The real-life Indiana Jones, the First World War, and the Natural History Museum

If you have ever visited the Natural History Museum in London you will no doubt have seen the statue of Charles Darwin on the main staircase in the Central Hall. You may however be forgiven for paying less attention to a large bronze bust mounted high on the wall to the left of Darwin.

Selous memorial

This is in fact a memorial to a First World War casualty; panels either side of the bust state ‘Captain Frederick C. Selous DSO, Hunter, Explorer & Naturalist, Born 1851, Killed in Action at Beho Beho, German East Africa, 4.1.1917’. Selous was a true Victorian explorer and reputedly the inspiration behind H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer Allan Quatermain, who in turn heavily influenced the character of Indiana Jones.

Selous was born in London on 31st December 1851. After attending Rugby School he never really settled in England and in 1871 went to South Africa where he became a big game hunter and ivory trader. He was often commissioned to secure trophies for dealers and museums, including many specimens held by the Natural History Museum, hence the reason for his memorial there.

Selous wrote about his experiences in the 1881 book A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, and the 1893 book Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa amongst others. In 1893 he was involved in the First Matabele War, acting as a guide in the expedition organised by Cecil Rhodes. He could also count American President Theodore Roosevelt among his friends.

When war broke out in 1914 Selous was 62; he repeatedly tried to enlist but was denied due to his age. However he was eventually successful in gaining a commission with the25th Royal Fusiliers (the Legion of Frontiersmen). He was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1915 and Captain in August of the same year.

Given his experience it is hardly surprising that he ended up taking part in the campaign in German East Africa, led by General Smuts. He was Mentioned in Despatches on 30th June 1916 and awarded the DSO on 26th September 1916, the citation reading “For conspicuous gallantry, resource and endurance. He has set a magnificent example to all ranks, and the value of his services with the battalion cannot be overestimated.”

One of his last letters home was written to his wife on Christmas Day 1916: “We are on the eve on an attack on the Germans out here. Their lines here are quite close to ours, our forces are gathering, and we shall now attack their lines in several places simultaneously in a few days. Our forces are terribly depleted principally from sickness. The German forces are sure to be entrenching, and as they still have a number of machine guns, it may be no child’s play attacking their positions, and we may meet with heavy losses.”


Frederick Courtenay Selous, DSO

Selous was killed in action whilst leading his company in an attack on Beho Beho on 4th January 1917. He had just turned 65. A corporal from Selous’ battalion gave an account of his death: “He was not killed instantaneously, as I fought over him for fully ten minutes. He was shot in the head, but this wound was not the cause of his death; this wound was caused by a splinter some half an hour previous to the action fought on the hills outside the village of Beho Beho, and when Captain Selous was asked if he was wounded he stated that it was nothing very much and insisted on going on. He went over the ridges at Beho Beho and was kneeling near a small tree, and was seen after the action had been in progress for about 15 minutes to drop his rifle. I immediately went over to him and stayed with him for fully ten minutes before he received his fatal wound, and then I carried or dragged him to the rear of a small hill and there he died.” Corporal B. Davis, 32667, 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.

Selous was buried in Tanganyika, in the game park that is now known as the Selous Game Reserve. He is also commemorated on Pirbright war memorial, along with his son Captain Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous, Royal Flying Corps, who was killed in action on 4th January 1918 – the anniversary of his father’s death.

The plaque to Selous is not the only war memorial in the Natural History Museum…but that’s maybe a subject for another blog post.

You can download the ‘Life of Frederick Courtenay Selous DSO’ free here.

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Searching for William MacDuff – what can be learnt from new records?

Last week I attended the book launch for Michael LoCicero’s new book, ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The night operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917.’ The book describes the action in which my Great Great Uncle William MacDuff was killed, on this day 97 years ago, an action which led to over 1,600 men killed, wounded, or missing.

Regular readers of my blog will know that it was my quest to find out more about William’s life, and death, that set me down the path of researching the First World War (for a recap see here and here). Over the last few years my research has focused on the men from my local area who are commemorated on the war memorial. Yet along the way I have still maintained my interest in William’s story, picking up small nuggets of information from various sources and eagerly awaiting the publication of Michael’s book.

