Lieutenant Douglas J B Wilson, 5th Bn, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders

It was no small relief to those of us who remained that we had been posted to the 5th Battalion of our own Regiment – the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders – escaping the horrid possibility of transfer elsewhere … Excitement replaced boredom, and spirits were remarkably heightened.

We had come from the 3rd Battalion at Ballyvonear, Co. Cork, leaving that Distressful Country and its troubles with few regrets.

A full mile outside Poperinghe station we were incontinently dumped on the line, greeted at a little distance by a few shell bursts … As the Pop Club had a good reputation we drew a bead on in hopes of a meal and perhaps a bath. False hopes: the place had been knocked in a recent raid, and was in the process of transferring its remaining effects elsewhere. As the question of accommodation for the night demanded urgent solution we set off in search of the Town Major, and it took a full two hours to track that illusive individual down to his lair. He was disposed to be off-hand and surly, but curled up when I suggested using his telephone to call up Divisional Headquarters, suddenly finding that he could fix us up nicely in a convent adjoining the church

One hell of a shack

A more unpleasant night might conceivably have been passed in the Inquisition itself. We were no sooner inside than shelling became brisk. The rickety old convent quivered with every symptom of senility, decay, and a sense of impending dissolution in which last we shared, for we were four storeys up. Someone summed it up as “one hell of a shack”.

It had been designed to house, in healthier times, sweet young novices and others of their sex neither so young nor so sweet, with a maximum discomfort to their bodies whatever its reaction on their souls. Now in evil days it stank like the doss house it was … during one night’s stay we mortified the flesh in accordance with the strickest canons. The truckle bed in my cubicle had a broken leg; I pulled it round from under the shuttered, blacked-out window and scrounged around until I found some wooden blocks to wedge it.

On this rocking horse I courted Morpheus, and actually fell asleep quickly. But about 3am a thunderous explosion close at hand galvanised our company. There followed the thrashing descent of a cascade of bricks and mortar, and the frantic convent rocked and swayed like an aspen, shedding here and there some bits and pieces but with Popish tenacity still maintaining its regrettable entity. It did, however, succeed in administering to one heretic the fright of his life.

The window shutter from under which I had moved the head of my bed broke away and crashed to the floor, one corner digging itself into the rotten boarding sufficiently deeply to just prevent the whole contraption from falling over my bed in its new site. The blocks slid from under the broken leg, and in the darkness I slid out through the cubicle doorway involuntarily.

Further casualties

The little remnant (or cadre) of the battalion suffered further casualties soon after arriving at the new transport lines. The mail had come in, and I retired to a small wood shanty – four wooden posts, corrugated metal walls and a sandbagged roof supported by a heavy beam. I sat down on a rickety form, knees bent to take my elbows as I leaned forward to catch the light from the small doorway. Intent on my correspondence the background of shelling faded from notice. Came a sudden breath-taking wave of concussion pounding my chest like a hammer-stroke, and back I went, heels in the air, my head with its “tin hat” (good steel) coming to rest well through a rent in the corrugated metal wall. The hat, now much ajar, had raised some bruises but saved me from serious injury.

Though winded, I extricated myself with haste, noting that the roof beam had cracked and was sagging ominously, and showers of earth and sand were pouring down. I got clear as the whole thing subsided … An enemy shell had landed … on an ammunition dump not more than 600 yards away, and the sky was like a blast furnace.

“Don” Company had its headquarters in the farmhouse of a smallholding several kilos removed from the village, and when “Tiger” the billeting officer reined up his comfortable mount with a “How-do, chaps, not much to grumble about here”, he got a rocket from a heated Stevenson who was feeling his feet. “Dear heart”, said Tiger, “your trouble is that you fail to see things in proper perspective. Take a pull on yourself. Thanks to my strenuous activities you are admirably housed. You are in the enjoyment of what almost amounts to vacant possession. I say almost, since I observe that at this moment a very presentable little bint is giving me the once-over from a vantage point in the garden. No extra charge, but I shall return to see how things go.

