My Granddad, Wilfred Cubbage, was born in 1897. His father died when he was young, so, as the only male in the family with 2 sisters and a Mum to support, he was forced to go out to work at age 18. He was a very bright man but had to turn down a place at Oxford because the family could not afford to lose his wages. Instead, he became a tax inspector! Interesting that this role in life was considered priority when he tried to join up in 1915 aged 18! He had to stay on another 2 years before he was accepted into the army. Says something about national priorities!
This diary is incomplete and we are still searching the family vaults, attics and archives for part 2. It charts the first 2 years of his service in WWI, including facing the Germans in both battles of Ypres. We know that he was later taken prisoner and was held as a POW for the last 9 months of the war in pretty primitive conditions.
Like so many of his generation, he never talked much about his experiences, although he did commit them to paper in 1920, whcih is what you are reading here. He was a classic old school, stiff upper lip, God-Queen-and-Country type who voted Labour all his life. I never really got to know him, as my Grandmother was ill with what we now know (but then didn't) was Alzheimer's during my teens. By the time I was 18 and old enough to think a bit more and ask questions, he was very ill and died in 1980.
The aim of this account is to attempt to give a full description of my travels and adventures during the two years that I served in the army in the Great War.
I joined the army as a soldier on April 3rd 1917 at Cowley Barracks, Oxford. I had previously offered my services on December 9th 1915 but, owing to the national importance of my civil occupations, I had not been allowed to join before 1917. My feelings were varied with regard to joining. There were all the natural disinclinations to leave home and parents and yet I had a desire to do whatever might come to me for the good of the dear old "Land of Hope and Glory". And now I feel in the words of the song: "Thank God, Thank God, I went".
There was much to do on enrolling, including the medical inspection, taking the oath and the posting to a battalion. This was not all done in one day. In fact, a week passed at the barracks before we eventually arrived at the unit. This was the 9th Reserve Batt'n Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, stationed at Sutton Veny near Warminster. I arrived there on Tuesday night, April 10th 1917. Here we had to give further particulars of ourselves. Then, the draft of which I was a member, was taken and the men allocated to various huts. Hardly had we put out kitbags down than we were called upon to go and draw equipment and rifle. "Count them before you leave," said the Quartermaster. "Nineteen pieces, including the outside valise." Mine was correct, and so away I went back to the hut. Then came another puzzle: How to put it together for the parade, which was to follow next morning. After puzzling for about two hours, I received the information from a fellow who had just come into the hut that it would not be wanted next morning and so the awful difficulty was solved for he time being. At night, there was another medical inspection and we were all inoculated as well. My first sentiments on the matter were rather those of curiosity than of apprehension. Anyhow, I was not in the least affected by it, and even a second dose had no effect. During the following week, I had my first experience of "Slope Arms" (&c) (by numbers!).
I shall never forget my first Full Pack Route March. It was a night march as well. My being accustomed to light office boots did not exactly conduce to the welfare of my feet when the wearing of the heavy ten-pounder steamrollers. Oh! That night! Pitch dark. Raining. No one was allowed to speak a word. Miles seemed leagues. But it ended. I didn't do any parades for a week afterwards. I was under the doctor with septic heels. As time went on, we were initiated into the mysteries of company Drill, Musketry and Open Warfare Tactics. Eight weeks passed thus. The ninth was occupied in Rifle Firing at the Range. Here I earned my first and only "Jankers". For the sake of the uninitiated, I shall explain that "Jankers" is Tommy Atkins' euphemistic expression for "C.B" (which, on active service, is termed 2nd Field Punishment) And Jankers it is: One has to answer one's name at 6.15 in the morning, a quarter of an hour after Reveille; again at 1.20, twenty minutes after dinner is served; again at 5.30, just after tea, from which time, until 7.30, you are occupied in fatigues under the Provost Sergeant; and then again, every half hour until 9.30. The crime I committed was that of firing one shot on the wrong target at the Firing Trials. My punishment was four days "Jankers". I only served two of them, as I was away home on draft leave on the third. Here, I think, I will close the chapter on training, as, upon returning from Draft Leave, we were supposed to be trained soldiers.
Home on Draft Leave. Many have experienced it and so many know what the feelings are of those who (I might say) undergo it. It is a hard subject to write upon. Picture a trainload of lads, all going home. They are glad to go home but how different the coming back. It is a journey home for a purpose. For some, it is the last time they will ever go home to see their friends. For others, it is not the last. Yet there is the same fear in the heart of each. Unexpressed, perhaps, yet felt. "I wonder when I'll be going home again" - the thought is in the minds of all.
A week after returning from Leave, the Draft was assembled, full Field Service Kits were handed out and every preparation was made for proceeding overseas. Our port of embarkation was Folkestone. We arrived there at 8.30 in the morning, after travelling all night from Warminster, via Swindon and Reading.
Owing to submarines being about in the Channel, no boats sailed for France the day we arrived at Folkestone and so I spent the day in wandering around the town and trying to enjoy myself.
We embarked on the following morning. As the chalk cliffs of the Homeland receded into the mist, I began to realise what so many other have realised, what it is to leave one's country. When should I see it again? All that I could do was trust, simply trust in the Almighty, that he would keep me and bring me through, safe. Then, something seemed to bring me the assurance that I should return and I turned and went forward to see the cliffs of France appearing. Here was the Land of the Unknown, but the revealing I awaited with confidence and hope, inspired by that Trust. ("Lo, I am with you always"). Everything seemed bright. The sun was shining.
Our port of landing was Boulogne, where so many had landed before and where many more would land later. After getting our kits together, we proceeded on shore. Arrived In a fairly open space, the various drafts were formed up and marched off to the Rest Camps. During the march through the town, we were pestered by children asking for "Bully-bif"!; and by women and girls selling "Chocolat" and "Appuls" But these gradually fell away, as trade did not prosper. The camp was on the summit of a terribly steep hill, which none of us were sorry to have ascended when we reached the top. Our stay in the Rest Camp was of short duration. We arrived at 12.30. At 6 in he evening, we left for the station to proceed to Rouen.
