SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 12th

[Mesnil]

We were relieved yesterday in the trenches and came back here, I got in about 11.00 p.m. Relief carried out successfully. This morning they put some 4.2 shells into the village, and killed one man and wounded one, I’m grieved to say. It’s not much of a rest place, and there is much work to be done on trenches nightly. Jos Johnstone [sic] had a pocket book in his pocket which was hit by a small bit of shell—a good escape. The man hit was Girvan in ‘C’ Company, one of the cooks. Steady and cold sleety rain all yesterday up to 9.00 p.m. Cold today and raw, but fine so far.

6.00 p.m. Hughes and Gillespie are really all right. Gross exaggeration in both cases. Have never felt less cold all winter. We belong now to XVII Corps. It makes no difference to leave, we get 50 instead of 20 [i.e. men away on leave]. ‘At.’, Ensor, Lutt and Jos Johnstone go on 17th. We have about 1,200x [yards] front, one flank resting on a marsh, with a post in the middle of it, and then the next Div., on our right begins the far side of the marsh. I was with them looking at our line from the flank. This is far from salubrious. In addition to the morning strafe, when they put in about 30 H.E.’s [high explosive]—4.2 I think—they kept putting in an odd one at intervals through the day. Our Heavies [Heavy artillery] give them beans at 4.00 p.m., and they replied about 4:30 p.m. for half an hour, with 5.9 I think. I was down at the cemetery with the Padre when they began, and on our way back they kept coming over our heads, and bursting about 50 to 100 yards over us, evidently trying to find the position of the Heavies, which they didn’t. The Downs had three more casualties this morning, I hear. I swear it’s _____ fault our being here. As a rest place he pointed out the way the place was shelled daily, but _____ didn’t care. Of course it’s no rest for the men, as they have large working parties every night to improve the trenches.

Mesnil Ridge Cemetery (Photo CWGC)

Mesnil Ridge Cemetery (Photo CWGC)


Footnote

The casualty was:
14206 Private William Girvin, killed in action on 12 February 1916, the first soldier of the Battalion to be killed in action; Mesnil Ridge Cemetery.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14th

1.00 p.m. Quiet night and morning. 50 go on leave tomorrow, which leaves us rather short of officers and sgts. 4:30 p.m.—Such a stormy p.m., blowing great guns and raining. Just after 2.00 p.m. they put in 47 5.9 shells in and around the village. No damage done; everyone went to ground after first shot. We have 100 steel helmets, enough for sentries, and are getting more. Brew is Commanding ‘D’ Coy. and doing very well. ‘Shill’ has got another month’s leave.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15th

Such a gale blowing. It was a beautiful quiet fine night and we dug our trench without the Huns finding us out. The men played up splendidly. 50 go on leave today. Young Gibson had a narrow escape Sunday. He was walking on the line when they put eight whizz-bangs suddenly all round him. He lay down and one landed about six feet from his head, and he was not touched.

1.00 p.m. A quiet morning. Post just going.

9:30 p.m.—It has been a wild blustery day, and now is blowing very hard and raining. I went down to the trench line to see Bull and arrange about continuity of work. He is full of sound projects which want cooperation to bring success. We shall work in well together, I think. The trenches are in a shocking state after the frost and rain, falling in everywhere, and full of water and mud. A new scheme and programme of reliefs is out, and I’m glad to say when we come out of the line after this tour, we go back further, instead of coming to this place. ‘At.’ and others going on leave went off this p.m. and start from rail head at 5:30 a.m.! in the morning. It has been very quiet here today, no shelling. Percival’s Div. has come in on our right. I hear old Baldock was hit, three miles behind the line, standing by his chateau, after only a fortnight out here. The G_____ was shot at yesterday once or twice by snipers, or a M.G., and said it must not occur again! Padre goes on leave on 22nd.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16th

Such an awful day, the worst I have seen since we came out. Blowing a hurricane and raining in torrents. The trenches are fearful, and no one can work on them while it lasts. As fast as you clear them more falls in. Quiet day here so far in the shell line. We go in tomorrow evening and come out 23rd. What it must be like there today I cannot imagine. The trenches here that we look after are impossible. They’ve now brought out a new scheme of leave. 10 go from each battalion every four days, so that the whole scheme has to be worked out anew. Luckily one hasn’t much else to do today. No letters in at all today. They seem only now to come every 2nd day.

