The Somme Again
Thursday, 13th. We had to go through gas this morning, both lachrymatory and chlorine. This afternoon Lt.-Col. McKenzie, who used to command the 61st. Bn. at Wareham and Fovant, and who is now commandant of this camp, gave us a lecture about the looting that is going on near the front, and the need for stern repressive measures by all officers, also about the misconduct and drunkenness of some officers while in France.
Went out for a walk towards Montvilliers this evening. Felt very unhappy and worried over certain considerations which kept forcing themselves upon my mind, and which even the knowledge of Dorothy's love and devotion could not dispel.
Friday, 14th. Was given my first batch of letters to censor this morning. We paraded at ten o'clock, went a short distance away from the camp and sat down on a grassy bank. I put in the time sketching a bit of the landscape.
Put in the afternoon completing the sketch of Andover church that I commenced some time ago. It turned out better than I had expected, but as usual I put too much cloud in the sky. Finished it this evening.
Wrote to Dorothy. We will probably leave here tomorrow to rejoin our units. There is quite an epidemic of influenza here at present, and already 39 officers have been sent to hospital with it. It is probably the same epidemic which swept across Spain recently and is expected to travel over the whole of Europe. Having had a touch of it about a month ago, I will probably be immune from it now.
Saturday, 15th. Got a notice that kits were to be at the crossroads by ten o'clock, so packed up my things and took them down. Got notice of leaving this afternoon.
We left about half-past four, being conveyed in charabancs to the entraining point at Le Havre. The train did not leave till eight o'clock. Commenced a letter to Dorrie while waiting.
The four of us in my compartment played auction bridge till about eleven.
Sunday, 16th. Roused out about eight this morning. The warm sunshine lit up the plains of Picardy, brilliant with fields of scarlet poppies and bright blue cornflowers, as dazzling and beautiful as when we marched down to the Somme in July 1916, before Pozières.
We detrained at Canaples, and the 2nd. division draft went from there to Bertrancourt, a few miles away, where our reinforcement camp is stationed. Got in a very nice billet, with a room to myself and a comfortable bed to sleep in. Met some of our old 24th. Bn. officers who happened to be staying at the nucleus, including Captain Ball, Captain Menzies, and Colonel James. Heard that Edgerton got the D.S.O. in the last stunt. Colonel James also got the D.S.O. recently.
Finished letter to Dorrie this afternoon. Lay down on my bed and went to sleep, and was, in consequence, late for dinner.
Monday, 17th. Wrote to Mum and Dad. Left Bertrancourt this afternoon with the 6th. Brigade drafts for our units. We went in motor lorries, through Vignacourt, and through the outskirts of Amiens, which place does not seem to have suffered very badly from shellfire so far, though here and there a house was in ruins.
Found our battalion dug-outed along a terrace in the side of a hill near Querrien, in reserve for a couple of weeks. Reported to Hqrs., and afterwards went to the Post Office hut and got a couple of letters from my dear little girl that were waiting there for me. One of them was the second of the two missing letters that I should have got at Fovant, the first one probably having also come here and been sent back to England again. This one had the "Esq." crossed out, and "4877, Pte." added before the name, so it has evidently been confused with some Pte. Smythe belonging to this battalion. The other letter was written on the day I left England, and finished the next day, in reply to mine written the day before leaving and the one I wrote from Southampton. It was a very nice loving letter.
Had dinner at Hqrs., and was afterwards allotted to my old company, "A". Went to the R.Q.M. Store to collect my belongings, but the black kitbag, containing practically all of my belongings, was missing, and I could find no trace of it anywhere.
Tuesday, 18. Glorious fine day. Had charge of the company for drilling this morning, only about 30 men after the Lewis gun trainees were called out.
This afternoon, while we were at the baths in Querrien, a Hun `plane suddenly swooped down out of a cloud and set one of our observation balloons on fire. The two observers jumped out, but one of the parachutes failed to open. Heard later that the man whose parachute didn't open fell in a tree, and thus escaped injury.
Made enquiries about my kitbag, and finally ascertained that it had not been put on the 24th. Bn. transport car at Bertrancourt. The batman who had attended to my things at the nucleus went around to the 22nd. and 21st. battalions, but could find no trace of it, and I rang up the 21st battalion and Brigade Hqrs. with the same result. Mr. Sellick said he would wire through to Wing Hqrs. at Bertrancourt to try and find out if it had been left there. If I don't recover it, it may cost me anywhere between twenty and thirty pounds to replace the contents, besides causing me no end of inconvenience.
Got another letter from Dorrie today, and one for Viv from Aunt Lydia, which I opened by mistake, not having looked at the address when it was handed to me. Also got a March letter from Mum, and one from Viola, and a receipt from Carter and Son, Salisbury, for the 10/- I sent them.
Wrote a long letter to my dear little sweetheart this morning.
Wednesday, 19th. Raining today. Mess dug-out leaking a treat. Wrote to Viv and enclosed Aunt Lydia's letter. Also wrote to Viola, Ida, Rita, Beattie Bostock, Vera Billingham, May Curtain, and Miss Burke. Packed up sketch of Andover church and sent it to Dorrie to keep for me. Got another nice little letter from her today, written the day after the last one she wrote.
Thursday, 20th. Wrote to Clytie, Jean, and Doris, and also to my own dear girl. Mr. Sellick has had no reply from Wing Hqrs., and advised me to go over there and make personal enquiries.
Friday, 21st. Wrote to Ettie Cunynghame. Got leave to go to Bertrancourt this afternoon. Got a motor lorrie to near Amiens, walked through the outskirts of the town, and picked up another lorry, which took me as far as St. Leger, whence I walked the few remaining miles to Bertrancourt. Made exhaustive enquiries, but could find no trace of the kitbag. The Q.M. store assistant assured me that none of the officers' gear dumped there had been left behind.
Had a meal of eggs and bread and butter at a French place. Bought a few necessary articles, hairbrush, boot-brush, writing block, notebook, and other things. Got a Y.M.C.A. car to Vignacourt and a motor lorrie from there to Amiens, and finished up with a Red Cross car back to Querrien. It had turned out a wet and miserable evening.
Wrote to Mrs. Tanner.
Vignacourt, France. An unidentified Australian soldier standing in a village street.
Note the two wagons on the left. AWM
Saturday, 22nd. Wrote to Eliza Prigg, Maggie Elliott, and Aunt Lydia. Warned this afternoon to report to the 6th. Aust. Engineers Coy for a few days' course of instruction. Shifted over to their camp on the opposite side of Querrien. They were having some great revellings in the mess, some of our officers, Sedgwick, Clough, and Boyd, being over there on a visit. Whisky flowed pretty freely, and a number of them soon became rather inebriated. Then they began to amuse themselves with foul yarns, so I got up to go. I think they were expecting that, for they greeted my departure with a general roar of laughter.
Wrote to cousin Flora. Got a nice loving letter from my dear little girl today, with a note from Betty enclosed.
Sunday, 23rd. Wrote to cousin Eileen and to Mrs. Morgan, also to Olive Watts. Went out for a ride with the major and another subaltern on horses, inspecting bridges that were mined ready for blowing up in case of necessity.
Decided to go to each of the other three battalions personally in an endeavour to trace my kitbag. Enquired at the 21st battalion R.Q.M. store, but there was no sign of it there. Then I hunted up the 22nd. battalion, and to my great delight the missing kitbag was there, with a number of unclaimed packs. It was a great relief to have it back again.
Wrote to Dorothy this evening, and sent a postcard to Betty.
Monday, 24th. Had expected a letter from Dorrie today, but was disappointed.
Tuesday, 25th. No letter from Dorrie again today. Very disappointed. We are to go up in to close reserve on Friday.
Wednesday, 26th. Letter from Dorothy this afternoon, written last Thursday. She had been unwell on Monday and Sunday and on Wednesday had spent the afternoon and evening with Beatrice, her brother and his girl, and the Stanmore's, George Smith having come to spend a day of his leave at Andover.
Wrote to Dorrie this evening. Finished up with the 6th. Field Coy. A number of Hun planes came over tonight and dropped some bombs about this locality. One of the bombs must have been a very big one, judging by the terrific explosion it made. One fell somewhere near our lines, for it made the ground shake somewhat.
Thursday, 27th. Got two parcels today, one from Eliza Prigg containing a nice pair of sox, and one from my dear little girl with some chocolate, which was jolly nice of her to send. Commenced writing a letter to Mum and Dad. We made arrangements tonight about the move to Blangy-Tronville tomorrow.
Friday, 28th. We left about half-past eight, and arrived at our quarters, of the semi-dugout type in a terrace embankment near Blangy-Tronville, at about eleven o'clock. We are now about seven kilometres from the front line, that is, a little over four miles.
Finished letter to Mum and Dad.
