On the night of the 5th of August 1915 our H.Q. 34th brigade, 11th division embarked on His Majesty’s destroyer Bulldog’ (see figure below) and, together with the transports carrying the rest of the division, steamed from the island of Imbros towards the coast of Gallipoli. As we neared the Peninsula, the sergeants were busy issuing rum to the infantry, even going round for a second time to those that wanted it. Our brigadier explained to us that we would get our issue after the landing was made, as it was essential for us to be in full possession of our faculties as the lines of the infantry were dependent on the accuracy of our communications. So we RE Signals went into action dead sober, with no ‘Dutch Courage’ to help us. One other instance worth noting was the fact that Colonel Fishbourne of the 8th Northumberland Fusiliers was twice superficially wounded by ricochets from the funnel of the destroyer. A couple of days later he was again wounded and had to be evacuated to a hospital ship.

In the early hours of the morning of the 6th we arrived at our destination. We disembarked from the destroyer onto a K-type, shallow draught lighter, from which – after a time – we were transferred to whalers which headed landwards. Shortly afterwards we were ordered to get out, as the whalers were grounded 100 yards from the shore.

All of us were carrying our signalling equipment. I personally was carrying – in addition to my army equipment – two 4′ 6″ signalling flags, a quarter of a mile reel of cable, a D3 instrument and a heliograph and stand. On reaching the shore we were told to lie down on the sand and wait for the command to advance. At this time, the beaches were being shelled with shrapnel and we were also under fire from snipers further up the beach. We had no artillery to support our landing save that of His Majesty’s cruiser ‘Swiftsure’ (shown below, Wikipedia image) and one monitor.

On the command to advance, we ran forward, some of us sinking into mud where water drained from the Salt Lake into the sea. Several of my comrades, hearing warning cries about the mud, went further along and crossed on dry land. We were then ordered to get down and take cover. Sapper W. Roe sat down with his back to a bush and Lance Corporal Eddy Ford at his feet. Suddenly, without a sound, Roe collapsed and it was not until dawn that we discovered that a sniper’s bullet had pierced his windpipe (see CWGC certificate). That same afternoon, Hickling (a close friend of mine) and I decided to bury Roe, because of the great heat of the day. We took his identification disk and the contents of his pockets and handed them to the Staff Captain. Bill Roe is commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, here.

One day soon afterwards, a Turkish envoy was spotted approaching our front line. This caused great excitement, as we all thought that they were going to surrender. No such luck, they were informing us that there was an ammunition dump near the hospital on the beach. They ordered us to move it or the hospital would be shelled. All available men, including most of us at Brigade HQ were ordered to move it, most of it being .303 ammunition for rifles. Bill Hickling and I worked together, finding an oar on the beach, we slipped it through the rope handles of the ammo boxes and carried them three at a time, supporting the oar on our shoulders. We had to move the ammo a distance of 400 yards and, by the time we were far enough away from the hospital, Johnny Turk shelled us with shrapnel to encourage us to get a move on. The results were a few casualties, but Bill and I did a bit of ducking down and thus escaped injury. By this time, our infantry battalions had reached the foot of the hills and were still advancing. We made our HQ on the beach and established communications with the other battalions of our brigade. Later that day, the battalions were held up on the hills, communications were lost and had to be re-established by runners. Towards dusk, myself and a private named Potter (of the ninth Lancs Fusiliers) were ordered to take priority messages, of which we both had a copy. The officer who issued the orders told us not to take our rifles, as without them we would get to the hills much more quickly. We were to contact each of our four battalions and deliver the messages to their adjutants. The first battalion that we contacted was the Ninth Lancs Fusiliers and by the time that we did so, it was dark. Eventually locating the adjutant, one Captain Guy, we gave him the message which he took and read by the light of his torch under the shelter of an overhanging rock. He had already been ordered to send a list of casualties to HQ, this message (telling him to do so) was therefore totally unnecessary and he told us in very strong language just what he thought of our signals officer, Beecroft, for sending us through dangerous territory on what had proved to be a totally pointless mission. When I told him that I had to deliver the same message to the three other battalions he advised me to go back to HQ and tell them that it was impossible to do so. I told him that we must at least try to deliver the despatch and he said “Right, I wish you luck”. However, after crossing the rough terrain for about half an hour I decided to turn back and make for the beach. The only guidance we had, were the lights of the hospital ships in the bay. A short time later we saw a silhouetted figure rise from the ground in front of us, I said to Potter “He doesn’t know that we are unarmed, so let’s challenge him”. This we did, and were greatly relieved to see him disappear. We then continued our journey towards the bay. After half an hour or so we were greatly cheered to be challenged in a broad Yorkshire dialect and I may say that I have never been so glad to hear an English voice as I was that night. We reached our HQ on the beach after an uneventful and tiring journey. When we arrived our Signal officer, Beecroft, threatened to put us under arrest for failing to deliver the despatches to the other battalions as we had been ordered.


August 7th 1915.The second day of the ‘Suvla Bay’ landing, General Mahon had taken ‘Chocolate Hill’ (see map) and I was sent with a congratulatory message from my brigadier. I had to make my way across ‘Salt Lake’ in order to reach the General’s HQ. On the far side of the lake, which was dry at that time of year, I saw some shallow trenches and in one of them I saw a Tommy in a kneeling position, with a rifle to his shoulder. I went up to him to investigate and found that he had been shot through the head. His head had fallen forwards and was resting on his rifle. He had retained his kneeling position and had not keeled over as one would have expected. Later, when I returned to HQ, I reported this and stretcher bearers were sent out to bring him in for burial.After this little incident I proceeded on my way and climbed to the top of ‘Chocolate Hill’ where I delivered the brigadier’s message to General Mahon’s HQ. I was about to start back when I heard a shot and turned to see an officer fall. It was a young lieutenant who was aide-de-camp to General Mahon. He had been shot through the lungs poor chap. Proceeding down the hill, I was confronted with a scene of real pathos.

Sitting with his back against a bush was one of our chaps, mortally wounded. I would say that he was about 45. He had a tobacco tin, pipe and matches and around him were spread several photographs of his wife and family He was having a last smoke with his thoughts on his dear ones as he died.

This depressed me considerably at the time and for quite a while afterwards. Later, back at HQ, I was in my trench and had just put the dixie on for a brew-up. While I was waiting, I went round to the next trench for a game of nap. I had not been away for many minutes when a shell burst right in my trench. When I went round to see what damage it had done, I found my dixie upset, the fire out and my despatch case blown about 40 yards. My game of cards had certainly saved my neck.Life here became static, as it was a question of digging in and holding on. I had been in the trench all day when Brigadier General Sitwell came along. He said “Signals have you got a rifle?”. I replied “Yes Sir”. “Can you use it?”. “Yes Sir”. “Then bring some ammunition and follow me”.

He said that we were going to the front line. He was a fine soldier and a good leader of men, and it was impossible for one to be afraid of anything in his company. Some time later we came to a well and stopped for a drink. The General spotted some biscuits lying on the ground. He picked them up, gave me a couple and said “Put them in your pocket, you may be glad of them by this evening”. As we approached the second line of trenches, the general noticed a man sitting on the ground, with another standing guard over him. The prisoner’s helmet was lying on the ground a few feet away. The general stopped, picked up the helmet and enquired as to what the man had been arrested for. A young officer in the trench said that the prisoner had been getting at the rum bottle. The only reply made by the general was to the effect that no officer had the right to allow the man to sit there with no helmet to protect him from the sun. A little later, when we arrived in the front line, the general picked up a clip of five bullets and, handing these to one youngster, said “Sonny, I want five Turks with these”. To another Tommy he said “Sonny, who’s your best friend? And for God’s sake don’t say your mother, it’s your rifle”. We spent several hours touring the front line and at the HQ of one battalion where the general stopped, he sent an orderly out with a drop of rum for me. I can assure you that I greatly admired him, he was a thoughtful, merry kind of man, as well as being a great soldier. A few days later, the general came for me again and a party of us proceeded to the front lines. The group consisted of General Sitwell, the brigade major, Captain MacIntosh the machine gun officer, his orderly and myself. We spent the whole day crawling through the old Turkish front line mapping out machine gun posts for an attack which was to take place on August 21st. Later on, while we were resting in a cornfield near an orchard which was being burnt in order to flush out some snipers, a corporal stretcher bearer came crawling in with a wounded man on his back. A chap named Sorano, of the Manchesters, remarked “By gum, that bloke’s worth a VC”. General Sitwell, thinking that I had made the remark, said to me “Young man you are quite wrong. We do not give VCs for doing one’s duty. I will see that he gets recommended. I wish to God that all men did their duty like him. You youngsters are not used to war, but you are all coming about quite nicely”. Corporal Gregory of the Manchester regiment was awarded the DCM, the next highest award to the VC. I sent the story of the event to the EVENING NEWS, and received a guinea for it when it was published. About the 16th of August I had an attack of dysentery, reported sick and was sent to hospital where I spent three days. I was then taken, with the other patients aboard a French hospital ship called ‘SALTA’. We then sailed to Mudros (see details) where we berthed alongside of the ‘EDINBURGH CASTLE’ (see details). It was rumoured that we were going back to England on it, but alas we only walked across it and the ‘GLOUCESTER CASTLE’ and down onto the shore. We were then taken to the Mudros harbour hospital which was on the island of Lemnos. the reason for our being removed from Suvla was to make way for the expected casualties from the attack on August the 21st. I believe that they were pretty heavy.


I remained in hospital for about a month and then passed as fit to go on convalescence. The convalescent camp was situated in the hills, near the little town of Portianos. About a week later I woke up with terrific pains in my head and shivering all over. The MO was sent for and he ordered that I be put in the hospital at the camp itself. While I was in hospital, I was told that I had had a mild attack of malaria, but at the top of my progress sheet were the letters FUO, which I later discovered to mean ‘Fever of Unknown Origin’. When I was finally released from hospital I had been ready to go for weeks but I had been kept there far longer than I thought was necessary. I count myself very fortunate that I had a good doctor, a man named MacRae. I had almost formed a mistaken opinion of him resulting from the way in which I saw him deal with a young chap in the Manchester Infantry. this fellow had complained of aching shoulders and arms, but MacRae had no sympathy with him, as he was of the opinion that the chap was a ‘malingerer’. However, when this fellow was examined by the other doctors, they could find nothing wrong with him and I realised that MacRae was not such a bad chap after all. MacRae examined me and said that, although I was no longer ill I was, in his opinion, still to weak to go back into active service. I said that I would rather return to the Peninsula and be with my friends, and so the following day I caught a transport back to Suvla Bay.


I arrived back at the Peninsula that evening and, reporting to the BDE Brigade HQ, Ninth Corps Gulley, I rejoined my old unit and my friends. Although I eventually resumed my old duties, I was at that time supernumerary and, as such, was assigned OC Sanitation. I was able to go and pick out any four men and to take them round to empty the latrines. Whenever we passed the Signals Office the occupants would yell out “Look out, here comes Hillen and his shit carriers”.

I had this job for about six weeks until the Peninsula was evacuated, when I joined my unit in Egypt. Before I tell of my time in Egypt, however, there was another little incident that occurred while I was in Ninth Corps Gulley and which I shall never forget. We used to play brag all night and for illumination we used two cigarette tins of oil with a rope stuck through as a wick. In the morning, when we crawled out of our tent we met the divisional Padre taking an early morning stroll. Upon seeing us he burst into laughter and said “I never thought I should see the Moore and Burgess Minstrels here this morning”. When I asked him what he meant by it he said “Why, look at your faces”. Upon doing so, we discovered that our faces had become blackened by the smuts from the burning rope-wick that we had used the night before.Shortly after this, there was a terrible storm. Men’s bodies were being washed down the line and the storm did not clear until the following day. Sentries who had died in the fury of the storm were found dead at their posts. The storm was said to have been the worst since the days of Crimea. A man named Baily and I came off duty and a sapper named Davidson went on. This Davidson had bailed his trench out and had hung his things out to dry. As our trench was flooded too, we cut two channels and drained the water away. When Davidson came off duty he dropped straight into his trench, landing in two feet of water. The water which we had drained from our trench had run down the slope and straight into Davidson’s trench which was situated immediately below us. Davidson was furious and called Baily and I every insulting name under the sun, throwing in a few expletives in choice places. However, we thoroughly deserved it.Shortly afterwards, Lord Kitchener came to Gallipoli. During his stay he had a meal at our Brigade HQ. Afterwards, an officer told us that we were going to evacuate the Peninsula. Dumps were erected and boards put up and when the transports arrived to take us off, we were told that we could take anything from the dumps provided that we did not disturb them. My pal Bill Hickling took a whole side of bacon. I was less ambitious and took a tin of Irish butter. One of the first things that we did when we got aboard the transports was to go to the Galley for a drink, from there we were directed to the butcher. Another pal of mine, Robby, went to see this butcher. When we got there, he offered us two Guinnesses and when I gave him 10 shillings he said “That’ll be right”. Robby asked me if I would like another and my reply was “If I can pay 10 shillings, so can you!”. We arrived in Alexandria and took a lorry to Sidi Bishr, a suburb of Alexandria about four miles from the town centre. The Scottish Yeomanry had a bar there, but it was for members of the regiment only. We succeeded in getting a drink by borrowing six Scottish Yeomanry regimental badges. We were on the other side of a railway line to Alexandria and next to an oasis which consisted of about half a dozen trees and plenty of lizards. We were only here for two or three days before the entire regiment was moved to El Fedan, between Kantara and Ismalia. There was a fumigating train brought along and we were ordered to strip and place our clothes in this train. Meanwhile we had a swim in the canal or amused ourselves in any way that we could. When we had our clothes handed back and were putting them on, somebody said to Georgie Hull, a cockney in our brigade, “Well Georgie, how do you feel now?”. Shrugging himself into his tunic, Georgie replied “Blimey, I don’t half miss ’em!”. While we were here, we had a ‘very difficult’ job to do. Mine consisted of one night of duty in the Signals Office, after which I had 24 hours rest. I was able to spend this rest period as I wished. I was then given the job of counting the ships that used the canal, as well as getting their registration numbers and their ports. I also had to check dhows, for which purpose I had to swim out to them. On one occasion, a big hospital ship was coming up the canal and my pal Robby was standing on the bank with no clothes on. In order to avoid being seen in his undressed condition by those on board the ship, he walked into the canal until the water was up to his neck. However, when the ship had gone past the water level went down and poor Robby was left with the water round his knees, still waving to the nurses.

