Thursday, 28 August 2014

Tales from the Huts (part 1)

What it is Like at the Front Just Now

By Sir Robert Baden-Powell

THE country in which I now am, near Albert, consists of wide, open, rolling uplands, not a hedge to be seen, and trees only along the great high-roads or down in the hollows. The whole land is cultivated, and covered with a rime of frozen snow, across which a cutting wind is always sweeping.

Never a farm or cottage in sight; these are all clustered together in villages down in the valleys alongside the chalk streams. Barns and hay-lofts, stables and cart-sheds, form convenient billets for the men fresh from those white zig-zag lines across the hillsides -- the trenches.

Here and there a smashed-up pie of a house shows that we are still within the reach of shells, but in this district every cottage has its cellars, which act as ready-made "bomb- proofs," and chalked on the wall outside one sees the legend, "Cave pour 30 hommes."

Clustered under the lee-side of the houses one sees these "hommes" very different from the smart Tommies as we know them at home.

Workmanlike and picturesque one finds them at the Front. Muffled as they are in sheepskin woolly coats, stocking caps and mufflers, and splashed and caked with mud right up to their shoulders, one would scarcely recognise them as British soldiers were it not for the cheery though grimy faces and the remarks and songs that they keep dealing out.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"Rats? Plenty of them, sir! Why, they just swarm through these barns."

While he speaks of it a rat comes swanking between our feet. An officer catches him in the ribs with his stick; the dying rat turns round and looks at him with an injured expression, as though to say: "What did you do that for?" as he dies in a puddle.

"Tame? Why, only this morning my mate was lying there asleep, snoring, when I got up, and there was a rat sitting on his chest washing its face within three inches of his snore! . . . No, sir, they may have eaten others, but they are not likely to eat my face at any rate, though they often take a bite out of my hair!

The woodwork, the straw, and the ground itself are swarming with lice, so that between the various plagues of rats, lice and shells it is not surprising that the men get little rest.

Hot baths are arranged for in holes dug out and lined with tarpaulin, and shirts are washed in chemicals, but the results are not very permanent; just a few hours and the men are infested again.

"What do we do in the evenings? Well, there is no light after five, and fires are dangerous in the barns; the wind whistles through the walls and the sleet drives through the roof. There is only one thing to do, and that is to roll up in your blankets, and if you have any tobacco to smoke it, and to try and make the best of things with the rats outside and the lice inside. But concrete floors are not what you might call hot-beds, and are mighty hard."

Close by a pigsty with brick walls and tiled roof had been cleaned out, and within were two stretchers made of sacking and poles supported on bricks. A little brazier made out of an old tin biscuit box, and a candle stuck in a bottle, gave by contrast a comfortable atmosphere.

"You are snug enough here at any rate?"

"Yes, sir. Learnt it scouting. We were Boy Scouts." But this was the exception.

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

"A club, sir? If it were only a room with a dry floor and light and warmth, where one could get a cup of coffee and meet the other chaps, if would be just a godsend. We should not then be lying in our blankets in the dark, thinking of the pals that have gone, and wondering how long this fun has got to last. Why, I often feel I would rather be back in the frozen slush of the trenches. There, at any rate, you have got something doing!"

The value of the Y.M.C.A. Huts at the front does not lie merely in their supplying the creature comforts to the soldiers; a still greater value lies behind, since they tend to keep bright in the men that splendid spirit which is just now so conspicuous at the front. It is that spirit which, I believe, is going to pull us through to victory in the end.

Napoleon long ago said that in war the moral is as three to one more powerful than the material force. Under the terrible strain on mind as well as on body, which has to be endured in the present-day warfare in the trenches, it is only reasonable to expect that the cheery spirit of our men must go down unless they can get a good change of surroundings in their rest billets.

As I have said, these rest billets are not such gaudily cheerful places as they might be. I feel, therefore, that by setting up bright, warm clubs, where the men can meet and have their fun and get their good feeding, a great step will have been taken towards keeping up their spirits, and so towards tuning them up for the tremendous task which lies before them.

For this reason no effort is too great, no money ill-expended, where it is devoted to providing Recreation Huts for the Front.

[SIR ROBERT BADEN-POWELL entered his sixtieth year last February. It is forty years since he joined the Army. His active service was varied, for he served in India, Afghanistan, South Africa, Zululand, and Matabeleland. For his splendid defence of Mafeking, the close of which added a new word to the English language, he was promoted Major-General. All his life he has been fond of art, and his black-and-white work has often appeared in the illustrated papers. ED.]

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

True Till Death.

"YES," said my blue-clad companion, as he shook his head, "'True till Death' would be a suitable epitaph to place upon many a cross that marks the last resting-place of the heroes who have fallen abroad. All of them have not secured the Victoria Cross, but more lads have earned it than the few whose names are in the daily papers and who have been decorated by our King.

"I will tell you of one sight I saw, and the memory of it will always make me proud to be a Britisher -- though a lump may rise in my throat as I recall the splendid heroism of that boy who was so true till death. He was only a lad, and the early years of his manhood had been spent behind the counter of a draper's shop in a small provincial town. But his yard measure was no index to the length he could go for the sake of his King and Country.

"He was a despatch runner -- which is always a dangerous job to take on -- and he worked between our lines and those of our gallant French allies who joined us upon our left. Our first line of trenches had been gassed by the Germans upon the previous night, and was then in their hands. The ground he had to cover was a death-trap to him each time he ventured out to carry his messages. What those despatches contained, none of us knew, but they did mean either victory or defeat to ourselves and our French comrades.

"I did not know the boy to speak to, though he was well-known to me by sight. I had watched him, three or four times a day, crawling up and down the near side of the hedge that fringed the road between our lines. He was as game as they make them, with the instinct of a wild animal, and as reckless of danger as -- well, as a Tommy.

