menin road

 
 

1917

I can recall feeling a bit apprehensive while travelling in the RFC tender on my way to the line.  I really didn’t know what to expect, but things were going to be worse than anything I could  imagine.  We stopped at a big notice at the roadside which said “Gas masks at the alert beyond this point”.  So we did what was necessary and moved on.  Very soon now we were in a lunar landscape. As far as the eye could see the earth was pock-marked with shell holes, and all were full of stinking stagnant water.  Where once had been woods or clumps of trees only charred stumps were to be seen.  Not a building could be seen anywhere, all had been destroyed.  We were now well amongst the artillery, each gun hidden away in a cover of wire netting camouflage.  How anyone ever found their way to any particular point always amazed me out here,  I would have been completely lost.  The only things left and maintained were the roads and the duckboard tracks across the scarred open ground.
  By the side of the duckboard track would be a notice perhaps “To Polygon Wood”.  Where the heck is the wood, it’s gone, how do you know when you get there?  Whatever the difficulties the R.F.C driver found 247 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery without trouble.  No doubt he had been there before.  I reported to the Battery Commander and then met the RFC operator who was already there.  I was a replacement for a casualty.  Robby, whose home was at Plumstead, was a nice lad and he and I got on well.  Together we shared quite a few terrifying experiences.


The battery was a Yorkshire one having been formed in the Barnsley area, and the dialect was pretty strong.  The only “foreigners” among them, some  from London and elsewhere, were replacements. One of the first things to strike me was that they all looked so unkempt and dirty.  I was inclined to write them off as a rough old lot of Yorkshire miners.  There wasn’t a miner amongst them.  There were at least six schoolmasters, and many of the others held good jobs in civil life, which became obvious when they talked.  Soon I would be as dirty and unkempt as the rest of them. The term “dirty” also covers infestation with lice.


We were at a place where there once was a village called Zillibeke. We occupied what was once a farmhouse, and the cellar, which was all that was left, was our sleeping quarters.   Down here I felt wonderfully safe but I was in a fool’s paradise as I would learn in due time.  Some time after dark our artillery opened up a terrific bombardment.  I crept out of the cellar to have a look.  As far as could seen the night sky was lit with the flashes of the guns.  There must have been thousands in action, and the flashing so continuous that I could have read a newspaper where I stood.  I was truly thankful that it was our guns but must admit I was not without compassion for those on the receiving end.  I was glad to crawl back into the cellar where I felt a bit more secure. 


After and hour or two, things quietened down and the gunners came back, and we tried to get some sleep.  The cellar was too crowded, it was impossible to lie down, so one sat on the floor and either leaned against the wall, or used somebody else as a support.  It was impossible to undress or to take off my boots, in fact it was to be a very long time before I could again undress and go to bed in a civilised manner.  Morning came and with it the guns started all over again, and the the infantry went over the top.  I think they pushed the Germans back about a thousand yards but lost it again later in the day.


I was more concerned about myself than what was going on around me. After only one night I was infested.  It was common knowledge, even at home, that troops in the line were lousy, and I knew that I would be no exception. But I was clean. Right up to the day before, I had been where there were ample facilities for keeping my body clean, and had done so. I really felt dreadful about this. There were no insecticides in those days and although chemists sold pomades and powders, these were quite useless.  My mother sent some out when she knew what had happened to me, but it was money wasted.  Everyone was alike, so you learned to accept the inevitable.


During that day there was much artillery activity and we were getting some back from the Germans.  Nothing close, but at this early stage I was ducking at everything and felt a bit of a ninny when everyone was ignoring it. In time I learned to judge from the sound of the shell as it came over whether it was likely to explode far away, or not so far. The truth is, of course, the shell that is dangerously close cannot be heard coming at all.  Their speed of travel is faster than that of sound, so if you hear one coming it has already passed you. Like the jet planes  of today which are miles beyond the point where the sound is coming from.  Several times I was on the receiving end of shells I didn’t hear coming, but I think I had a Guardian Angel.  I will tell you about those when I get to that part of my story.