Since I wrote the original blog posts I have, for instance, discovered that William is also commemorated on the Dunfermline High School war memorial. I have also returned to the site of the battle where he died. Visiting this time in August the landscape, covered in crops, looked very different to my last visit on a cold February day, making it difficult to get an impression of the land the men attacked over, and providing a stark contrast to the cratered landscape they would have seen.

I have also visited William’s name on Tyne Cot memorial on each occasion I have returned, always at the back of my mind wondering if his body still lays out there.

William's name on Tyne Cot memorial

William’s name on Tyne Cot memorial

At the book launch I had the pleasure of meeting the family of another officer who died that day, Second Lieutenant William Ridgway. Leafing through Michael’s book on the train home, my thoughts again turned to the fate of these men. I knew that about 100 men from the battalion died during that attack, yet only 14 have a known grave.

Scanning through the casualty list, it appears that five of these were men who died of wounds; buried at Mendinghem, Dudhallow ADS (Advanced Dressing Station), and Nine Elms. The remaining nine are buried in Tyne Cot, Poelcappelle, and Passchendale New British cemeteries.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recently updated their website to include documents related to burials and headstones. I looked at the CWGC entries for the nine men buried in these cemeteries. In each case, their bodies had been found after the war, identified by a piece of equipment with the man’s service number stamped on it, an identity disc, or in one case from the name on a cigarette case found with the body. The CWGC documents contain multiple entries on a page, and examining them in more detail I found another 11 unidentified men from the Border Regiment buried at these three cemeteries. So at least 11 of the 85 men commemorated on Tyne Cot do have a grave (it could even be more – the full set of concentration documents for each cemetery would need to be consulted to ascertain if this is the case).

Whilst examining these documents, at the back of my mind lurked the thought, could one of these men be my Great Great Uncle? But all of these graves had had been marked as an Unidentified British Soldier rather than an officer.  Then looking at the documents for Poelcapelle, two entries stood out: one an ‘Unknown British Officer, Border Regiment’ and another ‘Unidentified British Officer, Second Lieutenant’…could one of those graves be William’s?

I had to take a step back and think about it rationally. Although I can pinpoint the location the bodies were recovered using the CWGC documents, both graves still pose a problem. Six officers from the battalion lost their lives in the attack, three Second Lieutenants, and three Captains. The body identified as a Second Lieutenant could be an officer from another battalion (although the body was recovered from the Border Regiment’s frontage – see the red ‘x’ on the below map). The body identified as that of an officer of the Border Regiment was found in an area that fell under the frontage of the battalion to the left (see the orange ‘x’), and could equally be one of the Captains or one of the other two Second Lieutenants.

Map showing the objective of the 11th Border Regiment (No.3 battalion)

Map showing the objective of the 11th Border Regiment (No.3 battalion)

Ultimately, although I would like to know whose bodies lie beneath these headstones, it is likely that it will remain a mystery. However it is another piece of the puzzle in my quest to find out more about William, for now I can visit not only these graves, but the graves of the others identified from the CWGC documents, knowing that here lie the bodies of men killed in the attack who may have known William or fought alongside him. I look forward to my next trip so I can pay my respects to all of these men.

William MacDuff, killed in action 2nd December 1917

William MacDuff, killed in action 2nd December 1917

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The 7th East Surreys at Cambrai

Postcards were produced in abundance during the First World War and can provide a fascinating insight into the men who served. Many were studio pictures of individuals or groups of soldiers, and capture a brief moment of their lives; for many perhaps the only photograph of them that exists. Yet too often on these postcards there is little or no identifying information about the men, and we are left wondering who they were, what they experienced, and ultimately what their fate was.

7th ES, Nov 1917, C Coy, 9 Pl v1

This picture of a group of men from the East Surrey Regiment is typical of many of the surviving postcards, although it was clearly not taken in a studio. The postcard is of men from the East Surrey Regiment, in the front row a Second Lieutenant flanked by three Sergeants and a Corporal, with 25 men behind them. Other than this there is little other identifying information; some good conduct stripes and a drummer’s badge are visible but other than this the only notable thing about the picture is the mixture of belt (P08 & P14) and cap types.

