Extract from the diary of LCpl Walter Williamson, 6th Bn, 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment
About 1-0 am, we began to miss our overcoats, and feel the damp night air, and thoughts turned towards rum, how, when, and where, and in what quantity it would be served out.
A few odd shells had fallen about, but had not done much damage, but we heard afterwards that the trench behind us had received a good thumping, and one officer was wounded and off on his way to “Blighty” long before zero. We hoped fervently that the cookhouse had escaped injury, as we expected something from there before zero, which was to be at 3-50 am.
Shortly afterwards, slabs of cold ham were brought from the trench for breakfast and then we learned with consternation, that rum and coffee had been served out some time previously. Our shell hole had been missed in the darkness, or we should have applied for it, at the huge shell hole where most of No. 4 platoon were domiciled. I gathered our three mess tins together, and clambered out of the shell hole, with the intention of slipping to the cookhouse in the trench to see whether I could get any there, but before I reached the trench, I stumbled across a container which looked promising. These containers were a thermos arrangement to hold a couple of gallons, and were fitted to be carried on the back for trench work, and crossing rough country during operations. I dragged the thing along to our shell hole, and Hommer and Duncan carefully lowered it in. On making investigations we found the contents still hot, and sufficient of it, to make us forgive the man who had overlooked us.
As 3-50 a.m. drew nearer, watches were peered at every odd minute. Some considerable time would elapse before we moved forward. The barrage was to open at 3-50 am. to pummel the first line of defence, and neutralize the enemy’s batteries.
On the frontage apportioned to our division, the 116th Brigade were to take the German first defence line. The 117th Brigade were to follow the barrage forward and take the second line of defence. After further artillery preparation, our Brigade (the 118th) was to go forward, through the 116th and 117th and take the 3rd and last objective for the day. This included the village of St. Julien, and then on to what was thought to be his last organised trench defence, along the Zonnebeke-Poelcapelle Road.
After capturing this line, we were to consolidate the position, and hold it until dawn of the following day, when fresh divisions would continue the attack. About this time, a new type of shell was in use. It was a shrapnel shell whose burst all went forward, and troops could be practically underneath the bursting shells with comparative safety.
For our attack on the 3r objective, and the subsequent digging in, we were promised such a barrage of these shells, as would eliminate all danger of counter attack, until we were fairly consolidated in our new line.
On the dot of 3-50 as per programme, we heard the boom of one big gun, and immediately the barrage opened. We sprang out of our shell holes to watch the wonderful sight. Behind us, was one long line of rapid flashes, and looking forward, the German line, as far as the eye could reach, was an inferno of bursting shells of all kinds – H.E, Shrapnel, Gas, and climbing up through it all, and soaring high above the smoke, the enemy’s “S.O.S.” lights could be seen. Our Brigadier had spoken truly. It was a stupendous barrage. The number of guns in action was sufficient to keep the firing like the continuous roll of drums. The sound was beyond description. One seemed to have the impression that nothing existed in the world but one great howling noise, a noise that hammered itself against one’s flesh, almost numbing the senses.
The first signs of dawn were just appearing, though it’was still dark, and the men were walking about now in the open, seemingly convinced that the enemy artillery had been annihilated at the opening of the barrage. One could be forgiven for having this feeling, as no reply to speak of, came back, just a few straggling shells that no one seemed to bother about.
The only casualty that we noticed at this period, was a young officer who went off raving with shell shock. This is exactly what we expected would happen to him. He had not been with us long, having previously been in the Flying Corps. He had suffered the misfortune to be brought down by enemy anti-aircraft guns and had a bad smash. His nerves were all shattered, and some all-wise authority had either transferred him, or allowed him to be transferred, to the Infantry, evidently thinking that the quiet life with them would effect a cure.