I shall never forget my first ride in a French railway train. The accommodation was forty men in a cattle truck. Oh, the Glory of that ride! It took 2 days and 2 nights to travel about 120 miles. At one village we stopped so long that everyone went off down the street and some bought wine at the estamineto, some favoured chocolat and some coffee. In the midst of he fun, the whistle blew but there was no necessity for hurry, as everyone was back in the train before it had gone 10 yards. Some people say they have picked primroses and cowslips while the train proceeded and then caught it up. I wandered some way and found some bluebells but the train went just too fast for me to wait for the others to grow. And - they say - France holds the record for train travel. It cannot be for speed, anyhow.
We arrived there at 10 o'clock in the morning, after a journey through a terribly long tunnel, during which we were choked with smoke. But the spirits of Tommy never are quelled and so, through the darkness, came various catcalls, instructions to the driver, compliments which hardly bear repeating. On emerging from the tunnel, the railway crosses the River Seine by means of a large suspension bridge and then bends round in a terrible curve, into the Rive Gauche Goods yard.
When the train had stopped -I say stopped, because it was not like a comfortable passenger train, fitted with the most up-to-date brakes, but rather a goods train, the trucks of which first rush one way -clank, clank clank -and then seek to retrace their footsteps, so to speak. When the train had stopped, therefore, the work of unloading commences. "Where's my rifle?" "Where's my mask?" "Somersets this way" "Lead over here, Oxfords" "Any more Worcesters in that truck?"
In a quarter of an hour or more, there was a scene of pandemonium. Then people began to sort themselves out a bit. Gradually, all were formed up in a column of fours and the march to the camp began. We passed won the Rue Dufronche to the Rue de La Mire and thence to the Rue d'Elbeuf. After a march of about a mile and a half, we arrived at the Base camp. Here commences the work of calling the Roll again and checking it to see that every man's name and number was properly recorded. This done, we were formed up in one of the Dining halls and instructed to place out our kit for inspection. When everything was laid out in its proper order, round came a Sergeant Major with the Colonel to inspect. Then woe betide the unlucky one who was anything short. Down went his name in the little book in the RSM's hand and against it the article missing. The next morning, he was up before the Colonel to explain the reason why.
After the inspection, we were taken and allotted to tents. And here I want to point out what I consider to be the utter neglect of our Government with regard to the housing of the troops at our Base. There was no improvement in the arrangement when the Armistice was signed at the end of 1918 and, in my opinion, the Government has no excuse. We were put 22 in a tent. Of course, as it was summer (being July), the fellows did not mind so much, as they could sleep in the open air if there were no room inside. But the arrangements continued in winter, when lads could not sleep outside. Winter or summer, rain or fine, the troops at Rouen were always housed under canvas. In 4 years of war, arrangements should have been made for the better housing of the troops.
The following day, all the newly arrived draft had to parade to be inspected by the Doctor. I need not dwell on this matter. Anyone who has been in the Army knows the utter farce of an Army Medical Inspection. Needless to say, everyone was passed A1.
In the aftermath, we paraded again to go through gas in order to test our gas masks. Each man in turn was fitted by an officer in charge of the Anti Gas Measures Drill with a gas mask. As he was fitted, he passed into an airtight chamber filled with poison gas, I remained in it for about five minutes. At the slightest scent of gas through the mask, the man was instructed to ask to be let out of the chamber. I smelt no gas and so my mask was pronounced quite reliable.
The following day commenced our excursion to what is termed the Bull Ring. I had heard a lot of its horrors while in England but when eventually I arrived there, I could see none of its horrors (so called). I will explain here that the 'The Bull Ring' is Tommy Atkins' Pet name for the Central School of Infantry Training at Rouen. We went there every day for ten days, at the end of which time we were pronounced fit to join the Battalion up the line.
There were two incidents of interest which I would like to mention before leaving this chapter. One was the visit of the Queen Mary to the Base Camps and Hospital. To celebrate this our training ceased at 12 noon on the day Her Majesty motored round instead of at 4 p.m. as in the ordinary course.
The other was my own visit to Rouen Cathedral. I managed to obtain an afternoon off in order to go and have a look round the Bristol of France, and first of all I made my way to the Cathedral. It was the first Cathedral I had ever entered then. I have been in several since. Unfortunately I could not get into the Chancel and so my explorations were confined to the outer nave. It struck me as rather a gloomy building something after the style of the Brompton Oratory in London.
I went in again, however, after tea, and this time I happened to be in time for the Angelus, and while there I heard some of the most lovely music I have ever heard in my life. Those harmonious sounds echoing and the re-echoing through the arches above seemed to remind me of the presence of the angels ever near to bear us up 'lest at any time we dash our foot against a stone'.
I was alone in a foreign land, away from all I loved. 'My future all unknown', but here I was reminded that 'Jesus I knew, and He is on the throne'. I left there feeling I had that 'Peace Perfect Peace' the hymn speaks about: and I felt that night that I could trust in Him, and He would bring me through. A few days later our Draft was warned to process up the line to join the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment.
Our destination eventually turned out to be Arneke, a small village about seven miles from St Omer in northern France. We were dumped here one evening and put to sleep for the night in a barn. Our palliasso was straw and our covering was our top coat. It was summer time and so we did not sleep cold. In the morning we turned out at 6 am and, after a hasty wash in a water trough, proceeded to the cook house for breakfast. It consisted of a mess tinlid of tea and a small portion of porridge.
After this most satisfying meal, we paraded ready for marching off to our final destination. Just as we were about to move off for what was supposed to be a twelve mile march, a noise of lorries and motors was heard behind and we were all pleased to discover that sufficient motor buses had arrived to take us all to our destination. This was the first time that I had seen the London General Omnibuses on war work and it was in gratifying circumstances. We were soon "all aboard" and away for Millam, which we reached after an hour's ride.
Millam is a small village about 5 miles from St Omer on the Hazebrouck-St. Omer canal. Here was situated the 2nd Corps headquarters and the 25th Divisional Base. I stayed here three weeks. When we arrived, we again had to undergo the whole process of roll-call, kit inspection, and medical inspection and by the time I got my dinner, I was pretty fed up.
