In writing this, my object is to try and give some idea of my experiences in France and Belgium. Well, I land at Boulogne on February 2nd 1917. It was then bitter cold and snowing, and went on to St Martin’s Camp for the night and then my first real experience of hardship commenced.
It was, as I said, bitter cold, and we slept (or tried to sleep) in tents, and I am not likely to forget St Martin’s Camp in a hurry. Well, then I was sent to Etaples for some seven or eight days’ hard training. At this time I was with the Middlesex Regiment and, whilst at Etaples, I was transferred to the 11th Battalion Border Regiment. Now, after a few days going through the mill at Etaples, we then went to join our new regiment which, after a painful and very hungry journey, we found them at a place called Le Quesnel. There was about fifty of us, amongst whom, there was, like myself, a few Londoners, whilst our new comrades were mostly north country men. I am almost ashamed to say, but our reception by them at that time was not very cordial. They looked down upon us, especially us poor "Londoners". For what reason, I hardly ever knew, but as time went on they improved.
Well, to get on with my story, after our stay at Le Quesnel, we leave to go into the line, the front line. It was mud, mud and slosh everywhere. This was my first experience of the "Beautiful Holes", the mud being over four knees here at "Rob Roy" and in front of the trenches the usual mass of barbed wire and a dark and dreary night. How often my thoughts travelled to home and those I loved best. Well, this section was fairly quiet. We were here about three weeks. Food was awful. Many a time I’ve been hungry and sleep – well, that was a luxury to us poor devils. You dare not take your boots off, let alone anything else. And then we get relieved and go a little way back for what they call a rest, but we didn’t call it a rest, for you was always kept busy drilling or some fatigues. Well, we had about a week of this and then suddenly, one afternoon, we were told to get fighting order ready. We were moving at once, this was about the second week in March 1917. We were then marched off, the weather being still bitter cold. After some hours marching, we were halted, it would be about ten o’clock at night. We were told to get what sleep we could, this was in a field. Well, we had our tea and supper, some biscuits, bully beef and water, then got our ground sheets and tried to sleep. But, of course, sleep was impossible – it was bitter cold. So we walked about at 3:30 a.m. We were fell in and told we were going "over the top" at 5:30. We get into position at 4:30.
The artillery barrage opens, of course. This is my first experience of a barrage – the noise was just dreadful. It starts suddenly, as if coming from nowhere in particular. The shells bursting over the German lines looked lovely, but to them it meant something different. Well, an hour of this and the barrage lifts and then off we go. Your life now is in God’s hands. First someone on your right, then someone on your left, maybe, falls down, perhaps killed, perhaps wounded, maybe slightly, maybe seriously. It is these times when men pray as they have never prayed before. About 7:30, the village is taken, the name of that village is "Savvy". The stretcher bearers have now a very busy time, what with our wounded and the Germans as well. The German prisoners who are not wounded have to help carry the wounded down the line. When this is done, we have to dig in afresh and be ready in case of a counter attack by the enemy. After this, as soon as possible, we have a roll call and on this there’s many a poor devil not there to answer his name. I lost a few old pals that day.
Well, we hang on here for a day or two. The food too is very poor and scarce, so often I go about hungry. Then we got relieved again and go out for a little "rest" and after getting made up with more men and clothes – those who need them – we got back in the line again, this time Fayette Wood. This was April 1917. We hung on here for about ten days. Then, I remember well, the 14th of April 1917, we had orders to get ready and stand to. We were going over the top in an hour’s time. We were surprised, I can tell you, but when the hour is up, off we go again. This time we did not get quite so many casualties – but, of course, quite enough – and as soon as we got the wood, the Germans shelled us heavily. So, we had to dig like blazes, and here some more got either killed or wounded, and thank God I did not get even scratched.
Then, the following day we were relieved and I was then sent to the 219 Field Company Royal Engineers. And we are pretty well half dead, dirty – not had a bath or clean shirt for weeks – and hungry. I thought we were going on a good job, but I soon found out I was mistaken. Well, at this time, the division was out for a six weeks’ rest. This rest meant, of course, plenty of work for everybody. Our time was taken up by digging trenches and putting up barbed wire. The food during the whole time was bad and we could buy nothing here either, which made matters worse. For days we never see any bread, nothing but hard, dry biscuits. That was enough to put the wind up anyone. Our so-called rest over, we go back to hell again, this time to Nieuport, in Belgium. This place was mustard, I can tell you, there was shell fire from morning till night. Being, as I said, with the R.E.s, our work was making machine gun post and wiring etc. Let it be understood that R.E.s, like Infantry, carry rifles, bayonets, etc., and more often in the front line. There was a lot of bridges in this sector and were being often blown up up by shell fire and had to be repaired, often under shell fire.
