MONDAY, JULY 24th

The relief was completed about 1.30 a.m. Not a bad place to relieve at all. We have come off well, as the 12th have taken the front line, and we are in support and have a fairly easy time. Our H.Q. are quite comfy and we have fitted in all right. Yes, get H.P. to agitate about Ulster Division men being sent back to Ulster Res. Bde. He will manage it all right. You cannot believe what the men say about officers being killed. Their various stories do not tally. A man writes saying he saw ‘At.’ killed just outside our line, which I know is wrong. Gen. N. round today; very affable. A draft of 40 arrived today, and three officers tomorrow. There is not much room here, and I’ve had to have some out of the line, which I don’t like. Shill is simply splendid, and an enormous help. We have dug-outs to ourselves, which is a great boon. Cole Hamilton, Pratt, Menaul, and the 12th Adjt. and myself. Coy. messes crowded rather, I fear. The 11th R.B. [Rifle Brigade] left a man for us to bury as they hadn’t got a Wesleyan minister! Strange some people are. Have asked Padre to come today, but if he can’t must do it myself. Another fierce attempt to take Poziere last night; partially successful.  Stuart Wortley and H. Fanshaw gone home. Latter’s place taken by his brother, the Gunner, who is our Corps Commander. The 11th Bde. in 4th Div. lost the Brigadier and four C.O.s in the Push. Holt has not moved with us. Expect he’s still S. [South] Fergie’s sending you a typed copy of casualties; there are bound to be inaccuracies, but it will be right in the main. C.M.J.’s kit was sent off on July 5, but with so many (16) there will be delay, and much formalities—inventories to be made, valises sewn in sacks, and sealed, as if we had sealing wax and seals, and we moving every day; then to be sent to the railhead, and three times they were sent back from different railheads; perfectly maddening it was, as we had to cart them round the country. This is a quiet bit of the line. So far days are peaceful, but M.G. irksome at night. The trenches are shallow, as you come to water about three feet down. They will be bad in wet. Sgt. Keith came back last night. He stated he saw ‘At.’ fall our side of the ravine. Personally I don’t believe him. It’s contrary to evidence, and he’s given to romancing. The weather is dull and hot, but no rain, thank goodness. We have got the greater part of Pozieres. I am not sanguine about breaking through.


Footnote

The senior officer casualties in 11th Brigade were, in fact, somewhat worse than recorded by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker. The Brigade attacked with its own four battalions and two attached battalions. The brigade commander and four commanding officers were killed and the other two commanding officers wounded.

Killed: Prowse DSO, Brigadier General Charles Bertie, 11th Brigade; Thicknesse, Lieutenant Colonel John Audley, 1st Battalion, Prince Albert’s (Somerset Light Infantry); Palk, Lieutenant Colonel The Honourable Lawrence Charles Walter, 1st Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment; Wood, Lieutenant Colonel Donald, 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own); Innes CMG, Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Arthur, 1/8th Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Territorial Force).

Wounded: Green, Lieutenant Colonel James Edward, 1st Battalion The East Lancashire Regiment; Franklin, Lieutenant Colonel William Hodgson, 1/6th Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment (Territorial Force).

SUNDAY, JULY 23rd

The evidence about ‘At.’ is most confusing. I enclose list of men. Our casualty list went to Base, and they notify W.O. [War Office], I suppose, but you may imagine, with such numbers, how difficult it is, and mistakes occur.

I am not sanguine that we shall break through, but it’s been the biggest thing against trenches of the whole war. I came on here (near Messines) early yesterday and inspected the line, very hot, rather beat. Came back about two miles short of line here, and Battalion came in about 9.00 p.m. Huts in a wood. We and 12th here. Both Headquarters in [Red] Lodge, such a crowd. Then orders came we were to take over a different bit of line. We and 12th on the left, 11th and 13th on right. I don’t complain as we have got a better bit. Went down this a.m. with Bull and walked round the new bit—took 3½ hours, and so hot. Fixed up how we will divide it. Bull takes front line, and I support. Headquarters of course, crowded, and we only take in diminished staff. But accommodation for seven quite good. Balance goes back to Transport, three miles back. Fergie sleeps here, and Menaul comes into the line, and Pratt. So glad we are with 12th—makes things easy. But Practical Joke Department have been busy with us. We have been 22 days out of the line, nominally to refit, and we have had 11 moves! Quite impossible to do anything, or train anyone. We are about 4½ miles E. of Bailleul—N. end of Plug Street Wood. This is our rest place! when out of the line. This constant moving about makes official correspondence so difficult. This country is undulating, and wooded, not flat.