A daring German just a while ago flew over our lines at a low altitude, so low in fact that the observer was plainly visible as the machine darted along amid the rattle of dozens of machine guns that were let loose on him. But he seemed to sail serenely through the hail of bullets and the bursting "archies", some of which got very close to him. However, before he got a mile away, he gradually came down to earth, the engine probably having been stopped by a bullet or else the driver wounded.
Got a nice letter from Dorrie, enclosing one she had had from Elsie.
Saturday, 29th. Spent a rather wakeful night on account of the Hun planes, which were pretty active. All night long the air was full of their buzzing and droning, punctuated at intervals by ugly explosions from the bombs they dropped.
Slept in till ten this morning. Went for a swim in the lagoon close by after breakfast. Went over to the chateau beyond Blangy this afternoon, to sketch the clock tower, which had been struck by a shell.
Received a lovely long letter from my darling little girl this evening, enclosing one she had received from George Pike, and a letter Beatrice had sent for me to deliver to Morcom. Also got a nice letter from Mum, dated April, 7th. She had got Bert's insurance money, £188, and paid £190 off the mortgage on the home.
Wrote a long letter to Dorrie, but had to leave it unfinished at half-past eleven, as the evening bombing planes were beginning to come over.
Sunday, 30th. Finished letter to Dorrie, and enclosed a note for Mrs. Banks, thanking her for a scarf she has given Dorrie for me. Added a postscript to the letter I had written to Olive Watts last Sunday and had not posted.
Copied sketch of "Dawson Girl" in the Strand Magazine, and wrote to the Practical Correspondence College for prospectus and terms.
Enjoyed a pleasant dip in the lagoon this evening. Today has not seemed like a Sunday, as there has been nothing to distinguish it from any other day.
Monday, 1st. Finished sketch of the chateau clock tower, touching it up with black watercolour paint to bring out the contrasts.
Enjoyed a lovely swim in the lagoon this afternoon, it being a very warm day and making a dip very acceptable.
Got a very nice letter from my dear little girl. She was rather worried over the Trotman affair. Dorrie's letter enclosed one to her from Mrs. Morgan. It was a very nice letter. She mentioned something about Viv being in hospital, but that it was nothing serious.
Paid this evening, £7-6-8 (200 francs). Sent for three £1 postal notes, one to send to Viv in payment of the remainder of my debt to him, and the other two for Dorothy, so that she will be able to have a trip to Exeter when she gets her holidays.
Wrote a long letter to Dorrie. Had to leave it unfinished at half-past eleven, as a Hun plane came on the scene dropping bombs, and therefore it was necessary to "douse the glimmer".
Tuesday, 2nd. Finished letter to Dorrie. Added postscript to the letter I had written to Viv about a week ago, and which I had not posted.
As the lagoon water is getting rather stirred up and muddy, we went for a swim in the river (the Somme) instead this afternoon. The current was too strong to swim against it, so we walked some distance up along the bank, and swam down with the current.
Afterwards all the officers had to assemble at Bn. H.Q. for operation orders in connection with the advance that is to take place on the left of Villers-Brettonneux. Three brigades are taking part in it, one each from the 2nd., 3rd., and 4th. divisions. The advance is to be on a front of about three miles, to a maximum depth of about 11/2 miles, including the village of Hamel. The 6th. brigade will be on the right, nearest to Villers-Brettonneux, the 21st and 23rd. battalions doing the actual "hop over", and the 22nd. and 24th. forming supports and reserves. "A" and "D" coys. of this battalion will be right back at the Villers system of trenches, and have to provide carrying parties to take forward Stokes mortar bombs. Unless it is necessary to call in the reserves, we will take no part in the actual fighting, but will probably be occupied in bringing prisoners and wounded to the rear. We are almost sure to come in for a fair bit of shelling at the Villers System, probably with big stuff.
The company commanders were instructed to go up this evening and make a reconnaissance of the positions they will have to take up tomorrow night, so I asked to be allowed to go up with Captain Mahony, in order to get some grasp of the situation, the conditions of warfare having changed somewhat since I left France the last time.
After tea we got horses at the H.Q., Captain Ball coming too for "D" coy. I had a good horse and a comfortable saddle, and it was a perfect evening for riding, a nice fresh breeze blowing across the hills. We went up to the left of Villers-Bretonneux, looking for the Villers system of trenches. Came across the 17th. Bn. Hqrs, and I was just thinking of enquiring after Roy McPhee, when I caught sight of Roy himself. Didn't have time to stay long talking to him.
We found the Villers system at last, and had a look over the trenches. There were some deep dug-outs, and plenty of small ones with shelter from the weather. Aeroplane Dump, from which the Stokes bombs have to be taken forward, was near at hand, and probably derived its name from the skeleton framework of a burnt aeroplane which had came to grief there.
While we were there, a few shells exploded on the ridge a couple of hundred yards to our left, but none came very near us.
On the way back I met Miller, of the 20th Bn., who was in my platoon in the 61st. Bn. at Wareham and Fovant about a year ago. He said Ritchie was there also, and going strong. Also met several of the late cadets from Cambridge.
We called in at the Abbe, and had supper with "B" coy. Got back to Blangy about half-past eleven.
Wednesday, 3rd. Packed up my kitbag and pack. Wrote to Mum and Dad. We were notified that zero hour for the attack tomorrow morning is 3.10a.m.
Got a nice letter from Dorothy. She had heard from Viv. He was spending six days' leave at Mrs. Morgan's, and intended coming down to Andover last Saturday night and staying over Sunday. Got my gear ready for departure to the trenches. Took web belt and braces, with revolver, haversack, water bottle, and overcoat rolled in waterproof sheet and fastened to back of equipment.
We had just sat down to dinner, about seven o'clock, when a few loud reports and a burst of machine gun fire seemed to suggest the proximity of enemy aircraft. Roy Boyd got up and went to the door. An exclamation from him brought the rest of us to the door to see what was doing. Two German aeroplanes had swooped down out of the clouds upon one of our observation balloons, firing as they came. But their fire had not taken effect, and now they had to get for their lives, pursued by bursting shrapnel and machine gun fire. One of the balloon observers had jumped out with his parachute, doubtless in anticipation of trouble, and seemed to hang suspended away up there in mid-air, a pretty sight, like an ant clinging to a tiny white umbrella.
I dived into our dug-out for my field glasses, and came out just as the Hun `planes were disappearing from view over the top of the terrace. Scrambled up the steep bank to the top, and just then a great lusty cheer arose from all the hillsides, as one of the enemy `planes burst into flames and sank rapidly toward the ground. Got my glasses on to the other machine, which had evidently been hit, for it was sinking downwards uncontrolled like a falling leaf and a few seconds later it crashed to earth in Abbe wood.
By this time the man from the balloon had drifted over towards our lines, and the breeze kept him swinging back and forth to a rather risky degree. Through the glasses, however, he looked quite unconcerned, holding firmly to the single rope that supported him. After reaching the level of the treetops, the parachute thereupon descended rapidly, coming to earth in the marshy ground amongst the lagoons. The observer did not even have the bad luck to alight in the water, and came out of the little adventure quite unhurt.
Finished dinner, and left at about half-past eight with the advance party, consisting of Cpl. Holloway, L/cpls. Pahl and Ansell, and two men, besides the limbers. Arriving on the main ridge at the left of Villers-Brettonneux, I was a bit uncertain of the way, so left the limbers there and took a lance-corporal and went forward in search of our headquarters. Darkness was beginning to set in, and a few big shells were landing on the ridge. After a good deal of hunting about, and various ineffectual enquiries, we at last found the headquarters dug-outs, and then had to go back and fetch the limbers and the rest of the party.
Took Pahl, McLeod, and Sullivan, and went forward to the Villers Line trench. The deep dug-outs and a portion of the trench we found to be occupied by the 23rd. Bn. Hqrs. Set about finding dug-out accommodation for the seventy odd men to come up, but it was not an easy task, as decent dugouts were not too plentiful. Made the best arrangements possible, however, and was helped out by Mr. Jenkins letting me take over some of the "D" coy's part of the trench. Instructed McLeod and Sullivan as guides, to show the various groups of men to their respective quarters. A couple of heavy shells once landed uncomfortably close to us, pieces of the shell-casing whizzing savagely past our heads. A machine gun also occasionally swept the ridge, and the bullets pinged through the air past us, or plugged into the ground about the trench. A man went along synchronizing watches, and I took note that mine was 91/2 minutes slow.
Thursday, 4th. The company arrived about one o'clock. Some of the men would not wait to be shown to their dug-outs, but occupied the first they could get at, thus causing no end of bother. And of course they grumbled a treat afterwards when they had to get out and let the rightful owners in. Thus it took some time to find accommodation for them all and get them settled down. A few machine gun bullets kept whizzing about the crest of the ridge, and every now and then an aeroplane would drop a star-shell, which would illuminate the country for miles around. I learned afterwards that they were our machines, and that it was just a dodge to throw dust in Fritz's eyes, so that he would not suspect the imminent attack.
