Part Nine AFTERTHOUGHTS

AFTERTHOUGHTS

Marching at night, it was pitch black, you couldn’t see a
thing, and often men would get lost and fall into the slimy
wet mud and deep shell holes never to be seen or found
again. You couldn’t help but notice the dreadful stinking
smell. There were open latrines everywhere. Bodies from
both sides were rotting away and you just had to get used to
it. There was nothing that you could do for them. The cries
of the wounded was the worst, terrible to hear the screams
and pleas for help. We couldn’t do anything to help them as
certain death from snipers or drowning in the mud awaited
us. You couldn’t get any rest anywhere, all you could do
was lay down in the mud, it was impossible to get any
comfort from digging in the ground as it was all thick wet
mud. Sometimes we tried to make some shelter in the side
of the trench.
With the early morning light came the snipers and shells
You rarely saw the enemy. All you could see was the grey
sky above you. There was dirty slimy water everywhere. It
was so uncomfortable. So we just sat in our shell holes and
waited.
We sat and listened to the shells for days and nights, many
a poor chap went half insane from the thunderous crashing
sound, we just waited for the one with our name on it to hit
our dugout. If you stuck your head over the top, a sniper
might get you. We couldn’t bring in our wounded or bury
our dead properly. Sometimes it was hard to fill a sand bag
without disturbing the remains of someone buried too close
to the surface.
Then the mustard gas attacks came, it crept all over the
ground and there was no escape from it. If it touched any
part of you, on the inside or the outside of your body, you
got blisters and huge sores. Gas masks, or a piece of wet
cloth was all the protection we had. Many of us fled in
panic as the cloud of gas rolled nearer, and then got hit by
shells and shrapnel. When you got wounded, you had to try
and get to the dressing stations. There, people were divided
into the hopeless, the badly wounded and those who didn’t
79
need immediate attention. If you could still walk and the
dressing station was full, you had to go to the next one,
which might be five or six miles away through the mud and
the gore.
There were never enough doctors and nurses, and for 900
men full strength, although usually we were down to about
300 – 400, we had 16 stretcher parties. There was no time
for elaborate surgery. The doctors patched us up the best
they could, depending on what they had, and sent us out to
the front again, if you were really badly hit you might get a
blighty and be shipped off back to England if you were
lucky. Some lads lost limbs, while others lost half their
faces and had to have masks made after the war to hide
their disfigurement. Some poor chaps suffered terribly from
shell shock, never again to be the person they once were
before the war.
The war went on for four gruesome, bloody years. In the
end everybody just wanted it to be over. We’d had enough
of the cold, the mud, the wounds, the dysentery, the rats,
death. We couldn’t stand the thunder of the shells and the
cries of our friends. We didn’t want to fight any more for a
few yards of wasted land. We were all sick of being
sacrificed, and we would never be the same again.
And when it was finally over and we were eventually
allowed to go home, many, too many were left behind,
buried in foreign soil, lost in the mud of Passchendaele.

80
Poelcapelle

Sergeant T. Berry D.C.M. 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade.

Tea was all we had that night at Poecapelle. There was no
chance of getting the rations up. We were just crouched in
a shell holes waiting, and there was this one little chap. He
made tea all night long, and kept nipping out and getting
water out of flooded ground behind us and heating it up as
best he could. The next morning we saw it was a bleeding
shell hole, and there was a dead jerry in it and blood all
floating around. We’d had that and all in our tea. We
seemed to have no ill effects, and we had other things to
worry about.

We heard screaming coming from another crater a bit
away. I went over to investigate with a couple of the lads. It
was a big hole and there was a fellow of the 8th Suffolk’s in
it up to his shoulders. So I said ‘Get your rifles, one man in
the middle to stretch them out, make a chain and let him get
hold of it. But it was no use. It was too far to stretch, we
couldn’t get any force on it, and more we pulled and the far
more he struggled the further he seemed to go down He
went down gradually. He kept begging us to shoot him. But
we couldn’t shoot him. Who could shoot him? We stayed
with him, watching him go down in the mud. And he died.
He wasn’t the only one. There must have been thousands up
there who died in the mud.
Acting-Captain L.J.Baker M.C. 2nd Battalion Suffolk
Regiment