So here we have a photograph of 30 men, with the regiment known and the different ranks visible. This could be the end of the story for this particular postcard, however on the reverse is scrawled “7th Battalion East Surrey Regt; C Company; 9 Platoon. Taken at ‘Bonniers’ France, November 1917.”

The 7th Battalion of the East Surreys was a K1 new army battalion and had gone to France at the beginning of June 1915. Part of the 37th Brigade in the 12th (Eastern) Division, they had participated in actions at Loos and on the Somme.

Bonniers is small village approximately 25 miles west of Arras, and from the battalion war diary we can see that the battalion spent time here from 28th October -15th November 1917.

On 20th November C Company led an attack with tanks near Gonnelieu (ten miles south of Cambrai) as part of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive. The 12th Division were on the right flank of the attack under III Corps, Third Army (Byng). The war diary records:

At 6.20am the Zero barrage opened and tanks could be seen crawling over the ridge in the half light. There was no enemy retaliation at the spot where the Brigade was, as we were only 1800 yards from the German line, luck was with us.

At 6.50am the Battalion moved off by platoon round the road encircling Gonnelieu to the north. Enemy shrapnel was bursting on the road exit from the village. The front line lies almost on the edge of Gonnelieu and in a very short time the leading platoon were in no man’s land.

The hostile barrage was fairly heavy all about this area, especially on the sunken road La Vacquerie Road. This road was therefore avoided. The Battalion gradually shook out into Artillery Formation after leaving the village, and in company with tanks and enemy bullets and shells, moved on towards the Blue Line. Two companies either side of the main Bonavis-Goudeacourt Road. German machine guns and snipers were still firing from Sonnet Farm, although the troops who were taking the first system were well beyond. This was the case throughout the attack and was due to the difficulty of clearing or mopping up in time to keep pace with the advancing troops.

Captain D.F. Roberts was unfortunately killed near Sonnet Farm, by a bullet through the head. The two companies on the left slightly lost direction owing to their following the line of a valley and losing sight of the main road which was our line of advance.

On arrival at the Blue Line some houses on the right which should have been taken, were still holding out and our right two section of tanks were a little late.

cambrai v1

The battalion suffered 16 men killed and 100 wounded in the attack. The war diary records that the C Company officers who took part in the attack were Second Lieutenant E. Jordan and Second Lieutenant H.W. Binstead. Is one of them the officer on the postcard? Binstead survived the war and returned home to Wallington; Jordan was killed on 9th April 1918.

The successes of the opening day of the offensive were short lived and on 30th November the Germans counter-attacked. The battalion was again in action, and the war diary records one officer killed, three wounded, and nine missing (including the battalion’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel RH Baldwin, who was wounded and taken prisoner). Five other ranks are listed as killed, 11 wounded, and 260 missing.

Further analysis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database for this period shows 19 casualties on 20th November; eight between the 20th and 30th; and 64 for 30th November. Only one of these has a known grave; the remainder are commemorated on Cambrai memorial.

Ultimately one is left wondering how many of the 30 men in the postcard were wounded or killed in the Cambrai offensive, in the weeks after the picture was taken.

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Carshalton War Memorial – Book out now!

Their Name Liveth for EvermoreI am proud to announce that my book about the men commemorated on Carshalton war memorial, Their Name Liveth for Evermore: Carshalton’s First World War Roll of Honour, is published today by The History Press.

In the words of the blurb on the back: “Carshalton in Surrey was deeply affected by the First World War: over 1,900 local men enlisted to fight. Of those men, 243 lost their lives and are commemorated on the war memorial. As we find ourselves commemorating the centenary of the war, it is more important than ever that these men are not forgotten. Drawing on over six years of research, this book brings together the stories of the lives – and deaths – of these men. Utilising a wide variety of sources and complemented by many previously unseen photographs, their stories are told here, from the fourteen sets of brothers who were killed to the devastating effect of the Somme campaign in which 19 local men lost their lives on the opening day alone.”

It has been an incredible and often moving journey researching the men and their stories over the last few years. If you do read the book, I hope you enjoy it and think it is a fitting tribute to the men.

