First World War Poetry Digital Archive

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The Operations North of Bethune

August 7th, Wednesday. During the morning our infantry went forward and captured some enemy trenches. At 11pm we went forward and crossed the La Basse Canal, this we had to cross on a pontoon bridge made of duck boards.
The Canal was full of British dead for this bridge was under constant machine gun and shell fire. We took over and old British trench called Aberdeen Line. Major J.C. Bromhalll D.C. was instantaneously killed by a shell, he had only rejoined the Battalion on 3rd August after being wounded in March. He had been with the Division since Feb. 1916.

On 8th August at stand to, in the morning and evening, Jerry bombarded our trench for some time during the time between stand to we were unable to move about very much owing to the enemy observation balloons which seemed to be floating almost over the top of our trench. The following day was very peaceful but we had some heavy shelling during the night.

Saturday 10th August. The day was very quiet but during the night we got the lot. Some German airoplanes came over our lines. They got caught in our searchlights and the artillery fired at them. The shrapnel from their shells was falling on our trench. It was a pretty sight but not very healthy for us. On top of this I suppose Jerry was trying to hit the gunners who were firing at his planes so he bombarded our trench with gas shells. I got slightly gassed. It made me feel sick and I was unable to stand up properly for a time.

August 11th. During the morning the infantry went forward and captured a little more ground so at night we went forward about 600 yards. On our way we had to lay flat on the ground for a German plane came over and dropped some lights over us. He evidently did not spot us for nothing happened. I was detailed with another lad to make a gun position in a shell hold but had to leave it for we found that we were digging into a dead soldier. I reported it to our section officer so he told us to get into their trench with the rest of the section, This trench was called Lone Tree Trench. The reason was because a bare trunk of a tall tree was standing near the trench and a track led from it to the Canal. The German and British Gunners never tired of trying to blow it up. The sided of the tree were cut where machine gun bullets used to hit it. The German machine gunners used to aim at it during the night hoping that they might hit any troops who might be coming up the track.

Monday 12th August During the morning we had some heavy shelling and gas so that night I made a small dug out for shelter in the trench.

Tuesday 13th August. We had a very bad time for Jerry bombarded all along the top of our trench for three hours without hardly a break. Another one of our sections was due to relieve us but their officer would not take over our position in Lone Tree Trench as according to him we should not be there. So we had to take our guns back to Aberdeen Line before we got relieved. It was midnight before we handed over and made our way back to a reserve position in a trench called Suffolk Line. In the trench was a pill box, in which we mounted our gun.

August 14th, Wednesday. I was given 2 days rest so at 9 pm I left Suffolk Line and went back to Choques. The following day I walked 15 kilos back to see some civilisation in the village of Burbure. The following day at 9 pm I left Chocques to rejoin my gun team in Suffolk Line where I arrived at 11 pm.

August 17th, Saturday. Jerry sent some gas shells over during the day, and that night his planes came over and bombed us so we shifted our gun and made a new position further along the trench.

Sunday 18th August We had some more gas shells over during the day, nearly every shell that came over seemed to have gas in it

Monday 19th August. A heavy bombardment was going on by our own artillery on our flanks. The following morning was very quiet. We got some shelling on our trench during the afternoon.

Wednesday 21st August. The Divisions on our flanks went forward and joined up and so we were now of no use in the line. That night we left the trench and marched back to Chocques where we rested for the night. The following morning we overalled our gun kits and repacked our fighting limbers ready to go back into the line.

