George C. Miller

George Calvert Miller was born on the 16 May 1897, one of three sons to John and Jessie Frances Miller and educated at Blackburn Grammar School.  Together with W. A. Abram he was Blackburn’s best known local historian writing books and pamphlets about Blackburn and district.  Perhaps his most widely known book, and certainly his best work was “Blackburn The Evolution of a Cotton Town” (1951).  Among other books he wrote were “Hoghton Tower" (1948); 
“Bygone Blackburn” 1950; “The Theatre Royal, Blackburn” (1951); “Blackburn Worthies of Yesterday” 1959;
“Old Inns & Coaching Houses of Blackburn” (1970). For many years he also contributed historical articles and dialect stories to "The Blackburn Times" and other Lancashire Newspapers. 
The Memoirs below were printed in "The Blackburn Times" between  18 December 1963 and 19 June 1964.
George Miller died on the 24 August 1981 aged 84.
In these Memoirs mention is made of the “Battery Diary”, this is “A Battery, 330th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery” diary a transcript of which can be found here. War diary of ‘A’ Battery, 330th, Brigade R.F.A 1917-18

A Historian Remembers

George C. Miller

With the outbreak of hostilities, it was a case of goodbye to all that. The sense of security, of stability and steady progress, vanished under the stresses and strains of what Churchill described as “the red-hot harrows of war” and things were never the same again. They never will be.
Yet for many years before the catastrophe came, there were signs and portents of the inevitable. For more than a decade the youth of Great Britain had been taught to regard all Germans with a suspicious and jaundiced eye as potential enemies.
At that time this country still held the lead in world trade, with Germany pressing closely on our heels and America lying third.
Yet I think the basic reason for our distrust was not so much economic as political; we resented the Teuton challenge to our naval supremacy as a threat to our very existence (as indeed it was).
So as the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet expanded, the popular outcry was for still more dreadnoughts and battle-cruisers. Some dangerous demagogue invented the slogan: “We want eight and we won’t wait,” and at every political meeting the sinister chant rose like an incantation.
Then there were the everlasting spy scares centring upon itinerant bands of German musicians, ostensibly touring the country for cultural purposes. (The Bosche was very insistent on his “Kultur,”) but universally regarded as hotbeds of espionage and treated accordingly.
Yet when war did eventually come, it was quite out of the blue and found us unprepared. After all, who would have suspected that the murder of an Austrian Grand Duke in some obscure Serbian backwater known as Sarajevo (a town nobody had ever heard of), would have led to a world-wide conflagration. That the hurling of an assassin’s bomb meant the end to an era of prosperity that had begun with the accession of good Queen Victoria? 
Smashed windows
I remember walking down King Street and Darwen Street and seeing with something of horror the smashed shop-windows of a few alien pork-butchers who only a few days before had been regarded as honest and substantial citizens.
Somehow, it seemed incredible that this could be the work of my own fellow-townsmen; it wasn’t quite ‘cricket’. Yet it proved to be only the first of many signs and portents of the new era of war-fever into which we had entered.
Soon there was an epidemic of recruiting posters, infesting the hoardings like a disease, with huge patriotic slogans aimed particularly at the rising generation.
Some of these I remember well. One depicted a wounded and weary member of the original expeditionary force in a shattered emplacement. (This was before the period of trench warfare), looking back vainly for reinforcements and asking desperately: “Will they never come?”
God knows we were willing enough. I myself enlisted at the age of 18 and I could name several youngsters who celebrated their 19th birthday in the firing line.
Probably the poster that influenced us most was that famous one of Lord Kitchener with its pointing finger and steely blue eye above the caption, “Your King and Country need you.”
Another was a vivid illustration of a field gun battery cantering into action with its six-horse teams at full stretch. “Be with the guns, boys, this is an artillery war,” ran the slogan beneath. In point of fact, it was that spirited drawing that really decided my army career by turning my thoughts towards the Royal Field Artillery.
But meanwhile parental consent had to be obtained, and this involved some discreet manoeuvring.  At the age of 17 active service with a fighting regiment was out of the question.  Ultimately, however, it was decided that I might join some non-combatant corps, such as the R.A.M.C. as an orderly or the R.N. Medical Service as a sick-berth attendant.

One stipulation
But my parents made one stipulation. I must first obtain a proficiency certificate in first-aid from a series of practical lessons and demonstrations then in session in the old parish schoolroom, with qualified instructors under the auspices of St John’s Ambulance Brigade.
I realise now that this was, on their part, a pathetic attempt to delay the inevitable, but at the time it seemed merely a futile and irritating waste of time.
And so indeed it proved to be. Having duly taken my course and passed out as proficient, I took a medical examination, filled in my application forms for both land and sea services whichever choose to avail itself of my invaluable assistance first and then leaned back waiting for something to happen.
Apparently neither branch of His Majesty’s land and sea forces knew what they were missing, for although I waited and waited, no orders to join my unit were forthcoming.
So one day, just after my 18th birthday, acting on sudden impulse, I flung down my pen, marched down to the Territorial Artillery Barracks in King Street and enlisted as a gunner for the duration.
I still remember the army doctor’s quizzical, uplifted eye-brows when he asked me my age and I replied, “Nineteen, sir,”

Signed papers
“Well, well,” he replied, “Yesterday, or today?”
Nevertheless, he signed my papers without further comment and I duly took the oath of loyalty. It was a relief, after standing about stark-naked in a draughty anteroom for over half and hour, to be herded down into the storeroom with half a dozen fellow recruits.
Here the presiding genii were two typical ‘old sweats,’ real hard-boiled, yet in a sinister sense, amusing characters, who regarded all rookies as fair game. They were both veterans of pre-Boer War days: one, a bombardier gun-layer had lost an arm, and had his empty sleeve ostentatiously across his breast: his subordinate had been more fortunate… he had only lost an eye.
Ostensibly, their job was to provide us with our uniforms and equipment and this they did, but after their own fashion and with many a joke at our expense.
“Ay, son,” quoth the Bombardier, as he saw my eyes straying apprehensively in the direction of his empty sleeve, “The tak’ a good look at that. Afore tha’s finished, tha’ll think aw’m dommed lucky.” How right he was!
The final indignity these jokers perpetrated was to turn us out improperly dressed, wearing slack, spurs, and bandoliers, an unthinkable combination for field artillerymen. Fortunately, military police were unknown in Blackburn at that early stage of the war and we were allowed to proceed on our way unmolested.

We receive our marching orders
Although the territorial forces had been primarily intended for home service, immediately on the outbreak of war the 4th Blackburn Battery, like the remaining batteries of the Brigade, volunteered for active service almost to a man.
At that time the Brigade’s mobilisation strength comprised 24 officers and upwards of 600 N.C.O’s and men, with 500 horses.
It formed part of the 42nd Division, which by 9th September, 1914, had entrained for Southampton and was soon in Egypt defending the Suez Canal.
It had the honour of being the first Territorial Division to serve overseas, a distinction of which it was very proud.
A second-line division, the 66th, was formed in August, 1915, and after intensive training was retained as the spearhead of home defence in the event of a German invasion.
After that date, all the drafts intended for reinforcements came from the third-line units and it was to this third-line that I, along with the remaining recruits, was posted.

The first appeal of Lord Kitchener for 500,000 men had met with such a prompt response that all the available accommodation was overtaxed and the authorities found themselves unable to cope with the ever-increasing numbers.
Fortunately Blackburn was not classed as a garrison town but I recall that in Preston the position at one time became chaotic.
Men were actually reduced to sleeping under hedges and in front gardens, being free to enter and leave barracks and eat where they could. Schools, clubs and institutions opened their doors, while the Tramway Power Station houses no fewer than 500 recruits nightly.
However, all this was now over and while we remained in our native town we were allowed to billet in our own homes. Every morning we paraded at the barracks at 9 a.m. and, having neither guns nor horses at our disposal, were promptly sent out on a route march.
For the next week, this, interspersed with an occasional recruiting parade, was the regular routine. Then, one morning we received our marching orders: we were to join the third line at Southport.
Sad Farewells
Leave-taking was a sad business. Apart from an occasional week’s holiday, this was the first time I had left home with the prospects of a prolonged absence and an uncertain destination and my mother’s tears brought forcibly to my mind that I was not going on a holiday cruise.
But the die was cast and soon I was waving goodbye to my brother on the station platform and seeing the familiar skyline of Blackburn, with its stately parish church, its tree lined boulevard on which fountains still played and its forest of factory chimneys, fade into the distance.
At Southport we found the whole Brigade billeted in private houses and we, too, were quickly provided with suitable accommodation.
I found myself, along with three others, in a comfortable semi-detached house in Churchtown.  It was tenanted by a childless couple, and the husband who might well have been a survival from the Victorian age, ruled over the ménage with an iron hand.
Our diet was carefully measured out according to official stipulations, and the army regimen strictly adhered to.
Breakfast, which we shared with the family, consisted of porridge and bacon and bread.  The master of the house also partook of marmalade, but as it was not included in the Army menu, he kept the jar under lock and key, lest we might be tempted to indulge surreptitiously in his absence.
He was a man of violent temper and I remember one occasion when, finding some fault with the cooking of his dinner, he deliberately picked up his wife’s plate and flung the contents into the fire, then sat down and finished his own meal without turning a hair.
I can still see the stricken face of that poor, humiliated woman to this day.
I was an artilleryman, a gunner in fact and as yet I had never seen a gun.  Southport did not remedy this hiatus, for the only offensive weapons we had were four wooden dummy muzzle-loaders, which we used for drill purposes.
We had, however, a number of horses, which were stabled in various livery stables in the vicinity.  These were chiefly rejects from overseas, and proved to be both intractable and ill-conditioned.  Sometimes it seemed as much as one’s life was worth to enter the same stall with one of these unpredictable bundles of nerves, with its rolling eyes, its cocked ears and vicious hoofs.  But somehow we survived.

Boer War relics
Then, one red-letter day a freight train rolled into the siding, bringing us a number of remounts and four real guns for each battery.  True, the guns were relics of the Boer War, with neither shields nor dial sights; they were loaded with the aid of ramrods and fired with ‘T’ tubes and lanyards, and having no recoil mechanism they were apt to run amok and cripple half the detachment whenever they were fired.
But still, they were the genuine article and seen from a distance, as when we paraded for manoeuvres on the sands, they made a most imposing picture.
All my recollections of Southport are pleasant ones.  The early morning route marches, from which we returned with voracious appetites; gun drill on the grassy parade ground under a warm summer sun; an occasional spell of guard duty outside the Battery Office, which was in another private house and where the sentry was an object of awed admiration to all the urchins in the neighbourhood, to say nothing of the dogs, and in the evening a stroll along the promenade, an odd pint in the local and a visit to the ‘flea pit’, this last a small cinema in the immediate vicinity, housed in a wooden shed with bare forms to sit on and a tinkling piano by way of an orchestra.

The Colonel cancels all Christmas leave
I suppose, like most of my comrades, I could have soldiered at Southport for the duration, but soon sinister rumours began to spread of another move to a camp somewhere out in the wilds, and for once the rumour proved to be true.
Early one morning the entire brigade entrained for Bettisfield Park Camp, and after a journey lasting all day, with infuriating delays whilst we were shunted into sidings to make way for other troop trains bound for more important destinations, we were ultimately unloaded at a tiny wayside station in the heart of the wilderness.  We were then told in the gathering darkness to get ready for another route march.
The weather had broken during the day, and as we marched through the camp gates ankle-deep in viscid mud, the leading files struck up with the chorus: “when you’re a long, long way from home.”  Its real implications were just beginning to dawn on us.
The camp was still in process of construction; all the huts were new and the moment one stepped off the macadam road leading to headquarters one was knee-deep in slush.  For some obscure reason the site chosen was a sort of amphitheatre sloping down to a small lake, the huts being erected at various stages up the slope.
We were surrounded on all sides by an impenetrable jungle, an extensive pine forest where I at least spent many happy hours studying the habits of jays and red squirrels.
Leisure moments
As we were miles from the nearest village, there was little else I could do in my leisure moments, as the canteen and recreation-room had little attraction for me.
Of course, as an alternative I might curl up on my bed in the hut with a book, providing I could close my ears to the interminable games of ‘Housey-housey’ (which I am given to understand was the prototype of ‘Bingo’) or ‘Crown and Anchor’ which last was the cause of many a barrack room argument, often terminating in a free fight.
But, by and large, life at Bettisfield Park bored me to distraction.  The same old bugle call announcing Reveille day after day, the hasty gulping down of a steaming decoction said to be tea but known as ‘gunfire’, the same old half-hour of physical ‘jerks’ on the parade-ground and then breakfast, followed by hut inspection and muster parade.
After a close scrutiny by an eagle-eyed sergeant major, who looked behind our buttons for traces of ‘soldier’s friend’ and searched for traces of unshaven beard on faces that had never felt a razor, we broke up into detachments under our respective instructors.
Two incidents from this period stand out in my mind.  The first arose from the cancellation of Christmas leave by the Colonel as a disciplinary measure for some lack of smartness on parade, which resulted in a mass exodus of determined camp-breakers.
They swarmed out after darkness and stowed away aboard slow-moving goods trains which passed nearby.  Some were absent without leave for over a fortnight and not a few returned under escort.
There was some talk of courts-martial, but ultimately wiser counsels prevailed and defaulters’ drill and confinement to barracks was the extent of the punishment meted out by our commanding officer, more in sorrow than in anger.  Probably he realised he had given the men some justification for mutiny.
The second incident was provoked by a very youthful and callow second-lieutenant who had obviously just been posted, and who was airing his uniform for the first time.  At regular intervals, he would emerge from the officers’ mess, stroll importantly past the guard room, acknowledge the guard’s salute with an airy wave of his cane and then retrace his steps.  This went on until the corporal of the guard could stand it no longer.

“Aw’ll learn yon mon a lesson he’ll not forget in a hurry,” he declared.  “Who the ‘ell does he think he is, Kitchener?”
“What’s on your mind, corporal?” I asked.  I was doing my first two hour stretch at the time.
“Never thee mind, lad,” he said with a sinister wink, “Just give me th’ griffin when tha sees him comin’ again.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later the dapper little figure emerged from the front of the officers’ mess and headed majestically in my direction.  I gave a discreet whistle.
“Guards, turn out,” roared the corporal, and as the abashed youngster drew level he gave the order: “Present Arms.”  I have never seen a man so embarrassed in all my life as was that unfortunate second-lieutenant.
He blushed scarlet, stared wildly at the imposing line of staring eyes and rigid rifles, muttered something about a mistake in his rank and then fled.
“Slope arms; dismiss,” said the corporal, solemnly, and after that all was peace.

The first shock of army profanity
Winter, 1915, and once again the scene had changed.  Now I was with our 2nd line brigade, stationed at Forest Row, Sussex, and housed in some ancient hutments designed for Mounted Infantry during the Boer War.
Just my luck!  I had hoped to be placed on a draft to join the 42nd Division, now defending our far-flung empire in the land of the pharaohs, camped on the desert in the very shadow of the pyramids.  How I had looked forward to an orgy of antiquarian exploitation among the magnificent temples of the Nile valley or the subterranean tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Instead of which, here I was in a rickety, insalubrious shack that left one open to the elements with complete impartiality, a stranger in a strange land. One morning I woke to find my blanket covered with snow, with the wind whistling through a hundred crevices in the warped boards that formed an apology for roof and walls.
Once again I was made aware of an all-pervading sea of mud, which surrounded the camp on all sides, but this time it was not the good, old-fashioned Lancashire variety; it was an evil-smelling compound of the colour and consistency of mustard.