While finding a place for the last man, a loud dull throbbing noise like an aeroplane at close quarters reached us, and out of the darkness loomed up a bulky mass, crawling ponderously along directly towards our trench. Then it turned off, and went up along the road to the right. By this time Mr. Clough had started to rouse his carrying party out, so I helped him get them together, checked, and loaded with their bags of Stokes mortar bombs. Several more tanks lumbered past on their way to the front line. The carrying party left with their bombs about two o'clock.
Feeling very tired after so much running about, I went into the captain's dug-out for a spell, but had only been there a few minutes when Captain Ball came along and wanted me to direct him to "D" co's lines. Took him along the Villers Line trench to where his company were. Met another synchronizer with the correct time, so checked my watch again to make sure, putting it on to the right time. It was now ten minutes to three, twenty minutes before zero time. Was making my way back to the dug-out to get a few minutes rest before the opening of the stunt, when I met a Tommy officer who had lost his way. Felt rather sorry for him as he seemed very nervous and was a good deal worried, because he had to be at 21st battalion headquarters by the time the stunt commenced. There was only twenty minutes to go. Taking him in tow I dashed along to the 23rd. battalion headquarters, plunged down the long steep stairway into the den below, and hurriedly explained the situation to the officers there, asking if one of them could conduct the Tommy artillery officer to his destination. My demand elicited a very sarcastic reply from one of them, but he came upstairs and dug up a runner from another dug-out, and told him to take the officer to the 21st battalion headquarters, "and double all the way", he added.
We set off at a run, but then the officer discovered that the corporal accompanying him was missing. He dodged about, shouting out for him, and I began to hunt along the trench. After a time I found the corporal stuck away in a corner of the trench, where he was evidently trying to make himself scarce, for he must have been able to hear the officer calling, and anyway one of our men had told him about it. I sent him out at the "tout-de-suite", and again they made hurried tracks for Kent St. I looked at my watch. It was just five past three, and they had five minutes left to get there.
Crawled into Captain Mahony's dug-out and lay down. There were only the captain and Roy Boyd there besides me, Edgerton being liaison officer with the 23rd. battalion, and Clough being away with the carrying party.
Our guns were carrying on a fair amount of casual shelling, "camouflage counter-battery work", that is it was counter battery shelling designed to deceive the Huns and blind them to the fact that there was an attack coming. Looked at my watch and remarked that there was a minute and a half to go, and then we lapsed into irrelevant conversation.
Suddenly the captain sat up and exclaimed, "It's quarter of a minute past zero and the bombardment hasn't started!" We tumbled out of the dug-out in order to witness the strafe, and, even as we did so, a machine gun started chopping the air on our left, and the next instant the valleys and ridges behind us broke forth into a vast rumbling roar, the sky dancing with the multitude of lightning-like flashes from our guns. I jumped on to the nearest fire-step in time to see the first red light go up from the German lines. It was followed by many more all along our front, and by green ones, and also the pretty orange clusters and the ordinary white illuminating flares. Less than a mile in front of us the barrage from our guns descended in a mighty uproar on the German lines. Great columns of smoke, lit up by the many varied lights, arose from the bursting shells and drifted lazily across to the right. It was a magnificent spectacle, beautiful and awe-inspiring. Most beautiful of all were the blazing yellow showers of burning phosphorous thrown up from bursting smoke-shells like surf-spray on a rocky coast. The whole thing was a sight that was created from our position of comparative safety. The wonderful display of ever-changing lights, mingled with the thundering of the guns and the noisy rattle of machine-guns, made a combination which was superb in its grandeur.
The German reply to our barrage was very weak. Some heavies fell a few hundred yards in front of us, their black smoke-bursts silhouetted against the glowing background, but none came near our trench.
At twenty past three, the first grey light of dawn began to show in the sky. Some of our aeroplanes were already buzzing about overhead, distinguished by a small light on each wing. It had been arranged for them to drop boxes of ammunition and bombs, by means of parachutes, to our troops in the captured positions.
The captain and Boyd went around to the 23rd. battalion hqrs. to find out how the fight was going, and returned later with the information that on our front, where the advance required was only a few hundred yards, all objectives had been gained and the men were digging in, and on our left, where the distance to go was much greater, the advance was progressing favourably.
By this time the bombardment was slackening off somewhat. The carrying party began to arrive back in odd groups. Some of them had taken part in the fighting, some helped with the wounded, and others escorted prisoners to the rear. Mr. Clough arrived later with a pocketful of souvenirs he had got from prisoners, two pocket wallets, one containing various German notes and coins, also a Roumanian coin, two cigarette cases, one with a picture of Earl Kitchener on it, and various letters, books, papers, photos, and post-cards.
News came through later that all objectives were taken on the whole front, and over a thousand prisoners brought in. Slept for a little while, and awoke to find the enemy carrying on a desultory shelling of the Villers Line, some of the shells falling pretty close to our position.
Had some breakfast and slept most of the morning. Boyd was sent away with a fatigue party to the front line. Once during the morning I felt a tingling pain in the nose, and was wondering if it might have been due to "sneezing gas", when the blanket was suddenly drawn aside from the door of my dug-out, and a masked head bobbed in and mumbled something about gas. So I put on my box respirator until the "gas clear" message came along a little later. This was my first experience of sneezing gas, of which I have often heard. It is composed of very finely powdered glass contained in a bottle which is enclosed in the high-explosive in the shell. The effect did not seem near so bad as I had expected, but perhaps we only got a very light concentration of it.
My sleep was very much disturbed by the desultory shelling, which continued all day. A few German aeroplanes came over once, but were soon hunted back to their own lines again. Among the shells Fritz put over there were a number of lachrymatory, and the wind kept up a constant flow of invisible "tear gas" from where they had landed to parts of our trench, which it was found advisable to keep clear of in order to avoid unnecessary tearfulness.
During the afternoon I strolled along to have a look at the wrecked aeroplane near the 23rd. battalion hqrs. All the fabric had been burnt away, so there was no means of ascertaining whether it was one of ours or Fritz's. It was a tangled mass of wires and stays and odds and ends of metal. A lot of aluminium and glass had been melted by the heat, and had run into various grotesque shapes.
Returning to our lines I learned that we were to change over tonight with "B" coy. in Digger's Support. Was also informed that I had a carrying party to take to the firing line with Stokes mortar bombs.
Had a light evening meal, and was then told that the Stokes job was cancelled, so, as a party was wanted to take rations up to the 21st. battalion, I took it instead. The guides who came along to show us the way told me that Gordon Breen was killed by his own bomb. He had let the handle go, held the bomb for a couple of seconds, and then thrown it into a dug-out. But unfortunately it struck against a board, bounced back, and fell at his feet, and there was then no time for him to get out of the way.
Got a party of thirty men, three N.C.Os., and a couple of stretcher-bearers, and told them off into four smaller parties to carry the rations to each company of the 21st battalion. There being only three N.C.Os., I took the "A" coy. party myself.
Got the food containers and the cans of water from the ration dump, and took the party, led by the guides, along Kent St., Digger's Support, and Hunter St., to the old front line. As the communication trenches were rather narrow for carrying a load in, I took the party along the top, which was much easier. Most of the land here is covered with crops of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. In odd places the pineapple-like smell of tear gas filtered up from the crops where lachrymatory shells had fallen. These shells, or rather the places where they explode, continue to give off their irritating fumes for many hours, and even days, afterwards, especially in crops and wooded country. Some distance forward on our left lay a stranded tank, which had been disabled in the attack this morning.
Crossing the former No-man's-land, we came upon "B" coy. in the former German front line trench. We separated then, the various parties going to their respective companies. Passed three dead Huns on the way to "A" coy. Parties of men were already busy at digging a communication trench to our new front line. Passing a wrecked aeroplane, one of ours, it was thereafter necessary to keep low, for the enemy parapet was visible a few hundred yards away. The Hun sentries could not have been very alert at their tasks, for we got to the front line trench without being observed by them.
However, while disposing of the rations and water in the trench, the enemy must have noticed some unusual movement, for a machine gun began to sweep our parapet. Lees caught sight of him, borrowed a rifle and fired at him, with the result that the firing ceased for awhile. When we were ready to return, I told the men to get back as quick as they could for the first hundred yards till we should be safe from the enemy fire below the rise in the ground. Led the way out of the trench, and we got back quick and lively, accompanied by the clack, clack, clack, of German bullets and the regular biting report of a machine gun. Fortunately, nobody was hit. At the wrecked `plane we stopped for a breather. Got the party together and we went back to "B" coy., and waited there for the arrival of the other parties. There was a lot of German equipment and various war material lying about, so I looked around amongst it, and got a German flare pistol.
