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 … Read the rest

The Battle of Arras, 1917

For the next impending battle our Advanced Dressing Station and the Walking Wounded Collecting Post were fixed at Anzin on the Arras-Mont St. Eloi road, where spme accommodation capable of extension existed while at already Madagascar, a kilometre across country in front on the Arras-Bethune road, was a dug- out serving as Relay Bearer Post ; leaving a Collecting Post- the Lille Road Post – to be constructed another good kilometre nearer the line, in an old trench running alongside the Arras-Lille road. Here, marking off some seventy feet of the trench, we set about deepening it, broadening it, and roofing it with iron “English Shelters”, a thinner type of the heavy “Elephant Shelter” ; on top of them, again, laying sandbags filled with the excavated earth. Three tiers of Stretcher racks were fitted on each side of the interior, the whole available space being about fifty feet by ten, and holding forty wounded ; while in the middle, with sandbagged partition walls in case of a hit, was a chamber set apart as a dressing room. 

All this meant steady and hard work for the R.A.M.C. fatigue parties of the three Divisional Field Ambulances from the end of February … Read the rest

Beaumont Hamel, 1916

“Beaumont Hamel”  as our then G.O.C. said six years later, “was the first occasion when the Highland Division was able to prove that, given a fair chance, it would certainly be successful against the enemy. Here was a fortress defended by every artifice of which the Boche was a past master. It had several lines of defence connected by subterranean tunnels, and each line defended by several belts of barbed wire. When the Division proceeded there the place had been attacked on at least two occasions, and it still remained intact. When I went to those Divisions that had attacked in order to try to get some tips, I was told, “You have not a dog’s chance”. As you know it rained continuously for several days before 13th November. In fact we carried out a raid two or three days before, and the men were so involved in the mud that they could not get on and could scarcely get back. Yet Beaumont Hamel was taken, you might say, with almost automatic precision. We took nearly 3,000 prisoners, and that in spite of very little progress being made on our left. This was the same Division that had fought bravely … Read the rest

The Somme, 1916

We lay for some days in huts outside Acq, a village of no great interest, although in its vicinity were two large stones les pierres d’Acq said to have been raised by Beaudouin Bras de Fer in 862 in honour of his victory over Charles the Bald, but in reality old prehistoric monoliths. A visit to the village cemetery shewed the more common names of the local families to be Delcour, Allart, Richebé, Genel, Bacqueville, Cuisinier, Gauchy, Delassus, Masclef, Dubois (of course), Cuvellier, Goude- mont, Compagnon, Leroux, Lantoine, Delettre, Bayart and Bulteel. And if one had, like Hervey, to spend one’s spare time in meditation among the tombs, it can be guessed that there was not much else to do. For, knowing we were soon to be on the old tinker’s trail again, we wasted no time on landscape gardening round about our hutments to catch the eye of itinerant medical brass hats, but stuck in to that never-failing operation, the over-hauling of equipment. 

So, having got orders late on the previous night, we left Acq on the morning of the 15th, and spent a very hot and dusty summer day in trekking via Haute Avesnes, Habarcq, Avesnes le Comte … Read the rest

The Labyrinth, 1915

On the 26th of July we handed over at Estaires to an Indian Field Ambulance and trekked to Ferme Roussel, three miles north of Merville, all three Divisional Field Ambulances going as one column, and next day went through the wood by St. Venant to Berguette, arriving at midnight with “Macfarlane’s lantern” full overhead. Here the unit entrained and travelled by Calais, Abbeville, Amiens and Corbie to Mericourt-Ribemont, where we encamped in a field near the communal boundary.

The Highland Division (the first Scottish troops the district had seen) was now in Picardy, right among the French, taking over the Labyrinth from them ; a sector where that lying jade Rumour had it that cows, pigs and poultry were kept in the trenches, and that these trenches (laid out as market gardens) were twenty-five feet deep – a sufficiently interesting yarn manufactured by the humorous poilu for the credulous stranger to put in his pipe and smoke!

Mericourt was rather a pretty village – we were to know it better next year in July – but, owing to heat, wood and water, flies and mosquitoes abounded, interfering unduly with feeding and sleeping. 

My own billet was in the house of … Read the rest

Estaires – Givenchy, 1915

We landed at Le Havre on 1st May, I915, a beautiful, clear, sunny morning, every man heartily glad to be at last on French soil. For even the many allurements of Bedford – kindly, hospitable Bedford, our war station since August 1914, whose name still recalls benefits bestowed, Bunyan, and the blistered feet of the military pilgrim’s progress – had not reconciled us to home service. Hard work we had done there, and in lecture room, field and hospital had learned many things – much of which we had to unlearn later in the bitter school of experience – but our Stay in England had been far longer than we had expected, and hope frequently deferred had made us yearn all the more for what we held to be our legitimate work across the Channel. 

In bulk, mark you, we were an untravelled folk ; to most of the unit France was as yet a terra incognita. And as my party, with other divisional troops on that ancient Thames service paddle-boat, the “Golden Eagle” glided between the piers of Havre harbour, everything that savoured of the foreign – especially if it were feminine – was eagerly scanned and cheerily and … Read the rest


Give us again of the days gone by

A cheerier one or two, 

Think of the lads with hopes so high 

Whose quips and wiles we knew. 

Lord! If we had not laughed with them 

We had lost the half of our pay! 

For the echo-less heart is a thing apart 

And it goes by the Wearier Way.

To write, with even limited success, the history of any units which served in the Great War, the narrator would, I fear – and it is a large order – require to be a judicious mixture of George Borrow and Charles Lever ; the Borrow part of him to deal with the marching and roadside scenes, the wind on the heath, the clouds scudding before the breeze, the sunshine and the shade and the necessary little adventures of man on the move, whether solus or in column ; the Lever part, again, to treat of the tented field, the bivouac, the trenches, the camp-fire, the clash of arms, the cannikin’s clink, the songs the soldier sang, and of whatever takes the place (in these our present degenerate days) of broiled bones and devilled kidneys. Nay, more, one might with advantage add to … Read the rest