Two of our guns had moved forward and taken up new positions,
and during the afternoon  Robby and I were told to pack up our gear and get it onto the road, where a lorry would pick us up and take us to the new position.  We did this and waited by the roadside until it was nearly dark, but no lorry arrived.  Incidentally, the Australians and New Zealanders were in the front line, and we met up with some Australians also waiting for transport and we had quite a long chin wag.  The upshot was that we had to go forward under our own steam.  We borrowed (or stole) a two wheeled cart, obviously part of the farm equipment, loaded our gear on board, and with the assistance of a guide and two West Indians, who were attached to the battery, to help push and pull, we set off. 
It was really dark now. After about a mile or so, we turned on to another road which I soon learned was the Menin Road.  This road connected Ypres and the village of Menin, but Menin had
disappeared, not a brick to be seen.  Everyone who served in the Ypres sector has travelled this road, it was the main artery to the front line.  As we moved up along this road I was shocked to see that one half of the road was taken up by wounded men lying on stretchers in rows of four.  We went on and on, but still the stretchers and the wounded. About two miles on we reached our destination, but still we hadn’t left the stretchers behind.  I think all these men must have been wounded in the morning attack, and here was the night and they were still waiting to be moved to hospital.  I suppose they had all been treated at the Field Dressing Station and had injections.  Fortunately it was fine and things were fairly quiet.


We left the cart at the side of the road and moved our gear across to the dugout used as the Command Post.  We (Robby and I) had nowhere to sleep, so they let us stay in the Post for the night.  It was overcrowded and noisy because there was a telephone switchboard there, and runners (messengers) were coming and going all the time.  There was no room to lie down, so we sat on the floor with our backs to the earth walls and our knees under our chins. There was little sleep to be had.  In the morning we rigged up our station and as there were no empty
dugouts around at that time, we started digging our own. 


One of us had to be on Wireless Watch all the time and we had to relieve each other for meals, so we only made very slow progress.  By nightfall we had to decide how and where we were going to sleep.  We decided to use our little hole and with the aid of a sheet of corrugated iron we made a bit of shelter.  We still couldn’t lie at full stretch so, like the night before, we sat on our bottoms with our backs to bare earth and tried to sleep  It was very cold and I had several attacks of cramp.  It was a relief when daylight came and I could move around and get warm.  By the end of the second day we still had made no progress with our dugout.  I think we may have been fully occupied with Wireless duties or something. So, where to sleep?  I said quite firmly I wasn’t going to spend another night like the previous one, so we looked around for shelter. 


We found a wood lined tunnel under the road.  It had been part of the trench system earlier on and with the road above us we deemed it to be fairly safe.  The roof was not very high and it was necessary to crouch to go in.  One or two strangers were already staking their claim, but there was room for more.  We went back and piled our kit in the corner of our hole, laid the corrugated iron over it and returned to the tunnel. It was soon apparent that we wouldn’t get much sleep, traffic was building up on the road above our heads, presumably supplies of ammunition were being brought up for another assault.  It was soon clear that the Germans were aware of what was going on because they opened up a bombardment on the road.  They hit a dump of boxes of cordite just above the tunnel entrance, and this ran down into the tunnel like liquid fire. We did our best to stamp out the fire in case the the wood-lining caught fire, but the fumes were so bad it nearly drove us out in to the open. Then a munition lorry passing overhead was hit and caught fire, and in no time the shells that it was carrying started exploding.  In minutes a shell hit and blew in one entrance of the tunnel. I was sitting on the floor nearest to that end, and the blast lifted me up and my head hit the roof.  The poor chap next to me had his glasses blown off his face and although we tried to find them, we were unsuccessful.  He was a stranger so I never got to know how on earth he managed afterwards. 