"It was upon the third day after I had first noticed him, and early in the morning, that I saw him come creeping down towards us. He was upon his stomach, and nosing the ground like a setter. But I observed that, at quick intervals, he kept stopping and resting, with his face turned eagerly towards us, and his throat gasping for breath. The bullets were splashing up the mud all round him, as I had seen them do upon many a similar trip, but he only tightened the grip of his hand upon his side where the papers lay, and struggled a few feet nearer to us.

"It was then that the Turcos (the French colonial troops) were advancing across the near fields to reinforce us, and we were eagerly expecting the order to advance.

"But, before the boy could reach our trenches, he had to cross the road, where he lost the meagre shelter of the hedge, and was fully exposed to the open fire of the snipers. I could see that he was wounded, and that each movement of his body was an agony to him, but he struggled bravely on. I could almost hear his gasps as he reached the road. Then he stopped, and his hand fell limp against his side.

"His last word was a cry for help, for he knew that his time had come. But one of our lads was already on his way to the spot, and there was not a man who watched him but whose heart did not thrill with pride at knowing that he came of the same stock as those two grand men. The dying boy had only strength to feebly draw out his papers, and I could see the cruel red stain upon his hand. Then he kissed them as lovingly as a mother would kiss the babe at her breast, and gave them to his mate almost grudgingly.

"As he fell back into the mud, many an eye was dim at the sight, but a mighty cheer went up from our boys as the papers were brought safely into our trench.

"I think it was the sight of those two glorious deeds that inspired us to do what followed. For the orders contained in that despatch were the very ones we were so anxiously longing for. We were to advance at once and storm the enemy's lines. Each one of us now felt that he had another crime to avenge -- another deed of imperishable heroism to prove worthy of, for the sake of that boy who lay lifeless upon the road.

"The officer who led us fell dead within the first twenty yards, but, with a leader or without one, nothing could stop us then. We were like hungry, wild beasts set loose in a butcher's shop, and we not only took back the trench that had been lost to us, but we captured the German first line as well, and neither of them has gone out of our possession since that day.

"We left many of our poor lads dead behind us, but the figure that will always remain in my memory is that of the dying despatch runner, whose last breath was a kiss that brought us victory."

•     •     •     •     •     •     •     •

The End of the Dream


ALL night long a terrific cannonade shook the very earth, and the sickly fumes of lyddite were wafted into the trenches by a damp March wind. A few star shells dropped their blue lights into the black vault of heaven, and the ubiquitous searchlight played in ghostly fashion over the devastated country. In the morning it was quiet again ; hardly a sound broke the stillness save the deep rumble of artillery far to the west. The same programme, exact in every detail, was repeated day after day until men spat with exasperation at the enforced inactivity, and performed the most foolhardy tricks on the trench parapet in full view of the enemy.

"Spragge," said the corporal one evening, "did you ever think you could kill a man, deliberately and calmly?"


"How did it come, then, the first experience?"

There was a brief silence, then the answer came slowly and softly.

"There has been no first experience for me."

The corporal started with surprise. "How can you know that?"

"I never shoot to hit a man."

The corporal shrank back, almost speechless with amazement.

"My God! You tell me that!" he muttered. It was inexplicable and withal terrible. He felt a sensation akin to that a man feels in the presence of any abnormal being. He considered well every aspect of the question. Here were brave men filled with a common ideal, fighting for the very existence of their nation, and yet one among them, from motives which were utterly unfathomable to any ordinary being, shrunk from the duty necessity imposed upon him. He strove honestly to see things from the other's point of view. Argued from the stand-point of humanitarianism and idealism, perhaps even Christianity itself, it was unmeet to take human life coldly and deliberately, yet, he argued, there were extenuations. The enemy constituted an ever-present menace, and self-defence was always warrantable. The problem grew on his mind and tortured his few sleeping hours, yet he could not harbour the spirit of repulsion which he felt was consistent with the occasion. The quiet, big man with his massive head and delightful eloquence had impressed him in a way he had never imagined. Could such a being really be but a husk, a poor, spiritless, lifeless thing, cankered by a damning ideal? It was all too horrible. For three days he spoke not a word to Spragge.

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn broke with a magnificence unusual for the time of the year. Spragge, on his pile of bricks, watched the far horizon change from a river of red to a flood of gold, then, seeing the corporal near him, quoted:

"But forth one wavelet, then another, curled,
Till the whole sunrise, not to be supprest
Rose-reddened, and its seething breast
Flickered in bounds, grew gold, then overflowed the world."

The corporal pretended not to hear, and commenced vigorously to clean his rifle, but a mere glance at his half-averted face was sufficient to make clear the deception. 

"What's the matter?" asked Spragge.

"Oh, nothing."

"Is it nothing that makes you shun me like the leper?"

"Have I shunned you?"

"I think it has been fairly obvious."

"Spragge!" -- after a brief silence. "Why did you tell me that?"

"Tell you what?"

"You know -- the other night."

"You asked me."

"Yes, yes, I know; but there were ways of evasion. Why did you make me lose my respect for you?"

Spragge looked at him curiously, then half closed his eyes in his dreamy manner.

"So you despise me for that? Despise me because I dared tell you my heart's truth. Is it so very terrible that I cannot kill in cold blood? Do you tell me that you do not hate yourself every time when you speed the bullet that takes a man's life? If I thought that you could kill and kill and be happy -- knowing that you had robbed a mother of her son, a wife maybe of her husband, I would never look at you again."

"My God!" cried the other hotly. "You talk like a madman! Where is your honour -- your patriotism, your ------"

"Honour! Patriotism!" interrupted Spragge. "So, to save my honour I must wreck my ideals, submerge my soul in a ghastly ocean of torment and iniquity! When some poor wretch writhes in pain and agony, I must praise God because thereby my honour is upheld!"

Then he changed his tone of bitterness, and, catching hold of the corporal's sleeve, whispered, rather than spoke. "Don't judge me too harshly, Annesley, we are all God's creatures, and are cast in a mould ordained for us. You don't know how it hurts. If I could act as they act" (inclining his head towards the other men), "I should save myself the acutest mental torment; but I can't, simply can't. Do you believe that?"

