April 30th 1915

Readers of the Times yesterday will have seen the letter written by our neighbour Dr. JS Haldane to Lord Kitchener, in which he confirms that the gas used by the Germans on our troops at Ypres last week was almost certainly chlorine or bromine.

Having witnessed a post mortem at a Casualty Clearing Station at the Front, he has returned with one of the man’s lungs for further examination in his laboratory at his home, ‘Cherwell.’ He is now involved in experiments to find an effective respirator for the troops. Apparently, so his daughter Naomi tells us, the ideas given in the press for various home-made appliances are totally ineffective.

As for Dr Haldane’s son Jack, who was the first of my boys to win the top scholarship to Eton, he is now Lieut. JBS Haldane of the Black Watch, improvising bombs to lob into enemy lines, so I am told.

* * * * * * *

We have further news from Ronnie Poulton. No sooner than troops are out of the trenches and they are put to hard work. It does seem right to call it “Rest.”

Saturday 24th April. “We came out after four days in last night, and immediately went off digging, after ¼ hour’s RWPP profilerest.

The whole thing as a war is an absolute farce. This is honest fact. We went up to part of the line near here, which has a gap of 200 yards in it. Here Territorial Engineers are building a magnificent breastwork and parados and Territorials supply working parties. The joke is we are 120 yards from the German trench and about 80 from the German working parties. And we make a hell of a row, laugh, talk, light pipes etc and sing and nobody fires a shot, except one old sniper who seems to fire high on purpose; and yet when the flares go up, we stand stock-still so as not to be seen!!”

The period of so-called rest being over, Ronnie Poulton returned to do another spell in the trenches on April 27th, but he was only there for a day before going back into reserve for three days.

Having told us that snipers were not a thing to worry about at night, I cannot help but feel they should not be underestimated. Snipers are an ever present threat, clearly:

Thursday 29th April. “It is quite absurd to see the quite immovable landscape, with no movement of any kind on it and yet to hear the most accurate shots on our parapet, shots which have killed two men dead in the last two days, who foolishly put their heads up carelessly in a low part of the parapet to look back. Don’t worry about me in this respect.”

This is easier said than done. Parents, family, schoolmasters on the touch line of any rugger match – we  are always more nervous than the players, who are wrapped up in the game.

April 24th 1915

Ronnie Poulton has completed his recent spell in the front line and we can share another entry from his journal.

During this past tour of duty Ronnie was in charge of all repairs and improvements to the section of trenches for which his company was responsible. Platoon Commanders had to report to him by 3 p.m. daily with their suggestions. His day was then spent planning the next night’s work.

RWPP profileWednesday 21st April: “The work is the most important thing, as I am in charge of it, and my time is filled up with it – by day getting the work organised for the night. This has got better and better, and now I have a good system. Of course it is nearly all done at night. It is curious, at ‘stand to’, at about 8 p.m. to hear the sniping dying down, and then suddenly the ‘tap tap’ of the German party starting. Then we know we are safe, as there is a kind of mutual agreement not to fire on each other’s working and ration parties. So out we go and hardly a shot is fired.

The men betray the usual good humour at it all and are in perfect spirits, only betraying annoyance at the absence of biscuits, and the presence of biscuits (not Huntley and Palmers’!)

They have grown quite callous and you hear them whistling and shouting while working on the parapet, in the full moonlight. We did a good deal of work in our four days. My plan was to superintend till 12.00 or 12.30, then at times I was on duty at 4.00 a.m. or 8.00 a.m., so sleep was a bit short at the end. The sniper was active and we haven’t got him yet…”

There is a continual risk of being hit by a sniper’s bullet and much time and effort goes into trying to locate the position of German snipers.

“Sniping is all that goes on and in this at present they have an absolute superiority. We have constructed steel-plate loopholes but cannot find the brutes. When we do, we shall have them, as we have some wonderful shots. They got one of our men in the throat last night, but it is not a bad wound. The trouble is to locate the snipers. We reconnoitred to where we thought he was last night, but he wasn’t there…”

We trust that Ronnie will keep his head down.

April 15th 1915

Ronnie Poulton’s first spell in the trenches has ended.

It may seem strange to read of it so Armentieres-North_Sea,_winter_1914-1915close to the enemy, but he has been playing rugger at Nieppe, near to where his battalion is at rest – a far cry from the new ground at Twickenham, which Ronnie graced when the first international was held there against Wales in 1910! (Even Twickenham – once a cabbage patch, incidentally – is part of the war effort, as I understand it is now being used for grazing for livestock).

Wednesday 14th April. “I played Rugger for the South Midland Division (48th) against the 4th Division. It was an amusing game; we had opposite us players like WJ Tyrell (Ireland), HJS Morton (Cambridge & England), JG Keppell (Ireland Trials), WP Hinton (Ireland) and were refereed by Basil Maclear (Ireland). I had a goodish side, chiefly 5th Gloucesters and we won 14-0, but they stuck it well considering their condition. Several of the Liverpool Scottish came over from Ypres, including ‘Dum’ Cunningham and Dick Lloyd. It was splendid to see so many Rugger players about.