When we moved, it was to go further into the desert to a place called Ferryport, which was in the Sinai desert, about five or six miles from Suez. One particular incident, the memory of which has remained vividly in my mind ever since, occurred when we were riding out about eight miles into the desert with the Hertfordshire Yeomanry. We took a heliograph and a telescope with the job of warning them if we saw anything coming. Bert Miles spotted a large body of horsemen several miles off and, as nobody was supposed to be in front of us, he thought that something was up. We helioed back to base. Our orders were to remain there until the horsemen got within telescope range and, if they were the enemy, to mount up and run for it. I was later told that this report of ours about the horsemen caused great excitement when it was received back at base. As the body of horsemen neared us, we were told to tighten our horses’ girths and to get ready. The suspense of the moment was nerve wracking but, fortunately for us, they turned out to be the Australian Light Horse and not the enemy that we had dreaded. We helioed the news back to base and were told that the Aussies had no right to be there, this event caused near chaos in the official records for the area. After that, we carried on with normal duties and nothing of real importance occurred until several weeks later when we were told that we were going to France.


Preparations were made to go to Alexandria and then we set off. From Alexandria we went on board the Cunard liner ‘TRANSYLVANIA’, a vessel of about 24,000 tons. Eventually, after about a week, we arrived at Marseilles from where we marched the two miles to Furneaux camp. We only remained here for a couple of days, however. When we left here, we entrained and proceeded to the battle area, stopping at intervals during the journey to eat meals prepared for us. After about four days, we arrived at St Paul. From here we went to Grand Roullicourt, where we stayed at the chateau for a week to ten days. The brigadier, J. Hill, had a sheepdog with him and he thought that it looked rather sickly so he said to Wiltshaw (the cook) “This dog looks ill, so here’s a bottle of brandy and a dozen eggs”. The eggs made Wiltshaw happy, and I felt rather merry as Wiltshaw shared his bottle of brandy with me. The dog, however, got better – even though he had not had the eggs and brandy and so the brigadier was pleased, as were Wiltshaw and I. One night we woke up to the sound of heavy artillery in the distance and received orders that we were to proceed up the line. We moved off the next day and went to a place about five miles behind the lines and stayed at the chateau at Beaumetz (see photograph below).

I volunteered to ride to Grand Roullicourt to pay the mayor of that town the money that we owed him for the billets. Coming across a couple of ASC chaps on horses, I asked them their division and they replied that it was the fourteenth. I then asked them if they knew a Regimental Sergeant-Major Hillen (my elder brother). One of them said that he was his groom and was exercising his horses. They showed me the direction of their camp and I called in on my way back. We had a few drinks and he agreed to ride back with me to Beaumetz. I did not stay at Beaumetz for long, as the Division went on manoeuvres and training. After about a fortnight, we moved to Bouzencourt where we were held in reserve for the attack to come on July 1st. We were about four kilometres from Albert, we never entered the battle but were held in reserve throughout. From here, we moved to another small village called Riviere, where we stayed in yet another chateau. We were quartered in the potting sheds and in the gardener’s quarters. This sector was fairly quiet as regards fighting. On our first morning in the line Jerry put up a notice which read ‘WELCOME 11th DIVISION, DO YOU LIKE THIS BETTER THAN SUVLA?’. HQ decided that, as they knew who we were, we had better find out who they were. Captain Armstrong of the 11th Northumberland Fusiliers was ordered to make a raid that night. He was ordered to capture one of the enemy and to use cold steel if he met any resistance from others (in order to prevent a flare-up). They came back with a Bavarian who, unfortunately, had been bayonetted during the mission and who died at HQ that same night. We were here until August. We used to have our meals in an orchard and one afternoon, when we were scrumping apples, we heard footsteps approaching from the back gate of the chateau. Everybody, with the exception of myself, took cover. I did not, because I thought that it would look odd if there were apples and branches strewn all over the orchard and nobody in sight. So, to prevent the officers from investigating the matter later, I decided to take the blame. I stood in the door of the greenhouse and waited until a few moments later some officers entered through the gate. They were the brigadier, the brigade major and a staff captain. The brigade major looked at the apples and branches strewn all over the ground and then at me and said “Signals, I hope they give you stomach ache”. The little group then proceeded on into the chateau. I discovered a little estaminet where I could get some champagne at only 3.90 francs per bottle. Robby and I bought a dozen bottles. One evening we were smoking and drinking when Lieutenant Barfoot came along and said “What are you drinking Hillen?”. I replied that it was champagne, and asked him if he would like to try some. He had some out of our enamel mug, rated it as good and asked me where I had got it and for how much. I told him and later, when I went to replenish my stock, I found that he had bought every bottle in the place for the officer’s mess. Some months later I met him in an estaminet in St Omer where I spoke to him saying “That was a nice trick that you played on us sir”. He said “What was that Hillen?”. I replied “Why, clearing all the champagne for the officer’s mess”. He said, “Never mind, have a bottle with me now”. So he shared a bottle with Robby and myself which cost him 19.70 francs, and this mollified me somewhat. About the end of August, we moved to La Baiselle – a fairly quiet spot. Our HQ was not far from where a brigade of artillery were quartered and where 4.5 inch howitzers and field guns were practically wheel to wheel. We had never been so close to such a heavy concentration of guns before and where the chief hazard was from premature bursts as some of the shells exploded on leaving the muzzle, causing quite a few casualties amongst the troops. I later heard there was quite an outcry in the papers at home. Questions were even asked in Parliament about the faulty shells that were sent out to us. As it rained heavily during the ten days or so that we were here, the ground was a quagmire and conditions were very uncomfortable. Eventually we were ordered to move to Orillers. When we lined up to get away, the QMS said that blankets were to be carried as the half a dozen cycles we had would have to go on the wagons. I suggested that myself and five others ride the cycles, with our blankets and kit bags going on the wagons. The QMS agreed to this, so we volunteers started off and had to push the bikes across a couple of muddy fields to the main road, and here our troubles started. The mud and slush were terrible, and it was as much as we could do to ride fifty yards and then stop and clean our mudguards and brake lights before being able to ride again. This went on for about an hour during which time I and my pals were alternately praying, cursing and crying, being thoroughly exhausted. I halted them for a rest, when presently I saw an ASC convoy of double limbers coming. I told them to get ready and, as each limber got close enough, to follow me and throw their bikes on and get on as well. I was the first to do so and the drivers, after first protesting, agreed to give us a lift to the main Albert-Bapaume road. I can assure you that we were very thankful for the lift. On reaching the road, we were able to cycle again. Bill Tobin, a runner from the Manchester regiment, said he believed that there was a canteen somewhere ahead. The others had no money, but fortunately I had. I promised them tea and something to eat when we reached it. when we eventually reached the canteen (a large hut at the side of the road), we found that it was a Canadian YMCA, so we got our tea and a snack for nothing. We were lucky in that at least.Eventually, we reached Ovillers and found our HQ in an old German hospital which was built – in a trench – on girders and massive timbers, and which was heavily sandbagged. There were bunks for us all. My pal, Ken Williamson, had promised to claim a bed for me and put my kit bag and gear on it. When he showed me the bunk, I found that a shell had landed on the top and had bent the girder so that I would have been unable to turn over. After I had roundly cursed him and called him every conceivable kind of pal for doing this to me, Ken just laughed. He then lead me to another bunk – he had only done it to hear me blackguard him. After a couple of hours sleep, I felt much better and ready to go on duty in the Signals Office at midnight, with Robbie and Ken Williamson (who was the divisional Sounder Operator) and half a dozen runners. Robbie, who always did a lot of scrounging when we arrived at a new place, told me that he had found a nice white enamel jug fitted with a cup as a lid. This would be OK for our brew-up later, when we got our Primus spirit stove working. I must tell you that we were provided with several petrol cans of water plus another couple of cans with the corners cut out – to urinate in. In the early hours of the morning I suggested to Robbie that it was time for our brew-up, so he proceeded to fill one jug with water and to get our Primus stove going. After some minutes, we noticed a pungent smell which steadily got worse. Going to the stove, we took off the lid, took one more sniff, and hurried to the trench where we threw the jug and contents over the top. Some of the previous occupants had urinated in used some of the ordinary petrol cans and that was what we had been boiling up. We then had to fill our service canteens and make a fresh brew-up of tea.


After a day or so, preparations were made for an attack at Theipval. It was aimed at the German front line and, more particularly, at the redoubts and strongholds of Hohenzollern and Schwauben, which had been causing a lot of casualties. It was a fine morning when the barrage went up and as soon as the infantry moved forward we got a surprise for, following the infantry, were tanks. Myself and a couple of pals, not being on duty in the Signals Office, came up from our dugout to have a look at them. They looked very clumsy to us with their bundles of branches and brushwood on top. These were for dropping into trenches in the tanks’ path, thus filling them in and allowing the tanks to pass safely over. These tanks succeeded in putting the wind up Jerry and we quickly advanced. This advance was only temporary however for when one of these tanks got stuck in Theipval cemetery the Jerries knocked it and several others out by using field pieces at what was virtually point blank range.

Also, there were not enough tanks to keep up the pressure on the enemy when they had recovered from the initial shock. I forget the exact number of tanks used, but I believe that it was between 7 and 11. I believe the former was correct. Meanwhile, the attack was going pretty well, especially with regard to our infantry and machine gunners, but the two redoubts were causing quite a lot of trouble. Both of them being taken and retaken by Jerry. We finally drove them out, and the officers chiefly responsible for this gallant action were Captain Archibald White (who was eventually awarded the VC) and Lance Corporal Spud Murphy of the 11th Manchester regiment, who fought gallantly in capturing Hohenzollern and Schwauben, was awarded the DCM. The above officer was the Yorkshire cricket skipper.After a few days, the attack petered out. We were eventually relieved and sent back to Morche, a village just outside Albert. Here we took over the billets of an Indian brigade and were housed in an old barn. After claiming my own portion of the chicken netting that was spread right across the barn, I went over to the Signals Office (a coal shed) where I was Signal Master. I was due to be relieved by Robby after midnight. At about 11 o’clock, I was much surprised to see Robby arriving an hour early to relieve me. I arrived at the barn and opened the door. As I did so, I heard the scurrying of many small feet and, in the light of my torch, saw a great many rats. They seemed to be everywhere. Anyway, I made my way to my bed and gratefully dived underneath my two blankets, where I stayed for the duration of a most unpleasant night. By some miracle, however, I did manage to get some sleep. The next day we marched to Villers, and this time got decent billets. All that we did for the next couple of weeks were a few mock attacks with the infantry. Time passed very pleasantly, we played a few games of football which we thoroughly enjoyed. Another activity which we revelled in was popping along to the estaminet to enjoy a few bottles of ‘Vin Blanc’ and ‘Graves’, which is a much better wine than Vin Ordinaire. A unique aspect of this estaminet was that it was owned by a sergeant of the Signals, who had married the owner, the widow of a French soldier. This sergeant was stationed locally and had what was virtually a permanent job at Corps HQ, so in his off-duty spells he ran the estaminet. He turned out to be a pal of Dixons who came from Leeds PO. Between us we managed to get quite a bit of fun, music and drinks and so you may well imagine our sorrow when we heard the news that we were going up to the front line again. Our division, the 11th, was to move up to Arras. This was now October, and Bill, Robbie and I were informed that our Blighty leave was coming through at any time. After three of four days of marching through the rain and slush, and sleeping in damp billets I managed to get a shocking cold. At the end of all this, I crawled into my bed feeling pretty queer. When Robbie and Bill came in and said that we had got to leave and were to catch a train from Railhead at Avesne Le Compte at about 06.30 in the morning. I felt so damned bad that I told them that I could not make it and would have to report sick. But they told me that I ‘was not bloody well going to do anything of the sort’. Robbie gave me a couple of quinine powders and poured half of the rum that he had been saving down me. He then told me to go to sleep and that they would wake me in time to catch the train. This they did, and not only carried my kit and gear but also took turns in helping me along too. Eventually, they got me to Avesne le Compse and onto the train for Boulogne. I considered their actions a splendid example of the camaraderie which existed between our boys. I am sure that there were very many such others. I often remember Bill and Robbie gratefully in my thoughts of the past.