"Then why did you come here, where men must fight and kill and slaughter? There's a duty to be done, no matter its sternness."

"There were strange reasons. I watched day by day the stream of khaki figures streaming through the village. Each day they came and went, and each day I envied them the more. Then my mother's eyes -- very soft and very grave. I could not stand their eloquent reprovals. Half the night I thought on it. Sacrifice -- that is a great thing, for no evolution of ego can be perfected without it. It seemed to me that half the world was mad, and yet out of its madness grew the white flower of sacrifice, the symbol of the Cross.

"What have I done for you, England, my England?
What is there I would not do, England, my own?"

Oh, it was all so clear and distinct -- my duty -- and so I came. But to kill ------"

He sat down, resting his head on his hands, and the corporal, unable to control his emotion, left him.

The news crept with amazing speed through the trenches. An assault was about to begin. Men whispered to each other gleefully and yet a little nervously, and each clutched his rifle with more than usual fondness. At the back of them the roar of the massed guns was ear-splitting. The fussy sergeant-major bustled about very excitedly. "Now then, you fellows, out you come, and when you hear the whistle go, hook it 'hell for leather.' Make good the trenches by the trees yonder, near the brickworks."

They scrambled out of the filthy pits they had occupied for three weary weeks, and experienced the magic sensation of treading good terra firma, covered by the terrible fire of a wonderful artillery. Spragge stood with the rest, very pale, but very upright. The corporal walked up to him and looked at him queerly.

"I just wanted to thank you -- in case -- One never knows."

They gripped hands for a second, and then the whistle blew.

Off they went like hounds from the leash, whooping like wild beings, skirting shell-holes and leaping over tree-trunks which, broken and scarred, were strewn over the lacerated ground. They reached the first line of trenches, which were nothing more than an unrecognisable pit of death with dismembered corpses half hidden in the smashed soil. Hardly a soul lived to dispute the advance. At the next line of trenches it was the same death and desolation. The havoc wrought by the massed artillery was immense, incredible. Near the village the resistance began. A dozen machine guns close by, masked in an orchard, rained a perfect hail of lead, and men dropped like ninepins. To the right a Scottish regiment were decimated by a pitiless fire which they were utterly unable to locate; yet they came on, sternly and doggedly, heads down and bayonets flashing, literally climbing over their dead in their dreadful determination. It was all very terrible, yet wonderful, and the little corporal, with a painful flesh wound, wondered where Spragge was, and forgot his own hurt and the hell in which he moved in an effort to imagine the other's feelings and sensations. Could he keep those ideals in the face of present events?

How long it lasted the corporal never knew. All the time he dwelt in a world far removed from that in which he ordinarily moved. Though men dropped in thousands, he experienced not one pang of remorse; it all seemed to be quite right and proper, and his mind had adapted itself to the situation with a readiness which was alarming but comforting. When eventually the whistle sounded and the fighting was over, he came to his proper state of mind in a series of connected transitions.

He moved painfully and slowly among the stretcher-bearers and ambulance wagons, and eventually found Spragge resting on a pile of sand-bags.

The latter looked at him wistfully.

"It's all over," he remarked.

"Yes. Thank God!"

Spragge wrinkled his brows and sat for a moment silent and pensive.

"It was terrible -- horrible," he remarked.

"What, the fighting?"

"No. What we found in a house at the back of the church."

The corporal looked at him interrogatively. The other resumed slowly and painfully.

"She was only twenty, and she showed us what they had done to her. Oh, I can't tell you -- it's too -- too terrible even to relate. Her husband and child too butchered and mutilated. If -- if --"

Phut! A bullet struck a sand-bag within a few inches of the corporal's chest. He started in surprise. They stepped into the shelter of a doorway and waited a few minutes. Then Spragge climbed on a heap of debris and thrust his rifle through the shell-hole. There was a loud report, and the corporal, peering round the doorway, saw in the distance a grey-clad figure drop from a tree. He turned towards Spragge.

"Eighteen!" said the latter, laconically.

To be continued...

These stories appeared in Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift Book published in 1916.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Told in the Huts: The YMCA Gift Book (1916)

While much has been said of the men who donned khaki or navy blues, not as much has been said of those who volunteered in a different way. The YMCA was one of a number of organisations which played a major role in the support of the troops both at home and in the field.

Within weeks of the outbreak of the war, they had set up hundreds of recreation centres -- which became known as 'huts' -- providing tea, sandwiches and reading materials, usually around train stations and transit junctions.

In late 1914 huts where set up in France around the main army bases there and by the end of 1915 there were hundreds more established throughout the area of operations some very close to the front lines.

YMCA workers were mainly women, the men usually having been too old for military service or declared medically unfit. It has been estimated that at any one time, 1,500 YMCA workers were in France and Flanders alone.

For information on the work of the YMCA in France see my post of Arthur K. Yapp's book The Romance of the Red Triangle.

In 1916, to help fund their work with "our soldiers, sailors & munition workers, in all parts of the world," the YMCA produced a book entitled Told in the Huts: The Y.M.C.A. Gift book. With illustrations by Cyrus Cunego the book contained stories and poems contributed by soldiers and YMCA workers.

Over the next few weeks I intend to reproduce many of those stories. The paintings contained in the book, along with several sketches, can be found on my Facebook page.

An Introduction by Arthur K. Yapp

OH! that the Huts could speak! What tales they would have to tell! Huts that are not huts! Huts that are mere stables or farm outbuildings! Huts that are palatial establishments catering for the needs of thousands of men.

The little brown Hut made of timber, and roofed with felt, serving the men at outposts in the danger zone of the East Coast -- on the wilds of Salisbury Plain -- dotted about in hundreds of camps in all parts of the United Kingdom.

What a romantic story could be told by the dug-out Hut at Anzac! What did the Turks do with it when our men evacuated the Peninsula? Or the Huts that are as busy as beehives on the banks of the Tigris, in the wilds of British or German East Africa, or on either bank of the Suez Canal! What stories they could tell!

