The crater was a hundred and twenty feet wide; it was twenty feet deep and the lip on the circumference was more than twice the height of an extremely tall man. The main redoubt was blown out of existence and the second was damaged and buried, just as Cassels had hoped. Unfortunately, the fountain of debris had also buried a dozen men of the 4th Middlesex waiting to dash forward to capture the crater, and waiting a little too far ahead. But the rest of their Company made it and the Brigade bombers were poised to dash ahead. Skirting the reeking crater almost before the debris had subsided, they disappeared into the smoke and pushed on, bombing their way through trenches, capturing strongpoints, sending back a few stunned prisoners, hurling grenades when they met opposition and driving the bemused Germans back three hundred yards. They advanced so rapidly that they ran beyond the protection of their own guns, and when the German bombardment thundering behind them threatened to cut them off they were forced to go back. There was no sign of anyone coming up to support them. In any event, they had run out of bombs.
It seemed as if every gun in Belgium was pouring fire on this one small corner at the head of the Ypres salient. But the British guns, firing hard, were no match for the enemy artillery. There was no hope of sending troops forward – no means of following up the bombers’ advance. Not all the bombers got back, and among several who did not, was Sergeant Allardyce of U Company. But the troops in the line held fast.
Sgt. A. Rule.
The Germans retaliated with great gusto. Their barrage wrecked our parapet in many places and caused heavy casualties – but their counter-attack failed. For the next three days our trenches were strafed continuously with missiles ranging from hand grenades to whizz-bangs and 5.9s. We were even peppered one evening with machine-gun bullets from two wicked-looking taubes as they flew back and forward along our front line. A huge Minenwerfer trained on the mine crater sent over its dreaded aeriel torpedoes until it was silenced by our artillery. Sniping went on continuously and there were frequent ‘wind ups’, and there at the extreme tip of the salient we were vulnerable to deadly enfilade fire and it often appeared as if we were being fired on from our own support trenches in the rear. Our parapets only consisted of a single thickness of sandbags, and shells bursting in the soft earth in front blasted them inwards. As soon as dusk fell we had to set to work repairing the breaches – generally under fire from a German machine-gun – and all the time we were digging for material to fill sandbags we were digging up dead bodies.
Despite the spectacular success of the mining operation the existence of the crater had not improved the position of the infantry. It had not been possible to capture more than the crater itself with bombing posts on either side and the trenches that tenuously linked them were awkwardly placed. It was difficult for the companies to keep in touch with each other, and much too easy to keep in touch with the enemy, now uncomfortably close in the uncaptured trenches which were almost a continuation of their own. The infuriated Germans were clearly determined to give no quarter, and the unfortunate Tommies who were taking the brunt of their displeasure were inclined to think that the blowing of the crater had been a good deal more trouble than it was worth.
The explosion had been heard for miles and ecstatic rumours flying round the villages behind the line had done a good deal to uplift the spirits of civilians on the eve of Belgian Independence Day. In peacetime it had been a national holiday and a day of celebration. This year, with seven-eighths of little Belgium under German occupation, ‘independence’ had a hollow ring, but there were flags outside a few houses and estaminets, there were services in village churches and the patriotic prayers had never been more fervent.
It was a far cry from the celebrations of peacetime when Independence Day had been the holiday of the year and country people flocked to the towns and larger villages to enjoy themselves. There were Te Deums in churches, there were parades and pageants, and there were travelling fairs set up in village squares. Town bands played, flags flew everywhere, and knots of ribbon in the national colours were worn in every button-hole or Sunday frock. Cafés and restaurants were packed with citizens celebrating the fete by consuming gargantuan meals, but enterprising restaurants set up stalls on the pavements and sold legions of sausages, mountains of shrimps, pancakes by the stack, and chips daubed with golden mayonnaise by the ton. Even if these delights were no more, at least the population in this small remaining corner of Belgian Flanders, racked and battered through it was by the war, were free to mark the occasion as they saw fit.