Language lessons
Here, for the first time, I heard Army profanity at its worst. (At Bettisfield they swore like mere amateurs); here even the mildest among gunners and drivers seemed unable to carry on a coherent conversation unless it was punctuated with oaths, and it was weeks before I came to realise that the foul-mouthed little blackguard who slept next to me and cheerfully helped himself to the contents of my weekly food parcel was really a decent warm-hearted little chap who would have gone out of his way to do me a good turn.
Little did I think that within a few months we should have been bosom pals, establishing a friendship among the Flanders shell-holes that has endured to this very day.  If he reads this, I know he will forgive me for stating quite baldly my first impressions because he is now a reformed character: I am the one who swears.
The first shock of hearing Army profanity is very like plunging into a pool of cold water; for a moment it takes your breath away but soon you take it for granted and make the best of it.  In fact, it is merely a mechanical device for giving emphasis to the prosaic periods of casual conversation.  “Our armies swore terribly in Flanders,” cried Uncle Toby in Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy,’ and since the time of Marlborough their repertoire has increased quite considerably.
Yet in spite of this, in my hut there was one young corporal who knelt down by his bedside every night and said his prayers, an act of faith that was tacitly respected, even by the rowdiest among us.
Never tamed
Well, what are my memories of this inhospitable and insalubrious spot?  I hear a whinnying of horses at night and a thumping of iron-shod hoofs against swinging, wooden boskins in the horse-lines…
It’s that blasted wild Canadian remount we christened ‘Red Tape,’ which broke loose a week ago and has been running at large in the forest ever since.  Every night without fail the infernal brute comes cantering down the lines of tethered horses, lashing out right and left at all and sundry, man and beast, alike, until the stalls are full of frenzied animals and the lines full of cursing picquets.  “Be with the guns, boys this is an artillery war.”  If this is gunnery, heaven help the sailors.
‘Red Tape’, a coal-black gelding with blood-shot eyes and twitching ears, probably suffering from some acute form of toothache or other nervous disorder which drove him to distraction, was subsequently caught but never tamed.
In fact, we never even succeeded in shoeing him, and though on one occasion a saddle was lowered on his back and a head stall pulled over his head, the sum total of our efforts boiled down to a couple of cripples rough-riders and another spell of freedom for the outlaw.  After that we gave him up.
Fighting drunk
Saturday night, and some of the boys are rolling in on late pass from East Grinstead.  One, a great raw-boned gunner is fighting drunk.  He seizes the huge carving knife with which the hut orderly sub-divides our daily bread ration and prowls round the line of trestle and board beds defying any mother’s son to meet him in mortal combat.
After ten minutes pandemonium his challenge is accepted by a stocky little driver who in stature might have reached to his shoulder. 
The driver hops nimbly out of bed in his shirt, drives his fist solidly into the challengers stomach and doubles him up like a jack-knife.  The gleaming weapon sails high in the air and is retrieved by an onlooker, the injured man is pushed, none too gently, into bed and once more peace is restored.  Than goodness Saturday only comes once a week.
Our first firing course ends in ignominy
If I found Forest Row somewhat demoralizing, let me hasten to add that all my memories of Colchester, the fine old garrison town in which the division completed its training, were happy ones.
I was here, I think, that the Battery really found its soul.  One of the highlights of our stay was when we finally got rid of the ancient Boer War 15-pounders and were equipped with guns of which we could really be proud – brand new 18-pounders with fixed ammunition, spring buffers, traversing, and trail spade gear.
For accuracy, I don’t think there has ever been a field gun to touch it: at a range of 2,500 yards it was possible to drop every round of a salvo inside an area half the size of a bowling green.
In fact, I recall one occasion at La Basee when we put down a barrage inside a bracket of 12½ yards.  We had to, to avoid dropping a few shorts into our own trenches.
The 18- pounder Q.F. (Mark IV) had only one fault, as we were to find out later; its recoil of 42 inches was far too long.  This made it unstable on hard ground, and the piece under stress was apt to jam in the slides at full recoil, whereas the French 75mm recoiled a mere 12 inches and was as steady as a rock.  But for accuracy, give me the 18- pounder every time.
“Owd Broncho”
It was at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain where we had our first taste of our gun’s little eccentricities.  This was during our first firing course, in which, I grieve to say, we did not do too well.
Out on the range one day we had just had the order, “Halt, action front,” followed by “Right section ranging,” our own gun being number ‘2’ I was number 3 (gun-layer) on the detachment and was busy adjusting the periscope dial sight when number 2 (who operated the range drum) gave me a nudge.
“Hey,” he muttered, “Owd Broncho’s watchin’ us.”
Needless to say, General Brounker, G.O.C., R.A., and heaven knows what else besides, was the General Staff Officer who had to decide if we were fit for active service.  He had dismounted from his charger and, surrounded by a galaxy of brass hats, was heading in our direction, an irascible man with a flowing white moustache and a brick-red complexion that spoke volumes concerning the parlous state of his liver.
To our horror he took up a position about ten yards behind the gun, binoculars at the ready, and surveyed us with his eagle eye.  We would sooner have encountered the Kaiser.
However, orders were coming down the line and had to be carried out: “Aiming point, tree on right flank, all guns 25 degrees right, angle of sight, one degree elevation. Number 1 gun, 2,300 yards, number 2 gun, 2,300 yards, at 10 second interval, fire.”
“Set,” called out the range-finder.  “Ready,” I snapped, and with my hand on the firing lever, awaited the order to fire.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see our sergeant knelt behind the hand-spike, his right hand raised in the air and peering over his shoulder the sinister hawk-face of the General.
There was a terrific crash as number 1 gun fired and I could hear the sergeant counting every second at intervals that seemed like minutes.  Then his arm dropped and he shouted “Fire.”
What happened after that I shall never know.
Somehow we had managed to set the trail spade, intended to dig into the ground with the shock of the discharge, upon the only protruding rock on Salisbury Plain.  So that, instead of burying itself, it flew back a dozen yards, and swung round viciously through an angle of 180 degrees, bowling over the detachment, half the General’s staff and sundry innocent bystanders.
The great man, however, with more speed than one would have given him credit for, had hopped nimbly out of danger and from a safe distance was discharging a volley of epithets that made a battery sound tame in comparison.
Sometimes in my dreams I still see that furious face and invariably I wake up in a cold sweat.
Intensive course
But that was the end of our hopes for an early posting overseas.  We returned to Colchester in ignominy and were subjected to an intensive course of training by a certain Lieutenant Carter, who was specially seconded to the battery for that purpose.
He was a martinet, with the eye of a basilisk and a staccato voice that crackled across the parade ground like a machine-gun, but he knew his job and soon we began to know ours.
Day after day we were subjected to the same routine, battery gun drill, followed by interminable gun-laying practice, until by the end of the year I found myself proudly wearing my first stripe, with a first-class gun-layer’s badge surmounting it.  At last I could really call myself an artilleryman.
As an NCO I had had to pass through the riding school and to learn something about handling horses, but somehow I was never very happy at the tail-end of a charger: I think my memories of that maverick “Red Tape,” who could kick with all four feet at once and bite at the same time, had something to do with my diffidence.
Time to explore
Colchester had a military tradition that went back to Roman times.  It was (believe it or not) reputed to have been founded by Old King Cole, that jolly old soul who was in fact a real, historical personage.
Here the Emperor Claudius established the first Roman colony in this country which later was attacked and burnt by the redoubtable Queen Boadicea.  In the castle is housed probably the finest collection of Roman remains outside the British Museum, and the city walls are famous as the best preserved fortifications of that period in existence, particularly the West or Balkerne Gate.
Here I was able to peruse my antiquarian bent to full measure and I spent many a happy hour prowling among the ruins, or exploring the antique shops in search of relics of the past.
In one dark and dismal back alley I made the acquaintance of a cheerful but disreputable dealer who kept a junk shop for appearances’ sake, but made a living by selling souvenirs of the past which he obtained in various devious ways.
From him, among other treasures, I obtained a number of silver pennies of the time of King John that had formed part of the famous Colchester hoard.  I never troubled to ask him how they came into his possession.
We sail for France – and get our baptism of fire
While home on my embarkation leave I went up to my den in the attic one night and made a solemn holocaust of all my youthful scribblings, including thousands of lines of my epic “The Universe.”
Looking back on the incident after a lapse of almost fifty years, I realise there was something symbolic in the gesture.  It was a case of “Goodbye to all that,” for even then some instinct told me the world I had known as a youth would never be the same again.  Maybe an odd tear or two dropped upon the pile of charred ash in the grate but I went through with the ritual to the bitter end.
Also, in conformity with another grim wartime custom, I had my photograph taken.  Not that it had any real significance, of course: we all meant to come back after our brief trip across the channel … but still, in the hall, behind the aspidistra … just in case.  Here is a reproduction, if anyone is interested in what a young artilleryman looked like in 1917.
In an earlier series of articles under the title “In Flanders Fields” I have already given a series of extracts from the official diary of A/330 Battery, together with appropriate comments, so that in dealing with my personal recollections I propose to dwell as little as possible on formalities.
Instead I will try to recall some of the incidents that are still in my memory, after the lapse of time has placed them in their true perspective.
In quarantine
The battery left Colchester on two trains on Friday, March 2nd 1917 and embarked for La Havre at Southampton in the early hours of the following morning.  But alas ‘B’ Sub-section, to which I belonged, was detained at the last minute in quarantine.
One of our drivers had contracted something infectious and the authorities kept us kicking our heels in isolation for another fortnight just in case someone else had been bitten by the same bug.
We were loud in our lamentations, for it was by no means certain that we should rejoin our own unit once we had landed over there.
However, all’s well that ends well and on March 21st we caught up with the Battery at a tiny French village called Locon not far from Bethune.
It had been a long, wearisome journey in cattle trucks, appropriately stencilled “Chevaux 8 ou Hommes 40,” to drive home to our minds the relative value of a man and a horse, as seen through the eyes of the authorities.
It was at Locon that we first made our acquaintance with French beer.  I can think of no sight more depressing than that of a healthy British ‘Tommy’ seated in an estaminet, gloomily absorbing pint after pint of that thin, sour beverage in the pious hope that he might attain to a reasonable state of intoxication before it made him sick.
But of course he never did.  Even if he mixed his drinks with vin blanc or vin rouge, he only succeeded in making himself frightfully ill.  And to add insult to injury, at an adjoining table a couple of the ‘natives’ would have attained to a state of heavenly intoxication after a couple of drinks.
It was all most disheartening.
We rejoined our unit only to learn that the battery was already in the line, having reinforced the 119th Battery instead of relieving them as originally planned.  To use the words of the official diary “Apparently they think the Bosche may attack.”
For the same reason all the gunnery NCOs rode up to the guns on the following day in charge of the first-line wagons loaded with ammunition.
On our way up we had our first baptism of fire when a section salvo of 5.9s dropped in Beuvry as we passed through, demolishing several cottages.
Against orders we went through the village at a canter, narrowly escaping a disaster of our own making when one of the limbers flew open depositing several 18 pounder HE shells under the hoofs of the following wagon team.  By some miracle, however, not a single one went off.
Speaking of cantering on horseback, I often wondered what bright genius at the War Office designed the field equipment of an artilleryman.  The only horse he ever rode must have been a wooden one.
Everything we had to carry – haversack, water-bottle, hood respirator, bandolier with 50 rounds of ammunition and tin hat – were all slung alternately from our shoulders, so that the whole of our impedimenta dangled loosely all around us.
No wonder one harassed driver of ‘B’ sub-section, on the occasion of our first trek in Field Service Marching Order, remarked with appropriate profanity that he “felt like a ruddy Christmas tree.”
When trotting one jangled like a travelling tinker, whilst at regular intervals a lumpy water-bottle or a map-case or a respirator inserted itself between one’s seat and the saddle with painful persistence.
Like Home
The countryside in the back areas of the La Basee sector was very like that of our own Lancashire.  There were coal mines in the vicinity, at Annequin, and land subsidence had made ‘Flashes’ and marshy patches such as one finds in the neighbourhood of Wigan.  Had it not been for the long straight roads, with their interminable avenues of poplars we might have been at home.
Although the entire district was subjected to promiscuous shelling, we were surprised to see with that fatalistic pertinacity the local landowners and small farmers clung to their tiny holdings.  It was a common enough sight to see a couple of women in their heavy wooden sabots stolidly hoeing in one field while a few hundred yards away shells would be bursting like miniatures volcanoes.
It was uncanny, bizarre yet typical of the adaptability of human nature.
The sleepless Major leaves me stripeless
We found the battery snugly ensconced in a series of four gun-pits over shadowed by tall trees by the side of a narrow road.
On the left, our flank was protected by La Basee canal, while on the right and a little nearer the support trenches was ‘C’ Battery of our Brigade, not so well placed in the middle of a swamp.
In spite of much sporadic shelling, which included incendiary and gas, there were quite a lot of waterfowl breeding here-about including wild duck, coots and moorhens.
I recall seeing a fond mother coot followed by her family, consisting of half a dozen tiny, fluffy balls of black down, paddling serenely between splashes made by two bursts from a 5.9 inch section salvo from behind the German lines, and apparently not in the least perturbed.
An abomination
The canal, on the other hand, was an abomination of desolation, its stagnant waters choked with rusted barbed wire or littered with all sorts of abandoned impedimenta, the aftermath of battle; amid which a wrecked barge mouldered on the slimy bottom or a smashed bridge reared its twisted girders against the gloomy skyline.
There were four guns on the main position and another two in an advanced section.  The gun-pits were in effect sand-bagged emplacements roofed over with heavy logs, these last intended to explode a HE shell before it penetrated into the pit, where as many as 300 rounds of ammunition might have been stacked in racks on each side of the pits.
As the whole position was under constant observation not only from the interminable line of captive balloons stretched along the line of the front as far as the eye could see, each glinting in the sun like a sinister unwinking eye, but also from ‘spotter’ planes, which swooped so low that they almost grazed the tree tops.  We were under strict orders to move about as little as possible in the hours of daylight.
In addition, camouflage nets were hung over the front of the pits when the guns were not in action and every day fresh grass was scattered over the scorched, withered herbage in front of the gun muzzles, to efface traces of blast.
Night life
But at night we were busy enough for the edict had gone forth from Battery Office that the whole position had to be improved; gun-pits reinforced with new sand bags and where they were out of alignment, brought into position.
Rumour had it that the Divisional CRA was coming to inspect us and that he liked to see all gun muzzles in perfect dressing, like soldiers on parade.
This entailed heavy fatigues with depleted detachments and some ‘grousing’ particularly among the old sweats, who thought they ought to be allowed to take things easy on such a quiet front.
Not that life was also peaceful.  On Sunday, April 1st, the Battery diary tersely records:
“The Bosche a great deal more active. Knocked about Fenton’s Folly with Minnies & put 4.2’s including gas shells round Sapper’s House, knocking down part of the adjoining wall.”
This entailed retaliatory fire, which in turn set the enemy lines buzzing like a swarm of bees.
Machine-guns began their staccato rattle across the waste of No-Man’s Land and soon SOS flares were lighting up the night sky, red over green over yellow, like aerial traffic lights crying out for artillery support.
It was quite a regular thing to have three or four such alarms in a single night.
Cryptic Messages
Nor was this our only bugbear.  We had, if I remember right, five SOS lines, all carefully calibrated and divided into arcs of fire, all with line, range, angle of sight and fuses set according to whether the code word was “Canal Right, Canal Centre, Defend Givenchy, or defend Dragon” (Dragon incidentally being a mine crater which changed hands with monotonous regularity whenever we or the Bosche decided upon a raid) so that we could switch over to the danger spot almost on the instant.
Unfortunately, our Battery Office was in direct line about half a mile in rear of the position and the Major (according to a blasphemous theory held by ‘B’ sub-gun detachment) suffered from chronic insomnia he whiled away the midnight hours phoning through to the Battery such cryptic messages as, “No 1 gun test Canal Centre,” or “No 4 gun test Defend Givenchy.”
This meant that the gun in question had to fire a single round on that particular SOS Line, the detachment dashing out of their dugout into the adjoining gun-pit, often half-naked and in pouring rain, while the Major, seated in comfort over his supper, timed their reactions with his stop-watch.
Woe betides the NCO in charge of a team of laggards; a stern reprimand was his sure and certain portion on the morrow.
Rapid Fire
It was this amiable habit which landed me in my first spot of bother.  In the early hours of the morning, after my detachment had crept into ‘kip’ after a particularly heavy fatigue, the telephonist passed along the order: “No 2 gun test Canal Left.”  It was really more than flesh and blood could stand.
“All right, lads, stay put.” I said.  “This is my show” and stumbling out into the darkness, I groped my way to the gun-pit, where the gun, with a shell already in the breech, was laid on ‘Defend Dragon.’
By the light of a pocket torch I spun round the range drum to extreme elevation and then sent a shell whizzing merrily somewhere into the German back areas, chuckling to myself as I thought of the Major and his stop-watch recording one of the fastest tests in the history of ballistics.
But alas, as I turned to leave, a second torch flashed in my face and there stood the Battery Officer, who ought to have been sleeping peacefully in his bunk, coming to supervise the whole proceedings.
I draw a veil over the harrowing sequel, except to recall that I lost my stripes one day and got them back the day after.  Gun layer NCOs were scarce in those days.
A most ungodly assignment in No-Man’s Land
Following the SOS incident related in my last article, I was for some time in disgrace, a fact which entailed unpleasant consequences.  Among them was the fact that whenever a particularly unhealthy fatigue was in the offing, I invariably found myself in charge of the party.
One of these still sticks in my mind.  Our FOO (forward Observation Officer to you) had selected a certain exceptionally deep shell-hole in No-Man’s land for an advanced post, in order to do some fancy shooting on a nest of Bosche snipers.
An excellent idea, you might think, until you realised that someone was going to have to dig an underground sap a matter of some thirty yards in advance of our frontline; that the approach was along a most unhealthy trench system, leading from Orchard Road via Death or Glory Trench to Spoil Bank, and that the somebody was going to be you among other unfortunates.
Furthermore, Spoil Bank was a deserted and badly battered trench on a slope overlooked by enemy spotters and was constantly being plastered by ‘minnies,’ (this was the endearing diminutive we had for the German Minenwerfer, a sort of super trench-mortar bomb about the size of a tombstone, which came wobbling menacingly through the air to detonate on impact like a miniature volcano).  In addition, the slope was constantly swept by machine-gun fire.
Gloomy forebodings
Altogether, a most ungodly assignment and it was with gloomy forebodings that we contacted the RE Sapper who was to supervise our labours.
He was waiting for us in a support trench in Quinchy Cemetery, an eerie spot where fancy vaults had been converted into dugouts and where some sardonic infantryman had stuck a couple of human skulls on the parade post for luck.  We took it as a grim commentary on our ultimate fate.
Passing along the shell-pitted bank of La Bassee canal, when a couple of men from the East Lancashire Regiment were ‘fishing’ with Mills bombs, the shock of the explosion being sufficient to stun every fish in the vicinity, we made our way along duck-boards until we reached the ruins of the brewery, which had part of its chimney still standing.
Here we entered the Givenchy trench system proper and some made our way to Orchard Road, where we had to stand until it became dark.
Chilly atmosphere
We were not popular with the infantry, who always regarded artillerymen in the trenches as birds of evil omen.
Indeed, the very sight of a bandolier was greeted with a scowl, as an indication that Brigade HQ was making preparations for another ‘strafe’, which would inevitably mean heavy artillery retaliation, casualties, and subsequent fatigues to repair wrecked emplacements.
So that when we commandeered an infantry dugout in order to make a brew of tea over a few sticks of charcoal, there was something of a chilly atmosphere, until our involuntary hut learned that we were headed for Spoil Bank, after which they became quite cheerful.
Probably they assumed we were not likely to live long enough to cause them much trouble.
At nightfall we were on our way once more…
It is a thankless business stumbling along a strange trench in the dark, occasionally coming into collision with a sentry crouched on the fire-step, with the imminent risk of a playful prod from his bayonet, or hearing a hoarse voice from somewhere under one’s feet imploring us to “put out that **** flashlight.”
Overhead the velvety night sky is powdered with stars, eclipsed from time to time by the lazy incandescent arc of a Verey light, which enables one to see the tense faces of the remainder of the party, listening to the distant crunch of a bursting shell or the sibilant whisper of a machine-gun bullet passing overhead.
“Be with the guns boys, this is an artillery war.”  What ruddy fool invented that slogan, I wonder.  He ought to be here now, toting an entrenching tool and a couple of pit-props…
Last scramble
Spoil Bank, and here we pause a moment to regain our breath and prepare for the last mad scramble for the subterranean safety of a half-finished sap.
We listened grimly as a spray of machine-gun bullets comes whining through the blackness and patters against the sand-bagged revetment.  Then, as the burst ceases I lick my lips.
“Come on lads,” and away we go, bent two-double and feeling that every German spotter in the entire sector has his eyes on us.  We tumble head-over-heels into the sap just as a 4.5" section salvo explodes overhead with a terrific ‘CRUMP’, showering us with fragments of broken brick and debris.  WE HAD MADE IT.
The sap is a sort of miniature tunnel some 3feet wide by 4 feet high, its sides and roof shored up with props and short lengths of planking.
The leading man crawls forward to the working face and begins to scratch at the sandy soil with his entrenching tool.  The soil is shovelled into an empty sandbag which, when full, is passed between his legs to the next man in line and so in relays to the entrance, where it is used to augment the parapet of the ruined trench.
Occasionally the man in front is relieved and the human chain shuffles forward a few feet, while the relieved toiler squeezes his way backwards to the tail of the procession.
At  4 a.m. a halt is called.  We must get back to Orchard Road before daybreak, when the infantry stand-to.  So there is a second hasty evacuation, this time accelerated by a staccato burst from a sniper’s post in the enemy frontline.
When we emerge, still unscathed, into the comparative  safety of Orchard Road, I find a neat round hole drilled through my entrenching tool, just a souvenir from the Bosche.
The subsequent history of this forward observation post was one of disaster.  While ranging on the German frontline, with a safety margin of barely fifty yards, the FOO almost succeeded in annihilating himself and his own battery.  A little later an observer must have spotted the sunlight glinting on the lens of his periscope, for Jerry began to beat a devil’s tattoo about their ears with the trench mortar bombs, wrecking their observation post and sending them scurrying to safety, fortunately with no casualties.
Sporadic shelling – and we track down a ‘spy’
Early in the morning of 1st May the Bosche started shelling our advanced section and kept it up steadily until the afternoon, the detachments being ordered to withdraw to the canal bank.  The enemy fire appeared to be directed by an enemy plane which passed repeatedly overhead.
Soon fires were blazing merrily in both gun-pits, number 5 having most of its ammunition exploded.  The gun was badly damaged and presented a sorry sight, with the wheels badly charred and the handspike burnt off.
This episode proved to be the first of many.  Obviously our sand-bagging and re-aligning activities had not gone unobserved.
For some time, however, Jerry contented himself with a few bracketing shots on both the main battery position and the section for registration purposes.
Then, on 20th June he again shelled the section, dropping an assortment of about 100 x 5.9" and 4.2"shells.
Our heavies retaliated and seemed to be successful in stopping them temporarily, but they always seemed to start again as soon as the gunners ventured back.
Finally the spotting plane was driven off by two of our scout planes – with fighters and after that all was peace, at least for the rest of the day.