Standards to maintain

Meanwhile, cultivate health with suitable pedestrian exercise, always remembering that you are in the P.B.I.[1] whose standards must be maintained. In your spare time, improve your French and Flemish vocabulary, acquire poise which is the je ne sais quoi of light topical conversation, swing your kilt, and believe me, one never quite knows, does one? I think that will be all. You may fall out now.” He waved a negligent gloved hand … leaving a steaming Steevie foaming impotently.

The 10th of May was the third anniversary of “The Fighting Fifth’s” arrival in France, and was celebrated by a dinner at battalion headquarters. Of the originals, St Clair Grant – not the adjutant – was possibly the sole survivor still at the front. The C.O’s statement that accommodation at the Chateau was too limited to permit of all the officers sitting down together was not well received among the company officers. It would not have been impossible to stage the meal out of doors; short of that something could have been done to bring all the serving officers together on such an occasion. There was a general feeling that an opportunity had been lost. If an old regimental spirit was worth fostering at all, now was the time to do it. Apparently Jingles[2] thought otherwise. As it was, some off those uninvited whose record of service with the battalion was far longer than his own felt slighted, and bitter comments were passed. It was a pity.

Quite a show

In the evening a robust concert was provided by the Divisional concert troupe – “The Thistles”, the name of course taken from the Divisional badge. For this we repaired to Racquingham. McGreggor-Smith and his comic songs was popular, but Quarty Jones did not appear. Boyd Scott discoursed on Scottish wit and humour, and actually told a new anecdote about Paisley among lots of chestnuts about Aberdeen. The men finally made the welkin ring to “Good byee”. It was quite a show, with plenty versatility on tap.

On the 18th I rode out to the School of Musketry to organise the Lewis Gun shoots. It was astonishing to discover that I was breaking new ground. There had never been L.G. range practice here before. Consequently there were snags. The Commandant was a dug-out old Colonel who ran to drooping grizzled moustachios, a man of routine, out of hid depth and spluttering if the even tenor of his way were disturbed. Although he did not quite go to the length of asking me what in hell a Lewis Gun was, he had considerable difficulty in grasping the rather essential fact that the target accommodation I required was for machine guns, not rifles. When this registered he thought he could perhaps just squeeze me in between different musketry parties on adjoining ranges; yes, that would do nicely.

I was sorry for the old boy, but I had to look after myself and told him bluntly that it would not do at all. Was he aware of Musketry Regulations, Part 2, Para 18, with reference to danger areas, safety angles for adjoining ranges etc. etc?

That a young infantry officer should have cognisance of such occult matters struck him as phenomenal – “Dammit, I don’t know what to say. Tomorrow is Sunday. I think I’d better give you the whole bloody range to yourself. Eh, what do ye say to that?” He proffered me a cigarette, and became chatty once the arrangement was struck. I came away with the feeling that the old boy regarded the pending operations as extremely hazardous, and that he would keep out of the way himself and have Sunday off. He did!

He who hesitates is lost

Morman Fork figured in an incident some time later during an out-doing relief. I had brought my company out so far without mishap when the road before us was heavily bumped. Should one carry on, or make a detour (difficult, this, in the dark, and expensive in time), or halt? I decided on the latter course, and the men spread out along the roadside bank just clear of the Fork. For five minutes we were ringed by shells. No one spoke; then came a break in front and I passed the word – “get a move on”. The tail of the company was no more than 25 yards clear of its resting place than two 5.9s landed in rapid succession just there. We had no casualties … Intuition is not to be despised unduly. If second thoughts are best (they often are) it can also be true that he who hesitates is lost.

Occasionally one had a seat in the stalls for an exciting air battle. Some times stakes were laid on the preliminary manoeuvring for position as though the combatants were in the boxing ring. The fight might be indecisive or trail away out of sight, or again a lone wolf from behind a cloud might swoop down, knock out his foe, and the first we would know of it would be the hurtling descent and the crash in smoke and flame.

An invariable feature in Flanders billets was the kitchen equipment, a small conical stove generally piped well away from the wall, neat, economical on fuel and when the cook had learned the trick of it an excellent cooker. This was the land not of cakes but of omelettes, and how good they were. Tea, it is true, was never just right, possibly because the water was chlorinated and flavoured, or maybe because servants could not be educated out of brewing it into a state said to be beloved by sergeant-majors.