Friday 23rd August. At 9 am we left Chocques for the trenches. At 11 am we relieved the machine gunners of the 4th Division in a trench situated between Hindges and Robeco. We had to cross a canal. I don't know if it was the La Basse or the Lawe Canal. Whichever it was it was the grave of quite a lot of British and German troops, for it was full of bodies. At 4 pm my chum and I were sent to a pill box which was built in an old cottage. We were to stay there until a gun team from another one of our company relieved us. At the rear of the cottage was an iron shelter which we used to call a baby elephant. Inside it was a single bed with sheets and blankets on it. It got dark and so late that I said to my mate that no one would be coming to relieve us so what about getting into the bed and getting a night's sleep in comfort. he was not quite so willing to do so. I got all my clothes off and got between the sheets, the first and only time that I did so in France during the war. I hung my gas mask on the head of the bed in case we had some gas over. My mate just lay on the bead reading a book by the light of a candle which was stuck in the neck of a bottle. At 11pm we heard someone coming down the track. It was too late to do anything about getting dressed in time so I told my mate to blow the candle out thinking that it was the gun team coming to relieve us. Our luck was in for I heard the voice of Pte Brewer, one could not mistake it, for he was a real Cockney. He said that he and his mate had come to relieve us. He did not like the idea of staying so I told him to go back and say that he could not find us. He would not do that as he thought that the Sergeant would send him back out again. The lad with me was not keen on staying so I said what about him going back with Pte. Brewer and his mate staying with me, he could tell the Sergeant that they thought it best to do this so that if the gun team came I would know my way back seeing that I went there in the daylight. This was agreed. My mate went back to the trench with Pte. Brewer and his mate stayed with me. After they left we both went to sleep on the bed but Pte Brewer did not tell the Sergeant what we had done, he went and reported to my gun team. The following morning Sergeant Speirs sent for me to take the section report back to company HQ. As I was not there my team sent Pte Brewer to the Sergeant.
When he saw him he wanted to know why he had not relieved me. Pte Brewer told him why but that did not please the Sergeant so he sent him to get me.
I was outside the cottage having a wash, using my steel helmet for a bowl when Pte. Brewer arrived and said the Sergeant wanted me. I reported back to the Sergeant. He said that he was going to put me on a charge for refusing to be relieved. I told him that I volunteered to stay in the pill box but he would not believe my story. I still had to take the report back to company HQ and bring back two petrol tins of water. Jerry had been dropping quite a lot of shells along our trench and the track which I had to go along. I think that he had been trying to blow up a temporary bridge which had been put across the canal but all he had done was to uncover some dead troops. I passed a party of lads who were reburying them. As I did so the Corporal in charge said ' Look, who said life is not everlasting, you see it must be, for this one is running away in maggots'. I looked at what remained of the body, he was a British soldier and must have been killed some time for he was wearing a leather jacket and we did not start wearing them until October, so seeing that it was only August he must have got killed the previous winter.
On my arrival at company HQ I was too late to get any water so I filled the petrol tins with water from the Canal. On my return to the trench I told the lads what I had done so they would only use the water to fill the gun for it was unfit for drinking owing to the number of dead that were lying in the Canal. During the night the Germans came over in their planes and done some bombing.

Sunday 25th August. A very quiet day except for our usual shelling at stand to. During the night we had a thunderstorm. I don't know if this put the wind up our Sergeant or if he thought that I would kill him only he heard me walking up and down the trench on duty so he called me and asked me what things were like. I told him that it was still raining but Jerry was very quiet. He then said that he would not put me on a charge over the pill box business.

Monday 26th August. At 6pm another gun team relieved us so we went back to Armezin for a few days rest which consisted of cleaning ourselves and gun up.
We also did some more training.

On Thursday 29th August we marched 12 kilos to fire our guns on the range at Allomange. The following day we marched 10 kilos and did some barrage firing in a large pit for we were now doing a lot of covering fire.

On Saturday 31st August we had a full days training for at 7 am we boarded some buses and rode about 30 kilos to the Artillery Range where we fired several barrage stands. It was 8pm before we got back to our barn at Annezin.