Bosche raid
On the following morning it was the battery’s turn, although the Bosche appeared to be firing without observation, for all he succeeded in doing was to demolish a couple of trees just behind the position.
Two days later both battery and section were shelled, observation being apparently from a balloon, but again there were no casualties and little damage.
All this artillery activity coincided with a certain liveliness in the trenches and on 25th June, after a tremendous barrage of ‘minnies’ in the Givenchy sector, the Bosche raided and occupied Red Dragon crater.  There was sporadic shelling of the battery and Gunner Hanmer was wounded.
By way of finale, on 28th June the Bosche started shelling the battery in real earnest, thereby postponing a visit of inspection by the CRA, who, seeing that the battery was apparently going up in smoke, wisely decided that there were other positions healthier and less preoccupied in the area.
According to the battery diary, “the detachments cleared to the right, where they spent an enjoyable day, chiefly in slumber.”
​Treetop eyrie
I have in my possession, however, a worn and tattered field service notebook which gives the lie to this assertion, at least so far as I was concerned.
As a matter of fact, having removed dial sight and rocking bar sight from my own gun and seen that No 2 had dismantled and removed the breech-block, I spent the rest of the day perched on the branch of a tree on the right flank, from which point of vantage I had a clear view of the position and could record the effect of every round.
Each burst was duly jotted down in my notebook and also passed on to a signaller located at the foot of the tree, who in turn phoned the information through to the battery office.
Altogether I recorded 122 rounds all bursting within a plus minus bracket of 200 yards, with eleven direct hits and only a very small percentage of ‘duds’.
Pretty shooting, when one considers that it was probably at a range of three or four miles!
I could have stayed in my eyrie longer but at that moment a shell splinter came whining through the air and embedded itself in the branch a few inches from where I was sitting and I decided to accept the hint.  After all, I was not up there under orders and I had no wish for a posthumous decoration.
My ‘Rubaiyat’
Perhaps my sentiments were best expressed in a poem I wrote during the subsequent Passchendaele offensive, which I entitled: “Rubaiyat of Corporal Miller.”  Here is a brief extract:

At times I like to think it’s all a joke,
Not that its laughter makes you want to choke;
A week or two at most you keep a pal,
Then Bang… the poor d​evil’s gone in smoke.
You mustn’t worry when you see hi fall,
Most likely it’s his fault for being tall,
Just recollect you’ve got it coming, too
And that’ll be the biggest joke of all.
He’s gone the road so many men have trod,
He’s dead, and just another useless clod,
So square your back, and when it comes your turn
Take it and say: ‘Well, that’s the lot, thank God.”
And some day, when the muster roll is read
If you don’t answer, being likely dead;
They’ll send your old tin hat down to base
And maybe fill it with a thicker head.”
Blasphemous hours
We were due for a relief a few days later and the incoming battery staff were by no means pleased to see the pockmarks of so many shell holes round the position.  In fact, I believe they shifted it soon after.
One of the trees behind the cookhouse had been cut in half by a 5.9" dud, and we spent some blasphemous hours after dark trying to pull the remains down with drag-ropes.
Here is a final snapshot, relating to a spy scare.  These were endemic on this front and a farmer had only to plough with a white horse on day and a black one the next, to be suspected of conveying information to the enemy.
In our case the Major spotted a mysterious light shining (contrary to regulations) directly towards the German trenches from somewhere in the back area.
Clearly a signal to the enemy!  One of our gunnery lieutenants fixed its position by means of a No 4 Director and with the coming of daylight tracked the culprit.
It was the Brigade Major at HQ, who had omitted to draw the orderly-room blind.
Brief leave, then back to the lice and horror
It was a relief to get out of the line and be back at rest for a few precious days and we made the most of it.
I took the opportunity to pay a hasty visit to the ancient town of Bethune, with its winding streets and curious Flemish-style houses, with their carved door-posts and ornate half-timbered upper storeys.
I also explored the lovely old church of St Vaast and glazed admiringly at the curious belfry in the market-square, with its square tower and wooden campanile, although both were looking somewhat dilapidated, as the town was within range of the enemy’s long-distance guns.
Here I had quite a shopping spree, purchasing innumerable souvenirs, crucifixes made of brass cartridge cases, lucky charms and the like, all of which fell into German hands at St Quentin within a twelve-month.
I also indulged in the inevitable orgy of eggs and chips, washed down with black coffee, with a chaser of Grenadine to wash away its vile taste, for it was composed of roasted acorns and sawdust.
Then back to the battery, thumbing a lift on a passing Army Service Corps lorry and so to my snug little bivouac in the straw of an adjacent barn, infested with the lice of a thousand previous tenants.
Oh, those lice, it was simply impossible to get rid of them.  According to an army legend, whenever we marched to a delousing station for a bath and a change of underclothing, the sagacious insects waited for us outside and rejoined the column when we emerged.
At one stage of the war we were issued with a nauseous compound which was reputed to be certain death to all creeping things, but it stank so ill that its use made one almost unable to live with oneself.
Actually, I think the lice rather liked it but I may be prejudiced.
Intense activity
At the beginning of July the battery started its cross-country trek through the back areas to the Nieuport sector, where a certain liveliness had been reported during the past few weeks.
Apparently we were relieving a Belgian Corps in anticipation of a Bosche attack, for there were rumours of Bosche concentrations across the Yser, which at this point formed a sort of liquid No-man’s land.
We arrived at the outskirts of Furnes in glorious summer weather and found everywhere signs of intense activity.
Guns of all calibres were discretely hidden under camouflage in all sorts of unlikely places; they poked their grim muzzles from the shelter of every copse of sand dune, and there were ammunition dumps everywhere.
That same evening the right section moved into action, taking over from a Belgian detachment.
We found their pieces were so small that we were unable to get our guns inside the pits and so had to erect a temporary sandbag emplacement to protect us from splinters.
An English-speaking corporal warned us that it was not wise to fire more than a few ranging shots.  Otherwise, he said ingenuously, the Bosche would be sure to retaliate. HOW RIGHT HE WAS!
Here we first heard rumours of a new phase of counter-battery work known as the shell-storm, although which side was the first to perpetrate the enormity I never learned.
It seemed to be confined to the Nieuport sector, and constituted the Bosche’s evening ‘hate’.
This is how it worked, several times during each night every enemy gun on the front, whatever its calibre, would concentrate on a selected British battery and for a few hectic minutes would pour on the doomed position a veritable tornado of rapid fire.
The effect had to be seen to be believed.  In the twinkling of an eye the entire line of emplacements, with its guns, dugouts, ammunition dumps and personnel, would simply be blotted out of existence.
Then, as suddenly as it began, the storm of high explosives, mixed with shrapnel, gas and incendiary shells, would cease.
Ensuing daylight would reveal a pitiful chaos of dismantled guns and exploded ammunition, with here and there a few grim shreds of mortality.
In due course, our own batteries would select a similar target behind the German lines, no doubt with the same result.  ‘A’ Battery took part in many of these episodes but was fortunate in escaping retaliation.
Others were not so lucky and I remember gazing horror-stricken at the remnants of one position out on the dunes that had simply been blasted out of the ground.
Something brewing
In the meantime our first position was coming in for a lot of enemy attention and we were beginning to have casualties.
There was evidently something brewing and the infantry on either side seemed very nervous.  It was a common thing to see SOS rockets going up all at once, both British and German from right along the line, until there was quite a fireworks display.
On 17th July 1917 we stood by for two hours in expectation of a raid and then worked out a scheme of harassing fire to prevent the Hun massing for an attack.
We kept this up all night and apparently smashed up the raid, for a few days later we pulled out after nightfall in pitch darkness and through a barrage of splinters along the bank of the Yser Canal.
Choking fumes
We were heading for a new position on the extreme left flank among the sand dunes on the coast, and here we again found ourselves in trouble.  The road by Maison Carre was being heavily shelled and we trotted past at half-minute intervals.
On our left flank, about a hundred yards away a huge ammunition dump had suffered a direct hit and was going up in smoke, the exploding shells whirring over our heads like monstrous fire-crackers.  The air reeked with the fumes of burnt cordite and as we stumbled through the acrid fog we were almost choked.
To add to the confusion, a shell burst in front of the leading team, wounding two drivers and soon after another detonated under the muzzle of my own gun, damaging the recoil slides, but this we did not find out until later, when we were firing our first ranging shot and the piece jammed at full recoil, necessitating as long and hazardous journey to the Ordnance repair depot.
However, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  We reached our new position without further incident, ran our guns into the pits and collapsed thankfully for a few hours sleep before stand-to at daybreak.
Death stalks on a lovely summer’s day
Our new battery position was on a deceptively peaceful little oasis of greenery skirting the coastal sand dunes a little north of Ooste Dunkerque.
Beyond a few small shell holes which pitted the sward I our immediate vicinity there was little sign of enemy activity, and in the glorious summer weather we began to look forward to another artillery idyll such as we had enjoyed at La Bassee.
We ought to have known better.  A glance at the belt of sand between ourselves and the grey, foam-capped waters of the Channel might have given us sufficient warning, for it was stained and scorched by the incessant bursting of H.E., gas and incendiary shells.  And one could not pick up a handful of its gritty particles without finding a shell splinter among the pebbles.
Still, it was pleasant to look seaward, where one could often make out a long, black line of a convoy escorted by as couple of fussy destroyers, for all the world like a flock of sheep being chivvied by a pair of sheep dogs.
Somehow they seemed an impalpable link with the white cliffs of Dover, just over the edge of the horizon.
Night and Day
Our first intimation that all was not as it might be came when we were visited by the Colonel, who brought urgent orders that we were to reinforce and strengthen the position with utmost speed, working night and day.
From what we could make out, there was not proper trench system in front of us; only a few scattered redoubts and machine-gun posts on the edge of the River Yser.
In fact, we were so close to the line that we could hear an occasional spent bullet whimpering past our ears.
Then, to add to our tribulations, we were spotted by a raiding Fokker fighter and thereafter sprayed with 5.9" shells and whizzbangs at unexpected intervals both night and day.
Those whizzbangs were the very devil, for they swooped upon one without the slightest warning, like a cloud of demented hornets, deluging the entire area with a rain of red-hot splinters.
I remember an occasion when one burst between two gunners of ‘B’ sub section just as they were bringing a dixy of bully-beef stew from the cookhouse.  As they had flung themselves upon their faces they were unhurt, but the dixy was riddled with holes and there was no stew for the detachment that day.
Underground cooks
The cookhouse was located on the battery’s left flank; in a tiny copse we soon designated Whizzbang Wood, for the enemy gunners seem to have a particular spite against it
Here the cooks lived a haunted troglodyte existence, burrowing ever deeper and deeper after each successive bombardment.
They could rarely be persuaded to emerge into the light of day (small blame to them for that) and by some sort of miracle managed to cook for the whole battery in a sort of burrow not much larger than a fox’s earth, some ten feet underground.
24th July proved to be one of our worst days.  Until then our casualties had been relatively light and infrequent but on this lovely summer day, while the entire battery was at work strengthening gun-pit walls and roofs, the Bosche suddenly began to sweep the whole position with whizzbangs, which had a calibre of 3.2", about the same as our own 18 pounders.
One of these burst in the middle of a group of telephonists, who were erecting a control post.
“It mauled them all horribly & hardly one had less than half a dozen wounds. Holden & Bonnell killed & Berry died of wounds later.  Isherwood (died), Bowler (died), Sgt. Gabbut, Mabbut badly wounded (died), Bdr. Tennant, Corr & Taylor less severely. Brown killed & Bdr. Morgan wounded on returning from taking wounded men to ADS. A most unlucky day & it has tried the Battery a good deal…”