I had not been in this camp three days, when I had orders to report myself at the Orderly Room one morning. It was with varied feelings that I wended my way thither, as no-one knows what trouble may be in store for one when you have to go there. However, I had no cause for fear. When I got there, I was offered the job of Adjutant's Cyclist Orderly, which I accepted with alacrity, as it gave me a splendid chance o avoid parade, of which I was never very fond. I held this post during the whole time I was at the camp and was very sorry when the time came for the Draft to proceed to join the Battalion. My duties consisted of the taking of orders from one Headquarters to another and also to the various officers belonging to the camp, who had their billets in the villages around. I used to enjoy my cycle rides of a summer's evening round Watten, Wulverdinghe and Echtegeele, which were the places I had most to visit. But I had to leave my work when the Draft went away up the line and the only remains of it now with me are the pleasant memories of cycle rides along the country lanes and roads in the cool of a summer's evening. They were times when I could think of all God's goodness to us, of His care for us boys away out there, away from all we loved; and yet how near we were to the evidence of His promises.
I often used to go into Millam church of an evening too, and sit and lose myself in the quiet and stillness. I was away from everybody there. All the rush and tumult was outside. How those words come back to me: "Be still and know that I am God". Yet in the midst of the solemn stillness, one could hear from away in the distance the sudden muttering of the guns away on the Ypres sector. It was a reminder of what I had got to face and yet here, I had the Promise and I went out from that place with the words tingling in my ears "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end." On August 8th, we paraded and marched down in to the village, where we found the Lorries which were to convey us to the Battalion, which was staying at Steenvorde. When we arrived there, there was again the process of Roll-call, kit inspection and medical inspection, after which the Draft was split up, some being appointed to one Company and some another. I was posted to Number 10 Platoon, C Company.
When we arrived at the Battalion, they had only been out of the line for about 4 days and had only arrived at Steenvorde from Poperinghe the night before. It was here that I first became acquainted with the fact that a war was in progress. German aeroplanes were flying over every night and dropping bombs on the railway or, should I say, near the railway as they seldom secured a direct hit. It was here I first learned the significance of the expression "Jerry up!" I shall be using the expression fairly frequently later on so I might as well explain that it is Tommy Atkins' expression for the presence of German aeroplanes overhead.
The next four days were spent in various drills and training; then, one morning, we were roused at four o'clock, as the Battalion had orders to move up to Dominion Camp, Reninghelst as Brigade Reserve. At Dominion Camp, we were inspected one boiling afternoon in full marching order by the Divisional General. Every night, Jerry used to come overhead and give us a dose of bombs. For two nights, one aeroplane in particular was allowed to bomb us unmolested. The third night, however, directly he was heard, the beams of thirty searchlights were turned upon it and about eighty Lewis Machine and Anti-Tank guns commenced to wake and re-wake the echoes of the night. Never have I heard such a noise as those machine guns made that night. Shells were bursting all round the aeroplane but it was not touched. And so, it dropped its bombs and got away unharmed.
After four days at Dominion Camp, we marched back to within a mile of Steenvorde. The Battalion was billeted in several large barns, close to the Godeswaersfelde Road. We stayed there four days. During our stay there, I and a chum went down to Steenvorde for a little outing, spent about thirty or forty francs between us and returned to suffer with an attack of diarrhoea the next day. All this time I did not get near the line but the time was fast approaching when I should, at least, experience that. On Thursday afternoon, August 30th, orders came through that the Battalion was to proceed up the line in order to relieve the 8th Battalion Yorks and Lancs Regiment.
This was the first time I had been in the line. I had heard there was a War on. I had had a few weeks of soldiering, marching in fours, had been taught how to use a rifle but here was I, just going to begin the work in real earnest. I had heard of the terrors of the Ypres Salient. Many were the tales I heard of the fortunes of others. What was to be mine? Should I come out unscathed? Or should I come out at all? I believe I am speaking the truth when I say that as in the case of inoculation my sentiments were rather those of curiosity than of apprehension. What could happen? Well, that had to be left in the hands of Him above. We went in motor lorries the first part of the journey. We disembarked at the corner where the Menin Road joins the Poperinghe Road, just before you get to Ypres Town Hall or, to speak correctly, the remains of it. I shall never forget my first sight of Ypres. There before me stood the bare walls, battered, pierced by shells, of the old Cloth Hall, Hotel de Ville and Cathedral. What once had been priceless architecture, centuries old, was now only charred walls, heaps of bricks and mortar. While ever and again could be seen a cloud of red dust and black smoke, where still another shell had come from the Hun to churn up those almost sacred ruins. Well might our cartoonists produce such a cartoon as that which represents the Arch Fiend himself, turning away in disgust from witnessing the deeds of such a ruler of a civilised country.
Ypres! This had been Ypres. It was now one of the main bastions of the British line. Here British soldiers had bled and died. Here they stopped the Hun from overrunning the fair fields of Picardy. The name is immortal.
"Ypres! Thy name shall be remembered When others forgotten lie Nations, empires may be dismembered Thy fame shall never die."
As we were within range of enemy guns, we could not proceed any further in a solid column of fours. It was necessary to be split up into parties and so we proceeded by platoons with a Sergeant in charge of each. As we were going along the road, we were blinded and deafened by the flash of one of our big guns, which was fired just as we were passing. It was admirably hidden in some brushwood, fifty yards from the road. There was a battery of them there and they were just commencing to wake Jerry up, so to speak. It would be difficult for me to include in this account everything I saw. Events happened so quickly and suddenly that some things, one is bound to miss.
We proceeded for some distance along a road and then branched off onto the duck boards. All vestige of leaves on the tree or even branches had disappeared. The ground was pitted with shell-holes which, in consequence of the marshy nature of the ground hereabouts, were full of water. In fact the ground in the Ypres Salient is beyond all description. One who has never been there can never realise it.
Our way lay across the old trench where, in 1914, the Worcesters and the Wilts had held the overpowering might of the Hun and had saved Calais. There were no Reserves. If their line had broken, the British Army would have been defeated in the first Battle of Ypres. Wiltshires and Worcesters saved the day and the Battle of Ypres was won. At the reservoir by Hillebeke Lake, we were met by guides sent down by the Yorks and Lancs to show us the way. There were two guides to each Platoon. One now took the lead and we commenced to skirt the edge of the lake for a short distance. Once upon a time, the water in this lake was the purest in Belgium. Now it was, of all waters, the most poisonous.