Got the men together and took the party back to Villers Line, where they collected their equipment, it having been necessary to leave it there in order to carry the rations. While we were away the company had gone up to Digger's Support and Hunter St., so I took the carrying party up to Hunter St., which had been allotted to them. As we were going up, the Huns opened up a fairly heavy bombardment with big stuff on the trench a few hundred yards in front of us. Besides the heavies, they were using a new peculiar kind of shell, which seems to have a very small exploding power. I think they are filled with a low-explosive, which is just sufficient to break the casing into fragments, the foremost half of which are carried forward by the impetus of the shell, and the remaining fragments lying where the shell strikes. This gives a kind of shrapnel effect.
At Hunter St. I handed the party over to the billeting serjeant, who was trying, rather unsuccessfully, I fear, to find sufficient dugouts for them. The accommodation seemed to be very limited.
Stayed awhile talking to various ones, and then made back towards Digger's Support, keeping to the trench, as the Huns had lengthened their range and were now landing their heavies along the ridge. Some of these unwelcome visitors came uncomfortably close as I hurried along Digger's Support. Suddenly the machine guns along the trench opened fire simultaneously, and I wondered if the Germans were counter-attacking. Asked one of the gunners, and he said the S.O.S. signal had gone up. Our artillery opened up with a light barrage. The attack could not have lasted long, for the firing soon quietened down again.
Found our company headquarters, in Digger's Support trench, about half past ten. It was a comparatively comfortable, though small, dug-out, accommodating Captain Mahony, Edgerton, and myself, Boyd and Clough being with the remainder of the company in Hunter St. There were only two bunks, so Edgerton and I turned in together.
Friday, 5th. At 2a.m. Edgerton went away with a ration party. We had to stand to till half-past four, in case of a possible German counter-attack. Went along the trench and aroused the men, seeing that they were alert and ready. Read the "Defensive Scheme" orders. If the enemy would attack, we were to support the 23rd. battalion.
During stand to, our artillery and machine guns opened up a bombardment, but it did not seem intense enough to suggest that Fritz had attacked.
News came through to the effect that we took 1,400 prisoners, altogether. We had breakfast about six o'clock and then slept soundly till half-past twelve, when we were awakened by the batmen for dinner, which consisted of bully beef, and bread and jam.
Frith, Jeffries, and Fischmann were wounded during the night round at Hunter St. by one of the new ground-shrapnel, but their wounds were only slight. Captain Ball's brother in the 6th. Field Ambulance was wounded while stretcher-bearing, and died a few hours later. According to the latest paper to hand, there are now over a million American troops in France, 276,000 men having arrived during the month of June alone.
Wrote a letter to my dear little girl during the afternoon. While doing so, the Germans began shelling Kent St., which runs back from Digger's Support a few yards up from our dugout. A few of the shells fell rather close to our corner. Some letters were brought up for the company, and I got one from Ettie Cunynghame. She is still uncured of her illness, poor girl.
Started reading a book this evening which previous occupants had left in the dug-out. It is a story of the lumbering trade on the American lakes, "The Blazed Trail", by Stewart Edward White, and is very interesting.
Turned in about ten o'clock. Felt rather shy of performing the usual devotions in front of the other two officers, but plucked up courage and managed to overcome natural reluctance, and went through the usual nightly reading and prayer. Was very glad afterwards that I had done so, for hardly had I settled down in bed more than a few minutes, when the Germans opened up a lively bombardment, many shells falling fairly close around our position. The other two, who were writing letters, laid down their pens, and then the captain went over and sat down on his bunk, leaning back against the wall with an air of resigned patience. Edgerton came and sat on the edge of my bunk and put on his steel helmet. The messengers of death shrieked and whined overhead or exploded with a dull roar somewhere close at hand. At times the dug-out shook and trembled as though by an earthquake. Once a shell thudded into the earth very close to the walls of our dug-out, but fortunately failed to explode. Edgerton seemed rather nervous. He would wince and shrink every time a shell shrieked by close overhead. I felt very sorry for him. He is a brave man, as the ribbons he wears amply testify. But he has been through some rather trying experiences, which have had their effect on his nerve.
On this occasion I did not seem to feel even the ordinary fear one generally has during a bombardment, but seemed possessed with a quiet confidence and calm trust in the Supreme Protecting Power, Whom I knew was watching over me. A voice from the spirit world seemed to say, "God knows what is best". I wished that the other two could have shared the same consolation, but perhaps they did to some extent. Anyway, the captain showed no outward signs of fear, and, being a good Catholic, his mind could naturally be occupied with some phases of his religion under such circumstances. I don't know if Edgerton has any regard for religion, but he seems to be a clean-living man, and quite possibly in his heart he cherishes a faith which never finds outward expression.
After a time I felt a tingling pain in the nose which was not hard to recognise. I simply remarked "Sneezing gas", and the three of us put on our respirators. But some of the gas had already got into our throats, and caused us a lot of weeping and discomfiture. Every few minutes we would find it necessary to remove the mask, carefully restraining the breathing meanwhile, and make free use of handkerchiefs with eyes, nose, and mouth.
The shelling, which was mostly with "whizz-bangs", four-point-sevens, and small stuff, lasted for about twenty minutes, and then gradually slackened off and stopped. We went outside to look for fans to clear the gas out of the dug-out. None of our men were hit during the shelling, but some of "D" co's. men were gassed, and a 21st. Bn. man was wounded. Met a party of 18th. Bn. men coming in, and they said they were coming in as an advance party for their battalion. So it is evident that we must be getting relieved tomorrow.
Some of our men left our part of the trench and went farther along to the left, our corner being liable to strafing at any time, on account of the junction with the communication trench, and also the battalion headquarters in Kent St., about which there is generally a lot of movement during the day.
All being quiet again, I turned into bed, about midnight.
Saturday, 6th. Awakened by some loud explosions a little after two o'clock. A few heavies were landing in the vicinity. Got up and walked along the trench a bit, talking with some of the men. Suddenly there came the deafening crash of a salvo of four heavies, and it was followed by salvo after salvo in rapid succession. The harsh grating roar of the explosions mingled hideously with the frightful sound of rending steel. It was like a bit of the Pozières bombardment on a smaller scale. The shells were falling, on an average of about two a second, all around the junction of Kent St. with Digger's Support. My first impulse was to hasten along the trench to the left, in order to get clear of the shelled area, but, checking myself, I made back towards the dug-out to fetch the other two. They, however, needed no warning, for I met them coming away preceded by the rest of the garrison, who came surging along the trench, coughing, spluttering, choking, vomiting, and struggling with their respirators. I realized that it was high time to get mine on too. It would have seemed intensely funny if one could have appreciated the humour of the situation under such circumstances.
We didn't waste much time getting several hundred yards away to the left, where only a few odd shells were falling. Some of the men were very sick in consequence of the "sneezing gas". I suffered some acute pains in the nose, throat, and top of the chest, for some time.
The intense bombardment raged around our headquarters for about twenty minutes, and then gradually quietened down and soon stopped altogether. Edgerton and I went back to the dugout, and the captain went along to Hunter St., to see how the rest of the company were faring.
Continued reading "The Blazed Trail", and got so interested in it that I didn't bother going to bed again. A report on the operations came through from Hqrs. It appears the Huns counter-attacked Thursday night, and suffered severe losses from our fire. Then, before they reached our lines, our men sprang out of the trench and rushed to meet them, taking prisoners all who were left alive.
Read on till breakfast time, which was at half-past five. Gave the letter I had written Dorothy to Morcom to send back to be posted.
Turned in at six o'clock and slept till twelve. It has turned out a fine day again. Orders came through this afternoon to the effect that the relief takes place at half-past nine tonight.
A 17th. battalion officer came along to take over the company hqrs. Soon afterwards a runner brought an order for an officer and two N.C.Os. to be sent out as an advance party to our former camp in the terrace near Blangy-Tronville. I was detailed to go, though I did not want the job. Took Sjt. Bennet and L/cpl Rowlands, and left about six o'clock.
Arriving back at the camp, I got a letter from Dorothy, only a..........
tonight, having recently arrived at the nucleus from England. He said that Viv had undergone an operation to his nose for hay fever, and that he had had to have his moustache off, which made him look decidedly ugly!
Monday, 8th. The promised letter did not come today. As Dorrie was not too well on Monday, she may probably have waited till Wednesday before writing again. In that case there should be a letter for me tomorrow. Am quite eager to learn all the particulars about Viv's visit.
At half-past nine this evening orders were suddenly sent round for everybody to turn out in fighting order. The captain said it was only a practice scheme. It was hard luck for the men, many of whom had already gone to bed. We fell in at the top of the terrace, moved across to the far side of the road, and waited there for orders.
