Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wounded on the Somme 100 years ago

 

Land near Betencourt 100 years ago and now in 2018 More photos from around the area at the end of the post

My father's third wound – two descriptions - written first when he was a young man and then when he was in his seventies

My father Harold Mellersh, (H E L Mellersh) often known as Charlie, fought in the first world war and was wounded three times. Probably he was lucky. Most of his contemporary young officers were killed. But he was seriously wounded three times and sent back to England to recover. He spent much of the war recovering from his wounds. This is probably why he survived and why I am here at all.
My father wrote of his experiences twice. First as a novel “Ill Wind” in 1930 to remind the public how ghastly the war had been and, he hoped, to avoid another war. Second as an autobiography written in the nineteen sixties when a new myth about the war was common, that the story of the first world war was one of “lions led by donkeys.” That is, brave men pointlessly slaughtered by idiotic generals. This, he thought, and now most agree with him, was a great and unjust simplification of what had been a complicated story.


Anyway here is the story told twice. If you want to read more of either book they can be found at http://njeanius.uk/war-books.html

The Background

In April 1918 the Germans very nearly won the first world war. In the previous year Russia had been taken over by the communists under Lenin and had made peace with Germany. Now the Germans were only fighting on one front and they used the extra men to break through the English and French lines. My fathers regiment was quickly called up from the reserves and for the first time was forced to fight out of the trenches in the open countryside around the Somme in Northern France.

Third wound from novel - first published in the 1930's under the title Ill Wind now an e-book Schoolboy into War - the novel

My father's battalion was marched up to the front line to stop the German advance. The Germans had already broken through the trenches and the fifth army was retreating. My fathers battalion was part of the group that had been called up to the front to stop the German advance. After going into the almost deserted village of Betencourt my father had chosen to sleep in what turned out to be the house that had belonged to the village mayor.
The night grew quieter and quieter. At length, except very occasionally, there was nothing but the
rumble of distant gunfire. Guy visited his posts, talked to his sentries. He was somehow not very
worried that there would be an attack at night, nor at the fact that he still had no accurate idea where
were the enemy. The quiet did not make him feel suspicious, it made him feel secure. And he had
ceased to wonder at the strange happenings of the day—perhaps his capacity to wonder was
temporarily worn out. Nor yet again was he much troubled by thoughts of an almost certainly
unpleasant tomorrow; some subconscious protection seemed to be automatically preventing his
mind from dwelling on that. After all, what would be, would be—he was in it now!…
Instead, he thought mostly of England. And of his own life in England. He thought a good deal,
with not altogether unhappy regret, of Teddy—of the good times he had had with Teddy. That whole
day on the Downs. And its ending… And then the first time he had met her. On the tennis court—
green trees; sunshine; her laughter…
He thought of days at school. Of being a prefect. Of walking back one evening with White from the
playing fields—they had somehow got very close together in their talk that evening… And then
days at home. Playing cricket with Cecil in the quiet garden, with the swallows wheeling
overhead…
Price, his junior officer, took over from Guy at one o’clock. Guy's servant, he found, had laid out a ‘borrowed’ mattress and some blankets on the floor of the room he had chosen. Guy took off his coat and equipment; and,knowing that Price had a good sergeant on duty with him, fell asleep. Guy’s servant woke him at sunrise. The boy, on being cursed for not coming at the regulation one hour earlier, explained that everything was so quiet. He then went off promptly to see if he could collect any breakfast.
In the bright stark light the room in which Guy had slept looked even more confused, and much less
picturesque. Some white cards lay scattered out in a line upon the floor.
Guy picked one up. M. le Maire, it said, requested the pleasure of… at a children’s party. In the
corner stood the familiar R.S.V.P. So he was in Mayor’s house. Guy looked at the card for some
time. He was stirred—and at the same time a little pleased to find again something which so
obviously and so beautifully contrasted peace with the brutalities of war. As with the lark singing, it
would be something to remember and to tell people about…
Guy shaved, in a mirror above the chest. And then discovered an open box of rice powder. Had
Madame snatched time to powder her nose before flight? Feeling a thief, but amused at the idea of
so accentuating for his own appreciation his strange position, Guy soothed his own skin with the
powder.