In German-occupied Belgium it was very different, and in anticipation of a possible surge of nationalistic feeling on Belgium’s national day, the occupying power had issued stern edicts and made it clear that severe penalties would be exacted if their orders were flouted. The Germans were particularly anxious to avoid demonstrations in Brussels where the civilian population was adept at finding subtle ways of cocking a snook at the authorities. There was the matter of the season of Wagnerian opera which had recently been held under official German patronage. Two years earlier, a similar event had brought all Brussels to the Théatre de la Monnaie and the operas had played to glittering houses for a full week. This time all Brussels had shunned it and, apart from a handful of German officers and their wives, the audiences stayed away. Even the ambassadors of neutral countries had refused official invitations with polite excuses and, to the fury of the German ‘Governor General’, the whole thing had been a flop. Brussels was not to be so easily placated for the many indignities its citizens had suffered at the hands of the invaders, and they kicked back in any way they could.
It was a point of honour not to keep Berlin time, and people obstinately continued to order their days by ‘l’heure des alliés’, one hour behind the hated ‘heure boche’ which had been imposed by the Germans in the first days of the occupation. Inevitably this caused confusion, especially since the proprietors of all public clocks were obliged to show Berlin time and, although the order could not be openly defied and it was explicitly forbidden to stop them altogether, the clocks of Brussels developed a bizarre tendency to run so fast or so slow that it was entirely pointless for passers-by to consult them. Only the clock of the Hotel de Ville (now occupied by the German Kommandatur) showed the ‘correct’ German time and this was a godsend to officials keeping appointments. It was the Spanish ambassador who conveniently noticed that to state a time according to I’heure de l’ Hotel de Ville could not offend the Germans because it was their time, and could hardly offend the Belgians because it was their clock.
After almost a year of occupation Brussels was a gloomy city. Food was scarce, spirits were low and the only entertainment to be found in the one-time ‘Paris of the north’ was the pastime of duping the Germans. As the day of the national fête approached peopleturned their minds to new ways of outwitting them. The Germans had already prohibited the flying of Belgian or Allied flags and the wearing of national colours, and on 18 July a new edict was posted up.
I warn the public that on July 21, 1915 demonstrations of all kinds are expressly and emphatically prohibited. Assemblies, parades, and the decoration of private buildings fall within the scope of this prohibition. The offenders will be liable to punishment of imprisonment not exceeding three months and a fine not exceeding 10,000 marks.
The Governor of Brussels,
Von Kräwel, Lieutenant-General.
But the Germans had not thought of everything. They had not forbidden the Belgians to wear flowers and the flower-vendors were out in force selling posies of red and yellow blooms which, worn in the lapel of a black frock-coat or pinned to a black dress, represented the colours of the Belgian flag. Almost everyone was in black, for Brussels was observing the occasion as a day of national mourning. Black-bordered handbills distributed clandestinely had mooted the idea and everyone took it up. Shops, cafés, restaurants, closed their doors, offices shut up for the day, householders drew their blinds and closed their shutters. Everyone went to church and in every parish the churches were full from early morning. This year there was no great Te Deum at the Cathedral of Ste Gudule, but the packed congregation heard high mass, and as it finished, the great organ began to play. It played the National Anthem, faintly at first, and people stood straining to listen, silent and a little unsure how they ought to react. And then the organist found his courage, pulled out the stops to give the great organ its voice, and began again. As the music of the ‘Brabançonne’ swelled and rolled round the cathedral the people went wild. They cheered, they laughed, they wept. They stood on chairs and called for their national anthem again and again, and when it began for the fourth or fifth time they joined in. They shouted rather than sang the words, and when they reached the last line – ‘Le Roi, la Loi, la Liberté’ – they positively raised the roof. The music tailed away but the people went on shouting: ‘Vive le Roi! Vive Belgique! Vive la Liberté!’ The atmosphere was electric, and it changed the mood of the day.
There was almost an air of carnival, just like old times, and it quickly spread. Now nobody wanted to stay indoors behind drawn blinds and soon it seemed that the entire population had thronged into the streets and parks. They ignored edgy parties of German troops, trailing machine-guns as they paraded the streets, and were careful not to provoke them. They jostled and chattered and laughed, they congregated round the statues of Belgium’s national heroes and removed their posies to pile around their pediments. It hardly mattered that the cafés were closed. The people of Brussels were already drunk on a heady cocktail of patriotism and defiance.