Sunday 1st September We packed our fighting limbers ready for proceeding to the trenches again,

Monday 2nd September An early morning call for at 4am we left Annezin for the line. At 10am we took over some shell holes which were full of water just in front of the village of Locon which was now in ruins. After getting most of the water out of the shell hole we made a gun position ready for a barrage which we were going to fire. For this we needed some more ammunition so during the afternoon Pte Beck and I went back to get some which had been left for us to pick up at the crossroads. These boxes were very heavy so the best way to carry them was on our backs. To get them there we put them on a post which was about four feet high. Once on our backs we made our way back.
Pte Beck was a married man and older than I was so I got along much quicker.
I carried on until I found another post to rest my box on and looking back I saw Pte Beck dragging his box along the road which was hard work for the road was full of shell holes. As he got near me I could hear him saying a married man should not be out here. At last he reached me but I could not help him for if my box fell down I would not be able to lift it back on to the post so I left him to carry on until I got to our gun position where I left my box and went back to help him for I knew that he would not be able to drag it all the way for to get to our gun he would have to leave the road and go across a field and than over a ditch which had a duckboard for a bridge. I found him waiting at the field, he had managed to drag it about a mile. He was still grumbling. I helped him back with his box. For this the Sergeant said that we could go and have two days rest at company HQ which was just behind the village of Locon. Here we had to start and make ourselves a shelter. We found a nice big shell hole, got the water out of it, put a baby elephant in it and covered it with dirt to stop any shrapnel getting through the iron for we used to feel safer like that.

Tuesday 3rd September

At 5 am the barrage started and our troops went forward. All objectives were taken and about 170 prisoners, forcing the enemy's near guards back about 2,500 yards. 48 guns of the Battalion were used in this barrage which was very skilfully executed under great difficulties and very short notice.

On Friday 6th September Pte Beck and myself returned to our gun which we found after a lot of difficulties for they had gone forward with the advance.
It was dark when we found them in a small trench. The Sergeant got us to work straight away to dig a trench and gun position. The going was slow owing to Jerry giving us some gas shells. After working all night it was a waste of time for the following day we went forward about 3 kilos to a German strong point at Richebourg St Vasst. Called 'Bones Post' it was made by the British troops in 1914. Jerry left a note inside the pill box saying ' Dear Tommy, Thanks for the loan of this ground, it served its purpose. Now you are welcome to have it back. Fritz' I don't blame him for we were up to our knees in mud. I was not too bad for I was wearing a good pair of German knee boots that I had found. I used to carry my own boots tied by the laces and hanging round my neck, like we used to do when boys going paddling. We had only been in the post about an hour when we were ordered out as it was supposed to be mined, so we went out and dug a position in a field. It was a rather wet job for it was raining. The enemy did not worry us much except for a few gas shells at night. After learning that Bones Post was not mined we returned to it. Except for a few gas shells that we received from Jerry during the night and the rain life was not too bad. The following day we had a thunderstorm and so we had some more water and mud in the trench. Jerry also shelled us with some more gas shells, this was getting quite a regular game of his, we were almost living in our gas masks.

Monday 9th September.