‘We were just on the right of the village of Zonnebeke as
you looked towards the Germans, in front of Zonnebeke
Lake. Our objective was a place called Le Moulin, so it was
marked on the map, but we couldn’t see a mill or any sign
of one. We’d had no trouble getting up and there were tapes
laid to show us our assembly positions.
People say that the morale of the Army had gone down in
those days- well, it hadn’t in our battalion. The idea of
81
anyone refusing to go over the top was absolutely absurd.
Of course, we were a regular battalion and although there
were very few regular people left in it after the Somme,
most of our troops were Suffolk men and we had all had
the same temperament- steady and slow, not dashing and
daring. Reliable men.
Well, we did it. We made it. We advanced about a mile,
thanks to the mist. The trouble was that we couldn’t find
this mill. I could see this patch of water and I said, ‘Well,
that must be Zonnebeke Lake and that must be the church,
what’s left of it’- for it was just a pile of rubble but I can’t
see the Windmill. And then as I was looking round I saw a
faint trace of a track with some white rubble at the end of
the track, and that was it. That was ‘Le Moulin, just on the
edge of Zonnebeke. We had no trouble, just the usual
fighting, and we also had a shrapnel barrage which burst on
top of the mist. You could see the flash going in front of us
and it was very accurate, and we followed that all the time
until we got to our objective. It was so easy that some
people got wounded, because they went on so fast into our
own barrage and through it.

On one occasion, we were told not to dig trenches when we
got to our objectives, because by now they knew from
experience that this would draw artillery fire. So we were
occupying a string of shell holes. But when I looked over to
our right, I saw these Australians standing there in broad
daylight and digging in for all they were worth. I dodged
my way over to contact their company commander and got
him to hold of him and said, ‘Your chaps are digging
trenches and you know you were told not to. ‘he said, ‘Well,
we’ve been ordered to do it if the boys prefer it.’ There
wasn’t much I could do but I said to him, ‘Well, you know,
you’ll be shelled and when you are I shall get it too. I shall
get you “over”. ‘I had only just got back to my position
when they had a hell of a blasting. It went on for hours, and
when it stopped and I went back over to see them they were
in something of a mess. But we all got every thing we went
for. Of course, the Germans tried to stage one or two
counterattacks during the four days we had held the
position, and we could see them coming down the slope
and our SOS went up and…slap…down came the Hun
82
shrapnel, machine gun barrage-the poor old Germans. That
happened two of the three times.
Inevitably we had casualties. The most unfortunate thing
was that I accidentally wounded one of my own men. It
was the same night, and it was bright moonlight and jerry
had started to shelling gas. We had our gas masks on and
were squatting in this shell-hole when a runner chap came
along with a message, and he was standing up there
silhouetted against the moonlight. I shouted ‘Come down!’-
but, of course, he couldn’t hear me because of the gas mask,
so I pulled him by the leg. Unfortunately, as he fell down
into the shell hole, a bayonet leaning against the side went
right through his thigh. It started to gush blood and I was
absolutely horrified. I said, ‘I say frightfully sorry about
that!’ Well, this chap was grinning all over his face and he
said, ‘Oh, that’s quite all right, sir – it’s a Blighty one, isn’t
it?’ He was as pleased as Punch. Of course, I had to give
him a note to the MO. I scribbled it on a piece of paper and
said, ‘This is not a self-inflicted wound. I did it.
Conditions in the trenches during WW1 were horrendous.
Better trenches would be about seven feet deep and four –
six feet wide. Sometimes sand bags would line the sides of
the trench otherwise a kind latticework wall of hazel
branches was used (a bit like hurdle fences). Planking
would be laid in the base. On the lip of the trench would be
sand bags and barbed wire. Frequently, allied and enemy
trenches could be as little fifty feet apart.
Here and there dugouts were literally dug into the earth to
provide shelter when the fighting wasn’t too intense. Other
than that there was little shelter.
In summer the trench would be exposed to the hot sun and
in winter to pouring rain and snow. The rain filled up the
trench and water seeped in through the sides leaving the
troops up to their knees in thick, stinking mud that made
any movement difficult. There was no sanitation and rats
were a problem. Diseases were rife such as dysentery and
trench foot. There would be no relief for front line troops
for weeks on end. Even a near miss from an artillery shell
could collapse a trench or cause dugout to collapse burying
alive those inside.
83
The nearness of death, the fear of it and smell of it, the
horrific sights of shattered bodies, the screams of friends
cut in half and the constant shelling combined to send
many men insane either at the time or later in life.
Conditions in the trenches were literally hell on earth.

Entrance to a sandbag dugout.

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Gallery | This entry was posted in The Worcestershire Regiment August 1917 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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