The shut-down in the city had infuriated the German authorities but their face-saving effort was belated and somewhat unimaginative in its conception. Late in the afternoon German soldiers were sent into the streets to post up yet another edict. It informed the citizens that, by order of the occupying power, the shops, cafés and restaurants in Brussels were to close on 21 July. It gave all Brussels a hearty laugh to cap the emotions of a satisfying day.*
The Belgian national fete had, not unnaturally, passed unnoticed in the trenches, although it ought to have been a day of celebration for the men of the 3rd Division who were due to be relieved. But the situation round Hooge was still fluid as the Germans relentlessly pounded the captured ground and it was thought best to postpone the relief for twenty-four hours. It was a night of teeming rain and the 4th Gordons were not happy. To crown the miserable day their relief was late and the men were exhausted long before it arrived.
Sgt. A. Rule.
For four days we hadn’t had more than two hours’ sleep at a time and there were a lot of cases of shell-shock among the men who were more highly strung.
Our relief was due at dusk, but the weary hours dragged on towards midnight and still there was no sign of it. The rain that had set in about midday became heavier and heavier and our spirits flagged with the increasing emptiness of our stomachs. When the long-expected relief finally did arrive, well after midnight, we were quite past caring what happened to us.
We were heavily shelled all the way out, some of the shell-bursts were so close that we could actually feel the vicious hot blast of the explosions and every blinding flash seemed to make the darkness even more intense than before, so that the column sagged and stumbled in all directions. We were still in the danger zone when dawn broke and although we were by now entirely dead beat we kept plodding along like automatons without a solitary breathing space. We picked up our company pipers at Kruistraat, but our progress along the Vlamertinghe Road was more of a stagger than a march – we scarcely knew whether the pipes were playing or not. I was parched with thirst and I vividly remember sucking the moisture from the lapel of my greatcoat, which was saturated by the teeming rain. At times I actually fell asleep on the march and, imagining that the files in front of me had performed a right wheel, I would wake up with a start to find myself in a ditch by the side of the road and the column going on straight ahead!
Our first halt came at Vlamertinghe and after that nightmare journey of six miles that had taken us six hours, a drink of water tasted like the nectar of the gods! We covered the last two miles to Brandhoek at a more respectable pace, and in a final supreme effort we even attempted to double to get into camp ahead of another company that had left the trenches an hour earlier. But it was beyond us!
Our camping ground was sodden and cheerless, but our weary company, with faces haggard and drawn in the morning light, lay down prepared to sleep anywhere and in any position! It was just my luck to be detailed as company mess orderly with another companion in misfortune! By the time breakfast duties were over we were both fairly shivering with cold. Having no groundsheet or blankets, we attempted a lugubrious duet outside the QM store – ‘If the sergeant drinks your rum, n—e—ver mind…’ – but we only got curses in reply. So there was nothing for it but to lie down on the cold wet ground and keep on shivering until the sun rose. Eventually it warmed our chilled bodies and we slept like logs.
It had been their worst stint yet. Late in the day when the Battalion medical officer held a sick parade a long straggling queue of men waited to consult him with a string of ailments. There were men whose feet were blistered and painfully swollen after the long wetmarch in boots and socks they had worn for almost a week. There were men with high temperatures, men with sore throats, men with cuts and scratches, even a few who had been lightly wounded by flying shell splinters on the way out. But there were not many malingerers, for the MO had the reputation of being a hard man and lead-swingers got short shrift. He was as tired as his patients after four gruelling days in the line dealing with a steady stream of casualties, and too tired perhaps to recognise a case of shell-shock. The shell-shocked boy had queued up with the rest, but when his turn eventually came and he stood pallid and trembling in front of the MO he was incapable of describing his symptoms and Captain Maclaren’s glare was not calculated to reassure him. All he could do was gibber and eventually blurt out what was certainly the least of his troubles, I’ve lost my hat, sir. My hat! I’ve lost it. It’s my hat…’ They heard Maclaren’s roar two fields away. ‘And what do you take me for! A bloody milliner? Get out before I have you put on a charge!’
The MO’s own nerves were none too good, but a few days’ rest would work wonders. At least they were out of it for a while and it was enough to live for the moment, away from the grinding anger of the guns, the splutter of machine-guns, the incessant vigilance of enemy snipers, the constant apprehension of an enemy attack. Even the toughest of them were thankful for the respite.
