Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Wednesday April 5th 1916 - The Back of the Front

Received my 'movement orders' on Monday and entrained that night at 8.30pm after dining with Yates and Iforde. Had a very good night in the train. Before starting each individual had to draw his iron rations. These consisted of about 1lb of small biscuits and a small tin containing tea and sugar all done up in a linen bag. I learnt to appreciate the value of iron rations more fully in future months, but I don't suppose I was the only one who, on his first introduction to them, thoughts them a tiresome addition to his kit, and left them in the carriage at the end of his first train journey! A large proportion of those issued at the Base must have gone into the mouths of the French urchins who all along the line received us with the cry 'Biscuit - Souvenir'. 

Passed Bologne in the early morning and paused for breakfast and wash at Calais about 10.30am. The breakfast was provided by a Y.M.C.A. or Church Army hut and served by two ladies to whom I felt extraordinarily grateful: the wash was provided by an individual who might have been a tramp - but who was dressing in khaki and who presided over a boiler on the platform. He dispensed hot water into whatever receptacle one could provide for oneself. Reached Hazebrouck about 1.30pm and there to my great joy found Colquhoun, also en route to the 2nd E. Bn (Entrenching Battalion). We proceeded in another train in a most leisurely fashion to Poperinge (about 8 miles West of Ypres) where we detrained about 6.30pm and then walked the four miles or so to Camp. The Camp was in an open and muddy field near Ouderdom, S.E. of Poperinge. No warning had been given of our arrival but we were in time to partake of a most filling dinner and were then made extremely comfortable for the night in a tent provided with camp beds and such like luxuries - being my first experience of even the 'back of the front' it no doubt seemed more noisy then it really was but the guns of both sides were in action all the evening and the flashes kept an almost constant glare in the sky to the East. 

The previous evening the Battalion had been forced to abandon its camp just across the road and shells were again falling in the same place when we arrived. In fact, one officer was knocked over when going out with a party. Tonight things have been quieter. The country round here is very flat and though perfectly dry now one can imagine what the mud in winter must be like. The roads of course are frightfully cut up by traffic and must become quagmires directly it rains. It is surprising how much of the land still remains cultivated and farming operations are in full swing all around us. Though this is well within the zone of shell fire. All the buildings are the worse for wear and Pop shows many signs of warfare. we are just at the back of the Ypres Salient and of course very heavy fighting has taken place all over this district. 

I did not have long to wait before I experienced the mud which in reality was far worse than anything I imagined. Considering the vast amount of traffic and the fact that all our camps were pitched on arable land - very little of the locality being devoted to pasture - it was not surprising that both roads and camps were knee deep in slush. Duck boards formed the only means of cross country communication and when the supply of these failed, movement became almost impossible. My ideas of destruction adjusted themselves before many months. (Added 1918 by AJT - Poperinge in 1916 had suffered from few shells, but was a thriving thickly populated and healthy town compared to what it was afterwards, and even after another 18 months of war, when I last saw it, it was in a good state of repair compared to many places further South.)

Today (Wednesday 5th) we have had nothing to do and this afternoon walked into Pop. to do a little shopping and get exercise. We there ran into Duncan who used to be at Dunree. He has been out nine months with a T.M. Battn (Trench Mortar Battalion). (He looks well after it too) and now wears the M.C. (Military Cross, granted in recognition of acts of extreme bravery). Of this Battn I have as yet seen but little, but the C.O. Major Tuson, 16th Lancers, seems a very good sort, as also the Adjt Neilson, a Scottish Rifleman. The others are a mixture of all regiments; English, Scotch and Irish. 

These Entrenching Battalions were Army Troops and were subsequently replaced by units of the Labour Corps - their duty was to construct trenches, assist in the construction of railways or roads, and any other odd job that might be required. Occasionally the work could be done by day, but as a rule it was done at night. The working parties setting out in time to reach their work after dusk. They usually got back to camp about 2 or 3 am and after a drink of hot soup, the men turned in and remained undisturbed till noon - there was one short inspection parade - otherwise nothing except their night work. The Battalion was composed of reinforcement officers and men, temporarily loaned, before joining their own units. Some remained with an Entrenching Battn for months, others got away after only a few days. The CO's view that both officers and men were reinforcements for their regiments and therefore ought to be preserved from unnecessary risk until the regiment got possession of them was correct enough, but it led to very bad training in my opinion - for any shelling of a road or vicinity of a works rendezvous could be taken as an excuse by a windy officer for withdrawing his working party. That would easily give raw troops an exaggerated idea of the danger and lower their morale. It was always a bad thing to let oneself of one's men think that one could not go any where or don anything that one intended. 