Now the book is finished I am mulling over the possibility of arranging a local trip to the First World War battlefields to follow in the footsteps of some of the men. It would probably be a day trip to Ypres, or a two-day trip to the Somme, leaving from the Carshalton/Sutton area. Cost would depend on how many people were interested and would probably take place next spring. If you are interested, please let me know by email – no obligation at this stage –

The book is available from Waterstones (Sutton & Croydon), Honeywood museum, and the following online outlets:

The History Press



WH Smith


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Sutton war memorial

The war memorials in the London Borough of Sutton have recently benefited from a deep clean in preparation for the centenary. Sutton’s memorial in particular was in dire need of attention, its location overlooking the busy A232 making it a magnet for pollution. I must say, the results are fantastic, and full credit to Sutton Council for organising it and the contractors Stonewest for doing a great job. With the start of the centenary years it seems a timely opportunity to write a little about the memorial and some of the people named on it.

The memorial before and after cleaning

The memorial before and after cleaning

The memorial sits in Manor Park, towards the top of Sutton High Street, and was unveiled in June 1921. It takes the form of a cross of sacrifice atop a large plinth. The four corners of the plinth are adorned with carved angels; three of the sides of the plinth display symbols representing the army, navy, and air force. The inscription on the memorial reads ‘This sign of the great sacrifice is raised in honour of our heroic dead who gave their lives for England in the Great War. Their Name Liveth For Evermore.’ A further plaque records that ‘The people of Sutton erected this monument and dedicated the four acres of ground surrounding it to the use of the public for ever’.

The memorial shortly after it was unveiled in June 1921

The memorial shortly after it was unveiled in June 1921

527 names are inscribed on the memorial’s 12 plaques; over double the number on Carshalton’s memorial. Although I have not gone into anywhere near the depth of research I have with Carshalton’s memorial, I have so far managed to positively identify 489 of those named. The rank of each man is inscribed on the memorial, which in some cases has made it easier to identify the correct individual.

William Barnett

William Barnett

I have covered the story of William Barnett, one of Sutton’s first casualties of the war, in a previous blog post here.

The highest ranking name on the memorial is that of Colonel Robert Burns-Begg. Related to the poet Robert Burns, Burns-Begg was a member of the Scottish Bar and had seen service during the South African war in Kitchener’s Horse, after which he acted as legal adviser to the Transvaal government. In the First World War he was the town commandant of Folkestone. He died whilst on leave in Edinburgh on 9th January 1918 aged 45 and is also commemorated on a plaque in the parish church in Kinross.

No less than 17 of those commemorated were awarded medals for gallantry or were mentioned in despatches. Captain John Charles Mann served as Adjutant with the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. He had joined up on 7th August 1914 and went to France in November. He was awarded the Military Cross in January 1917 and was posthumously mentioned in despatches in December 1917, having been killed at ‘Black Watch Corner’ near Ypres on 26th September 1917 during Third Ypres. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial. The 2nd Battalion RWF are notable as being the battalion that the writers Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves served with, and Mann features in both of their wartime memoirs.

Whilst the majority of Sutton’s casualties were incurred on the western front, a handful died elsewhere.  Captain Wallace Hillbrook died of meningitis in July 1916 whilst serving with the Uganda Medical Service, and is buried in Nairobi South cemetery, a reminder that the war spread far beyond the France and Flanders.

Seven of the names on the memorial do not have a rank inscribed next to them, and I believe they are civilians who were killed whilst carrying out war work. There is at least one woman commemorated on the memorial – Eliza Bailey, who was killed in an explosion at Brocks munitions factory on Gander Green Lane, around late 1916. She was 22. It is possible the other six names were killed in the same incident.

The memorial at Sutton Grammar School

The memorial at Sutton Grammar School

Several other memorials exist in Sutton, including one at the Royal Mail sorting office, a memorial to the old boys of Sutton Grammar School, and naturally several in the local churches. Thirty six of the men are also commemorated on Carshalton war memorial.

I will write more about those named on Sutton war memorial in future blog posts.