The 14th Division had taken over the line round Hooge and across the Bellewaerde Ridge. For some of these Kitchener men it was their first experience of the trenches and, although Corporal Willie Lowe was a reservist, his last experience of active service had been in South Africa more than a dozen years before. Until now his company had escaped trench-duty, though the men had grumbled mightily about fatigues, but compared to the other men in his section Lowe was an old hand.
Cpl. W. F. Lowe, 10th Bn., Durham Light Infantry, 43 Brig., 14 Div.
I had to hold a barrier on the railway and, as we had sixty-seven whizz-bangs over even before our Captain visited us, ration carrying in retrospect assumed new and tremendous advantages. When daylight came, a further novelty was introduced by persistent sniping from the Huns. When the rations came in we learned the cheerful history of the post from the men who brought them up. The last corporal in charge there had his head blown off and seven men were maimed – then another lance-corporal and five men were killed or wounded.
‘One shell,’ they said. ‘They’ve got the range to an inch. Wouldn’t let us stop here!’ Well, when they heard that, the change in my men was laughable. It was a ‘post’ when we first arrived. Now they decided it was a ‘guard’, and on a guard they should be relieved at such and such a time after so many hours. However, I compromised by putting as many as possible into the trenches at either side and keeping only the sentries and myself at the barrier. In the little I’ve seen of fighting, the dangerous post is the safest – it’s the getting to and fro where the peril is – so I slept and ate and lived as close to my post as possible.
Rain fell heavily all night, and the day following it rained shells as well! In the afternoon they got my poor old shelter. The sand and bits of bag covered me, my tea, the ‘McConachie’ ration, and my best pipe which I’d laid on the butt of my rifle while I was eating. I regret to say that it’s buried there yet! The weary vigil crept on till about half past three in the morning. Then the whole barrier seemed to lift and we were almost smothered with sand and dust and terrible fumes.
You need an unnaturally callous nature to live under shell-fire. You can stand it for a while – especially if you are engaged in work that requires any concentration of thought, but the men whose minds were on nothing else really suffered. They ducked badly at even the furthest-off shell and looked very nerve-worn and jumpy. For the next two nights, just for a change, we suffered most from rifle fire and we were warned that our company was to make a charge to stop this. Lieutenant Peate asked me to go over the parapet and locate the wire and arrange for cutting a road.
I noticed the grass was long, so that there was little risk once I got safely over the parapet. I got the men to lay sandbags to make steps, and then I just ran up them and jumped over. Well! If it had been arranged for a cinema film it couldn’t have been better timed. A shell burst just as I landed and blew me back against the parapet. I thought a giant had given me a thundering kick in the chest, and it was a while before I came round (afterwards I found I had splinters in my wrist, my head and my right boot). Lance-corporal Nelson came out and brought me in and later on when I was feeling better I went out and followed the wire right round. But we had no need to move after all, because the Germans were pushed back slightly on our left and the tables were turned a bit. We were relieved that night by the Ox and Bucks. I didn’t trouble to tell the corporal who relieved me all the trouble there had been. I just informed him, quite truthfully, that we had lost no men at the post!
But there was a far worse ordeal in store for the battalions who were moving up to relieve them. The Germans had been biding their time. Knowing very well that a garrison was at its weakest during and just after a relief, they were waiting for this precise moment to make a determined effort to recover their lost ground. They reasoned that it could hardly fail, for they had a new weapon to sweep the British out of Hooge. It was their intention to roast them alive with liquid fire.
They had had no difficulty in surmising when the relief would take place, and to judge when troops who had not had time to settle down and were unfamiliar with the ground would present far less opposition than soldiers who had been in the line and on the alert for days. Even so early in the war the Germans were far more technically advanced in the use of wireless and were easily able to overhear British plans and dispositions by tapping into their communications. They knew to the hour and the minute when the relief was due to take place, and they also knew that their adversaries of recent weeks would be replaced by inexperienced troops. Having laid their plans they settled down to wait. It was the night of 29 July and, as the relief marched up to take over the trenches, it was ominously quiet.
2nd Lt. G. V. Carey, A Coy., 8th Bn., Rifle Brigade, 41 Brig., 14 Div.