We sailed from Boulogne to Dover, from where we took a train to Waterloo, Lewisham and home. Then, after 18 months, it gave me a wonderful feeling to be reunited with my wife and two babies. Ten days leave, what a lovely feeling it was to be home once again. A comfortable bed to lie in, regular meals and my family. Also visits to relatives and friends. I suggested to my wife that we should go up to town to see ‘The Old Bill’ (or perhaps ‘The Better Ole’), a comedy on the war by Bruce Bairnsfather (Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, a WWI soldier, began drawing cartoons in the trenches, capturing the everyday life of soldiers. His work, which resonated with both troops and the British public, led to regular features in “The Bystander” magazine, making him a renowned cartoonist. In 1917, he co-wrote “The Better ‘Ole,” a play based on his cartoons, starring his famous character Old Bill.), based on his famous cartoons of some Cockney characters. This was on at the Oxford, a West-End theatre in Oxford Street. It was quite funny, and we enjoyed once again going to a show together. On coming out of the Oxford, we made our way to the Empire in Euston Road. I had promised to deliver a letter from George Bailley to his wife, who was in the box office. After doing so, we then made our way to the Kings Cross underground station and booked to the Borough station. After going through a couple of stations, I noticed excited crowds hurrying onto the platforms. People of all ages, including women and children. Some of the passengers that got on informed us that an air raid was on. Our train was stopped at Borough station and we were informed that no-one was allowed into the streets as to be there was far too dangerous. The scene on the platform was quite interesting, women were fainting and kiddies who were not feeling too good were crying. Helpers were handing out water. I was sorry that it was nothing stronger. As the platforms were, I should say, about 80 to 100 feet below street level we heard nothing of the bombing. A chap coming down said that it was a terrific barrage we were putting up, so I said to my wife that I was going up to see what it was like. As the lifts were not working, I had to climb the spiral staircase which wound its way to the top of the lift-shaft. When I got to the booking hall, the gates to the street were closed and the police would not let anyone go out. As for the ‘terrific barrage’ I should think that there were anything from six to a dozen AA guns firing intermittently. And that’s what they called a ‘barrage’. When you are in an attack, the barrage causes the very earth and the air to tremble and vibrate. And to think that the Evening News started a Barrage Fund and called for donations to buy extras for the AA boys and make things more comfortable for them. Well, to continue my report of our trip out, after about an hour spent on the platform we were allowed to proceed on our way home. We found that we could only get a train as far as the Marquis of Granby at New Cross and no trams were yet running to Lewisham. So we set off to walk it, a journey of a mile and a half or so. By the time we got to St John’s station, the AA started firing again from Hilly Fields and shrapnel started falling. The wife wanted to run as we were both anxious about our two girls, who we had left in the care of their Grandma (the wife’s mother). I told her not to run but, if she wished, we could shelter in the doorways of some of the big houses on Loampit Hill, as they had pretty big porches and would afford quite good shelter. But no, she wanted to hurry and get back to the babies, which we eventually did, and found them quite safe with their Grandma. I don’t think I should have felt quite so peaceful in my mind if I had known that a bomb had been dropped on Dr Holt’s house, which was in a road which ran directly above us and which looked straight down onto Algernon Rd, where we lived. Dr Holt’s nerves were badly shattered and I believe he never practised again. One thing that impressed me on this, my first leave, was the kindness and trouble one’s relatives and friends took to do many things to make your homecoming a happy one. The wife’s elder brother bought a new gramophone and some new records. One which I recall with appreciation was an orchestral record called ‘The Masterpiece of Creation’, it impressed me so much that it was with a feeling of nostalgia that I thought of it when I returned to France. After two or three days, the wife and I decided to take the kiddies down to Wheathampstead where my father and mother had a small country pub, the ‘Rose and Crown‘. It was nice to see them again, and it also gave them great pleasure to see us. My father was very proud that all his three sons were serving abroad in the army. This spirit of patriotism does not exist today, except in those of my generation, or earlier ones. It seems that quite a lot of the youth of today are not at all proud of being English. After a couple of days, we returned home and enjoyed the remainder of my leave in what was a quiet and restful period. One amusing incident is worth recording. One night there was an air raid, though only of a light nature. After getting to sleep, my wife woke me saying “Alan, there is a bomb rolling down the roof”. After convincing her that all was quite OK, we got to sleep again, with no further incidents to disturb us. The final day of my leave dawned, and fairly early that morning my pal Bill Hickling arrived to spend the last day with us. It passed very quickly and early that night we went to Waterloo station. The wife and one or two members of her family came with us. We were joined there by Robbie, who had come up from Cardiff, where his home was. The scene at Waterloo was not very pleasant. There were soldiers and sailors with girlfriends and wives, some singing and some crying for various reasons. Some because they were really sad and some because they were crying drunk. There were boards marked for various divisions and units, stating the platform number and time of departure. At last we all proceeded to the platform. Robbie, Bill and I found seats in a carriage, put our kit in, then got out to say goodbye. Having said my goodbyes to the wife, we got back into the carriage as the whistle went. The doors slammed and we were off.


In Southampton we embarked on a transport. Once on board, we found a place below where we could lie down and get a bit of sleep. When we awoke in the morning it was to find ourselves at Le Havre. Here we entrained for Rouen, where we were to spend the night.I had forgotten to mention that, when Hickling joined us, he was wearing a medal ribbon. It was pale blue and white, with some thin red stripes on it. I asked him what it was and he replied that it was the new ‘Gallipoli’ ribbon which was being sold at Nottingham. Well, that evening at Rouen, the three of us went to the YMCA to get something to eat and drink. Sitting at another table I spotted a grizzled old warrior of a QMS and he was wearing the same ribbon as Bill, so I went across to him and said “Excuse me Quarters, what is the ribbon you are wearing?”. He told me that it was the Egyptian ribbon of 1895. I am not quite sure of the exact years, but I pointed out to Bill that it looked a bit silly being worn by a young man of twenty. He then took it off, and so ended another amusing episode. It was then about November 1st or 2nd, and we found our brigade in the back area of Beaumont Hamel, on the river Ancre. The 63rd Laval division started to attack on the 13th of November and during five days fighting they and the 63rd ND took Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt, both ruined villages. This sector had resisted all of our efforts since the July 1st attack. The Royal Laval division, after much confusion, made good headway in small bands of raiders, one of which was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel B.C. Freyberg (see portrait below, executed by Peter McIntyre). Despite being wounded several times Lieutenant-Colonel Freyberg continued leading his men towards a formidable redoubt and through wire which had hardly been touched by our barrage. Freyberg’s battalion, which had pushed up the bank of the river for about two miles, had to wait twenty four hours until their own artillery had ceased firing in front of them, before taking this redoubt. Our division went in support and during this attack I was sent with a message to 63rd ND HQ congratulating them on their success. That morning I was lucky enough to arrive in their trenches in time to see Lieutenant-Colonel Freyberg returning from a night raid on Jerry. Freyberg and his men all had their faces and hands blacked to make them less likely to be seen. Now, to digress a little, here is some information about Freyberg himself. He was awarded the VC for his part in the battle. A New Zealander, he tried for a commission in our army but, for some unknown reason, was turned down. Later on, he stopped Winston Churchill in the street and asked him if he could help him. At that time, I believe, Winston was the OC of the 63rd Laval division, quartered around the Crystal Palace. Churchill was so taken by the appearance and keenness of this young blonde giant (he was about 6′ 2″ or 6′ 3″ I believe, and about 14 or 15 stone) and he got him a commission in the ‘Hood’ battalion of the 63rd division. They, like us were in Gallipoli, and Freyberg swam ashore at our landing at Suvla Bay, lighting the flares to mark our landing places. Freyberg was a brigadier at 26 years of age and finished the war as a major-general and a divisional commander. He went on to become Lord Freyberg VC, Governor General of New Zealand.

Two other items of interest I have just remembered, he was wounded fifteen or sixteen times and after the war he attempted to swim the Channel, but his wounds forced him to give up a few miles from Dover.One final comment on the Ancre offensive. Throughout, it had been misty and cold with a thin drizzle, and the mud around and in front of the Jerry trenches was almost impassable. In one spot, the road below ‘Engine Trench’ a rear limber [p.14] of an eighteen pounder had sunk, so that you walked over it. On the 17th and 18th there was a blizzard. The result of the Ancre action was that we had straightened out a German salient. We now took over the front line from the 63rd division and Jerry got a bit of revenge by shelling us heavily and often. This made life very uncomfortable for us, but fortunately when off duty we had some very nice dugouts (apart from the rats) about thirty to forty feet deep to relax in. After about ten days we were relieved by another division. This was two or three days before Christmas. On the way to a back area, at one point in the journey we marched beside the river Ancre and, to our surprise, saw several dead Scotties in their kilts lying under the water. They all looked well preserved due to the temperature of the water, which had about an inch of ice on top. They came to be there because the town overlooking the Ancre had a large reservoir and when the Germans were advancing in late 1914 the townsfolk blew up the reservoir hoping to drown a lot of Jerries or at least make things difficult for them. Unfortunately they also drowned a few of our Highlanders who were also caught in the flooding of Ancre Valley near Beaumont Hamel while they were retreating. I cannot vouch for the above, but that is what the local peasantry told us. I can confirm that the Scotties were lying under the water, looking very well preserved and extremely peaceful, as if they were just resting there.We were looking forward to Christmas as before we took over at Beaumont Hamel, Captain Ratcliffe (a professional baritone singer) had gone on leave to Blighty taking with him a German Pickelhauber (which is a brass helmet with a spike on top). Captain Ratcliffe told us that he intended to auction the helmet at a concert in which he was performing. There he was to sing a song written especially for him, called ‘Laddie in Khaki. When we arrived at our billets we were greeted with the news that Captain ‘R’ had raised fifty pounds for the Pickelhauber at the auction. He had offered the cash to give us a happy time at Christmas. He had bought us turkeys, Christmas puddings and also some bottled beer and other extras. This was for NCOs and other ranks at brigade HQ, about 40 or 50 in all. Of course, we also had our normal rations, including several issues of rum. The ‘do’ was held in an army hut, it was some party and a wonderful time we had, both as to Christmas dinner and a good old sing song afterwards. I believe that Captain Ratcliffe was the man who inaugurated the communal singing at FA Cup Finals. So ended 1916.