Gun accompaniment
This stark and sombre incident brings yet another grim picture to my mind’s eye.  This was the subsequent sad procession to the tiny military cemetery near Coxyde…
It is sunset and the gathering shadows are accentuated by a boding glare in the western sky, heralding a coming storm.
A silent group of khaki-clad figures in steel helmets, with box respirators at the alert position, stand with bowed heads before a row of blanket-swathed bodies by the side of a shallow trench, one half of which has already been filled.
On the farther side of the trench stands a Church of England padre, prayer book in hand, his words of valediction charged with emotion.
Sometimes the responses are drowned by the incessant thunder of the guns and an occasional heavy shell rumbles overhead, to burst with a thunderous roar somewhere in the back areas.  Already the eastern horizon is being criss-crossed by the gleaming arcs of the Verey lights and the staccato challenge of opposing machine-guns reverberates across No-Man’s land.
“Forasmuch as it hath please Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the souls of our dear brethren here departed… earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
A part of history
The last solemn words are uttered, the silent figures laid reverently side by side in the trench are sprinkled with a few handfuls of Flanders soil and all is over.
The comrades, with whom only a few hours before we had exchanged jests and good-humoured badinage, have been committed to their last resting place and have become part of history, part of the eternal tragedy of youth’s idealism sacrificed at the altar of racial and political hatred.
The tragedy goes on, for even as I write comes news of the assassination of President Kennedy, himself typifying the hopes and aspirations of the rising generation and now laid low by a fanatic’s bullet.
A greater danger to our friends than the enemy!
Altogether, during the period I acted as gun-layer on the Western Front, I fired some 20,000 shells into the enemy lines.
I am not so naïve as to imagine that all this weight of high explosive could have burst on the frontline trenches without killing or maiming quite a number of youngsters of my own age and the sombre thought often weighs on my conscience, even today.
Yet, during the whole period, I was only involved in one personal incident (concerning which I prefer not to speak), in which I knew I had actually inflicted bodily harm, perhaps killed, a human being, and he was old enough to be my father.
He emerged from a shell hole, probably with the intention of surrendering, but how was I to know that?
Of course, I did not escape scot-free myself, I still carry the scar of a bullet wound in my left arm, the marks of half a dozen shell splinters in my right leg, a slight dose of phosgene gas at Passchendaele left me subject to severe gastric attacks and I am permanently deaf in my left ear owing to the concussion of incessant gunfire.
Curiously enough, it was the ear farthest away from the gun that felt the violence of the impact; almost as if one received a terrific blow on that side of the head every time the piece fired.
On first going into action we had been issued with rubber ear-plugs, but these were quickly lost or discarded.  I turning out to support an infantry SOS call, one had other things than ear-plugs to think about.
Everything considered, however, I think that I was extremely lucky and I often used to recall with a wry smile the words of the old sweat with one arm who greeted me at the Blackburn Artillery barracks:
“ay, son thee tak’ a good look at that.  Afore tha’s finished, tha’ll think aw’m dommed lucky.”
He could have been so right.
Actually, I consider that there were three different occasions when I ought to have been killed but just wasn’t through some inscrutable quirk of providence.
Once when my gun sustained a direct hit and the blast blew me clean out of the gun-pit; once when I was a sitting target for a line of advancing German shock troops and once when a 12" shell buried itself in the ground under my feet and failed to explode
Yes, I think I have been “dommed lucky” myself.  I have had a shell splinter deflected by a bunch of keys in my pocket; I have had my box respirator carried away by another and the front of my tunic slashed open by yet a third; I have had the heel of my boot cut away with a fragment of shell case and my tin hat dented by a huge piece of falling debris and here I am to tell the tale nigh fifty years later.
“Dommed lucky.”  I’ll say I was.
Many of the 20,000 rounds I lobbed across No-Man’s land were expended while we were on the Nieuport front.  What with the incessant shell-storms, when we blazed away as fast as we could load, fire, and eject the empty cartridge cases, and the nightly SOS rockets, blazing eerily, red over green over yellow, all along the tortured frontline, our lives seemed spent in one constant reverberation of ear splitting sound; no wonder I have had a permanent singing in my ears ever since.
To add to our tribulations, about this time we began to receive a lot of defective American ammunition, chiefly shrapnel.
In point of fact, shrapnel was very little use in the eternal mud of Flanders, or anywhere else for that matter.
Trench warfare required high explosive and plenty of it and spraying the enemy line with shrapnel bullets was about as effective as flinging a handful of peas
Actually, I believe it was Lord Kitchener who insisted on the artillery carrying 50 per cent shrapnel.  He was still living in the days of the Boer War.
The only time such shells became effective was when the Bosche delivered a mass attack I close formation and that was only in the very early stages of the war.
But defective shrapnel ammunition could be the very devil.  Each shell contained 190 lead pellets as big as marbles, detonated by a time fuse at the base, the idea being to set it so that it burst just over the heads of attacking troops.
But these infernal Yankee efforts, as often as not, burst as soon as they left the gun muzzles and sprayed the ground in front with a barrage of lead.  And as at Nieuport there was another RFA battery immediately in front of us, we soon became exceedingly unpopular.
In fact, the battery commander insisted, with some feeling, that his men were in greater danger from us than from the enemy, a fact we could well appreciate.
And when one of his gunners, hit in the knee by a stray shrapnel bullet, insisted on the stretcher-bearers carrying him to our position, so that he could shake hands with the man who had given him such a comfortable ‘blighty’, it was obvious something would have to be done about it.
Painful duty
We had just been issued with some patent night-lights which worked from a dry battery in the gun-pit and which had to be connected every night with a long length of wire.
This was continually being cut by splinters and it was my painful duty, as gunlayer, to crawl out and repair it, often when the battery was blazing away upon some SOS line.
I have spent more than one blasphemous half-hour groping in the dark after loose ends of wire, with one ear cocked for the curious whine of a premature, which would have meant for me a sudden and sticky end, for our aiming posts to which the lights were fixed were immediately in front of the gun muzzles.
Heroes who blazed a trail for the ‘Few’
It seems likely that the arrival of British troops particularly the 66th Division’s take over from the French and Belgian forces on this sector was regarded by the Bosche as the preliminary to an attack across the flooded Yser river.
No doubt his suspicions were intensified by certain mysterious manoeuvres on the part of the 4th East Lancashire, who were brigaded with the division.
For some obscure reason they were placed under the orders of the Royal Engineers, ostensibly to construct a pontoon bridge over the Yser Canal.  They also spent one memorable night under heavy fire, crossing its inky waters in a number of curious coracles known as Berthon Boats.
These monstrosities, as soon as they had been loaded with equipment, invariably capsized, precipitating their cursing occupants into the icy depths.
It was all very frustrating and only made sense to the brass hats at GHQ, for the projected attack was never launched.
Aerial dogfights
But in consequence there was sudden outbreak of activity behind the German lines, both on the ground and in the air, where both sides fought desperately to obtain the mastery.
Almost every morning, as we stood-to, we could see, outlined against the roseate flush of dawn, a dozen fighter planes engaged in a bitter dogfight.
How we admired the courage of our gallant airmen in their rickety little machines, some little larger than kites.
These feeble biplanes and tri-planes from both sides of the line – SPAD, Nieuport, Albatros, Sopwith and Fokker fighters represented the eyes of the opposing forces and it was essential to the other side that they should be destroyed.
Sometimes whole squadrons would become locked in combat: on one occasion the famous German ‘ace’ Richthofen swept across our front with his notorious ‘flying circus’, all painted a sinister red, inviting our own airmen to a ‘free-for-all’, of which they were quick to avail themselves.
The result was a sight for the gods; I have never seen such aerobatics either before or since.
Backward and forward loops, the ‘falling leaf’, the spin, the upward and downward dives; nothing came amiss; all seemed to be inspired with a sheer contempt for death, and all the while their frenzied activities were punctuated by the staccato rattle of machine-guns.
I have seen as many as four hurtling down in flames together; I have seen one plane deliberately ram another, so that the two fell to earth together with wings interlocked, and I have seen men, their clothes ignited by burning petrol, leap from the wrecked machines and crash to the ground like blazing torches.
Set the pattern
Make no mistake about it, those early Royal Flying Corps men were worthy of the high tradition that led to our victory in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.  In such bitter fighting as this they set the pattern for a succeeding generation.
A final snapshot of the Nieuport front: I quote from the Battery diary for 1st August 1917:
“Rain started last night & finished up in the thunderstorm this morning. The men woke up to find themselves sleeping in water, with their change of clothes, blankets, coats – everything soaking… Platforms under water & we had to keep up the firing day & night.”
Appalling conditions
In fact, the entire position was flooded to a depth of about three feet and for the next few days we lived and had our being under appalling conditions.
We were being shelled incessantly all the time, with a large percentage of gas shells, and we kept up retaliatory fire night and day.
As the water was level with the gun axles, the piece, with its 42-inch recoil, sent a tidal wave completely over the detachment at every discharge, soaking us to the skin.
Consequently we went into action stripped to the waist and during the long spells of night firing were chilled to the very bone.
Owing to the presence of phosgene gas, which was not as volatile as mustard gas and lingered in the vicinity for hours, we did much of our firing wearing respirators.  In fact, on more than one occasion I actually slept in mine.
When I say ‘slept’ I am perhaps being guilty of some exaggeration.  As our dugouts were under water we managed with some ingenuity to construct temporary bunks.  These consisted of sheets of corrugated iron raised on sandbags a few inches above the surrounding inundation.
We quickly found that corrugated iron has certain disadvantages in comparison with a feather-bed, particularly when a restless movement might precipitate one into three feet of icy cold water, and for this reason our slumbers were light.
Unfriendly peasants
But all things unpleasant or otherwise must come to an end and towards the end of August the Battery pulled out for a period of rest and recuperation at the wagon line established beneath the whirling arms of a Flemish windmill outside St Idesbalde. 
This quaint old structure interested me profoundly, but unfortunately its proprietor was not too friendly, even after I had informed him that my name was Miller (which I translated as ‘Mouliniere’ in my barbarous French), and he regarded my advances with sullen suspicion.  As a result, I was unable to examine the creaking wooden mechanism.
This unfriendly attitude on the part of the natives was made evident on many occasions and sometimes gave rise to painful incidents.
When one halts at a farmstead after a long day’s trek behind the lines and finds that the winding gear of the well has been dismantled and that even a drink of water must be paid for, one can scarcely blame the troops for showing their resentment in no uncertain manner.
But to the French peasants we were just a necessary evil, neither more nor less.
To Ypres and that ghastly salient
Friday, 6th October and once again we are on trek…this time towards Ypres and the Salient, where the Third Battle of Ypres has been raging under indescribable conditions since 1st July.
THE SALIENT, that insatiable Moloch, which between that date and the end of December was to devour no fewer than 448,614 British troops, killed and wounded, including ‘normal wastage’, whatever that may mean.
THE SALIENT, where the ghastly evidence of the casualties of three great battles were churned up time and time again by successive barrages.
THE SALIENT, where German divisions were sent to serve as a punitive measure, when they showed signs of restiveness under the stress of war.
Of course, we did not know this at the time: we had just had a pep talk from the Major (who was probably as much in ignorance as the rest of us), and were given to understand that it was going to be our privilege to take part in the last decisive action of the war, which would split the Bosche front from top to bottom and drive him in to the sea.
Everything had been laid on… field guns were massed almost wheel to wheel and there were enough heavies to reduce the German back areas into heaps of rubble… masses of tanks were lurking in hiding in every conceivable spot where they could take cover, waiting for the inevitable break-through… there were two cavalry divisions champing at the bit and just pining for the day when they could pour through the gap and fan out behind enemy lines, waging destruction with lance and sword upon the demoralised infantry.  OF SUCH STUFF WERE GHQ PIPE DREAMS MADE.
Soon to know
Even I, in my innocence, thought that these tanks and cavalry made a curious combination and I even wondered why these lumbering armoured monsters should have to wait so coyly behind the lines when they might have gone in front to break the resistance of the enemy.
But I found out the reasons later, when from one forlorn and shell swept battery position near Zonnebeke I counted the derelict remains of no fewer than fourteen Mk IV tanks that had been bogged down and suffered direct hits.
No wonder it was called the tank graveyard.
But already some inkling of what was really in store for us had begun to circulate.  We had been relieved at Nieuport by the 42nd Division, our own first line, newly returned from Gallipoli and the Middle East, who had already had their baptism of fire in the Ypres Salient, on the Frezenberg Ridge.
They had some hair raising tales to tell of mud and slaughter and, although we were sufficiently seasoned to make allowances for rumour and exaggeration, there seemed little doubt that w were not going to march through the Menin Gate on a picnic
Like human moles
Another depressing factor was the weather which had broken in a flurry of heavy and icy rain, soaking us to the very skin, a state of affairs which was to continue for the rest of the Passchendaele campaign.  Then it turned to snow and frost,
So we slogged grimly on under the lowering sky through a war-scarred landscape of ruined villages and semi-depopulated towns, whose inhabitants, such as remained, lurked in cellars and underground shelters like so many human moles, taking cover whenever another heavy howitzer shell came rumbling overhead with a noise very like that of an express train above the clouds.
My comrades
 Carried depressing memories from Nieuport for it was here that I lost one of my best pals.  He was killed whilst taking some of our wounded down to the Dressing Station and I attended his funeral in the tiny military cemetery near Coxyde.
He was a quiet well-educated lad who hailed from Lancaster, and we had a love of literature in common.
I wrote a detailed account of the circumstances of his death to his parents and then, having a shrewd suspicion that it might be censored at the Battery Office, I sent a duplicate copy in a green envelope, these being a special Army issue that were only censored at the base.
As I suspected, only the last got through, but I had the satisfaction of learning later how much comfort it had been to poor Bill’s parents.  He was an only son.
Then there was Gunner Bell, better known as Ding-dong.  He was a walking wounded case and I went down to the Dressing Station with him myself.
It was in a cellar near Suicide Corner and I shook hands with him and wished him luck with his ‘blighty’.  When we met a year later in Brighton he was in hospital with an artificial leg and I was acting as gunnery instructor in the Artillery Cadet School.  He came from Somerset and a decent, good humoured fellow he was.
‘For luck’
And there was Corporal Norman, killed by a shell splinter which went clean through a steel mirror he carried in his breast pocket.  He was a reserved but kindly chap who had recently joined us from the trench-mortar batteries.
I carried that mirror about with me for luck all through the rest of the campaign, which goes to show how superstitious one can get, living under constant strain.
I could recall so many more, but what was the use?  The astonishing thing was, not the stark un-heroic courage, the patient endurance, the calm resignation to whatever fate held in store, but the sense of fatality that seemed to lie beneath it all.
As though we, the youth of the early 20th century, were offering ourselves as a sort of sacrifice for the mistakes and follies of the civilisation which bore us, as though we were working out a penance for the sins of our fathers and that such a holocaust was the only way in which we could satisfy an outraged Creator.
I can think of no other explanation.
Haig’s ‘Duck march through Flanders’
Our first day’s trek in the back areas ended at 1 a.m., when we reached a farm near Ghyvelde.
Here, while the drivers made some attempt to groom and curry-comb their wet and steaming horses, picketed on lines where they were over their fetlocks in glutinous mud, we gunners sluiced down guns and ammunition wagons on a gun park equally insalubrious.
I, as gun-layer, cleaned and oiled the breach mechanism and checked the gun sights, before flinging myself down in my wet clothes on a bundle of straw in a leaky barn infested with rats and various insect abominations.
I was dog tired and only awoke once, when one of these long-tailed vermin scuttled across my face.  But I was used to that.
Not impressed
At seven we were off again, still in the pouring rain, and during that day we passed through the 1st French Army area to Esquelbecq.  This gave us an opportunity to see for ourselves the sort of discipline maintained by our allies, and I am bound to say that we were not greatly impressed.
Naturally, we were most interested in their field artillery, for the little French 75mm gun had acquired a great reputation.
But gunners and drivers struck us as anything but efficient; in fact, both they and their equipment were, to use an expressive Army phrase, just ‘scruffy’.
This was particularly noticeable when we passed a battery on the move with guns and limbers loaded with impedimenta until the entire turn out resembled a gypsy migration rather than a fighting unit.
Even the horse’s bits were red with rust and by comparison the burnished steelwork of our own harness gleamed like silver.
From Noah’s Ark
But if their equipment was far from what it might have been, their animals resembled a cavalcade that had just emerged from Noah’s Ark.
There were horses of all shapes and sizes, together with mules and even donkeys, all harnessed together without any apparent regard as to size or breed.
