Pilkem – Menin Road Ridges, 1917

On the 30th May our unit marched by Hermaville, Izel- les-Hameaux, Penin and Maizieres to Ternas, two miles north from our late location of Monts-en-Ternois. Like it, Ternas was a clean village and asses pittoresque, billets being above the average and the weather excellent for bivouacking. We stayed there for four days, with the usual foot parades, kit inspection, route marches and equipment overhauling, but with plenty of opportunity for rest and recreation.

While conversing one day with the “lady of the house” at our mess regarding the number and variety of the troops billeted in the village since the war began –  there had been a steady stream since October, 1914, of French, English, Irish, Scots – she trotted out the old belief that breaking a mirror causes seven years’ bad luck. But she extended it, also, to include a drinking glass as well as a looking glass. “Ah Yes! It was indeed true ! One of her Scottish officers accidentally broke a glass from which he was drinking. He knew, too, that he would have la guigne. Et voila! Il était tué, lui et son ordonnance! By the same shell, his servant and he! Quelle tristesse!”

On the 4th of June we left Ternas, marching in rear of Brigade via Roellecourt, St. Pol and Wavrans to Conteville, starting early and getting in about noon. It was a truly lovely summer day, but too warm for road comfort. Conteville was a clean and prosperous looking little place, rather reminiscent of Sorel. My billet was in the so-called château where we messed, a comfortable country house with a square garden, and in it a guelder rose tree in full bloom. The neighbouring country lanes were hedged with flowering hawthorn, amongst which it was pleasant to “dander” (and the French have dandiner) in the gloaming. 

The village church, of great age and well kept, had a special chapel dedicated to St. Benoit-Labre, whose life of poverty inspired the common French saying, “pauvre que Labre !” His chapel, gated off from the rest of the church, was built beside the room in the ancien presbytère which he used to occupy on his occasional visits to his uncle, M. Vincent, the then parish priest of Conteville. For St. Benoit-Labre (1748-83) was a pèlerin, a religious wanderer to shrines ; and in this chapel now lay his image in wax, on a pallet on the floor a most life-like, or rather death-like, apparition to view in the dusk through the iron bars of the locked gate, clad as it was in a reproduction of the ragged and I fear during his religious activities, rather lousy – apparel he wore as a pilgrim and when he passed away. 

The old presbytery was kept as a sort of museum, containing M. Vincent ‘s writing desk and some other articles of furniture ; although the various visits of his sainted nephew must have reduced the house plenishings to a minimum. For on one occasion, par exemples the good old curé had returned home to find that St. Benoit had given away the avuncular table and chairs, and to replace them had dug a hole in the earthen floor of the sitting room ; pointing out to his doubtless somewhat astonished relative, eager for rest and refreshment, that if they sat on the floor with their feet in this hole, furniture was, after all, not a sine qua non! If King David I. was “a sair saint for the croun” Benoit must have been an equally sair saint for his uncle : but it behoves one, suppose, to put up with unexpected temporal inconveniences when there is a saint in the family, however queer he may be. And truly he was queer enough. Is it not Anatole France who tells us that when Benoit was presented with an old hat his first act was to drag it in the mud before putting it on, thus making it sufficiently disreputable to match the rest of his clothing? Had R.L.S. ever heard of him? It seems not improbable. 

As was usually found in the matter of local history, the village people could tell nothing about him, except that his fête was on the last Sunday of June ; but the old lady of the château kindly gave me a copy of his “‘life” which copy I lost, to my great regret, with the rest of my kit library, during the March retreat in 1918. In it were told many eccentric tales of a quaintly religious career and I think it was on my suggestion (and after a vote) that he was adopted as the patron saint of our mess.

Next day – a day of oppressive heat : perhaps the warmest day we ever experienced in France we marched through very beautiful, undulating country by Hestrus, Eps, Beaumetz les Aires, Heuchin and Reclingham to Coyecques, a tiring and dusty trek of twenty-six kilometres in all, getting in after over a dozen men had fallen out in the last lap, owing to heat and blistered feet, and been picked up by our ambulance cars. It was a pretty little village, and we stayed there two days; the men enjoying the rest, bathing in a stream near by, and one evening having a most successful smoking concert. Two barrels of stout had been imported for the occasion from St. Omer, and a harmonium once more kindly lent for secular purposes by one of the battalion padres, which again eked out the ever vigorous music of our faithful orchestra of fiddlers.