It was getting dark now and still we had not come to the end of our journey. Our rifle and equipment was hanging heavy and those of us who were new to it were getting tired. But still on, we could not stop. At last we got to Sanctuary Wood. This then was the reality of the name I had so often heard. Occasionally we had to climb over the trunk of a tree which had been felled by a shell. Occasionally from a shell-hole would come up the stench of a dead horse or from the body of a poor lad lying in a shallow grave. And even then, his rest might have been disturbed by another shell exploding in the same place. How many precious lives have been given for Sanctuary Wood! It is only a bit of a copse and yet it has cost so many lives which can never be replaced. Empty chairs and broken hearts, all for a bit of a copse, and that copse: Sanctuary Wood.
We had barely left the wood when shells began to drop too close to be pleasant. The Germans had found out that it was Relief night and were trying to cause as much damage as they could. So we got down into shell-holes until the storm had abated. But they seemed as if they did not want to stop. And so, in order to give them a gentle reminder that we could shoot as well, our guns commenced a barrage which lasted for two hours. Jerry didn't like it and resigned. While waiting for this tirade to cease, I was so fagged out that I went off to sleep in the shell-hole I was in. While I was asleep, the others went on and so I woke up and found myself all on my own "somewhere by Ypres" -and the first night in the line too.
All I could do, after my rest, was to carry on somehow or other. I heard voices in one direction and made towards the place. It turned out to be a number of fellows belonging to B Company. "Where's C Company?" I asked "Can't say, chum. We're lost." I was no further forward that way. Anyway, I went on a bit farther. Then, in the distance, I heard my Company Captain's voice saying "Come along, Headquarters."
I went over in the direction it seemed to come from and followed on with Headquarters Platoon, till I arrived at the dugout where they were posted. Now I was in the trenches. I had found my company and it was now a question of finding my Platoon, as Company Headquarters was in the Second, or Support, line and the Platoon was in the front line. There was a Sergeant at Headquarters as well, who had lost his Platoon, and so we set off together. The first step I took, I sank into about eighteen inches of mud. "This is lovely", I thought. I put my other foot forward and again I sank up to my knee. There was about fifty yards of this but eventually we arrived where the mud was not quite so deep. Arriving at the post where his Platoon was supposed to be, Sergeant Lewis was surprised to find the Yorks and Lancs still there, unrelieved. Accordingly, he put me on Sentry Duty on the post, told the others to make their way out and then again set out to find his Platoon. So here was I, all by myself, my first night in the trenches, the sole custodian of a piece of trench usually occupied by about thirty men.
It was a lovely moonlit night and so I began to have a look about me to see what was what. There was the firestep in front of me. Up I got on it and looked over the parapet. About fifty yards in front was a long line of barbed wire entanglements. A few yards in front of that was a tank, which had been knocked out by a German shell. Further in front still, in between two stumps of trees, lay another wreck of a tank. I was just beginning to get interested when -Ping! A sniper's bullet warned me that other people were having a look around as well as me. But if we worried too much about these gentle reminders, we should never see anything. So, instead of ducking, I stood quite still. In the moonlight, appearances are deceptive and movement only would betray me.
The sound of voices warned me that someone was coming up the Communications Trench. "Who are you?" I challenged. "Number 9 Platoon," came the reply. So now I was free after two and a half hours guard duty to go on my journey, to try and find my own Platoon.
After about five minutes walk down the trench, I was challenged by a sentry. "Who is it?" I asked. "Ten Platoon". At last, I had got to my own post. "You are to report to the Corporal at once, in his dugout", the sentry told me. Away I went to find the dugout and was soon warned that I was not far from it by the number of prodigious snores emerging from its mouth. After a good many unsuccessful efforts, I managed to wake him up. "Oh, it's you, is it? Where have you been?" "Oh", said I. "I got lost." "Lost? Well you can go on sentry now". "No fear; I've just done 2 and a half hours for Sgt Lewis in 9 Platoon." "Don't come to me with that tale." "Go and ask him." Away the Corporal went. In a few minutes he was back. "You can get down to sleep somewhere till stand to."
I managed to find a bit of a shelter dugout under the parapet and, after improving it a little with my entrenching tool, I wrapped myself in my waterproof sheet. Crouching into the shelter, I slept my first night in the trenches.
At four o'clock, the Corporal was round waking everybody up. It was Stand-to. There was nothing up. Stand-to is the only term given to the period of dawn and sunset, the periods of transition of darkness to light, or light to darkness. This is the time for attack or to repel attack. If there were going to be an attack, we should always attack an hour before sunrise. The Germans usually attack at dawn.
So every morning and every evening, at a certain hour fixed by the General Headquarters and for a certain period, the whole British Army in the line -in fact the whole Allies Armies -stood to their arms, ready for an emergency.
At "Stand Down", all rifles are cleaned and when that was finished, we started the process of cooking our breakfast. In 1917, the Army Command had made a better provision for the Commissariat than in 1914. So, in order to boil the water for making tea, we had tins of solidified methylated spirit. With these, the water was soon boiling and so we managed to have a mug of fine tea.
After breakfast, there was nothing much to do except sleep and take one's turn on sentry. I spelt from six till ten and then thought I would have a prowl round and explore. No Mans Land was 800 yards wide here, so there was not much to fear. About a hundred yards down the trench I came across another trench leading out into No Mans Land. "Let's have a look down here", thought I. It was shallow in some places and so I had to keep well down. I hadn't gone a hundred yards before I found myself close up to the tank I mentioned a little previously and so I had an opportunity of looking at it closely. Not far from it lay the bodies of several Germans in various stages of decay. Here were the horrors of war, naked, grim and ungarnished by the tales of glory. The tank had evidently been knocked out while engaged in smashing some attack and there lay the remains of it.
I do not propose to dwell at any greater length on my first six days in the front line, so I will hasten on.