Then there are the Huts in France. One wishes those in the great Base Camps could tell their story of men heartened by the touch they have given them of home life when far away from home; of the splendid concerts and cinema entertainments; crowded meetings when men have felt themselves stirred to the depths at the Old, Old Story that has been told in all its simplicity, but with persuasive earnestness that has carried conviction, and has helped them to realise as they left the meetings to go "up the line" that they were not facing the ordeal of battle alone.

The Hostel Huts, too, where the friends of dangerously wounded men are entertained by the Y.M.C.A. free of charge! If they could tell what they have seen and heard, it would be one of the most human stories ever told a story of broken hearts bound up by the loving hands of Christian sympathy and love.

And what of the Huts at the Fronts in France and Flanders? The Y.M.C.A. Hut and the Y.M.C.A. man, both bearing the mystic sign of the Red Triangle, mean everything to the men in khaki in Flanders. The French people speak of the Y.M.C.A. as "Les Ygrec em ce ah," and will pass its red triangle anywhere. "Tommy Atkins" calls it "home," and to him it stands for all that is best and truest and noblest in "dear old Blighty" as he affectionately terms the land he loves "across the sea."

This book tells a few of the thousands of stories of reckless daring and deathless heroism that have been recounted from time to time in the Huts of the Y.M.C.A. It also recounts some of the more prosaic tales that our splendid men delight to tell one another in the Huts. The book has not been prepared with a view to "boosting" the Y.M.C.A., but incidentally it draws attention to one of the greatest social and religious movements of our time.

The Story of the Ploegsteert Hut.

When the Right Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill was in Flanders, he happened to be on duty with his men in the trenches on the ridge of Ploegsteert Wood. It was a Saturday night in early spring. All was quiet, and as "black as pitch." Shortly before midnight a star shell shot up from the German trenches and lit up the whole countryside with an unearthly brilliance. This was followed by others, and the effect was weird in the extreme. Presently the shriek of a shell indicated that the enemy contemplated an attack. The shell burst in flames in front of the little Y.M.C.A. Hut. The noise of the explosion roused the workers in the Hut, and in less than four minutes they had slipped into their clothes and taken shelter in the dug-out which had been previously prepared fifteen yards to the rear of the building. They had only reached safety in the nick of time. A second shell burst inside the Hut, and the flames shot up sky-high, and for an hour and a half the Huns "strafed" the hill and wood for all they were worth, pouring in thousands of shells of every size and description. With the morning light not a vestige of the Hut was to be seen. A Y.M.C.A. worker, searching amidst the ruins, found the shrivelled-up rims of his eye-glasses, and a soldier hunting for souvenirs found two coins, a two-franc piece and a twenty-centime piece welded together by the heat. That was all that was left of the "home" the boys had loved for months past.

One striking incident of the night remains to be told. Whenever there came a moment's lull between the booming of the guns, nightingales sung in the Ploegsteert Wood as if nothing out of the common was taking place.

The Story of the Huston Hut.

The charming little Y.M.C.A. Hut that serves the men arriving at or departing from Euston Station was the first Hut with sleeping accommodation opened by the Y.M.C.A. in London during the War. In the early days as many as 420 men, passing through London on their way to or from the Front, have sought its friendly shelter on a single night.

Seven Scottish soldiers found their way in one morning. They were tired, home-sick, and depressed. Even a good square meal was not sufficient to revive their drooping spirits. They had said good-bye to their wives and bairns the day before, and had travelled through the night in a crowded train, so that they had been unable to sleep a wink. They were on their way to the Dardanelles, and well they knew what they had to face. Chancing to look over the counter into the kitchen, one of the men -- McTavish, we will call him -- saw a lady worker shelling peas, and summoning all his courage -- for these men, brave as they are, are very shy -- asked if he might come and help her. Of course she welcomed him, and later on his six comrades came forward to assist in the operation. That morning they shelled enough peas to last a week. When they had completed the self- imposed task, McTavish spoke again: "I cannot tell ye the like of what that has meant to us. It has taken us right back home, and now we are ready to go to the Dardanelles or to face whatever the future may have in store."

A touch of home, that is what the men find in the Huts. There is nothing official about them, and the one commodity they do not possess is "red-tape." The boys yearn for home!

One day the Leader of the Euston Hut noticed a group of ragged children gathered outside the main entrance. He watched them as they approached nearer and nearer the door. Some of them summoned up their courage and walked right in as if they owned the whole place. This was too much for him. He went up to them and said, " You must run away; this place is not for boys and girls, it is for soldiers and sailors." One little ragged urchin looked up in his face and said, "Please, sir, we have given our money towards this show and we want to see how it is run." When he made enquiries he found that they belonged to one of the poorest of the schools in the North of London, and out of their poverty they had given no less than thirty shillings, nearly the whole of it in halfpennies and farthings, towards the cost of the work of the Y.M.C.A.

To be continued...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Irish Guards at the Somme

Two battalions of the Irish Guards, the 1st. and 2nd. Battalions, took part in the Battle of the Somme 1916. Both battalions were in the Guards Division and the principal actions in which they played an outstanding part were fought out during September 1916 in the battles officially known as "Flers-Courcelette" and "Morval" and embracing such memorable actions as the battles of Ginchy, Guillemont and Lesboeufs and over ground soaked with the blood of their fellow countrymen in the 16th. (Irish) Division a few days earlier.