I shall always remember the 10th July 1917. On this day, the Germans start their twenty-four hours’ intense bombardment with high explosive and gas shells, and, during this terrible time, we had, I regret, many, many casualties. You were safe nowhere. All the time, cellars and dugouts rocked with the terrible explosions. God alone knows how men endure such terrible times. Here once again, thank God, I did not get hit. I had many narrow escapes, though. It may seem strange to some people, but, in hours of extreme danger, your thoughts always goes to those one loves best, and your prayers too.
Well, I am finishing with Nieuport. I could write much more, but will leave it at that. But here I must not forget to mention, I saw the last of a good many old faces, and whom I shall never see again. This place was the second worse I was in. The worst of them all I will talk about later on.
Now we out for a ten days’ rest to Bray Dunes in Belgium, end of July 1917. Now here we had a fairly decent time. The food was better and the work less, and we deserved it too, and we enjoyed ourselves much better here. Now at the end of the ten days, we go back to our old life again, this time we go to "St Georges" sector on the right of Nieuport and joining up with the Belgian army. This place was not as bad as Nieuport, so there was not so there was not so much danger, but still plenty got killed and wounded here. We stayed here for seven weeks and then got three weeks’ rest at Goodkirk. We had a decent time here, except for air raids every night. But we got quite used to them and didn’t trouble much about them. There was a big aerodrome here, so that’s what Johnny was after, but he was unlucky, he did not get it.
Our rest over we go to Ypres. I think everybody has heard of this and every soldier dreads here. I saw sights I cannot describe here: they were too awful and ghastly. There was dead horses, mules, dead men flying everywhere, tanks, guns, crippled, everywhere. My God, what a sight. I shall remember Ypres for all time. Not a house, not a blade of grass or tree anywhere, nothing but black desolation, mud, mud everywhere. God help the poor devil who got lost and fell off the duckboard track. He would invariably be swallowed up in the quagmires of mud. And across this track we had to go every night to work in line. You started out alright. Nobody knew who or how many of us would get back again safe. Sometimes all of us got back safe; sometimes one or more got hit – killed or, if lucky, wounded. I have with my own eyes seen a 5.9" shell drop near some men, and some of them were never seen again. They were nearly blown to pieces. Anybody who has been here will tell you the same. And through this hell hole we went for six weeks. And here we had our 1917 Christmas dinner. The best description of this hell upon earth is by the official list of killed, which, I think you will find, was two hundred thousands killed. Just imagine what that means and what those dear boys have done for you all, in one place alone. And then some people say "How grey your hair has gone." Good God, I should think so too.
Now we find this hole for a well deserved rest and we go to a little French village, right behind the lines, far from the roar of guns. It is, of course, Winter, and very cold, but we do not mind that, we are used to this now. So, we make the best of our rest before we go back again into the line. And when we do go back, we start off in a pouring rain, and before we get to the station we are soaked to the skin. And then about sixteen hours in a French train in our wet clothes. I often wondered how half of us were not dead through this sort of thing, but they gave you a lot of rum and you never got cold over it. And at the end of the journey we found ourselves at Elveding, on the left of Ypres. The sector we were in was called Boseinge. This was early in Jan 1918. We had a fairly lively time here. It being near Ypres told us that it was going to be mustard. It was at this place the French put up a terrible bombardment and blew the Germans out of here. I can quite believe they blew them out – it looked as if Jerry had a bad time of it here, for he had left a good many of dead behind him. It was here I lost another old chum. He got shot at night.
It was here too I got what I had longed for. I am getting ready to go out with a party to the line, when somebody yells out: "Rookie, your pass is through," and I says: "Some hopes." And then a sergeant says: "The Major wants you," and then, when I went to him, he says: "You go on leave tomorrow." Was I pleased? Well, you bet I was. And then I went home to those who care and those I’ve loved. For it was well worth waiting for, and I had fourteen days away from hell, quite happy, quite contented. But those days, how they flew past. I must now say goodbye to wife and little children. That was worse than all the Germans could do to one. I go back not as happy as I came, but happy I had seen them all again.
I refound the boys at the same place I left them at and shortly after we leave this section and rejoin our battalion again at Ransart. Our work with the R.E.s finished here at this place. It was noted for the German big bombs or shells known as Mannwerfer. These things, when fired at night could be seen coming by the red tail they had. They made an awful explosion and made a hole in the ground you could put a moving van in, out of sight. And it was these things that put wind up most of us. It was just before we came here we were called the 5th Borders – owing to some casualties, they made two battalions into one. And here we had many exciting times, sometimes too exciting.
I remember one night here, a fighting going out and we caught two Germans and killed three more. The two we caught were over six foot high and were from the Prussian Guards, and they looked so meek and gentle. When we caught them, they were sent down the line. It was here where the place called "Hell Fire Corner" was. When you got there, you mostly had to run for your life, or be blown to pieces by one of Jerry’s shells, for he continually shelled this corner. The battalion was fairly lucky in this place – we did not get so many killed and wounded – and, after a short stay here, we go from here. And this, by the way, was when the Germans started their great offensive in March 1918.
