Saturday 18 June 2011

A Day's Outing at Messines

Second-Lieut. W. A. Martin


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Sec.-Lieut. W. A. Martin, son of Mr John Martin, Hallstown, Magheragall, in a letter to his father dated 9th inst. gives a graphic account of his experiences at Messines two days previously. He writes:-- I am sitting now under a huge beech tree in a beautiful green field a few miles behind the lines. It is like heaven to be in a peaceful place again after the experience of Thursday. I should like to tell you all my experiences during that terrible day, but if I attempted the task I'm sure it would take me at least a week to write it. However, I will tell you something about it.

At 4-30 on Wednesday morning we got up and started our march towards the lines. During the day we halted for a few hours to give the men a rest and an opportunity for getting a little sleep, but there was neither rest nor sleep for the officers -- we had so many things to look after. At six o'clock we had a united Church of England and Presbyterian service -- and what a service! I never was at anything so impressive in my life. I am perfectly sure there was not a man of the hundreds who knelt in the field that evening who did not rise from his knees feeling himself a better man. We sang "Jesus, lover of my soul" and "O God, our Help in ages past," and I shall never forget that singing -- there was scarcely a man whose voice was not husky with emotion and his eyes dim with tears. After the service there was a celebration of the Holy Communion -- the last celebration for many of those who knelt there. That was a real sacrament. Each man felt that there was only one Arm that could protect him on the morrow and as he drank the cup "showing forth the Lord's death until He come," he thought of the sacrifice which he might be called to make and prayed for those who would be left to mourn at home.

Troops of the Irish Divisions see a mock-up of Messines Ridge before they go to the front

After the service we had our last meal and at ten o'clock started for the assembly trenches -- these are narrow slits about seven feet deep and scarcely wide enough to enable one to turn, but they are a splendid protection against shell-fire, as one is safe unless a shell falls actually into the trench. We arrived at these trenches at mid-night and I felt awfully tired after having been on the move from 4-30 in the morning. At ten minutes past three the show started, and it was half-past three the following morning before I had either rest or food. I think if all the fatigue I ever felt in my whole life before were heaped together it would not be so great as the fatigue I felt at the end of that awful day when we were relieved. Our battalion was to go forward and take the final objective on the Messines Ridge, and we reached it at 8-30 in the morning. We were absolutely exhausted and choking with thirst when we got there, but there was no rest. We had to make our fellows, tired out us they were, dig like mad to make some sort of cover from which they could fire before the Germans launched their counter-attack. About 4 o'clock in the morning the tension was relieved by another division going right through us and driving the enemy back for another mile. It is impossible to realise how one feels after being in action for twenty-four hours. One does not feel hungry much, in fact I did not feel hungry in the least, but the thirst was terrific. Try to imagine being so thirsty that you would give the last penny you possessed for a drink of  water, then multiply that by ten and you will have a sort of an idea what it feels like to lie in action on a broiling summer's day. It was seven o'clock in the evening before water was brought up to us -- it was brought on pack-mules, and you can imagine how we flocked round those old mules. I never in my life tasted anything one hundredth part so delightful as that water out of an old petrol tin. As I look back on that day it all seems like an awful nightmare, and yet it was a glorious day too -- a red-letter day in the history of the war. It certainly was the greatest advance that has taken place yet, and I haven't the least hesitation in saying that the sun never rose on such a scene of conflagration and terror, as on the dawn of the 7th of June. A mine containing about 200 tons of explosive went off on the stroke of 3-10 a.m. about 500 yards from us under the German lines, and several smaller mines went off at the same instant. It is absolutely impossible to describe what the scene was like. The earth rocked and swayed for miles round, and at the same moment ten thousand guns came into action, and the whole earth seemed ablaze, while the roar was simply deafening. Try to imagine the most terrific thunderstorm you have ever seen, with the sky simply ablaze with lightning; multiply that by a hundred thousand, and even then you will have no idea what it was like. There never in any previous battle was such a concentration of artillery. They did their work and the infantry did theirs. My men were simply splendid -- real old Ulster True Blues. Marching up to the Assembly trenches the night before one of them had a flute and he played Orange tunes the whole way up, and another tied an old flag to his rifle and waved it in front. They are the type of Orangemen that I admire -- on their rifles and sleeves they had chalked the words "No Surrender," and some of them died with their Orange scarves round their necks. To Orangemen like that I take of my hat. Before we started they called for three cheers for me, and I can tell you I felt proud to be trusted by such men. The Irish Division fought by our side -- they are John Redmond's Division, but politics do not count out here. Protestant or Catholic, Home Ruler or Unionist, we were all Irishmen fighting side by side for the great cause of Liberty. I had no hesitation in saying that three of the finest divisions in the British Army fought together on that day -- the Ulstermen, the Southerners, and the New Zealanders -- and what they fought for they won.