We will recount the doings of the 1st. Battalion. Two days will always stand out as milestones in the History of the Irish Guards namely 15th. and 25th. September, 1916. Much is already known about the appalling ground conditions - the all prevailing mud and slime, the wreckage and stench of death, to make it necessary to go into any detail here, suffice to say that on these two days the 1st. Battalion lost 99% of its strength. It was on 15th. that the 1st. Bn. advanced at Ginchy in face of the most concentrated machine-gun fire from the "Orchard" and despite the most severe losses held the ground they had so valiantly fought over that day. The landscape at Ginchy was somewhat like the map of the moon. All known signs, landmarks and the like were obliterated, everybody knew the direction of the attack was to be N37 but that was about the only guide. The Guards Division launched itself forward into a veritable sleet of machine-gun and shell-fire and battered their way with bomb and bayonet until they reached a position where they could see the countryside between Flers and Lesboeufs - rooftops complete with tiles and a countryside that seemed normal was a change from the "Hellhole" that was their present position. The Germans fortified by the knowledge that the assault by the 6th. Div. between Ginchy and Leuze Wood had failed, thanks to the driving fire from the "Quadrilateral", were giving the Guards Division their complete attention, thus every shell-burst and burst of machine-gun fire found its way into the ranks of the Guards, but they did not flinch. They held on to the ground they had gained at such a cost. On September l6th the remnants of the battalion were relieved by the Lincolns of the 62nd. Brigade.

We come now to the attack on 25th September. This had limited objectives - German trenches and not merely lines drawn across a map. It concerned, too, a name which is stamped well in the deeds of valour of our Irish Troops - "Lesboeufs" - Of course the battalion had been reinforced with drafts from home since their ordeal on 15th.

The attack opened on a fine Sunday morning at 12.55 hrs. Our barrage locked down 200 yards ahead of the 'Micks', Nos. 1 and 2 Companies moved out with the rest of the line towards the German trenches. Immediately the enemy put down counter barrages and the hair began to fly. Our Artillery fire was much better than on 15th and it enabled the 'Micks' to take all their objectives one after another until finally they had fought through to the northern end of Lesboeufs where they consolidated and firmly held the position. Thousands of Germans were taken prisoner on this day, they were stunned and demoralized by the ferocity of the attacks upon them but on the other hand they seemed pleased to be out of it all. On our side of the scale the Irish Guards lost one officer killed, 10 wounded and 250 Other Ranks killed - Thus in the two attacks in this area within ten days we lost a full battalion.

The 2nd. Battalion was also involved in these battles on 15th. and 25th. September 1916. During the slogging match on 15th. the 2nd. Bn. amongst whose officers was a Captain H.R. Alexander (Field-Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis), performed very valiantly in the tough fighting which the Guards Division encountered on this day. The battalion suffered severely as they were involved in all the desperate actions of that fateful day. One hundred and sixty-six survivors were all that remained of the 2nd. Bn. when the roll was called, a high price indeed was paid for the ground in front of Lesboeufs.

For the attack on 25th. the 2nd. Bn. were in reserve and when the call came on 16th. they took over from the 1st. Bn., again shattered for the second time in ten days. The Battalion held the positions gained on 25th. by 1st. Bn. east of Lesboeufs.

General Rawlinson, who commanded the IV Army said it was the vigorous attacks of the Guards Division under very trying conditions which won the day. They pressed forward the attack in face of a great concentration of enfilade fire from both flanks. Perhaps it would be right to say that the Guards Division by their success in capturing these key enemy positions was one of the main reasons which forced the eventual German withdrawal "according to plan" to the Hindenburg Line.

A solemn but beautiful reminder of the achievements of the Guards in this sector of the Somme battlefront is the well laid out and beautiful Guards Military Cemetery at Lesboeufs.

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ulster's Cavalry Units at the Somme, 1916

Indian cavalry await the order to advance on the Somme, 14 July 1916.

British Cavalry played an outstanding part in the opening battles of the Great War 1914-18 and none of them played a more valiant part than the Ulster Cavalry Regiments.

During the winter of 1914 the opposing armies had "gone to ground" and the war developed into 'A war of Attrition' in its most ghastly form. It soon became obvious that the traditional role of cavalry was becoming less and less apparent, cavalry could not be expected to manoeuvre over the vast fortified trench systems dug into the terrain and protected by masses of vicious barbed-wire. The Cavalry with its long traditions of the battles of past centuries was in for a period of uncertainty as to its future. It was not until the closing 18 months of the war that the cavalry became identified with the fighting armoured vehicles in the form of "Tanks". These new inventions of war were at first used at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 but were originally manned by men of the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Section). Since then the Cavalry have developed into what we now know as the Royal Armoured Corps and carry with them in their modern role the great traditions of the old cavalry regiments.

For about eighteen months prior to the opening of the Battle of the Somme the Cavalry Corps, with a few exceptions, were dismounted and put into the trenches in the role of Infantry. In May 1916 when preparations were in progress for the forthcoming offensive on the Somme, all Cavalry Units were taken out of the trenches and remounted on their horses. The Cavalry Corps comprising some three Divisions was assembled at some distance behind the Somme Front and they went into strenuous training in the hope that the great offensive would produce a breakthrough where the Cavalry could exploit the situation in their traditional role. This, however, did not materialize and as the great Battle of the Somme progressed it became apparent that due to the appalling conditions on the ground, the heavily fortified positions all along the front attacked, with thousands of tactically sited machine-guns, all these defences protected by deep belts of barbed wire many up to 100 yards in depth, and all this supported by artillery of all calibres it would be quite impossible to use cavalry in their normal role. However the Cavalry were held in readiness for the expected breakthrough; this never came and in many cases the Cavalry Regiments were again dismounted and took their place in the battle as Infantry. The 8th. Royal Irish Hussars played an important part at the Battle of Bazentin 14-17 July, the 6th. Inniskilling Dragoons were used about this time in the work of consolidation of newly won positions and generally in support of the Infantry, always keeping their mounts within easy reach in readiness in case of the hoped for exploitation. Such an opportunity presented itself near "Flers" in September on the day "Tanks" were used for the first time, but it did not materialise.

Mark I 'Male' Tank of 'C' Company that broke down crossing a British trench on its way
to attack Thiepval on 25th September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

The Cavalry while not so deeply involved in the battles on the Somme nevertheless played an important and noteworthy part throughout the Battle of the Somme 1916. The Ulster Cavalry Regiments were awarded the battle honours: "Albert, 1916", "Somme 1916", "Bazentin", "Flers-Corcelette" and "Morval".