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Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 5

How much could be written about trench life, revelation in human endurance, and sublime heroism, lit by flashes of humour, but grim tragedy predominating – full to the brim, pressed down, and overflowing. Surely no dwelling ever held such a mixed assembly as gathered beneath the sand bagged-roof of a dugout, adversity indeed bringing strange bedfellows. Here all barriers of caste and calling were broken down, and common danger had brought common fellowship. Your solicitor’s clerk rubbed shoulders with a brewer’s drayman, and the commercial traveller found an excellent comrade in a coster. “Cook’s son, duke’s son, son of a belted earl” had once again met in a glorious comradeship.

There was J—-, whose nature was steeped in poetry, who brought refinement and romance into an atmosphere too often sordid and whose ideals were undimmed by the grim horrors of war. There was little B—-, inclined to be a pessimist and often given furiously to grumble, yet in his merry moments the best of companions. There was Patrick, the rebel, lacking suavity but staunch and true, who denounced the Saxon to the Saxon’s unending delight. Then Chris, philosopher and man of action, whose inventive genius added to the comfort and convenience of dugout or hut.  Also Peter, the man of moods, difficult to understand, admitted sensualist, unorthodox in everything yet found his soul’s expression in song. The hearts he moved to tears or turned to laughter with his glorious singing will ever regard his memory with affection. Then T—-, who carried Gibbon in his haversack, and was learned in literary lore. Resting one night by the roadside, on a journey up the line that to him was momentous, for its brought him a “Blighty”, he told me with impassioned eloquence how he hated the mechanism of war. Yet love of liberty had called him to the colours. The God of Battles protect them all!

Winter severity proved to us how terrible an enemy climatic conditions can be. Often as I stood vigil on the firestep for my hour of sentry, knocking my feet together to excite warmth, or paced to and fro on the duckboards, have I recalled that terribly realistic picture drawn by Tolstoy of the sufferings of the men in the trenches of Sebastopol. I am not for a moment, of course, comparing our modern conditions to the terrible rigours of the Crimea, but when it is remembered that the Russian soldiers were seasoned troops, while ours are drawn from civil life, whose calling in most cases ill prepares them for hardships, we must marvel at the endurance of the khaki-clad legions. No man’s land looked strangely romantic and full of mystery when covered in snow. On these occasions those going out on patrol wore white smocks with cowls, the more easily to escape observation, and it was weird to see them depart like a file of Carthusian monks.

At length winter drew to a close, and one experienced that indefinable feeling of spring in the air that makes the blood course through the veins, and makes one feel glad to be alive. On one sector poppies and daisies grew on parapets and parados, and between our front and support trenches was an orchard with trees of apple blossom. Often during a “strafe”, with death-dealing shells dropping perilously near, I have gazed fixedly at these evidences of life and beauty and realised as never before how dear life was, and prayed the God of Infinite Mercy to spare me to enjoy it another decade. At all moments though the dainty colouring of flowers and the refreshing green leaves were a joy and an inspiration. It reminded one of Omar’s lines:-

I sometimes think that never grows so red
The rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

Spring brought other things besides flowers – “offensives”, “increased activities”, and suchlike! Raids were the order of the day, freely indulged in by both sides along the wide spread battle front. Eventually our battalion had one all to itself. It was elaborately thought out, and for some weeks rehearsed daily. Eastertide was the time chosen, and accordingly on Good Friday night we entered the line at a given sector. The following day was spent in resting and making final preparations. The Lewis gunners and the bombers knew their place in the scheme of things, and every man knew his job. Bombs, ammunition, spikes, sacks and scaling ladders were issued out, and distinguishing badges pinned to the back of every man. Zero was at 8 o’clock in the evening, and as the day advanced one felt a strange excitement in the blood and a nervous tension in the atmosphere which manifested itself in the faces of one’s comrades. About a quarter to eight men were brought up from support and reserve trenches, and soon the front line was full, the men leaning motionless against the parapet to avoid being observed by aircraft, which are generally active in the between lights of a day’s close.