Soon we could see that the barrage had moved forward, and we guessed that the 116th had now gone forward, and taken over what remained of the Caliban Line. Lt. Coupe then collected our company together, and we moved off in Artillery Formation, each platoon of the company moving forward as the four corners of a square, while company headquarters followed to the rear of the square. Companies “B” and “D” were leading with “A” and “C” companies in their rear, to close up together for the final attack beyond St. Julien. We moved slowly forward, and passing over some old front line, we found it very heavy going. The ground had been shell so furiously that there did not seem an inch that was not newly turned. What part of it that was not new shell holes, was loose soil thrown up by the bursts of H.E. and when we were not stumbling into shell holes, we were sinking halfway to our knee in newly turned soft earth. The first enemy trench that we crossed, was hardly recognisable as a trench, its dugouts, and… left of its barbed wire defence. By this time the enemy had put down a heavy barrage of “H.E.” vile big murderous stuff it was, each shell screaming to make volcanic eruptions of black earth, fifty feet into the air. Evidently he had some guns left. This barrage was falling behind us, but creeping forward all the time, and we wondered which side of it Batt. Hd. Qrs. had managed to get, or whether they were getting the full benefit of it. We heard later that they were actually advancing under it, by diving from shell hole to shell hole, while endeavouring to keep touch with the companies, the barrage advancing with them and keeping the companies moving in front of it. This was responsible for the companies getting along too quickly, and in advance of the timetable. After passing “Caliban” line and finding ourselves getting into close touch with the front companies, we halted for a little while in shell holes. Our Sgt. Major took his rest in a shell hole with “Hommer” and myself. He remarked that it was “devilish hot” as he took a pull at his water bottle. He passed it along to us with an invitation to take a drink, and after taking the drink we wondered whether he was referring to the weather, or the contents of his bottle when he said it was “devilish hot”.
Starting off again, we reached the “Canopus” lines with surprisingly few casualties, considering the fact that the barrage had now caught us up, and machine gun fire was catching us from quarters that were unexpected. We expected to find the 117th Brigade holding this line, but were amazed to find troops of the 55th Division in possession. This Division was supposed to be on the right of our divisional front. Some confusion arose, and it was found that we had lost direction, and moved too far to our right. We got quickly on the move again, inclining to the left to get back to our correct front again.
This mishap soon cost us dearly. Isolated Machine Gun posts had been missed on the ground that we should have covered, and these were beating a devil’s tattoo in our rear. One or two tanks were now coming into action, and we hoped that they would quickly attend to them. Young Art. Wilkinson, a bomber who was on C.H.Qrs with us, and had only just arrived back from leave, sank silently with a bullet through his head, and a stretcher bearer who was seeing whether he was beyond aid, met a similar fate. The platoons too were thinning out sadly, and we were not yet in actual touch with our objective. Even now, however, big numbers of Germans were rushing down from their lines with their hands in the air, and many of them were deliberately shot down by their own people. They needed no directing, had thrown down their arms and equipment, and were quickly putting as much space as possible between themselves and there old friends. We did not need to bother with them, as they would be all collected up further back, that is, as many as managed to get clear. Just on our right with all speed, so spades and picks were pulled out, and no further incentive was needed to do some quick digging, and in a very short time, a trench of a sort was dug and manned. It as decided shortly after however, to try to move on again.
The Steenbeek itself did not present any difficulty as the enemy had left a few crossings, and also, as we found to our cost, he had them nicely ranged by his snipers and Machine Guns. Not much more than a platoon seemed to be left when we had crossed. Just on our left lay St Julien, or what was left of it. All we could see, seemed to be two or three gable ends of buildings left at the cross roads. The left half of the battalion found three German guns here, and they were marked with the battalion sign and left for collection. It was evident now, that the enemy had got practically all his artillery safely away, and he certainly had not moved it that morning. Another matter that made us anxious, was the absence of our own barrage, that we were promised on our objective, and of aeroplanes, while the enemy had a fair number of planes up, whose pressing attentions were anything but pleasant.
We could not get forward at all here, and were held down again with the barrage of shell and m.g. fire, and were compelled to get what shelter we could in the shell holes, while our officer and the Sgt. Major tried to get forward to see what had happened to the other companies. This was the last we saw of them, as they were both killed. Each occupied shell hole now seemed to be covered by either a M.G or snipers, and we could not locate them. We were left here with no orders, but it became so hot after a while, that we decided to try to get forward again. The first man to get up instantly fell back in the hole, shot through the neck and died before anything could be done for him.
It was a single shot, and a sniper who was with us, decided that he had got the direction of the shot, and peeped up to see whether he could spot the source of trouble. Before he could find what he wanted, his cheek was laid open with a bullet. While we were trying to devise ways and means of getting clear of this rifle spot, a stretcher bearer dashed across from another shell hole, to ask if we had any first aid bandages to spare, as his supply was used up. We yelled at him to get in, but we were too late, and he fell in a crumpled inert mass on top of us, having given his life in aiding his pals.