One gun team consisted of one heavy draft and two light draft horses, two Andalusian mules and one nondescript animal which might have been a donkey or even a very large St Bernard dog.
Their coats were shaggy and caked with mud and they moved slowly and despondently, obviously unkempt and ill-fed.
They were followed by a battalion of Senegalese infantry, who slouched along with their greatcoats buttoned back from the knees of their baggy white trousers.  They were gloomy and out of step and it did not need an expert to judge that their morale was pretty low.
We were not to know, of course, that, following the French General Nivelle’s abortive offensive in April, when his troops sustained heavy losses, several Colonial divisions and the French 120th Infantry Regiment had mutinied and that the men’s discipline was still dangerously relaxed.
Hopeless offensive
Indeed, Sir Douglas Haig, our own commander-in-chief, gave this as one reason for continuing the hopeless offensive in which British soldiers, their rifles clogged with mud which engulfed them up to their knees, were flung, again and again, against a defensive system skilfully organised in depth.
Realising the folly of attempting to dig trenches, the German high command constructed hundreds of concrete emplacements which we called ‘pill boxes’, with walls and roofs of tremendous thickness, at every strategic point.
These were manned by highly trained machine-gun teams, some of whom were actually induced, by the offer of higher pay and better rations, to allow themselves to be chained to their weapon, so that there could be no question of surrender.
I shall have something to say about the state of the ground in a later article.  Suffice it to say at the moment that even our French allies, thankful as they were for the respite we gave them, were amazed that the slaughter should have been allowed to go on so long, and General Foch openly referred to the whole campaign as Haig’s ‘duck march’ though Flanders.
The spearhead
It was on ground like this that the 66th East Lancashire Division, of which we were part, was selected to be the spearhead of an attack designed to extend the line to the outskirts of Passchendaele.
Zero hour was 5.30 a.m. on 9th October and to give the men time to reach the jumping-off tapes and get a few hours’ rest before going over the top they were assembled at a rendezvous 2½ miles behind the line at 7.00 p.m. the night before.
At dusk the troops began their forward march through the ruins of Ypres.  It was raining hard and they were already soaked to the skin, while, being equipped in full battle order, with water bottle and haversack, an extra fifty-cartridge bandolier over the right shoulder and a Mills bomb in each side pocket, they were carrying altogether over 60 lb. of clothing, weapons and equipment.
Maze of craters
Immediately after passing through the Menin Gate they ran into difficulties.  The duck-board tracks which they were supposed to follow had been heavily plastered with enemy shells and were shattered to pieces every few yards, while such as remained were covered with slime and submerged in foul water.
Soon they found themselves wandering in pitch darkness through a maze of shell-craters brimming with water, this last often covered with old, sour mustard gas or even worse abominations.
Many men toppled into these and had to be hauled out by comrades extending rifle butts.  So nauseating was the experience that men often vomited after being extricated.
Worse still, they ran into an area of liquid mud, where they sank to their waists, realising grimly the truth of Napoleon’s remark that besides water, air, earth and fire, god had created another element…mud.
By the time they reached the frontline, dawn was already beginning to break, the offensive had begun, whereupon without a pause they fixed bayonets and kept on towards the enemy…
Kixum’s cunning became a joke in a nightmare of mud
If our infantry, assembling for the attack on Passchendaele, found themselves bogged down in the all-pervading mud, we of the Field Artillery were in no better plight.
In the late afternoon of 7th October we arrived in pouring rain at very muddy wagon lines at Vlamertinge, with flooded tents and bivouacs for quarters.  We were so weary that some of the drivers were almost asleep in their saddles, but nevertheless horses had to be groomed, fed and watered and guns cleaned before we could turn in ourselves.
This mud was to be a long drawn-out nightmare during the ensuing three months, and it was pitiful to see how the condition of our animals deteriorated.
Sleek and glossy from their long period of comparative inaction at Nieuport, they quickly became thin and nervous, with staring eyes and drooping heads.
I have actually seen a double line of horses standing in mud more than a foot in depth, whilst their drivers worked with brush and curry-comb, sitting on their backs.
Dangerous company
At Vlamertinge the horse lines followed the usual pattern.  Two lengths of picketing-line were pegged down about a yard apart and to these a double row of horses were tethered, with heads facing inwards.
This enabled drivers and picquets to pass down the middle, adjust nose-bags at feeding time, and during the night fasten the straps and buckles of rugs and blankets, which had a trick of coming loose and slipping over the animal’s haunches.
Speaking of nose-bags brings to mind one horse in particular, which bore the sinister name of ‘Kixum’.
Horses are temperamental creatures, like sergeant-majors and at times have to be handled with care and understanding.  They acquire all sorts of eccentricities and bad habits and this can make them very dangerous company, especially to strangers.
An alternative
‘Kixum’, alas, was no exception.  Hardship and constant exposure had spoiled his temper and made him vicious, but he soon found out that lashing out at all and sundry within reach of his flying hooves merely brought retaliation in kind.
So he devised a cunning alternative.  When the trumpet call announced feeding time and his nose-bag fixed, he would lie in wait with head down until an unsuspecting line orderly passed by.
Then he would suddenly raise his head and bring the wet and muddy nose-bag weighing about half a hundredweight, with a terrific clout across his victim’s ear.  It was a wallop jack Dempsey might have envied and it never failed to be a knockout.
Innocents lured
After we had tumbled to this little idiosyncrasy, we always kept a wary eye on master ‘Kixum’, but it soon became a standing joke to lure some innocent visitor, preferably from another battery, to take a walk down the lines to where this equine battering-ram was lying in wait.
Believe me, it left a lasting impression.
At the wagon lines near Zillebeke we had another horse, ‘Storm King’, who regularly went lame whenever he was detailed to go up the line with a pack saddle loaded with ammunition and rations.  He fooled us for quite a while, until we found that he was not always lame on the same foot.
Pitiable sights
Horses are particularly nervous under shellfire and can become positively mad with terror.  Even when under control, their trembling limbs, rolling eyes and twitching ears render them pitiable objects.
Unfortunately, at such times they are prone to stand fast and refuse to budge, which can mean disaster unless they can be speedily goaded into action again.
Then spur and whip must be used without mercy and for this reason there were few artillery horses whose flanks were not scarred and slashed with the cruel rowel after they had been on active service.
I once saw a driver sponging the blood from his horse’s side after one such incident, and there were teams in his eyes.  Yet it was all part of the grim pattern of war, and would probably be repeated at the next emergency.
We move off
I could say a great deal more about the strange relationship that existed between a driver and his horses on the Western Front, but meanwhile German machine-guns are waiting for our infantry on the crest of Passchendaele Ridge.  The war must go on.
Here is another extract from our battery diary, dated Monday, October 8th:
“Were to have moved into action at 2 a.m. but got orders at last minute to stand fast. Orders and counter orders all morning.
“Eventually CRA arrived at 4.30 p.m. said we should have been in action by mid day. Turned out at once & moved off, 5.45. Pouring with rain and everyone soaked. Roads in forward area impossible & advance party had to abandon first position (being the only Battery to get platforms down) and come back to the Frezenberg cross-roads.
“Roads packed with traffic, three lanes abreast & progress appallingly slow with constant jams. Had to establish forward wagon lines in a map square, for pack horses, in pitch dark.
“Found nothing but shell holes. We moved forward gradually all night, having jams about every hundred yards. We met our infantry having same difficulty in getting forward and hours late for going over the top.”
Back and forth
“At 5 a.m. we were only a few hundred yards from position when the barrage opened with a crash all around us. Orders came down that we were to go back, so with difficulty we reversed & had got about 2 miles down the road when counter orders came that we were to go back into action again. We got the first guns into action about 8….”
Tortured journey through a landscape of the dead
Our battery position was located on a map square somewhere on the Frezenburg Ridge in the very heart of the Salient and to reach it we had to pass through the ruined city of Ypres.
As we moved slowly through the shell-pitted and rubble- strewn streets the rain ceased for a blessed interval and we even caught a glimpse of the Moon, peering through a shattered window in the half-demolished tower of the beautiful Cloth Hall.
The town had been systematically bombarded for months and all its handsome, tree-lined streets, with their picturesque, medieval houses and magnificent public buildings, including the ancient cathedral of St. Martin, were wrecked beyond repair.
The latter was still recognisable, although all the valuable monuments and works of art within had been destroyed, and the Cloth Hall still dominated the silent market square like some shattered monolith of pre-historic times.
Only a few months later, during the German attacks in 1918, both were reduced to little more than mounds of rubble.
Ghost city
With its roofless houses, their windows as gaunt and empty as the eye-sockets of a skull, it seemed to us – awed and subdued by the prospects of what was facing us through the Menin Gate – as if we were traversing.
Yet in fact its silent puriteus were teeming with subterranean life, the whole place was honey-combed with underground dugouts and emplacements, linked together by tunnels and passages until it had become as populous as a monstrous rabbit warren.
Divisional, battalion and brigade headquarters were everywhere; casualty clearing stations, quartermaster’s stores and dumps of all kinds were indicated by crudely painted signs, while in the ramparts themselves all kinds of queer fish, such as ordnance artificers, veterinary and remount officers, padres of every denomination, Salvation Army officers and even YMCA orderlies, lurked cosily. But this we did not learn about until a day later.
Ominous prelude
Meanwhile the tortured column wound its fitful way towards the firing line.  At the Menin Gate a direct hit smashed the road surface just ahead of our battery and we had a long halt while a squad of pioneers, detailed for this purpose, cleared away the wreckage.
I had taken advantage of the halt to dismount and tighten my horse’s surcingle, when I stumbled over something lying by the roadside.  A hasty flash of my torch revealed that it was the body of an infantryman of the East Lancashire Regiment. 
He lay with his head pillowed comfortably upon one arm, an unearthly smile upon his bloodless, upturned face.  A splinter had severed the main artery in his leg and he had bled to death in a matter of minutes, probably without feeling much pain.  But the incident seemed an ominous prelude.
Shell-pocked mud
On leaving the Menin Gate, the Zonnebeke road forked to the left and soon entered into a desolate area of shell-pocked mud, each crater brimming with stagnant water and so close together that in places the ground was virtually impassable.
On terrain of this sort it became positively suicidal to attempt to go forward without some sort of support and the military mind therefore evolved the corduroy road and the duck-board track, the first for vehicles, the second for men.
The corduroy road consisted of a double width of logs laid side by side and literally floating on a sea of mud.  If an Army Service lorry or G. S. wagon got too close to the edge, the whole tilted up in the middle and gracefully shuttered the vehicle and its complement into the Slough of Despond beyond and there it gradually sank deeper and deeper until it finally disappeared.
Yet every night throughout the whole offensive this single road, packed with guns and wagons of every description, shelled and bombed incessantly, had to serve as the sole link of communication with the firing line.
The infantry wisely extended their ranks in open order and followed the circuitous maze of the duckboard tracks.
These resembled a sort of cat ladder cut to lengths of six feet and were laid end to end, thus allowing marching men to proceed in single file.  But we of the Field Artillery had perforce to stick to the road and take all that was coming to us, which was plenty.
Sitting ducks
Every inch of that accursed road between Ypres and Zonnebeke had been carefully registered by the enemy artillery located beyond the ridge at Moorslede, and so far as they were concerned, we were just sitting ducks.
Then there were the bombers, flying low and heaving their massive weapons over the side of the cockpit like so many bricks.  A pretty primitive method of attack, as compared with modern standards, but in a cockshy of this nature they could hardly miss; they got a coconut with every ball.
At one time the moon came out for a few moments and we saw around us a scene of utter horror, like something out of a nightmare, resembling a lunar landscape rather than a scene on this planet.
Just a vast sea of grey mud, erupting with shell-bursts, from which here and there a solitary splintered tree-stump emerged to wave us on like a beckoning ghost, or a derelict tank, standing on its nose, reminding us that we were now approaching the celebrated tank graveyard, which put paid to Churchill’s scheme of ending the war with a breakthrough of armoured monsters; it was a landscape of the dead.
Barrage Begins
We had still not reached our allotted position when the barrage opened for the attack and we found ourselves in further trouble, for the terrific row drove our scared horses frantic.
The whole sector was massed with guns of every calibre, standing almost wheel to wheel, and in many cases with one battery firing over another.
They were all in the open, for the state of the ground made it impossible to construct gun-pits or dugouts and even do more than make a crude gun-platform with bricks from a nearby ruin.
However, in some fashion each detachment at last managed to man-handle its gun clear of the road and got into action.
It is true we were dead tired and soaked to the skin, we were plastered with mud to the very eyes and that breech-blocks were constantly jamming because of mud which adhered to the ammunition.
But at least we were throwing back to Jerry some of the stuff he had been pounding us with all through the night and we saw the exploding rim of fire on the horizon which marked the line of our barrage with grim satisfaction.  We were giving the Hun a taste of his our ‘frightfulness’.
A level plain of desolation where no bird sang
Before I deal with the 66th Division’s attack on Passchendaele, which cost our infantry 3,119 casualties in a single morning (to say nothing of what the divisional artillery suffered) and which was to fill the columns of the Blackburn Times for many subsequent weeks with casualty lists, interspersed with photographs of the fallen, let me say a few words about our battery position.
It was on the flank of the Frenzenberg Ridge, a few hundred yards short of Zonnebeke village, near a salubrious spot where the waters of the Hannebeke and the Zonnebeke, their normal channels pulverised by incessant shellfire mingled their muddy waters to form a widespread swamp.
Mound of rubble
When I say Zonnebeke village I ought perhaps to say the site of it, for to all intents and purposes it had disappeared from the map.  One could pass through its market place without knowing it, were it not for a crudely painted signpost beside a huge mound of rubble which read “Zonnebeke Church”.
A little further along the ridge, in the direction of Moorslede, part of a crumpled gasometer lay on its side.
This was the only sign of human occupation and somehow always brought to my mind the story of the  traveller who, after being lost for many hour on Salisbury plain, suddenly saw emerging from the mist a gallows on which a malefactor hung in chains and exclaimed: “Thank God, civilisation at last.”
I must have had a depraved sense of humour in those early days, although there were plenty of corpses strewn around that gasometer, believe me.
Our gun platforms, consisted of brick and rubble extracted from the foundations of the ruined village, were set at right angles to the road.  They were about ten yards apart and formed a precarious support to the gun wheels, which from constant firing soon began to sink, thereby making accurate firing practically impossible.
Day and night
There was no attempt to construct any sort of shelter, and for protection against flying shell-splinters we huddled against the gun-shield and hoped for the best.
Here we worked and here we slept, when sleep was possible and day and night the Bosche plastered the area pitilessly with high explosives.
Fortunately the very nature of the terrain proved our salvation, for the glutinous depth of the mud around us allowed the high explosive shells to sink deep before they exploded, thereby smothering the burst and converting each detonation into a sort of volcano of mud and rubble, which erupted into the air comparatively harmlessly.
Occasionally one burst on impact, through striking part of a brick foundation and these were the ones we had to watch, for they sent a shower of red-hot shell-splinters screaming through the air, any one of which could disembowel a man as neatly as if he had committed hara-kiri.
Ceaseless torrent
Nor was this our only tribulation.  We were also being subjected to an incessant bombardment by the elements.
Rain! There was no end to it – a steady continuous downpour, occasionally subsiding into an icy drizzle but never ceasing altogether.
For days and weeks on end our clothing was never dry and, although officers wore high boots of rubber and we received a special issue of leather boots which laced up to the knee, the all-pervading rain penetrated to our very souls.
The landscape around us might have been something out of Dante’s Inferno, a flat, level plain of desolation with scarcely a discernable that we could recognise; a land of death and desolation, with not a living creature in sight, not a tree, not a single blade of grass.
The remains of Polygon Wood, some distance to our flank, consisted merely of a few dozen splintered stumps protruding from the morass, a wood from which all traces of natural life had long since vanished.
So far as I can remember, I never saw nor heard a bird during the whole time we were in the Salient, and the only mammals were rats, huge grey, obscene creatures that fattened upon human carrion.
Polluted land
The very ground was polluted with the bodies of countless unburied dead and contaminated with burnt cordite and exploded gas shells; the very air reeked with the stench of death and decay, which the everlasting blanket of cloud did nothing to dissipate.
Even in broad daylight it was a hazardous business to wander away from the battery and loose oneself in the maze of shell-craters brimming with water that surrounded one on every side.
Even for a man in full possession of his strength, to slip into one of these slimy cesspools meant a nightmare struggle for survival before he emerged from its clinging depths, and for a wounded man the task was virtually impossible.