Coffee on the other hand was excellent, the beans always freshly roasted. We fared more then tolerably well on out-spells, a deal better than most folks back home whom the times were pinching. Army bread was good and white, nothing like the sour stuff now supplied in Blighty. We were not short of sugar. Butter came our way, not the filthy margarine substitute dished out in civvy-street.

In “Don” Company mess we did not indulge in the lavish table sometimes met with, and our expenditure was within reasonable bounds, but for all that we were well fed. Our mess corporal (lance-corporal, unpaid), an obsequious individual called McNab, foraged for supplies together with drinks for himself; we knew well enough that he enjoyed a very adequate rake off if not our complete confidence. Compared with his pestilential colleague at battalion headquarters whose fiddling must have brought him substantial profits McNab’s operations were small beer.

The Lewis Gun Officer was expected to visit all four companies in the line every night. Under present conditions this could be and was utterly impossible. The front was so extended that the ground simply couldn’t be covered. In parts the line was not even continuous, merely a system of outposts, to reach which was always time-consuming and often difficult.

Distances aside, much turned on the amount of shelling and machine gunning on tap. One never knew where and when one might run into trouble and be held up. I did my best to arrange some sort of routine covering as much ground as possible before the light came in, but I was often defeated – when this occurred I used my own judgement and kept my own counsel. I grew experienced in moving quickly when the going was good, and not so precipitately when it wasn’t. I

n each company there were posts and guns to be expected, ammunition, spares and equipment to be looked over. There were often small repairs to be carried out on the spot so as to keep a gun in commission rather than send it down. The rectification of lesser defects could be tricky; it was essential not to be too ambitious. Many a time I wrestled and sweated in a race against time to get a gun into fighting trim, working in a cubby hole or dugout by candle light. I think I was prouder of the reputation that came to me as a handy-man than of anything else, though secretly in dread of being caught out by tackling too much. This work should have of course been shared with a trained N.C.O. but the C.O. never allowed the so-called Battalion Lewis Gun Sergeant up the line, and as I had no opinion of the abilities of this functionary I never pressed the point. In one respect I came to rely on my personal retainer Spotwood: when he said it was time to move it really was time to get a move on. He had a poacher’s or gamekeeper’s sense, and just knew.

NJ took me round his line. Men were patching up a stretch blown in by a direct hit from a 5.9 which, just twenty-four hours before, had done in Willie Cameron and Benjie Henderson, such nice lads whose friendship had led to their being referred to as David and Jonathan. Jones and the Sergeant-Major had been conferring with them about a working party when a shell burst on the parapet, the first two fell back and were uninjured, the others were blown to bits. As Jones told me of the happening in a flat unemotional tone a deluge of gas shells came over with their soft whistle and plopping impact, and word was passed around to don respirators.

After a little I pushed on with Spotwood, the pair of us like anyone else wheezing and bubbling in our “hoogies”. But I found we just couldn’t get out, for though the hat was quite local then Hun was throwing in a bit of H.E. and had a box barrage on flanks and rear, just to keep heads down and prevent movement. Iwas held up for forty minutes, then quite suddenly the current was switched off and all was silent but for our A.A. guns taking on a plane right overhead. I had a date with “B” Company in the front line at Les Ormes and was in the act of climbing out of the trench, standing on the firestep. The sudden screech of a falling missile made me duck, and there in the bay beside me was an eighteen year old boy with his right arm carried off at the shoulder by an A.A. nosecap. Poor Auchterlonie. “Oh, sir, ma erm”, he said … I wondered if he lived, and doubted it.

Quite a job

Intelligence Officer may have been a fancy name inviting ribald comment, but the IO had important functions. His duties included the leading of reconnaissance patrols into no-man’s land, examining the enemy’s wire and our own, but such patrols now went out mostly under company command. He collated reports of patrols, raids and local actions, and passed them through the C.O. to the Brigade. He sent in wind and weather reports six times daily in the twenty-four hours. He kept numerous charts and maps up to date by information collected from all possible channels, including aerial photos. He sited and manned observation posts throughout the battalion area and was responsible for their proper functioning. These and other duties, routine and incidental, fell to his lot. Quite a job …

When I took over and had a stab at this work for the first time I had no assistance and no one to turn to for advice. The CO was remote and inaccessible, reserved for a crisis only. The Adjutant, to whom one might normally have turned, was weighed down by other affairs and required increasing help from me to keep the wheels turning at all … And there were perpetual interruptions – one could settle to nothing. I got past worrying, and apart from seeing that weather reports went in and irregular visits to observer posts, let the Intelligence side rip. If and when things built to a show-down I’d make no excuses but I’d have plenty to say.