Was told that I have to go away to the Australian Corps School tomorrow, for a three week's course of instruction in signalling. Beastly bore, I'm just about fed-up of schools.
After a time a bit of a bombardment opened up in front, and lasted for about twenty minutes or half an hour. Lightning appeared in the sky, and thunderclouds rolled up in dark masses, but fortunately it did not rain where we were. It was awfully tiresome and monotonous waiting about there for no particular purpose. It turned out to be an Army Corps order, affecting practically all the troops in this locality.
We were kept out till about midnight, when at last the welcome order came to stand down.
Tuesday, 9th. Got away about ten o'clock this morning, taking Hughes for my batman. Embussed near Lamotte, went through Amiens and Flixecourt, to the little village of Pernois, in which the 3rd. battalion billeted for a rest after the battle of Pozières, nearly two years ago. I was a Lewis gunner in the 3rd. battalion then.
We were kept waiting about in the village for about five or six hours. Entrained about 7 o'clock, cattle trucks being the only accommodation. Passed through some very pretty scenery, and arrived at Abbeville about dusk. Croft and I strolled up to the Officers' Club and had supper. Near the railway station several houses were completely destroyed by bombs from Hun raiding planes, and looked but a desolate heap of ruins.
We came back to the railway yards about midnight, and found ourselves in quite a quandary as to where our train was located, there being no end of lines, with many trains of cattle-trucks similar to ours. It was so dark that it was difficult to distinguish anything, and often we would trip over signal wires. However, after a long search up and down the yards, we eventually found the train, got our blankets, and turned in on the hard floor of our truck.
Wednesday, 10th. The train moved on about seven o'clock, and arrived at Rue some time later. From there we were marched away to a tent camp near St. Firmin, by the sea.
Rue - Chapelle du Saint Esprit - France
Slept most of the day, which was very showery, off and on. Strolled over to Le Crotoy this evening. It is a very nice little town, only a couple of miles from our camp.
Thursday, 11th. Had a lecture on some fundamental electrical principles this morning, and "flag-wagging" practice this afternoon, after which buzzer test and practice.
Wrote to my dear little girl. Also wrote to Mum and Dad.
Friday, 12th. Today some of the boys got letters readdressed here from their battalions, and I was very disappointed at not getting one from my little girl, having expected one for certain amongst the first batch.
Saturday, 13th. Walked to Forest-Montiers this afternoon, six miles, and from there got a lift in a bus to Abbéville. Went to the Ordinance Store to get a valise and various other requirements, but discovered that I had no pay-book with me, having handed it in for pay this morning, so I was unable to get the things I wanted. Had a look around the town. Many of the buildings, especially in the square, had suffered badly at the hands of the Hun air raiders. One building at the corner of the square was completely destroyed, being nothing but a mass of bricks and rubble and charred timber. The group of statuary in the centre of the square was also badly knocked about. St. Vulfran Church, a very beautiful and imposing edifice appeared to have escaped untouched.
Tried to get some oil-colour paints but couldn't obtain them anywhere in the town. Bought a couple of large photos of St. Vulfran Church, and a pretty seascape photo in a blue tint which gives it a moonlight effect. Also bought a box of water-colour paints.
Had a pretty fair dinner at the Officers' Club for 4 francs, and left Abbéville about seven o'clock. Walked several miles and then got a lift in a motor car for five or six miles. A little later I got a lift in a large motor car, which flew along the road at a terrific speed. It was very exhilarating and very enjoyable swishing through the air at such a rate. At Forest-Montiers I had to leave the main road, but hadn't gone far when I was overtaken by a Wireless Installation car, which brought me as far as Rue. Walked about a mile from there, and then a French farmer came along in his wagonette and offered me a lift, taking me to within a mile of the camp.
On arrival here I was awfully disappointed again to find that there was no letter from Dorrie.
Sunday, 14th. Three years today since the "Orsova" steamed away from Sydney and home with me on board. Time drags along. I wonder how long it will be until I see that dear old harbour once again, and the loving ones waiting there to welcome me.
Spent the afternoon painting a little river scene from a small photo I once took of the Nadder River near Fovant.
Developed a bad headache this evening, and went out for a walk to try and walk it off. Very worried about not getting a letter from my little girl. It suddenly occurred to me that she might be ill, and thus not able to write. In the last brief letter she had mentioned not feeling too well. Wrote a letter to the dear little girl.
Monday, 15th. Went for a dip in the sea after parade. The tide was going out and we had to walk about quarter of a mile over the wet sand before reaching the water, and then another quarter of a mile out into the water before it was deep enough to swim. It was only about two feet deep then. The beach is a very flat one, and the tide goes out several miles each time.
The mail this evening included a reply, with prospectus, from P.C.C., and a packet from my darling girl with the Tincture of Myrrh and borax I had asked her to send. The bottle had got broken in transit, and the contents spilled, but the packet contained a note from the dear girl, which was very, very welcome indeed. It was a very loving little letter, written hurriedly on the Thursday following the former hurried note. She said she would write a long letter the same night, but did not mention why she had not written on Tuesday, as promised, or on Wednesday. Couldn't help worrying a bit over that, but still it was a great joy to hear from my darling sweetheart again after so long. If she keeps her promise this time to write again the same night, there should be another letter tomorrow.
The P.C.C. informed me that my specimen drawing had gained for me one of their scholarships, which entitled me to the course of instruction for half fees (£5).
Tuesday, 16th. Strolled over to Le Crotoy with Croft this evening. News came through in today's paper that the Huns have at last delivered their long-delayed attack, on a 50-mile front east and west of Rheims. They gained some small successes at great cost.
Wednesday, 17th. No letter from Dorrie today. Very disappointed. Wrote a short letter to her.
Paid this evening, 100 francs (£3-13-4). The German advance has been checked, but there is no definite news in the paper as to how far they have advanced.
Thursday, 18th. An unofficial report came through today to the effect that the French have launched a great counter-stroke on a 45-mile front. If true, it will probably be in tomorrow's paper. Wrote Duncan Campbell asking him not to send on any more letters after Wednesday.
Had been expecting a letter from Dorrie for certain today, but none came. Can't help feeling rather downhearted. Evidently she did not write again on the Thursday night as promised, but has put it off till the Sunday following, in which case her letter ought to come tomorrow. Read several of the latest letters I have had from the dear girl. They are all very nice and loving, and helped to cheer me up considerably.
Friday, 19th. Very impatient all day for the evening to come, to know if there would be a letter from my little sweetheart, also to know if there was any truth in the report about the French offensive.
Wrote to Mum and Dad. According to the paper today, the French and Americans launched a big counter-stroke from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry, advancing in some places as much as eight miles. This is very good news, and rather brightens the prospects for the immediate future.
My hopes of a letter were dashed to the ground. What a bitter disappointment. Can't help feeling miserable and sick at heart. What can have happened? Perhaps at the battalion they have got mixed up with the addresses. Perhaps my dear little girl may be seriously ill. I can't believe that it is merely neglect on her part. Feeling very worried over it all.
Saturday, 20th. The sky looked very black and threatening at dinner-time, but cleared up finely a little later. Set out to walk to Forest-Montiers but, by the time I had got as far as Ponplimont, the sky had again blackened over, and it was so dark as to be almost like night. Then the rain came, and before long it came down in torrents. My trench coat proved itself a good protection, but in a very short time I was soaked through from the knees down. After a time the storm passed over, and by the time I reached Forest-Montiers the sun was shining in an almost cloudless sky.
Got a lift into Abbéville in an R.A.F. car. The paper today contained more particulars about the French push. 17,000 prisoners and 360 guns have been taken.
Went round to the Ordinance Store and got a valise and other necessaries. Also bought a canvas handbag at a French shop, for 22fr. Very dear for the quality, but will be useful for carrying my books, etc., and keeping them from getting damaged.
Dined at the Officers' Club, and left about half-past seven, carrying the valise and contents, which was some heavy.
Walked about a mile, and then got a lift in an American car as far as Forest-Montiers. Got a French car a little farther on, through Rue to within about a mile of the camp.
Had made up my mind not to expect a letter tonight, trying to persuade myself that some mistake had been made in
the readdressing of them at the battalion. Nevertheless, it made me very miserable and down-hearted when I arrived at the camp and found that none had come.
Sunday, 21st. Sent £1-1 to the Practical Correspondence College, as the first of five monthly instalments for their drawing course.
Wrote to Dorothy this evening. Am afraid it was not a very cheerful letter, as the absence of any letters from her has made me very unhappy.
Monday, 22nd. Heard today that information has come through to the effect that the British have attacked and advanced four miles on the Arras front, the cavalry taking part in the battle.