I remember having a strong presentiment as I plodded up to the line that night that I should never come back from it alive. (In the event I was the only officer in my company to survive the next twenty-four hours.) We had two or three miles to cover before we reached the line, with the delays inevitable to troops moving over strange ground in the dark, and the difficulty of getting into the broken-down trenches while the 7th Battalion was getting out of them was even greater. I remember feeling certain that the tramp of feet and the clatter of rifles must have given the show away. I need not have worried – we knew afterwards that the Boche learned from more reliable sources when a relief was to take place! There was very little shelling on the way up – for which we were duly thankful! – but the absence of snipers’ bullets as we filed up the communication trench from Zouave Wood was more surprising, and the silence after we got into the line became uncanny.
About an hour after we were settled in and the last of the 7th Battalion had disappeared into the darkness I decided that a bomb or two lobbed over into the Boche trench running close to my own near the crater might disturb him if he were up to mischief. So I got one of the bombers to throw over a hand grenade which looked as if it carried about the right length. It exploded well. We waited. No reply. He sent over two more. ‘This ought to rouse them,’ we said. But again, no reply. There was something sinister about this. It was now about half an hour before dawn and the order for the usual morning ‘stand-to’ came through from the Company Commander. I started on the extreme right of my bit of the line to ensure that all my men were lining the trench with their swords fixed. Working down gradually I decided to go on along the stretch of trench which bent back from the German line almost in the form of a communication trench. There were servants and some odd men from my platoon in so-called ‘shelters’ along there, and I wanted to make sure that these people who are apt to be forgotten at ‘stand-to’ were all on the alert. Just as I was getting to the last of these there was a sudden hissing sound, and a bright crimson glare over the crater turned the whole scene red. As I looked I saw three or four distinct jets of flame, like a line of powerful fire-hoses spraying fire instead of water, shoot across my fire-trench. For some moments I was utterly unable to think. Then there was a terrific explosion and almost immediately afterwards one of my men with blood running down his face stumbled into me coming from the direction of the crater. Then every noise under Heaven broke out! There were trench mortars and bombs in our front trench, machine-guns firing, shrapnel falling over the communication trenches and over the open ground between us and the support line in Zouave Wood and high explosive shells all round the wood itself.
It was impossible to get up the trench towards the crater, so I got out of the trench to try to get a better idea of the situation. The first thing I saw was men jumping over the edge of the crater in C Company’s trench and, deciding that they must be Boches, I told the few survivors of my platoon to open fire on them, which they promptly did. But by this time the Boches were in my bit of trench as well, and we saw that my handful of men couldn’t possibly get back into it, and it was a death-trap to stay where we were under a shrapnel barrage. MacAfee, our Company Commander, had rushed up for a hasty consultation, and he reluctantly gave the order for me to get the remnant of my platoon back to the support line. About a dozen men of 2 Platoon were all that I could find, and we started back over the open. (Those who had faced the flame attack were never seen again.)
A retirement is a miserable business, but I have nothing but praise for the men in this one. There was nothing approaching a run, and every few yards they lay down and fired at any Boches we could see coming over into our line. There was a matter of four hundred yards of open ground to cover under a regular hail of machine-gun and shrapnel fire, and I’ve always marvelled how anyone got over it alive! As it was, most of my fellows were wounded during that half-hour’s retirement, if not before. Eventually I literally fell into the main communication trench about twenty yards ahead of our support line. It must have been then about half past four in the morning.
Β Company was in support and their OC, Cavendish, when he learned that our front line was lost, suggested that we should there and then build a barricade in the communication trench – for we still expected that the Boche would come on. So my small party set to, using sandbags from the side of the trench and it was rather ticklish work when it came to the upper part of the barricade, because the Boche was firing shrapnel very accurately and there were a lot of rifle and machine-gun bullets flying about.
But the men in the support trenches behind us were having a worse time – they were being heavily bombarded. We continued to stand by our barricade. I borrowed a rifle and tried to do a bit of sniping and we could see the Boche throwing up the earth inourfront line. It now looked as if he were going to stay there! About an hour and a half later Mac came back with the grievous news that Michael Scrimgeour (commanding 3 Platoon) had been killed while reorganising his men in the wood. He also began to fuss about my wound, and eventually gave me a direct order to go back to the dressing station. I had to go – and that was the last I saw of poor MacAfee. He was killed that afternoon leading his men in the counter-attack.
The immediate small-scale counter-attacks were only partly successful. Despite the unexpectedness and horror of the attack the survivors rallied, and men of the 7th King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who had been attacked in their turn, charged back into the carnage, into the stench of oil and smoke and burnt flesh, and fought across the charred bodies of their comrades to wrench back the remnants of part of the trench-line they had lost on the fringes of the attack.