Grant [the adjutant] was a queer fellow, not at his best in double harness and no collaborator. It was obvious to me that he was not on good terms with Jingles whose worrying pettiness was become unbearable … But I got the impression that there had been a serious row between them, and suddenly realised that Grant was wearing badly and looked ill … He avoided the mess … in the orderly room he barked at everyone with a degree of ill-temperament that passed all bounds … There was something brewing in this damned culvert that seemed to breed homicidal tendencies all round. We were all short of sleep … During this spell I achieved about an hour and a half in the twenty-four hours in bed, always with interruptions and disturbances, or once or twice as much as two hours but never more.

Growing apprehension

Next afternoon the CO announced (very properly) that he would have a look see himself, to check up of course [on a previous patrol made down the Meteran Becque from Tunis House to Brahmin Bridge] … The CO strode forward into No Man’s Land as if monarch of all he surveyed, well away from the becque. I trailed him with growing apprehension. I felt certain that he had lost his bearings and had no appreciation of the lie of the land. Just exactly when were we going to bump into a Boche post? I thought, “My God, this is going to turn it now, alright To hell with his delicate susceptibilities, the silly cookoo.” I said sharply, “Are you aware, sir, that we are almost on top of the Boche front line?” So long as I checked his progress what did it matter if he didn’t like it?

He wheeled round on me, lips open to rend me, and precisely then a machine gun to the right flank stuttered and opened up on us. Bullets split the air at our very ears. Jingles dropped so suddenly that I thought he was hit. For my own part I struck the ground an almighty whack when I got there. “Are you alright, sir?” I asked, and gathered from a stream of imprecations that the answer was in the affirmative.

By now St Clair Grnat was everything that an adjutant shouldn’t be. Normally well and sprucely turned out, his uniform hung about him with no more cut or shape than a sandbag. He looked and was a very ill man, so very obviously that the CO could not have failed to take not of his condition, yet he … did nothing. I confess that though he had always kept me at arm’s length I was genuinely sorry for him, and I honestly tried to lighten his burden and shoulder much of his work. But he had a devil of suspicion and resentment in him as if convinced that I was trying to oust him from his job, while the truth was that the prospect of having to take over if and when he went down really put the wind up me. I couldn’t bear to think much about it, for I felt pretty foul myself, about the end of my tether …on second thoughts a number of those present [in the orderly room] looked anything but fit.


The Brigade enjoined the carrying out of a raid in force in front of Meteran so as to secure identification of the enemy units confronting us. At all events Jingles got orders to this effect, with the most unfortunate results. The epidemic [of trench fever] may have hit us no harder than other battalions – I cannot say, but I do know that we were much too dérangé to be in fettle for such an operation. We were due to side-slip from our present position very shortly; this was to be our swan-song here. As a result of Aussie activities it was decided that a day raid was inadvisable since the Hun was likely to have lost his taste for napping in the morning, so it was to be a night affair following on softening of the objective by trench mortars. “B” Company … went over the bags after one minute’s Stokes [mortar] barrage. The raid was a complete fiasco – all we collected was a number of casualties, and no identification.

[After evacuation with trench fever to the coast.] To add insult to injury certain baser elements in R.A.M.C. had relieved me of just those sundries of dress as assume inherent importance if one is shorn of them – collar and tie, studs, gold tie-pin and gold cuff-links. Until I could do some shopping I was dependent on borrowing. Apparently this was no uncommon or unique experience. Light fingered gentry occurred in all units but possible enjoyed fullest scope in the R.A.M.C. whose symbols were apt to be interpreted by sufferers as “Rob All My Comrades”.