At 8.30 am my section had orders to take part in a barrage on another part
of the line. Only three men were to go with each gun. I was one of the three to go with our gun. At 9am our fighting limbers arrived and we loaded our guns, ammunition etc. on them. At 9.30 am we were on our way. We arrived at our barrage positions which were in an open field. it was not safe to leave our guns out there in the open so we just lay our T pieces down and just left the tripods on them which we camouflaged and hoped that Jerry would not spot them. we did not expect them to stay OK for while doing this a German plane passed over our heads and we felt sure that he must have spotted us. While waiting to fire the barrage we all took cover in a large hut in the corner of the field which the Germans had been using for a hospital. Had Jerry shelled or bombed it he would have wiped out most of our Battalion for we all went in it while waiting to go out and fire our guns.
at 6pm it was zero hour. A large artillery gun opened fire, that was our signal to start firing. It was not long before it looked as if all hell had been let loose. Jerry started to shell us but they fell too short. I had a piece of string tied to our number one who was firing our gun. Although he was only a few feet in front of me he could not hear me giving him the orders when he had to stop firing and elevate the gun. Only our Section Officer who was giving the orders should have been on the left of the guns so that the number two who lays the feed clock would have seen him. The officer was giving his signals from the right of the guns. He had got in a ditch to protect himself from the enemy shelling. My gun fired 5,000 rounds of ammunition which kept me busy. The steam from the water in the guns made them look like a lot of steam engines. we carried on firing for about an hour during which time the infantry had gone forward and taken all their objectives. The driver of our fighting limber had a lucky escape for he came galloping up a road in front of our gun. Lucky for him our number one spotted him in time and ceased firing. There was no need for him to be in such a hurry for our section had to stay behind for a few hours in case of a counter attack. When we did receive orders to go back we had to go across the fields for Jerry was shelling the ;La Basee Road too heavily for us to proceed along. Back in 'Bones Post' we mounted our gun on an SOS line and spent the rest of the night filling gun belts in the rain. I received a letter from my girl friend which had come up with the ammunition and rations.
Inside the letter was a nice clean silk handkerchief. This struck me as very funny for here I was, wet through and up to my neck in mud with no hope of getting dry and the only clean article was this small silk handkerchief, for the trenches in the post were looking like a pond. The following morning Jerry bombarded the top of the trench for an hour and followed it up the next day with some heavy shelling and some gas shells at night.

Friday 13th September

It rained all day adding some more water and mud in the trench. We received our usual shelling from Jerry during the night. The following day was pretty quiet but we received some heavy shelling and gas all night.

September 15th Sunday

At 7 pm we left our reserve position in 'Bones Post' and relieved a gun team in the front line. it was the old B.I. Line about 300 yards in the rear of Neuve Chappelle with Mystery Wood on the right of it. We were told that it was called Mystery Woods because no troops ever came out of it alive. The rumour was that a Battalion of Ghurkas went into it and never returned. They were all supposed to have got electrocuted. That was the tale we were told.
How true it is I do not know. There was little left of Neuve Chappell, only a couple of walls and a cross that was leaning over. At night when looking across no man's land these used to look like ghostly figures as the noon used to shine through the clouds and cause the ruins to throw shadows on the ground, We had a hot time getting up the line for Jerry shelled and machine gunned us all along the 'La Bassee Road' and up the communication trench leading to the front line.

Monday 16th September

My chum and I went back for ammunition and rations which our drivers dumped at the corner of the La Bassee Road. Jerry was sweeping all along the communication trench with machine gun fire so everywhere there was a gap in the trench we had to wait until he ceased fire before we could pass. Along the La Bassee Road he was dropping shells. Here we had to put our gas masks on for we ran into a batch of mustard gas. At last we found the rations at the arranged spot and so started on the return journey. It was midnight before we got back to our gun. We had only been back an hour when at 1 am the following morning we had a thunderstorm to water the trench. The day was pretty quiet but towards midnight Jerry put a heavy machine gun and wizz bang bombardment along the top of our trench.

Wednesday 18th September

The day was rather quiet. At 7am my mate and I went back for the rations.
Jerry gave us our share of his shelling and machine gun fire all the way. We were now getting quite a lot of machine gun and shell fire all night near our position in the line. Jerry no doubt was after our gun for every night we used to go out in a shell hole in no man's land and fire across his line to stop him coming out to repair his barbed wire.

September 19th Thursday

Except for a few shells and machine gun fire at night there was not much to write about. The following day on an Artillery Officer and a signaller came into our trench. The Officer was watching the effects of shells bursting in the enemy lines. As they burst he got the signaller to send a message back to the gunners to tell them where their shells were going. So during the night we were kept busy firing our gun to stop Jerry coming out to repair the damage that our artillery had done during the day. Jerry sent us back some gas shells in exchange.

September 22nd Sunday

During the day Jerry bombarded our trench again so we returned it by going out at night and firing on his wire and front line. The following day Jerry gave us a rough time with his shelling. He also gave me a rough time at night with his machine gun fire when I was returning with the rations. We had our own back by going out and firing our gun on him.