At night, I received orders to proceed with a party to go and bring up the rations for the next day for the Company. Our journey was only about five hundred yards but it wasn't plain sailing by any means. We went along the railroad but had I not known it was a railroad previously, I could never have told. A twisted rail showed that once there had been a railroad there. Otherwise it was nothing but a mass of shell-holes. And this was the Ypres-Menin railway. Nevertheless, we must not stay here. We passed about twenty of our tanks, to which the Germans had given the coup de grace in some attack. Every inch of this land had been strongly contested at some time or other and on every side were the evidences of the horror of the conflict.
After half an hour's steady climbing, we reached the trench where the Quartermaster had brought the Company's rations. We got our loads and away we started back again, but, as Jerry had commenced throwing a few shells over, we decided to go back through the tunnel. This was a tunnel leading from the Support to the Front line, in which all the men wounded in the day in that sector were congregated, in order to take them down to the Field Ambulance. It was not long before we were back again at Company Headquarters.
The six days in the Front Line passed very quickly. I think we only had three shells burst near the trench the whole time. On Thursday at twelve noon, we were relieved by the Northampton regiment, but we only went back to the Reserve line. It was midday when we were relieved and our journey back lay through Sanctuary Wood and round the edge of Lilliebeke Lake, to some giant dugouts near the Ypres reservoir. We arrived there without incident and commenced to make ourselves as much at home as possible. I omitted to mention that the front line where we had been posted was known as Inverness Copse. To many it is a place of bad odour, but to me it represented one of the quietest periods I ever spent in the line. We were not destined to be so quiet in our stay by the side of Lillebeke Lake.
Opposite our new home lay the ruins of Ypres. There was the last fragment of the Cathedral wall. To the right were the remains of the rampart of the town. To the left was what was left of the barracks. Occasionally from the rampart came a burst of smoke and then, a few seconds later, the report of a gun. Here had been posted a battery of heavy guns and they had held that position ever since the British had occupied Ypres. They had been responsible for a terrible amount of damage to the Germans in that sector and yet, had never been discovered.
The night passed fairly peacefully but early next morning, heavy shells began to drop close in salvoes of three. It was round this region that I saw shell-holes the size of which have no compare in the remainder of the battle area. I have never seen such deep shell-holes since. I think this species of shell must have been reserved for Ypres only.
The first rouser was a salvo which dropped twenty yards behind our dugout. How it rocked! The rubbish all fell down in front of our doorway. The next salvo dropped some distance to our right. Twenty minutes later, another salvo landed on the dugouts two doors to our left. These chanced to be empty and no-one was hurt, although the dugouts were smashed. In fact, our dugout was the only one occupied that morning. Half an hour after, another three screamed over and fell about a hundred yards in front of our door. Then, to complete the circle, another three fell on the dugout two doors to our right.
By this time, excitement was running high. Some were for staying where they were. Some were for running farther to the left, where so many shells did not seem to be falling. Away they ran, one by one. I looked around. Everybody else had gone and so I concluded it must be my turn. I waited for the next three to come over. When they had exploded, I began to run for it. I was just on the edge of a great lake of mud, when whizz! Over came another shell. The rush of air from the explosion caused me to slip and down I went, to indulge in a mud bath. I didn't stop to think of that, however. I was on my feet again and away.
On Saturday morning, we received orders that we should be relieved at night and so at seven o'clock, we paraded outside, ready to be off. The relief was accomplished without incident and after an hour's march, we arrived at Diekebusch Camp. At Diekebusch, we stayed the weekend and part of the next week, in fact. Our time was occupied in training and also in getting a much needed bath. On the following Friday we received instructions that we were not going into the line in the Ypres sector again and the following day, the Battalion marched via Reninghelst, Boeschepe to Abecle, where we stayed for Sunday. On Monday, our march was continued via Boeschepe, Godewaersvelde, Mont des Pars to Caestre. Tuesday, we continued via Aire, Steenbecque and Thiennes. We completed the fourth stage on Wednesday, via Hazenbrouck, Mazingheur, Lambres, Norrent Fontes, Bequesecques, Lespresses, Burbure, Allouagne and Lozingeur.
I shall never forget those four days of marching. Our equipment consisted of course of full pack, and oh!- It got heavy! The weather was that of glorious summer, but, nevertheless, our clothes were wet through. And here at Lozingheur, my first spell of field service ended.
I had been troubled with my teeth for a long time. Accordingly, after another week of agony, I decided to take my life in my hands and trust myself to the dentist. Accordingly, I reported sick and, after a lively altercation with the doctor, managed to secure an order to see the dentist at the Casualty Clearing Station in the village. The report of the dentist was for me to enter the hospital and have at least nineteen teeth extracted. I accordingly returned to the billet, packed up my kit and went into hospital. The awful operation, I underwent on Sunday morning, September 23rd 1917, just at the time when the people at home were dozing off the effects of the sermon. On Monday, I was evacuated to number 4 Stationary Hospital near St Omer. My face was very painful and I got in rather a low state. On top of this, I contracted Trench Fever and so on Wednesday 26th September 1917, the Doctor had me sent to Number 59 General Hospital, St Omer.
Here I saw the white sheets again and from the moment I got into them, until I left them for the tram which was to take me to the boat for England, I slept. I had to be wakened for every meal. On Saturday, the Doctor came round and after a conversation with the nurse, marked my record card with a "B", which to me stood for Blighty.
At two o'clock next day, I left St. Omer, bound for Boulogne. As the train arrived in Boulogne too late for the patients to be put on board ship, we were taken to the various hospitals in Boulogne. I stayed the night at Wimereure. Next morning, Monday October 1st at 7.30, we were again aroused, taken in ambulances to the Quay and put on board the boat. We got to Dover at One o'clock. The work of transfer from the boat to the tram was soon accomplished and, by two o'clock, I was on board a GWR train bound for Birmingham. My first adventure in France was ended. God's Promise was fulfilled. My heart was full and as I lay in my bunk on that train, I sent up my little word of thanks to Him who had brought me safely through and in so short a time.
Hearing we should pass through High Wycombe where my eldest sister Daisy stayed, I scribbled a short note to her. As we rushed through the station, I gave it to an Orderly to throw out onto the platform. And glad I am that I did this, for twelve days later, I was called to her funeral. I could never have had a better friend than my sister was to me but she had done her work on this earth. Our Father had better work for her to do with him. He called her to him. Therefore, why should we weep? There is a gap in our home which can never be filled but we know she is with Him and will be waiting to meet us in the Glory Land.
