June 19th 1917

Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) still finds time to write to us and his letters are never anything but interesting.

Part of Hugh’s job in the RGA is to spend time in a front-line Observation Post (OP) identifying suitable targets for the guns and seeing the fruits of their labours. In between times there are often lulls in the action:

4/6/17. “I read a Jacobs novel in the intervals and tried to pass the novel-reader’s test. This, by the way, is recommended to anyone who wants to kill time: it is as follows.

Write down the full names of twelve characters in each of 24 novels. Most people can do eight or nine in about twenty novels without difficulty: it is the last few names and books that cause the trouble, unless, like myself,  you have a mis-spent youth behind you.”

5/6/17. “Another beautiful summer morning. Administrative convulsions are proceeding, which may result in my having to command the Battery for a day or two, or in my going elsewhere. But I have long ceased worrying.

As my late OC remarked in a moment of pardonable irritation, the Heavy Artillery only exist to be badgered about (that was not exactly the word he used): and the main thing is to take life calmly.”  

 

 

 

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.

 

June 5th 1917

Last year 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) gave us a gunner’s view from the Somme and now he has been in the thick of it again – presumably at Arras. His latest letter recounts events “of just over a month ago.”

30/5/17. “There was to be a big attack and certain objectives were, as usual, laid down. We were ordered to push forward our OP by stages to a point a few hundred yards behind the final objective, following up the attack and keeping up communication, sending back information and reporting and dealing with counter attacks and so on. It all sounds very easy.

At Zero hour I was at the regular OP with a drum of cable ready to go forward. The attack began while it was still dark and the usual hideous inferno of noise reached perhaps the greatest intensity of the whole war…

About an hour after it was light the wounded began to straggle back, but they could give me no information, having been hit at the outset…

Programmes are always arranged on the assumption that everything goes well. Accordingly I set out with my signaller, laying the line as we went. When we reached the valley below our hill I realised that it was absolutely thick with machine gun and rifle bullets, besides the usual shells. We therefore rushed from shell hole to shell hole, a few yards at a time, till we reached the first spot indicated on the programme.

Finding a roomy hole nearby, we settled down in it to consider the situation and fix up the phone. Watching over the top a few minutes later, I was surprised to see our infantry go over the top from the original front line, and they were met by such a concentrated fury of machine guns and shells that I knew they had not been able to advance at all in the first attack.

We tried to send information back to this effect, but of course our line was broken. Out we got to mend it, which we did successfully, and we were just about 20 yards from our shell hole when ‘pht pht pht’ came a sniper’s bullets, so close that I knew he had spotted us. We dived into a hole and completed our 20 yards about a yard at a time, just diving to earth as the ‘pht’ of the bullet arrived. I got my information back , but for the moment could do no more as the sniper had seen where we disappeared, and every few minutes he would send one over the lip of the crater on the chance of catching one of us…

A little later, thinking that the Hun would surely have forgotten us, I decided to make another attempt to get forward… I got out of the hole, but hadn’t gone 5 yards before ‘pht pht pht’ came the bullets again. Down I went into a hole – not nearly such a nice one, as it was near to the carcass of a horse. I had no sooner got into this when a great 8-inch shell came right down beside the carcass and threw the whole horse bodily about 15 feet into the air, right over my head, and it landed the other side of me about 15 yards away. A great jagged piece of this shell hit me hard on the helmet, but I hardly felt it.”

With some difficulty by mid afternoon Humphrey had got his line through to the second location on the programme, but thereafter could get no further, as the infantry had not reached their objectives.

His job done, he and his signaller returned to the battery. It does not sound as if this “big attack” met with great success, despite their considerable efforts.

It is a sobering thought, but if it wasn’t for the dead horse, Humphrey must surely have perished.

May 28th 1917

Lieut. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA) has replied to Fluff Taylor’s proposal that the School should have a War Memorial for Old Dragons who lay down their lives in this war.

He accepts that the building of a chapel might be the “normal” thing for a school to do…

15/5/17 “But we are not an ordinary school, and our tradition has always been cast in the opposite extreme. Routine, orthodoxy, ritual, unreasoning compliance with comme il faut – all these we have deliberately avoided. Some would say we have gone too far and undoubtedly our tradition, like the others, has its dangers. But freedom and sincerity and spontaneity and genuineness, and the mistrust of the second-rate and the second-hand, are things worth a good deal of risk to obtain and it is my firm belief that the best part of our school tradition is marked with just these characteristics.”

Hugh fears that a chapel would have to be under diocesan supervision and that school services on our present lines (with the staff and boys running them) would be impossible.

“If so, I can only say that the prospect fills me with fear. I fear… the apathy of routine: I fear the wrong kind of parent coming and saying ‘how nice and proper’ : I fear the right kind of parent coming and saying ‘After all, there’s not much in it between this and other schools’…

I am not thinking merely of those whose parents and upbringing are of some other specific creed: and I leave out of account the French and other non-British boys who have been such a strength to the School. I am thinking rather of the numbers in whom religious sensibility develops late, or takes some other form than participation in a uniform code of outward worship. Cannot we find some way of commemorating our common sacrifice which does not leave them out in the cold, and which does really link together all Dragons, past, present and to come?

My own feeling is that the War Memorial should be a building habitually and freely used by all Dragons, where the whole school meets occasionally for certain purposes and where at other times any boy can go at any hour of the day to read or write or reflect, with the names and records and memorials of the honoured dead visibly before him.”

In short, Hugh would rather we thought in terms of “a library, assembly hall, reading room, museum, concert hall or any mixture of these.”

 

Lieut. Martin Collier (RN) has also written. He supports the idea of a chapel:

“Provided, of course, that the School services remain exactly as they are at present, conducted by the boys themselves…”

 

I hope others will contribute their views to this debate and I look forward to hearing them.

 

 

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.

September 30th 1916

We have another letter from Lieut. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA), who is keeping us in touch with events on the Somme. I am delighted to hear that he has received his copy of our magazine, even if I have every intention of overlooking his protest:

sidgwick-ah-2“The ‘Draconian’ has arrived and I have been devouring it in a hole beneath the earth, to the accompaniment of heavy howitzers and field guns.

But I must write at once to protest against the publicity given to my private and amateur attempt to translate Roger Mott’s inscription…  I have always hated and frequently insulted archaeologists and now they have got a handle against me.

If, as I expect, about six of them write to the next number of the ‘Draconian’, cutting off my head and holding it up afterwards to show that there are no brains in it, for Heaven’s sake either suppress the letters or bribe some really eminent archaeologist to say that my translation is right.” 

Since his last letter, Hugh has been sent back to the headquarters in order to attend a course that will equip him for the role of Adjutant.

20/9/16. “Headquarters are a number of dug-outs and tents in a sea of mud: the Adjutant is a cross between a bottle-washer and a private secretary and there are more and worse telephones than ever. So for all practical purposes I am back in Whitehall and any sympathy expended on me as surrounded by the horrors of war will be quite wasted. I feel an awful backslider in leaving my battery, but orders is orders…

What I find most difficult to realise is that since I came out I have been in the middle of a big battle. It is quite a shock to read the ‘Times’ and find names mentioned as critical and exciting points, when I have been there on the previous day.

There is a casual air about a modern battlefield, until the show actually starts – people walking about, horses standing in lines, men cooking food, and telephonists brooding over their instruments at tapping in stations.”