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Image top: National Army Museum (NAM. 2001-01-279-77).
Image bottom: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 2486).


Thursday, 31 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - The Royal Irish Fusiliers

Four Battalions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers took part in the Battle of the Somme, 1916. The 1st. Battalion (Regular) formed part of the 10th. Brigade, 4th. Division, the 7th. and 8th. Battalions were in the 49th. Brigade, 16th. (Irish) Division and the 9th. Battalion formed part of the 108th. Brigade, 36th. (Ulster) Division. The part played by the three later battalions is related in the story of the 16th. Division and the 36th. Division respectively.

On the opening day of the battle, 1st July, 1916, the 1st. Bn. in the 4th. Division was still waiting to assault as its sister battalion, the 9th. Service Bn., was being cut to pieces in its advance with the Ulster Division. The 10th. Bde. was to advance in support of the 11th. and 12th. Brigades. As the leading Brigades formed up in front of their trenches, just before Zero Hour, they were met by continuous machine-gun fire and a wall of exploding shells which moved across No-Man's-Land towards them. But the attack was made and the German lines were penetrated at several points. The crucial question was; has the leading brigades reached their objectives? If they had, the 10th. Bde. must be held back or might otherwise be exposed to useless slaughter. Unfortunately, it was impossible to say how far the leading troops had got or in what strength. The signal for 'stopped by uncut wire' - One White Flare - was too much like the signal for 'Objective Gained' - three white flares - for observers to tell the difference between them. Messages had to be taken by runners across No-Man's-Land under much prodigious fire that many were lost. In consequence the 10th. Bde. began to move forward so as to cross the British Front Line at the time previously set; 9.30 a.m. Orders to remain in the trenches until further notice were not received in time and the supporting brigade had already started to move forward. Like the leading Brigades they lost many men, but those who got through joined the leading troops in the melee in the German trenches. Due to the terrible artillery fire the 1st. Royal Irish Fusiliers was held up in the British front line where they were pinned down for some time.

At 1.25 p.m. the Commanding Officer was ordered to send one Company forward with the 1st. Warwicks, which was also a support battalion in the 10th. Bde. They were to cross No-Man's-Land and reinforce a mixed party of Seaforths and Lancashire Fusiliers, who were hanging on to a salient in the enemy line known as the Quadrilateral, in face of repeated vicious enemy counter-attacks. "C" Coy. was sent on this errand which failed despite several attempts to brave the storm of machine-gun fire. The Company Commander was severely wounded. Realising at about 4 p.m. that "C" Coy. had not reached the Quadrilateral, the Bn. Commander now dispatched "D" Coy. on the same task. This company was successful and joined the Seaforths in the Quadrilateral. Some hours later, through confused orders, all troops except "D" Coy. withdrew from the Quadrilateral; these men were left in a very exposed position in the enemy line. Runners failed to get through to them during the night and it was feared that the company had been overwhelmed. In fact it had a busy and successful stay, fighting off enemy bombing-attacks with great spirit. Contact was made with Bn. H.Q. and the Company withdrew in good order at 11 a.m. next morning bringing with them all their wounded, three prisoners and a quantity of arms and stores.

The 4th. Division remained in the line for some weeks after this. The 1st. R.I. Fus. taking its turn in the trenches and helping in the sad task of burying the dead who had to be retrieved from No-Man's-Land. On July 17th the battalion was relieved and went into reserve, shortly afterwards it received orders to move further north and took no further part in the Somme blood bath.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Irish Rifles

Simultaneously with the attack on Thiepval Ridge by the Ulster Division and the 32nd. Division on the 1st July, the extreme southern end of the ridge was attacked by the 8th. Division who formed part of the 3rd. Corps. In the 25th. Brigade of the 8th. Division was the 1st. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles. The battalion was in the line directly opposite the strongly fortified village of Ovilliers just a few hundred yards north of the main Albert-Bapaume Road or what was left of it. The objective of the 25th. Brigade was the village of Pozieres, two kilometres further along the Albert-Bapaume Road -- a rather ambitious project. The battalion was to advance in support of the other battalions in the Brigade. The leading battalions having taken Ovilliers -- 1 RIR was to move forward and consolidate with the leading battalions, it was then to make the assault an Pozieres itself.
As mentioned in the story of the Ulster Division's attack on the Thiepval Ridge, a tremendous bombardment preceded the attack. At zero. 7.30 a.m. the Brigade advanced forward to the attack on the German Front Line. They were met with a veritable avalanche of machine-gun and mortar fire. Few men of the leading battalions ever reached the enemy wire, which had not been thoroughly cut by the British bombardment and presented a difficult problem for the leading sections. The few sections who did enter the enemy front line held on grimly against a fierce fusillade of fire from the enemy until the arrival of the 1st. Rifles who were advancing to their support. The Rifles advance was met with similar shattering fire from a mass of strong points covering the German positions which had been entered and were being assaulted by the supporting Rifle Bn. The village of La Boiselle on their right flank had not been captured and from this point the enemy poured a hurricane of machine-gun and mortar fire into the ranks of the attacking riflemen and only a mere handful of men ever reached the German Front Line. These together with those of the leading battalions who were already in the enemy front trenches had to beat off continuous hostile bombing attacks from the enemy elements who had been sheltering in their deep cellars during our bombardment and now came out into the daylight to fire on our already severely mauled infantry. The company on the left, "A" Coy., overran the German Front Line and reached the second support trench and inflicted men losses on the enemy holding out there but alas due to their flanks not succeeding they were eventually forced to withdraw. Eventually all the British troops who had entered the enemy positions had to retire to their own front line, these represented only a mere fraction of those who went into the attack. As was the case on Thiepval Ridge, the flanks having failed any small breaches made were forced to fall back to secure their flanks. The Battalion lost its Commanding Officer, its Adjutant and six other Officers, twelve Officers were wounded and other ranks casualties amounted to 348, many of these were 'Missing' believed killed.