'The Communication Trench'. Bruce Bairnsfather, Fragments From France

‘The Communication Trench’. Bruce Bairnsfather, Fragments From France

9.00 p.m.—Such a wild day. Bull telephones the trenches are all falling in and are knee deep in water, and they are pumping day and night. I’m not looking forward to the next six days, with the weather conditions as they are and trenches crumbling away. The Downs had had 21 casualties. We have had five casualties. Bull wants me to go down early and go round the line with him, which means I shall have to go down communications trench instead of going on top after dark, and the trench is over 1½ miles long and over knees in slush and water. The dump where rations and stores are brought by our Transport are two miles from the line, and everything has to be carried in by hand from there, and now they say this dump is in the next Div. area, and we can only use it by courtesy, and between stated hours, which adds to the irksomeness. Great efforts to prevent frost bite, every man has to rub whale oil into his feet for half an hour for two days previous to going into the line, and for an hour on the day they go in. Quite necessary, I’m sure, in the present conditions. A draft of 50 men has arrived at the Base. I don’t know when it will materialise here. All quiet here today. Our Heavies fired a little, but we got no shells back here. Various colds, expect there will be more before the six days are up. Had my hair cut close today. Now going to rub in anti-frost bite grease.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18th

We got the relief over without mishap, and it was completed by 9.00 p.m. A very clear moonlight night; slight frost, and drizzling today. The trenches are shocking, and the 12th must have had had an awful week, and worked very hard to keep them up at all. Some are collapsed altogether, and new ones will have to be dug tonight. I went all round them this morning; from 5:45 a.m. till 8.00 a.m. it took me to get round. They are exposed in many places, owing to falling in, and of course in some places knee deep in slush, and crumbling away. It’s disheartening work; as fast as you clean up one place you hear and see other parts falling in. There’s such a lot to be done. We might have another cake. It was a quiet night as far as we were concerned, but there was a terrific bombardment further north from about 1.00 a.m. till 4.00 a.m., and again about 5.00 a.m. Don’t know what it meant. I came in after lunch yesterday to talk over things with Bull. The long communication trench was in awful condition, in places up to and over the knees in gluey clay. Colds are prevalent. I have escaped so far, thank goodness. I have brought in far less kit this time—blanket, sleeping bag, both coats, washing kit and puttee stockings. Coming in at night one can come in overland, not in the trench, which is a boon, but the ground slopes toward the Hun trenches, and is bad if they should fire on the chance of there being a relief on. Of course, they can see nothing. Both sides have a habit of turning M.G. [machine guns] on to the road and village at night, which is disconcerting.

10.00 p.m.—Such a wild, wet day it has turned out. The trenches are roaring rivers, and everyone wet through. The two men wounded in the line are both doing well. The two in M_____ [Mesnil] (the wounded one has since died) were hit by a 5.9 shell which landed in the yard by the cookers. No fault of theirs, poor fellows. One wounded in leg by a sniper today; not bad. These trenches are quite good except one bit, but of course this weather bursts any sort of trench. Owing to wet we were unable to dig our new trench tonight, and worked on main communication, which is falling in. The men are splendid, never a complaint, and always cheerful.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 19th

Lieutenant R S B Townsend

Lieutenant R S B Townsend

Fine at last, and a wind, but very watery looking sun. Mild quiet night. Went round at 5:30 a.m., and found much water about, and trenches fallen in in many places. A dug-out fell in about midnight, burying one man, but he got out unhurt. A sniper just been located, and Pratt is off to see if he can snare him. We downed two Huns yesterday. One of our snipers got them at about 400 yards. It blew hard all night, and the wind is getting up again. Socks and candles are our wants for the men. Padre goes off tomorrow evening for the leave. We shall miss him sadly. Red T_____ turned up the day we came into the line. Yes, send handkerchiefs. Our mess cook has gone on leave, McNeill, from Meadow Lane, Portadown, and Dodd, [sic] the mess waiter, has taken his place and cooking quite well. Hooper does waiter. 4th Div. and Hants [Hampshire Regiment] resting. 36th Div. taken over this line permanently. Am really quite comfy.

9:45 p.m.—A tremendous outburst of fire just N. [north] of us from 6.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m., but nothing happened. We all stood to arms for two hours. It has been an anxious evening with disquieting reports from patrols. I have taken various precautionary measures and am now awaiting developments. Don’t be alarmed. You will know by this time to send socks; still to send socks, candles also, but no mitts or mufflers yet. I believe the men at the Base have a mascot, but don’t know for certain. Fine today except for drizzle this evening, which has now stopped. The sleeping accommodations at M_____ [Mesnil] isn’t bad. Pratt and I share a room of sorts. Adjutant has a kennel to himself, and Berry and Padre double up. I shall only lie down tonight, not go to bed.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20th