It was a unique a moment for a study of human expression. One saw men mad with fear, or impervious to it. The dread possibilities of the moment had touched chords that responded to the whole gamut of human emotions. I shall never forget the faces of those who stood beside me, with a grim look of determination, clutching their rifles. Some were young, others long past the fighting age, all bound by the strongest of human ties to some home, and some loved one. Oh, the pity, and yet the grandeur of it all!  I noticed C—-, a refined intellectual young man, frail in body but strong in purpose. In features he was wonderfully like the famous “Portrait of Cardinal Newman at the age of 19”. He was looking at a glorious sunset behind our lines, and on my questioning him as to his thoughts he quietly answered, “I was wondering if I should witness tomorrow’s.”

While active, man has renewed nerve and energy, but inactivity paralyses, and the tedium was becoming insupportable. With dramatic suddenness our bombardment began, heralded by signals of golden rain fountains, and pillars of white smoke on the flanks of the battalion front. The earth trembled, and the skies seemed to belch forth fire. The noise was terrific, and the air was full of the odour of cordite and noxious gases. The trench rocked with the concussion of the exploding shells, and splinters of shrapnel were hurtling through space. The traverse of machine gun bullets swept the parapets that in a moment would be mounted by the waiting men below. At last the barrage lifted from the German front line, and the order came galvanising the lines of hidden men into life. “Up and over!” And they climbed over, dashing with a sublime heroism into the veritable hell I have attempted so feebly to describe.

If any faltered it was but for a moment. The example of their fellows restored their courage, and with a wild cry they followed into the grim uncertainties of no man’s land. They followed on in the wake of our barrage, penetrating to the third and fourth German line. Having gained their objective, they remained nearly an hour capturing prisoners and gaining valuable information, after which “all that was left of them” returned to our lines. The leadership and courage of our officers that night were magnificent. Within two hours the raid was over, and silence reigned in no man’s land, broken only by the cries of the wounded.

I remember as I stood in our trench after the raid wondering if the people at home could ever dimly realise all we were enduring. London at that moment was flocking into the theatres and cafes, more interested probably in the latest society scandal than the war. It is horrible to reflect, yet very human, I suppose, seeing the battles are served up twice daily. Other interests have almost obscured the war. People think of casualties as if they were runs at cricket or figures in a game book. We know them as synonymous for poor shattered humanity, broken for life, or in its death agonies calling upon its Maker. In the early hours of Easter day we plodded from the line, along the tortuous, shell ridden roads, back to the camp. Many of us felt the influence of reaction, all of us were weary.

Since that memorable Easter I have gone from sensation to sensation and taken a humble part in the series of advances that began with the great battle of Messines and continues to the present moment, engagements besides which our raid pales into insignificance. At some future date I may records these experiences, but for the present I conclude my narrative. I have written sufficient to give those at home at least a slight glimpse into the life of Tommy on “Active Service”, and the thoughts that occupy his mind. I have taken no fiendish pleasure in sickening the reader with an orgy of blood lust, but I have given sufficient detail to make him realise the ferocity of war, and how unutterably loathsome it is. I have impressed upon him also the debt he owes to the khaki-clad legion who hold the front line, keeping vigil through long days and in the lonely watches of the night, standing between him and the horror and desolation that have laid waste the plains of France and Belgium. Upon the sacrifices of these heroes will be built the victory that ultimately will assuredly be ours. And victory once over, let us work for the permanent peace of the world, enriching it with the rewards of industry and enterprise, that when our children’s children visits the plains now ravaged and desolate they may be able to say with R.L.S.:

We travelled in the print of olden wars,
Yet all the land was green,
And love we found and peace,
Where fire and war had been.
They pass and smile, the children of the sword;
No more the sword they wield.
And, oh, how deep the corn
Along the battlefield!


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Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 4