“The Germans are coming”

Then he heard the sound of distant rifle-fire. He stepped out into the sunken lane. His servant was
running, stumbling towards him with his hand raised. He called: “Sir, sir!” He was terribly agitated.
Sir! The Germans are coming over!” Guy’s heart jumped. Then he felt nothing so much as
resignation. He pulled on his coat and equipment; with a not quite steady hand he broke open his
revolver to see that it was fully loaded. He put on his steel helmet and followed his servant.
They’re attacking somewhere on the left, sir!”
Have you seen them?” asked Guy.
No, sir!”
Chaos was abroad again. Guy reached his left-hand post in its derelict piece of waist-high trench.
There was no sign of the enemy. But the men were standing to. Price was there also. He could tell
Guy nothing. Machine-gun bullets were cracking over their heads, and some shelling had started.
There was the noise of rapid firing to their left front.

The English are retreating

But nothing else. Guy scanned the whole landscape with his field-glasses. No result. Some minutes
passed. Guy was thinking that he ought to visit the rest of his line. Then out of the green field, away
to their left, rose figures. Guy saw almost at once that they were our own troops. They came
running back on to his position. He spotted their officer—it was some other battalion—and jumped
out of the trench to meet him.
I say, What’s up?” he asked.
The officer panted. “Boche over the river!”
Have you seen them?”
No! Only they’re retiring on our left.”
Well, dash it all—” Guy saw the need to be tactful. “I don’t know, of course, but it seems to me…
It’s not much good retiring till you’ve seen ’em. I mean…” At last he persuaded the officer to take
his men back.
Guy was left raging. Absolute panic! Retreating without catching a sight of the Hun! Bloody
cowardice!—panic! The war correspondents didn’t report this sort of thing. And his own men were
windy now—he could feel it.
Where do you think—?” began Price.
Oh, God!—I don’t know!”
A runner suddenly appeared, from their right rear. He jumped into the trench; saluted. “Captain’s
compliments, sir, and you’re to retire on him—yonder up where t’right of your line is, sir.”
Guy’s anger blazed up again. This was ridiculous. But Price his second in command, had heard.
Come on! File out there!” he cried.
Guy shouted.
What?”
Oh, go on! Take ’em round by the road!”
Price and the men hurried out. Guy ran up over the sloping grassland. Shells were bursting amongst
a couple of cows. That was rather priceless! He found Jacks, and talked to him there in the open
field. “I say, look here!” said Guy. “What’s the good of retiring?”

They go back, grumbling

A shell landed rather near. “Well, they’re retiring everywhere else,” said Jacks. “I know! That’s just
it! If we all retire just because everybody else does, without seeing any damn—”
Haven’t you seen Jerry yet?”
Not a sign!”
Jacks pushed up the ends of his dark super-military moustache with an attempted air of
nonchalance. “Oh, I didn’t know that. . . . Do you want to go back?”
The two looked at each other.
I don’t want to. But I think we shall be putting up a bloody poor show if—”
All right!… Are you going?” “Yes, I am!…”
The decision was perhaps the crux of Guy’s life, certainly of his Army life. Yet he was not
conscious of any heroism, nor of any heroics. He was not remembering those recent vows to win
back his own respect. Uppermost in his emotions were simply anger and indignation. His sense of
what was logical behaviour had been violated. To retreat like this was so absurd. But yet at the back
of Guy’s mind there was a perfect awareness of all that this re-advance against the enemy might
mean. If not consciously, in fact, then at least subconsciously, all his training and experience
throughout the War were making it possible for him to do as he was now doing.
Guy ran straight down towards the right of the sunken road. The shelling was growing worse. As he
passed near to the cows one of them was hit. It danced about in a perfectly ridiculous manner.
He met his men coming back along the road, and halted them. “You’d better go along to Jacks,” he
said to Price. Then he told the men that they were to go back.
They didn’t object. They just looked a little glum. One or two made jokes about it. Guy’s opinion of
them mended a little.
They reached their low, isolated zigzag of trench again. The shelling was really heavy now; the din
of battle was rising. But still no sign of Germans. They must, thought Guy, be all in the valley. It
was a pity there were so many trees about. Well, he was going to stay here! . . . He pulled out his
field-glasses again, and lifted them to his eyes…