Then, we are rushed off to Bienvillers, to relieve the Guards division. It was here the Guards mowed down the Germans like grass before a scythe. The dead was simply heaped up. Oh what a carnage it was, and what a time for us: no rest day or night, double sentries always in the line, in fact we stood to day and night. What that offensive meant to you all at home! I wonder if people really realise, if he could have broken through us, we should be in a different state today. The Germans would be dictating to us instead of us to them. But they did not. And these boys here wore out from ceaseless watching attacks here and there. Somewhere else, then, at last, it is broken (the enemy’s offensive) and we breathe again. Then, after holding on here, we go again and, after a time, we find ourselves doing the offensive and not Jerry.
We go to Rob Roy again. The Germans had taken this and a bit more when they started, and our brigade is down to take this back again. Well, the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the 10th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and tanks are going over the top, supported by two divisions of artillery. This was some sight. The barrage from the artillery starts and then the tanks come over our trenches and go through the attackers. When the tanks get far enough in front, the boys then follow this up, we being in close support, in case of any emergency. It was a big defeat that day for Jerry. He lost some men that day, what with the tanks and artillery. Jerry will not face tanks at any price. It was here poor old Joe Manning got knocked out. I am afraid he will not live. It has been an awful day for all of us.
Tomorrow, we move up and go over the top, but we did not meet with much resistance. We had it easier than the others the day before us, and the spirit of the enemy is about broken now, he does not stand and fight like he used to. And so, day in and day out, we are after him, never give him a moment’s peace or rest. This sort of thing goes on for a bit until we join an Australian division between Cambrai and St Quentin and smash at his Hindenburg Line. Here, I am sorry to say, we lost a lot of men. But we got through it, and after that things were pretty easy sailing, for he never made any very serious opposition to our offensive.
It was mostly machine guns that worried us. I have seen one machine gun and one sniper hold up a battalion for hours and in the finish had to blown out by artillery. This happened to the K.O.Y.L.I. near Avenes, and shall I forget those poor people in these places who had been under the Germans for four years? How happy they was. The poor wretches cried and put their arms round your necks and kissed you with joy. It’s impossible for me to say all here; it would take me months to write it all.
Well, we keep on holding on, and then, after taking Avenes, we get a rest. Then comes the news the armistice is signed. What news! What grand news! Everybody is happy enough now – no more trenches, no more shells, – thank God for that. What a time we had. And I must thank God for all his kindness to me and to mine. Things look better and brighter for all of us now, but we keep training and all ready in case of any accident
And then we start on our trip through the once occupied parts of Belgium, en route for Germany. Then we arrive at Semeries and I get transferred to Royal Army Service Corps and here I get away from the trials and hardships that war causes all of us. No more trenches, no more "over the top", no more suffering or seeing other poor devils suffer, no more ghastly sights of men dying, arms off, legs off. All those hideous sights, please God, I shall never see again.
So now that’s all over, we are with the A.S.C. After travelling with them some days, we find ourselves at a place called Rance in Belgium. This place the Germans had for four years, and these poor people could not do enough for us. We had a good long stay in this place, my work being very easy, and in December 1918 I went home from here on leave. Just think of it –I am going to spend my Christmas at home. How the boys envied me, how they said: "You lucky beggar." Well, home I went, and what a time I had. I would not change places with the best man in the world. I was, and am now, happy. What more does any man want.
My leave finished, I again have to say goodbye to those dear ones at home. I am going back. No more fighting or danger to endure. I came up the line through Arras, Charleroi and gets off at Namur in Belgium. Stops the night here. This is a fine Belgian town, the Germans did no damage here, but what a price things are. A small bar of soap costs about 2/6 and nearly everything is the same. How these poor people have suffered. People at home don’t know there has been a war on; these people do. And now, after a night here, I go to Dorinne, in Belgium, and we stay here for a good time. And then we go to Germany and we go to Neiderplies, in Germany. So here we get our first real view of Germany and the civil German people. Well, these people are obliging and all that. They are clean, their streets and towns are clean, the scenery is excellent. I am now cooking for all the A.S.C. I have a good job here – plenty of work, of course, but a good bed and good food. That’s what I never got while the war was on. I visited Siegburg and Troisdorf, both big places, some very fine scenery. I am here for some three months, and then we have to return to our battalion again, they being now in Bonn on the Rhine. I go in the cookhouse here, but it is not like the other job. But I shall have to put up with it. After a time, I get an easier job, so I am better off in a way.
I have seen many interesting places and personages. Well, I have been to Belgium, France, Germany, and many times over the famous Rhine bridges. Seen the Germans at war, at work and at play. I want no more travelling, just to go home and live with those I love. So I think that’s what most of us want. I could write much more and relate many other things I have seen – I have only dwelt on the more important parts. So I think I will leave it at this and now conclude.
Note: by Charles H Rooke, 1/5 Border Regiment