More than once I have seen the body of an infantryman clutching desperately at a bayoneted rifle, which he had driven into the crumbling side of a waterlogged shell-hole, in the vain hope of keeping his head above water until he could be rescued.
Perhaps the greatest danger of all was to be lost in such an area after nightfall, when the horror of darkness was added to the menace of the unknown and one could see as well as hear the glowing splinters of the bursting shells.
Small wonder that quite a number of German prisoners, captured after they had been hiding in such surroundings, sometimes for as long as three or four days, were little better than gibbering maniacs.  The medical term for such a condition was shell shock: I wonder by what name it was known to the recording angel?
Where they fell
But I find myself getting morbid.  However, before leaving the subject I will take the reader for a brief stroll through a line of wrecked German concrete emplacements a hundred yards or so in front of our battery position.
It is a German 5.9" field gun position that was overrun by a Highland Regiment a few weeks before and its defenders bayoneted….
Friend and foe still lie where they fell, locked in a grim death grapple, although now the gun pits are partially flooded and the whole place is infested with vermin….
Here a ‘Jock’ hangs head-downwards over a gun-shield, his bayonet in the chest of a German lieutenant, and a bullet wound in his head to show where the officer shot him as he died… there a mere boy is crouched in a corner, his hands before his face as if to shut out the sight of the approaching Nemesis.
The gunners had put up a desperate resistance, for they knew they could expect no mercy.  What was the slogan? “The only good German is a dead one.”
There they lay, their stiffened limbs twisted into grotesque postures, in the gloomy depths of that concrete inferno.  The faces of those whose blood had drained from their veins before they died have turned a ghastly greenish-white; the remainder are a hideous mottled purple and all are horribly distended.
But upon the shield of every captured gun is chalked the number of the battalion and company that wrested it from the hands of the enemy, to be subsequently recorded in the annals of the regiment.  WHAT PRICE GLORY?
The attack moves forward under an ‘iron umbrella’
Meanwhile the battle of 9th October, in which our own infantry were directly concerned and which was designed to effect the final capture of Passchendaele, was well under way.
We at the guns were laying down a barrage upon pre-concerted lines of fire, which advanced a hundred yards every three minutes to enable the advancing troops to keep under the shelter of this ‘iron umbrella’.
At stated intervals we reverted to rapid gunfire, during which period we loaded and blazed away as fast as the empty cartridge cases could be ejected.
Breech mechanisms soon became clogged with mud, and had to be opened and closed with the aid of pick-handles, used as levers, and the pieces themselves soon became so hot that we were compelled to pour water from the nearest shell-hole down the muzzles to cool them and thus prevent the shells jamming in the rifling and exploding inside the barrel.
This sort of accident was not uncommon at such times and would account for the entire detachment as completely as a direct hit.
Nervous wrecks
Soon we began to have visual evidence that our attack was progressing, for wounded infantrymen and scared prisoners came limping past the battery on the quaking corduroy road, many of them plastered with mud beyond the semblance of humanity.
Some of the Germans had been lurking in shell-holes in No Man’s Land for days, not daring to show themselves for fear of being picked off by snipers, and they were just nervous wrecks.
As they passed our battery position they held up their hands and followed our every movement with scared eyes, in case we might decide to shoot them in the back.
A little further down the road half a dozen were squabbling round a discarded biscuit tin for a few broken fragments, like so many starving dogs.
Our own walking wounded were in almost as sorry a plight, their puttees and boots literally sucked off their feet by the mud, which even covered their faces.  Many had nothing but sandbags tied round their feet.
Shell-shock cases appeared to be common and I saw one officer curled up on a stretcher in a ball, like a hedgehog, despite the unavailing efforts of the stretcher bearers to straighten him out.
The courage of the latter was beyond all praise.  Because of the appalling nature of the ground they were forced to carry their stretchers shoulder high, one at each corner.  Often prisoners were formed into stretcher-parties, usually in charge of a red-cross man.
I saw one of these parties blown down by the blast of an exploding shell and thought them all casualties.  But when the flying fragments had ceased to fall, they just picked themselves out of the mud, replaced their burden and staggered on again, although I could see that at least one had been wounded.
With the coming of darkness we were still firing in a desultory fashion and, although we managed to find time for a meal of sorts (bully and biscuits); there was no possibility of sleep during the night.
The infantry, clinging for dear life to their few hard-won acres of shell pitted swamp below Passchendaele, were excessively nervous (small blame to them for that), and we were having constant SOS calls.
In the intervals, as the ground was being swept by retaliatory fire, all the detachments herded together in a captured German concrete emplacement, (pillboxes we called them), just adjoining the battery position.  Although it was ankle deep in water and there was standing room only at least its massive walls of concrete two yards thick guaranteed us protection from flying splinters.
On the following morning this haven of refuge was converted into the battery office and for two nights my detachment and I spent the hours of darkness huddled for shelter under the gun-shield.
Later we found an abandoned tank which we utilised for a dormitory.  Unfortunately during the night we had another SOS and the resultant mix-up, with everyone struggling to scramble through an exceedingly small man-hole, in pitch darkness, while all hell seemed to have been let loose around us, led to some harsh words and reprimands before we finally got into action.
Ultimately we scrounged fifty sandbags and two sheets of corrugated iron, with which we made a splinter-proof shelter of sorts, under which we crawled on our bellies.
But even this proved unsatisfactory, as the sandbags subsided into the mud while we slept, pinning us to the ground, and at the next alarm call we could only escape by pushing off the roof.  After that experience we returned to our gun-shield.
We hand over
Fortunately our casualties were slight and on 16th October we handed over to C/331 Battery.  We left our guns where they were, as we should have needed tanks to haul them out of the quagmire into which they had finally sunk.
This was in spite of the fact that we had done our best to ‘consolidate’ the position, but then, as our Captain sapiently remarked: “How does one consolidate porridge?”
The guns belonging to C/331 were being taken for us to a forward position in the ruins of Zonnebeke and I took an instant dislike to the one allocated to my subsection.
It was obviously a veteran and its shield, on which some wag had painted a white elephant, had been damaged by shellfire and hung at a rakish angle over one wheel, giving it a most disreputable appearance.
The elevating gear was so badly worn that there was some two inches play in the cogs and one could almost see the droop in the piece due to heavy firing.  To compensate for this, one had to add fifty or a hundred yards to the range, varying in accordance with the elevation, but I had so little confidence in this rule-of-thumb scale that I almost invariably added another fifty yards on my own account.
As I was handing over my own gun, preparatory to moving forward to Zonnebeke, there was an unpleasant incident.  A shell burst some distance away and a splinter from it went clean through the head of the relieving corporal, to whom I was just explaining the lines of fire, sending his steel helmet flying into the air.  
Some of his brains spattered on the face of the gun-layer who was sitting on the trail spade and it made him horribly sick, poor lad.  As a result I had to remain with the new battery until they could send up another NCO from the wagons-line to relieve me.
The grim journey past Devil’s Crossing
It was almost daylight when at long last I was relieved from duty at C/331 Battery, and I decided to take a chance and walk forward to our new position in Zonnebeke.
At sunrise the congested traffic on the floating corduroy road vanished as if whisked away by a magic wand and I found myself alone.
It was an eerie feeling to be absolutely cut off from all one’s fellow creatures in the midst of the widespread desolation of the Salient, which stretched out on all sides like a muddy Sahara desert, totally devoid of life.
One imagined that the eye of every Bosche sniper and machine-gunner, from their concrete lurking places on the crest of the Moorsledge ridge, were following every movement or that some officious German FOO was about to turn a section salvo upon the impudent intruder.  There was a hint of menace in the very air.
30-second dash
To make matters worse, I found myself approaching the Devil’s Crossing.  This salubrious spot, which dominated the approach to the village, was formerly an embankment under which one of the innumerable drainage ‘bekes’ was culverted.
Now it was pulverised beyond recognition, being shelled by a heavy battery of 9.2" guns at intervals of thirty seconds, night and day.
Here during the hours of darkness, when it was imperative to get supplies and ammunition forward to the front line, military police and salvage squad were on duty, allowing a single vehicle through after each detonation, with half a minute handicap to reach a safety zone.
Many, of course, failed, and the wreckage was cleared by the simple process of heaving the shattered wagon or limber over the edge of the road into the all-pervading mud, where it speedily sank out of sight and was gone for ever.
When I arrived the place was deserted, but the shells were still falling, and, not knowing the drill, I spent a hectic two minutes dodging one burst after another, which I felt convinced had been staged for my special benefit.
In the course of the next fourteen days I made several more crossings here, but never one where I felt such an overpowering impulse to turn tail and leave the filed of battle to all who liked that sort of thing.
It was after this episode that I found a splinter embedded in the heel of my boot and wryly reflected that, if I hadn’t been lying face-downwards in the mud at the time it would probably have lodged into some vital portion of my anatomy.
Heavy casualties
I found the new battery position on the left of the road, just opposite the huge mound of debris that had been the church.
Although all of the houses had been completely levelled to the ground, there were plenty of cellars for use as dugouts and heaven knows we needed them, for throughout the whole of our brief stay we were shelled bitterly and incessantly with both high explosive and gas - mustard and phosgene.
Soon we were suffering heavy casualties and on 18th October the battery diary records:
“Had three guns knocked out last night & got them away in the morning. Bom. Martin killed & Bdrs. McConville, Starkie, Durham, Gnr. Winter & Williamson wounded. Our four best layers. Very heavy shelling all day & shell storms through the night with an hour of gas. We were very lucky to escape with only Thompson and McMorran wounded, White & Clegg, gas & Caborne & Cottingham slightly wounded.”
But we had no time to waste over ceremony and somehow we galloped hell for leather over the pitiful debris.  I had left my haversack dangling from the rocking-bar sight and when we reached Ordnance I found it soaked in blood.
The official diary says three guns were knocked out: actually there were four, for we had collected an abandoned gun on route and got it into action for some hours until it stopped a direct hit.
How many of us lived through the next few days and remained reasonably sane I shall never know, for we were shelled without respite all round the clock and it became sheer suicide to show one’s nose above ground.
Obviously the Bosche was extremely sensitive about the occupation of Zonnebeke, and was intent on making our stay as lively as possible.
A splinter cut across the front of my tunic, through the leather jerkin I was wearing and every rag I had on, just grazing the skin.  Another damaged my respirator and after the next deluge of gas shells I found I had lost my voice, owing to gas seeping behind the rubber face-piece.
Unlucky day
Friday 19th October was a particularly unlucky day; just on the edge of dark, when we were sitting down to a hurried meal, a wounded gunner from ‘C’ Battery reported that one of their dugouts had blown in and the men were trapped.
We turned out and succeeded in extracting all who were still alive, carrying them down to the RAMC first aid post, an advanced dressing station beyond Devil’s Crossing.
Then we returned weary and plastered with mud, only to learn that our own right section dugout had sustained a direct hit and all the detachments were buried.
That was a big job getting them out in the pitch darkness, particularly as some had legs smashed and had also sustained internal injuries.  Gunner Thompson was killed and six others were wounded or shell-shocked.
All this meant another nightmare journey past Devil’s Crossing, with its interminable salvo every thirty seconds, but somehow we did it and managed to survive.
On the following night my own gun was put out of action and I went down the line with it to the Ordnance Depot for repairs to the buffer.
At Devil’s Crossing there was the usual jam.  A smashed GS wagon and four dead horses lay sprawled across the road, while a dead man’s leg protruded from the wreckage.
A brief rest, then over top with the infantry
Arriving at the Ordnance Repair Depot, which was located outside the ruins of the Convent near Ypres, I reported to the commanding officer, arranged to billet the drivers and gun team and then went to consult with the Corporal Artificer in charge of the repair.  I found him more concerned about myself than my gun.
“What the hell’s going on up yonder?” he queried, staring at me in amazement, “You’re about all in, chum.”
As I had not more than two hours consecutive sleep for over a week, I was literally stumbling with fatigue, whilst my voice was little more than a croak, for I was still suffering from the effects of gas.  Without more ado, he hurried me off to the corporal’s mess, ordered me a hot meal and then pushed me into his bunk in an adjoining Nissen hut.
The clock round
“You don’t move out of there until that gun’s ready,” he said, and I didn’t. In fact I slept the clock round and woke up a new man.
By this time my gun, still with its sinister white elephant on the shield, was fit for action and as good as it was ever likely to be.  The corporal had welded a few patches on the buffer, which was pierced in several places with splinters, but he could do nothing about its general debility, beyond reporting it as unfit for accurate ranging, a fact of which I was already acutely aware.
“That bloody thing’s nothing but a menace, chum.” he said as we shook hands at parting.  “If you’ll take my tip you’ll dump it in the nearest shell-hole on your way up”.
I found the battery working with skeleton crews, having suffered further casualties during my absence.
‘C’ Battery had another dugout knocked in with many casualties, and the Bosche was putting down barrages on us at regular intervals.  On the night of 22nd October, a flurry of shells fell around the pack horses as they halted on the road to unload ammunition and rations, and Campbell was severely shell-shocked.
Too hot to hold
By this time the Major had come to the conclusion that this position was too hot to hold and decided to move the guns forward, clear of the village.
As there was no possibility of getting gun limbers or horses anywhere near, there was nothing for it but to wait for darkness and then man-handle the guns, one by one, across a quarter of a mile of shell churned morass, in which the craters, brimming with water, were sometimes actually touching one another.
After incredible labour, sometimes with as many as twenty sweating gunners heaving on the drag ropes, we succeeded in establishing another position, just as dawn broke amid intermittent squalls of rain.
My detachment presented a sorry spectacle, as one of our drag ropes had broken whilst we were taking the strain, in consequence of which we had all taken a mud bath.
Little better
Unfortunately, our new position proved little better than the old as may be judged from a curious incident a little later.  Turning out for a barrage at 4 a.m., I found my detachment, which should have been on the extreme flank of the battery, in the throes of an argument with the adjoining sub-section, both claiming the same gun.
A brief inspection, with the aid of a pocket torch, revealed that there was no white elephant on the gun-shield, so that it could not have been mine.
Apparently this lop-eared veteran had vanished into thin air, for on our left flank was a vacant shell-pitted waste resembling a lunar landscape more than a stretch of Flemish countryside.
We had no option but to wait until daybreak, when we found the missing gun standing on its muzzle in a deep shell-hole some six yards behind the position, where it had been thrown by a direct hit.  Obviously, it was a complete write-off.
Poor old White Elephant, it may be that its iron soul had been moved to shame by the disparaging words of the Ordnance ‘tiffy’ and it had taken him literally at his word.
But somehow I was loath to part company; I had a soft spot in my heart for the black sheep of the battery.  After all, it had grown old and decrepit fighting for King and Country and besides, there is or ought to be a sentimental link between an artilleryman and his gun.
Attack scheduled
Being left ‘spare I was told to report to the officer’s mess the following day to take part in an attack by the Canadians, scheduled for the next morning.  I was to act as understudy for the FOO, who was with the infantry on liaison duty with a couple of signallers, in the event of him becoming a casualty.
After carefully noting my orders and synchronising my watch, I returned to my dugout and was trying to snatch a few hours sleep when a shell burst on the officer’s mess.  We turned out to find the Major had been wounded, fortunately not severely, and with some difficulty we got him down the line, although it was still broad daylight.
When we reported that night at the Canadian battalion Headquarters the infantry Major noted with some surprise that was not carrying a rifle, although (in accordance with King’s Regulations) I wore a bandolier with 50 rounds of ammunition.  I explained that normally each sub-section of 25 men had only six rifles, and that these were usually kept strapped to the limbers.
“And what are you expected to do with these goddam cartridges?” he snapped, “Throw ‘em at the Bosche?”, and he flung his own revolver and lanyard across the dugout towards me.  “Hang on to those till you come back.” He went on. “You may need ‘em.”
Like a dream
I have only a confused recollection of going over the top next morning after the barrage lifted.  The attack seems to have followed the usual pattern: after stumbling forward a couple of hundred yards the survivors were held up by uncut wire and forced to take cover.
Shells seemed to be plastering every inch of the earth’s surface and the rattle of machine-guns beat a devils’ tattoo around our ears.
Somehow we artillerymen lost touch with the infantry and as day dawned we saw German steel helmets bobbing above the skyline and realised we were almost on top of an advanced post.
Fortunately we were able to take cover on the lee side of a pillbox and after lying doggo for half an hour, we managed to retrace our steps without a single casualty.  I wish I could have said as much for the Canadians.
It is only when a man finds himself going over the top in the eerie light of daybreak, with all hell let loose around him, that he begins to realise what a futile thing war really is.
