The Front Line and Beyond It – Part 3

15th November. Received orders this morning to go “up the line”! Packed up all our kits, cleaned up our barns, and were issued out at 11 a.m. with twenty-four hours’ rations. Moved off, 1 p.m. and marched to Bouguemaison, in full pack. Here we were joined by the Buffs, Yorks and Lancs., and other battalions in our Division (the 6th), and got on board the train at 3 p.m. Moved off at 4.30 and arrived at Peronne, 11 p.m. Town nothing but ruins and everywhere around showed results of heavy bombardments. Here the sound of the guns was very loud, and the sky was full of all kinds of weird flashes and coloured lights. After a long march in the dark, during which no matches or lights had to be shown owing to our being under enemy observation, we arrived at a ruined village, “somewhere on the Somme”, which had been evacuated by the Germans some months before. Thousands of troops marching along the roads, and miles of transport, guns, and tanks stretching as far as one could see – all moving “up the line”. Surely it must be some really big stunt this time. At this village we were billeted in huge huts and, after making tea over a huge camp fire in the middle of the hut, and frying a bit of bacon, I turned in. Everyone was dead tired after the long march and we all fell fast asleep, immediately – just as we were – clothes on and everything.

16th November. Woke up 9 a.m. and after making some tea and frying the remainder of my bacon I went out to have a look round. As far as I could see, everywhere was in ruins, and all round about were German  evacuated trenches and barbed wire entanglements; Very interesting, and to my imagination it conjured up all sorts of visions, it being my first experience of such a scene.

From 10 a.m. till 5·30 p.m. I was on guard, so had no more opportunities of scouting round. At 6 p.m. we moved off again – and a terrible march, too. Here we were trudging along the muddy roads in the pitch dark and in full pack. None of us was in a good temper, and the roads were crowded with all sorts of traffic and troops moving up the line. Tanks, guns, all sorts. The roads were full of shell-holes and loose barbed wire. Language!!?

Arrived at our destination (a large wood just outside Fins) at 11 p.m. tired, wet, and fed up. Had orders to show no lights whatever and to speak only in a low tone. The wood was full of tents, and after much grumbling, grousing and falling over tent-ropes in the dark, we were led into the tents – fifteen men in each – and as we could not see to do a thing, we simply took off our packs, lay down on our oil sheets, and went to sleep.

17th November. Woke up, 7.30 a.m., and after making some tea and frying a bit of bacon (and eating some, of course) went round to explore. The wood was a huge size and full of tents, all dyed brown and camouflaged with twigs, etc., as a precaution against enemy aircraft. We were only allowed to leave our tents when necessary, and then we had to wear our steel helmets and carry our gas-masks. Whenever enemy aeroplanes flew over, three whistles were blown and everyone had to dive into the tents out of sight. Very exciting. During my prowls round I discovered a large detachment of about fifty tanks – all camouflaged – hidden in the wood and all ready to move off.

18th November. Still here. Not allowed out of our tents all day on account of the activity of German  planes overhead. One was brought down and in the airman’s wallet our people found umpteen photographs of the wood, etc. Stew for dinner! “Bed” 7.15 p.m.

19th November. Received orders to move tonight. Our officers explained to us, as far as they knew, what was about to come off, and that we were about to take part in the morning in one of the biggest surprise attacks of the War – with a town called Cambrai as our main objective. Everyone very excited and in the best of spirits. Issued out with rations for three days, together with a bag of bombs and rifle grenades, wire cutters, wire gloves, bayonet wire-breakers, coloured lights, ammunition, and also a pick and shovel. With all this paraphernalia, in addition to a full pack, rifle and bayonet, we sallied forth out of the wood at 5. p.m., straight across country till we arrived at the third line of trenches about 10 p.m. Everything was fairly quiet save for an occasional “minnie” and the “rat-tat-tat” of German advanced machine guns sweeping No Man’s Land for prowlers or patrols. In the distance some guns were strafing – whether our own or the German’s I couldn’t say. No one save ourselves knew of the coming attack at dawn tomorrow.

20th November.

5 A.M. Just passed my first night in the trenches! How weird everything seems – just like a dream. Everything is so very quiet – ominously so – I always pictured there being a terrific din in the trenches. We have just had our rum ration (a good one, too), and it has bucked us up “some” and warmed us through. Mr. Hillditch has just told us that the bombardment will commence at 6.15 and that we are to”go over” at 7.15 a.m.

6.15 A.M. Bombardment has just commenced – everyone of our guns (wheel to wheel) opened out on  the stroke of 6.15. The noise is fearful and you can’t hear yourself speaking – one continuous roar! Never heard or imagined anything like it in my life. A lot of the men, out since 1914, I have noticed kneeling down and saying a little prayer. Evidently they have some idea as to what we are about to go through. It is all new to me and I am unable to appreciate what is happening.

7.15 A.M. Bombardment still going on. Those in the 1st and 2nd line have already “gone over”, and the attack is in full swing. I have a magnificent view from here, and can see tanks crawling along followed by squads of men fighting with and following up the fast retreating Germans. It is marvellous to see the wonderful coloured lights and rockets sent up by the Germans as distress signals, and to see our shells bursting on the opposite ridge where the German lines are. It is just beginning to get light and the scene is most impressive – can’t explain. Our tank, “The Banshee” has just arrived ready for the fray, and it is now our turn. The Captain has just shouted “Over the top, lads!” So here goes! Good luck to the British Army today.

During the next four awful months of rain and mud, from 20th November until 21st March, I hadn’t much chance of keeping up this diary, as we were in and out of the “line” through all that period – also I had hardly any time to spare.

I would like to record, at this point, that those men in my Company whom I at first thought too rough-and-ready for me to become at all friendly with, proved to be thoroughly good-hearted chaps, who had been in action on several parts of the western Front, and who were only too willing to offer a “helping hand”, to the latest arrivals from Blighty during their early days in the trenches.

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