A letter dated 16th July: “This morning between stand-to and stand-down, soon after the light had come in, there was a most wonderful sky picture, the like of which I had never seen. All the riches of the spectrum were there, but it was the rapidity of transition from one colour to another that was so particularly beautiful. It was as if an unseen artist with the whole firmament as his canvas kept splashing on primary colours which straightaway rushed together, commingled and ran through the range of every conceivable, intermediate tint, dissolving, reintegrating, forming new combinations and patterns. There never was a kaleidoscope that could even hint at such a display. Everyone watched spellbound.

Eventually a vivid lilac hue prevailed and spread over all, a lovely if inauspicious augury of what was to follow. A thunderstorm of incredible fury swept over us – I couldn’t have imagined it outside the tropics. Here, there, everywhere the atmosphere surcharged with electricity burst into flame in simultaneous and repeated discharges. There were great broad sheets of lightening with prodigious flashes, interspersed with vicious forks and zig-zags. As for the thunder, there is no poetic licence in asserting that the welkin really did ring and boom and crash. I can record it, but description is beyond me. It eclipsed the sound of the guns on both sides, and I was informed by a gunner later that they all closed down … I should have thought that serving a gun in an electrical storm was a poor insurance risk, but I speak as an infantryman without expertise.

And then the deluge. It lasted for perhaps half an hour, and in volume it exceeded all expectations. In a twinkling the trenches were awash, in five minutes many of them were toppling, and when it was all over there were long and short stretches where caving-in had just obliterated them. Where they continued to exist the mess was unbelievable. But my own luck was uncanny. The gradient of the trench floor outside my own cubby was steep, and I was a good 18 ins. Above it, hiding in a recess below the parapet. Over my head was a substantial roof with a good ton of earth well jacked up. There had been growing corn on top, now of course laid flat. Not a drop of water came through. I peered our anxiously. Clay-reddened water angrily poured down the conduit, just clear of my Plimsol line, on its way to join the flow down hill, already waist deep…”

No line to hold

We dodged across, I first, then the guide and Spot[wood] as his rear-guard. Then we were ‘there’. Auntie was hugely delighted to see me: what a welcome. He had a devilish three-cornered bit of line to hold, with Jerry to the front, to a flank and partly to his rear. A pocket that could be pinched off neatly, ironed or mortared out as soon as the spirit moved the enemy. Most of Auntie’s men had been loaned for a working party elsewhere, but it was hard to imagine how a platoon could be accommodated here at all. For all practical purposes there was no line here to hold. A trench had been roughly sited; it had never been excavated. Where it was other than non-existent it was nowhere more than three feet deep. And to crown everything Auntie had apparently no real conception of his precarious position.

He had no trench experience to speak of, and thought that his situation was quite normal for an outpost. He had been told that he mustn’t disclose himself by digging, so he didn’t dig. The Boche was quite near, but the corn gave cover from view. What about cover from fire? I asked? “Well, old boy”, he said, glancing around “there is not a great deal we can do about it here beyond getting down when things fly about. It’s fairly hot, sometimes.” I’ll bet it was. I confess that I shivered as I too looked around. I was scared stiff.

Time was short. I had other platoons to visit. Auntie had two Lewis guns. They were unsited, so I saw to that, feeling that they were as much use to him as a brace of blunderbusses. As to the condition of the so-called trench, I told him quietly he must get cracking at once – get down, and to hell with non-digging orders. He was in charge, wasn’t he? To hell with back-boys orders … any man with trench-nouse who saw it would dig with pick and shovel, trenching tool, finger nails failing anything else, and wouldn’t think of stopping for a rest till a good six feet down, not before.

There wasn’t a fire-step in the whole lay-out; how did he think he could repel the Boches if they came over? … I threw out some practical suggestions as to how best to dispose of and camouflage fresh soil. I stressed the necessity for working quietly. I did my best to jag him out of his coma without converting his state into one of jitters. He listened carefully … then gave a wry smile. “I’ve been a clot, of course. I just didn’t know the drill – nobody told me. Thank God for a decent instructor and a real friend.” He grasped my hand and … was not far from tears at that moment.