At such a time he ceases to be afraid; he just becomes numb inside, a senseless automaton actuated by one desperate impulse, to reach the distant objective through the devil’s dance of flying projectiles and there take cover.
Things happen to him as if in a dream;  clods of earth plaster him from nearby shell bursts, he sees men stumble and fall around him almost with an air of detachment, as if he himself were living on another plane of existence, an observer from a fourth dimension.
And yet all the time his heart is saying “O God, get me out of this alive.” And sometimes God hears his prayer.
The price of 500 yards of swamp
Two days after my hectic experience on liaison duty the battery was relieved by the 17th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery.  By this time we had got our guns into such an inextricable position that it seemed as if no power on earth could get them back to dry land, and so it was arranged that the Canadians took over the whole site as it was and handed over their own guns to us.
Unfortunately, the best laid schemes of mice and men ‘gang aft agley’, as the Ayrshire bard has it, and half an hour before we were due for relief Jerry began plastering the position with everything he had got, which was plenty.
So that when the Commonwealth detachments arrived, under the command of a very youthful captain, they found us ‘gone to earth’ in a number of shell-holes well clear of the zone of fire, from which we were watching the mournful spectacle of our guns and ammunition dumps going up in smoke.
I shall never forget that young Captain’s face when we made ourselves known to him and pointed out to him his new position.  He told us briefly and tersely that he had no intention of leading his men into that death trap.
We quite understood his feelings, gave him our best wishes and left hurriedly by the nearest duck board track.
The author of the battery diary has left it on record that he didn’t think the Canadians ever got to the position and it may be that those self-same guns are still there, deeply buried in the unfathomable mud just below the crest at Passchendaele.
Perhaps some day I will organise an expedition and find out: the show would make an admirable television feature.
But meanwhile we were content to put as great a distance as possible between ourselves and the frontline.
To use a good Lancastrian phrase, we thought we had ‘done our nook’ for the time being.  In point of fact, many of us were in the last stages of exhaustion and all were suffering from nervous strain.
For my part, I was still weak from recurrent fits of nausea as a result of the gas I had swallowed, while for several days after we were back at rest in billets near Estaires, I found myself afflicted by a nervous tremor in all my limbs which effectually prevented me from writing home for quite a while.
I put it down to a mild form of shell-shock, but it was unpleasant enough while it lasted.
However, during this brief period of recuperation, while our new guns were being collected and overhauled and reinforcements were arriving to bring our depleted detachments up to strength, we found the relief from tension highly efficacious and our morale somewhat shaken by the hammering we had sustained, was soon as high as ever.
Youthful resilience is a wonderful thing and hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Grim tidings
I was intensely interested to learn how our own divisional infantry had fared during the attack of 9th October and I took every opportunity of chance encounters in estaminets and billets to contact any of the men of 196th and 197th Brigades, who had been the spearhead of the attack.
From what I then learnt by word of mouth, and from what I have read since, I have been able to form a fairly accurate picture of how they fared, and the extent of their casualties.  Its outlines are pretty grim.
In that single attack the 66th divisional infantry lost no fewer than 8,119 men, a terrible price to pay for a gain of some 500 yards of untenable swamp.
Yet so outstanding was their gallantry that in a special communiqué Sir Douglas Haig permitted the heavy veil of censorship to be withdrawn so far as to name the regiments concerned as having captured all of their objectives “under the most trying and difficult circumstances with great determination and gallantry.”
In their dour advance they fought their way forward towards the crest until some units of 197th Brigade actually pushed forward into Passchendaele itself, for when the village was finally captured on 6th November, the victorious troops were amazed to find the bodies of a number of Lancashire Territorials of 66th Division.
Their supreme sacrifice is today perpetuated by a stained glass window in Passchendaele church.
Walked forward
Here is the story of an eye-witness:
“As the British walked forward, German machine gunners began to play on the advancing waves of men, their bullets lashing and spurting from the pill-boxes and from behind parapets.  In the flame and clamour and greasy smoke the British slogged forward deliberately, almost unhurriedly.
“They moved from crater to crater, but even in the craters they were not safe, for the German gunner’s streamed bullets against the edges of the holes and wounded many men lying near the rim… In their fear of drowning beneath the slime they tried to grip the legs of their comrades, who struggled to break free.
“The first wave almost melted away; the second one splashing forward also seemed to dissolve; the third wave melted into the chaos of the first and second: and later waves blundered into the remnants of the others.
“The stretch of uncut wire that stopped 66th Division would have stopped anybody.  As they struggled to free themselves, German machine-gunners worked them over.
“Their limbs jerked when the bullets smacked home.  Some ripped off their clothes and when killed were almost naked and often were accompanied in death by friends trying to help them get loose.
“The few field pieces in position to cover the advance were worked with extra fury by gunners mostly stripped to the waits despite the cold wind.  The noisy little guns rattled and roared without let-up.  The approaches to the gun positions were a litter of dead horses, refuse, scattered shell casings, live ammunition and stranded wagons.”
Such was the fate of 196th Brigade.  It was the men of 197th Brigade who penetrated into Passchendaele, only to find that they had no support in either flank and so were compelled to fall back.
Bad luck
The men of 196th Brigade were even more unlucky.  They jumped off exactly to time, their left flank on the flooded Ravebeke and their objective a line 700 yards short of the village.
Unexpectedly they stumbled into a number of derelict, water-logged trenches and while negotiating these were enfiladed by machine-guns from pill-boxes a few hundred yards to the flank.
The survivors flopped into the nearest crater and awaited developments.  They remained pinned down on this spot until they were finally ordered to withdraw.
The final casualty figure for 2/5th East Lancashire (Blackburn) Battalion were 12 officers and 335 other ranks killed and wounded.  I have not the details of the losses of the Manchesters or the Lancashire Fusiliers, but know they lost at least half their effective strength.
No wonder the men lost faith!
Passchendaele was finally captured on 6th November by the 2nd Canadian Division. 
For three years British soldiers had watched its little church tower, built of reddish brick with quoins of milk-white stone, gradually crumble away under the incessant shellfire.  When the Third Battle of Ypres began it was already half ruined and now it was shelled with ever increasing ferocity until it gradually vanished, pounded and pulverised into the very earth which contained the dead of many generations of Flemish peasantry.
Now the Canadians, smoking cigarettes and trailing their rifles as they walked over the site, could hardly grasp the idea that it had once been a flourishing village.  An aerial photograph of the spot reveals nothing but pill-boxes and shell holes.
In tears
The following day Lieutenant General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, Sir Douglas Haig’s Chief-of-staff, paid his first visit to the fighting zone.  As his staff car lurched through the interminable swamps he became more and more agitated.
Finally he burst into tears and muttered, “Good God, did we really send them to fight in that?”
The man beside him, who had been through the campaign, replied tonelessly, “It’s worse farther on up.”
Incredible as it may seem, the brass-hats at GHQ had no idea of the conditions in which they had condemned the flower of the British Army to struggle and perish.
No wonder the men lost faith in their commanders, who worked out of their elaborate plans of campaign by map references in some comfortable château far removed from the squalid realities of the firing line.
Aloof and godlike in this rarefied atmosphere, they issued their decrees and then wondered mildly why, instead of capturing their objectives, in accordance with their strategic scheme, the doomed battalions lay down and perished in the mud.  It never occurred to them to go and find out for themselves.
Hearts sank
However, this is all by the way and meanwhile the Battery is still at rest behind the line.  After two weeks of comparative idleness, during which we were able to refit, hopes were freely expressed that in view of the hammering we had so recently sustained, we might be entrained for a quiet front, possibly on the Somme.
When marching orders were received in due course and map cases opened, we had a shock.  It became only too obvious that our destination was again to be that sinister wedge of shell-swept earth we had recently left, the inexorable Salient.
I am not ashamed to admit that, when the truth became known, my heart sank into my boots.  But there was nothing we could do about it and by 10th November we were on the move again, reaching a camp at Reninghelst knee-deep in mud.
Here I did a strange thing.  I had become convinced in my own mind that I should not emerge from a second dose of the Salient alive that I wrote two letters, one to my parents and one to a certain young lady, and marked on the envelopes that they were only to be forwarded in the event of my death.
These I tucked away in my army pay book, which I always carried in my breast pocket next to my heart.
They were never needed, but ever since that day I have been extremely suspicious of presentiments or psychic manifestations of any kind.  I am now of opinion that they usually emanate from an upset stomach.  Many a ghost, having its origin in a fragment of undigested cheese, could have been laid by a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.
Actually, when we did get into action in a position near Tokio Farm, where we took over from the ANZACS, we found that the front had quietened down considerably since our previous visit, although there was still a good deal of desultory shelling of crossroads and duckboard tracks.
Just before Christmas, to our extreme disgust, we had to move forward to a new position.  It was in an area where some severe fighting had taken place and the ground was simply littered with dead Germans.
Most of the bodies had been relieved of their boots, belt buckles and epaulettes, the work of ghoulish souvenir hunters, and I recall that we buried no fewer than eight corpses that were lying between the guns.
It was a white Christmas that year and under a pall of newly fallen snow the Salient in spite of its ominous litter of wrecked pill-boxes and derelict tanks, seemed almost peaceful.
Had it not been for the rumble of an occasional 12-inch howitzer shell high overhead, one might have thought that Christ’s message of peace on earth and goodwill to all men had penetrated even to the trenches.
But in ruined Passchendaele there was no fraternisation, for from time to time we could hear the staccato rattle of the machine-guns or the boom of a heavy trench mortar bomb bursting in some traverse.
Life at the guns during this period took on an artic atmosphere, accentuated by the weird and wonderful garments we affected to protect us from the extreme cold.  Had a casual visitor seen a sentry on duty enveloped in muffler and cap comforter, his tunic augmented by a fleece-lined leather jerkin and his lower extremities encased in sandbags, he might have imagined he had stumbled across a colony of Eskimos.
In this humdrum fashion, except for one week I spent in a rest camp at Abeele owing to a recurrence of my throat and tummy trouble thanks to that infernal dose of gas, my comrades and I completed our second tour of duty in the Salient, until, in early February, the order came through for us to pull out.
After the hectic days in October, it was something of an anti-climax to creep away quietly from the dreaded salient, but we left behind us man poignant memories, of comrades sleeping in ‘some corner of a foreign filed that is for ever England.’
The sentiment sounds trite enough today when western civilization seems to be slowly disintegrating under the stress of material progress without faith, but in those faraway days it was very vivid and very real.
But the world was younger then.
Ten precious days of rest – but a hint of tension
Towards the end of January, just before we were due to pull out from the Salient, I received orders to report to the Army Artillery School at Tilques to take a refresher course in gunnery.  Although it seemed to me that I was in a position to teach the instructors a thing or two about such matters, particularly in circumstances of extreme difficulty, still, orders are orders, so I packed my kit and left for the wagon line.
At the battery office the captain gave me his blessing and told me I should have to make my own way to the school, which was only a matter of some 15 kilometres behind the line.
Only 15 kilometres?  I have already spoken of the ridiculous equipment of the field artilleryman – haversack, water bottle, gas helmet, box respirator, bandolier, steel helmet, map case, rifle and what have you all dangling loosely from his shoulders and rattling with every stride.
Add to all of these impedimenta a roll of two blankets and a groundsheet and you have a picture of me hobbling along one of the interminable French roads, with its endless avenues of poplars, vainly thumbing a lift from every passing lorry.
Unfortunately, Tilques seemed to be the one place they were all trying to avoid and so, reluctantly enough, I began to discard my equipment and dump it by the roadside.  Needs must when the devil drives, and by the time I reported at the training school I was travelling in skeleton order.
It was snowing and bitterly cold, so that I was glad to snatch a hurried meal and find a bed in the nearest hutment.
A hard-hearted QMS had flatly refused to issue me with blankets (he was probably well aware that I had dumped my own), so I slit open the top of my palliasse and shuffled in among the straw, thus making an improvised sleeping bag.  Not exactly palatial, but it sufficed.
The complete change of surroundings, combined with a gruelling instruction course, did me a power of good.
The camp was located in a beautiful rural area, a pastoral countryside of bosky valleys and rolling downs, upon which we could stage mock battles to our heart’s content.
In fact I thoroughly enjoyed myself and my enjoyment must have been reflected in my work, for shortly after my return to the Battery, was staggered to receive the following unsolicited testimonial.  I reproduce it for two reasons; firstly, because in an earlier article I strongly criticised the powers that be (or rather were) for their indifference to the welfare of the rank and file, and, secondly, because it is the only occasion on which I figured (at least in a creditable sense) in divisional orders.
It ran as follows:
“The CRA 66th Divisional Artillery congratulates you on the excellent report you have obtained at the recent 2nd Army Artillery School.  You have done credit to your Battery and your Divisional Artillery.”
Somewhere, behind that forbidding façade of red tabs and gold braid that constituted GHQ, a fatherly eye was watching over us; somewhere, behind a beri-boned breast; a human heart was rejoicing in our successes and sorrowing in our shortcomings.  It was a chastening thought.
Major Carus, who had only just joined us and could not be expected to know the calibre of his NCOs, took the matter far more seriously than I did myself.  On the strength of the instructors report, that I was “one of the best and most intelligent NCOs on the course, deserving promotion to a higher rank,” (all pure ‘bull’), I found myself burdened with another stripe and in charge (under adequate supervision of course), of an ambitious programme of training sent down from DHQ.
At last 66th Division, which formed part of General Gough’s Fifth Army, was under orders to move to another front, shifting ground from the extreme left to the extreme right of the British line, in the vicinity of St. Quentin.
In the Battery there were great rejoicings at the prospect, for some of the more knowledgeable among us declared that this front was simply a ‘rest-cure’.  Little did they know.
On 17th February 1918 we entrained at Proven, arriving at Guillancourt about 8.15 the following evening.
Facilities for detraining were very poor and only those who have taken part in the task of manhandling heavy guns and wagons along a line of flat railway track in pitch darkness, guided only by the fitful light of a pocket torch and a stream of vituperation from the mouth of a sergeant-major, can have any conception of the resultant shambles.
The horses, poor things, were far more amenable, being only too glad to escape from their crowded confinement, but it was two hours before the last gun trundled on the road to Cayaux, where our billets were located.
Familiar formulae
Next day there was a healthful nip of frost in the air, in spite of brilliant sunshine, but the sight of so much green unspoiled country, with unlimited prospects of grazing on real grass and drinking unchlorinated water, did much to revive the spirits of our drooping animals.
As for ourselves, it was enough to be away from the acrid smell of burnt cordite and the scream of bursting shells.
There followed ten halcyon days of rest and recuperation, providing an opportunity of reviving our long-forgotten gun drill.  Soon the air was ringing with shouts of “Without drag-ropes, prepare to advance.” & “Halt – action, front” and the sound of the old familiar formulas fell pleasantly on the ear, bringing back memories of happy days in ‘Blighty’.
But already there was a hint of tension in the air and rumours of a new Bosche offensive in overwhelming force, led by highly trained storm troops lately released from the Russian front by the Bolshevik surrender.  It was all part of the ever changing pattern of war.
Front line ‘Bull’ as we wait for the storm
On 3rd March the Major took three guns into action, relieving part of ‘A’ Battery, 107th Brigade, and on the following day the rest of the battery came up.  As it was misty weather, both changeovers were accomplished in broad daylight and I have since thought that this was probably a grave mistake.  There were occasional gaps in the mist and it seems quite possible that the relief was spotted by a reconnaissance plane.  This would account for the uncanny accuracy with which the whole battery position was subsequently pulverised out of existence, despite the fact that prior to the attack not more than half a dozen ‘bracketing’ shots had been dropped anywhere near.
The position we had taken over had originally been prepare by the French and was intended to accommodate their somewhat diminutive 75mm field guns.
As a result we had some difficulty in squeezing our larger pieces into the pits, particularly as it was our practice to stack several hundred rounds of live ammunition on each side of the gun.
Sinister hint
Our own pit, however, had a good, solid roof of logs and sandbags and that was all we were worried about.  The actual site consisted of a deep trench sunk well into the chalky soil, although the parado left much to be desired and sandbag revetments were practically non-existent.
