June 11th 1917

2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA)

The onset of a major battle such as the one recently started at Messines prepares us for bad news, but in Humphrey’s case, when we were reading his final letter (as it turns out) only a few days ago, it is still a terrible shock.

The information his parents have received is that he was killed on June 6th during the artillery build-up to the battle that commenced the following day:

“During the last few days your boy was really great. The Battery had been under heavy shell fire and we had a large number of casualties. Humphrey was amongst them…

He was taken to Bailleul, but died of his wounds, which were severe…”

Humphrey’s parents have passed on comments from the letters of his fellow officers:

“I should like to tell you how splendid he has been out here, how absolutely brave, simple, unassuming, and unselfish, and how we miss him…”

“Though he never won honours, he has deserved them time and again – and I know he was recommended on three different occasions. But he never coveted them…”

“His loss is our greatest calamity. We had grown to look up to him for advice and it was an open secret between us that he had always been the pillar on which our splendid Battery had been built. He had the confidence, esteem, respect and devotion of every officer and man in the Battery.” 

Humphrey was one of those whose lives gave promise of a brilliant future. A Cambridge man, a great athlete, a musician of no mean promise, one who exercised extraordinary influence on his fellow men, a lover of all the arts and of everything beautiful.

As the obituary in The TImes & Daily Telegraph today reminds us, he was intending to take up holy orders.

 

March 17th 1917

Having read in the newspapers over the past few days of the Germans’ “strategic retreat,” from the battlefields of the Somme, we are most fortunate to have another letter from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) and discover he was there to witness the event. His description of the land that is now in the hands of the Allies is, I am sure you find, of considerable interest.

14/3/17 “So it has happened at last! What a hopeless wish it seemed a year ago that in twelve months the Hun would be deliberately retreating, and that after shooting on a point one day at a range of 8000 or 9000 yards, we could go on the morrow and examine the very spot, and see the craters made by our own shells…

The newly captured ground resembles, more than anything I’ve seen, imaginative pictures by artists entitled ‘The Battlefield’ or ‘After the Fight.’

Dead men, dead horses, shattered gun emplacements, broken limbers and wagons, rifles, bombs, equipment, and all the ghastly filth of carnage. How the Hun has stood the hammering so long is a marvel. He says he goes willingly and I don’t doubt it.

There is a valley leading down to a famous ravine, which is enough to make one sick, if one hadn’t become hardened gradually to such things. In one spot evidently our guns caught a Boche battery taking in ammunition. The teams and their drivers had been blown to pieces, the wagons are pitiable wrecks, and the whole place stinks of death. It is gratifying and interesting to see shrapnel heads of your own calibre right in the middle of a gun emplacement at which you had been firing a few days before.”

The retreat took all by surprise and Humphrey’s account describes how the Hun took advantage of the weather conditions to put it into effect.

“During days of thick fog when all observation was impossible, he took the advantage of a couple of days of frost to get his guns away and destroy most – though not all – of his dug-outs, and retire behind the next line of barbed-wire with machine-guns to hold us up. Our infantry followed close on his heels as far as they could, and pounced on some patrols that came out to see if we were following.

But for the moment, of course, a halt had to be called to save useless sacrifice. Barbed wire cannot be dealt with except by guns, and guns cannot move up without roads, and roads there were none.

Oh yes, they are marked on the map all right, but it would puzzle you to pick out any but the two principal ones from the desert of shell holes; and even the principal roads are swimming in mud, pitted with craters, and at vital points ruined and blown up by the Hun.

Advance is a wonderful feat in this place. Light railways follow up to within a quarter of a mile of the infantry in two days… and armies of men set to work making new roads and repairing the faintest traces of old ones.

Soon our guns were ready to deal with the next line of barbed-wire, and having shattered it to bits and cleaned up the enemy garrison, the same thing occurred again. This time the Hun did not wait for the attack but bolted as soon as our shower of shells showed him it was imminent.

And so, I suppose, it will go on till the vaunted concrete line or ‘Hindenburg Stellung’ is reached.”

February 28th 1917

Rev. Robin Laffan, who was elected a Fellow and Chaplain of Queen’s College Cambridge in 1912, has been appointed as padre to the Mechanical Transport Companies, who are supplying the Serbs in the mountains of Western Macedonia, from where he writes:

laffan-29/2/17 “A short time ago there arrived a most fascinating number of the ‘Draconian’ (which, I may say, moved everyone’s admiration out here, when I said it was the magazine of a Preparatory School). So I felt that, although I hate letter-writing, it is my part to send a letter for the ‘Draconian,’ if it be thought worthy…

The language difficulty is a nuisance. It prevents our knowing the Serbs as we would like and occasionally gives rise to disasters.

For instance, a doctor in one of our hospitals for Serbs, thinking that he was beginning to get on well with the language, went round his ward asking each patient ‘Imate li jenu?’ (which means, though he was after something quite different: ‘Have you a wife?’) Those who replied ‘yes’ were left in peace. When any patient replied ‘no,’ the doctor told the nurse to give him a dose of castor oil.

