men worked in the lengthening tunnel below, Lieutenant Cassels made a point of visiting the front-line trench and peering through a periscope at the German line, looking for the tell-tale signs that would show that the ruins were being fortified. After several days of close observation, he concluded that they were not. But he spotted a still better target – two newly completed concrete redoubts, a little way apart, each big enough to hold a company, and pierced with threatening apertures, wide enough to provide machine-guns with a deadly field of fire.
The plans were changed, and the tunnel was diverted to run towards the new objective. It was to be a Y-shaped tunnel now, with a subsidiary arm running from the main passage and two chambers packed with explosive, one under each of the redoubts. But the time was short, the work was necessarily hasty, and on the left, the minor tunnel deviated so far from the second redoubt that the charge was bound to miss it altogether. This was a severe blow. There were only days to go. The plans had been made, and the infantry was standing by to follow up the explosion, to consolidate the crater while the enemy was still staggering from the shock, and by breaching his stoutest stronghold, to pave the way for the capture of the ridge.
In desperation, Cassels came up with a bold plan and managed to persuade his superiors to agree to it. He proposed to pack all the explosive into a single charge beneath one redoubt in the hope that the force of a single mighty explosion would also destroy the other. To make quite sure of success, it was also decided to use an explosive not commonly used by the Army. It was three times as powerful as gunpowder and, knowing perfectly well that there was a stock of it in France, Major Cowan sent an indent to GHQ for three and a half thousand pounds of ammonal.
This request caused consternation, and not a little puzzlement at GHQ. No one was familiar with ammonal and the indent was passed to the V Corps Quartermaster, with a request for clarification. He was equally at a loss, but he was struck by the idea of consulting the Medical Officer at Corps Headquarters, and the MO replied without hesitation. Ammonal, he informed the startled Quarter-master , was a sedative drug prescribed to subdue cases of abnormal sexual excitement. He added, thoughtfully, that so far as he knew, no such cases had yet occurred among V Corps troops.
This provided food for thought. It was hard to fathom why 175th Company was demanding almost two tons of the stuff, presumably for the use of its two hundred men! The Quartermaster might have been forgiven for wondering in bafflement what manner of men they were.
Further inquiries disclosed the difference between the use and effect of the explosive ammonal and the drug ammonol and cleared up the misunderstanding, but it all caused delay. The mine was to be fired just before the infantry attacked on 19 July. Three days before the deadline, the ammonal had still not arrived and Cassels frantically set about begging and borrowing whatever explosive he could lay hands on from neighbouring companies and local stores, which – for obvious reasons – did not hold large stocks of such dangerous material so close to the line. He scraped up less than fifteen hundred pounds, and although it contained a small quantity of ammonal, the rest was conventional gunpowder and gun-cotton – poor stuff by comparison. It was nowhere near enough, but the attack could not be postponed and it would have to do. But he doubted whether it would do the job. The miners worked all through the night of 16 July, pulling the heavy bags of explosive down the long tunnel, and tamping them into the chamber beneath the largest of the German redoubts. Next day when the long-awaited wagon-load of ammonal arrived, the probability of failure became in an instant the certainty of success, for now Cassels meant to use the lot, augmenting more than half a ton of explosive, already laid in the mine, by more than twice that quantity of three-times-as-powerful ammonal. It would be the heaviest mine ever fired in the war, possibly in history, and, fired at a depth of only twenty feet, no one was quite sure what the effect would be.
But Major Cowan stifled his qualms and Cassels set to work. In the afternoon of 19 July, with less than five hours to go before zero, he reported that the job was finished and the mine was ready to blow. Cowan immediately left for the line to see the show.
Major S. H. Cowan.
At 2.30 p.m. Hart and I set out. We motored to Ypres and left the car close to the old Lille gate. Then up by a road I’m seriously beginning to dislike. Luckily there was no shrapnel, but even before we got to the village (Zillebeke) we got into the belt of country where all the German bullets which come over the top of our parapets generally settle down – hence their name ‘overs’. It’s a funny sound, an ‘over’, a high-pitched whining buzz followed by a ‘whit’ into the earth or a louder noise against a tree or a wall. Shrapnel is my pet abomination when in the open. They are quite pretty to watch when their noise increases and then diminishes, but if it keeps on increasing most people prefer the view of a ditch dry or wet.
At Hooge I found everything all right, but everyone very excited. I tested our firing leads – they were OK – and gave my final orders to Cassels, then went back for a thousand yards to join the Brigadier whose men were to do the attack.
The charge was due to blow at seven o’clock just as the sun was sinking. The last few days had been showery but although it was a fine evening, Lieutenant Cassels was in no position to admire the sunset. Counting the minutes to zero as he crouched in a dug-out not far from the front line, he was waiting to fire the charge, when, with minutes to go, the worst happened. A German shell bursting close by ruptured the electrical leads that ran from the dug-out, down the shaft and along the tunnel to fire the mine. With trembling hands Cassels tested the leads. They tested negative.
It was the signaller-corporal scrabbling frantically round the edge of the smoking shell-crater who found the break, and it was providential that the leads were cut clean and were speedily mended. There was a minute to go now. Watching anxiously from Brigade Headquarters Major Cowan was sweating.
Major S. H. Cowan.
A shell arrived near the work, and for two centuries my hair stood on end. But in eight actual seconds there was a cloud of smoke and dirt five hundred feet high, and an explosion and a real shake, even under our very feet. Then Hell was let loose and for twenty minutes every gun we had made a curtain of fire just beyond our objective.
If the ground shook a thousand yards from the line it positively rocked beneath Cassels’s dug-out. He was stunned. The explosion was far greater than anything he had imagined. Tons of earth, bricks, stones, rose into the air. Uprooted trees whirled like matchsticks in the smoke. Bricks, timber, iron bars, whole slabs of concrete were tossed sky-high in a shower of splintered rifles and fragments of flesh and bones, and even the guns that immediately opened up could not muffle the crash and rumble of debris falling back round the colossal crater.
It was an awesome sight.