Nothing has happened during the night, except a Zep. [Zeppelin] came over at midnight, but did nothing. About 150 men live in some deep caves cut into the hill, and sounds of mining under it have been heard. Patrol has discovered men working at what looks like a shaft, about 150x [yards] in front of us. I cleared all the men out of the caves back to the village. An expert miner is coming today to examine. We passed an anxious night expecting an explosion, which would, of course, have been the prelude to an attack. Clear frosty morning. Such a heavenly spring day, sunny and warm, and a peaceful day. Very little shell fire, and only occasional M.G. The mining expert came early, but is at present unable to make any definite statement. Noises there are, but he can’t determine what. He is going to stay till he can say definitely. We had another man, Patterson, from Cornascriebe, near Portadown, slightly wounded yesterday evening. A spent bullet just penetrated his arm, and was cut out by Berry. The only possible footwear for the trenches in their present state is the Government long gum boot, which comes up to the thigh. I find it very tiring to walk in, but when you come on water on your knees, and liquid mud of like depth, no other boots are possible. I trust now the worst of the weather may be over. Oh! I am so dirty; hands grimy, and feet and body dirty. Somehow I felt it more today in this beautiful sunlight.

An awful amount of work there is to be done to keep existing trenches in order, and then a lot of new necessary work to be undertaken, and few men to do it. Not a man of the 2¼ Coys. in front line can be taken from the line. It takes 80 men every night to bring in the rations from the dump 1½ miles away, from which it has to be carried with the greatest difficulty. I can raise 60 men for work at night. There is our main communication trench, 1½ miles long, which has to be cleaned (in parts 2ft. deep in solid mud and liquid slush), and each side of it riveted to prevent it falling in. It would take 500 men a fortnight to do it, and the earth removed from the top where it has been piled up from bottom when cleaning, and keeps tumbling in again. This can only be done at night. Then there is another communication trench of a mile, to the cookers, up which all the men’s food is carried for every meal. This keeps falling in, and being on low ground is full of water. The cookers themselves are in a horrible place, liquid mud and impossible to drain, or keep clean.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 21st

A quiet night. Went my rounds this morning. Still water in places. It’s cold in the cellar in the daytime. We can’t have fire owing to the smoke, but I daresay healthier than a heated atmosphere. The transport are about two miles from M­­­­_____ [Mesnil] at the place we go to for our rest when we go out of the line on Wednesday. All ranks will get steel helmets in time. We have been lucky again in the weather this time, though some fearful days. A quiet day. Our Heavies active and hurling big stuff over us, making a fearful noise. The trenches are improving. Everyone has worked hard on them, but water still in many of them. The mining expert, after earnest investigation, decides against the theory of the caves being mined and the men have returned to them. Two men slightly wounded are our casualties, so far, this time in. We have begun making a new H.Q. down here, big dug-out with wonderful steel arched roof, called an elephant. We have got two for H.Q. Neither Bull or I like the cellar, it could be made quite impossible any time. The men’s food arrives hot, in spite of being carried 1½ miles up trenches, many of them 1ft. in water.

‘The Dismantled Elephant, an Iron Hut in the Throes of Dissolution’ by Eric Henri Kennington

‘The Dismantled Elephant, an Iron Hut in the Throes of Dissolution’ by Eric Henri Kennington

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22nd

Another lovely day after a sharp frost. Very dark night up to 10.00 p.m., and threatening snow; very hard to get on with work owing to darkness. Got a certain amount done and some bits of the elephant up. Went round 5:30—7:30 p.m. Again a quiet night.

Lieutenant A C Hollywood

Lieutenant A C Hollywood

9:30 p.m.—We had a sad show this evening. A patrol of two officers (Hollywood and Wood)—the latter has only just joined a month from H.A.C. [Honourable Artillery Company]—two sgts. and four men went out to investigate what the Huns were doing about 40 yards from our advanced post. While investigating they were fired at (rifle grenades). Poor Wood was killed and a Pte. Ford [sic], Hollywood and two Ptes. wounded, not severely. They behaved extremely well, and H stayed out with the bodies until relief came out and brought them in. Otherwise it has been a quiet day. It snowed a bit off and on today, but didn’t lie. Freezing again tonight.

 

 

The ruins of the Mill where Second Lieutenant Wood and Private Forde were killed.

The ruins of the Mill where Second Lieutenant Wood and Private Forde were killed.


Footnote

The casualties were:
17671 Private Samuel James Forde, killed in action on 22 February 1916; Hamel Military Cemetery.
Second Lieutenant Reginald Nixon Wood, killed in action on 22 February 1916, the first officer of the Battalion to be killed in action; Hamel Military Cemetery.
In addition to Lieutenant Hollywood, 14004 Private Charles Bryans was wounded; he was later discharged as a result of his wounds.