Footnote

The sectors occupied by 36th (Ulster) Division until June 1917 were at the southern end of the Wytschaete/Messines ridge about one and a half miles north of Ploegsteert (‘Plug Street’) Wood.

The German line here followed the high ground south from Wytschaete to a point about 2,000 yards west of Messines, then east towards the town before dropping south again along the ridge to the Messines-Ploegsteert Road, which it joined at La Petite Douve Farm. The line then lay generally south-east towards Warneton. To the south of Messines is the River Douve valley, a wide flood plain running west to east, littered with isolated farmhouses turned into strong-points. South of the River Douve the ground rises again and Hill 63, about 3,000 yards south-west of Messines, provided a vantage-point for the Allies and some cover for Ploegsteert Wood to its south. At this time much of the north-west corner of the wood was still standing, but it was criss-crossed by tracks, communication trenches and the detritus of over a year of shell and mortar fire. Red Lodge, a collection of dirty dugouts and wooden huts located at the north-west corner of Ploegsteert Wood, was the closest billet to the front line. 

The fire trenches here were mostly sandbag breastworks built above ground over shallow trenches. Many of the defence works in and around the salient were built in this fashion because of the very high water table. The problems with standing water were exacerbated by the frequency with which the River Douve burst its banks, the techniques developed by the Germans on the high ground to drain their trenches down the slopes into the British lines, and the destruction of the old drainage systems wrought by two years of artillery fire. The German positions were much better, characterised by concrete blockhouses, and farms reinforced into strong-points and surrounded by trenches and thick belts of wire. They were sited to provide good fields of fire over the British line. The most visible of these were La Petite Douve Farm and Ontario Farm to its north-west.

Plug Street Wood and the River Douve

Plug Street Wood and the River Douve

 

FRIDAY, JULY 21st

Orders to move at 10.15 a.m. Came at 9.05 a.m. Again hurry packing. We go today to Locre, about nine miles I think. Don’t know what it means. We go now to V Corps. I saw John Hotham on the road and had a short talk. He says they are off South. We go into the line tomorrow night. Not too bad a part, I believe. Came on this morning with Coy. Commanders and Fergie, and am just going up now with them to have a look. Two battalions (ourselves and 12th) take over one battalion front. Of course, this means a squash for headquarters, two battalions having to share. Cloudy, looks like rain, but very hot. We are just south of M_____ [Messines].

THURSDAY, JULY 20th

We go on to a camp near P_____ [Poperinghe] by train. Transport by road, leave at 7.00 a.m. Hilda Booth’s boy joined 12th. Came and talked to me yesterday. Such a nice fellow, strong and well built. March severe yesterday, hot duty. Very clean place here—B_____ [Bolizelle]. Don’t think much kit has been lost so far. We have managed to bring it all along. Before going into the line last time we dumped all surplus kit, and each man’s pack, which contained clean change. Poor Burnett was very plucky; he was by the German broken wire with a broken leg, but managed to crawl a bit after dark.