In today's paper the French have retaken Chateau-Thierry, and advanced four miles beyond it.
Went over to Le Crotoy this evening to get some medicines.
Tuesday, 23rd. At last a letter has come from my dear little girl. It was written Sunday, 14th. and finished the Tuesday following. On the Tuesday she had just received the first letter I wrote from this camp. Said she would write again on the Wednesday, so there should be another letter for me tomorrow or Thursday. Otherwise I'll probably not get any more until rejoining the battalion, as I have asked Duncan Campbell not to send any more on after tomorrow. My darling girl's letter has made me very glad indeed, and lifted a load of anxiety off my heart.
There came also a very nice letter from Clytie. She was very indignant with the Trentagh folk for the way they had treated Viv, and also with Vern for writing such a letter to Viv.
Wrote to Dorrie this evening.
Wednesday, 24th. Finished the letter to Dorothy, and enclosed with it a pretty postcard I had got at Abbéville.
The sports programme for the 2nd. Div. students this afternoon was a 2-mile run. Not being able to run for nuts, and also being short of cash, I decided to be A.W.L. and to visit the Field Cashier at Abbéville.
Set out to walk to Forest-Montiers, but when I got to Favières a car came along and gave me a lift right in to Abbéville. On the way in we managed to run over a stupid hen which tried to run across the front of the car.
Went to the Field Cashier and drew 150 francs (£5-10). Bought a nice big book for my next diary, containing 400 pages, cloth bound, stiff board covers, 11 francs. Also got three nice pictures, "End of Autumn", "September Morn", and "Dufrène Andacieux" (don't know the translation of "dufrène"). From what I have seen of it French art seems to be miles ahead of English.
Had afternoon tea at the club, and left early. Got a Church Army car to Forest-Montiers, walked to Favières, and got a French car going to Le Crotoy. It was too late to get to camp in time for dinner, so went on to Le Crotoy and dined at the Hotel de Commerce, getting a very fair meal, five courses for five francs.
Thursday, 25th. Wrote to Mum and Dad this evening.
Friday, 26th. Commenced writing out a copy of the Hamel stunt from the diary, and got half way through it by tonight.
Saturday, 27th. Spent the afternoon doing a small watercolour sketch of Huntingdon Bridge, from one of Railton's pen drawings.
Wrote to Dorrie this evening. Left the letter unfinished when it got dark.
Sunday, 28th. Finished letter to Dorothy. Went for a walk towards Rue this afternoon.
Monday, 29th. ------------
Tuesday, 30th. Examination today. Practical tests in receiving, sending, electrical work, map reading, heliograph, etc. Managed pretty well at most of the things. We finish up with the school tomorrow, and leave on Thursday to rejoin our battalions.
Walked over to Le Crotoy this evening to replenish my stock of medicines.
Wednesday, 31st. Written examination this morning on Telegraphy and electrical matters. Did pretty well at them.
Sports this afternoon. Tried my hand at Badminton, which proved quite an interesting game.
Word came through that we leave at one o'clock in the morning. Finished writing copy of the Hamel stunt. Got my things packed up.
Wrote to my dear little sweetheart. Asked her if she ever has any little fears or doubts as to my fidelity, or if she sometimes thinks I may perhaps go out with French girls or Waacs.
A couple of very good pictures were screened in the courtyard tonight. Went for a walk down along the beach afterwards, to fill in time. Got back about midnight, just in time for supper.
Thursday, 1st. Fell in at one o'clock, all the signallers and intelligence schools, about a hundred and fifty of us all told, and marched off towards Rue, the young crescent moon very obligingly illuminating the landscape for us. The boys struck up the familiar strains of "Good-bye-ee", very appropriately, as we moved away from the old farm, and kept up an almost constant flow of songs along the line of march. It was a glorious night.
We arrived at Rue about half-past two, had the usual tiresome wait on the railway station, and then entrained in the eternal cattle-trucks, "40 hommes, 8 chevaux", and were, as usual, uncomfortably crowded therein. Settled down in a very cramped position amongst a medley of arms and legs and bodies, and tried to obtain a few winks of sleep, but eventually gave it up as a hopeless task, and, as it was now daylight, left the train and walked up and down the road to pass the time away.
A goods train came along about six o'clock and took us in tow, so that we got under way at last. Got a seat on a case of bully beef, and went to sleep. Woke up later and found the train at a standstill, but was disappointed to find it was only Abbéville.
A little later, the R.T.O. informed us that the train would not continue its journey until half-past six this evening. This was very disappointing, as I was dreadfully impatient to get back to the battalion in order to get all the nice loving letters from my dear little sweetheart that are waiting there for me.
Went up to the Officers' Club and booked a bed, having decided to sleep the day away, both for the sake of getting some much-needed rest, and to make the time pass quicker. It was a nice comfortable bed, and I slept soundly till nearly four o'clock.
Had dinner at the club, and strolled along to the train. There were some 3rd. class passenger cars available now, which made things much more comfortable than formerly. Steamed out of Abbéville about half-past seven, and arrived at Pernois about ten o'clock. A fairly comfortable hut billet was provided.
Friday, 2nd. Left Pernois in motor transport about half-past nine. Was glad to get away early, being very impatient to get the dear letters I have missed for so long. We disembussed at Rivery, a suburb of Amiens, as the cars were going to Querrien, on the Albert Road, and our way lay more to the south. The various divisions separated here, the 2nd. Div. nuclei being in the vicinity of Lamotte. We got a transport car to shift our kit down to the Lamotte road, and another one gave us a lift as far as Camon. There we got a light car to take the valises on to Lamotte, and we walked on afterwards. Arriving at Rear B.H.Q., I went straight to the Post Office to get my dear girl's letters. Was a little disappointed to find that there were only five from her, but they were such nice loving ones, and cheered me up immensely. Two of them were registered to make sure of them reaching me safely. They were dated from July 17th. to 25th., there being none between July 4th. and 17th., or any home mail either. Dorrie has started taking singing lessons, and her teacher, Miss Graham, says the quality of her voice is beautiful, and has asked Dorrie to join her choir to take part in a concert she is giving in Salisbury in October. The dear little girl was a bit sad............
Also wrote to Vern, and asked him if he couldn't manage to spare a day of his next leave to go and visit Dorrie. Received a parcel from Jean McPhee containing a tin of sweet biscuits and a pair of sox.
Developed a dreadful headache this evening, and went out for a long walk to try and walk it off, but without avail. According to today's paper, the Allies have had a great victory north of the Marne, where they have driven the Huns back to the Vesle. Soissons has been taken by the French, and Fismes reached by the Americans.
Monday, 5th. Mr. Baldock and a number of the men left the nucleus today and went up to the battalion. There is a big attack, one of the biggest of the war, to take place on this front shortly, almost any day now. There is some talk of it being early tomorrow morning, but nobody seems to know anything for certain. The rain and mud will probably prevent it for a day or two.
Wrote to the P.C.C. for instruments and material, and enclosed £1 to cover cost of same. Got another letter from Dorrie today, written last Tuesday and Wednesday. She was a bit disappointed at not getting one from me. Also received an old letter from Mum, written last November.
Fismes has been taken by the Americans, and the Vesle crossed in several places. Villages and stores are being burned by the enemy between the Vesle and the Aisne. On the Amiens front the Huns have made an extensive withdrawal to a depth of three miles, to the east bank of the Ancre.
Tuesday, 6th. The weather cleared up a bit today. We are all hoping for prolonged dry weather, so that the "big attack" may prove completely successful.
Another letter from my dear Dorrie today, written last Thursday. Wrote a letter to her in reply.
A German aeroplane flew over here just before midnight, as I was getting ready for bed, and dropped a number of ugly bombs not very far away, the roar of the explosions reverberating horribly through the still night air.
Wednesday, 7th. Glorious fine weather again, which, if it continues, will be grand for the eagerly-awaited attack, which we are hoping will smash the Hun and drive him back in headlong flight to his old Hindenburg line. Cannot find out anything definite, but it appears that four, and perhaps all five, of the Australian divisions are taking part in the attack, besides a large number of English and French divisions. The operation orders have been published so it looks probable that the attack is intended for tomorrow or next day.
Later. Went up to B.H.Q. after dinner this evening and met Mr. Middleton. He told me that the attack takes place tomorrow morning, and that zero hour is 4.30a.m. In all twenty divisions are attacking, on a front of about thirty miles, from Albert to Montdidier, two English divisions being on the left, then the four Australian divisions, (the first div. being still up north somewhere), four Canadian divisions, and then ten French divisions on the right. Middleton says the country behind our lines is simply bristling with guns, rows of them wheel to wheel, so they ought to put down a terrific barrage on the luckless Hun. The first objective is only about a thousand yards, the second objective about two thousand yards, and the third objective averaging about eight miles. Beyond that they are to push on as far as they can, with no limited objective, if possible routing the enemy and forcing him into a precipitate retreat. It seems evident that Foch means to score a decisive victory here, by the fact that he is putting nearly all of the Australians and Canadians into the battle. The use of so many first-class troops indicates the importance of the impending conflict.
