Extract from the diary of LCpl Walter Williamson, 6th Bn, 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment
When the Orderly Sergt. Came round during the day, reckoning how many men he could muster for duty, we did not need to guess twice that the R.E. wanted some work doing. We started off at 8-0pm. with the night as black as the proverbial bag. Timber carrying we heard it was to be. We slopped our way along the communications trench for some distance and then climbed out onto a road which seemed to be well over ankle deep where it was in good repair, and any unknown depth where it was not. Coming to some ruins which seemed to be all that was left of Zillebeke Village, a stack of timber loomed up out of the darkness. We lined up in single file. Pat being in front of me, and as each man came alongside the stack, someone on top slid a heavy plank down to him, which he shouldered and joined up a few yards down the road, to those who had already been served. The weight of the plank in falling, buried its end well in the mud, and it took of my best to wiggle it out of its mud socket and get it on to the shoulder that was not already engaged with my rifle. Judging from its weight, I reckoned my limit, about a hundred yards. As soon as we were all loaded, the R.E. guide started off, and I felt straight away that I would like to change shoulders with my load, but too late, we were off, and I must keep Pat in sight (visible 5 yards in front) otherwise he might have been a thousand miles away, and I would be left like a lost soul ploughing my way through a “Slough of Despond” and misleading all the poor souls behind me.
We made semicircles round water-logged shell holes, did wonderful balancing feats on muddy planks over old disused trenches, in an endeavour to keep pace with that long legged R.E guide, whose load consisted of an overcoat and a gas mask, whilst we were plank ridden in full “Fighting Order” I felt at last that my very soul’s salvation depended on having my plank on the other shoulder. I stopped short to slide it off my shoulder, but instead of it standing on its end whilst I got my other shoulder to it, the perverse thing slid into a shell hole and took me along with it.
One is at a loss for words at such a moment, which fact perhaps accounted for Pat hearing nothing of my misfortune, and disappearing into the darkness. The man next behind me, after sympathetic (?) reference to my disappearance, made haste to get within sight of Pat. I managed to scramble out, shoulder my burden again, and join on the end of the party. Bringing up the rear was a good friend in the shape of Jack Issacs, Corporal of the Lewis Gunners, my instructor in that department, before I deserted it for the Signals. Like the good soul he was, he took over my burden for a short spell in exchange for his rifle. After a good breather, I had taken my timber again and we were all making a bit better progress over a bit better ground when a machine gun rapped out right across us.
Some dropped flat, perhaps to keep their burdens from harm, while others played bo-peep behind theirs. It only lasted a few seconds, and though that Boche machine gunner had been lucky to find such a good target by chance in the dark, that was as far as his luck went, for we had not a single casualty. We got along appreciably quicker with our burdens after that. Barring an occasional further rattle of machine gun fire, which was not again in our direction, things were very quiet, the artillery seeming strangely quiet.
We dropped into a trench soon afterwards, and after negotiating a few awkward corners, we reached our destination at the head of a big sap. Here we dumped the timber, while an R.E made an effort to count the planks to see if they had all turned up, while our N.C.O. was concerned to know if all his men had also turned up. I found Pat here and his expressed opinions would have found some difficulty in getting into the Church Monthly, or whatever Sunday reading he takes in. We were not overjoyed to find out then, that we had two more loads to bring up before we had finished for the night. On the second journey, I managed to get hold of a piece of more more manageable weight and dimensions, and had quite a decent journey. Halfway on the journey with the third load the evenings work came to a sudden and unexpected finish. All in a moment the quietness was torn to shreds with a howl of shells with an accompaniment of machine gun and rifle fire. Infantry training rules for taking the prone position quickly, were beaten to a standstill. I found myself lying full length in a ditch with my head well entrenched behind Pat’s feet. “What’s Up” I enquired of Pat’s feet.
“Not been out in a strafe before, have you? we were “doing this while you were holding ’em back at “‘Poperinghe” came the cutting reply, so for a while 1 lay and “enjoyed” the earthquakes, mud volcanoes, and firework display, and tried to avoid making any further silly enquiries. Then a big shell seemed to drop just on the other side of the hedge, and the world’s end seemed to have arrived in a lump.
Someone seemed to be making a sudden rush and then a queer sound seemed to come from Pat. I was just putting my head up to see if he was hit, when a horrible crushing weight hit my helmet, and my face sank in the mud. The weight lifted as suddenly as it had fallen. When I could speak, I ventured an enquiry again, but found him this time only anxious to give a lucid and forceful explanation of this latest surprise. It appeared that a man lying in the ditch along in front of Pat, had been suddenly seized with a keen desire for a better hole, and had rushed along the ditch and done his best to tread us in, on his flight.
It was evident by now that a raid was in progress on the Black Watch, and the Herts battalions who were in the line in front of us, and what we were catching, was the usual barrage but behind the line to keep reinforcements from getting up.
After a time one seemed to lose interest in the flying shrapnel, nosecaps and general ironmongery, and prayed for the awful noise to cease. A mouthful of fresh air too, would be a treat in place of lyddite fumes. We seemed to have settled there for “duration”, when Pat suddenly sat up, and suggested as things were quiet now, we might move. “Quiet?” I yelled, for the din was awful.
“There is nothing coming over now, that now is our guns” he assured me. This put a more cheerful aspect on things, and we sat up and listened to our shells going over, and no reply coming back. Fritz, whatever had been the result of his raid, was getting it hot now. (we heard later that he got it hot altogether, and never reached our trenches, and the bigger part of the raiders never reached their own trenches again) Our party (without its timber) was collected, and our only casualty appeared to be a man who had knocked his eye badly on a tree stump in getting down.