[Near Poperinghe]

9.00 p.m. We came here by light railway. Transport by road 18 miles. We were met on arrival by P. of Wales, who escorted us to our camp and was most kind. He is D.A.Q.M.G. [Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General] XIV Corps, and I told him I had never received such kindly treatment from any Corps staff before, at which he smiled. Such a nice boy and quite simple, and unaffected. A nice, well-appointed camp, about two miles from Pop. Having just settled in we are told we are to move early tomorrow into another Corps further south. The P. was furious at this apparent muddling and cursed Generals freely. The Div. H.Q. is miles away, Bde. H.Q. five miles away, so we shall not get orders till small hours, and then to move at once, I suppose. Quite a decent journey today. We left at 9.30 a.m. and got in at 11.30 a.m. and only a few minutes’ march at each end. There some huts, but I am in a tent. These constant moves are irksome and seemingly unnecessary. The rail runs along the road. We passed our transport and caused much alarm among the horses. Result—three wagons were smashed.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 19th

Orders just come for a move, and we have all out on a route march. We move at 3.00 p.m., about nine miles up toward the line in the direction of P­­­­_____ [Poperinghe]—an awful rush.

1.30 p.m. Such a hurry and turmoil, collecting everything, and of course a whole lot of clothing and boots came in at the last moment, and nowhere to carry them. Am leaving some men behind to look after the things, and bring ‘em on when they can. Very sorry to leave this peaceful spot. We are scattered here, which makes things more difficult.

TUESDAY, JULY 18th

M’Calmont came over to see me yesterday in the P. of Wales’ car! He has put on flesh, but is looking well. The Prince specially offered the car to him to come and see the Div. They are in the salient and have been in since March. Not a salubrious spot. I went to the Bde. office yesterday and found out that my amended report about C.M.J. had not reached them, so got them to wire it at once.

Plumer is our Army Commander.  He came round to make our acquaintance today. Grown very white, but very pleasant. He looked hard at me and I mentioned you and Hale, and he said “of course, I knew your face and couldn’t place you”. Don’t know what Corps we are in, but believe V. Don’t know who commands it. Wilson, Reg. Q.M.S., [Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant] comes from Poyntzpass, and was clerk in Gavin Low’s house in Dublin. A charming letter from the Primate. Did you see an account of the rebellion in Wexford, written by a lady living on the river below N.T. Barry? Quite good. We sent a Sgt. and Pte. from each Battalion in Div. to Paris for 14th. They have just returned. They had a great time, and the Sgt. (Campbell) said “We were just adored!” Today I was ordered to send in one of the names already submitted, for immediate reward.


Footnote

The account of the rebellion in Wexford was written by Moira O’Neill—the nom-de-plume of Agnes Shakespeare ‘Nesta’ Higginson (Mrs Walter Skrine), who lived at Ballyrankin, County Wexford. She is known for her book of poetry ‘Songs of the Glens of Antrim’. Her account of the rebellion may be found online in various formats:

O’Neill, Moira. (June 1916). During the Rising in Wexford. Blackwood’s Magazine. Volume CXCIX, No. MCCVIII, pp 819-827.

MONDAY, JULY 17th

I’m so grieved for Willie Hughes. He was one of the best in the Battalion. He had written to the S. Maj. [Regimental Sergeant Major] he was all right. Cheery to the end, a gallant fellow. Dull heavy weather, very close, occasional heat drops. There are heaps of small streams about here, and water is plentiful for the first time. Such a pretty country; wooded and with hedges, and undulating. Very good billets, comfy, have straw. Few people can realize the horror of war who haven’t seen it on this large scale, and what it entails; the dead lying unburied; the awful state of everything really in the fighting zone. Mercifully they can’t. We seem to be doing well, if only we could get Thiepval. Captures of guns and Hows., excellent news. I cannot understand why Mrs. Charlie hasn’t had a notification from W.O. [War Office] I must try and verify my report at Bde. office. Am trying to find out about Harry Frazer. A letter from old Gosford today, urged to write by his wife, I’m sure. I’ve just answered it. I got your letters the 3rd day, much quicker. There’s a lot of new staff work going on. I’m so saddened I cannot even strafe them. Padre writes to relations day and night. Young Burnett has lost his leg, but writes cheerfully. They are wonderful fellows. Pratt’s just come in to take me out to see a range. The Gen. (N.) has softened since just before the Push. I asked Gosford to set inquiries on foot re prisoners. Please tell me any discrepancies that come to your notice, and they can be put right. It’s so hard to avoid errors in dealing with large numbers.