The Shell that gets him

The shell which arrives very near to its victim gives no warning—the preliminary crescendo whine
is never heard; only the shattering explosion. Guy only heard the explosion—like a thousand doors
slamming simultaneously—of the shell which landed in the trench beside him now.
For a moment Guy was quite senseless. Then his brain began to work again. He was killed! He
couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak! He tried to make a noise—nothing came. He began to see again
the overgrown side of the trench, a patch of blue sky. And now he could make a noise. “Aa! Aa!”
he said. He wasn’t killed—he must be badly wounded. Oh, God! And then he could cry: “Help!
Help!”
Guy came completely to his senses. His field-glasses had been blown out of his hands, and his steel
hat off his head, the chin-strap presumably breaking. He looked at his hands. They were black, and
were beginning to ooze everywhere bright blood against the black. He had been caught here merely
by the blast of the shell. His face smarted too; and he seemed to be hit in the knee. Guy watched his
helpless hands grow redder.
His servant was beside him. “You’ve got it, sir! Come on, sir!”
Limping, dazed, cowed, a very different person from two minutes ago, Guy let himself be led back
along the sunken road.
At the farther end of the village, in a house facing an open space and those sloping fields, Jacks had
set up his head-quarters. The company stretcher-bearers were there. They bandaged Guy, and also
two other men who had been hit by the same shell—one in the arm and one with a hole in his back.
You’re lucky, sir!” Guy was told. “Do you remember, sir, up by Bouchavesnes—when we
bandaged you after you’d got it in no-man’s-land?” Jacks seemed to envy Guy too…
Guy said good-bye, and set out. They were shelling around here now; and Guy? Frightened, felt
sure that even yet they would get him and he would never escape alive.
And now there followed a long, hobbling walk for Guy under the blazing sun—already it seemed as
fierce and as relentless as it had yesterday. But Guy was happy—as everyone in those days for the
same reason was happy— because again he had got ‘a Blighty One’, and not the one from which
you didn’t wake up. He was going out of it! As they drew away from the shelling Guy’s happiness
increased. They went on. A big shell sent up its black column of earth at a distance, and Guy
wondered whether it would be the last shell-burst he would see.
He espied a discarded French helmet at the side of the road, lighter and handsomer than the British
type; and, because he felt the need of some covering from the sun, put it on. He was rather amused
and proud of his resourcefulness. He wondered what he looked like in it—in truth, with his
bandaged hands and bloody face, a bit of a scarecrow.

A drink of Petrol!

But all three of those wounded by the shell grew more and more thirsty. They came to a deserted
cottage with open door and signs of having been in military occupation of some sort. They entered,
and found petrol tins. Now, to infantrymen in the Great War, petrol tins only contained one thing—
they were the universal water carriers. Guy’s cheerfulness was not even wholly damped when the
three of them discovered that for once those tins held their rightful contents…
They walked on. And now the way did begin to seem interminable. The whole countryside was
deserted. They came to a small town—Nesle—and walked sadly through its deserted high-housed
streets, like empty echoing canyons.
(Soon the Germans were in that town.) They came out of it, and still limped on away from the
firing-line. They met two men—unattached, unexplained. The two had orders to go forward—were
the Jerries just ahead? Good Lord! Explained Guy, it was not quite as bad as that! Chaos again.
Guy’s knee was once more hurting badly. It had grown better soon after their start, so that he had
ceased to lean on the man with the wounded arm. He couldn’t very well ask to lean on it again—the
man was probably as exhausted as himself.
They reached another town at last—Guy didn’t worry about its name. They found a dressing station.
But the whole dressing station was just about to move back. Guy and his companions were given
water and a lot of milk chocolate. The chocolate would only be wasted otherwise! Guy didn’t want
the stuff’ much—it only made him thirsty again.
Then they waited—in the big open square of the town, flooded with sunlight, deserted—for a lorry
to take them on. (Nothing so luxurious as ambulances in this retreat.) The lorry at length came;
packed itself with everything, human and otherwise; set off and picked up what civilian refugees it
could cram in on the way.
They reached a casualty clearing station at Roye. Guy had his wounds dressed. And, discovering
that Birmingham was there, went to see him. Birmingham moved his face from off the pillow,
murmured something, and let his head drop again. Guy was not sure whether he was recognized—
Birmingham looked bad! But none the less Guy was profoundly shocked when later he heard that
Birmingham had died of his wounds…
A long wait. And then a trailing walk to the railway. There might be a train, they said. Guy’s knee
was very stiff now.
There was a train—an ordinary train. The wounded were packed into the ‘eight horse, forty men’
trucks. Not quite forty to a truck now, of course; but then some of the wounded could not sit, or
could not stand, or could not lie. A certain amount of blood trickled on to the floor. Night was
coming. The doors were shut. Some time or other the train started. It was not very far to Amiens;
but then the line had been bombed, and the train took all night to get there…
Guy thought in the train—when he was not too painfully cramped nor managing to sleep. He
thought suddenly and for the first time of the men he had left behind. Poor blighters! If he had been
a real hero he would have stayed on, wounds or no wounds. He thought of the rush of that other
platoon on to him, of his own men’s retreat under Jacks’ orders. And from that to the whole
unbelievable two days. The whole struck him as something very chaotic and rather deplorable—“a
bloody fiasco,” as he had heard more than one man call it. They had been days—so far as he had
seen—of which the British Army could not on the balance be proud. Of course there had been
probably brave deeds done —very brave deeds. There was in a minor way the immediate
willingness of his men to re-advance into what for all they knew might be a death-trap. But there
had been the other side—as he had seen before in this war for that matter: there had been panic
about. Well, after all, who could ever expect anything else?… Yes; but nobody would probably ever
talk about it. Mr. Liss, for instance: “Our splendid Tommies”! And yet, even so, he wouldn’t do
justice to the men. How was that? And was he, Guy, doing wrong in pondering on the cowardly and
despicable side of these last days—in telling himself that there was such a side at all?…
Guy at last was able to get out of the train. He had to walk up to somewhere in Amiens where there
was a sort of hospital in a converted private house. His wounds were dressed again; he had a little to
eat; he watched a single wounded French officer who was amongst the crowd of British. Finally he
limped back to another train.