Three days later we set off by way of Saint Martin- au-Laert to the Château de Givenchy at Eperlecq ues near St. Omer ; remaining there for some weeks under canvas in the fine precincts of the château and running a Divisional Rest Station in the ground floor of the building, the weather favouring us. Bathing was available in the large pond of the château, and a very successful item of aquatic sports was carried out . Eperlecques was certainly one of the places all the men looked back on with unalloyed pleasure. At the close of our stay we moved to the other side of St. Omer to another agreeable venue, the hamlet of Clairmarais on the edge of the forest of that name, in whose vicinity were the ruins of an old abbey.

The district was intersected with canals, big and little ; and by these water-ways the inhabitants – mostly market gardeners whose little houses were to be seen dotting the banks carried their produce to the neighbouring town of St. Omer in boats prowed fore and aft, which, in the narrower canals, they propelled by poles, digging these into the bank with short, sharp strokes very difficult of successful imitation by amateurs. But bigger boats with oars were available for the larger canals, which occasionally widened out into small lakes ; and our sergeants, having to proceed some distance to their mess, hauled out and patched up an old sunken hulk of some size, in which, following l’ha bitude du pays, they tore through the water like care-free Vikings. 

And the canals had helped to make history. By one of them in 1711, when St. Omer was besieged by Prince Eugene and Marlborough, a humble heroine une femme du peuple – named Jacqueline Robins, saved the city at the peril of her life by successfully bringing into it a boat loaded with provisions and munitions. 

The farm of Clairmarais, in whose grounds our transport was parked and our tentage for Brigade sick erected, dated back to 1676. It was built largely out of the neighbouring ruins of the old Cistercian abbey, which (founded in 1140 at the instigation of St. Bernard whose hermit’s cell had been at the near-by hamlet of Scoubroucq – by Thierry d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, and his wife, Sibylle) had harboured in 1165 the refugee St. Thomas à Becket. At what date it had been finally destroyed could not be ascertained locally : some said at the Revolution. A mound in the vicinity of the ruins was stated by one old residenter to contain the bodies of four hundred monks who had been guillotined then. He took a somewhat gory, anti-clerical interest in his tale. “Without doubt there stood the guillotinel Between these two pillars you still saw in the field. And their heads had been cut off! But yes ! Certainly” To the number of four hundred. It was a good tale, was it not? And of great interest! Ah ! There were many such in France!”

And yet a pleasant place it was, leaving memories of Strolls in the forest glades of Clairmarais or along the banks of the network of canals. It was sometimes no simple task to retrace one’s steps after a waterside walk, for it was easy to get lost owing to the many compulsory right-angled turns caused by the smaller canals joining the larger ; but a boat was usually available when in difficulties. On one such evening stroll I saw a small bird – a meadow pipit, I think – who had the misfortune to be foster mother to a cuckoo, Aying busily about searching for tit-bits for her imagined offspring. The tiny, active, anxious-minded, little thing had to land on the back of the cuckoo’s neck and feed the open-mouthed ever expectant young bird over its own shoulder. 

The canals were full of eels, and the people fished for them with large nets fixed round circular hoops at the end of long poles. The dwellings by the bank were picturesque enough, but could not have been too healthy romantic and rheumatic ; water lilies and water rats an artist’s joy and a sanitary inspector’s despair. Nor can they have been ideal residences in which to bring up a young family. A harassed mother spanking a small and dripping youngster on the canal bank was asked what he had done. Tah ! The rogue ! Was not this the third time he had fallen into the canal to-day?” Provided the child was always successfully rescued, that opened up to the statistician a vista of 1,095 dips per annum, with much physical exercise for maman ! And this recalls, too, the tale of the matter-of-fact old Scots lady who was shewing a visitor over her garden, at the foot of which was a rapidly running river. “Was this not awkward when your family were young?”’he asked. “Na !” she replied : “We didna loss mair nor twa or three that wye !” 