“A Chiel’s amang you takin’ notes and, faith, he’ll prent it.” – Burns

Our trek ended some few miles beyond the Belgian frontier at a camp of crude, draughty huts.  The whole district for miles around was full of such camps, a kind of headquarters from which we went at regular intervals up the line.  The huts were built quadrangle fashion round a field that did duty as a parade ground.  Here while out on rest routine was pretty much as I have earlier described, drills, inspections and route marches during the morning, with the evenings left to ourselves. Passes to the neighbouring villages or the nearest town were easy to obtain, while scattered along adjoining roads were numerous estaminets and coffee shops. With a keen eye to business, the Belgian peasant has erected in close proximity to every camp his rude wooden shanty with dainties for Tommy. It is astonishing how the peasant has clung to his native hearth, even when it lay levelled in the dust, and beside it often he has raised a humble structure of wood or tin and torso to assert his inalienable right to the soil. It matters not if the district be still within shelling distance, he is willing to take the risk. During the winter evenings we lit braziers in the centre of the hut, and sat around reading, writing or chatting.  But without, on the parade square, the pipers play their evening selection of Irish areas, while the officers dine. About 9 o’clock we filed up for our rum issue to the Sergeants’ mess, after which we returned to the hut, put down our waterproof sheet, coiled ourselves up in a blanket, and often before “Lights out” were sound asleep. During our term at the camp days were set apart for sports, general inspections and special parades, while Sunday was free after church parade. Our period at the camp was rarely longer than eight days, after which we went into the line for a term of eight days in the reserve, and eight in the frontline trenches.

It must be confessed that our journeys to the line were weary pilgrimages, a long trudge bearing our heavy pack and equipment, the terrible roads were pockmarked with shell holes, full of water and mud. As we approached the trenches we walked in single file, with intervals of fifty yards between the platoons, in order to minimize the danger from shelling. The very lights appeared to nearer, the ground yet more ravaged and presently we descended into of communication trench. As with nearly all communication trenches it was tortuous and seemingly endless. I was at once impressed by the total difference between the conditions here and those prevailing in the war area we left. On the Somme there had been recent fighting and great advances, but on the Belgian sector there had been no offensive for nearly two years. Both sides had had time to consolidate, and entrench themselves, much of the land had been mined and tunnelled, and advantage had been taken of every point of observation. The trenches were well made, with dugouts at intervals, and filled with duck boards. Here and there support trenches branched off, having such romantic names as Lovers’ Lane, Hedge Row and Convent Lane; some, with even less regard for the truth, proclaiming themselves Regent Street, Fleet Street, and such like. Now and again a stronger and better built dugout betrayed its importance as GHQ. Nearly always at such a centre or at the junction of two or more trenches, a sentry was posted whose chief duty was gas guard, to sound the gong at the first signs of gas. The telephone wires crossed and recrossed the trenches, constituting at times a veritable nuisance pinging against one’s helmets or clinging to the swivels of your rifle.

You trudge along single file, wearied and morose, turning the corners of innumerable traverses, tripping here and there over wires or a broken duck board. Those journeys to and from the line on dark winter nights constitute the most dismal of memories.  Tommy will always tell you they got him down more than actual residence in the line.  The man in front of you passes down the warning messages, “Hole left”, “Mind the rails”, or “Wire right”, but the odds are that you will step into the very trap you are most anxious to avoid, with disastrous results. While you are struggling to extricate yourself, knee deep in water or slime, the raucous voice of an NCO bids you “Get along there”, and the air behind you is blue with language more forcible than polite, for Fritz may shell at any moment. Most trying experience of all after a long trudge is to confront in a narrow trench another company of men who have to pass you. You press close to the side of the trench, while the men wriggle through, their equipment getting entangled in yours, to your mutual annoyance.  They, however, are inclined to be tolerant, for their steps are bent towards rest billets, while our goal being the front line, our temper is at breaking point.

At some length we reach the frontline trench, with its parapet and a parados piled high with sandbags. At places the trench is not in the good condition of those in support and reserve and one wades through water ankle deep. Fritz has been unkind enough to draw up an occasional shell there, and we have not had time, perhaps, to repair it. On arriving we immediately “take over” from the battalion holding the line, post sentries, and settle down in the nearest dugout. After the more active warfare of the Somme, this section was surprisingly quiet, occasioned to some extent, of course, by the advent of winter.  Sentry-go lasted for two hours and was an ordeal that strained the nerves to an extent that cannot be imagined. In our sector the Boche was but 25 yards away, and one had to be all alert. When one has gazed fixedly into the darkness of no man’s land for even an hour, the eyes become dim and wearied and apt to be deceived as to the nature of the object that lies before them. Just the reverse of the Scriptural observation, one can see trees like men walking. At moments like these it is advisable to get the officer on duty to send up a Verey light, when for a brief moment darker patch of no man’s land is lit up, and you settle that little doubt of yours.