Several 6th Brigade Machine Gun limbers, with their guns and crews, passed through Lamotte on their way to the front. The tanks are also to take a very active part in the fighting. It is said that fifteen hundred tanks are going forward with the attack, but this is not authoritative. However, according to the operation orders, a number of tanks are going "over the top" with each Australian brigade.
Went over to Divisional Headquarters, near Glisy, to interview the Field Cashier, and drew a hundred francs, (£3-13-4). Went up to the Brigade Post Office, in Glisy, and got a postal note for £1 to send to Dorrie to pay for various articles I might want her to send me at different times. Had to have the date of my increase of allotment altered to August 23rd., the pay-days in Australia being different to ours here, and the increase must start on a pay-day.
Wrote to Mrs. Morgan tonight.
The atmosphere seems tensely charged with excitement tonight. Everybody is keenly interested about tomorrow's great battle, and wondering how the tide will go. Optimism is running at a high pitch. This is the first time the Australians will have been given a fair open go with unlimited objectives. Usually they have been limited to an advance of a mile or two at the most, and the prisoners and booty captured were not worth the sacrifice of life entailed. Thank Heaven the days of close warfare have gone, and such slaughter-house battles as P0zières and Bullecourt are a thing of the past.
If the attack proves successful tomorrow, it seems likely that all available reserves will be thrown in to exploit and extend the victory, and with reasonable luck the Hun may even be driven back to his old line before the March attack, and perhaps even farther. Indeed, I see no reason why we shouldn't hope that this battle will mark the beginning of the end. Ah, if only the war could be finished before the winter sets in, Germany beaten to her knees and ready to accept peace on our terms! What great rejoicings there would be at home, and indeed, throughout the whole world! And with what renewed joy and happy eagerness Dorrie and I might look forward to the supreme event next year, crowning all our happiness, without prospect of long parting and the dangers of battle.
Thursday, 8th. The battle is under way, and going well for our side so far. I awoke at half-past four and heard the low continuous rumble of the distant bombardment. But the air was heavy with fog, and little could be seen or heard from here. At eight o'clock, when we got up, the guns were silent on our front, thus indicating that the advance had gone right forward, but were still thundering around on the right, where, we soon heard, the French were held up at Hangard Wood. But towards nine o'clock the bombardment there too slackened off to a few occasional shots from the bigger guns. A little later, news came along that the Canadians had worked around the left of Hangard Wood, thus making it possible for the French to move forward. The battle is but a few hours old, and already our troops must have advanced a number of miles.
Later. No news of the progress of the fighting reached us during the morning. Took my batman, Hughes, with me this afternoon, and went up through Villers Bretonneux, a pitiful mass of ruins, like Ypres was before its complete destruction. We travelled most of the way in motor lorries. Met numerous batches of prisoners coming back to the rear, also numbers of wounded of both sides in ambulance cars, motor lorries, horse wagons, and even in a captured German car. One motor lorry, with a couple of smiling bandaged soldiers on the box seat, was marked, with white chalk, "Wounded Diggers & 'Uns". The soldiers travelling back and forward along the dusty road all looked extremely tired, but happy and cheerful.
Moving on from Villers Bretonneux, we passed the wrecked aerodrome that we could see from the Villers line at the time of the Hamel stunt, the former front line and the late No-man's-land, then the old German front line. A few dead Germans lay singly here and there along the way. A couple of supply tanks lumbered noisily across country returning from the fray. Overhead, the 'planes were very busy, many returning from the front and many others going forward. We passed a German brigadier and staff officer, escorted by a solitary digger unarmed save for a great waddy which he carried over his shoulder.
Soon we came to Warfusee, which has been battered to a chaotic mass of skeletons of houses. Our artillery has wreaked dire havoc upon the hapless town. A few high-velocity shells from the enemy snapped savagely now and again near by.
Warfusee, France 1918. Bombed buildings and carts line the streets of this town in the Somme Valley.AWM
Seeing a few 14th. Brigade men about, I made enquiries as to the whereabouts of their Brigade Hqrs., hoping to meet Vern. Learned that he is still with Rear Brigade Hqrs., which were expected to be at or near the Villers line some time this afternoon.
Hopped a lorry returning towards Villers Bretonneux. Several diggers chased after the car to get a lift, and I at once recognised among them a familiar face, which, however, I had not seen since leaving Australia over three years ago. It was Jim Donnelly. One of our old City Temple boys, and one of the leading lights there, like Jack Parker, Les Warner, and Roy Foster, all of whom have been killed in France. I left the box seat and climbed up behind, where Jim was. Naturally he was very surprised to see me, and at first could not think who I was. We had a great talk about old times and the Temple folk. Jim is a Y.M.C.A. worker, and is with the 5th. Brigade Y.M.C.A. He had not heard from Mr. Harward for a long time, and had practically got out of touch with the City Temple, just as I seem to have done. Mr. Harward seems to have forgotten us.
Jim was also bound for the ridge to the left of Villers Bretonneux, so we left the bus by the wrecked aerodrome and struck across country to Diggers' Support. Jim's Y.M.C.A. station was in a dug-out in Kent St., and we rested there for awhile.
Went back to the dug-outs in rear of the Villers Line, and, after numerous unavailing enquiries, at last found the 14th. Brigade's Rear Hqrs. in the camouflaged dugouts where I met Roy McPhee on the eve of the Hamel operations. A lieutenant of the 56th. Bn. constituted the Rear Hqrs. and he was expecting Vern to arrive at any moment to take over from him. Waited there for about half an hour, and then, as a cool breeze was blowing and my underclothes were wet through with perspiration, I decided to tootle. Collected my batman from where he was expending his Americanisms on some Tommies, and set off by a bridle track across the fields towards Blangy-Tronville. Arrived back at the nucleus at last, absolutely dog-weary.
We had heard many stories of the battle during the day. It appears our troops advanced about nine or ten miles, meeting with very little opposition, and dug in on their third objective. Cavalry and whippet tanks went through and scoured the country in front. Troop trains fully manned were captured, also hospitals and their staffs, all kinds of headquarters staffs, a lot of artillery, and transport. German artillery horses and transport wagons were brought back to the cages by their own drivers. A number of German nurses were taken with a clearing station. They were treated with every respect by our men. The Australian "digger" may be a rough customer outwardly, but he is honourable at heart, and at any-rate knows how to treat women with respect.
Friday, 9th. Went up to the Villers Line this morning and met Vern. He is looking just as well as ever. He is expecting to be attached soon to an English regiment for training and experience in staff work, but is hoping to get his next furlough first. Stayed with him for lunch.
Returning, I came through Fouilloy and Corbie, both of which towns have been well battered by shell-fire. The inhabitants had evidently fled in a hurry at the time of the German advance towards Amiens, for the shops still contained their full complement of stock, and the houses their furniture and utensils. But the shells had made havoc of it all. Here and there, however, a few buildings remained apparently untouched. The Corbie cathedral is a fine piece of architecture, but has suffered sadly from the enemy's guns. Inside, the furniture and many of the fittings lay in pitiful disorder on the rubble-strewn floor. The greater part of one wall was demolished, forming a heap of splintered timber and shattered masonry in the right chapel of the building. Nearly all of the statuary in the cathedral was either marred or quite destroyed. Decided to come and make a sketch of the cathedral tomorrow, a good view of it being obtainable from among the burnt-out ruins of a factory near by.
Got back to the nucleus in time for dinner. Was informed that I have to go to a Corps Gas School at Montiëres, near Amiens, tomorrow. Felt disappointed and quite disgusted over it.
Wrote to Dorrie, and to Mum and Dad. Sent birthday greetings to Mum, and asked her to take £5 out of my allotment money and buy herself some birthday presents, whatever would be most suitable. Enclosed with the letter the little coloured sketch of Huntingdon Bridge that I promised to send her.
Saturday, 10th. Learned with pleasure today that I don't have to go to the Gas School till tomorrow. It is only a week's course, fortunately.
Took my sketch book and went up to Corbie, travelling per medium of the usual unfailing motor lorries and incurring the usual clouds of dust. Had a look around the ruins of the factory, or whatever it was, before getting to work. The remains of machinery indicated that it was a factory of some sort; the presence of casks seemed to suggest that it was a brewery; and a disordered mass of crochet wool, sewing materials, silks, and fancy-work outfits, together with prayer-books, catechisms, and some photos of a nun, all scattered about the floor of a cellar, seemed to indicate, possibly, a convent. Came to the conclusion that, in time of bombardment, the nuns from a neighbouring convent took shelter in the cellars of the brewery, and brought their sewing and fancy-work with them. Found a little souvenir book of the church at Albert, Notre Dame de Brebières. It was rather interesting in that it had evidently been printed before the war, though there was no date to show the actual year of publication.