In the beginning of January 1917 we went back to Beaumont Hamel for another turn in the line. Whilst we were there, some of the top brass decided they wanted to know what the Bosche was doing, so they sent ‘B’ company of the 5th Dorsets on a raid. On the morning of the raid there was a very heavy mist, almost a fog. After some hesitation, our brigadiers decided that they should proceed with the raid. They had been gone quite a while when some desultory rifle fire was heard and then silence. We never heard what became of them. We could only suppose that they had walked right into Jerry and were either wiped out or taken prisoner. When you consider that there were some 160 men involved, it seems incredible that they could just disappear like that. We had some of the Dorset attached to us as runners and they told us that, weeks later, their relatives had heard nothing from those missing.Well, after doing our spell in the line, we returned to one of the villages behind the line for a rest period. As our Signals Officer went on leave, he was replaced by a Lt Morgan, from an artillery unit. Now, as was customary when we came out of the line, our unit of about twenty men had a little lay-in on the first morning. Evidently Lt Morgan did not agree with this and we awoke to hear our sergeant and one or two junior NCOs telling us to parade for the officer’s inspection in about ten minutes. Well, as you might guess, we had not cleaned our rifles and most of us were unshaven when we were ordered to fall in. Number one in our front rank was a cockney and was noted for his five o’clock shadow. Lt Morgan halted in front of him, saying “Did you shave, my man?”. The man replied “Yes sir”, in his broad cockney accent. Morgan then asked sarcastically “May I ask what with?”. “Yes sir, with an army razor”, and there was a general titter in the ranks. But Morgan, knowing that he was very unpopular at that moment decided to dismiss the parade and to cancel the afternoon parade also. The joke was that you hadn’t a hope, trying to shave with an army issue cut-throat razor.Eventually, the 34th brigade were withdrawn from our division to take part of a flying column. A Signals Office was fixed up in a big lorry. Our artillery’s 18-lb field pieces were also mounted in lorries, together with our brigade of infantry. The attack was to be the other side of Arras, the aim being to break through the Docourt Queat Switch. The cavalry were to lead the attack, with us in support. This entailed us moving back to Grand Roullicourt for over two month’s special training. While we found this pretty arduous, it was relieved by a couple of football matches each week (at the brigadier’s suggestion) with the other units attached to us. Lt Webb made me OC Sport. My job was to fix the matches and arrange for transport, a meal, a bath or shower for the visiting team wherever possible. This did not excuse me from training with the rest for the job we had in hand. We had a good many enjoyable games. I played right half for the brigade HQ team.I must tell you of one match against the machine gunners, whose team included three or four professional players from the north of England. Well, poor old Lee, our goalkeeper, was smothered in boils on his legs and thighs and had great difficulty in moving about. I am sorry to say the machine gunners fairly riddled our defence, to the tune of nine goals to one. Poor old Lee could not jump about enough to stop the many shots fired at him. One spectator suggested that if Lee just walked up and down his goal line some of the shots must hit him. A very logical, but unkind, remark. But do not think it all went like this for us, we had our share of victories also and we thoroughly enjoyed both our special training and the sport. We eventually moved up to Arras for the attack. When this took place, the divisions involved in the attack took their objectives but were held up and did not make the breakthrough that was expected. Therefore neither the cavalry, nor our flying column could be used. Accordingly, our divisional commander, Major-General Davies had our brigade returned to the division, so ended an enjoyable interlude for us. We next moved to Bapaume, which had just been captured by our army corps. We were quartered at Lorche, four or five kilometres the other side of Bapaume. This was nice, rural countryside and quite enjoyable now that the attack had died down. Our infantry were busy digging themselves in. We had four or five huts as Signal Office and sleeping quarters. In the same field was a 45 howitzer battery. While they were shelling Jerry one day, we witnessed a nasty accident with one of their guns. As the breech was closed there was a premature burst and the breech was forced open by the explosion. The terrific flames blew back on the gunners, seriously injuring the Battery Sergeant Major and several men.After our spell in the line, our division was withdrawn to a nice little town called Beauquesne, not many miles from the chateau which housed Field Marshall Haig. Our corps was to train for an attack up north, on the Belgian front. One amusing incident here was as follows. Outside our Signal Office (which was located in a school) there was a red lamp. To our amusement and their annoyance, two drunken men came in one night and played merry hell when they discovered that the red lamp did not signify what they had thought. A red light being the French sign for a brothel.Well we settled down to our usual duties and all but Sergeant Gwinnell were billeted in a huge barn in a field. This included Sergeant Giles, our three junior NCOs, the rest of us RE Signals plus the battalion runners who were attached to us. We were awakened one night by shouts and groans coming from one of our runners. This was Bill Harris of the Manchester Regiment, a veteran of the 29th division, who had come from India with them. Bill was delirious and obviously in great pain, a doctor was fetched and Bill was rushed off to hospital. In the morning we were informed that Bill had died in the night, from cerebra-spinal meningitis. The field company were busy putting barbed wire all round our field, and the remainder of us had to have our throats swabbed. We were all placed in quarantine for fourteen days, with a sentry posted outside to see that no-one got out. At this time there was a very bad epidemic of cerebra-spinal meningitis among the troops, and it was generally fatal. This caused a lot of worry to those in command. Our officer and Sergeant Gwinnell being the only two of the RE Signals available. They set about putting together a Signals Brigade Section from Signals from other battalions. They of course were not used to our ways and general procedure. Lt Webb didn’t want this, as we were expected to go into action in the next nine or ten days. Lt Webb chased everybody to try and get permission to take us with him when the brigade moved but up to the day before the division was to move off, he had not succeeded. We were issued with pay and rum and left to get what we wanted. We said goodbye to the sergeant and were generally quite happy. But Lt Webb, who was a real go-getter, was not finished. He got on a motor cycle and rode to Abbeville where the Deputy General Quartermaster of Signals was. He got to see him personally and suggested that as it would take five or six days marching to get to the area where the attack was to take place that, if we were allowed to march some miles behind the rest of division. We could bivouac in the open, away from the other units. In that way, before we reached our destination, we would all be out of quarantine. The Deputy General Quartermaster of Signals took the matter up with the top brass medical authorities. The latter granted Lt Webb permission to do just as he had suggested and he arrived back at Beauquesne just as our division began to march away. Lt Webb soon had us fallen in with our equipment and on the march at least one mile behind the last unit. A well-deserved victory for initiative and persistence.By the time we reached Baileul we were out of quarantine and back once again as 34th Brigade Signals. Lt Webb was quite happy. We now knew that we were for either Hill 60 or Mont Kemall. Marching on the way up there we saw the Flanders poppies growing amongst the scattered graves on the edge of a cornfield. These were the graves of some of the 1914 army and we were given to understand that they had been buried by civilians, although I cannot vouch for this. The area we were now in was only a few kilometres away from Poperinghe where the C of E padre, better known amongst the troops as Tubby Clayton, founded Talbot House. It was thereafter known as Toc H. It was well-known to all Tommies and is still in existence today, with branches all over the United Kingdom.On about June 4th 1917, we arrived at a place called Chinese Wall. There were no dugouts, only sandbagged sleeping areas. Our brigade was in support of several Irish battalions. Directly in front of our brigade was the Royal Irish Ulster Regiment, in the front line, over 1000 yards ahead of our infantry. At 3.10 am on the 7th of June 1917, the mines went up, taking the whole German front line and reserve trenches with them and leaving two craters roughly sixty feet deep and about sixty feet in diameter at the top. This was followed by a colossal barrage 700 yards deep which crashed down on the remaining defences.The following is a quote from ‘The First World War’ by Cyril Falls. ‘Some 2266 guns of all calibres were used by us. A divisional commander described the scene from Kemall Hill as a vision of hell. The noise of this battle and the explosions as the mines went up were distinctly heard in England’ (unquote).There was just one small incident while we were at Chinese wall. One nice, sunny afternoon, Bob Whitehorne suggested that we go for a swim in a large pond nearby. We quite enjoyed the first half an hour. Suddenly the sky got darker and it looked like a storm. Before we could get dressed, down came torrential rain. We scrambled out, putting our boots and clothes in some large tins that were there and turning them upside down to keep our things dry. We then dashed back into the pond, there being no shelter anywhere nearby. Then, to make it more enjoyable Jerry started sending over some Whizz Bangs and every time we heard one coming we would dive under the water and hope for the best. So what with the storm and shelling, the last half an hour spent there was quite an interesting experience. When the storm and he shelling eventually ceased, we got dressed and went back to Headquarters.After finishing our spell in the lines, we went back to a camp a few kilometres from Poperinghe. After about three weeks rest, and with the infantry brought up to strength with reinforcements, we began to prepare for the Third Battle of Ypres (First Phase). Our objective was the Steenbeck, which was not much more than a stream, with Jerry holding the other side. I was in charge of an old German pill-box, the entrance of which faced the German lines. The door was protected by a large block of reinforced concrete, the top 4 feet of which had been hit by one of our own 15″ inch shells, bending it double and leaving a gap at the top. The evidence of what had hit was still lying there. It was a dud, and had not exploded. The reason I mentioned the gap at the top was because I had to put my groundsheet up to prevent Jerry seeing the light from the 2-valve Uprive? [p.26] amplifiers which we were using at the time. At night, even a glimmer of light can be seen from quite a distance. The bombardment started on the 18th of July and carried on until the 30th. Just before the advance started on the 31st of July I had gone out with one of my chaps to check if my lines were OK. An RC padre named Clark was building a small shelter behind my pill-box just big enough to take about four stretcher cases. It was a lovely morning, with the sun just coming up as the creeping barrage started to cover the advancing infantry. I heard the padre shouting to me but I could not quite make out what he was saying. Thinking he was saying that he hoped the attack would be a success, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted back “I hope so sir”. At that, he started walking towards me, on reaching me he said “Signals, you’re a funny chap”, I said “Why sir?”, he replied “I shouted ‘I hope you won’t be my first casualty’ and you replied ‘I hope so sir’”. He had a keen sense of humour. I am sorry to say that the padre himself was killed later in the day. I was very sorry, for he was a really good man.


This attack, on the 31st of July was successful and some 3000 yards were gained, including the Ridge which gave us a view of the lines on quite a large front. This advance was known as the Battle of Pilckem Ridge. The attack itself only lasted three days, and was halted by a very rainy period. The remainder of our time was spent digging in, consolidating our gains and preparing for future operations.It was during this last action, and I believe the second night of the attack, that Sergeant Giles and Second Corporal Marden had been laying lines. After completing their task, they and the rest of their party took shelter in my pill-box, owing to the very heavy shelling. This made us a bit pushed for room. Sergeant Giles was sitting on a petrol can with Corporal Marden next to him. There were about 16 of us crowded into this small space, which was about 12′ by 12′. We tried to get a little sleep, leaving two men on the phones to take any messages that came through. Sometime during the early hours of the morning, a shell burst right outside our doorway and one or two pieces of shrapnel flew in, one hitting Marden behind his left ear. After bandaging him, we laid him on a stretcher and made him as comfortable as possible. It was a good twenty four hours before we were able to get him away, as Jerry had dropped a box barrage around us. Until that lifted we could not get him away. He seemed quite cheerful the morning he went. Some fellows were giving him letters to post and he gave away some of the things he did not want to take to hospital with him, including a ‘Webby’ revolver, which he gave to Sergeant Giles.We came out of the line that night and moved back to Siege camp. Next morning, when the despatch came for Brigade Headquarters, we learned that second corporal Marden had died from his wounds, in Proven Hospital. This was quite a shock as, to us, he had not looked like a dying man. He had been quite cheerful, shaking hands and wishing us luck. Some of us thought he might have been hit again while being carried down the line to a CCS. Anyhow, that was the end of poor old Dan Marden. After two or three weeks out of the line, preparations were made for the second phase (16 August 1917) of the Third Battle of Ypres. Our next action was the Battle of Langemarcke. This attack started on the 14th of August 1917 in terrible weather. Nothing but rain and thunder storms, while the barrages churned the ground into quite deep shell holes which were lip to lip and filled with water. Even the duckboards had been blown to pieces in places by the shellfire. There was nothing to do but keep plodding on and I and my party were jolly glad to reach our pill-box, which was an advance post just behind our infantry when they went over. Unlike the Somme, Ypres had no dugouts and no real trenches. There were only roughly thrown-up earthworks, slightly strengthened by sheep hurdles. The line was not continuous, in some places there was a hundred yard gap between here and there. The so-called ‘lines’ were held in parts, by a mere platoon of men. Our brigade was spread over a mile, with a few companies dug in as reserves, perhaps fifty or one hundred yards in the rear of the front line. There were miles of flat ground, and nothing to be seen but a few pill-boxes dotted around and one or two skeletons of woods. One notably called Kitchener’s Wood. When I took over the pill-box I had about 16 runners and about four of us RE Signals. We were responsible for lines forward to our battalions. They were the 11th Manchesters, 8th Northumberland Fusiliers, the 9th Lancashire Fusiliers and the 5th Dorset regiment. We were also responsible to Brigade Headquarters in the rear. The attack was successful, but it was a very bloody action, which halted after only three days owing to the conditions. The night before we were relieved, three officers of the Dorsets took shelter in my pill-box. They had been relieved and were on their way back. One Captain Knight was pretty upset as his servant (batman) had been blown to pieces in front of him, and his clothes were now stained with this man’s blood. Captain Knight, and all of them in fact, was overwrought, so I sent George Cresset out to get some water from a nearby shell hole so that we could have a brew up and give them a cup of tea. They had no smokes, but I was able to provide them with some for which they were very thankful. Having spent the night with us, Captain Knight said “Signals, have you soap and a towel we could borrow?”, I replied “Come with me sir, I am just going to have a wash”. So we went outside to a fairly bright morning and proceeded to have a wash. Captain Knight said “Signals, I hope your chap did not get water from this shell hole when he made the tea last night”, and pointed out that a man’s arm was moving about in the shell hole. I expect that our washing had disturbed some of the mud and left the arm showing. Later in the day we were relieved and returned once more to Siege camp near Poperinghe for a few days of rest. The next action was the battle of Polygon Wood from the 26th of September to the 3rd of October. This was followed by the Battle of Poelcapelle -Passchendale which started on the 9th of October. Once again, I was put in charge of a pill-box with about 16 battalion runners and responsible for the maintenance of lines and communications back to Brigade HQ and forward to all of our Battalion Headquarters. This was a pretty tough action, with plenty of casualties on both sides. About a couple of days before we were due to be relieved, Jerry’s shelling was particularly heavy and he got two direct hits on my pill-box with 5.9 shells. I mentally said goodbye to my wife and kiddies, as I thought that any moment now one will come in through the doorway (which faced Jerry’s lines) and with a blinding flash that will be our lot. But anyhow, it never happened. That evening my line back to Brigade was down and I got a priority message from our battalions stating that Jerry had got a direct hit on the pill-box which was 11th Manchester’s HQ. It was an 8″ armour-piercing shell, which killed the Manchester’s doctors and the padre. They were asking urgently for the artillery to shell a certain map reference. I had only two runners left with me and when I ordered them to take the message back to Brigade they said they couldn’t, as they had shell-shock, and they were shaking like a couple of jellyfish. I told them they had not got shell shock but only accentuated bloody wind-up, but as this was a priority message, I could not risk sending these runners so I said to George Cresset “You and I must go”. Fortunately I had got the rum from my chaps, so we both had nearly a Golf Flake tin full of rum before we went. Jerry was shelling like hell, but thanks to the rum we did not care a damn, running along the trench to the steps to get on top. I tripped, put out my hand to save myself and felt my hand all wet and sticky. Just then a Verry Light went up and I saw that my hand and arm were in a dead man’s body. I can assure you all the effects of the rum were wiped out and we ran as fast as we could over duckboards and shell holes towards Brigade HQ.

As we arrived, Bill Hickling, seeing the blood on my hand and arm said “What’s the matter kid. Have you been wounded?”. I told him that I had not and went in to the Signal Office and handed in my message from the front line asking for Artillery fire as they were under very heavy attack. A sergeant of the Lancs, who was a DCM, had pointed out to me some days earlier that if our line to Brigade was laid to our left, via ‘Villes Maison’ it would miss the heaviest point of the barrage. Remembering this, I told Lieutenant Sinclair that if he gave me half a dozen men with a ¼-mile drum of cable each, I would lay a new line one my way back to my pill-box. He was pleased with the idea and promptly gave me the six men and the cable to re-lay the line. Well, I started off all right but had not got far when Jerry opened up and fairly swept the ground with heavy shell fire. I could not face it, and called my men back into shelter. This happened twice more, and the fourth time when I started he remained comparatively quiet and the line was laid successfully, without any casualties. I was very sorry that I had jibbed and recalled the boys three times, as my sergeant told me Sinclair was going to recommend me for decoration. After what George and I had been through in the last hour or so I do not think, even had they offered me a VC, that I could have gone through that hail of shells again. I must add that this new line lasted for two days, and only went down the morning we were coming out of the line.This led to rather an amusing incident. Sappers McQuarrey and Creed were sent out to repair it. This done, McQuarrey was coming back at the double when he stopped and shouted at Creed who was calmly walking along behind him. Creed stopped and went back to the shell hole where they had done the repair, stooped, picked something up and came back. It turned out that Mac had left his pliers behind while repairing the line and had the nerve to shout to Creed to go back and get them for him. Even though Jerry was shelling quite a bit, Creed did so. I told Creed that I would not have done so, but that Mac would have had to get them himself. A very cool card was Creed.


