November 30th 1917

Having walked 20-22 miles the previous day, Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men still had some way to go to reach safety, and they were not the only ones on the road:

29/10/17 “Masses of 2nd Army pouring past us and road filled for miles with guns, limbers and army wagons; lorries, cars, ambulances and wagons, hand-carts with a family’s entire possessions pushed by the women-folk, farm carts drawn by magnificent pairs of oxen laden with everything from copper water pails to canary cages, with the younger members of the family perched on top, and possibly a brace of geese or ducks with them; motor bikes with or without side-cars, and finally the humble push bike or the wheel-barrow, also laden with some treasured possession. The whole jumbled into a slowly, very slowly moving mass…”   

On reaching Codroipo, they were told to make for a bridge over the River Tagliamento – another 4 miles away.

“The river seemed miles away, but eventually we reached it about sunset, and then became wedged into a solid mass of soldiery frantic to get across the bridge and all jammed at the entrance.”

When Treffry finally arrived at the bridge, he had something of a fright:

“Between the rails it was open to the flooded Tagliamento forty feet below, since the bridge was an open one with the rails only being carried across on the sleepers, which merely rested on the open framework of the bridge. We moved on, foot by foot, to the entrance of the bridge, the crush becoming terrific…

I found myself suddenly shot forward and looking right down between the open rails. I grabbed the fellow behind me and, as he did not want to come too, he grabbed the fellow behind him, so we all swayed on to the gangway once more.”

After that they managed to drag themselves a further 3-4 km to the railway station at Carsarsa (just north of San Vito on the map) where the night was spent huddled together beside a siding. There was no food and the trains were all full. They can have got little sleep that night.

“Very cold, men huddled together with haversacks as pillows, but only for a few moments as it was too cold.”

November 28th 1917

This is the second entry from the diary of Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) describing his experiences on the retreat, the start of which I shared with you on November 26th.

28/10/17  “The patients, who were lying in the ordnance sheds, well supplied with blankets, were now ordered to be evacuated through St. Georgia. Only eight ambulances available, but all worst cases sent under G. They eventually failed to get a train at St. Georgia and had to proceed to Postoguaro and were 13 hours in the ambulances.” 

With these patients off his hands, Treffry turned his thoughts to his group:

“Being allowed free run of ordnance stores, as it was going to be fired shortly, we picked what we wanted… While we were in this store a huge fire started on opposite side of town covering whole place with dense black smoke, and we were all ordered out at a minute’s notice from the store and town….

We found a seething conglomerate mass pouring through the Udine gate and up the westerly road to Codroipe.

Orders were then received to march from Palmanova to Codroipe in order to cross the River Tagliamento and find what they hoped would be safety.

“We reformed officers, personnel, Italian interpreter, Rici (an Italian opera singer attached to the hospital), 25 walking patients and a few others…” 

At this point an AOC officer, claiming to know the quickest way to the bridge over the Tagliamento, promptly marched them round Palmanova and a further six miles south before heading in the right direction.

“B and I brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers, which was a pretty heartrending job. The men began to shed their kits into the ditches and frequent halts were necessary. Rici the singer was very lame, but stuck to us and an enormous pack of kit…

We finally reached Gonas about 1 p.m., with the men very done, as they had then marched 16-17 miles and had had no rest since the day before and no food since the evening before…

We got the men some apples and pears and temporary shelter in an evacuated hospital. We shared a small bit of bully given by an Italian officer between the six of us. It was decided to push on to the next village at least, as there was no food in Gonas and the civilians were evacuating.”

At the next village there they found a larger evacuated hospital for the night.

“Got the men some food, first of the day – one tin of sardines between three, and half a loaf of bread per man…

Slept like logs, having done some 20-22 miles.”

 

 

November 26th 1917

There has been much in the papers in recent weeks regarding the Italian Campaign. The advance of the Austro-Hungarian and German forces which has threatened Venice has, we hope, now been checked. Currently, Italian forces are struggling manfully to hold the line on the River Piave.

This follows the defeat of the Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto, after which there was a general withdrawal in which Capt. Treffry Thompson, who has been with the Croce Rossa Britannica (British Red Cross) in Italy since the summer, was caught up.  He has written from the safety of Torino about the retreat he has endured with the Italian forces.

“I have had a fairly exciting time during the last fortnight. We got away all right but were reduced to eating anything we could get, even to the extent of bits off the bones of defunct mules.