Sister mine! Thou art gone from us But why should we be sad? The Comforter is still with us He will make us glad.
Sister mine! It cannot be That thou hast worked in vain Not one minute, not one hour Need e'er be worked again
Sister mine! Thy labour's o'er To the Kingdom thou hast gone Receive thy well-earned reward The Master's sweet "well done".
After a month in Dudley Road, Birmingham Hospital, I went to convalescent Depot at Plymouth. For the first fortnight of my stay here, we lived under canvas. The month was November and - oh! -how it rained. In consequent of the wet, the whole Depot was moved to Wearde Camp, Saltash. Here, we were accommodated in huts. It is not my intention to give an account of what befell in England and so I shall move on rapidly. Many tales I could tell of the games we had, jokes practical and otherwise.
I made many excursions to Plymouth and Devonport, visiting the Hoe, where Drake played bowls on that eventful day that the Spanish Armada was sailing up the English Channel.
After seven weeks stay at Plymouth, I went home on my days furlough. Fortunately, I had Christmas at home. After Christmas, I returned to my regimental Depot at Sittingbourne, there to undergo the old routine of training until I was physically fit for overseas again.
As I had a cousin living at Canterbury, I used to fill in the Sundays by cycling over and staying there for the day.
While I was at Sittingbourne, I was fortunate enough to "click" for a job which was considered to be "cushy". This was to go with a detachment to mount guard over a ferry between the mainland and the Isle of Sheppey. This lasted for a week and, at the time, proved to be a very comfortable undertaking. I was fortunate enough to have two weeks on it and could not have minded if I could have gone on guarding that ferry till peace was signed.
On February 20th 1918, I was again on my homeward way on Draft Leave. There is no need to repeat what I have said on a former occasion with regard to this. But this time I had the feeling in me "You've been home on Draft Leave before. God brought you back again. Trust in Him and He'll bring you back again."
On February 25th, I was back again at Sittingbourne. When I arrived back I was informed that our Draft was for Salonica and a few days later we were all served out with Pith Helmets and thin clothes, so we really thought we were going at last.
Then, a few days later, came the news of the great German onrush. Orders were cancelled, the helmets and Salonica outfits were handed in and Field Kits were served out for France.
We left Sittingbourne on March 28th 1918 at eight o'clock in the morning, for Southampton, where we arrived at two o'clock in the afternoon. After waiting on the Quay all afternoon, we went aboard at seven o'clock. Again I was on board a transport leaving the Homeland but this time I had a faith in a God who had vouchsafed Himself to me before and I knew Him for a God who keeps His promises.
"Faith, mighty faith, which laughs at impossibilities and cries It shall be done!"
As we moved down Southampton Water and Spithead, I saw over in the mist the dim outline of Southsea and Portsmouth, where my sister lived.
Again, England was disappearing in the mist. Darkness came on. Then the moon rose. We had nine hours journey before us. I was put on Raft Patrol and had the charge of five rafts on top deck. It was my duty, if our ship should be torpedoed by an enemy submarine, to throw these rafts overboard and, of course, follow them out myself.
Fortunately our journey was accomplished in safety and there was no necessity for recourse to these measures.
We reached the harbour at Le Havre at two o'clock in the morning and so, my trust being ended, I got into a cupboard which was used for storing lifebelts and resigned myself into the arms of Morpheus.
We landed at two o'clock in the morning and marched up a terrible hill to the Rest Camp.
The British Govt has a terrible mania for putting Rest Camps at the top of a terribly steep hill. At Boulogne, there is a hill to climb to the rest camp and, similarly, at Havre. We were not, however, at the Rest Camp many hours. At five o'clock, the Draft paraded again and we returned to the station, and spent the night travelling to Rouen in those extra-specially comfortable cattle trucks, for which France has such a capital reputation. In the morning, we were at Rouen. There it lay, still the same. Again, that march up the Rue D'Elbeuf to the Base Camp. Into the same camp we went. There was the self-same old Sergeant Major. The self-same old routine followed: Roll-call; Medical Inspection; Allocation to Tents. I was back in the same old tent almost but we were not to stay at Rouen long this time. We got there on Saturday March 30th. On Tuesday April 2nd, we were on the train again, en route for the 7th Battalion Kings Shropshire Light Infantry, to which the whole Draft had been transferred. Our journey lay through Amiens, Lillers to Bethune. We disembarked at Lillers after going up to Bethune and back again. From Lillers, the Draft matched to the 3rd Divisional Headquarters at Allouagne not a mile away from Lozingheur, where I had left the 1st Wilts the previous September.
After the usual routine of Roll-call, Medical Inspection etc we were put in billets. Hearing there was a good canteen down in the village, we were not long in dumping our kit and getting down there, as we hadn't seen a stick of chocolate since leaving England and goodness only knows when we might see any more.
On Saturday April 6th came orders for the Draft to proceed to join the Battalion and so, about two o'clock, we started off on our march. Our route lay through Lozingheur and Marles to Vaudricourt, about a mile and a half from Bethune. At the top of the hill after passing through Marles, it commenced to rain and so we eventually arrived at our destination well-soaked. This was a mining district and every now and then, we met a collier returning home from his day's work. Many pit boys we also saw returning home with their once blue blouses bulging out at the back with lumps of coal purloined from the mine where they worked.
Arrived at Vaudricourt, we had to go through the process of Roll-call again and Medical Inspection and then we were allocated to Companies. My Company was D Company and my Platoon number 16. I was fortunate enough to get posted to the same Platoon as my two chums Hawkins and Kingswell, whom I would like to mention here. I had lived for the past three months with Kingswell, in the same billet at Sittingbourne and we stuck together until September. Hawkins was an Isle of Wight man and was given very much to pessimistical soliloquy about the War. "Wet Blanket" was my name for him but he always turned out to be a good chum in a tight corner and a hard worker.