By some miracle the Germans had stopped to consolidate and, at least for the moment, they made no attempt to press on. There was time to reorganise. Time to send for help.
News of the disaster spread quickly.
Major S. H. Cowan.
30th July. On the way to 8th Brigade about 8 a.m., Hart and I were stopped. No traffic through Ypres – and why? Roads had to be kept clear for troops on their way to make a counterattack. But where? Hooge, he thought! The first thing was to impress on the sentry that being an officer of the Corps Staff (which was a lie!) I was not affected by the order. That was quickly accomplished. And now to think. Well, I knew that our Corps had shifted a little southward leaving one of Kitchener’s divisions to the 6th Corps who now embraced Hooge – and I had my own opinion of that Division.
Arrived at 8th Brigade, and Hoskyns told me the truth and we had a swearing trio with Macready (Staff Captain). The facts were: we had been booted out, not only from the biggest hole in Belgium which cost Hoskyns four hundred good men and me six weeks of anxiety, but right off the top of the knoll we’d always had and which we had fortified on all sides, and right back into the edge of the wood itself! The stories were: an attack by liquid fire, etc. etc. But none of us know of a spray that can throw twenty yards and every bomber can do thirty. The inference is that the whole blessed lot were caught half asleep, fell into a panic and ran. A real bad show. And the worst of it was that at the bottom of our hearts we could not feel very much surprised. But I know that if the 8th Brigade had been left there it would not have happened.
Later we had fine view of the bombardment for a counterattack – which we learnt later, failed. We were not a cheery party by any means.
It was hardly fair. No troops on earth could have stood fast, engulfed in clouds of oily fumes, scorched by jets of searing flame. No measure of experience, no infinite amount of courage, no steadfastness of resolution could have prevailed against the unexpected horror of liquid fire. No soldiers could have advanced more gallantly when the order came to counter-attack – and in such circumstances no counter-attack could possibly have succeeded.
The order for a general attack arrived in mid-morning from Divisional Headquarters, and the instructions were explicit. It was to start at 2.45 p.m. Fresh troops were already on their way to follow in support, but after a bombardment of forty-five minutes the 8th Rifle Brigade, now holding the edge of Zouave Wood, was to advance across the ground it had lost to retake Hooge. It was easy to understand the thinking of the Divisional Commander, for it was obvious that reinforcements rushed at top speed to the line could not possibly change places in the time available with the troops who had been stricken by the attack in the morning. It was equally plain to Brigadier Nugent, frantically trying to reorganise his shocked troops on the spot, that the 8th Battalion was a battalion no longer.Such men as were left were at the end of their strength, and apart from the survivors of a few ragged platoons, the ‘battalion’ now consisted of little more than one organised company. Nugent wired a strong protest to divisional HQ: ‘In my opinion situation precludes counter-attack by day. Counter-attack would be into a re-entrant and would not succeed in face of enfilade fire.’ His protest was overruled. It was essential to make a general attack as speedily as possible before the Germans tried to push on, or even the woods might be lost. The Brigadier was ordered to proceed.
Angry and sick at heart, he issued the order, knowing full well that it was fore-doomed to failure, and knowing also, as he later wrote, that:
The utilisation in the forefront of a spent battalion that, on top of the heavy fatigue of a relief, had been fighting throughout the remainder of the night, had obtained no rest, and had been without food and water since coming into the line was, to speak mildly, a serious error of judgement – for the quality of dash, so essential in such an operation, could hardly fail to be lacking.
The ‘quality of dash’ was not entirely lacking, for the men went forward behind their officers in a way that astonished the Brigadier. But ‘dash’ was not enough. Most of them were cut down by machine-guns as they started across the open ground. The few who were left when the attack fizzled out were brought out of the line that night. Kitchener’s Army had been well and truly blooded. The total casualties were close to two and a half thousand, and the 41st Brigade alone had lost fifty-five officers and almost twelve hundred men. When the remnants limped out of the line at dusk the 43rd Brigade went in to take its place.
The 10th Durhams had been resting for two days in a camp near Poperinghe.
Cpl. W. F. Lowe.