The next day all the patients asserted they were married. As they did so again the third day, the doctor asked a further question. ‘Koliko imate jene?’ (How many wives have you?) At this they thought he was being insulting and an unpleasant situation was only saved by calling in an interpreter, who explained that the ‘gospodin doktor’ was really inquiring after bowel movements, not families.”

January 10th 1917

It is most gratifying to hear from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) that our school magazine is giving pleasure:

arden6/1/17. “Thanks so much for ‘Draconians’; they are more interesting to anyone out here than all the Maudes, Bellocs or Churchills and other experts, from the War side alone, and of course one can’t do without the School news.

I was lucky enough to get home for Christmas, but the journey back counteracted all the rest I had had, chiefly owing to the accidental blocking of a port and the lack of accommodation at the one substituted. And anyhow 15 hours in a French 3rd class carriage with no facilities for food or warmth left me feeling like a piece of wet blotting paper…”

Humphrey’s letter goes on to give a most interesting explanation as to the capabilities of the artillery, which are clearly not as great as the infantry might like.

“Those who are not gunners mostly have two delusions and if the same men rise to command without having learnt better, silly things will happen – but of that more presently.

The two delusions are (i) that, when a gun is laid in such a way that the shell hits a particular spot, it will hit the same spot if it is laid in a similar way. With regards to the first, it is only necessary to remember that gunnery is a mechanical science and not a game of skill. Experts find out the laws of the science and the Royal Regiment follows the law. The personal element practically does not, or should not come into it.

With regard to (ii), it would take too long to explain the ‘error of the gun.’ But it is a fact that if a gun is laid in exactly the same way for a hundred rounds, the shells will cover an oblong some hundreds of yards long and several yards wide. This ‘zone’ varies according to the gun and the range – any gun being much more accurate for line than it is for range. Take an example. 

Some months ago a cunning man thought unto himself a scheme. ‘We will bombard a piece of trench,’ said he, ‘and start at the outside ends together, gradually working in to the centre. The Boche will be forced to crowd in and finally will have to jump out of the trench and run for his life. Whereupon the Field and the Heavies (60 pdrs) shall slay him.’

Well, a Siege Battery was allotted some 200 rounds for the job and the trench selected was at right-angles to the line of fire, i.e the shells would have to drop at precisely the same range to a yard every time to hit the trench.

The Battery Commander calculated that 5 of the 200 might fall in the trench. That is to say. with the most perfect laying, ammunition and weather conditions, the gun itself could not put more than 2½ % of rounds in exactly the same spot at that range, and of course the ammunition, wind, temperature, barometer etc. never are perfect. So the Battery Commander did pretty well to get 3 of the 200 in the trench.

The Field and the Heavies waited in vain, or realising the fatuousness  of the whole proceedings, did not wait at all.

You must excuse this didactic letter. So few think it worth while to understand guns, whereas really they are the most interesting things in the War.”

November 23rd 1916

Most of our reports from the battlefield of the Somme have concerned the infantry thus far. 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) writes to redress the balance.

arden18/11/16. “I expect you have received a thousand and one letters descriptive of the Push during these last few months, but perhaps the gunners’ point of view is not so well known.

We have been on this front practically from the beginning of the show and so far have had no rest – as a unit – night or day. The “crowded hour” of going over, with, perhaps, rest or withdrawal afterwards is not for us. Infantry may come, field artillery may go, but we, the heavies, go on for ever…

Do you know, I haven’t seen a civilian for three months, nor been inside a standing house for four. Mud walls, sand bag roofs – et voila tout.

…It is a very different sitting in your own O.P with the battery under your thumb at the other end of the wire. Then one tells the guns what to do – which is so much better than being told by a total stranger what he (often wrongly) imagines they are doing. Besides, it cheers one up to see the cautious Hun duck and run for his life, and to pursue him remorselessly till he reaches his dug-out or gets out of sight. It is better still to catch him unawares and see the bits fly – as I did yesterday.

That sort of thing makes him peevish and he looses off blindly. His blind shooting is not, and never in my experience has been, good. Of course he is bound to hit something sometimes.

He put a good round eight-inch through the roof of a neighbouring battery’s officers’ mess some weeks ago. The shell happened to be a dud and landed on its nose between the major’s knees. ‘Dear me,’ said the latter, ‘how convenient,’ and he struck a match on the base and lit his pipe. A good tall yarn? Nevertheless it happened.

…Well, we expect to go on living in this blasted heath and with the help of the wheezy old tanks and their butterfly existence, and the incomparable infantry, be they Australian or Canadians or better still, old English regiments – for they all have their turn down here, we will blast out the wily Hun foot by foot till his moral sickness is greater than he can bear.”

Before the war, Humphrey was for a short time a master at Eagle House Preparatory School. He was due to go to Cuddesdon College to prepare for Holy Orders.