For the next two or three days, we did nothing but drilling and parades but on Thursday April 12th, an order came through for the Battalion to "Stand To" with Battle Order ready. An hour later, we were out on parade, but in full marching order and soon we were on the march. As we did not turn up towards Bethune, we thought we were going back further; but we continued to march in a direction parallel to the Line and not away from it. We passed through Fouquereuil, Aunegin, Veudin to Oblingheur about a mile from Hinges. Arrived here, we fell out in some fields and had our tea.
At Eblingheur and Veudin, evidences of the German advance were manifested by the crowds of people who were departing from the villages to take up their residence at some safer abode. What a sickening sight it was! To see all these poor people leaving their little homes to be smashed up by some shell. What they could not carry away in their hands had to be left. The poor old Cure was superintending the departure and was the last to leave. Those villages I have seen since. They have not been so badly smashed up as some I have seen but they were badly hit.
After tea we had orders to take our packs to the transport wagons which had followed us, and put together our equipment in battle order. We did not know it then, but we heard afterwards that the Portuguese had been drive out of Neuve Chapelle and our Line was then retiring to Locon, two miles north-east of Bethune. We were going up as a Reserve.As it began to get dark, we set off to go up the Line. Everywhere, the Royal Engineers were busy putting out large tracts of barbed wire. In case of emergency, Blocks were being made ready, wherewith to stop the roads. Heavy guns were coming up behind us to take up positions and rain death upon the advancing hordes of the enemy. Some were even in position already and "Despatching Xmas boxes to Jerry".
Our way lay over the Canal de La Lame, which runs from Bethune at right angles to the La Bassee Canal. Here a pontoon stretched from one bank to the other and we crossed over on this. Arrived on the other bank, we were placed out in sections and told to dig ourselves in.
Fortunately our Platoon was given a ditch by the side of a road and so we did not have quite so much work as the other fellows.
There was a farmhouse close by and so some adventurous spirits went off to investigate. The door was open. Dinner was out on the table and also a jug of beer. Tommy concluded: "Where there's a jug, there's a barrel." And if there's a barrel in a French house, there's a cellar. The stairs were soon found but, hardly had one of them gone down two steps than he heard a shout of anger from below. The worthy farmer had not left his house to be plundered by Hun or to be robbed of its beer by Tommy and was expostulating "You English, no bon!" For which kind expression he was marched off to Headquarters under guard. There proved to be four barrels in the cellar and soon there was a general procession up to the farmhouse. Buckets, tin cans, pots, anything that would hold the liquid, were taken and brought back full, and so the Battalion spent a fairly good night, in spite of the cold.
In the morning, orders came through for us to go up in support and so we marched up the Psoars-Locon road until we reached the outskirts of Locon, and dug in on the right hand-side of the road, close to a couple of farmhouses. There were several enemy balloons up and so we had to get down under cover quickly, in order to avoid observation.
The weather was glorious, and, as everything seemed quiet, we got out of the trench and got down on some straw from some nearby ricks and went off to sleep. About twelve o'clock, our Platoon officer came and wanted someone to go with him to reconnoitre the Front Line. I got my rifle and went along with him. A few Whiz-bangs came over but, beyond that, nothing exciting happened until we got to the Front Line. We were proceeding gently along but as we got to the Front Line, somebody must have seen us, as Jerry's machine-gun began to "Check-check-check" and we quickly dropped into the Front Trench. After the fire had died down a bit, we got out of the trench and went along the line a bit but Jerry began to give us a dose of whiz-bangs. After one had dropped about twenty feet away, the Officer said: "I think we'll be getting back now" and I wasn't very sorry. Jerry chased us down the canal bank with about a dozen more whiz-bangs and then he must have had enough of it.
In the afternoon, news came through that two companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers had been taken prisoners that morning, and the Royal Scots were retiring rather hurriedly. We received orders to turn back all Royal Scots who we should see running away. About three o'clock, we were startled to hear a big explosion on our left. The Artillery, thinking they could not remove it, had blown up a big dump of ammunition. It was said afterwards that some Colonel got into trouble for giving the order to blow this up, as it was considered that the whole dump could have been easily transported to safety. A little while after, our Company had orders to go up and re-establish the Front Line. And so, we were in for it.
We commenced to advance in extended order, about twelve paces between each man, and I may say that our only anxiety lay not in how to dodge the German bullets, but in how to keep the line straight. At one point, a brook lay across our way. Some jumped it, others waded through it. I was one of the latter. It was a warm day, so a little paddling didn't hurt, although it was with boots and socks and puttees on. In order to get up to the position we were to take up, which lay behind a hedge along a road, we had to pass a gap. Two German snipers were watching this and so we had to run the gauntlet one by one. The gap was safely passed and we flopped ourselves down at intervals behind the hedge and commenced to fire at anybody we could see. A farmhouse about four hundred yards away seemed to be a centre of great enemy activity and so I watched that. I could see them coming here on bicycles and horseback and so I and my next door neighbour let go whenever we saw anyone. That cottage must have got too hot for Jerry as, after about an hour, we saw quite a party make a sudden rush away fro this place to get cover somewhere else.
Then a couple of machine guns opened up on us. There were some stinging nettles in front of me. 'Of two evils, choose the lesser' -and I dabbed my face down into them. When the machine guns stopped, we sent off a few more bullets. As time wore on, however, ammunition commenced to run short. The Germans seemed to be advancing on our left and things were a bit lively a little way down the road. We looked as if we should be surrounded. So a Corporal and two men went off to reconnoitre. We were lying in an orchard and at the end of the orchard was a farmhouse and farmyard. At first sight, there was no-one in the farmyard and so the Corporal went into the kitchen in the house. Here was a jug of milk. This was a pleasant discovery, as our friends were rather thirsty after the afternoon's scrap. But hearing a noise from the front part of the house, they had a peek into the other rooms and -Lo and behold! -there were about a dozen Germans sitting around a table enjoying themselves, drinking wine and regaling themselves with food, beer and various other good things. Thinking discretion the better part of valour, the Corporal decided to depart while still undiscovered. But on coming out of the back door, he perceived sitting behind the barn door a wounded German with a machine gun, one of our tickers. The German began to shout but the Corporal made a dive for the machine gun and between the three of them, our boys carried it off.