Went all over the ruins to find the most suitable position from which to make the sketch, settled down at last and got to work. It proved to be a laborious task, full of minute details. Ceased working for about ten minutes to eat the light lunch I had brought with me, and then worked on assiduously all the afternoon. Finished the pencil sketch at half-past six, after seven hours' solid work.
Corbie, France. 1918. The remains of buildings on the streets of Corbie. The roof of the Cathedral has been damaged.
The Allies often used Corbie as a resting point after battle.
A soldier on a bicycle is on the right. AWM
Corbie cathedral France 1918 drawn by Perce
Tired and hungry, I bussed back to Vecquemont. The road was frightfully dusty, but I was very thankful for that, for dusty roads mean fine weather, which is essential to the success of the battle, and which is ever so much better for the boys in the trenches.
On arriving at the nucleus, I got a nice letter from Dorrie, written last Sunday, and a postcard sent from Salisbury on Monday, where she was spending the bank holiday with Bessie.
According to the paper tonight, our push has so far resulted in the capture of 17,000 prisoners and 200 guns, and an advance, in places, of twelve miles.
Sunday, 11th. Left for the School about half-past twelve. No transport was provided to take the valises to Petit Camon, the embussing point, which was four or five miles away, and my valise was very heavy. However, we managed to get a lift over in a light car, which happened to be going that way. Got water lorries to Longpre, and walked from there over to Montières. The Gas School is in a convent, which stands in nice wooded grounds.
Started a sketch of the old brick wall partly ivy-grown, and the trees behind it with the convent showing through.
Wrote to Dorothy.
Monday, 12th. Lectures and practical work on gas. Finished the pencil sketch commenced yesterday.
Tuesday 13th. -----------
Wednesday, 14th. Wrote to Dorrie.
Thursday, 15th. --------------
Friday, 16th. Examination today, practical and theoretical. Did pretty well, I think. Heard that a big attack is to take place tomorrow morning. Also heard, with very profound regret, that Edgerton has been killed, shot through the heart. News came along later that tomorrow's attack has been indefinitely postponed.
Saturday, 17th. Scored a "Very Good" in the examination yesterday.
Left Montières this morning, travelling per motor lorry to Amiens. Had a look around the city, which appears practically deserted, being in strong contrast to my first impressions of Picardy's capital just over two years ago, before Pozières. The silent shuttered houses all ranged in mournful rows along either side of the empty streets bear witness to the hurried flight of the inhabitants before the advancing hordes of an enemy noted for their ruthless barbarism. Many of the buildings have been damaged or wrecked by shellfire, but the great majority still remain practically intact, except for broken windows. Looked through the cathedral, which has received some damage to the exterior and the windows, but no shells have penetrated to the interior. However, a good deal of damage has been done inside by the hurried way in which valuable art treasures, pictures and sculpture, have been removed.
Got a motor lorry to Glisy, and went across to the nucleus at Lamotte. There were three letters from Dorrie awaiting me, besides one from Mum and one from Viv, also one from Viola. Dorrie is thinking of taking on motor driving in the W.R.A.F., and asks for my opinion about it. Viv likes Dorothy very much, and congratulates me on my choice. He also avers that she is very attractive, and quite good-looking. He is not on the list for France for the end of this month, so will not be coming over till the end of September.
Learned that the battalion is coming out of the line tomorrow night, and the nucleus is to join them up at Vecquemont on Monday.
Wrote to Viv, and commenced a long letter to Dorothy, writing till after midnight.
Sunday, 18th. Finished 18-page letter to Dorrie. Wrote to Mum, Viola, Ida, and commenced a letter to Rita.
Monday, 19th. Finished letter to Rita and wrote to Clytie.
This afternoon the brigade nucleus, about equal to a battalion in strength, fell in and marched to Vecquemont. We found the 24th. battalion billeted in a sawmill on the bank of the Somme in Daours.
Tuesday, 20th. Got a letter from Dorrie this morning, enclosing two letters she had had from George Pike, and several others. George's letters were punctuated with pointed hints, covert suggestions, and regrets.
This afternoon the colonel called a private meeting of the officers and gave us a confidential talk on the situation. He said it has been decided by the higher authorities that the fighting is to continue on this front. We will probably be going up to the line again in a few days' time, but the 24th. battalion will be in support or reserve. Referring to the recent disastrous minor operation, the colonel said it was simply murder. He had tried to use his influence with brigade hqrs. to have the operation cancelled, but Brigade had said they could do nothing, as the orders had come from a higher source. He said it was a repetition of the old-time nibbling tactics, in which many valuable lives are sacrificed to gain a few hundred yards of territory. Everybody had thought, with eminent satisfaction, that that kind of warfare was a thing of the past. But in this instance it had been revived, with disastrous results, though our battalion did not suffer nearly so badly as some of the others. The attempt to push forward 400 yards met with very little success, then a Scotch regiment took over the line, Fritz counter-attacked and not only took back the little ground we had won, but our former front line as well, and it required another counter-attack from our side to restore the situation to what it was before the luckless operation was attempted. The colonel seemed to be deeply touched, and I think he harboured some bitter feelings against the authority that had committed his men to such a futile and murderous task.
He said it would be a great hardship for the men to have to go in the line again so soon after just having spent such a long time in, and it behoved all the officers to be entirely unselfish and to study the comfort and welfare of the men in every possible way. During our few days' rest, instead of drill and training, sports must be provided for the men for about four hours every day, cricket, football, and swimming, in either of which every man must take part.
Borrowed the serjeant cook's German bicycle, and rode up to the Villers Line in the hope of finding Vern there, having drawn £6 last pay in order to square up my debt to him. But the dug-outs, and all that locality, was quite deserted. They have all evidently gone farther forward. Got a number of interesting aeroplane photos in one of the dug-outs. On coming up to go back, I found the bicycle missing. Someone had evidently come along and appropriated it. Was very angry and a good deal upset over it, being another man's property.
Travelled per motor lorries back to Daours. Explained to the serjeant cook what had happened. He took it decently, and declined to accept any compensation for the machine.
A picturesque view of the village of Daours, showing in the foreground
an artillery tractor
and its crew encamped for the night, AWM
Wednesday, 21st. A communication was issued today saying that the English have attacked on a front of 16,000 yards between Arras and Albert, and have captured Achiet-le-petit, Courcelles, Beaucourt, and Puisieux-au-mont. They must be driving in towards Bapaume. Things are looking up.
Wrote a letter to George Pike, objecting to him continually worrying Dorrie with his pointed hints that he wants her to come back to him. (* Did not post this letter, and eventually decided not to send it at all, as it was not my place to object to him writing so.) Commenced a letter to Dorothy, and wrote on after midnight till about one o'clock.
Thursday, 22nd. Was inoculated against typhoid this afternoon, and enjoyed a lovely dip in the river afterwards. In today's paper, besides the English attack between Arras and Albert, the French are also forging ahead between Noyon and Soissons.
Commenced drawing a card to send to Dorrie tomorrow, to commemorate our first meeting at Ludgershall station last year. Also composed a verse for it.
Friday, 23rd. It's just a year ago today since I first met my dear little "wife". What a lot of happiness has resulted from that chance meeting! God has been very good to us, and we must be grateful to Him, and trust Him to bring about a happy reunion, with the war ended, in the near future.
Finished drawing the card I started last night. The design is a spray of roses on wattle, in black and colours, enclosing a central space in which the verse is inscribed.
Received a letter from Dorrie today, written last week. An official report came through that the French have captured 200 guns, and our 1st. Division's attack at Albert, the bombardment of which, by the way, we heard early this morning, is progressing very satisfactorily.
Went to Fouilloy this afternoon and got six £1 postal orders at the brigade post office with the extra cash I had drawn. As we'll be going in the line soon it is unwise to have a lot of money in one's pockets, so I might as well send it to Dorrie to bank for me, and that will be a start towards saving up to meet the expenses of our marriage next June.
Wrote a brief note to Dorrie on the back of the picture card, and enclosed £2 with it in a registered envelope. Will send the £6 in three separate instalments, in case one may happen to be lost on the way.
A little rain has fallen tonight. I hope it does not mean that the weather is breaking. We have had quite a long spell of dry weather, but we want it to still keep fine so long as ever possible, so that we can push Fritz back a respectable distance before the winter sets in.
Saturday, 24th. Wrote to Mum and Dad today. Also wrote to Dorrie, and sent another £2.
The 23rd. battalion mess entertained our officers at a dinner this evening. Did not go because these affairs are usually characterized by a lot of drinking.