The only way we could think, of getting out of the hole with any hope of getting further, was to dig a trench out for a few yards, and make a dash one by one. We managed to get clear in this manner, but were of course compelled to leave the two bodies behind, with a hope that searchers later would come across them. We fell in with the front companies who had now been reduced to a few stragglers with no officers nor N.C.O. in charge. From them we could learn nothing of our Officer or the Sgt. Major. From the second objective, we had covered a distance of something like 2,000 yards over the open through a withering fire, and there seemed now to be nothing left. We were wondering what had become of Battn. Hd. Qrs. And how we might find them, when we were hailed from a shell hole. Advanced Battn. H. Qrs. Signals were actually in front of us, and we made a dash and dropped into a shell hole, where Pat, McKnight, Fernley and Timms had established themselves as a signal station, with no chance of being able to signal. Keeping them company were two badly wounded Germans, who were being patched up by Mac and Fernley. While we were here, a stretcher bearer fell into the hole with a message from one of the Company Captains, and as it was hopeless to try to pick up H.Q. by signal, Pat decided to make a dash for it and deliver the message, and he disappeared over the top of the shell hole, and we heard later that he was in such a state of exhaustion when he found the Adjt, that he was too weak to take his lips away from the Adjt’s waterbottle, which the Adjt. pushed at him for a refresher, and the bottle was only secured again after some trouble.
When it began to look as if there were no men of ours left in front, and no good could be done by still holding Advanced HQ in this spot, it was decided to evacuate it and get to B.H.Q somehow. Hommer and I left together, but having to make a sudden dive into a shell hole, before we had travelled far, I picked myself up at the bottom to find myself alone. I looked over the top but could see nothing of him, and hoped he had not come to grief. I shouted his name and was delighted to hear him reply from a neighbouring shell hole.
He said he was staying there for a bit, and nothing lost, I decided to rest also. When things seemed a little quieter, I left my hole to join him, but not a sign of him was to be found, but somehow, I did not feel anxious about him. I could now locate Battn. Hd. Qrs, by a little flag stuck on a mound and made for it with all speed. The Adjutant was here in charge of about twenty men, which thus seemed to be about all that was left of the Battalion. The Colonel had been wounded early on, and was compelled to go down to a dressing station to have his wounds attended to. Hommer was not to be found, but some men were understood to have missed H.Qrs, and were at “X” lines. Adv. H.Q joined us here, and a further straggler or two dropped in. St Julien was still in our rear, and we were set to work digging furiously, to make a strong point if possible, to hold in case of counter attack.
Our Artillery was disappointing us terribly, and we were getting no help from them now. There was no doubt on the other hand, that the enemy had his guns out of harm’s way before our barrage had opened, as he certainly could not have moved them through it, and no guns had been found on our front, with the exception of the three small guns found in St. Julien. Very few dead were seen in passing his first and second lines, and practically no prisoners were taken till they fled to us from their own third line. This pointed to the fact that his first two lines were but lightly held, and he had massed his defence at the third line with his full artillery at his back. We could only hope that there would be no counter attack before morning, when we expected the fresh divisions would move forward again.
A couple of tanks now appeared on the scene and ambled about with the idea of being of some assistance. As a matter of fact, they turned out a terrible nuisance. First, one loomed over the back of our “strong-point?” and we just managed to scramble out, before it toppled nose downwards into the great hole, with its caterpillar tracks churning up the ground, and making a clank that nearly drowned the noise of bursting shells. It finished up by bursting flame and smoke out of every hole in it, as the crew dashed out. Our strong point had now gone to glory, and with a tank on fire, another standing by, and a little crowd of men in the open, the enemy was presented with a target that we could not expect him to ignore, and our little band was quickly further reduced. Close by however, we found a large concrete pill box with a small trench round it, and it was quickly decided that this would make a much better strong point. We found the place had two occupants. In the trench lay the body of a massive German N.C.O. he lay on his back with his arm upraised, still clasping in his had a “Potatoe Masher” bomb, in the act of throwing it. Whoever had met him, had acted quickly, and made no mistake about it, as he showed a revolver shot wound squarely between the eyes. Inside the pillbox itself was another German, badly wounded in both legs. He was only a youngster, and he was patched up as well as could be managed and was very grateful and seemed quite cheered up by the prospect of getting to our “Blighty”. In the trench we found a sample or two of German rations. The speciality seemed to be Linseed Cake. This awful stuff did not seem to compare favourably with the oil cake that cattle are fed on at home.
It was now getting well on in the afternoon, and had commenced to rain heavily. The sides of the trench having been badly smashed, the rain commenced to dissolve the sides slowly but surely, and little rivers of mud began to trickle in, and in a short time we were in a quagmire halfway to our knees. We hung on here long after darkness had fallen, when an order was given to fall back to a trench some distance behind, where a few more of the battalion had collected. It was a black night and raining now in torrents. The clayey soil torn by the shells, and now sodden by the rain, had turned to a succession of great pools of mud. We were thoroughly tired out as we stumbled out of the trench, and round the back of the pill-box, and had but a faint idea where this trench was. We could not keep in touch with one another, owing to the darkness and the state of the ground, and to add to the unpleasantness, the shelling was still being kept up. As if this was not sufficient, machine gun and rifle fire was coming from the direction in which we were making, and we fervently hoped, that when we were spotted, we might have luck enough not to be mistaken for Germans.