They came back to where the rest of the Platoon was waiting and it was decided to retire before we were absolutely cut off. We crept down underneath the hedge to a corner of the orchard, where we got through the hedge somehow and silently made our way down the road for a quarter of a mile. Here we were met by the Captain, who wanted a dozen men to go up into the village with him. A dozen of us accordingly about-turned and followed him back up the village street. About halfway up it, six of us and a Corporal were posted as a patrol, while the other six with a Sergeant were sent further up on a scouting expedition. As these six disappeared into the darkness, four of our six settled themselves down into the ditch to sleep, while two of us stood in the road on sentry for two hours, to be relieved by another two.
It was my turn to go on sentry again. Kingswell went on with me and half an hour passed in silence. Then footsteps could be heard in the road coming in our direction. "Who are you?" No answer. Again. Again no reply. I pushed back the safety catch of my rifle and put it to my shoulder, ready to fire. "Who are you?" A third time. Then, ten yards away I saw a German. I had my finger on the trigger, ready to let go when and English voice came out of the dark. "It's all right, he's only a prisoner." The party which had gone forward had fallen in with a party of about twenty Jerries and, after shooting about six and taking this one prisoner, had put the rest to flight.
Nothing more of incident happened that night. In the dusk of early dawn, we filed back down the street and started to dig a trench at the other side of the village. We had completed it and were settling ourselves down to breakfast, when an R.E. Officer came along, asking for our Captain. His left flank was exposed and he wanted a party to go up through the village and hold a bridgehead over the canal and so protect his rear.
Twelve of us were picked out and away we went, up through the village street again to where the bridge lay across the canal. It was a very misty morning and so the Germans could not perceive our movements. We crossed the bridge and commenced to dig ourselves in on the other side. Suddenly, we were surprised by the noise of an explosion. The bridge across the canal had been blown up and our orders were to hold on to our post to the last man. We had seven boxes of ammunition (7000 rounds in all) and fifty boxes of bombs (about 600 altogether); and our post was to be held at all costs. In about two hours our trench was dug and we had settled ourselves down in it to await events. The mist had cleared away by about eleven o'clock and we could see about us a bit. Twenty-five yards in front ran the road. On our left were two cottages. On the opposite side of the road was the large house with several outhouses. The direction of our observation lay between the two blocks of buildings obliquely across the road (See diagram 2). At the bridgehead was a sand bag shelter. This was soon converted into a pill-box from which two men, one with a Vickers and the other with a Lewis, commanded the approaches by the two roads which met here.
Nothing happened until about two o'clock in the afternoon, when the Germans were seen advancing in extended order over a bridge about 3/4 of a mile away. We loaded our rifles and began a desultory fire, shooting when a favourable opportunity presented itself. The enemy soon began to change his tactics and commenced to advance by sectional rushes. This procedure is carried out by a section of men rushing forward about fifty yards and then lying down and opening fire to cover the similar advance of another section.
Our own artillery had not had time to come up and the enemy artillery was firing miles behind us so that it was a battle of rifles and machine guns. We had the advantage, in that the enemy did not know where our post was situated. As the Germans approached, they had to show themselves more frequently and soon the Vickers, the Lewis and all our rifles were being fires as fast as we could reload. The excitement of battle was on us. There was no thought of danger. Our one thought was to knock as many out as we could and truly, the Huns were being shot down like rabbits. "There's one behind the hedge!" CRACK! "Got him!" "Look! They're bringing a machine gun up!" "Let 'em have it!" CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! -Three Lee Enfields go off at once and the machine gun is knocked out. No other Hun tries to man it again.
The racket continued until half past six in the evening, when the Germans gave up their attempt to advance and commenced to run away instead. It might have been a ruse for us to reveal our strength or it might have been a genuine "run-away". Anyway, the only thing we did was to keep on firing as before but at an increased range. If only we had had an Officer with us then, to have led the advance, the Hun might have been chased back to Neuve Chapelle. But the only Officer who had been up to see us was killed by a sniper when getting out of the trench. As darkness fell, German stretcher bearers were seen over the ground in front, taking back the wounded. All next day, Sunday, they were at their work. We must have inflicted something like four hundred casualties upon the enemy in that Saturday afternoon and not one of our post had been touched.
During the evening, our artillery, which had by now come up, opened fire on various points which they thought could be held by artillery. As our position was rather advanced, and there had been no opportunity for an aeroplane reconnaissance previously, they had no exact idea of where our line lay. Accordingly, shells began to fall dangerously close. We crouched down in the trench, while one of our number ran to Company Headquarters to phone through to the artillery, to raise their fire slightly. Before this could be done, a shell dropped six feet from the trench and the boy next to me was instantly killed by a piece of shrapnel. That was our only casualty. The shells began to fall farther over, almost directly afterwards.
The next day, barring a few rifle grenades falling rather close, there was no excitement. Early in the morning, two Germans had come wandering down the road with rifles slung on their shoulders and, before they knew it, we had seized their rifles and taken them prisoners.
At night, the A.R.R.'s came up to wire the position in. I went out into No Man's Land and acted as sentry while this was being done. Seizing opportunity by the forelock, as it were, I annexed a sandbag full of various rations which a dead German nearby had evidently been looting from one of our Stores left behind in the retreat. I hung on to that sack when, two hours later, we were relieved by the Second Suffolks and marched to our rest billets, five miles behind the lines. I was well rewarded, for it contained jam, biscuits, tea and sugar which I put last, but to Tommy Atkins were no means least.
We had four days rest and then went up again into a quieter part of the East Bethune front. As our Company had had such strenuous work before, we were placed in Reserve for four days and then we had four days on the Front Line. Our time in reserve was spent in sleeping all day, except when we were brewing tea in a neighbouring farmhouse, and working at wiring and digging trenches at night. The most exciting part of the tea brewing was to keep the smoke down. If a German aeroplane saw that, there would have been a shell on the building directly. While we were in the Front Line, I made my first acquaintance with "minenweifer", those delightful things which sing as they are falling on you "Where's your bivvy? Where's your bivvy?"
And there it ended -I suspect there is some more somewhere perhaps in AJ's attic, since this is incomplete.
Copyright 2009 Nigel Cubbage. Used by permission