Watches synchronised

Now the sun was bright and strong, ushering in a warm July day. The writhing curly morning mists had gone, the plain was tricked out in patterns of green, light and dark brown here and there tinting in sepia and ochre, the far distance in a shimmering blue. The sky was clear but for a few high patches of cirrus cloud. Larks were singing. I looked it over – a beautiful setting, for what? Still waiting … The present with its hateful tedium was ticking over … Some had been dozing, some smoking, some conversing, passing the time somehow, no matter how. Now all were passive: just waiting … How long to zero hour? Officers’ watches had been synchronised – time to gird up our loins. We were ready. A last look at rifle, bayonet, equipment, with studied unconcern, but the air had suddenly become tense. “Half a minute to go, boys”, I said, letting wrist and watch drop. “Wait for it.”

It came with an unbelievable ear-splitting crash merging into a continuous roar. We were off. Within seconds a yawning crater opened up at our feet, and showers of earth, stones and splinters whirled about us. The ground we trod on heaved. My group split automatically, jog-trotted around the gaping hole, joined up and kept going. Already the smoke was thick – we kept our eyes skinned. It was impossible to [know] how many yards visibility we had – not many. We approached some red-leaded Nissen huts. It was near here that I glimpsed a shell hole with some dead bodies heaped together. Were they tartan clad? I couldn’t be sure. I recalled Auntie, [and his death] and pressed on. It was hard going on rough ground. Like the men I was carrying rifle, bayonet, equipment and shovel. Additionally, revolver on belt, and a “Bisley bandolier” of revolver rounds strapped to each wrist for quick reloading.

“Don” Company’s right flank crossed the Axe Hill road and passed through the remnants of the house where the village thinned out. We found ourselves in an orchard, and as the barrage moved forward I heard the sound of heavy machine gun fire ahead and to the left. Then the smoke cleared sufficiently to disclose a straggling hedge crossing our front obliquely, lined by Jerry gunners. A barrage of H.E. does not creep … but lifts and jumps, clearing a space on the ground … Here the barrage had obviously come down on one side of the hedge and lifted over it, leaving enemy details intact oblique on this stretch … I saw some of my men mown down.

Stream of bullets

Everybody was prone myself included as a stream of bullets whipped past me. Some lads were using their rifles. My first clear view of a Boche was a man getting off at a run from behind the hedge. I had a crack at him and missed, slipping sideways into a crump hole just as I pressed the trigger. Then two more rabbits: I steadied myself and got them both – that was for Auntie for a start. Then I realised, as I should have done straight away without indulging in snap shooting that “B” Company men were mixed up with mine, and that our front wave had been held up here. Shouting directions was hopeless in this din; I got up, waved a bunch of forward, and led them at a rush. This was bayonet work, and we cleared that hedge in a trice … It was the only concerted resistance we encountered on our company front till our objective was reached. Meantime, we linked up again and pushed on.

As I passed through a gap in the hedge I threw over a Boche Maxim on its mounting. To have turned it on the Huns now running helter-skelter down the reverse slope of the hill would have been a joy, but many of them were behind our own men who pushed through and forward. Incidentally this particular gun had continued to fire until we were almost on top of it when the man behind it stuck up his arms in the Kamerad act.

A big man over six-foot, that Jerry, but what could he expect? He got no quarter from a Glaswegian using his bayonet with a will for the first time; he wasn’t more than 5ft 3 ins at most, but he had seen his comrades shot down. Beyond the hedge were cubbies and dug-out used by the gunners, now either scuppered or on their way towards Berlin. Not all of them, though. Mopping up was a dirty job. The men had been warned not to take chances … because the enemy so often proved himself treacherous.

Fake surrender

Despite warnings we lost a number of men done in by Huns who made a show of surrendering and then resisted. I am not likely to forget an individual who emerged from a lair at my feet, his hands high above his head, but he had an egg-bomb in his right fist the only bomb I saw in the show). I had slung my rifle with its empty magazine, my Webley grasped at the waist until there was time to reload. Our eyes met, he meant business, and I plugged him, instantly flinging myself flat. The bomb did not explode. I put the revolver away, reloaded the rifle and got to my feet, to be confronted by another Boche carrying an automatic. Just three feet away. And at that instant a heavy blow struck me full on the pack strapped between my shoulders, flinging me forward involuntarily bayonet first. Caput! I had been struck by a fragment from a trench mortar dump which was pooping off in the village. The pack and its contents had saved my back, the bayonet my life …

Crowded moments. I had no notion of how long the rushing of machine guns and the hand to hand encounters took. We advanced across the main road to Bailleul, mopping up as we went. No smoke now. The men were well in their stride, if anything pressing forward rather too much. There were lots of Huns breaking cover to be dealt with. The din of the barrage was still deafening, with additional periodic major explosions from the dump in Meteren.