Bombed by a German plane

And then Guy found that he had not quite finished with the War. They had boarded the train at a
siding just beyond the station—an ordinary train again, but with proper carriages this time. And it
continued to stay where it was. Then there was heard the hum of an aeroplane. Guy, from his corner
seat, glanced at the other men in the carriage. They all looked apprehensive. The humming grew
louder. Suddenly, with a great menacing crescendo which seemed to drive right down into their
brains, the aeroplane swooped.
A sharp whistle; the fraction of a second’s silence; the flash and the reverberating explosion. Guy
and the others ducked. Then the splinters of glass, the rain of thuds upon their roof.
There was someone wounded in the next carriage, but not in theirs. All their glass, however, had
gone. The bomb had landed alongside, into a brick shed some eight yards away. . . .
And after that the aeroplanes—there were more than one—kept up the attack. To the
accompaniment of anti-aircraft firing their humming would die down and then return with that
terrifying crescendo. They dropped several bombs amongst the crowded waiting trains.
Guy found himself trembling—as he had trembled in that hole in the trench wall once. But this was
much worse—it must be visible—his teeth were chattering! And Guy, as before, tried to control it—
with as little success. But fancy trembling at bombs! It wasn’t half so bad as shelling. But if only it
hadn’t been the first one which had come so near!…
And so Guy sat. Until the noise of those aeroplanes passed finally out of his hearing. And with their
passing Guy passed out of the War. He had heard his last explosion.
But still for a time Guy trembled. He was exhausted—absolutely. And the shell which had wounded
him—sending him to the verge of shell-shock again—had been a kind of terrific culmination of all
the strains the War had put upon him. But yet, as he sat there he did do his best to stop the trembling
and with quite reasonable rapidity succeeded. That last circumstance in which Guy found himself
perhaps summarized, epitomized, his whole Army life. His body, his nerves—his ideals and
opinions too—had been badly buffeted. But yet at the same time, in combating those very blows,
his will had been practised—had been exercised—in exerting itself to effort…

And the war goes on without him

Guy passed out of the War. But the War went on. The British continued to retreat, sometimes in
panic but generally in good order. Scratch forces were collected to stem the rush—stragglers from
Stragglers’ Posts’, batmen, cooks, pioneers, people on ‘courses’. The battle front extended north a
little, to Arras—with ghastly losses to the Germans. And then slowly the pressure of the attack
slackened, through fatigue, through difficulties of transport: Ludendorff’s objectives had not been
reached. A fresh wave broke, on the Lys; and developed into perhaps the most recklessly pressed
and the most stubbornly defended battle of them all. Again the wave spent itself. A lull. Then a third
wave, in the south. A wave which carried farthest—which threatened Paris. But a wave which
America, now ready, helped the French and the few British to break.
Another lull—fatal to the enemy. Another spending of German cannon fodder in the last great effort
to widen that gap in the south. Foch takes risks, that he may keep intact his reserves. Then he
strikes, on the German flank—attacks with overwhelming force, of material and soon of men. Since
when first the line was formed the oscillations of the long trench-line have been increasing; now
comes the swing back and the greatest swing of all. The Allies finally come to victory…
On paper, in the histories, it all sounds glorious; but it was not so. Guy in his cattle truck had
wondered whether he did wrong in thinking of that side of the fighting which mankind cannot be
proud to contemplate. He need not have wondered. There is as great a necessity to remember the
horror and the terror and the panic and the cowardice as there is to remember the fortitude and the
heroism—perhaps more need: because it is so much easier to forget.
Both teach their lesson—and the whole lesson is not complete with only the memory of either.
Courage there was in those months of ‘open warfare’—such courage and steadfastness, such
nobility and sacrifice, as must most assuredly never be forgotten, as can quite obviously never be
repaid. For men have that capacity for courage. But miserable cowardice and panic were there too.
For war is like that, and sometimes the strain is too great…
Those last months of the War were no prettier than the rest. True there was movement. There were
even squads of cavalry riding splendidly with waving pennants over the bright countryside. But
shells could smash those troops—and did. Colour and romance and glamour cannot compete against
modern chemistry and machines. And that last fighting had peculiar horrors of its own. The
massacre—on both sides—was terrific: the scythe-like mowing down by machine-guns in ill planned
assault or forlorn counter-attack, the firing short of each side’s guns, the wiping out of
assembled masses by bombs from aeroplanes, the constant ‘harassing fire’ upon billets and crossroads
and working parties. And then, too, the shelling and bombing of French civilians—children
and women—killing them before they could become even pitiful refugees. Starvation, too; and
pillage; and ghastly, grey-faced, paralysing fatigue. The damaging or destroying of towns, such as
Amiens, Bailleul, Valenciennes…