Rowing slowly on a very warm day up a water-way, several of us landed at an estaminet pleasantly placed beneath the shade of a large chestnut tree which stood before the door. Here we had a chat with two French poilus home on leave – one from heroic Verdun. They told us that owing to the larger number of the people in the locality being market gardeners, the regiments of the French Army recruited here were nicknamed “Les Chouxfleurs.” But, as they carefully and immediately impressed upon us, that did not detract in the slightest degree from their gallantry, and “The Cauliflowers” had given as good an account of themselves as any other soldiers of la belle France. We told them – to their interest-that some of our Welsh soldiers had the leek as an emblem, without any serious damage being done to their character for bravery in the field ; and we politely drank success to the succulent and popular vegetable that so gloriously signified St. Omer and district. 

Near us at Arcques, in the suburbs of St. Omer, was No. 7 (Canadian) Stationary Hospital, under the command of the veteran Lt.-Colonel John Stewart of Halifax, Nova Scotia ; an officer who, though in his seventieth year, was full of enthusiasm and energy. One part of his show was an old château where Wellington had stayed in 1815, and a large plane tree in the garden had been planted by the Iron Duke’s own hands. In St. Omer itself was the 58th (Scottish) Stationary Hospital, where were many well-known Scottish medicos . Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh were all represented. I have a pleasant memory of an evening spent there in song, story and laughter.

On the 24th July we left Clairmarais for Lederzeele, and “embussed” – a highly literary expression solemnly and frequently fired off in orders by the staff for the XVIII Corps M.D.S. at Gwalia Farm on the Poperinghe-Elverdinghe Road. Our bearers had preceded us some time before for the A.D.S. at Essex Farm on the canal bank, a hot spot ; and on the evening of our arrival four of them were killed by a shell which crashed into the shelter where they were at The Willows Collecting Post in front of this.

At the Corps M.D.S. we remained for two months, and during all that time the area was persistently shelled by the Huns, and bombed every night it was clear enough for aeroplanes to come over. When we joined, the place was under the command of the O.C. 134th F.A. (who had laid out the station in a most efficient manner), and we had also as colleagues the ⅓rd South Midland F.A., our conjoint estimated accommodation being for 1,000 cases.

This was a land of hops and hop-poles. Our mess was in the tile-floored kitchen of a little farmhouse whose owners lived in the back premises – father, mother, grand-mother, two young children and three adult male relatives, one of whom was killed during our stay by a shell which landed in a field on the other side of the road. The kitchen had a wide and high fireplace recess in which was fixed a stove ; on the mantel-shelf above it a plaster bas-relief of Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child, framed in an oval frame. On each side was an oblong china plaque bearing a text in Flemish ; on one, Geloofd sy Jesus Christus in Eeuwigheid Amen (Praise to Jesus Christ in all eternity), on the other side, God ziet my Hier vloekt men niet. (God sees me. No swearing here. ) The only other ornaments on the walls were two cheap oleographs of religious subjects. This kitchen was the dining and sitting room accommodation for the officers of the three Field Ambulances supplying personnel for the Corps Main Dressing Station : our sleeping quarters being Armstrong huts none too weather proof – and tentage in the neighbouring field. There was only one small shallow dug-out of sorts available on our site ; for the deep – and safe dug-out was an impossibility, as water was usually struck at a depth of five or six feet or even less. All one could do, therefore, against shell or bomb, was to sandbag the huts and tents to a depth of three feet or thereby, and trust to luck that no direct hit occurred. In some cases the ground on which a tent was erected was excavated for two or three feet and the tent sunk in it ; while some of the more cautious hut dwellers had a trench dug in the floor, in which, should the spirit so move them, they could uncomfortably and moistly recline when Jerry was soaring skywards.

The large barn of the farm was the receiving room, where all cases on admission were clerked (i.e., entered in the Admission and Discharge Book), given anti-tetanus serum, and sorted out. Thence moribund cases and cases unfit for removal were taken to a hospital Nissen hut ; those fit to be fed taken to a feeding tent : those requiring immediate attention to a surgical dressing-room ; those who were gassed to special tents where we kept oxygen apparatus, etc. When dressings were done the casualties were taken to the row of large hospital tents, again fed if necessary, and looked after till the Motor Ambulance Convoys took them back to the various Casualty Clearing Stations. Here came in much work for the Dispatching N .C.O.s: head cases and chest cases going to one C.C.S.. fractured thighs to another, gas cases to a third, general cases to a fourth, and so on. As the nature of the casualties taken by the various C.C.S.s occasionally changed at short notice, every one had to be alert and on the look-out to see that each class of case reached its proper destination.