This completed our term on the Ypres front and about the end of October, after a few days rest, we went back to the line at Loos. This part of the front had been taken and held for some time by a Lancashire Territorial division, who had named this spot Elvaston Castle after a place in their home county. Our Headquarters were in the building in the mine yard. The cages were still up and intact. Everything was just as the French had left it when the Jerries took it in 1914. At that time the French had flooded the mines. We had a lookout in the mine yard. It was a huge old boiler, which we used to enter from an underground passage. We climbed up a ladder inside and from here, with a telescope, we could look over Jerry’s lines into the town of Lens. We could see a hall, where boxing matches had been staged before the war and the billboard outside was advertising a fight between Georges Carpentier and another. We couldn’t read the second name because that part of the notice had been damaged. Carpentier was a well-known heavyweight champion in pre-war days and had indeed put our heavyweight champion Bombardier Billy Wells to sleep in the first round. This earned us the title of Horizontal Champions. At the end of November 1917, Hickling, Robbie and I left Loos and proceeded to Blighty on 10 days’ leave. This leave was spent quietly, at home, with visits to various members of the family, including a visit to the Rose and Crown to see my father and mother. This change was very restful but the time passed all too soon and once again we were on our way back to our unit. Shortly after arriving back at Loos, we were once again on the move. This time to Nœux-les-Mines, which was a rest area on the Bethune-La Basse front. Having been brought up to strength by reinforcements from England, we had a spell of training – which took us over Christmas – which was quite a jolly time. Mr Hardy conceived the idea of having a Brigade Canteen for the benefit of Brigade HQ. The profits would be used to buy sports equipment and anything else which might be required. This he started with a little over 100 francs, purchasing chocolate, jam, tins of milk, cleaning gear, writing pads etc. He put Joe Creed in charge, as Joe had been a grocer with the Bletchly Co-op. Our fellows thought it was a dull sort of canteen and said so. The night before we moved up the line, we celebrated by having a few drinks and having a rum issue on top of it. I got fairly lively and, standing on a box, I addressed the boys. I told them that if I ran the canteen I would get them beer and bags of cigarettes etc. This was done as a joke, but the next day when we arrived at Phillosophe, which was just behind La Bassee (the canal there was between us and the Bosch) Joe came and told me that Mr Hardy wanted to see me. I guessed what it was all about and said to Joe “Don’t be silly, what I said last night was only a leg-pull”. But he insisted he had told Mr Hardy he was not interested in the canteen. I went to see Mr Hardy, who was our Signals Officer and a very nice chap he was too. He told me he wished me to run the canteen at Brigade HQ, but pointed out to me that this was just a peacetime job. I could do it while we were just holding the line, which was on a comparatively quiet front. Neither the Bosch nor ourselves seemed to have any inclination to advance but if we went into action I would have to take my place in the unit as usual. In the meantime I was excused all duties and could have Mr Hardy’s horse – Bully – brought up from the transport lines, together with whatever transport which I required, any morning that I needed them. He also stated that he did not expect me to make money out of the canteen, but as regards drinks and cigarettes, I could have what I required within reason. He expected me to show a profit for Brigade personnel, however. This seemed to me a good proposition which I promptly accepted.The next morning I had my horse, also the ‘Maltese Cart’ driver. With Merson Lee driving, I started off after promising the boys that I would get them beer. I rode fifty kilometres that day after samples from various Brasseries. I purchased 500 bottles of beer and one barrel (of about 36 gallons). We filled the bottom of the Maltese Cart with straw and put the bottles in amongst it to prevent breakages – as I must tell you that a Maltese Cart has no springs. On the way back, about 1½ kilometres from Phillosophe, I found a brasserie. I went in, sampled the beer and ordered 14 barrels – some to be ready the following Friday. My 500 bottles and one barrel did not last long and I had sold out before the others were due. Now to describe my canteen, I had 2 rooms knocked into one and inside was an Elephant Iron hut which gave us some protection when Jerry was shelling. I had a counter roughly knocked up and a couple of bed frames which each held two barrels. When I was serving I had to do so quickly. I had the taps on and the beer running into a couple of full length galvanised iron baths that were sent out by the Empire Club Piccadilly. These were presumably sent for the use of Tommies, so that they could have a bath but during this period of the war we had divisional baths at our rest area. When we came out for a rest we had bathing parades and thus had the opportunity of keeping ourselves reasonably clean. So the baths that I ran my beer into had never been used and were just the job for quick service. Since my journey to find beer I had found out that there was an EFC Stores at Hersin, about 10 kilometres away. So, taking a double limber and riding Bully I went forth and was able to get cases of Wills Gold Flake, Woodbines and also fifties of Castella cigars. Also cases of fancy biscuits, chocolate and various other things the boys liked. On Friday I went to the brasserie to collect my first four barrels of beer. They lent me a camion to take them away in. I went into the chateau to pay for the beer. A French woman had a barrel to take away on her donkey cart and as she was supplied with the same beer as I bought I was interested to see what she paid. She said “One barrel of beer Français” and was charged thirty five francs. So when my turn came I said “Beer Français et beer Anglais” and was charged thirty five franks each for two barrels and 195 francs each for the two barrels of so-called ‘Beer Anglais’. I can assure you it was the same beer, thus I saved 320 francs on the deal. Mr Hardy was quite pleased, but when I went for the other three barrels I tried it on again, but it did not work. They called me a ‘beaucoup brigand’ and I had to pay 195 francs a barrel. It was they who were really the brigands as it was a case of one price for the English and another for the French. Anyhow, I ordered another 8 barrels. By this time, my canteen became known by troops all around us and I did a jolly good trade. It was not long before I had a stock of around 8,000 francs and another five or six thousand in hand. The canteen was running both in the line and when out at rest. Our HQ behind the line was the ‘White Chateau’ at Mazingarbe. This was owned by a Monsieur Mercier, who owned all the coal mines around there. Our brigadier and all the officers attached to Brigade, wined and dined in this lovely chateau. We Tommies were billeted in the old Red Chateau, which was a bit of a ruin – having been shelled by the Bosch in 1914. Anyhow, we made ourselves pretty comfortable whilst we were there. One evening, after closing the canteen, Dixon and some of the boys were enjoying a drink and a bit of a sing song when, about an hour before lights out, we ran out of drink. They persuaded me to go and get some more from the canteen, which was situated in a building at the lodge gates. To get there we had to go across the lawns and past a beautiful lake with swans on it. There, they bred their own frogs. The only part eaten is the hind legs, possibly very nice but I myself did not fancy them. We had a mess waiter named McCoy who had quite a shiny bald head. This was the cause of my making a ‘faux pas’. It was a beautiful night, with a full moon shining down on the lake and, seeing a figure standing there with the moon shining on his bald head, I slapped him on the back saying ‘Goodnight Mac, you bald-headed old bugger’ and I was greatly shocked to hear a voice reply ‘Its all right Hillen, its Major Brady’, I apologised and it ended happily. What I did not know was that the Major usually wore a wig but, as it was a hot night, he had taken it off to cool his brow. So we carried on to the canteen and, with Dixon’s help, I took a couple of crates of beer back to the Red Chateau where we finished out the night and had an enjoyable sing song. During our time out of the line we enjoyed plenty of sport – football and cross country running, in general a pretty cushy time. Also, a ring had been fixed up in Red Chateau and we enjoyed some boxing. This was run by Ted Plant, the Bantamweight champion of the Sudan, who was Brigadier General Clary’s batman. It was generally known that we were on a holding front and would be there some time. In fact we were there some four months, regularly going in for days and then out for a rest break to the White Chateau at Mazingarbe. This got to be so regular that it seemed like going to work. Whilst out resting, I got a couple of days leave, so I had ‘Bully’ saddled up and I went to see my brother, who was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the 14th division at Mezzier’s Wood some 16 kilometres from me. I was having dinner in the sergeant’s mess when my brother said to his batman ‘Driver Day’ “Get my brother some lime juice and he pointed to some eight or nine 2-gallon jars labelled ‘Lime Juice’. But is was good old SRD which, when we had a rum issue, we interpreted as Soldier’s Rum Diluted, but you can bet that the rum my brother had was really full strength. The day I rode back to our HQ at Nœux-les-Mines I took back with me a couple of pint bottles of rum. On arriving back, I found that my pals had gone to get coffee and a smoke. When I entered, I found that there was some music and that Dixon had left his coffee and was dancing with one of the girls. As I had brought one of the bottles of rum with me, I filled up his mug with rum. When he came back to our table after his dance, he took one swig of his coffee and – with sparkling eyes – said “Good old Sergeant Major”. He guessed I had got it from my brother, anyhow we had quite a pleasant evening – which ended with Dixon falling over and cutting his head, fortunately not too badly. Once again, we returned to Phillosophe which, except for two or three periods during the day when they shelled us, was pretty quiet, both at HQ and in the front line.Well, the old canteen was doing OK and one day Major Woods (the CO of the trench mortars) dropped in to see if we had any whisky. I told him we were not allowed to sell it, but I would see what I could do (as I had an idea I was not sure would work). So, when we came out for a rest and went to the White Chateau at Mazingarbe, I saw Mr Hardy and asked him to see if he could get me any chits to purchase whisky at the EFC canteen at Hersin, telling him of Major Wood’s visit and his wanting whisky. I also informed him that the Brigade Machine Gun Officer and several others had enquired for it. I also pointed out that the Officer’s Mess at Brigade could get the Scotch at cost price which was sixty francs a case of a dozen bottles. This must have appealed to the Staff Captain and he gave me 6 chits each for a case. The next time I went to Hersin EFC canteen to replenish my stock it must have been my lucky day as, after drawing our number to determine the order in which we would be served, a sergeant came to the door of the canteen and said that there would be no train arriving with supplies today and that we should retain our numbers for the next day. So, tying Bully to a convenient tree, I decided to go to ‘Marie’s’ for coffee, egg and chips – which was somewhat of a luxury to us Tommies. Having finished my meal, I returned to where I had left Bully. I was just about to mount when I heard someone shout ‘Signals!’ and I saw a sergeant major of the ASC approaching me. He asked me to lend him my horse so that he could ride down to railhead, as someone had just phoned him to say that a supply train was coming in. If it were so, he said, I could get anything that I wanted, so naturally I agreed. When he came back he said that the train would arrive in about an hour, so I asked if I could use his phone. He said “Certainly” so I phoned our transport lines and asked them to send me a GS wagon and a Maltese cart. In the meantime the train came in and was duly unloaded into the canteen stores, after which the sergeant major saw to it that I received everything I wanted. Amongst the items I purchased were three cases of whisky (36 bottles), 2 barrels – each containing 100 bottles of Guiness and one barrel of Bass. There were several cases of cigarettes containing tins of 50 Woodbines, Gold Flake and Players. A case of packet chocolate, tins of fruit etc. In all, I spent several thousand francs there. I got a wonderful reception when I got back, when the boys knew what I had got. One case of whisky I sent to the officer’s mess, one I kept for stock and one for my pals – which they very much appreciated. I let our cook, Arthur Dancey, have one after closing the canteen. We had some boxing arranged for that night so, when I gave Arthur his whisky, he said “You had better have a Whisky Flip” before you have the gloves on with Tommy Weeks. So he put some milk in a mug, broke an egg into it, added a couple of doubles of scotch and whisked it up. He then gave it to me saying “Knock this back and it will do you good” an order I obeyed willingly. This, added to the few beers I had already drunk made me feel very merry, I can assure you. So merry that, after changing and getting in the ring with Tommy, we floundered about quite a bit. Ted Plant, who was refereeing, said “Keep a straight left, Alan”. I made a wild swing at Tommy who also swung at me. We both missed and collapsed on the floor of the ring after which we were licked up and put to bed. There were quite a lot of casualties that night. Bert Bick knocked Sergeant Armstrong out of the ring and he sprained his ankle when falling. There was scarcely an NCO fit for duty the following morning and everyone remembered the day that I brought whisky into the camp.