Tuesday 24th September

Jerry gave us some heavy shelling during the day.

Wednesday 25th September

At 2 am we made a barrage position in our trench and laid our gun on an SOS line for the lads of the 3rd Worcestershire Regiment were going to try and retake Shepherd's Redoubt which the 10th Royal Warwickshire Regiment had taken but lost again in the counter attack on the 20th September. At 8 am our barrage started, the lads went forward and captured the Redoubt and a number of prisoners. The attack must have taken Jerry by surprise for it was raining all the time. At 6pm Jerry put up a bombardment on the right of our trench. We thought that he was going to try and retake the Redoubt but he did not. At 10pm we were relieved and went back to a reserve position in 'Bones Post' where we arrived by midnight and put our gun on the SOS line.
Jerry came over in his airoplanes. It was a pretty sight to see our searchlights playing all around them. The following day was quiet but we received some heavy shelling during the night.

Friday 27th September

Very little shelling but we had a good soaking for it rained all day. The trench was getting full of water. One lad to cheer us up got a match box put a match stick in it for a mast and let it float in the water in the trench and said 'Look the Navy has come to relieve us.' It was little jokes like this that helped us to forget about being wet through, lousy, and in need of a night's sleep and a meal or hot cup of tea for we had been in the line for almost two months without hardly a break. The only thing that the lads were hoping for was to get a blighty one and to get home. The following two days Jerry shelled us very heavy especially during the night.

September 30th Monday

In a very heavy downfall of rain the Cheshire Regiment went forward and captured some more ground.

Tuesday 1st October

It was discovered that the enemy had again retired and the 56th Brigade immediately pushed forward and occupied Aubers and the high ground south east of it. At 5pm the enemy started a very heavy bombardment which lasted until 11 p,m. During this bombardment Pte Golder and myself had to go and fetch the sections rations. We were very lucky to get back with them for several of the shells fell very close to us. We kept falling flat on the ground and putting the sandbags of rations over our heads. We used to feel safe as long as our head and face was covered up. I expect Jerry was getting rid of all his ammunition before he retired from 'Rubers Ridge'. The following day at 5pm the machine gunners of the 74th Division relieved us in 'Bones Post'. We marched 10 kilos back to the Bethune Road where we waited in the rain hoping to get a lift in the bogey trucks which were on the light railway. Our luck was out but at 10pm our Officer managed to stop a lorry which was returning from taking ammunition to the artillery and got the driver to give us a ride. he took us back as far as Chocques and dumped us on the roadside in the rain. At 11.30 pm we stopped another lorry which took us back to Marles-Les-Mines. From here we marched about 4 kilos to Chamblain Chatelain where we arrived at 2am the following morning and had just got settled down in the barn which was our billet before going in the line on the 5th August when at 5 am we were woken up by some men of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry who said that we were in their billet. So out we got and let them in. Our Sergeant managed to find out where we had to go so at 8am we marched about 6 kilos to Cauchy a la Tour where we found the rest of our company who made us a well earned breakfast. The casualties sustained by our Battalion during the operations north of Bethume were; 4 officers killed or wounded, 99 other ranks killed or wounded and 2 missing. 3 men of my gun team out of 6 of us became casualties. By a strange coincidence their names all stared with the letter 'M'. They were Privates Miller, Macgur and Middleton. All of them were reinforcements to us.

On Friday 4th October we departed from Cauchy a la Tour and marched to Calonne Ricourt where we boarded some cattle trucks and travelled on through the night. The following morning at 2 am we detrucked at Lea Herliere Station Saulty and marched 6 kilos to Humbercamp where we rested in some huts that were built between the rows of fruit trees.

Author Holloway, George
Title Diary of George Holloway describing an operation north of Bethune (2)
Item Date August - October 1918
Creation place France
Copyright The Great War Archive, University of Oxford / Primary Contributor
Digital repository The Great War Archive, University of Oxford
Reference URL http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa/document/9248/5903