Every man had given of his beat, the men had gone into action with high hopes of victory and fought as though they expected it, but their task was an impossible one, they gained nothing but glory, Ovilliers was a very strongly fortified objective in common with other villages on this part of the front and was not to be entered again by British Troops until the end of September.

What remained of the battalion was taken out of the line that night and a couple of days later was ordered north to the rather more quiet area around Bethune.

However, its association with the Somme battlefield was not at an end. On October 14th the battalion entrained at Lillers for its second venture on the Somme. While the 2nd. Bn. was involved in the Battle of the Ancre Heights over the same ground attacked by the Ulster Divison on 1st July, the 1st. Battalion went into the attack with the 8th. Division between Morval and Les Boeufs. The objective of the 25th. Brigade was Zenith Trench and 300 yards further on a trench known as Misty Trench. The Bn. advanced in support of the 2nd. Lincolns and the 2nd. Rifle Brigade, although limited success was achieved the assault was a failure, in no small measure due to the severe casualties inflicted on the advancing troops of the Brigade by our own artillery and to the fierce stubborn resistance put up by the enemy holding on to what they considered a key position.

The battalion was now moved to Trones Wood where it remained in the line for two or three weeks and had to endure terrible privations due to the appalling conditions in the trenches, if they could be called trenches, the British Front Line consisted of a mass of water filled shell holes and craters, many of them containing half decomposed bodies which could not be properly buried in the circumstances prevailing. On top of all this the enemy kept up a continuous bombardment both day and night, in which gas was largely used and the battalion suffered severely. This was probably one of the worst periods of endurance the battalion had to suffer during the whole war, the long exposure to wet and cold without cover of any kind beggars description, the strain on the men was almost intolerable, but somehow the battalion came through but lost a great proportion of its strength by the time it was relieved for a few days respite. With the fall of Beaumont-Hamel and the capture of St. Pierre Divion and Grandcourt on the Ancre on 15th November and the following two days the Battle of the Somme came to an end on 18th November, 1916. At this time the 1st. Bn. Royal Irish Rifles were holding the line facing the village of Le Transloy on the main Bapaume/Perrone Road from which line the Germans were, a couple of months later, compelled to retire "according to plan" to the new Hindenburg Line.

2nd. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles.

A few days after the 1st. Battalion was withdrawn from the line on the night of July 1st., the 2nd. Battalion came into action at practically the same spot facing the German Line between Ovilliers and La Boiselle. It formed part of the 74th. Brigade, 25th. Division in the newly formed 5th. Army (later to become famous) under General Sir Hubert Gough.

During the first few days of July further strong attacks were made on both Ovilliers and La Boiselle and although a foothold was gained in La Boiselle, the fortress of Ovilliers resisted all attempts at capture. By 5th July La Boiselle was completely in British hands and in an effort to exploit this advantage and outflank Ovilliers, the 47th. Brigade was put at the disposal of the 12th. Division. The Brigade was to attack towards the eastern side of the Ovilliers defences. The Rifles advanced in support of a battalion of the North Lancs and a battalion of Cheshires. The leading battalions advanced with great dash and by 9 a.m. the whole of the German front protecting the eastern defences of Ovilliers was in our hands except a gap of some 400 yards in front of the Cheshires. The 2nd. Rifles were now ordered to assault this gap, capture and consolidate it. During consolidation the men were amazed by what they found in the German dug-outs and the palatial underground dwellings with separate quarters for Officers, kitchens, telephone exchanges, elaborate first-aid quarters and well appointed bunks for the men up to the standard of any barrack room. Our army had never experienced anything approaching this.

During the night the 2nd. Bn. made bombing attacks and further progress was made into the hostile defensive system. During the following day the enemy made strong counter-attacks but all were beaten of with considerable loss to the enemy. This type of fighting continued for the next day and on this night the battalion was relieved having suffered some 200 casualties in the three days fighting.

Their rest in reserve lasted only two days before they were back in the line again, this time facing Ovilliers itself, the attack on this fortress village, which had resisted all attempts to reduce it, was to be made at dusk with all three brigades of the Division, each Brigade having not more than 300 yards frontage, a moat ambitious venture in the darkness. The attack was not a complete success, despite the large force employed. The advance was raked with machine-gun fire and casualties were heavy. As a consequence of heavy losses and disorganisation in the darkness the battalion was forced to withdraw with the other units in the brigade. On the right of the Rifles a battalion of the Warwickshires was cut off and the only way to relieve them was for the 2nd. Rifles to bomb its way up a trench which led to the surrounded Warwicks. Although the bombers fought desperately no progress was made, continued efforts were made next day but only slight gains were made. Eventually towards dusk on the second day a renewed attack was made with the help of a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The fighting was desperate and when it was seen that no progress could be made, suddenly there came the dramatic end, a white flag was hoisted by the enemy, orders were passed to our men to stand upon their guard, it might be a trick, but no! from all sides heads appeared and hands were raised to the accompaniment of "Kammerad"! The whole party had surrendered, Ovilliers had fallen, an expensive victory but nevertheless it put new life into our men. The Bosche had made a splendid defence, but now they seemed to be delighted to be taken prisoner and out of it all, and insisted in shaking hands with their captors. A great quantity of booty of all kinds was taken during the 'mopping-up' of the elaborate trench system which continued throughout the following day. Later that night the battalion was relieved and marched back to Beauval to rest.

After several days rest the battalion moved into the line again to engage trench warfare, it relieved another battalion of Ulstermen, 1st. Bn. Inniskilling Fusiliers of 29th. Division opposite the village of Beaumont-Hamel and the salient known as Mary Redan. This was the part of the line north of the River Ancre where the attack on 1st July had been a total failure and No-Man's-Land was still full of 29th. Division's dead. This was the pattern of trench warfare in which the battalion engaged for the next month or two moving in and out of the line at places well known to the Ulster Division, but now static, namely the Schwaben Redoubt, Thiepval Wood, St. Pierre Divion etc.

