Extract from the diary of LCpl Walter Williamson, 6th Bn, 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment
By dinner time everyone was completely fitted out. Overcoats and haversacks were discarded and handed into store. In addition to his full ammunition pouches, each man was served out with an extra bandolier, two bombs, and a spade. The spade was carried fixed down the back of the valise with the blade upwards, making a protection for the back of the neck. Three days rations were served out, some chocolate and cigarettes. To celebrate the occasion, a big lot of St Julien tobacco had been obtained. As signallers, Hommer and I carried in addition to full arms and equipment, signalling flags, a telephone, a coil of wire, a morse lamp and a signalling shutter.
A small nucleus of the battalion was made up and sent away from the line in charge of our company officer, and in charge of our Company in the attack fell to Lt. Coupe, who was well liked by the whole company.
After dinner, orders were given for the men to get down to sleep, as it was not expected that there would be much rest for a day or two. The camp became very quiet for an hour or two, but I do not think that there was much actual sleep. Old hands talked quietly of other big attacks that they had been through, and the others, found that orders to sleep were somewhat difficult to comply with.
We left camp at dusk, by platoons, proceeding by one of the new battle tracks that had recently been made, towards the Canal Bank.
Near Brielen we passed by some of the heavy guns, and their crews shouted “Good Luck” and intimated that we would have more than their moral support in the morning. A little further along, things began to get a little crowded. All tracks and roads seemed to be leading to the Canal Bank. Guns, Limbers, Transport and many different units seemed in danger of getting inextricably mixed. Reaching the road we knew so well, near the Red Heart Estaminet, we found it jammed from ditch to ditch, and to make matters more uncomfortable, the enemy artillery commenced to search the road.
We managed to get through to one of the approaches to the Canal, when suddenly, as if the enemy had waited until he knew that the Canal Bank was packed with troops, he put down a heavy barrage that seemed to include everything he had but boiling oil. There came Gas shells, H.E. Shells, Shrapnel, nicely mixed. The beauty of mixing them so, was, that it was extremely difficult to detect the gas amongst the noise and fumes of the H.E. and Shrapnel. There was no mistaking it now however. Our platoon was just then wedged by the side of a strong concrete dugout, which was manned as an aid post. We were sheltered from the one side, but felt convinced that no shells were wasting themselves on the other side. The barrage was playing havoc in less time than it takes to relate, and the aid post could not cope with the casualties close at hand, and many wounded could not get to the aid post owing to the congestion.
The night was dark enough in itself, but with gas helmets on, hardly room to move one’s arms, and the cries of the wounded heard through the shriek and bursting of shells, seemed to make the night a black one indeed. This too, seemed to breed a suspicion in our minds, that the morning’s attack was not going to be the big surprise to the enemy that some of us fondly imagined.
“Hommer” was by my side at the time, and while the gas was at its worst, I noticed that he seemed to be in difficulties. The face of his mask flapped about on his cheeks which pointed to the fact that he was not using the breathing apparatus properly, and was making a peculiar noise inside his helmet. I grabbed him by the arm and shouted through my helmet as could, to ask him what the matter was. I could get nothing from him but queer noises, and 1 was just going to make an effort to get him into the aid post, when he suddenly seemed to recover and inform me that he was quite alright, and had managed to get back his chewing gum which had slipped down the mouthpiece of his mask.
We eventually managed to extricate ourselves and made a dash for the wooden footbridge that crossed the Canal. This had already been badly smashed, and crossing it in the darkness with gas masks on, further casualties occurred. There was no hope, for anyone who fell into the canal, as, weighted with ammunition and equipment as we were, the unfortunate one would sink like a stone and nothing could be seen in the darkness.
Once across the bridge on the eastern bank of the Canal, we we in comparative safety, and no time was lost in getting along to our “X” lines. Dropping into our support trenches we had a short rest, and then climbed out in front, with orders to make ourselves as comfortable as possible in available shell holes, for a few hours. There was no shortage of shell holes, and we were not long in getting settled down and making necessary structural improvements. “Hommer” and I along with a runner named Duncan, had found quite a good hole, but Duncan was not quite satisfied with it, and proceeded to dig a hole in the side to put his head in. As he was a runner, we pointed out to him that it was his feet that he ought to care most about, but he was not open to be convinced. Silence fell upon us for a while, only broken by the rustle of paper as Hommer unfolded a fresh tablet of his beloved “Spearmint”. I accepted his kind invitation to join him in a chew, and we chewed away quietly till “Hommer” broke the peacefulness by asking Duncan, who was still digging, whether he thought he would reach St. Julien quicker that way, than over the top. This led to a lengthy argument which eventually ended in “Hommer” remarking that he had never heard of Birkenhead as a town, and was under the impression that it was a little back street in New Brighton, and Duncan expressing himself with emphasis that even if a place called Glossop had appeared on a map, it had been a woeful waste of ink.