The third wound from the autobiography - Schoolboy into War

My father's battalion was marched up to the front line to stop the German advance. The Germans had already broken through the trenches and the fifth army was retreating. My fathers battalion was part of the group that had been called up to the front to stop the German advance. The story begins here with the march up to the front.

We started our march again, through this country across which the Germans had withdrawn in early 1917, devastating as they went.  But now the devastation was greatly healed, and the signs of war - a farmhouse occasionally showing its rafters were picturesque compared with what we had grown used to in the Ypres salient. We then came to the main road, and met the stream of refugees. This was something I had never seen before, and never wanted to see again. Old women in black dresses there were; bent old men trundling wheelbarrows; girls in their Sunday best - to wear it the only way to save it; farm carts loaded with a miscellany of hens, pigs, furniture, children, mattresses, bolsters; moody cows being whacked and led by little boys. There were ambulances coming down the road too, and British army lorries with the bright painted divisional signs on them. At the back of one of these sat a row of Army nurses. They waved; and we cheered. I think it was a shock to all of us, to realize that nurses were so near to the fighting and were also having to retreat. But for a moment we felt heroic - were we not going forward to protect them?

At last we turned off the road, onto the opening of a long green shallow valley. We fell out and a company commanders’ conference was held. Captain Jacks soon came back from it and told the rest of his officers what was known, which was not much. The Fifth Army had been ordered back, and our job, our division’s job, was to stop the Boche following them. Where were the Boche exactly? Nobody knew. One thing that was known apparently was that yesterday an advance billeting party from one of our battalions had optimistically penetrated some three miles east of the Somme, to find nobody to billet for but the enemy. A Company, Jacks said, held the right hand position of the Battalion, and on the right - somewhere – were the French. Our job, he continued, was to advance up out of this wide valley for about a mile and a half, when we should overlook the valley of the Somme and a village called Bethencourt. No, there were no maps. It was pretty certain that the Boche were still the further side of the river; but we should probably come under fire when out of this valley. He would take the rear half of the company; I, as senior subaltern, would take the forward half. We would advance in artillery formation, half-platoons moving in double file and not fours, the whole spread out in the shape of a diamond. But first, said Jacks, he would talk to the men. He formed them up into a hollow square, and he harangued with all the best phrases. But he was not the man to carry that off and it was a failure - at least so I thought.

Harold leads his men into the village of Betencourt

Then we advanced as ordered, I in the middle of my diamond formation. We came to wide open fields, downland almost. This of course was exactly like an OTC Field Day. There was even the illusion of summer weather, for the sun in a cloudless sky was now riding high and it was beginning to be as hot as the night had been cold. A lark was disturbed and rose singing into the blue.

Then shells began to arrive, which destroyed the illusion, and yet not wholly, making it, rather, fantastically unreal. They were only whizz-bangs, shells of three inch diameter, that is, and not the dreaded five point nines. They came rather disconcertingly without much warning; but there were not many of them and they seemed to make rather ineffectual little holes in the grass. But at least we knew that the Boche were somewhere about, and that their light artillery observation had probably spotted us. We reached the head of the gently rising ground and could see beyond. Not more than a quarter of a mile away was a wooded river valley and distinguishable in it a few cottages amongst the trees. Was this Bethencourt? - presumably it was. And were the Boche in it or not?

I extended my half company into line - useful drill again - advanced a hundred yards or so, and told them to dig themselves in’ with their entrenching tools. Then we suddenly spotted figures appearing over the farther horizon. I gave my first and last real fire-order of the war. “A thousand - no, eight hundred – yards. At the enemy on the skyline. Fire!” It was much too distant for rifle fire to be at all effective. But they diddisappear.