To make such things easier of remembrance, a large diagram of the human body was at one time hung up in the receiving room with arrows pointing from each part– head, chest, thigh, etc.- to the namę of the C.C.S. whither each special case should go. The figure being depicted as unclad, bore, very properly and after the manner of statuary, a fig leaf : and one bright morning I discovered that some brighter orderly had duly and appropriately adorned the divisions of the fig leaf with the touching legend “A.P.M.” 

While here we dealt with the cases from the three engagements of 31 st July, 16th August and 20th September ; but apart from these had a steady daily run from neighbouring encampments of casualties caused by the perpetual shelling and bombing that went on. On the 7th August I took over command of the Dressing Station from the O.C. 134th F.A. Two days previously, the Hun, who had been sending over high velocity stuff all day, fired a salvo right into the M.D.S. at 10 p.m., killing two of our sergeants (excellent N.C.O.s, valued com-rades and old friends) along with a driver of the M.A.C., and wounding 20 others. One shell landed in the evil-smelling farmyard pond as two of us were making for the dressing-room ; and from the prone position which was routine on such occasions, an extraordinary rainbow effect could be made out by using the corner of one eye – the other being in close contact with the heel of my colleague’s boot – before a malodorous shower of mud and filth rapidly followed. 

Once inside the dressing-room, rapidly filling with cases, you were immediately struck by the effects of discipline. The shelling was going on, the huts were of wood and gave no shelter two orderlies became casualties while at work – and yet the routine proceeded as if things were normal: dressing went on splints were fitted ; Field Medical Cards were duly filled in each case was taken where it belonged everyone stuck it and carried on.

That night we cleared back to Poperinghe all superfluous personnel – we had a total then of nearly 800 keeping only those absolutely necessary for the work in hand, as we expected further dirty work. But this precaution fortunately proved unnecessary. 

I have already said this was a land of hops and hop-poles. It was also a land of spies and rumours thereof. One method said to be employed was signalling by smoke from house chimneys – bunches of wet straw being put on the fire at intervals as per code. The location of our tanks in a wood was said to have been thus given away, with resulting destructive attention from bombers ; and it was also said that the spy, caught later in flagrante delicto, was obliterated in the mud by an appropriate and lucky tank accident. How many spy yarns there were throughout the campaign! – windmills and church clocks worked to catch the balloonist ‘s eye ; men following the harmless, necessary plough and women laying out their innocent white washing, all according to plan for the edification of the watchful enemy flying man. True enough these stories were in many cases : the Boche was – and is a methodical and wily animal: and those who deliberately choose to forget it are the sons of folly.

Padres abounded at the Corps M .D.S.: barring the Salvation Army I think we had all the known varieties, and several of each at that – Presbyterian (Scots and English), R.C., Wesleyan and C. of E. As they swamped us out of our mess table, we, the sons of Galen, holding only to our proven and divisional spiritual advisers, had to give the rest a long table to themselves. This was popularly known as “The General Assembly” and there they sat and discussed the mess cook and moot points in theology. One was under a cloud – he had buried a Malay in the Chinese cemetery, and later had to disinter him and put him in his proper place at the irate demand of a Graves Commission warrior of Irish extraction : even in death there is no satisfactory blending of Mahomet with Confucius. 

The little mess room was, therefore, pretty full, and one day at lunch, after a peaceful forenoon, Jerry pitched a large high-velocity shell on to the other side of the road from us, with an appalling crash that sent in the remains of our already highly dilapidated kitchen windows. It was interesting to see thė positions immediately assumed by the lunchers ; some chairs with their occupants went over backwards : most of those present got automatically and rapidly below the tables. My own strenuous efforts not to be out of touch with the majority were firmly impeded by some unknown obstacle, which on hasty examination proved to be one of our mess attendants on his knees, with his head (on a charger of cold beef) firmly planted in my abdomen. Glad that the beef was cold and without gravy, I enjoyed the unmerited kudos of being heroically erect in my chair as various dishevelled colleagues reappeared from their temporary retirement.