There was access to the gun-pits on the side nearest the front line, and the men’s dugouts were behind.  On the right flank was a deep dugout for the battery staff, on the top of which was perched a Lewis gun.
The sight of this gun gave us something of a shock.  It was the first occasion on which one of these handy little guns had been set up on the battery position and it seemed to hint in sinister fashion that somebody was expecting a breakthrough.
For the time being, however, all was quiet on the Western Front; the countryside in the vicinity of the battery was virtually untouched by shellfire; counter-battery work was non-existent and so we proceeded to settle down and make ourselves comfortable.
White as snow
Even up at the guns, spit and polish was the order of the day; everything that could be burnished shone like silver and everything that could be ‘blanco-d’ gleamed as white as driven snow from drag ropes to the very lanyards of the fuse-keys.
In my own gun-pits, by way of a special effort, I recall, we burnished all the tools, spanners, screw drivers, oil cans, claw hammers… the lot… and hung them neatly on a whitewashed board for all to see and duly admire.  I wonder what the Bosche thought of it when he ultimately overran the position.
Nevertheless the feeling of tension persisted; No.1s slept fully dressed, with an electric torch handy and box respirators hanging from a nail over their heads.  There were three guns, including my own, on the main position, two in a forward section and one expressly detailed for anti-tank work in a carefully camouflaged hide-out.
The detachment had been supplied with special armour piercing ammunition; with strict instructions to fire at nothing but tanks over open sights.  But most disconcerting was the fact that the enemy gunners left us severely alone.
It gave one an uncanny feeling to realise that, little more than a mile away, across that green, rolling down-land dotted with fir woods that constituted No-Man’s-Land, a mighty offensive, the most overwhelming the world had ever known , was poised waiting to be launched.  We were living on the edge of a volcano.
Fearful odds
What was Gough’s Fifth Army really up against?
We know now that it was holding a front of over thirty miles with only eleven divisions in which every brigade (thanks to the Passchendaele holocaust), had been reduced from four to three battalions.
On the opposite side of the line, awaiting the signal that would release their unprecedented weight of men and metal like an uncoiled spring were no fewer than forty-three German divisions, most of them fresh from the Russian front and intensively trained for the special task facing them.
Our own infantry, belonging to 66th Division, took up their position somewhat to the left, with the 16th and 29th divisions on either flank, in the vicinity of Hargicourt Wood, some three miles in advance of Roisel, while we covered them from a position in front of Hervilly.
The front line was not a continuous trench system, but was made up merely of a disconnected series of short trenches and redoubts, protected by poorly wired advance positions.
Only on paper
In our rear was an excellent system of defence in depth, but unfortunately it only existed on paper.
There were any amount of ‘lines’ and enfilading points, all carefully marked out on the map as ‘the green line’, ‘the brown line’, in fact lines of all the colours of the rainbow, but the majority were just scratches on the ground, some, indeed, had been traced in outline by the removal of a few inches of turf but for the most part they were just pegged and taped.
The truth was that Haig was still bitten by the Flanders bug.  He did not believe, until a late hour, that the Germans really meant to attack and he was actually planning to renew his abortive attacks in the Salient as soon as the weather permitted.
It seems incredible, but Lloyd George in his Memoirs makes the fact abundantly clear.  “A month after he (Haig) took over the French line (he writes) there were only 626 labourers allocated to the preparation of the defences of the Fifth Army.”  This was out of a total labour force of over 300,000.
“The result was (he goes on) that when the attack came, the defences were found to be utterly inadequate either to offer resistance or to delay the German masses.”
Once more it was to be a defence of makeshift and improvisation, such as the British troops seemed fated to endure all through the war.
The storm breaks – like a vast convulsion of nature
Late on the evening of March 20th a runner came round to the Battery to warn us that the expected attack would most probably be launched the following morning. We were not disposed to give the information much credence, however, for only a week before a “prepare for attack” warning had come through about midnight and as a result we were compelled to stand-to throughout the whole of a bitterly cold, frosty night and it was not until 7 a.m. that the order “Resume normal conditions” came along.
But this time it was to be the real thing. Although there was not order to stand-to, we decided to sleep in the gun-pit in order to be ready for all emergencies.
I found a tiny niche sandwiched between the entrance to the pit, (which was protected from infiltrating gas by a double blanket) and an ammunition rack containing two hundred live rounds of NCT and cordite.
Here I curled up in an impromptu sleeping bag and read Palgrave’s Golden Treasury by the light of a dripping candle stuck in a bottle.
Somehow, although I wasn’t feeling particularly nervous I couldn’t get to sleep and several times I took a stroll in the trench outside.
It was a lovely, starlit night, although there were trails of mist in the hollows and all along the frontline, towards which our gun muzzles were pointing menacingly, the silent, dazzling arcs of innumerable Verey lights lit up the surrounding countryside like an immense three-dimensional photograph in black and white. Obviously the infantry were as restless as we were.
Inside the gun-pit I had made certain that everything that could be done had been done and double checked.
The gun was laid on the correct SOS line, with a round in the breech; fifty shrapnel fuses had been set to correspond with the sliding scale on the fuse indicator; canvas buckets were filled with water and a number of ammunition boxes filled with sand in case of fire; every man’s respirator and steel helmet was within easy reach; each individual on the detachment knew his job backwards and we all had our rum ration.
Like a top
About midnight an order came down from Battery office that a gunner must stay on guard outside the entrance to the pit in order to pass on verbal messages.
This looked like business and so, having posted my man, with instructions that he should be relieved in an hour, I turned in.
Now that the uncertainty was over, I fell asleep immediately and slept like a top. Now I understand the meaning of the cryptic phrase; “The condemned man passed a good night.”
A few minutes before 4.30 a. m. according to instructions, I was awakened by the sentry and the detachment stood-to.
The silence was almost uncanny; from the frontline not even the stutter of a machine-gun served to remind us that there was a war on. It was almost as though every soldier on that widely extended front from Arras to St. Quentin had been turned into stone.
Elemental fury
Then at 4.30 precisely the storm broke, with an elemental fury that was simply unbelievable.
The quiet night air was torn by the screams and thunder of a pitiless deluge of bursting shells; shells of every type and calibre, shrapnel, H. E., gas and incendiary.
It burst upon the battery position like some vast convulsion of nature, as if the solid earth was disintegrating and crumbling away in a welter of flame.
I had experienced quite a number of enemy ‘strafes’ at one time or another, but never anything like this. Here is the prosaic version of the battery official diary:
“Were warned last night to expect Bosche attack. At 4.30 tremendous barrage opened on whole front. All communications went in the first few minutes & owing to a thick fog visual was useless & SOS rockets not seen. Runners took hours to get through if they got through at all, owing to the fog & barrage & the valley being flooded with gas. The Battery fired on “Counter Preparation”. In the first half hour all three guns at the main position were knocked out with many casualties & the Tank Gun suffered the same fate without being able to see a target. The two guns at the forward section kept going to the last & finished up with open sights as the Bosche came over the crest and withdrew with breech blocks. Hardly any of the inf. came through the Battery and it was difficult to realise what was happening. When the main three guns were knocked out the Major took the men back to B/331 position where there had been casualties to men but guns intact. They manned these & supplied them with ammunition & defended the position with rifles till the guns were destroyed. The supply of ammunition was very difficult owing to the fog & gas & very few packs got through. For most of the day the Battery was isolated as no orders came through from Group. The men collected at the wagon line which during the night was moved to a cavalry camp near Courcelle.”
Thus far the official version. It differs in some respects from my recollections of that eventful day.
A direct hit and a miraculous escape
It was still pitch dark in the early morning of that fateful day, March 21st, 1918, when I was roused by a battery signaller shaking me by the shoulder. I yawned and looked at my watch. Exactly 4 a. m., thirty minutes before zero hour.
“All right, chaps, now show a leg,” I called to the detachment. “This is it.” And I recollect a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar kept running through my mind, for no reason… “If you have tears prepare to shed them now.”
However, instead of weeping together, we took the more sensible course of ceremonially sharing a last cigarette and then climbing into our respective positions on the gun.
Then we waited, for what seemed like an eternity, passing the time in desultory conversation. I even cracked a few jokes, but they sounded vaguely unconvincing, even to my partial ears.
The barrage
Then, without the slightest warning, the Bosche barrage crashed down with the insensate fury of a hurricane, crumbling and disintegrating the solid earth around us, and after that all was chaos.
As it was obvious that no orders could possibly come through, I gave the signal to commence retaliatory fire but within seconds the gun was out of action.
A direct hit had demolished the side of the gun-pit, smashed the near gun-wheel and tilted the piece sideways so that it was completely out of action.
Several of the detachment were wounded, although none seriously, but the constant scream of passing projectiles and the incessant, deafening explosion of heavy calibre shells, H.E., shrapnel, incendiary and gas which fell all about us with the staccato beat of drum-fire, made it impossible to communicate except by sign.
To add to our difficulties, we were compelled to wear our box respirators, for poison gas was seeping in through a dozen vents and the air was acrid with its fumes.
So, dazed and helpless, we just sat where we were, gritted our teeth and took it.
Finally, a second direct hit penetrated the roof of the pit, burst on the breech within a yard from where I knelt holding the traversing lever, exploding our own ammunition as it detonated. All I recall was a blinding flash and then oblivion.
When I cam to my senses I found myself lying in the ruins of the trench just behind the gun. I must owe my life to the fact that I was kneeling directly in front of the entrance to the gun-pit and had been blown by the terrific blast clean through the narrow tunnel.
Dazed and shocked, I was conscious of a dreadful pain in my groin and, having seen something of the frightful mess a splinter can make in what red-cross orderlies casually referred to as ‘abdominals’ it was some time before I could force myself to investigate.
What an escape. A red-hot splinter had been deflected by a bunch of keys in my pocket leaving s mark on every key as if it had been scored by an acetylene cutter, and gouged a scorched wound across the inside of my thigh and then passed between my legs. It even burnt the lap of my shirt but I had no complaints about that.
Actually, I had escaped in a miraculous fashion and although, further investigation revealed that my right leg had been peppered with a dozen minute fragments of shell case, some of which were embedded in the bone, I had no internal injuries and nothing was broken.
But what of the detachment? By this time it was almost daylight and the enemy barrage was beginning to lift. It was then that I noticed the survivors of an infantry company manning the trench to form a defensive flank against what was obviously an extensive German break-though on our immediate left.
I explained the position to a youthful subaltern, who at once detailed two of his men to join me. Then I scrambled back into the smouldering inferno that had once been our gun-pit, to hunt for survivors.
Two of the detachment were obviously past human help but a stifled groan from among the debris led me to two crumpled figures lying alongside the trail. Both had extensive injuries, including smashed limbs and both had lost a good deal of blood.
We got them both out into the open and applied tourniquets to the arterial bleeding. Then we lowered them gently into an adjoining dugout, which by some strange chance still retained its roof. Here the young officer joined me.
“They look in a bad way,” he said softly. “Do you think they have a chance?”
I shrugged my shoulders. One of the men was already unconscious but the other was sweating with pain.
“I have a few morphine tablets in my wallet,” said the sub., hesitantly. “Do you think…”
“For heaven’s sake, give him one,” I said, “Just wait till I scrounge a water bottle.”
I borrowed a flask from one of the infantrymen outside and the wounded man drank avidly. I went back out with the bottle, for I thought its owner would need it badly before the day was out. But I need not have troubled. All that remained of the unfortunate infantryman was his steel helmet perched on top of a mound of smoking rubble and his dead hand protruding a little below. Poor chap, to use a pregnant army phrase, he had got one all to himself.
The barrage closed down again, and as there seemed nothing else I could do, I remained with the wounded men until fresh orders came along. Soon after the man who had been unconscious died.
Then a strange thing happened. I saw a groping hand emerge from beneath the blanket covering poor S. the sole survivor of my detachment.
It was if the departing spirit, on the threshold of eternity, wished to make some human contact, to sense human companionship, before taking its last journey into the unknown. Moved by a sudden impulse, I gripped those reaching-out fingers and held on to them until they relaxed in death. It was all I could do.
A 100-yard race with life as the prize
It must have been about 11 a. m. (my watch had stopped: obviously another case of shell-shock), when at last the Bosche barrage finally lifted and extended as far as the sunken road about 100 yards behind our position.
The relief on one’s nerves and ear drums, after hours of intensive bombardment, was a positive luxury, but we were not to enjoy it long.
Hardly had we become conscious of the blessed silence when a grim-visaged infantry sergeant poked his helmeted head into the dugout.
“Any walking wounded cases in here?” he asked.
I looked at my pal H., of “E” sub-section, who had sustained an arm wound.
“Only two, I’m afraid,” I replied, “But we need some stretcher-bearers badly.”
“Stretcher-bearers my foot,” he laughed hysterically “You’d better skip out quickly: Jerry’s on top of us.”
There were half a dozen stretcher cases in the dugout to evacuate the trench meant leaving them behind. On the other hand, there seemed little point in allowing ourselves to be captured, or likely as not, bayoneted by a triumphant enemy.
A picture of that other captured German battery I had seen in the Salient flashed through my mind in all its stark horror and I decided to make a dash for freedom. H. had already come to the same conclusion.
The only chance
Cautiously we peered over the wrecked parado. Sure enough, there the grey-clad figures were, dozens of them, strung out in line and stumbling across the smoking and shell-pitted ground at a jog-trot, each man with his bayoneted rifle resting on his hip.
They were little more than 100 yards away and we had not so much as a pea-shooter to defend ourselves with. We had to make up our minds and make then up quickly.
“The sunken road,” I gasped. “It’s our only chance,”
H. nodded; he was always a youth of few words. Then we took a final look at the approaching Bosche obviously intent on capturing the battery position; shook hands ceremoniously and bolted over the parapet like two scared rabbits. And we were scared enough, believe me.
Soon bullets were whistling around us, apparently from all points of the compass; halfway across H. fell head over heels, with a bullet graze across his calf but he picked himself up and was off once more.
An instant later I felt a tremendous blow on my left arm, almost jolting it from the socket and leaving it numb. I thought for a moment it had been hit by a stone; then I saw the arterial blood pumping down my fingers and knew I had stopped a bullet.
Like an eternity
Looking back after all these years it seems incredible that we both should have escaped so lightly. Probably we owed our lives to the fact that the advancing Bavarians were in so great a hurry to reach their objective that they had no time to stop and fire at us from the shoulder. Instead, they shot from the hip as they advanced, maybe they even though they would give us a sporting chance, but that is one thing I shall never know.
Suffice to say that, after a lapse of time that seemed like an eternity, we both rolled into the sunken road and were, for a moment, under cover.
Here, as I was losing a great deal of blood, H. managed to check the bleeding with a pad from his emergency field dressing and then we were off once more.
The road ran parallel with the frontline for a distance of about half a mile and we were able to follow it to the end, stumbling along the skirt of the barrage, which had again lifted a few yards.
Occasionally a shell falling short helped to hasten our lagging footsteps and there was one hair-raising episode when a 12" howitzer shell buried itself at our feet and then failed to explode, another instance of the incredible luck that persisted all through that eventful day.
The last away
It had been our intention to make for an advanced dressing station which we knew had been set up in the vicinity of Hargicourt, but as we approached the sight of a dozen familiar grey-clad, jack-booted infantrymen warned us that Jerry had already taken over.
So we veered off in the direction of Roisel, where ultimately we were picked up by a horse drawn field ambulance. It was the last to get away; another example of the kindly workings of providence.
And with that final episode, (although I did not know it at the time), my spell of active service came to an end.
My subsequent experience in ‘Blighty,’ including two hectic gunnery courses at Woolwich and Larkhill and my final posting as instructor to a 6" howitzer officer’s cadet school (a typical example of official blundering, in view of the fact that I was an 18 pounder, field gunner) is another story.
Greater evils
A final word, casualties incurred by all combatants in the First World War have been estimated at upwards of 30 millions but in my view that was not the greatest evil arising from this colossal piece of human folly.
In its train it released vast, inchoate forces of evil and disruption which are still running rampant throughout the world and are gradually undermining the strength and stability of western civilization.  Wherever we choose to look, ominous cracks appear; the general decline in moral standards, widespread social unrest, bitter racial antagonisms, irreligion, and a lack of purpose in educational training… one could extend the list almost indefinitely.
If we are to survive, these problems must be faced and overcome here and now; failure to meet them can only lead to atomic war… and beyond that lies the abyss.
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