Perhaps the Boche were already in the village in front of us then? It was my job to find out. I chose two lance-corporals to come with me and we set out. The shelling had stopped and everything was remarkably quiet. Some cows grazed, quite unconcernedly - but that meant nothing either way. The field ended abruptly with a hedge and a steep earth bank, with below it a sunken road along which the village straggled. Still not a sound. We rushed down into the sunken road. Opposite us was a long wall of stabling. We crept along this, myself in front, fingering my revolver and wondering whether I was being ridiculously melodramatic. At last we came to the end of the wall. I hesitated and then, in approved style, with my revolver at the ready, I turned the corner quickly. Nothing! I turned the next front of us was a big farmhouse. I approached the door and hesitated again. Then to our intense surprise it was opened from within and a Frenchwoman appeared. Then a man and another woman. So this was the end of my Boche-stalking - perhaps then the men on the skyline had been our own troops? There followed an effort on my part, in bad French, to get these people to leave their farm and retreat like the rest. They refused point blank, and I gave up the struggle. As I made my way back a shell crashed behind me, and I thought that that perhaps would make them change their mind. What happened to them I never knew.

The troops dig in - reluctantly

When we got back I was surprised to see how little progress the men had made in digging a trench forthemselves. But what shells were arriving were now falling behind us, and they needed a bigger incentive than that to make them tackle the unpopular task with any enthusiasm. Some of them now asked for permission to go into the village for water, and I let them. Then the NCO in charge came back saying that they had found somebody else in the village, a girl in the cellar of an estaminet. She was selling vin blanc - was there any objection? I went to inspect and found things just as they had been told to me. It was an improbable but a very cheerful scene. I hadn’t the heart to put a stop to it, judging - rightly as it turned out - that nobody was going to get blind drunk at the prices she was charging. I put a corporal in charge, and during the evening most of the men paid the cellar a visit. Captain Jacks came up, inspected my dispositions and approved them, instructed me to hold tight and report any developments, and then left.

The whizz-bangs had stopped but bigger stuff had now begun to arrive in the valley. Then a captain with green tabs on his collar, and followed by his orderly, hove in sight. He was, he explained, an intelligence officer from one of the divisions that had been in the retreat from the beginning. Could I give him any information? I gave him what I could. He then said: could I come across the river and report what I had said to his divisional commander. I said I could. He intimated that it was getting pretty hot by the river and told me to bring my servant. Through the village again and down to the bank of the famous river. It was a small affair here, wide but shallow, wandering greenly and shadily amidst trees and saplings that were just beginning to show their leaf-buds. There was a ford with stepping stones, and over this we crossed. As we did so, sure enough, a five-point-nine shell arrived. We bent down, waiting to see whether any of the bits would fall on us; but I judged that it had been too near for that, and felt elated at this escape. Then I was approaching the General. He stood in an open field with a few staff officers respectfully around him, and he had a long row of medals, and he looked rather as if he were posing for his battle picture. That was not his fault however. He listened to me very courteously, and I told him what I could, which was in all conscience very little. I was thanked, and I made my way back with my servant to my half-company, this time meeting no more shells at the crossing. I posted my only Lewis gun section to cover it, something that I ought, no doubt, to have done sooner. I cannot remember much about the rest of that strange evening. The shelling was curiously sporadic but at times heavy. I recall going the rounds with my servant; of both of us trying to take cover in some sort of depressions, perhaps grass-grown shell holes from previous fighting; of myself thinking that, in the current phrase, his hole was better than mine; of hesitating; of then making a dash for it; and of having the satisfaction of seeing a shell land where, it seemed to me, I had just been. Then machine gun bullets for a while began to whisper around us. That was uncanny, for it was impossible to tell where they came from. Was there going to be an attack, and if so from where?