On the 13th I wrote - Last Thursday there was a great evening hate and we hurriedly decamped to a new ground about a mile back (near Reninghelst) which was being prepared for us but which we did not mean to occupy for another two or three days. By the time we were there the strafe was over, but our own guns kept busy all night. 

Our new camp is in a grass field felt and low lying, and therefore, frightfully muddy now that there have been two wet days. However, it may be pleasant enough in summer, for the moment it is uncomfortable as there is no mess but a tent becomes boring when it is one's only accommodation. On Friday, (7th) Maurice (his brother, a Captain in Army Service Corps, killed 1917) turned up in a motor and took me into Poperinge. He lives just the other side of the town and has most comfortable quarters in huts. (His camp, the HQ of the Guards Div Train was in a farm on the East die of the Pop - Proven Road near the junction of that road with the one from Waton). I was then proceeding down country with a draft of 10 Bn KOYLI joining their unit - two other drafts also going at the same time. We put up for the night at Hazebrouck and were most comfortable in the 'rest billets' - an empty hospital, where we got a hot bath. Next day got as far as Abbeville vis Bethune and S'Pol. There the men spent a night in railway carriages. I spent it at an hotel near the station. On Sunday (9th) reached my railhead - Mericourt I'Abbi and marched out to Albert - about 7 miles. I handed over the draft. The courtly down there is much prettier than Flanders - undulating and rather open - as usual, will tilled. The town of Albert is a pitiful sight, the church and centre of the town absolutely laid flat, the remainder much damaged. (In comparison with the damage suffered during 1918, Albert was at this time really intact. The church itself and buildings near it were of course destroyed, but when I passed through it in September 1918, it would have been difficult to find the site of the church 0 the whole town was then flat very literally. In 1916 and for long afterwards, the famous Angle was still leaning outwards form the shattered tower and the prophecy that when it fell the War would cease almost came true). 

Beyond, i.e. East of Albert, the ground rises to the now famous plateau on which stood Pozieres - La Boiselle - Ovillers and many other villages of the Somme battlefield. On this Sunday evening there was nothing very war-like about the scene except for a few straggling lines of white chalk marking the position of our communication trenches. 

I got a lift back to Mericourt but was too late for a train so the R.T.O. a Captain Hamilton took pity on me and gave me dinner at his Mess where there was a very hospitable party of six. (Mericourt was already becoming a busy railhead and even then a big ammunition dump had been formed in preparation for the July offension). 

Slept in a railway carriage and began my return journey at 8am Monday. Breakfasted at Amiens and then had to get out again at Abbeville about noon and found there was no train until 4am next morning. After lunch went for a walk along the Somme canal as it was a lovely day, and in various ways killed time until about 9.30 when I returned to the station. Remainder of the night most uncomfortable, no rest house being provided, only a luggage dump in the R.T.O.'s office (where on could recline on the top of valises, coats, boxes and other odd property of other people's, but when sleep was almost impossible owing to noise and constant arrivals and departures There was no Officers' Club in Abbeville at this time, but an excellent one was opened later). 

A friendly TCO did his best and I had a good time on his train between 4.30am and noon when we got out at Hazebrouck. At S Omer I discovered that Geoffrey Baker (OKS) was in the next carriage. He is now a fully fledged RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) and just came out from home. At that moment the Huns began to shell the town so we adjourned to a bunk hole (the RTO's) till it was over (It was a very mild strafe really but neither of us were then very used to the fame or we shouldn't have wasted so much time). We then went up to his mess for dinner. They do things in great style and seem most comfortable. I stayed the night in a vacant hut and then got a lift out to Ouderdom in a motor after breakfast. Arrived in camp just before the rain. I t the soaked all day until a gale sprang up in the night which continues today (Thursday). Wish my trip had lasted a day longer!

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