Hadn’t a minute yesterday. They’ve sent a Res. Lt. Col. [reserve Lieutenant Colonel] to be attached for two days to learn trench work. A nuisance he squashes us so. We gave the Huns half an hour strafe in retaliation for their strafe on the Downs yesterday a.m. 9 2 in., 8 in. Hows. etc., all on their trenches. They put back a few whizz-bangs into the village. One man of ours had his cheek grazed, otherwise quiet, and a quiet night. Snowing this morning which will make the trenches damnable. Am writing in the cellar while two others are dressing, and the breakfast things are being put out, and much turmoil. Griffiths, [sic] Smith, [sic] and C.C. came round in a.m. Latter didn’t show a liking for the sound of bullets. 10 a.m. Snow stopped and turning out fine, but everything very wet and slushy, and cold. Art’y [artillery] observing officer last night was Vallentine, [sic] son of the Gunner who drove Woolwich coach. Do you remember him? Such a squash in here. Very hard to keep things tidy. 6 p.m. They are shelling Div. [32nd Division] on our left very heavily. Continuous roar of heavy guns. I walked out with Johnstone [sic] across the marsh to their nearest battalion about 4 p.m., and examined the ground in front of our line from them. We had only left them a short time. The Capt. who we met was Knott, whose brother was James Richardson’s secretary at Bessbrook—16th Lancs. Fus. Bull and Cole-Hamilton came in to see us today. They are reserve about 1½ miles away. I hope they relieve us. Nothing settled about reliefs. I expect we go back on Friday or Saturday. Fergie written to say a shell dropped near his store today, 3 miles back. I expect it was the empty case of an Archie. The strafe has died down. Some excitement reported from one of our outposts. Just got Johnstone [sic] on telephone from the outpost. He says that he got a report that Germans were in the old mill, about 30 yards from our post. I went down and they threw a few bombs into the mill, and nothing more happened. 10.00 p.m.—All quite quiet again. Clear, frosty night; going to lie down.
At this time, the frontage of 36th (Ulster) Division extended north-west from the River Ancre; hence 32nd Division being on its right. It would not be until March that the Division would extend its line into Thiepval Wood and straddle the River Ancre.
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker’s hope that the Battalion would be relieved by 12th Royal Irish Rifles proved prescient—for the rest of the war, until brigades were reduced to three battalions, these two battalions would be ‘paired’ and would relieve each other time and time again in the trenches of France and Flanders.
Lieutenant General Sir Charles Anderson KCB, AM
9.00 a.m., lovely sunny day, after sharp frost. A poor fellow, Elliott, shot last night returning from a patrol. Fear won’t live. Shot by our own people. Failed to give warning that the patrol was going out I fear. Otherwise, quiet night. They are shelling or registering on a village about 300x [yards] behind our cellar. Another man just reported wounded by a shrapnel bullet in the leg. Must go off and see them. The 12th relieve us tomorrow, but we only go back a mile. A Hun aeroplane, with British marks came over today and dropped two bombs on the 12th, killing one and wounding four. A good deal of firing all day from German 4.2 guns and field guns. Three shrapnel into village dropped close to where the two wounded men were. Unfortunately they could not be moved before dark. They are safely away now, but had to be carried a mile to the ambulance. The Corps. Gen. Anderson and Brigadier were round this a.m. He (A) has aged a good deal. Lovely sunny day after frost. No more casualties. Little Berry much cut up about the wounded men. He and the Padre were with them all day. Relief tomorrow will be a long business. Don’t expect to be back at M_____ [Mesnil] before midnight. Not much of a rest place I fear, All water has to be carried 1½ miles.
Injuries caused by shell fragments from exploding shell casings were not known as ‘shrapnel wounds’—that term was used to describe the wounds caused by shrapnel balls. This cutaway is of a British 18-pound shrapnel shell in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa; German shells functioned in a similar manner. The shrapnel balls (approximately ½–inch in diameter) were embedded in resin. The fuze in the nose ignited the powder charge in the cavity in the base of the shell as it approached the target, which propelled the shrapnel balls forward out of the case—the effect was similar to a shotgun blast. Shrapnel injuries were often severe and classified as ‘gunshot wounds’ due to the similarity of effect on impact.
A quiet night, but turned wet—a cold sleety rain falling. Everything very sloppy and horrid. A leaden sky. They’ve sent us a Major—in 4th D. G. [Dragoon Guards] Reserve Regiment. Came out for instruction, to add to our squash. He is at Tidworth where Bishop is. B came out a month ago for a like tour, and had a bad time with weather and discomfort, and returned sick to England. Here we are in the village of _____ [Hamel] and go tonight to _____ [Mesnil] and stay for 6 days, then back here. Am fearfully dirty and muddy.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.