By now we were really in trouble, shells were falling thick and heavy and we were afraid our only escape from the tunnel would be blown in and we would be trapped.  In ones and twos the others made a run for it, and Robby and I decided to get out too.  The open end of the tunnel was at the wrong side of the road for us, but we decided to take our chance and cross.  As soon as it seemed reasonably safe, we made our run, dodging behind anything that would give us shelter, then across.  As I ran I looked up the road, and there were lorries all the way, and nearly all on fire. Roadside dumps were also on fire, but this was no time to rubberneck. We made it and went for a dugout where some of our gunners were in residence.  It was already too full, but they squeezed up some more and we stayed the night. Can you imagine the smell of a hole in the ground with no ventilation and about twenty unwashed bodies in it?  One more night of fitful dozing sitting on my rump.  I began to wonder whether I would ever get any sleep again and just for how long I could go on without it. 


In the morning we returned to our hole, which was only about fifty yards from the road, and found it was no longer there.  A shell had dropped almost on it, and the sheet of corrugated iron buckled and torn, was yards away, and bits and pieces of our belongings scattered all over the the place.  We salvaged what we could find, but my belt on which was my revolver and ammunition had completely disappeared.  I found it about three weeks later, buried under several inches of earth.  Although we had a bad time in the tunnel, we would probably have been killed had we stayed in our hole.  My Guardian Angel must have influenced my actions overnight.


We had to start digging again in a fresh spot.  We dug until I partly uncovered a rubber boot, Wellington type.  Very few of our people had wellingtons, although they would have been a blessing, so it was probably German.  I tugged at the boot to get it out of the way and then realised from the feel of it there was a leg inside, so we had to fill in again.  This was about the last straw, so for a time we regularly spent our nights with the gunners.


During this time I had my first experience of poison gas. Several nights the Germans sent over gas shells.  It was always possible to pick these out because inside the shell the gas was in liquid form, and as the shell spun its way over, it was possible to hear the
wobble-wobble sound the liquid made.  On impact there was only a slight explosion, just enough to crack open the shell, then the liquid vaporized, and being heavier than air it found its way into the dugouts and shell holes. So we spent many uncomfortable hours in our gas-masks. At this stage of gas warfare, although the masks were effective enough, we had to grip on a rubber mouthpiece  with our teeth, and all breathing was done via the throat. In no time the mouth and throat were as dry as tinder, and it needed a lot of willpower to stick it out.  After a while we would take a slight sniff of air outside the mask until we deemed it safe to relax. 


The smell was always there, with others, because the gas laying in the shell holes would be spread around by the breeze, but not concentrated enough to be dangerous. There was always the smell of cordite from the gunfire, the smell of exploding shells,  and worst of all the smell of decaying horses, hundreds of which lay around, particularly on the roadside. It was nobody’s job to bury anything. How I hated the battlefield smell.


One night in the pitch blackness, I helped to carry a dead man off the road.  I will not describe his condition, but when I saw him in the light of a torch, my legs nearly gave way.  We got him on to a stretcher and brought him off the road and covered him with a sheet of canvas.  A few weeks later I passed that way and he was still there.  There was also the episode of the dead horse which laid to the windward of us.  It had been there for a long time but gradually the smell became unbearable.  We got some spades and rope, and dragged it into a large shell hole nearby and threw some earth over it.  A few days later a shell burst nearby, and it was all exposed again.


A battery alongside us pulled out and among the dugouts vacated was one just big enough for two, so Robby and I took it over.  We had a home at last. It was reasonably close to our Battery Command Post, so we were able to do our job quite satisfactorily.  The dugout was long enough for us to lie full length, so in theory it should have been easier to sleep. The weather was dreadful, constant rain, and by now the nights were getting cold.  Everywhere was a quagmire and my feet and legs were always wet.  Most nights I slept, or tried to, in wet muddy boots, it seldom seemed safe to take them off.  Every few days there was an attack on the Passchendaele Ridge with a pounding by the artillery to back it up, and always the Germans hit back pretty hard. Then as a variation the Germans would attack and we would be on the receiving end of their preliminary bombardment. On the days when we attacked, there would be streams of German prisoners passing by on the road, most of them looking in pretty poor shape.  Some of the wounded would be helped along by their mates, but none of them were under guard.  I can only imagine somewhere along the road, someone would collect them up and get them away to the cages.  Well, at least the war was over for them.


