Saturday, 26 March 2016

War Diaries - March 1916

A couple of years ago, the General handed me a thick, typewriter written document, its slightly tatty, dog-eared 30 pages held together by a bulldog clip. 'These are your great-grandfather's war diaries,' he informed me. I read them that afternoon, sitting in the summer sun,  98 years after Lt Colonel AJ Trousdell documented his life during 1916. That was the year of the Battle of the Somme, a battle that killed and injured over 1,000,000 men in little over 5 months, and the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of the war. As I read about his days, some mundane, some exciting, some not noted but all set against the backdrop of tragedy and loss, I decided that I would write them out to mark their 100 years.  

At the outbreak of war, AJT - who had been invalided out of the military due to contracting polio whilst serving in India - reenlisted into the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers based in Buncrana in Co. Donegal, where he remained until March 1916 when he was posted to France. 

My grandfather spent time typing the diaries up. The pages are marked with notes, edits and crossings out. The first entry has no date but they start at the end of March. They end abruptly in mid-August. Brackets with italics are my notes, otherwise I am typing the diary up verbatim although it's clear from reading them that AJT went back at a later date & add in more detail. For everyday there's an entry, I will write it up and posted it, 100 years on. For more background information on my Great-Grandfather, you can read a blog I wrote last year about his stolen war medals.

Coincidentally, in June this year, I will be cycling from Ypres to Verdun to raise money for Help for Heroes, along the route of the Western Front, following a path AJT and his brothers-in-arms would have been all too familiar with. 

March 1916

Orders to proceed to join the BEF (British Expeditionary Force, the British Army sent to the front during WW!) - for which I had hoped so long and in vain - came at last on 25th March 1916. On the 27th, I left the 3rd Battalion at Buncrana (County Donegal, Ireland) and crossed to England by the night mail from Kingstown. Owing to a blizzard all over the midlands - which brought down the telegraph wires and left deep snow everywhere, the train only reached London at 4pm instead of 7.45am. That gave me only just time to get him the same night and I returned to town the following morning early - in Kate's (sister-in-law) company - intending to proceed to Southampton that same afternoon. However, Colquhoun (who was to go out with me) only arrived late also due to the blizzard and we finally postponed our departure until the following day. 

We crossed from Southampton on Thursday night (March 30th) by the Le Havre mail boat, disembarking about noon on Friday after a very smooth crossing in foggy weather. On land, it was fine and warm. We had the afternoon to ourselves and spent most of it at the Officers' Club - a small house which was totally inadequate to the number of officers who passed through Le Havre - but still they fed one in time and we were grateful for all we got there. 

At 10pm we entrained and spent a cold night travelling very slowly to Rouen which we reached at 6am (Saturday 1st April). One of the things which struck me forcibly on this occasion and during subsequent journeys near the Base ports was the oriental spirit of indifference to Time displayed by all railway authorities including (with few exceptions) the much reviled 'R.T.O.' (Rail Transport Office). Whether the load was human or otherwise - much needed reinforcements for the front line - Ordnance Stores - rations or any one of a million other commodities - all were treated in the same way. Eventually they would arrive at their destination - often by devious routes and often (if of the human variety) unfed - but in the good time of the R.O.D. they would arrive. 

Rouen did not impress me as a desirable spot in which to remain. It was swarming with troops - chiefly British - and the constant stream of motor lorries, ASC wagons etc. etc. - on the cobbled streets made it extremely noisy. The Reinforcement Camps were on the race course to the South of the town details for every infantry unit were grouped in accordance with the grpupidn of the units in Divisions. Thus the detail camps of the 87th also contained representatives of all the other eleven Battalions in the 4th Division.

I found several friends - Ilforde of the 3rd Battalion came up from Le Havre with us expecting to rejoin the 87th shortly. Horwell (a ranker 2/Lieut who had come out from Buncrana a few weeks earlier) was in the Camp pending posting to a Battalion. 

Some officers escaped from the Base after a few days only, others stayed there for weeks - it seemed to be a mere matter of luck. I was already under orders to join the 2nd Entrenching Battalion (Entrenching Battalions were temporary units from which infantry battalions could draw replacements) in the 3rd Army area but had to wait for further instructions. Colquhoun went straight on to Étaples (about 160km north of Rouen, near Calais) being posted to a Service Battalion (7th I think).

Yates (Capt 87th) was in Rouen having got a job at DAAG (Deputy Assistant Adjutant General) 3 Echelon. Deane, formerly a Colour Sgt of the 89th, I met by chance: he was then Adjutant to one of the Base Camps. I also ran into my old hospital orderly of Ferozepore and Dalhousie Days - Pte Gillespie - which pleased me not a little. (A.J.T. contracted polio whilst serving in India, Gillespie had looked after him. It is likely they would not have seen each other for several years.)

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