In the month of October the 2nd. Bn. took part in the Battle of the Ancre Heights which included the capture of many places which had been taken by the Ulster Division on 1st July but which had to be evacuated because no advance had been made on their flanks. The Bn. took part in the capture of Stuff Redoubt, Houquet Farm, Regina Trench, Courcellette and St. Pierre Divion. The casualties in these actions were comparatively light compared with earlier Somme actions, this was probably due to the fact that British troops were now in possession of many German fortified positions with their elaborately furnished underground cellars which afforded perfect cover against bombardment. It can be said with certainty that enemy losses were very considerably more than British losses in these final actions during the closing days of the Battle of the Somme.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Ulster at the Somme - 1st and 2nd Battalions Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

Seven battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took part in the Battle of The Somme, 1916. The two Regular Battalions the 1st. and 2nd. were in the 29th. and 32nd. Divisions respectively. The 7th. and 8th. Battalions served with the 16th. (Irish) Division and the 9th. 10th. & 11th. Battalions with the 36th. (Ulster) Division. The story of the Irish Division and the Ulster Division at the Somme is told in the chapters on these two Divisions.

The 1st. Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers formed part of the 87th. Brigade of the 29th. Division. On 1st July this Bn. was holding the Line in front of the enemy strong-point known as Hawthorn Redoubt between the River Ancre and the strongly defended village of Beaumont-Hamel and was on the immediate left of the 12th. Bn. The Royal Irish Rifles of the 36th. (Ulster) Division. The task assigned to the 29th. Division was to capture the German positions along the ridge between Beaumont-Hamel and the 36th. Division's left, a most hopeless task, as the result proved. The enemy position rose in terrace after terrace of formidable entrenchments set thick with machine-gun posts with a perfect field of fire for hundreds of yards between them and the British front line trench.

At zero (7.30 a.m.) the Inniskillings moved forward in the general attack in lines of Platoons in Single File, immediately they got out of their assembly trenches they were met with a driving rain of machine-gun and rifle fire combined with a mortar and artillery barrage, it seemed impossible that anything could survive in such a cauldron of fire. The men faced the storm unflinchingly, the casualties were terrible and included the Commanding Officer killed with eleven other Officers before they had moved a hundred yards. A mere remnant of the battalion reached the enemy wire, there only to find that the wire had not been cut by our Artillery bombardment, this made further movement impossible. At this point they were met with heavy cross-fire from neighbouring enemy strong-points and what was left of the battalion had to take cover as best they could in the shell holes, movement in any direction being impossible. It was quite impossible to bring up reserves and eventually the whole 87th. Brigade, or what was left of it was compelled to retire, this in itself was a hazardous undertaking, and by the time they had returned to their own trenches many more casualties resulted. The casualties in the Inniskillings were desolating for that day, amounting in all, to 549 killed, wounded and missing. From the beginning the venture was a hopeless task, but the men put all they had into it and yet not a yard was gained.

The Battalion remained in reserve in this area until brought up to strength by drafts from home and in a couple of weeks moved north to Hazebrouck and the Ypres Salient. During the first week in October the battalion returned to the Somme Area and went into the Line in the Montauban Sector but took no part in any further major operation until the Somme Battle ended.

The 2nd. Battalion was in the Line on 1st July as part of the 96th. Brigade 32nd. Division. Their sector was immediately in front of Thiepval Village and on the right of their three sister battalions in the Ulster Division, the 9th. 10th. & 11th. Their allotted task was to advance in support of the two leading battalions of the Brigade. At 7.30 a.m. on that fateful morning the heavy British bombardment of the German positions suddenly ceased, and the air fell suddenly still, that moment of silence, seemed to some a year as the leading infantry left their trenches and moved forward. In common with the whole front they were immediately met with a murderous fire from everything the enemy had got, and although a little ground was gained the attack did not prosper. Three Companies of the Inniskillings were moved forward to the assistance of the leading battalions of English Infantry who had sustained terrible casualties and were being pinned down by the heavy machine-gun fire from the Thiepval Fortress. A little ground had been gained north of the village and the Division on the immediate left, the 36th. (Ulster) Division had made good progress. Shortly after mid-day an attack by all the available force of the Brigade was made from the positions gained in an attempt to turn the enemy flank at Thiepval, but all was in vain. The murderous fire from the enemy machine-guns made it impossible to advance a yard and due to the appalling casualties the whole of the 96th. Brigade was in effect out of the battle. During the afternoon units of the 49th. Division, whose role was to move in support of the 32nd. & 36th. Divisions, were sent forward to try and fill the gap which now existed between the left wing of the 32nd. Division and the right of the Ulster Division but nothing decisive was the result. The 2nd. Inniskillings during the rest of the day held trenches in the right rear of their three sister battalions in the Ulster Division. In spite of heavy casualties inflicted by enemy bombers and continuous machine-gun fire from the Thiepval Fortress the battalion held on to their positions throughout the night and all the next day. With the remnants of their Brigade they were relieved on the morning of the 3rd July.

After a few days out of the line the battalion was back in the trenches again, this time in font of the Ovilliers-La Boiselle sector, further to the right of Thiepval. Here on 9th July it went into the attack on a series of enemy trenches in front of Ovilliers which had resisted all efforts at capture since the opening of the battle on 1st. Advancing with great dash and resolution the battalion overran, captured and consolidated two lines of hostile trenches in their immediate front. Determined enemy counter-attacks followed in quick succession throughout the day but all efforts on the part of the Germans were held off with severe loss to the enemy. Again on the 13th July the 2nd. Inniskillings together with the 17th. H.L.I. went into the attack in an effort to extend their gains of a few days earlier, but this attack did not prove so successful as that on the 9th., casualties were so heavy in both Officers and Men that they could not hold on to the positions reached and were compelled to retire to their start point. The Battalion somewhat depleted in numbers were relieved in the front line on July 14 and were to take no further part in the Somme fighting.

To be continued...

The above text is taken from a typed manuscript which was written in 1966 and was signed with the initials W.A.S. If anyone knows who the original author was I would like to hear from you so that it can be properly attributed.