My legs were by now getting too tired to pull themselves out of the mud, but I managed to stumble along sufficiently to keep a dark figure or two in sight, until I was unfortunate enough to make acquaintance with some barbed wire, and before I could extricate myself, I had completely lost sight of them. Stumbling on again desperately, to catch up, I finally and hopelessly came to grief in a huge wet shell hole. I managed to scramble out, but seemed to have lost all idea of which direction to proceed in. How long I slithered about, sat down in the mud, and stumbled on in the blackness I don’t know, but I began to feel that I would never get any where or see anyone till daylight came. At last however, I thought that I heard voices, and making towards them a huge form suddenly loomed in front of me, and growled “Who the ‘ell are you?” and I found myself looking down the barrel of a service revolver. I was quite delighted to see it however, and thought I had found our lads at last, but my luck was out again, and I found myself in the hands of the enemy instead of friends. It was no German however, but a Sgt. Major of a battalion of the Sussex Regt. There was one of those wonderfully unreasoning antipathies existing at this time between the Sussex and the Cheshires.
They called themselves the “Iron Regiment” and we thought them a “Tinpot” lot, to put it mildly, and felt that any affair that they took an active part in, was doomed to failure, if it was not for the other units engaged. Their opinion of the Cheshire’s I suppose only differed in detail, but not in substance. Here was I, a lonely “Cheshire” in the hands of the Amalekites so to speak. After finding out that! was “A Cheshire” he made more or less polite enquiry as to where I might think I was going. I explained that I was going to find the Cheshire H.Qrs. He differed from me, and I found he was quite right in saying that I was not, for I found myself unceremoniously bundled into a trench where the Sussex men were busy trying to dig a trench in liquid mud, with flat shovels. I was presented with a shovel, and told to “dig like ‘ell”, and the men alongside me were given instructions to see that my work with the spade came up to this high standard of efficiency.
“Digging” here seemed to consist of a gallant attempt to put mud back on the top quicker than it trickled in again, with odds 100 to 1 against the spades. As we tried to shovel the mud back to the parapet again, it simply tricked down the handles of the spade, inside our tunic sleeves, into the intimate recesses of our underclothing and as we were soaked to the skin long ago, it seemed to join in the stream that ran down our necks along our cold flesh to our boots, where it no doubt escaped by the lace holes back into the trench. We were expecting counter attacks in the darkness at any time, and great difficulty was experienced in keeping rifles in a fit state for immediate use. We tried laying them on our oilsheets on the parapet, but as the parapet dissolved, they had a trick of sliding down into the trench, and disappearing in the mud.
Our Artillery was still quiet, and it was only later that we heard, how, when they came to move forward, they found the ground and the roads so broken up by shell fire, that they experienced great difficulty in moving at all. Then the rain had commenced and turned everything into a huge quagmire. Innocent looking pools on the roads turned out to be huge shell holes, and many guns were put out of action for the day, by disappearing into some of these traps. Off the roads matters were worse, and mules and men were actually drowned in trying to get along tracks in the darkness.
The same conditions would however, make a counter attack in the darkness, on positions imperfectly known, a matter of some risk for the enemy, but we could hardly hope to pass the night without some effort being made by him, to recover at least some of his lost ground, before our positions were consolidated, and before he was attacked again at dawn, though we began to feel a little sceptical ourselves, about that programme, but still hoped for the best. Shelling was still persistent, but the state of the ground, and the enemy’s only vague idea of our positions, minimised the effect of his fire. As last orders were passed along to “Stand to”. Shovels were dropped and rifles taken up, and firing positions made, even the range was given out. Evidently the expected counter attack was at hand, and by the range given to us, he was to be allowed fairly close before we let fly. We peered into the blackness with straining eyes, and thumping hearts, and that tightening of skin across the temples, but could make nothing out, when suddenly, from close in our rear, the air was rent with the rip of 18 pounders, beating out a very devils tattoo. Such sweet music was never heard, and if our feet had not been so embedded in the mud, we could have danced with sheer delight. On and on they kept it up, and put such a barrage in front of us, that a counter attack through it would have stood no chance of reaching us, as a snowball would, of rolling in the front door of Hades in midsummer, and coming out at the back door.
These guns had been dismantled and carried up piecemeal by mules, and an almost endless chain of mules had been bringing ammunition up to them all through the darkness. As dawn broke, we stood down with all fear of counter attack dispelled for the time being.