What a relief to come down off sentry and coil oneself up in the dugout and sleep. I have known nights to pass without any shellfire, but generally there were minor strafes at intervals. Fritz’s shells were chiefly directed at the supports and reserves, because of the close proximity of our front line to his own. For the front line he reserved rifle grenades, trench mortars, and suchlike. During our stay on this sector we lost almost as many men from spasmodic shelling and sniping as if we had taken part in an advance. At one time the regiment facing us must have been a regiment of sharpshooters, for their shooting was remarkably good. They frequently riddled our periscopes, and at night they swept our parapets, and also accounted for many of our men. Their aim seemed deadly, even uncanny. Perhaps the most anxious moment of the day, weird almost in the effect they had on the nervous system, were the “stand-to” in the grey hours of the morning, watching the sun rise over the German trenches, and the “stand-to” at eventide, when it sank in a blaze of colour behind our own. Dawn and dusk were the times to be feared, for usually those hours are chosen for an attack. Every man turned out of his dugout, donned his equipment, and fixed bayonets. At the “stand-to” at dawn a sergeant came round with a rum issue, badly needed those bitterly cold mornings, as a tonic to the nerves. Before my army career I had never touched the spirit and, if anything, was prejudiced against its issue to the troops, but a week in the trenches gave me a broader outlook.

Occasionally we light a brazier, and a discreet glance through the periscope shows that Fritz a quarter of a hundred yards away is similarly engaged, for a blue wreath of smoke arises from the line of trenches. At rare intervals our friends the enemy could be seen hastily passing by a gap in the trenches or flitting from tree to tree on the horizon. Our dugouts were rarely up to the standard set by Fritz, for we knew that our stay was temporary, while he hoped for a permanent residence. Making due allowance for this most excellent of reasons, my attitude towards our dugouts is anything but friendly. Memories of irksome crawls into darksome holes over damp ground, the nostrils assailed meanwhile with pungent odours, have embittered me.  In such dwellings we lived, moved and had our being for days and nights, our “home from home”.  Oh, the pleasure of crawling out, assuming once more the erect posture natural to the genus homo, for often these habitations were barely three feet high!  In the trenches too, the little man can strut along at natural stature, while the tall man walks with bowed head and bent back to avoid the little winged messengers of death that skim the top of the parapet. Even in the rest billets out of the line, height is a disadvantage, for when weight-lifting for fatigues are about the NCO generally regards it as synonymous with strength.

To those who outlive this conflict, how strange it will be to recall the days and nights without number spent in the weird, wonderful atmosphere of the trenches. Days of wearisome boredom, for even shelling “thrills” can become monotonous! Nights of anxious alertness, amid uncanny stillness, developing at times into excited nerveiness as the silence is broken by an outbreak of gunfire and the sky lit by an ever increasing succession of flashes. Meal times were the long looked for breaks in the day’s monotony, when we filed up with our mess tins for our tea and bacon, or the never failing stew. Curiously enough, or as we thought designedly, Fritz always began a half hour’s “strafe” at meal times, much to our annoyance. Once this was over we could rely almost for a certainty on a few hours peace and quietness, during which we “cleaned up”, performing our ablutions in a shell hole, wrote letters, read a book, or curled ourselves up in the dugout and had a sleep. This may read strange to those at home, after being informed that but 25 yards separated us from the Boche, but it must be remembered that winter held the land in its thrall and rendered advances, or anything of an active nature, impossible. One chiefly had to guard against bombing raids.

As I have pointed out the almost timed regularity of Fritz’s shelling in this particular sector was most convenient to us. We were not nearly so considerate to our friends the enemy, for our “strafes” began with dramatic suddenness, at all manner of odd moments. Our artillery was marvellous for power and accuracy. While on sentry one afternoon I watched through the periscope the work of our shells on the German front line. Beginning on the left they travelled with deadly aim the whole trench, leaving it a line of shell holes and broken earthworks, almost useless for occupation.  For every shell Fritz sent over he received a dozen in return, a decided improvement on our unhappy position twelve months previous.

Fifth and final part to follow soon…

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