Exploring the village

But again things quietened down. The sergeant of my platoon had, I discovered, made precarious touch with troops on his left. I put my only other officer - a lugubrious young man with the inappropriate surname of Christmas - in charge of the line and went and explored the rest of the village that was strung along the sunken road. The little houses were all deserted, with obvious and pitiable signs of sudden exits. One of them I made my headquarters. The parlour was in confusion, with the drawers of a big chest opened to varying extents and the contents strewn out of them. The sun had now set, and in the fading light the village looked picturesque. The night was wholly quiet: the Germans were not risking the confusion of night attacks. I took the firsthalf duty myself, wandering from sentry to sentry, talking to my platoon sergeant also on duty. This again was a night before the battle; and I ought perhaps to have been thinking nostalgically and sentimentally of home and England; but I don’t think I did. I don’t believe, either, that I thought much of what would happen in the morning. Perhaps in this kind of circumstance one is in a sort of way drugged to think only of the present. When half the night was through I retired to my ‘headquarters’ and there lay down to sleep on the mattress that my servant had thoughtfully ‘borrowed’ from a bed and laid out on the floor. He awakened me at dawn. He ought to have done so sooner, but he explained that everything had been so quiet. In retrospect I cannot help feeling that all of us were being remarkably casual at this time. Perhaps the utter strangeness of the situation, and its dissimilarity to any fighting as opposed to mock fighting that we had ever known, had given us a subconscious feeling of unreality. Perhaps it was something deeper than that, a British characteristic that is generally regarded as an ornament but can be a flaw, the propensity to ‘muddle through’, the dislike of taking a situation with as it were ungentlemanly seriousness - rather like Philip of Macedon being scandalized to find that his son Alexander could play a musical instrument with the skill of a professional. I remember that our commanding officer had of late taken to holding officers’ meetings, acquainting us of wider happenings, discussing questions of training behind the line and so forth: no doubt there had been one such shortly before this present hurried move of ours. I remember too, however, that I had felt these meetings to be a little portentous, that I was noticing not much more than that the CO had a habit of putting down his cigarette and carefully balancing it vertically on the table instead of horizontally in an ashtray. I must have possessed the British trait more pronouncedly than most - or else I was just plain irresponsible.
Recently I have read the diaries of a German officer, not much older than myself at the time, HerbertSulzbach With the German Guns’ (Published by Leo Cooper in 1973.) Sulzbach also took part in this battle. And his diary is full of enthusiastic references to the efficiency of his side’s preparation for the great attack: ‘Again and again you have to gaze in wonder at this careful work which the Staff people are putting in.’ One feels almost that the Germans deserved to win those crucial battles of 1918 - that is if meticulous efficiency alone could win them, which as it turned out it couldn’t.
So, while my counterpart with the German guns arose on this morning of 24th March from a night in a captured British dugout, I arose from a night in a hurriedly deserted French cottage. While my servant went off in the hope of finding me some breakfast, I quickly washed and shaved. The littered room looked less romantic now. Some white cards lay scattered out in a line along the floor. I picked one up. It was a printed invitation from ‘M. le Maire’ to a children’s party, in its corner the familiar, civilized ‘RSVP’. So this was the Maire’s house, and he had sometimes had children’s parties Then, as I was fastening on my equipment, my servant returned. He was nearly in a panic. “Sir! Sir! The Germans are coming over!” I ran to my left-hand post, a piece of waist-high trench. There was nothing to see. But again there came the swish of a machine-gun fire over our heads and quite a lot of heavy shelling too.

The English are retreating

Then, as I was wondering whether I ought to visit another part of my half-company, a line of men appeared in front, running towards us. I saw almost at once that they were our own men, but not of our battalion. I was horrified. I spotted their officer and jumped out of the trench to meet him.
Boche over the river!” he panted.
I asked if he had seen them. He hadn’t, but they were retiring on his left.
But dash it all!” I said, or words to that effect, and I managed to persuade him to stop retiring. But then a runner from Captain Jacks appeared. “Orders from the Captain, sir, retire on to him.” This seemed to me ridiculous. But Christmas had heard it. “Go on! File out of the trench!” he was saying.

They go back, grumbling

I found Captain Jacks. I don’t know what I said to him exactly; but I know that it was to the effect that everybody was retiring because everybody else was retiring, that I had seen no Germans, and that I wanted to take my men back to where they had come from. Captain Jacks agreed. Glumly, but not unwillingly, the men followed me back. We got into the same waisthigh trench.
Was I being noble, was I being foolhardy? I don’t think it was really either. My sense of fitness, of logicality, was outraged. If everyone retired because everyone else retired ... If that shell hadn’t come, what would have happened to me, I wonder? Should I, like the man of the First Battalion - a mild-mannered man with gig-lamp glasses whom I had known, Horsefall VC - should I have cried “Surrender be damned!” and gone down fighting. I hope so but have to doubt it. Should I have been taken prisoner? Should I have again retired in the end, as the rest did, when Frenchmen too from the right began falling back and past us? In actuality, I stood in the waist-high trench, scanning the scene in front with my field glasses, when a shell landed almost on top of me.
I think that paradoxically its very nearness saved me, that and the luck that none of the shell-case fragments but only the blast came my way.