Things carried on like this until the beginning of March when there were constant rumours of a big attack by Jerry in the near future. We had evidence of this when tractors were brought up in readiness to get the guns out should we have to retreat. Our officer, Lt Sinclair (who had taken Lt Hardy’s place for a couple of weeks) had a brainwave and had us rig up a rough shelter about three-quarters of the way up the slag heap, near the top. This was to be used as a signalling station to the battalions in the line, just behind La Bassel canal, which we were able to look down on. The first day he wished to try it out he ordered myself and Bill Hickling to go to our station on the slag heap and call up the battalions with a Lucas lamp. I suggested to him that to signal as he ordered would be running a great risk as our signal would certainly be seen by the Bosch. I suggested that the battalions signal us and that we answer by phone on the land lines we had run to the three battalions in the line. Lt Sinclair said that we were to do as we were told, so we went up and had just called up the Manchester Regiment but, before they could answer our signals, Jerry opened up on us and Bill and I came down at the double into the main yard of the mine. When the shelling had ceased we went up to have a look at what damage had been done. We found that Jerry had blown our station to pieces. The lamps and telescopes that we had rigged up were a total loss. When I reported what had happened to Lt Sinclair saying that we were lucky not to have become casualties ourselves, he ordered us to rebuild it but to use it only in the event of our land lines being out of order and if an action was under way. The above incident was one instance of our lives being risked unnecessarily by a stupid order. If he had followed my suggestion, we could have proved the efficiency of the signalling station on the slag heap without any risk, even in the event of being engaged in battle. To have used a Lucas lamp against the black background of a slag heap, some eighty feet up from the mine yard was a stupid idea worthy of the officer who gave the order. Thank God that only a small minority of officers were like this. At this time, the Army authorities had found that Jerry was able to pick up Morse Code very easily and orders were given that orders must be conveyed by verbal methods only. Also, the battalions, Brigade HQ and the divisions were issued with code names. My brigade was ‘Coal’ and the brigade on our right was ‘Girl’. This resulted in an amusing incident in our Signals Office one evening. Jimmy Dainton and I were working a 26 line exchange when a shutter dropped. Jimmy plugged in and answered “Coal exchange” and a voice replied “Give me gunner”, Jimmy queried “Gunner rear sir?”. In answer, a voice said “Do not be insolent, give me your name and I shall report you”. Lt Sinclair, who was in the office at the time, asked Dainton what was the matter, then told him to point out to the officer that he only wanted to know whether the officer wanted Gunner Rear or OP, meaning the advanced observation post, which checks and corrects the range when required. Jimmy explained this and was told to get Gunner Rear. Jimmy replied “You get it through ‘Girl’” and plugged him into the brigade on our right. Things were getting pretty tense now and trenches had been dug, sandbagged and barbed wire erected in front. There were two small trenches, one on each side of the main road, each manned by a dozen men and each with two Lewis guns. As senior sapper, I was in charge of the right hand side of the road. In the event of a retreat, our orders were to let our men through and then to delay the enemy for as long as possible. I thought that this was IT! but fortunately my division and the division on either side of us never gave ground in big attack of March 1918. I heard that the divisional commander was given the Croix de Guerre by the French for this action, but I have never been able to confirm. We know that the Germans made a successful attack, forced us back miles and nearly reached the suburbs of Amiens, where the Bosch was finally brought to a halt. Meanwhile we were still on the La Basse front, back in the old routine of 10 days in and 10 days out. At Fosse 8, the coal mines at Phillosophe, the REs had built us a swimming bath behind the slag heaps. With warmer weather now on us, it was very enjoyable to relax and have a swim when off duty. This, together with cricket and various other diversions such as the Divisional Horse Show at Hersin, helped to pass our time fairly comfortably. Once again we were on the move and came back to the Nœux-les-Mines area to pick up reinforcements and have a spell of training for the actions in which we were to take part. From Nœux-les-Mines, we moved further north to another mining village, Burbere. Here we continued training as a division in preparation for going into action. In between, we had quite a few cricket matches, one memorable one being against our staff officers. In this particular match we had a sweepstake with 100 francs as a prize for the man who drew the name of the highest scorer during the match. Tommy Morgan of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who had drawn Bert Bick (not one of our best batsmen), was grousing about his luck, I said “What are you grousing about Tommy? I have drawn myself!”. He said he liked my chance better than Bick’s, so I replied “If you like, I’ll go 50/50 with you if either Bick or myself make the highest score”, to which he agreed. Well, at the end of the Staff’s innings Captain Damer of the Dorsets was top with 26 runs. We started our innings and when I went in we were about 45 for 4 wickets. Let me tell you, I was no bat and had to face our brigadier (who, in his younger days had been a fast bowler for Harrow and was still pretty fast). I never really saw his first ball, but it caught the edge of my bat and flew to the boundary. I also managed to edge the next three to the boundary and managed to get 18 runs that way, for which I got a lot of undeserved applause. I had made 26 when they brought on a spin bowler (a language master at Felstead College). He flighted his first ball and, going out to meet it, I expected to get a boundary but only managed to get 2. His next one was similar and I thought ‘This time I will get it to the boundary’ but I was caught off the spin at point. But as I has reached 28 I was top scorer and Tommy was quite delighted. He was not quite so pleased later on, for Bick (who had gone in after me) proceeded to hit the ball very hard and very often. By the time he made the winning hit he was 53 not out, so Tommy had to share his hundred francs with me. As a matter of interest, I will tell you how we managed to get our cricket gear. One day, Bob Whitehorn said “Alan, I wish we could raise the money to get some cricket gear”. I asked what amount he wanted and he said “Thirty or forty pounds”. I said that I could raise that easily any day and he replied “I bet you can’t”. I said “OK Bob, I will bet you fifty francs that I can – and I’ll do it tomorrow!”. He said “OK, that’s a bet!”. We were out at rest at the time, so I went to Sergeant Russell and explained that I wanted to raise some money for cricket gear for the benefit of Brigade HQ. I asked him to take a large sheet of paper and type in the names of all the members of Brigade HQ, starting with Brigadier General Clay, all of the officers, NCOs and all other ranks on Brigade. I gave him fifty francs and told him to enter that by my name, and then take the sheets to the Brigadier and all officers. I would take it to the NCOs and other ranks myself. I knew that the officers and NCOs would not put in less than me, a sapper. Anyhow, the collection was a success and we raised about fourteen hundred francs. Bob Whitehorn was able to send off to Gunn & Moore’s of Nottingham and get all the gear we wanted. Bob said to me “You’re a cunning bugger Hillen, you’ve given nothing!” I said “Oh yes I have, your fifty francs paid my subscription!”.


By now it was early in September and the attack in the south had pushed Jerry right back and had really got them going. Our turn came and we found that we were to cross the Canal du Nord in support of the Canadians. This was duly carried out and on September 24th 1918 we crossed the canal at a point in the Drocourt-Quéant Switch at Vimy. Our division was now part of the ‘V Army’ under the command of General Plumer and for the next few days our gains were only a few miles. On the 7th of October we reached the small village of Epigny, where our HQ staff were billeted at an old chateau. We had our Signal Office in some old German dugouts. The one which we were using had some benches on one side with seats in front, thus making quite a good office. The bench was an ideal surface on which to place our 26 line exchange and our D3 instruments. Beyond the benches, the dugout opened out into a large space giving enough room for the rest of the section to bed down. That evening, as I sat at the bench working our small telephone exchange I noticed a German cavalry sword nailed cross-wise on the wall. I said to the other chaps “I am claiming this as a souvenir when we move on. I shall attach the sword and scabbard to a length of D3 wire, go outside the dugout and extract the sword from the scabbard at a safe distance, using the D3 wire. If, after a few minutes, nothing had happened I would go and collect it. The above precaution was necessary as Jerry was always leaving booby traps behind him as he retreated. At one of the dugouts nearby a dagger had been left sticking into the wall of the steps leading down to the quarters below. The chap who removed that dagger never lived to take it away as it was attached to a mine and the stairway of the dugout caved in on him. When they got him out he was dead. That night we had a rum issue and it was a pretty liberal one as we had not had one for a few days, having been on the move as I said. We were just enjoying our rum when Sergeant Whittaker pulled out his pliers and started to remove the nails which were holding the sword and scabbard in place. I grasped the sword by the hilt and they both came away from the wall. At that moment we all heard a faint hissing sound and remembering the booby traps we looked at one another for a second or two, feeling pretty scared. When nothing happened, we looked around for the cause of the hissing sound and found an old German field telephone on the floor, half covered by a loose board. Someone’s boot had pushed the board down onto the sending key, thus causing the faint hissing sound that had, for a few seconds, put the wind up us. This same night, Lt Hardy returned to us from Blighty leave. Coming down to the Signal Office dugout, he brought us magazines from Blighty. He said that he was pleased to see us and was glad to know that our section had suffered no casualties so far. He then said goodnight and returned to the chateau where the HQ staff were staying. He had only been gone a short while when I got a call on the exchange. It was Mr Hardy, asking for Sergeant Giles, who was our outside sergeant, responsible for laying lines. Sergeant Whittaker answered Mr Hardy, and found that we had to move on and find a new HQ for the next attack. Whittaker asked Giles if he minded if he (Whittaker) went with Lt Hardy in the morning and Giles agreed. So, on the following morning, Lt Hardy and Sergeant Whittaker started off to find a new HQ. Having made their decision, they started back and called in at our 33rd Brigade HQ. Just after they had left, Sapper Williamson heard the terrific explosion of a high velocity shell (better known to Tommy as the ‘rubber heel bastards’ as you never heard them coming – only when they exploded. Ken Williamson just looked out of the Signal Office door to see where it had fallen and saw Lt Hardy and Sergeant Whittaker lying on the ground some two or three hundred yards away. On reaching them he saw that Hardy must have been killed instantly. Billy Whittaker was still alive and asked him for a drink of water. A few minutes later he died in Ken’s arms. Needless to say he did not get his drink of water. In the first place he did not live long enough and in the second it is dangerous to give water too a wounded man with bad body injuries. That was two more fatal casualties in our brigade.I have a story to tell in relation to the death of Mr Hardy. Before we moved up to our position for the beginning of this action, Mr Hardy rang me up from the mess and asked to be put through to Major Hammond, our CO at Divisional Headquarters. I overheard him say to the major “I hear that Lt Sinclair is going on leave sir, and I would like to point out that I am due for leave before him”. Major Hamming replied, wait a minute Hardy, I’ll look it up”. When he came back on the phone he said “You are quite right Hardy, Lt Sinclair will relieve you tomorrow and you will proceed to England on leave”. Now Lt Sinclair came to us and went safely through the next couple of weeks of advancing under considerable shell fire and generally pretty dangerous conditions. The question now arises, was this ‘Kismet’, as ordained by fate? If Mr Hardy had not heard that Sinclair was going on leave and protested that he had the right to go on leave before him, would Mr Hardy have gone into action with us and come through safely. Mr Sinclair would have relieved him after a couple of weeks when things were comparatively quiet. Would Mr Sinclair then have suffered Mr Hardy’s fate? It makes one think, does it not? Sergeant Billy Whittaker and Lt Hardy were killed on October 18th 1918. A few days later we commenced the advance. The Germans were fighting a rearguard action and were on the retreat. They were blowing up roads and bridges all around and after several days our advance was slowed down as our transport could not keep up with us. At one time, ammunition and food has to be dropped to us by planes. We advanced during the day and at nightfall we were held up by heavy machine gun fire. At daylight next day we continued the advance and the messages coming in along the front stated ‘Nest empty – birds flown’. One day, as we went forward, on reaching the outskirts of Gussignies we were met by very heavy shelling. As by now our horse transport were catching up with us, as one GS wagon went past us – loaded with supplies, we saw a shell burst right underneath the horses. The driver, who was riding the leading pair was blown right up in the air. When we reached him, we was lying there still clutching his whip in his hand. There were no signs of wounds, he had apparently been killed by concussion. Later that evening, as usual, we were brought to a halt by heavy shelling and well-directed and concentrated machine gun fire. Advancing again the following morning, we came to Fort du Cuerges, a French sunken fort which we later occupied. I was one of several who followed Brigadier General De Winter on inspection of the fort. On entering one of the very large barrack rooms in the basement of the fort we were confronted by an extraordinary sight. There were small piles of human excreta in perfect rows up and down the room, at intervals of about 3 feet. General De Winter, who was of French extraction and consequently hated the Bosch much more than we did, told me to return to the Signals Office, phone the Provost Marshall and say that he (General De Winter) wanted about 20 German prisoners and an officer to be marched to the fort under escort as he had some work for them to do. It was Brigadier De Winter’s opinion that this was done as a deliberate insult to the Allies. When the Germans arrived, he personally marched them down to the room, ordering them to remove their tunics, clean it all up and afterwards scrub the floors. De Winter ordered the German officer to do his share, but this he refused to do, stating that he was a Prussian Officer and could not be forced to do so as it was beneath his dignity. After a few days we continued our advance, arriving in a little village which was practically empty. Most of the houses were deserted and only a few old people remained, all the younger people having been taken away by Jerry as he retreated. We were told that we would be spending the night there, and that we should billet ourselves where we could. Bill Hickling, Ken Williamson, Dixon and myself took over a very nice, double-fronted white cottage which was spotlessly clean and completely furnished – even the beds were made. In the back garden, Bill found a rabbit hutch with a large tame white rabbit in it. Bill killed it and, together with some vegetables from the garden, we managed to cook ourselves a nice dinner that night. For a change, we also slept in nice, comfortable, clean beds. We advanced again the next day, but there was nothing much to report, only that the Bosch was retreating rapidly – holding us up each night, chiefly using machine guns and field artillery to fight a rearguard action. A few days later we were much heartened by hearing the news that the Kaiser had abdicated. Brigade Headquarters marched off with Brigadier General De Winter riding in front on horseback. I was in the front rank, and as we approached the town of Haspres, we noticed some prisoners being brought in under escort. Marching at the front was a very tall Prussian officer. As he reached us, the brigadier halted us and, addressing the officer, asked him what he thought of the Kaiser abdicating. Pulling himself to his full height, something over six feet, he replied in perfect English “That is a lie, he has not abdicated and I am only sorry that I was captured and can no longer fight for him and my Fatherland”. Our brigadier replied “So am I you bugger, you should bloody well be dead”. We marched into Haspres and made our headquarters in an old chateau on the outskirts. The chateau had been badly damaged by shellfire, and on having a look round in one of the rooms, I came across a beautifully delicate coffee set. I managed to find two cups, one of which was cracked, and two saucers in good condition. Carefully wrapping them in some old socks, I then put them in an old Jerry canteen and carried them around with me. I wanted them for my two daughters, as a souvenir (I eventually arrived back in Blighty with them safe and sound). Later in the day, when I was on duty in the Signals Office, Mr Coe, our new signals officer told me of a case of a German atrocity which he had come across in a cottage. Giving me directions, he said that he would take over while I went and had a look at it, but before I got out of the Chateau I heard the bugles sound ‘stand to’. Brigadier de Winter had ordered us all to fall in and he addressed us, telling us about the atrocity and ordering the battalions and headquarters to march to the cottage and go through in single file. In a brick floored room, lying on cushions was the naked, mutilated body of a young girl in her early twenties. Her legs had been hacked off at the thighs and her breasts had been cut (the body had been washed and cleaned by her relatives, so it was not too bad to look at). In the cottage, standing behind the body were the brigadier and the Cos of the infantry battalions, also the brigade Padre. After filing through, we had to fall in again, and were addressed by the brigadier. He asked whether they were going to take any prisoners and, judging by the shouts that went up, I expect that some prisoners who were innocent of the crime paid with their lives for the dastardly act of brutality carried out by a few men on this poor girl. We continued to advance and on about the 8th of November we received a message from GHQ telling us to keep a sharp look out for German plenipotentiaries coming in to discuss peace terms. This was wonderful news for us, and all ranks had been eagerly looking forward to it. After having been held up on the 9th of November by Jerry’s usual tactics, we continued to advance, practically unopposed, throughout the morning. By the afternoon we reached a big chateau at Malplaquet (the town of Malplaquet is situated about 15 kilometres from Mons) outside of which stood a large statue to the Duke of Marlborough. When we arrived, we got a wonderful welcome from the occupants, some of whom had still been sheltering in the cellars of the Chateau. They were laughing and crying as they embraced us, saluting us by kissing some of us on both cheeks. God, were they thankful that, after four years of German oppression most of their trials and tribulations were at an end. We were billeted in a huge cow shed and that night we slept on a couple of feet of straw manure. One benefit of this was that our blankets were warm and comfortable – while the weather outside was ice and snow. Weather which we had to endure for the last four or five days of our advance. We slept so well in fact that we were not even disturbed by a solitary cow which had returned in the middle of the night and which carefully picked its way around us to the manger. There we found it, peacefully chewing the cud, when we awoke.