At present I am ‘in contumacia’ for five days, which being interpreted means quarantine, as all those coming from that part of the front are put in quarantine by the Italian authorities…

My entire kit has gone in flames, including my sketch book and photos and some rather nice local curiosities…”

Treffry has also kindly sent us entries from the diary he kept throughout this period. His adventure starts in Versa, which is just west of Gorizia.

27/10/17 “On the road in the middle of a mass of retreating troops I saw the latest thing in Paris costumes, furs, high heels and silk stockings, walking along the road.

We received orders that conveyances would be supplied to evacuate hospital on Monday morning. Changed into slacks. Roast ducks for dinner. Versa street a solid mass of moving troops and vehicles of all kinds.

After dinner ordered to move at once and evacuate via Palmanova where our Ordnance Stores were situated and there was a railway station. Changed and packed. 21 mule carts available. Hospital equipment in the shape of bedding etc sent off. Began to pour with rain; ambulances arrived bit by bit, and finally five lorries.

All patients and greater part of hospital stores and valuable equipment was got away to Palmanova. B and I marched personnel to Palmanova and reached Ordnance Depot, where the patients had arrived, about 4 a.m.”

Treffry’s account is a long and detailed one, so I am stopping at this point. It will be continued over the coming days.

November 22nd 1917

Earlier this month we entertained about 100 wounded soldiers to a performance of  “HMS Pinafore” and judging from their remarks it gave them real pleasure. At the request of Sister Wilkinson we put on a special performance at Somerville College for those who were unable to attend.

We are delighted to have received these kind words of appreciation:

“The crew of the saucy ship dropped anchor at Somerville Hospital on Thursday evening, Nov. 15th, 1917, at 5pm. It was with feelings of curious anticipation that we wended our way to listen to the delightful strains of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Pinafore.’

The performance was an undoubted success, the audience was in the happiest of moods and many of the numbers were received with well merited applause. The juvenile buoyancy of the crew together with the nautical stage settings were worthy of the very best ‘official’ recognition. The boys worked in true Jack Tar spirit, combined with a breezy cheerfulness, and all contributed in full measure to the evening’s enjoyment…

The performance was greatly appreciated and did quite a lot to brighten and cheer the wounded who are back in Oxford from the great adventure overseas.”

November 16th 1917

I was looking for some relief from this never-ending war, and my thoughts turned to rugger.

Martin Collier

Lieut. Martin Collier (RN) is an Old Dragon player of note, having represented the Navy (1910-14), United Services (1910-14) and The South (1913-14). In normal times we would do well to listen any advice he cared to offer on the playing of the game, but the notes he has sent us, written, he says “after a recent match on the East Coast,describe, perhaps, a wartime version of the game that is certainly not cricket!

“Somewhere within the precincts of Rugby School may be seen a stone bearing an inscription to the memory of a boy who, during a game of soccer ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of the game, picked up the ball and ran with it.’ This commemorates the birth of the Royal and Ancient game of Rugger.

So far as we know, there is as yet no memorial to the man who ‘with a fine disregard for the rules of the game’ (a delicious phrase) first plugged his immediate opponent in the eye; thus developing the game into its present fine, manly and vigorous form so popular in Great Yarmouth this year.

For the benefit of those of our readers as yet unversed, we propose to outline a few of the more elementary points and moves in this splendid sport; with the hope that they will practise them in solitude, and presently confute our opponents by displaying their prowess on the field of play.

  1. THE HAND-OFF. An absurd rule forbids this to be administered – as Nature obviously intended it – with the clenched fist. Only a few old-fashioned referees however, still object to it in this form; and, as so useful a weapon can hardly be dispensed with, it should be used, as Nature intended, whenever possible. The user may be sure of our sympathy should an obsolete but keen-sighted referee ‘order him off.’
  2. THE SCRAG. The ‘modus operandi’ of this delightful ‘tour-de-force’ is as follows. The scragger seizes his intended victim round the neck with the right arm, at the same time binding his arms to his sides with the left. Throwing his weight back he then jerks the scraggee off his balance and, while falling, slews half round, so that he – the scragger – will fall on top. At the same time, the right arm is shifted a few inches so that the wrist or knuckles, when the prone position is finally obtained, will lie between the victim’s face and mother earth. Then placing all his weight on the back of the scraggee’s head, the right wrist or knuckles are worked to and fro. The referee blows his whistle for ‘cease firing,’ and one or both participants in the ‘tête-à-tête’ then rejoin their fellow players. Some half-hearted players have a foolish prejudice, sometimes even amounting to a rooted objection, to playing the part of the scraggee unless they are in possession of the ball. But this is quite a minor point.
  3. THE SUPER-SCRAG. This is a refinement or improved variation on the above, and should be employed when it is desired that any particular player should take no further part in the game. The selected opponent is grasped round the neck with both hands from the front, as though about to be fondled. The head is then pulled forward and down as briskly as possible, the operator at the same time lifting his knee forward and up in a similar brisk manner. If correctly timed, and if the opponent has a certain amount of forward momentum at the critical moment, the operator’s knee and the victim’s chin will meet at a point with a very considerable force of impact. Stretcher-bearers then remove the body so that it will not interfere with play.”