I trotted along what I took to be my own front, signalling to bunches of men to spread out; among them were numbers of lads from “B” Company who should have been elsewhere. It was quite impossible to issue orders by word of mouth, and nothing but hand signals could be understood. While so engaged, but unknown to me then, it seems that I had a narrow shave from a wounded Boche whom I passed but did not see. He was going through the motions of putting [a] bullet through my back when a youth called Spalding who was trailing me almost fell over him. He kicked the weapon from his hands and jumped on his face with both feet. Why record so horrible an occurrence? The answer must be that if I have chosen to suppress my qualms in the matter, I must not suppress what as horrible if this record is to be … a true and factual story …

Ruined village

We had now emerged into open country, with a first vista down the reverse slope of the ridge crowned by the ruined village. We looked downhill over the Meteren Veldt stretching away towards Armentieres, faintly seen behind distant woodlands. I didn’t spare any time on the prospect. Only a few Boche were visible in the foreground now, and it seemed to be that too many of our own people were wandering around aimlessly or indulging in stupid chases in attempts to take prisoner fugitives racing in front of us but still to the rear of our front line wave. I was annoyed at the attention given to one lumbering fellow on our left flank who had broken through our moppers-up, dodging and doubling like a hare, outdistancing all pursuit. What were our chaps thinking about? In a sudden flare of anger I lay down, took quick aim and fired. He bounced into the air and fell over, no one more surprised than myself. I was pulled to my feet by a full private (under-keeper and deer-stalker by occupation) who clapped me vigorously on the shoulder and pronounced in a foghorn voice, “Eh, man, if you are no’ the bonny boy with a service rifle. He was a wheen over a hunner yairds, that yin, I’ll say.” I managed to grin at him, though the truth was I had a revulsion in feeling. I shrugged my sore shoulders and told myself “another one for Auntie.”

We moved into standing corn and I tried to introduce some order into the mopping up. There were still furtive Jerries lying or crawling on hands or knees. A covey of three was flushed from a cleverly concealed cubby and taken prisoner, going to join the ranks of goodish batches now passing back … They were a motley crowd. The well set-up soldierly type were in the minority, many of the younger brands were pretty awful specimens, sloppy and bedraggled … the majority showed relief or even definite joy at the prospect of being out of the war for keeps … No for the first time shrapnel bursting in the air to our front was giving the prearranged signal: objective reached, dig in. The first headache now was going to be just where to dig, identifying map references on strange ground; the next would be setting down quickly enough. Our position was open and exposed – how [long] would the Boche plastering which was bound to come be deferred?

Long shift

I had got a fair proportion of my half company collected when Jones and Fraser appeared … N.J. radiated satisfaction and determination, and the men took note of the fact that the skipper was well pleased at the way things had gone. He raised a laugh by telling them that they looked like a lot of miners, but there was going to be a long shift of overtime before a bath came along.

We conferred hurriedly … I [went] forward to the front line to bring back “Don” Company men still with “B” Company. We had to get cracking, Spot[wood] and I, but we were watchful in the corn. Firing was going on in a small basin of ground in the centre of which was an empty, dilapidated hand cart, and a certain N.C.O. quite on his own was slamming round after round into it. We approached him carefully from behind; the chap was off his rocker, under the impression that he was slaying his thousands. I clapped my revolver to his head and Spot[wood] disarmed him … we pushed him along and handed him over to “B” Company where he belonged … His condition was run-induced …

He wasn’t the only one in “B” Company who had gone to pieces. The Company Commander was wild with excitement, dancing about like a marionette, issuing volleys of orders to which no-one was paying the slightest attention … he foamed at the mouth, threatened to place me under arrest and became really obstructive … I left him muttering, having raked in about a score of men, and pushed them uphill in top gear.

Jones had a pitifully small party at work on the most exposed part of the new line, but by great good luck we were able to make use of a nicely converted slip-trench further along, extending it at both ends. It was a gift indeed, for if the worst came to the worst we could crush in there under something like cover.