During the pushes German troops from Posen, Danzig and Pomerania, with some Guards, went through our hands. One sub-lieutenant, a sallow, cynical fellow who spoke good English, claimed to be an actor and an assistant of Reinhardt from whom Martin Harvey got his Edipus. Another Hun continued to weep profusely. When asked why these tears, he said it was for joy at being a prisoner! A third, a little chap of about five feet two in height and some forty years of age, was evidently one of the comedians of his unit. His helmet was too large for his head and covered three-quarters of his face. I was attracted to the tent he was in by the laughter he was causing, and found him in the centre of a group of amused orderlies, where he was hopping about on one leg with the other long-booted foot hooked behind it, grinning on all around and making obviously playful remarks in his own tongue. When I enquired what he was up to, he said that he was trying to take off his boot. Was his foot wounded, then ? No, but his boot had not been off for fourteen days. Unfortunately before I could leave his side he managed to get the boot off, and I decided at once that he was no liar. 

Here it was that we first had American M.O.s attached to the Field Ambulances and Battalions, and several of them remained with us to the end. The great majority turned out to be first-rate fellows, although a few had to get over the “effete Yurrup” stage before we took them to our bosoms : a week up the line was usually sufficient to adjust their outlook. But, in spite of little things like that, good chaps they were, and good comrades : their point of view was always fresh and stimulating ; they gave us an outfit of terse and vigorous slang which some of us use yet ; while the numerous new methods they shewed us of losing our spare cash at games of chance were both surprising and educative. 

On the 24th we left Gwalia Farm and marched to Siege Camp, further up towards the Canal bank ; to stay there in sandbagged huts and tents for five days, at rest and overhauling equipment. Every night bombers were over and the place was by no means healthy. Football, however, was available for the men, and two matches with neighbouring units were played. 

Late on the night of the 27th, during a raid, a bomb was dropped on the road fifty yards from us ; a square hit on two g.s. wagons that were passing. In various stages of undress a squad of our fellows made for the scene with stretchers. The smashed wagons and eight mules were all massed in a blood-stained heap from which the quivering legs of the wretched, moribund and mangled brutes stuck grotesquely out. One of the drivers had been blown into a deep ditch at the side of the road, with a compound fracture of the thigh and head wounds: his three comrades – mortally wounded we had to get out from the heap no easy job owing to the still kicking legs of the mules. In the middle of our work, too, revolver bullets began unaccountably to sing over our heads. Going round the heap to its other side I discovered a well-meaning (but post-prandially over excited) gunner officer of a neighbouring division engaged, as he solemnly explained, in trying to put the mules out of their pain. When told somewhat brusquely that there were men in the heap and that he had nearly potted two of our fellows as well, he shook his head, ceased firing, pocketed his “gun” and left us in peace to finish our work.

On each side of the road were numerous horse lines where great damage had been done : confusion everywhere : wounded horses neighing, plunging and kicking : some down and half strangled amongst the ropes, with the line orderlies pluckily trying to get things clear. It was bright moonlight and suitable for the enemy ‘s work. Suddenly another bunch of ‘planes came crashing their way towards us fortunately for us without doing any more immediately local mischief – and there was a general dispersion of the groups of spectators of the previous damage. From the vantage point of the road, which ran at a higher level than the adjoining fields, one could see the rapidly scattering groups of bent figures, with here and there a face, whitened in the moon – light, turned upwards to the sky in search of the terror that flew by night. It was strongly reminiscent of many of the older pictures of the Day of Judgment. With feelings of relief, then, we got orders to proceed to Proven on the 29th and entrain. With the view of lessening the risk of casualties, the unit, less the transport, left Siege Camp at 6 p.m. and marched to Gwalia Farm, where we temporarily “doubled up’ with the 33rd F.A. at the Corps Main Dressing Station. It was lucky we did so, as that night, commencing at 7 P.M., there was a most determined and extensive bombing of the whole area – Siege Camp, Vlamertinghe, Elverdinghe, Dirty Bucket Camp, Caestre, Poperinghe (200 casualties), the Switch Road, all got it in the neck ; the performance going on without intermission for five hours to the accompaniment of continuous crashes. At one time there were Seven planes caught in the searchlights “four of them right over our heads” and the noise of the “Archies” and machine-guns, added to that of the bomb explosions, made up a chorus sufficiently diabolical to stick in the memory. A steady stream of casualties poured into the Dressing Station. 