I think our little dugout had a jinx on it.  I suppose by the law of averages, every dugout was due for a direct hit per X thousand shells sent over.  One night came one that I didn’t hear until it struck the ground just at the side of the dugout.  It must have been a heavy shell, because the ground rocked and I felt wave after wave through the ground, something like the tremors from an earthquake. I was all tensed up and cold, yet sweating, and I couldn’t understand why I had time to think of things before the explosion. Then it occurred to me that it might be a delayed action fuse and that the explosion would still come.  It seemed minutes before I felt that  danger was past and I could relax.  I knew that Robby must be going through the same emotions as myself and I asked him if he was alright. He replied that he was, but commented “that was a near thing”.  On occasions shells sometimes failed to explode, because of the very soft state of the ground. It could have been this, or a faulty fuse, but whichever it was without doubt it saved us. Some time afterwards, late in the afternoon I was alone in the dugout, I believe Robby must have gone to collect our tea, when another unheard one caught up with me,  It exploded about a yard behind the dugout. It really made my ears sing and  I felt as if someone had hit my head with a sledgehammer.  It was so close that everyone thought I had bought it, and when I got to the dugout entrance, gunners were running towards the dugout from all directions.  I called out “Thank you, I’m alright”, but  it was a nice feeling to think that I wouldn’t have been without help, had I needed it.


Two near misses on this little dugout.  I didn’t believe in pushing my luck too far, so we watched for an opportunity to move out. It came when one of our officers went sick.  It was quite a well constructed  little affair, deeper than our own, which led to flooding, but we had a hand pump, and even in the wee small hours we often had to pump.  To complete the story of our first little dugout it did receive a direct hit a week or so later, and was no more.  As I have said, it doesn’t do to push your luck too far.


Apart from the very near misses, any shell bursting up to say 200 yards away was potentially dangerous, more especially if you were in the open.  The shells broke up into splinters and these travelled through the air at terrific speed. The pieces broke off in such a way that the edges, though jagged, were very sharp. Clothing was no protection against this. 


Our wireless aerial was suspended from a thirty foot hollow steel mast, made up of six five-foot sections.  This mast was from top to bottom just a series of jagged holes, where shell splinters had cut through.  It was strange how, when the wind blew, it produced the most weird music ever heard anywhere.  In the night hours, as I laid listening to the uncanny music, I remarked to Robby that the devil was on the dugout roof playing his tin whistle.  I am sure he lived in those parts, and I doubt if he was capable of thinking up anything worse than mankind inflicted upon itself. 


I mentioned earlier how on my first night in the line I became contaminated with lice.  As time went on I got, we all got, progressively worse, and there was nothing we could do about it.  It was just one more cross to bear. Despite the fact that we were half submerged in water there was none to be had for drinking or washing.  All clean water had to be transported and with thousands of men to provide for there was little more than enough for cooking and supplying each man with one mug of tea for breakfast and one at tea time.  On occasions I have felt so thirsty I could have gone dotty.


I ought to introduce you to the “cookhouse”. This was a narrow trench, in the open.  Somehow the cook managed to keep the wood burning under the pots until the meal was ready.  How he managed it on pouring wet days, of which there were many, I do not know. Our meals ad infinitum were:-


Breakfast: Porridge, fried bacon and bread.


Dinner:     Stew of meat and dried vegetables and boiled rice.


Tea:          Bread, margarine and jam.


We received a nightly tot of rum, and a weekly ration of either 50 cigarettes or one ounce of tobacco.