 

The Shell that gets him

They always said that the shell that got you, you did not hear coming, and they were right. With no warning I heard the explosion, like a thousand doors slamming. For the moment I think I was senseless. Then my brain began to work. I was dead! No, I wasn’t. I began to yell. It seemed to me, rightly or wrongly, that no noise came out of my mouth at all. Then I came at least partly to my senses. My field glasses had been blown out of my hands, and my tin hat off my head. As I looked at my hands, which were black, they began to ooze blood; my face and one knee felt in the same condition.
Once more my servant was beside me. “Come on, sir!” Limping, dazed and cowed, a very different person from a couple of minutes ago, I followed him. Two other men came with us, wounded by the same shell, one in the arm and one in the back. Christmas, as I learnt later, was also to come down the line from the effects of the same shell, though he was not, I think, physically touched by it.
We found Company Headquarters and Captain Jacks and the company stretcher-bearers. The stretcherbearers bandaged our wounds, one of them reminding me that he had done the same thing for me once before, after the no-man’s-land patrol. Captain Jacks said we were damned lucky, and with some natural reluctance sent us on our way down the line.

 

A drink ….. of Petrol!

It was a long way and a strange way. We set off down the road, myself bare-headed, limping and learning on one of the others. Then my knee seemed to get better and I walked on my own. The shelling receded from us. I saw a discarded French steel helmet on the side of the road, and put it on to shield my head from the hot sun. The sun as it climbed was in fact amazingly hot, and we became very thirsty - wounds seem to create a raging thirst and this quite apart from any loss of blood. We came to a deserted cottage, with open door and signs of having been in military occupation. Inside were some two- gallon petrol tins. Now to the infantryman these tins meant water, for they were always used to carry water up the line. The other two politely let the officer have first drink, and I put my mouth to the opening and tilted. Out it came - petrol. I took it as a personal insult.
We went on. We came to the little town of Nesle. It was utterly deserted, a long canyon of empty street with staring silent tall buildings on either side. We went on; and met two soldiers going up unaccompanied to the line. Were the Germans just ahead? They asked. Good Lord, not as bad as that, we told them. My knee was hurting again, but I couldn’t very well ask to lean on the other chap’s shoulder any more. We reached another small town at last and in its otherwise deserted square found a British field dressing station. But the station was just pulling out. We were given some water, and, of all things, packets of milk chocolate - it, would only be wasted otherwise, they said. We waited while everything was packed into a lorry, then we were packed in too. On the way room was found for a few refugees. We reached the advanced clearing station at Roye. Wounds were re-dressed, I think, or else we had an antitetanus injection, and then came a long wait. I found that Owen, with whom I had shared a foxhole at Passchendaele, was here. I was told that he had been hit by a whizz-bang. He was in a bed, and lifted his head very languidly to listen to me. He seemed pretty bad, I thought; but I was shocked when later I had heard he had died, for those whizz-bangs exploding in the open field had seemed somehow so innocuous.A long trailing walk to the railway station, where there might be a train. So there was, at last: the usual cattle trucks, labelled with one of the bad jokes of the war: 8 chevaux, 40 hommes. They did not pack in forty of us, for some were pretty badly wounded; but the journey to Amiens which took all night was a nightmare.

 

Bombed by a German plane

Amiens: a limping walk to a hospital, another dressing of wounds, something to eat, then back to therailway station. At least I found myself now in a proper railway carriage. But the train did not go. We were then subjected to a final ordeal, final indignity. They bombed us from the air. Unfortunately the first bomb dropped very near, breaking all our window glass and wounding someone in the next carriage.
My nerve had completely gone by now. I sat and waited for the next one, and could not stop my trembling. But no bomb came so near again, and at last the train trundled out to safety.The rest of the journey was easy and uneventful. This was the evening of the 25th. By then the Germans were already approaching Roye, the town from which I had got yhr chocolate and got the train, some eight miles beyond Bethencourt and nearly twenty from the original front line.


If you want to read more of either book they can both be found at http://njeanius.uk/war-books.html  My father also wrote a biography of Siegfried Sassoon who fought not far from him on the front.  This is the only biography written by someone who shared Sassoon's Wester Front experience also at the same web address..


Bethencourt village as  it is now

The Somme at Bethencourt

The road into Bethencourt.  Probably the one my father went down brandishing his revolver

The war cemetry at Bethencourt. Probably the only reminder of the scene 100 years ago
  Acknowledgements
This post was inspired by the work of my cousing Ricky Marsh who recently visited this part of France and sent photos of  the area.  These and other photo taken from Google maps streetview are above. Thanks for that Ricky. I really found it interesting reading a key part of my father's story in both the books together.  I hope many others find it interesting as well.  Nick Mellersh