In the morning a message was received stating that hostilities would cease at 1100 hours that day, the 11th of November. Although freezing cold, it was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining, giving us a warm feeling of joy and good spirits. At eleven o’clock the church bells began pealing, proclaiming the good news both to us Tommies and to the local inhabitants. The latter, excited by the aerobatics and low-flying of dozens of Allied fighters insisted on shaking hands with and embracing many of us. Nearly everyone was singing. The local estaminet, unfortunately, had nothing for us to drink, as Jerry went he stole all of the beer and wine, leaving nothing for us to celebrate with. That evening, we were promised a rum issue and as the evening went on and there was no sign of our rum, I went with a few others to find the quartermaster, who along with several senior NCOs was billeted in the Chateau. When we located him and his pals, they were very much the worse for drink. When he said that there was no rum issue we created such an uproar that the Staff Captain came out and asked what the trouble was. I explained to him that we had not received our rum whereupon he turned to the quartermaster and asked why this was so. The QM, rocking on his heels, said the rum bottles were broken on the wagon coming up. The Staff Captain then said “Quartermaster Downton, draw a double issue for Headquarters tomorrow and see that it does not ‘get broken on the wagon coming up’!”. This we eventually got. At this time all sorts of rumours were going around, some said we were marching as a division into Germany, but after a few days we started back, marching through Valenciennes and for a further ten kilometres to a small town called Denain. Here leave would be granted and, in some cases, demobilisation. We who had been part of the 11th division when it was first formed, were much upset by the fact that drivers and agricultural workers were being demobbed first, irrespective of length of service. Hickling and I went to HQ and complained to Captain Webb that others with a couple of years or so less service than we had were being demobbed and we were informed by him that it was government policy and order that essential workers on the land and also those needed urgently in other capacities were to be demobbed first. He then said that officers were in the same position as ourselves and that unless they were ‘like a bloody pepper box’ (meaning men who were still suffering in some way from previous wounds) nothing could be done to expedite their release. Captain Webb said he would see about our leave. In the meantime we had to settle down to routine. Our duties were very easy and we did about one day in three running the Signals Office . I managed to get a civvy billet for Dixon and myself with a certain Madame Craut, who had quite a large house and who made us very comfortable. We had a nice double bed to sleep in, with sheets, pillows and pillow slips, all white and clean. To some extent it was like being at home. Madame Craut had four daughters: Felicitte, Florre, Jeanne and Emilliene, the oldest being about 28 and the youngest about 12 years of age. When the girls knew that I was married and had two daughters and that I would soon be going on leave they set to work to make some handkerchiefs and pinafores for me to take home. I thanked them and duly took them home with me when I went on leave, this happened to be about mid-December. This was a far different leave from the previous ones as we knew that when we went back there were no dangers to face and no more really rough living and discomforts to endure. With wife and kiddies these were happy thoughts and we enjoyed a happy if fairly quiet and uneventful ten days. I arrived back at Denain on Boxing day to find my pals both broke and gloomy and waiting for pay day. I had just enough cash to buy a couple of bottles of Graves (quite a nice wine) so I took four of my pals over to the estaminet for a drink. When we entered, I noticed five of brigade HQs senior NCOs (including our Sergeant Bert Giles) sitting at a table. I ordered two bottles of Graves and, after opening ours, I sent one across to Bert’s table and, lifting my glass, I wished them a Happy New Year. My pals were kicking me under the table and looking very unhappy at the thought of only one bottle between us. But I knew Bert and was not at all surprised when he sent a bottle across to our table. To my pals’ delight this was followed by a bottle from each of the other NCOs. As my pals admitted, five bottles in return for one made for a much happier morning for us all and they all applauded my foresight on taking the gamble of sending that bottle across to the NCOs table. As I previously stated, our duties were very light and we had a lot of time on our hands. So Sergeant Giles said to me “Alan, what about taking a pair of horses and a GS wagon?” as we were short of people to look after the transport, owing to agricultural workers being demobbed. I replied, saying “I tell you what I will do. I will groom, exercise and generally look after Bully, our late officer’s horse. This the sergeant agreed to, excusing me from all other duties, and this I did until I was demobbed. But one day I was out riding and the snow was about 6” inches deep. I thought I would drop in at my civvy billet and have a coffee and cognac. When I rode up the drive I noticed Ken Williamson and Dixon snowballing with Jeanne and one or two of the family. Jeanne called out “C’est un bon cheval Monsieur” also saying she would like a ride. Knowing Bully’s little peculiarities, one of which was if you turned round in the saddle and placed your hand on her rump, down would go her head and up would go her heels, so dismounting I told Ken and Dixon to hoist Jeanne up, not too carefully and exactly as I expected as she got onto Bully, she placed her hands on Bully’s rump with the result that she was shot over the horse’s head into the snow and we all enjoyed a good laugh, even Jeanne joined in – for she was a good sport. Whilst on the subject of Jeanne, one evening when Dixon and I were having coffee with the family a couple of Canadian’s dropped in to see them. They told us what a plucky girl Jeanne was, as when they occupied a machine gun fort in a trench about a hundred yards from Madame Craut’s house Jeanne used to take them out coffee in spite of the shelling and machine gun fire. So they had come back to thank Jeanne and the family for their many kindnesses to them before the Bosch was driven out. Another evening Dixon and I had returned after quite a few drinks, feeling full of ‘Joi de vivre’. Madame remarked that Felicite and Florre were going by train to Lens to replenish their livestock of fowls etc. They were also going to place some orders with a wine merchant and generally do a good day’s shopping. Denain station was in ruins, having been bombed and shelled both by the Bosch and the Allies as they advanced (the Bosch had used it as a railhead). Therefore a temporary station had been set up some four kilometres from Denain. They did not know how they would arrange transport to get their purchases home and, being in a particularly optimistic and cheerful frame of mind, I told them not to worry as I would get transport and meet the girls when they got back at about four o’clock. My idea was to bribe Lance Corporal Leigh to let me have the Maltese cart to go and meet them. Leigh said that, should an officer turn up at our stables, he would have to say that I had taken the cart without permission. Anyhow, I started off at about 3 pm to meet them and duly arrived at the station in good time. Unfortunately the train was half an hour late and when they arrived they had one crate of fowls and also one of ducklings, to say nothing of several cases and parcels. Luckily I had taken Ken Williamson with me and between us we soon got loaded up, with the two girls sitting on the cases. I took all the back roads when I got into town and travelling at a good jog trot I eventually unloaded and hurried back to the stables fortunately arriving before stable inspection and also having been lucky enough not to have been spotted by any Red Caps. When I arrived back at the billet I was profusely thanked by Madame, who opened a large bottle of champagne for us and the girls were loud in their praise of Monsieur Alan, who they said was ‘Trés galant’ etc. One day, early in March I was told that the following day I was to proceed to Valenciennes and join a transit camp and await trains and boats etc. On arriving at the camp we were all inspected by the camp Sergeant Major, who turned out to be our ex-corporal Mudie from HQ, now acting Sergeant Major at the camp. He ordered me to fall out and had my gear all taken up to his quarters, where I stayed with him for the next couple of days. Owing to rough weather, Channel crossings had been held up. It was a very pleasant couple of days I spent with Mudie, both dining and wining well.


Eventually the day came when I entrained for Calais and then by boat to Dover. On the trip across, a really amusing incident occurred. I as usual, took up my position in the bows. I enjoy the motion of the boat, its rising and falling. The sea was quite rough and, much to my annoyance, the decks were cleared and all on deck were ordered below. The hatches were battened down and I arrived below deck in the company of a big sergeant of the Lancashire Fusiliers. We found ourselves surrounded by a lot of fellows in various stages of mal de mer, in other words they were seasick. With a big grin on his face, the sergeant opened a tin of sardines and taking one out with his fingers, he boldly showed it all around and then proceeded to swallow it whole. After a minute or two I saw his face change to a yellowish-green and he promptly brought it up, practically in the same condition as when he swallowed it. This performance very nearly spoiled my record of never having been seasick, but all that happened was that a little bile rose to my mouth. Thus I can still say that I have never been seasick. On landing, we entrained for London, finally arriving at the Crystal Palace where, after a couple of hours I drew ration allowances and some monies due me and was finally discharged. On coming out of the Crystal Palace, I crossed over to the Black Swan and thoroughly enjoyed a Guinness before proceeding to Sydenham, then taking a bus to Catford (a journey of only about three miles to where we had our flat) and once again rejoining my wife and kiddies. This reunion, together with the knowledge that the war was over, meant no more separation and that now all we had to face was a readjustment to civil life.

I could look forward to getting a living and could hope for a bright future and enjoyment of a happy family life. In conclusion, I wish to state that I do think of myself as a very lucky man to have come through safe and in good health for which I thank God sincerely. As you will have read, we had our rough times which we survived with the help of some very strong soldering language which at times helped to express one’s feelings. We had many humorous experiences and much enjoyed sporting events that were arranged for our entertainment, including our divisional Horse Show held at Hersin. There was football, cricket and cross-country running all of which I took an active part in. Finally, I would not have missed my experiences of four years and some odd months of service in the army. I am still particularly proud of being a ‘Kitchener’s man’ in spite of the views of many of today’s generation that we were ‘conned’ into joining. This was not so, we took our responsibilities seriously and all volunteers were proud to do so.