It was the water problem that first brought home to me the disadvantages of being attached to some other unit, or better described as “not belonging”.  The gunners were divided into two halves. One half manned the guns for two days and nights, while the other half relaxed back at Ypres where they were out of range of the German guns, and where there was a reasonable supply of water. This meant they only missed a wash about one day in four.  There was no rest for Robby and I, we just went on and on. I must say in all fairness that the cook,  realising our predicament, managed most days to spare us a little water in the bottom of a canvas bucket which Robby and I had to share.  We changed around on alternate days for first go. 


Another problem which showed up concerned clothing.  While trying to dodge the effects of a bursting shell I tore the seat of my breeches on a nail.  It was such a tear that without patching material I couldn’t do anything with it. From then on I was never parted from my great coat.  I sent a request to the Squadron for a new pair explaining what happened, and lots of reminders, but nothing was done about it.


Then something happened which in the long run did Robby and I a good turn.  It was one of those bad days, when everything was banging away.  Our infantry  had gone over the top early on and by now hundreds of German prisoners were coming down the road.  The Battery Commander sent one of the junior officers along to our dugout to say that one of us, he didn’t mind which,  had to go at once to assist on number three gun.  This was a nice kettle of fish!  He had no authority to take us off our proper job, but we dare not refuse to obey an order which in effect was given during a battle.  We decided to comply and complain afterwards.  I went, and on the whole, enjoyed the experience.  I was helping to load the shells into the gun.  It was heavy work, but spending so much time cooped up in the dugout, I needed the exercise.  The Germans were hitting back but they didn’t worry me quite so
much as an ancient gunner, sitting on his haunches just behind me.  His job was to fuse the shells, making them ready for firing.  He had a drooping walrus moustache and was an inveterate cigarette smoker.  He attached the cigarette to his bottom lip, and there it dangled and burned away.  He couldn’t hold it in his lips straight for fear of sending his ‘tache” up in smoke and flames.  He held the shell between his knees, removed an iron screw from the nose, and screwed in a fuse.  Between removing the screw and putting in the fuse, the explosive material in the shell was open to the world. What bothered me was that his dangling cigarette with a length of ash attached was just above the opening. I thought, if he drops that hot ash into the hole we’ll all go up.  We survived but the poor old boy was killed later in Italy. But not by accident, I hasten to add.


Later when things had quietened down, I went back to my own job and Robby and I concocted a report to Squadron on what had happened.  A few days later an R.F.C officer paid us a visit and talked over the situation.  He wanted to know what the Major was like and we told him he had a bad reputation with his gunners, but that apart from this complaint he had not interfered with us in any way.  The R.F.C officer said he was quite willing to talk this over with the Major, but it was possible it would upset him, and he might take it out on us in other ways afterwards. We said that we wanted it dealt with as a matter of principle and we were prepared to take what might come in the future.  He left us and went along to see the Major but we had no idea what was said.


A day or two later I was outside the dugout when the major spotted me and called me over.  Now for it, I thought!  But apparently the little episode set him thinking about us, and he realised that unlike his gunners, we were not getting any rest.  He said if we would like to work a two day on and two day off system, he was quite willing and would, when required, see that we had the services of a gunner to help out with ground signals etc.  It would mean a very long watch each day for the one on duty, but as the daylight hours were now very much shorter, we felt the extra effort would be worth while.  So it was arranged and I went first. I joined the gunners going off and we loaded onto a lorry and went down the Menin Road to Ypres.  This was my first sight of this ravaged city.  Hardly anything was left standing and what was once a lovely Cloth Hall was just a gaunt
skeleton.  Yet all these heaps of rubble were swarming with troops who were comparatively comfortable living in the cellars. We carried on to the far side of Ypres, and in a half destroyed house was our rest billet.  There was no roof and only the lower parts of the walls were left standing, but sheets of corrugated iron made it fairly rainproof. The first thing was a good wash, first for weeks, and after dinner a trip into Poperinghe, the nearest town still occupied by Belgian people. 