I had some very narrow escapes. On one occasion I was with a small party (about sixteen men) of my platoon -- the remainder were following behind with my sergeants -- and a German shell fell right in the middle of my lot. Only two of us escaped, and the other chap was killed a few seconds later. This was before we reached the German lines at all. Only about five of them were killed -- the others were more or less severely wounded. My servant and all my runners were "knocked out" at that time too, and really I can't understand how I escaped. Needless to say, I offered up a little thanksgiving before I went to get the remainder of my platoon, and when I got them I found that my best sergeant was knocked out too. I am going to write to-morrow to the next-of-kin of those fellows in my platoon who were killed.

Russel Patey was very slightly wounded -- just a tiny scratch on the shoulder. It scarcely broke the skin, but his name will appear in the casualty list as having been wounded. Isn't he a lucky beggar? Of course he wasn't off duty for a moment.

Lieut. Brattie was wounded. I saw him just a few minutes after he got it and he called me over to him. He was very pale, and he took my hand and looked up in my face with the tears in his eyes. I hadn't time to stop with him as I had to push on but I felt awfully sorry for him. When I was coming away he said, "Martin, I'm knocked out, but you'll go on and do your job, won't you?" He was an awfully fine chap and a splendid soldier. His wound is not very serious I am glad to say.

View of the great crater at Hill 60, the result of the mine detonated by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company on 7 June 1917 at the opening of the Battle of Messines. [AWM E00582]

This morning we had another beautiful service -- a thanksgiving for victory -- and after it there was a celebration of the Holy Communion. I just wish we could have such services at home. Uncle Sam is very popular in the Division, and in addition to being a padre he is a soldier -- that is what the men like. It is impossible to speak too highly of the work of the chaplains out here. On Thursday, when we had reached our objective and the fighting was keenest, a padre came up to me and asked if I knew where a certain battalion was. I looked at him and said, "My God, Padre, what brought you here?" "Oh," he said, "I just came with the boys." That is the sort of parsons we want after the war.

Our brigade is back now having a rest, and I really think we need it. You can't imagine how one feels after a show like Thursday -- the reaction is terrible.

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An Ulsterman who fought with the Australians to the right of the Ulster Division at Messines has written the following interesting account of hie experiences to a cousin who resides in Lisburn:--
It was a German sniper that caused the trouble and lucky for me that he was suffering either from nerves or bad eye-sight as he was only 50 yards away, and we were advancing absolutely in the open. Though to be hit within 50 yards of our objective was rather hard. Altogether it was a day of excitement, as we went up about 1 o'clock in the morning and helped the New Zealanders take Messines, which was purely and simply a walk over. We left the New Zealanders partly dug in and pulled out to get a little rest for the afternoon stunt. Had a good breakfast -- bacon, mashed potatoes, and steak, that will give you some idea how things were carried out. About 12 o'clock (midday) donned all our war paint (weighed about a ton, I think) as we carried 3 days rations, meat biscuits, and water, also, every man had his pockets full of bombs besides bandoliers of reserve ammunition.

I had the Lewis gun, revolver, and 200 rounds ammunition, and as one of our chaps got hit early I took his bucket of magazines as I thought there might be a chance of us being short. As it was a hot day you can imagine we didn't feel like ice-chests.

It was so absolutely an open fight, and as he had four balloons up I thought we would meet trouble. We advanced through Messines (he was shelling it fairly heavily and we had a few casualties though not as many as I expected. We opened out to extended order as soon as we got over the hill, and I think it was the grandest sight ever I saw. As far as you could see either flank were the lines of khaki figures pushing ahead with shells falling all around, and no one seemed to be getting hit. We had a good deal of rifle fire to put up with as well. As soon as we appeared over the hill, Fritz started to run away, our chaps walked, steadily firing as they went. Though one chap said he doubted if the bullets would catch Fritz, they ran that fast. When we got down on the flat we ran into a strong point, and the rifle-fire was heavy. The bucket of magazines I was carrying got hit with a bullet which set them on fire and they (the ammunition) started to explode. As I had ammunition and bombs all over me I knew if I didn't get if off quick things would be bad. I can assure you I can imagine now how a dog feels with a packet of crackers tied to his tail. Anyhow, our sergeant rushed to help me and just as he got them off he was hit a couple of times in the legs, though not very bad. I wasn't meant to go much further, as I had barely gone another 50 yards when I got my little lot. I was walking along firing the Lewis gun from the hip when I thought a horse had kicked me in the leg. I fell, though looked up in time to sing out to one of our section to come and take the gun. I crawled about 10 yards into a big shell-hole, and Fritz had a couple of speculators at me, but missed. I bandaged up my knee and waited until the rifle-fire got a bit further away, when I crawled to the top and could see our lads a long way ahead. I still had a lot of shells to dodge between there and the dressing station, but managed it alright, hopping and crawling nearly all the way about two miles.

How is that for a day's outing? We don't get much money but we have lots of fun; true, isn't it?

Altogether, our casualties were lighter than expected, and one of the strongest positions ever I saw won with the least fighting.

I am still in bed and likely to be for a few days, although it is a very clean wound and almost healed up when the bullet went in.

(These extracts were originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 22 June 1917.)


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