The men were obviously very tired now. They had stuck to the digging well, but some were showing signs of exhaustion and one or two flopped out. I felt I had been on my feet for hours and glanced at my watch in disbelief when I found it registered precisely thirty-five minutes after zero-hour.

I wrote from Hondeghem: “A warm, overcast day. I write at a farm kitchen window, looking out over a well stocked vegetable garden to broad sweeps of grain awaiting the reaper. The farmers are woefully short-handed … Every available pair of civilian hands are occupied. Women of course predominate, though they don’t run to dust coats, smart breeches, long boots and green scarves – not that there is anything against these charming accessories which our own Land Girls wear, but quite simply, I suppose, because the proximity of the front and lack of means or even of desire to dress up cuts out everything but bare essentials.

Censoring stint

In one of my censoring stint at Details I was confronted by two letters in identical handwriting, one addressed to “My dear Wife”, the second to “My dear Marie” – at different addresses. The first was a short and unemotional communication, the second unrestrainedly erotic. Marie was a casual acquaintance who had once given the scribe “a very, very good time”, and he looked forward to remeeting her. Rightly or wrongly, I sent for the man, who turned out to be a Romeo, aged 19, of not very striking exterior. I tossed him the letters and asked him to make sure that they were alright. They were. Quite OK.

I put it to him: “Suppose the Censor were to make a sad mistake. Suppose he was careless enough to enclose the letter to Marie to your wife. Still OK?” His face blanched. He managed to quaver, “You wouldn’t do that, sir?” I told him, of course not. I was a censor of letters, not of morals, and if he still wanted both letters sent off he could close them down now. I just wanted him to decide for himself. “I’m not a married man myself, so I mustn’t advise you”. Marie’s letter was withdrawn, whether for redrafting or not I cannot tell. We had a short chat outside the scope of King’s regulations, and I had the impression the husband bore me no grudge.

Kodak Farm alongside the Butts and not far from the Highlandman’s Trench gave me the same sort of misgivings that Prospect Farm had bred. Cooking for the whole battalion was carried out in its large kitchen. Rows of dixies were piled on the stone floor on the centre of which was a great fire over which they were hung in turn. Windows were boarded up and cracks and holes in walls and roof carefully stuffed to effect a blackout. Smoke did not matter at night, and escaped how and where it might, but I never stayed there long enough to find out how the cooks became innured to the pungent atmosphere – I dived for the cellar with streaming, smarting eyes. Presumably the policy of “chancing one’s arm” with mass cooking so that the troops in the adjacent trenches could get really hot meals was justifiable, but with Jerry in his present mood the risks were considerable.

I decided to try a spot of organisation in Highlandman’s Trench. The battalion boasted of six Lewis gunds earmarked for A.A. work and fitted with forward area A.A. sights…

I selected two gun teams, briefed them and swore them to secrecy. The guns were so sited as to secure cross-fire, for Jerry always seemed to arrive from the same direction. He didn’t turn up next morning, but the next again when the light was coming in a little before stand-down I heard his engine before I could actually see him. I thrashed along to the nearest post and dived for the gun … With a corporal actng as my No 1 I was all set as Jerry came flicking along, slightly to the front of the trench and not more than 200 feet up. It was a gift.

Over open sights I got him with the first burst, held him, and poured a whole drum into him. Tracer bullets with their luminous trail were interspersed through the rounds one in seven; one could see them whang into the fuselage sparking nicely. The pilot twisted and banked. I had the empty drum off in flash and my No 1 clapped a refill on the magazine post like an expert. My right hand flew for the cocking handle: it wasn’t there! The gun had been faultily assembled, and could not be recocked without stripping. I could have wept with mortification. To make matters worse, the bright lads on the other gun down the trench never came into action at all.

Jerry did a right-angle turn and mushed for his own lines. His course was unusually erratic, though how much from damage or from craft I couldn’t guess … I watched his exit in silence, picked up the missing cocking-piece from the trench floor, tossed it up in my palm and chucked it disdainfully on the firestep. I surveyed the gun team coldly, shrugged my shoulders and stalked away – they looked miserable. So did the other team when I had finished with them. They hadn’t been standing-to properly.

[1] Poor Bloody Infantry.

[2] The CO

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