My time was mostly spent teaching the scouts and snipers sketching, and how and what to report, and how to develop their powers of observation. They quite enjoyed it (it certainly gave great satisfaction to the officers) and the lessons might have led to useful results – had the men not met so early with unfortunate ends. As it was, our class was interrupted on the 30th by a ‘stand-to’ and another exhausting, heavily laden, rush back to Ypres and up to the trenches.
All night we endured heavy shelling, and the next day was just one long bombardment. I’d had difficulty in keeping men in their firing bays before, but never to such an extent as this day. As soon as a parapet is overturned they flock into the next, and then the next, until, of course, when a shell does reach them, the casualties are really excessive because they’re all crowded together. I can’t see why a German gunner would select a battered bay when whole ones are standing, yet you can’t get the men to remain after ‘she’s been blown in’.
Crowding is bad. Lance-Corporal Nelson rushed into my section with the most awful expression of horror on his face I’ve ever seen in my life, and he shouted at me, ‘I’ve shot Lance-Corporal Fidler!’ Now, Lance-Corporal Fidler was his best friend! Nelson was wounded himself, and he was far too agitated to know what I was saying, or even to understand what he was saying himself. What had happened no one can tell but, if he did shoot them, it seems possible that he happened to be wounded just as he was loading his rifle, and the rifle went off and the bullet passed through Lance-Corporal Carling’s brain, then touched the wood or sandbag on top of the dug-out and entered Lance-Corporal Fidler’s arm, then his thigh, and then went into Private Jenning’s leg, andthen into another man’s stomach!
Again I pointed out the folly of crowding into so-called ‘shelter’. By now whole stretches of the trenches were levelled and deserted and any in our section that still had any appearance of shelter would soon have been crowded out, had I not stood at the worst end and forced back the men (and NCOs too!) of other regiments who tried to get in. We’d been reinforced (never mind by whom, I’d rather not say!) and the new regiment was all mixed up with ours. This is bad, very bad! However, by now my men were aroused and would let no one through. They could crowd in their own sections as they liked, but budge we wouldn’t!
When we were relieved I was surprised to find I could hardly walk. I’d had no sleep and now that all the excitement was over I felt done up. I was warned to attend an inquiry into charges of ‘sleeping on duty’ made against several of our men. An officer had been down the trench and found no one awake. I cannot say whether the inquiry was held or not. Most of these men were wounded or killed in the afternoon – but I should have been delighted to attend. From my diary I could prove that the men had only been allowed twenty-two hours’ sleep in eight days. The Captain had aroused me myself at 4 a.m. and without a rifle or hat – and you should never take your equipment off in the trenches! I stood sleeping on my feet, my head resting on my arms folded on the parapet. When he woke me I had absolutely no idea where I was!
Far more work would be done in such a restricted area by dividing the men into two ‘shifts’. The ‘off-shift’ should be left severely alone to make the best of what poor sleep they can get. The ‘on-shift’ would be fresh and alert for work or fighting. As it is, the wakened men are a nuisance, and a positive danger. The nervous start banging away without inquiry, the dazed wander into the way, and the rest ask absurd questions, which is natural when people are suddenly alarmed from a sound sleep. Six cool well-rested men are worth forty startled into action!
They had stayed for almost a week in the battered line round Hooge, grimly digging in and sheltering as best they could from shell-fire that hardly stopped, for the Germans were alert and determined to thwart any ideas the British might entertain of renewing the attack. But the British Command had belatedly learned the lesson that hasty improvisation would not do and that only a well-organised and well-prepared assault could succeed in pushing the enemy out of Hooge and winning back ‘the biggest hole in Belgium’, but they had no intention of entrusting it to the inexperienced volunteers of Kitchener’s Army.
This calumny was as ill judged as it was unjust. Like the Territorials before them, Kitchener’s volunteers had proved that they were no weaklings. The criticism muttered in high places did not reach the ears of the rank and file, and it would not have worried them greatly if it had. They knew they had done their best. They had received high praise and even rare expressions of admiration from the senior officers on the spot, not least from Brigadier-General Nugent. And they had stuck it out. Best of all, one of their number had won the Victoria Cross – the first in the New Army. And the New Army was not a little proud of it.*
When the Regulars of the 6th Division took over the line and managed to recover Hooge, Kitchener’s Army did not grudge them their victory.