Of the Second World War, I would like to add that – after twenty years – our feelings were the same as in 1914, and when Anthony Eden asked for volunteers for the Local Defence Volunteers I and thousands of others registered at our local Police Stations the following morning. Subsequently, when the 30th Battalion of the East Surreys (Home Guard) was formed, I became an NCO with them. There were some three of four hundred of us, many of them officers with military crosses and other ranks with DSMs and Military Medals – and a happy crowd we were. Our headquarters were in Undine Street, Tooting. I would like to quote one humorous incident during that time. We had a very large Drill Hall and at one end we had a proper bar where drinks of all kinds could be had. This bar was run by ‘The Mitre’ and ‘The Fountain’, both large pubs in Tooting. Each in turn supplied their own barman. One night I was Canteen Corporal, my duty being to see that only LDV members were served (we each wore an armband with the letters LDV on it). On this particular evening, a chap walked in and went straight up to the counter and ordered a light ale. The barman immediately served him. Without wanting to appear officious I quietly said to the barman “You did not give me much time to ask him if he was a member of the LDV” to which he replied “What? refuse to serve Old Bill? He’s one of the best bleedin’ customers at The Mitre”. Our battalion eventually became a training battalion for youngsters soon to be called up for service. A good many of them I took to Bisley for rifle shooting. I should briefly like to explain why I and others resigned from the Home Guard. At the beginning we could all have a drink together at the bar. Officers, NCOs and men. The officers were the first to stop, after which orders came through that senior NCOs were not to drink at the same bar. This order caused over one hundred of us to resign. The old battalion was shattered, but we stood by our decision, in spite of requests from all the officers to reconsider. I then joined the National Fire Service (NFS) for which I drove a car with a trailer pump. This was voluntary work (only part time) and I continued with my work in the daytime. I stayed with the NFS until the end of the war.FINISAPPENDIX ONEHere I should like to include an episode described by Barrie Pitt, author of ‘The Last Act’ (1918), a book well worth reading.At 6.50 a.m. on the morning of November 11th, the following message was sent out to the British armies: ‘Hostilities will cease at 11 hours today, November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour, which will be reported by wire to advanced GHQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until receipt of instructions from GHQ’. In fine, cold, but misty weather along almost the whole of the front as far south as Le Câteau and between the Argonne and the Meuse the Allied advance therefore continued against varying resistance and during the closing hours of the war occurred minor actions which typified national mentalities and painted an unerring finger at the future. German fanaticism and ruthlessness, for instance, were clearly demonstrated in a small village east of Valenciennes. A British battalion had reached the edge of a plantation and saw across open fields a small, apparently unoccupied cluster of houses some five hundred yards away. A patrol probing forwards found a young German Lieutenant, wounded by shell fire in the thigh and left propped against a wall, presumably for the better medical attention the Allies could give him. The village was empty, he told them in educated English, the last German rearguards had left two hours before. As a result, the British battalion emerged from the plantation, formed up and marched into the village. As it halted in the village square, machine guns opened up from well-sited vantage points all around, including the church tower and killed or wounded over one hundred of the massed men before the square emptied and the British stormed through the buildings to attack the machine-gun crews. These, during the brief seconds left to them concentrated on finishing off the wounded lying in the square and then fought coldly and skilfully when the moment of their own deaths approached, intent on taking as many as possible of their attackers with them. In the meantime, the corporal of the scouting party had run back through the village to find the wounded lieutenant who was obviously expecting him and watched his approach with an amused and scornful look. He did not flinch as the bayonet descended. Later, the same corporal discovered in a barn the naked and mutilated body of a young girl, dead only a matter of a few hours, victim of the strange Teutonic lust to take the whole world with them to their own destruction. The British managed to finish the war as so many of them would have liked to have conducted it, with a cavalry charge. At 10.50 am, and with only minutes to go. A squadron of the 7th Dragoons was sent forward to capture a bridge on the river Dendre at Lessines, the official reason given being that a bridgehead was required over the river in case the Germans chose to violate the terms of the Armistice. Along a straight road, lined with trees and in perfect formation, the squadron galloped forward and even had the war been over they would have presented to the German machine gunners a most tempting target. But the war was not over and the machine guns were manned by the toughest and now bitterest of the German troops. These opened fire together with some like-minded riflemen and although the impetus of the charge carried some of the horsemen onto the bridge, the position was not taken until 1100, when the machine gunners ceased fire in accordance with their instructions. During the closing minutes of the action, the Germans were attacked with sticks and stones by released British prisoners of war who, fighting as unarmed infantry, proved more effective at hampering the enemy than the galloping dragoons. Over one hundred officers and men were captured as a result of this action.APPENDIX TWOINTRODUCTIONby John Terrainefrom ‘The Western Front’ (published 1964)The Western Front, 1914-1918 was a unique phenomenon. It was also, for the nations whose armies were devoured by it, a shocking phenomenon. This shock was produced by the great losses which the armies sustained, both cumulatively and incident by incident, apparently for little purpose. A great sense of waste was thus engendered and this was most wholly due to the exceptional quality of the Western Front itself; its grotesquely static nature.The losses themselves were not exceptional. They were probably exceeded, even at the time, by those on the less publicised Eastern Front where Russia alone is said to have lost two million men in 1915 and a million more in 1916, and where the Hapsburg empire met its doom. During the Second World War, the Eastern Front witnessed even more dreadful scenes and greater bloodbaths. The Soviet Union revealed, in its post war census returns, a loss of twenty million people between 1941 and 1945, 10% of her total population. These considerations, of course, were beyond the knowledge of the 1914-1918 generation; laymen and politicians understandably quailed at what seemed to be an unexemplified evil. The scale of events was, indeed, unexampled; their character was not. Those who had studied military history (an unfashionable pursuit) could point to many occasions when a similar balance of force had produced similar dire results. They could add that the growing human and national resources of modern states had already visibly multiplied the cost of war, and might be expected to go on doing so. It was, above all, the entry of masses into war that produced the most fearsome slaughters; this was a process which began in Europe with the French Revolution. During the Napoleonic period, all the important European nations, except England, became familiar with the sanguinary and destructive tendency of the new warfare. One of the essays in this book will point to the folly of supposing that Napoleon possessed some ‘answer’ to this problem; on the contrary, he was one of its principal originators. His last battle illustrates the case; according to the latest researches the cost of Waterloo was 10,813 dead and 36,195 wounded1, a total of just under 47,000 of some 150,000 engaged. This is roughly the same proportion of 30% of the overall British losses on that fatal and notorious day, July 1st 1916 of the First Battle of the Somme, when the British Army lost 57,000 men. Overall percentages of course conceal terrible individual statistics; on the Somme on July 1st, the first Newfoundland Regiment lost 710 officers and men, and was literally annihilated2 in the same division the 2nd Royal Fusiliers had 561 casualties, the 16th Middlesex 549, the first K.O.S.B. 552, the first Inniskillins 568 and the First Border Regt 575, all these constituting percentages of well over 60. The 16th Royal Scots (34 division) had the melancholy distinction of 333 dead of 466 who fell, a most unusual and dreadful proportion. Waterloo tells a similar tale. There, it was the defeated French who contributed carnage; but there were grim losses among some of the British regiments. The 1st Dragoon Guards lost 246 out of 571; the 6th Dragoons 217 out of 445; the 3rd Battalion 1st Foot Guards, 342 out of 860; the 30th Foot, 228 out of 635; the 73rd Foot, 288 out of 498; the 1st Battalion 95 Rifles, 156 out of 418, and the 2nd Battalion of that Regiment; 246 out of 655. The British total of 7,000 out of 24,000 engaged once again approaches the 30% which seems to be the minimum that evenly balanced modern battle exacts.If, after Waterloo, there was time for the Western European nations to forget this lesson, it was duly repeated in the Crimea. But the most salutary warning came from America, where an industrial society making full use of the most up to date power source (steam) revealed what follows the mobilisation of nations so equipped. The American Civil War (1861-1865) ended with a million dead; within that figure were contained battles of extraordinary bloodiness; 115 regiments – 63 Union and 52 Confederate – sustained losses of 50% in a single engagement. At Antietam 82%3 of the officers and men of the First Texas Regiment were killed or wounded. At Gettysburg, the First Minnesota Regiment lost 82%…3. Yet, alarming though these figures were, they did not express the full danger that lay ahead. That was revealed in a time comparison; for at Waterloo nine hours contained the whole butchery and three day’s fighting sufficed to overthrow Napoleon; the North took four years to defeat the outwardly much weaker and less industrialised South. Evidently a balance of forces had somehow been struck and the effect of such a balance was to be seen in the grim casualty lists of the war. In 1914, a similar balance was arrived at; and the results were the same; only by now it was not one nation divided against itself that fought, but the whole concourse of ‘civilised’ powers.Casualties – even very great casualties – can be made bearable if they are accompanied by striking achievements, best of all if they lead to swift and decisive results. On the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, nothing of that kind seemed to be happening. Instead, at a human cost which mounted steadily as the armies grew to their unprecedented hugeness, only the most seemingly insignificant gains of ground were made, and decisive results constantly failed to reward even the most ferocious struggles. The Second Battle of Champagne, the culminating offensive by which the French hoped to expel the Germans from their soil in 1915 produced 145,000 casualties and a gain that was nowhere deeper than 3,000 yards. The Battle of Verdun swayed to and fro for nearly ten months of 1916, costing the French and Germans between them almost ¾ of a million casualties, and at the end of it the front was almost exactly where it had been when the whole thing started. The Battle of the Somme in the same year cost the British Army 415,000 casualties in four and a half months and when it closed under the onset of a pitiless winter, ground objectives laid down for the first day were still unattained. In 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) cost the British about a quarter of a million men in three and a half months, and their furthest advance was some seven miles. Not until 1918 was any appreciable movement felt on the Western Front. By contrast, on the Russian Front, forward and backward movements up to 300 miles were common; coloured pins leapt about on the maps of armchair strategists.It escaped notice that sensational manoeuvres whether in the West or in the East, tended to be fruitless. What counted, in both areas, was the battle. Movement was its own reward – or penalty. And it was in the West that the ultimate in penalties were seen. While they were being awaited, however, the grimness of the style of war, the brutality of the ‘slogging match’, the squalors and weariness of ‘trench warfare’ had a searing effect upon the human spirit. This was true of all armies and peoples, but more particularly so of the Allies. The Germans, after all, were fighting on conquered soil; the French, on the other hand, found themselves gripped by the horrible necessity of destroying their own land and its resources. A large part of their country was in enemy hands; another large part formed the ‘Zone of the armies’, a state within a state, a place to which men went in thousands and never came back, or returned hideously mutilated in body or mind.The British too, just across the Channel, had the frightening sense of their manhood being sucked into this all-too-familiar vortex. Soldiers manned the same trenches for months (sometimes years) on end; took their spells out of the line, and returned to the same dugouts, the same saps, the same corpses, the same smells and dirt. They went on leave to England (which seemed like another planet where no one spoke their language) and came back again to the old billet, the old mud, the old shelling and the old comrades with a few more faces missing since they went away. There was an irrepressible tedium and frustration about it all, between the terrors of the great battles, partly conveyed in the constant repetition of intrinsically uninteresting place names – dreary Etaples, the BEF’s base camp; Poperinghe the last ‘staging point’ on the way to shattered Ypres; Armentieres, famous in song; Bethune, facing the unappetising, waterlogged industrial lowlands of La Bassée; Loos and Lens; Abert on the Somme, with its legendary ‘hanging virgin’ looking down with compassion on the endless parade below.All this would have been unendurable but for the inexhaustible patience and cheerfulness of the troops. Even at the time these qualities largely cut them off from communication with their relatives at home, fed upon misleading communiques and absurd propaganda, swung from wild optimism to gloomy disillusionment as the years went by. Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who went to France in November 1914 with the Royal Horse Artillery has written: ‘There were no such things as public relations, because officialdom thought it best that the public should remain in stupefied ignorance.’4 As time passed, the dangers of this policy – if policy it was – became acute. ‘England was beastly in 1918’ wrote one officer. It was in the hands of the dismal and the incompetent. Pessimism raged among those who knew nothing of the war. Only in the trenches (on both sides of No Man’s Land) were chivalry and sweet reasonableness to be found. The same man also wrote ‘A legend has grown up, propagated not by soldiers but by journalists, that these men who went gaily to fight in the mood of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, lost their faith amid the horrors of the trenches and returned in a mood of anger and despair. To calculate the effect of mental and bodily suffering, not on one man but on a whole generation of men, may seem an impossible task, but at least it can be affirmed that the legend of disenchantment is false! These words appeared in 1929, the period of the slump and the Great Depression. In 1933 another regimental officer wrote: ‘…this post-war propaganda, piling corpse on corpse, heaping horror on futility, seems bound to fail from every point of view. In its distortion the soldier looks in vain for the scenes he knew.6 Already, when these views appeared, they were challenging; today they seem almost unbelievable. It is almost impossible to recapture the frame of mind of the generation of fifty years ago. The modern intellectual is inclined to look with impatience upon the ardour with which they went to war, looking back, the intensity (and, I dare add, the purity) of that spirit still moves me deeply’ writes Captain Cyril Falls. To the extent that one can recapture this feeling, it becomes unutterably poignant. It is a phenomenon requiring the utmost effort of comprehension. It deserves more than dismissal with the cruel verdict ‘futile waste’. These essays, written over a period of years, mark stages in my own attempt to understand what was happening on the Western Front, where our fathers and Grandfathers spent their lives so freely. In editing them for publication, I have altered very little. Here and there, I have tried to clarify a badly expressed thought; where I have noticed factual inaccuracies I have corrected them, but I have left the arguments intact, as they first appeared in print, preferring to explain my altered viewpoint in a note at the end of the essay. It may seem odd to begin at the end with the Armistice of 1918 but it is not strange really. On the contrary, it is appropriate to start by counting the cost of an experience which has left its mark on all the later years. References Article ‘Le Charnier de Waterloo’ by Leo Fleischman, in L’Histoire pour Tous. June 1961. Official History.Bell Irvine Wiley ‘They who fought here’. New York; Macmillan 1959 Years of Combat, London; Collins 1963Charles Edmonds; A Subalterns War, London, Peter Davies 1929 Sidney Rogerson. Twelve Days, London, Arthur Barker 1933.


I have included this introduction from ‘The Western Front’ by John Terraine in my ‘Memoirs’ as they confirm my often expressed views – on a number of points – of the war. They show that a war of attrition was unavoidable in trench warfare and definitely proves that Haig was right in decisions made by him and that the carnage that followed was as much deplored by Haig as by the rest of our people in England. These decisions and the actions which followed, were forced on him by the French and the Russians, who demanded that major attacks be set up by the British in order to relieve the pressure that was being put on them by the Germans. Haig was criticised by journalists in England who were strong in their condemnation, without having an alternative plan to put forward. It was not until the Germans attacked in March 1918, that the war became mobile. Having stopped them just before they reached Amiens, Foch and Haig showed the Germans that they too could become mobile, and consequently, in the following few months, really did get the Germans on the run and ended the war with the minimum of casualties. This proved that the great loss of life (on both sides) in these previous abortive actions had played their part in wearing down the enemy. Huge losses were incurred in terms of guns, materials and men, causing utter demoralisation to their people at home, bringing them very near to revolution in their armed forces (part of their Navy did revolt, at Kiel). It was due to this fact and that the general morale of the nation was so low, that caused the Kaiser to abdicate and the Generals of the German armies to sue for peace. I think that, with the above remarks, I can conclude the memoirs of my experiences in active service, from Suvla to Malplaquet, which we had reached on November 10th, and consequently were there on 11th November 1918, when hostilities ceased. Sapper A.R. Hillen, No. 62000R.E. Signals34th Bde Hqrs11th Division, B.E.F. Background to the memoirs These are the Great War memoirs of our Gramps, Alan Robinson Hillen (1893-1979). We all loved his stories of his experiences during those terrible times. These were always told with skill and humour, and were doubtless carefully edited for young ears. Gramps was a wonderful grandfather, he has been gone for more than 43 years, but our memories of those long walks with him in the countryside around Rye in Sussex are strong, and often revisited. In the late 1960s, he committed his memoirs to paper and gave them to Nigel, who promised to do his best to get them published. The internet has made that possible, so here you are Gramps – I’ve been able to keep my promise at last.

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