To get anywhere you literally had to help yourself to transport.  No army lorry ever stopped to pick up or put down. You simply had to grab it while was passing and climb over the tailboard and do the reverse when you wanted to get off.  It was a risky business, but the risk seemed comparatively mild compared with those faced in the line.  Not all lorries went to Poperinghe, some took a fork in the direction of Dickebusch, in which case you made a hurried exit and changed onto another lorry going in the right direction.


Poperinghe was a small but pleasant town and it seemed a marvellous change to mix with ordinary people going about their daily business.  One of the first things was to have a drink of Belgian coffee,
the real stuff, and  I developed quite a liking for it.  We also went into a quiet residential road where a house, known as Talbot House, was open to the troops to spend a quiet hour or so either reading or writing letters, not forgetting the inevitable cuppa.  It was quite an experience to use a chair and table once again. Talbot House became known to the troops as T.H. or in signallers parlance Toc H. I suppose then, nobody realised that Toc H would live on after the war and spread as a movement all over the world. It was run by Tubby Clayton, although I never met him. In fact in all the twenty months I spent overseas including five in hospital I never once came into contact with an English Padre.


We had to be back in Ypres by teatime otherwise we missed a meal and would have gone hungry until next morning.  I looked forward to my first night of quiet, safe sleep, but what a hope.  Most of the night a German bomber just stooged around over the city dropping a bomb just now and again.  This happened every night while the weather was suitable and the object of the thing was just to stop us getting any sleep, whether in line, or out of it.  I preferred shells to bombs and wondered whether this so called rest period was worth the effort.  It involved traveling the Menin Road in each direction and that was never pleasant.  On one occasion we jumped from the lorry and scattered when shelling was pretty heavy, and had to foot slog the rest of the journey, but well away from that dreadful road.


Although my enthusiasm for the rest period had slumped, I still carried on with it,  and on each occasion visited Poperinghe.  By now it must have been very late October of early November and yet strangely I had not thought  about what conditions would be like in winter. I suppose to cope with each day as it came was enough to get on with. Although so late, and conditions so bad, the High Command was still persevering in its attempt to take the Passchendaele Ridge before everything bogged down.  But in spite of all the loss of life it never succeeded and the Germans hit back just as hard as we hit them.


There is one other memory of Passchendaele that I would like to set down. One morning about midday the Germans opened up with a vicious bombardment, all concentrated on the British artillery positions on the other side of the road.  I stood there as a spectator watching the bombardment and wondering how anybody could live through it.  Ammunition and dumps of cordite were blowing up and I saw one big eight inch howitzer, probably weighing fifteen to twenty tons, turned over on its back with wheels in the air like any toy.  I expected that at any minute the bombardment would switch to our side of the road, but it didn’t.  I don’t know what the casualties were, but the shells were so concentrated there must have been a good many. 


About now there were rumours that the 25th Brigade of Artillery, of which we were a part, were to pull out and go to Italy where the Italian army was in a bad way.  None of us really believed it, although we hoped it was true.  It was soon confirmed and what a feeling of relief I had.  I didn’t know what the future might hold but anyway it surely couldn’t be worse than this, and at least there would be a week or two spent traveling.  So one afternoon a few days later everyone was on site and we packed up. Robby and I got all our gear packed and then we gave a hand on the ropes, manhandling the guns onto the road, and there limber each one to a four wheel drive lorry.  It was hard but exciting work.  Everything was loaded including ourselves and we set off down the Menin Road once more, quite a convoy.  I wondered if we would draw the German gunfire but perhaps he was glad to see us go, for we went quite unmolested.  So it was good-bye to Ypres  and the Menin Road and no regrets on parting.


The total cost (Passchendaele) was appalling and at first sight criminally expensive in terms of results, a quarter of a million casualties for an average gain of four miles and an incalculable burden of physical and mental suffering which has never been forgotten.  Passchendaele, above all the last phase, is still a synonym for the ultimate horror, and unnecessary horror at that.