I think that is quite enough for now – there is more dubious advice on ‘holding the ball in the scrum,’ which can be divulged at some point in the future.

November 11th 1917

2nd Lieut. Pat Campbell, having returned to the Ypres front following four days’ leave in Paris, has found himself back in the thick of this seemingly never-ending battle at Ypres, which has been going on since July 31st.

23/10/17 “The veterans of the brigade say – at least some of them do – that in all the long years they have been out here they have never seen such a country of absolute desolation, or such mud, and that they have never had the breeze up so badly as they have in the last few days…”

Pat was involved in an attack on October 22nd. As the Forward Observation Officer for his Brigade, he had to make his way forward with four signallers to a pill box close to the front line. Carrying heavy equipment and in bad conditions, this took them 3 hours.

His job was to keep in touch with the advance and send back information to the artillery. This was easier said than done, it seems:

“It is very difficult to tell what has happened in the early stages of a battle; some of the walking wounded who come dancing down the line are so pleased with themselves that they tell you that everything is going top hole, though they were probably hit before the thing began, while others who are rather worse and have lost some of their friends are equally despondent.”

He and another officer took turns to go forward:

“We went out alternately to various HQ and other less official sources to find out what news we could get and whether the infantry wanted any particular artillery support. On one of these little trips I got rather a nasty shock, which made me decide that I was not going out any more.

Usually you can hear a shell coming for at least a second or two and one learns to act promptly, but on this occasion it was a light velocity shell, which came right alongside us without any warning at all.”

This seems a strange point at which to leave this incident, but Pat does, so there it is. The Campbells deserve their luck. Pat’s brother Percy Campbell was killed in the first battle at Ypres almost three years ago to the day in 1914.

In his letter Pat asks, “I am wondering what the papers said about yesterday’s battle. It seems to have been a pretty decent show…”

This is a view shared at least by the Daily Telegraph:

Given the conditions Pat describes, it is difficult to imagine how a battle can be fought:

“It was very tiring walking about because at every step you lifted pounds of thick Belgian mud. I don’t think you could find a single square yard in that area that was not part of a shell hole, but even so, you can’t have any idea of what it looks like. It is simply indescribable.”

It is not that often that an artillery officer finds himself in the front line and Pat is quick to acknowledge the role of the infantry, who are there all the time:

“The more you see of them, the greater respect you have for them all, and I think the subalterns in particular. Such things as trenches have practically ceased to exist now, and they just live in shell holes and going forward to attack over ground like this, I really can’t understand how they do it. “

And so say all of us.

November 6th 1917

2nd Lieut. Gifford Turrell (OBLI)

This is the most distressing news that I have had to pass on during the course of this dreadful conflict. Indeed, the details are almost too painful for words, and I wondered if I should spare you them. However, I have come to the conclusion that I should not shy away from sharing what are the grim realities of war for our gallant Old Boys.

Yesterday Gifford Turrell was laid to rest in Oxford’s Holywell Cemetery, aged a mere 19 years.

He was severely wounded in the head in the attack made by the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry on August 22nd near St. Julien, the same engagement in which Lieut. Will Scott was killed and Walter Moberly won the DSO.

Gifford was brought back to St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where an operation was performed to remove fragments from the wound, leading to hope that he might make a recovery.

During his time in hospital however, Gifford was barely conscious and on Nov 1st he was assessed by a Medical Board. It noted that the brain had swollen to such an extent that it protruded through his skull and had become infected.

The report concluded: “He appears to be totally blind, and consciousness is very feeble. Pupils dilated & inactive, no motor paralysis. Sensation cannot be determined. In the last two days, there has been fever & meningitis has set in with a fit. Recovery is improbable & he is failing rapidly.”

Gifford died the following day – 72 days after he had been wounded. One can only hope that he was in such a state as to have been spared any pain. His passing must be seen as a merciful release for him and his family.

His body was brought back to Oxford so that his funeral could be at his old college (Queen’s).

May he finally rest in peace.