By midnight there were only a few ‘planes left, chiefly “returning empties” making for their own lines again ; and at one a.m. the unit fell in – with a ‘plane again plumb aboveus, golden in the searchlight’s beam and marched to Proven, preceded an hour before by the transport who had gone through a stiff time, both before they left Siege Camp where a dud bomb landed beside them –  and on the road. The route to Proven -twelve kilometres was simply stinking with explosive products from the numerous bomb holes on it and beside it ; but only an odd bomb or two fell en route, as the night show was practically over ; and we got to the Station at our scheduled time (3.50 a.m.) to entrain after a cold two hours’ wait on the platform. A Soyer’s stove was set going, however ; the men given hot tea and some food ; while once in the cattle trucks, a snatch of sleep was got in spite of the fact that there was no straw in them. The route was Hazebrouck, St. Omer, Boulogne, Albert, Bapaume ; the weather was fine ; and all next day the men sat at the open doors of the cattle trucks, singing, chafing, and jumping off at every stop to lark about or buy fruit from the omnipresent hawkers.

Getting in to Bapaume – moonlit, destroyed and desolate at 3 a.m. on the 1st October, we marched to Achiet-le-Petit, where we were accommodated in tents and wooden huts, and again got a few hours sleep. On the 5th the unit moved to Boiry-Becquerelle, with our H.Q. amongst the ruins of a farm beside the Bapaume – Peronne Road ; while it also supplied personnel for an A.D.S. at Heninel, and for a C.P. in the caves at Marlieres beside W. The A.D.S. was old- established and in good order ; the caves, roomy and gloomy, also held various parties of combatants, and were impervious to any kind of ironmongery that the genial Fritz could heave over.

In this district we were in the vicinity of the Hindenburg Line, and all the villages were heaps of ruins, in the first instance destroyed by shell fire, as the Boche had advanced, and secondly by mines, before he was driven out.

An examination of the communal cemetery at Boisleux-au-mont, with its military extension, was interesting. The civilian part had been badly knocked about by shells and many of the memorial stones broken. Many more had been appropriated for Hun graves, and the fresh carving on this stolen property was often quite good. A large plain wooden cross about twenty feet high, made of untrimmed tree, was erected to commemorate the dead of one regiment. French and Boche graves containing six or more unidentified bodies were common in others – to the disgust of the French, the Hun had buried his dead along with theirs. 

It was in Boisleux, too, that we met several French civilians, men and women, who had received a twenty-four hours permission to visit the village and look for valuables buried on their hasty exodus from their homes. The majority of them were women ; all were dressed in deep mourning. One, after careful inspection of the heap of smashed bricks that represented her old home, found a piece of the lintel of her kitchen window still in position. Measuring some twelve paces from it she made a mark with her heel, and two willing Jocks started digging for her. At the depth of five feet or so, there, sure enough, was her treasure – a large tin chocolate box sewn up in canvas and containing 4,000 francs, mostly in gold. Another wept and cursed when she found out that the entrance to a deep Boche dug-out ran through the site of her hiding place . and, raking about amongst the debris thrown out at the back, she found the now empty and rusted red tin box that had contained her hoard. A third woman we left anxiously watching the deepening hole one of our men was digging for her ; she declared herself sure of the site. We learnt afterwards that she was right, and that she found her money. Getting her friendly Scot to dig again at another spot, some bottles of wine were unearthed ; and these, honest and heated man, he willingly accepted as honorarium for his efforts. 

One woman who had lost her husband and four sons discovered that the devastated site of her home was now a German cemetery : another- also bereaved-that two Huns had been buried in the ruins of her house, and that a board was affixed saying – in French that the bricks must not be disturbed as German dead were there. She gave vent to expression of the most intense hate and rage. Who will blame her ? And yet our political Pecksniffs roll up the whites of their eyes and ask, in stricken accents, “Why won’t the French forgive and forget?” 

On the 2nd November the Division moved into the Hermaville area ; our own Field Ambulance being located at Montenescourt, a quiet and unpretentious little country village.

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