I changed in the room of the Captain of the 4th Divisional Staff. They live in great style, quite unnecessarily so I thought. In fact they rather bored me. They ought to do a turn in the trenches with us all.”

How extraordinary that Ronnie, England’s captain last season, should meet up with Dick Lloyd, his opposing captain for Ireland!

England & Ireland captains 1914

Ronnie Poulton with Dick Lloyd. Captains of the England & Ireland teams of 1914, taken in March 1914

* * * * * * *

This cannot but bring back memories for many of us at the OPS of going to see Ronnie in the Varsity Match of 1909. GC Vassall (the editor of our school’s magazine) reported on the match:

RWPP Oxford2“This year’s Inter-Varsity match will always be remembered as Poulton’s match. After much discussion and a vast amount of ‘newspaper’ criticism (which means so little and produces so little effect, if ‘our special correspondents’ would only realise it), Poulton was given his Blue as a wing three-quarter and proceeded to silence his detractors by scoring 5 of the 9 tries in the record score which was piled up against the unhappy Cambridge team….  

Most of Poulton’s fielding was well done; he kept his position splendidly; his trick of holding the ball with both hands at the full extremity of his reach, his swaying for the feint, his masked pace, and his swerve fascinated everybody, and with it all he was rarely tackled.”

What happy times and sweet memories. We fervently hope that Ronnie and all those who contested the match at Nieppe return to give us more pleasure, nay excitement, when the war is over.

 

April 12th 1915

Training completed, but with still no real experience of being under fire, Ronnie Poulton’s company paraded on Saturday 10th April to take their turn in the trenches, intermingled, we understand, with companies of the Dublin Fusiliers. In his latest post Ronnie describes his first venture into ‘no-man’s-land’.

RWPP profileSaturday 10th April. “I carried a rifle and 15 rounds. We climbed through the wire and went a few yards forward and lay down, in the formation – Corporal and Officer together, and two men in rear, interval ten yards, distance from Officer about ten yards. They watched the rear and flank. I was lying for a quarter of an hour by a very decomposing cow! After listening hard we moved forward and again lay doggo. This went on for about an hour, during which time we were perhaps 100 to 150 yards out. Then we returned, each pair covering the other two.”   

Sunday 11th April. Trenches. “We all stood to arms at dawn, and the Germans started a tremendous fusillade, as is their custom. But soon after, all was quiet and you could see the smoke rising from the fires all down our line, and the German line.

About 11 a.m. our field guns put twelve shells on to the German trenches in front of us. Immediately the German guns opened on us, putting ten high explosive 6 in. shells and ‘White Hope’ shrapnel – their back-blast shrapnel. The result was 8 ft. of parapet blown down, another bit shaken down, one man with a dislocated shoulder of ours, and five men of the Dublins wounded, one seriously. As they were all within three yards of me, I was lucky. The brass head of a shell shot through the parapet, missed a man by an inch and went into a dug-out, where we obtained it.

The shelling is very frightening – the report, the nearing whistle and the burst and then you wonder if you are alive. Crouching under the parapet is all right for the high explosive, but for shrapnel it is no good, so that is why they mix them up. The men – the Dublins – were quite as frightened as we were as a rule, but some didn’t care a damn. Some were praying, some eating breakfast, one was counting his rosary and another next door was smoking a cigarette and cheering up our fellows. After a prolonged pause, we rose from our constrained position, and went on with our occupations; but it unnerved me for a bit.”

April 10th 1915

Ronnie Poulton is now in sight of the Front Line, at Romarin, two miles west of Ploegsteert (referred to asArmentieres-North_Sea,_winter_1914-1915 ‘Plug Street’ by Tommy). He is therefore only three miles behind the firing line.

Here are extracts from his journal entries for 8th/9th April:

Thursday 8th April. “About 9.30 p.m. my Company paraded for night digging. We marched to a point about 1,000 yards from the German lines and, as we came over the hill and down the avenue, we heard several stray bullets flying overhead. My Platoon was detailed to complete an all-round defence of a farm in the second line of the defences.

We got back safely about 3.00 a.m.”

Friday 9th April. “We were again paraded for night digging. This time it was to complete a breastwork between two of the actual British fire trenches, about 150 yards from the German lines. When we arrived at our rendezvous, the Engineer officer in charge said he could only take 50 of my 100 men, as the Germans were shelling and firing on the working parties.

We then proceeded down the road towards our object in fear and trembling, as it is covered by a German machine gun. On arrival at the reserve trenches of the firing line, I got my men into a communication trench and awaited orders. There was a lot of firing and shelling going on and finally he decided not to send out a party, which was a considerable relief to us.”

April 7th 1915

Ronnie Poulton’s Battalion have now moved on to Steenvoorde, the Brigade headquarters, where they were inspected by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (General i/c British 2nd Army),  who explained that they were to undergo further instruction before going up to the Front.

Ronnie’s journal tells of his other duties too.

RWPP profileSaturday 3rd April. “This day passed quietly with parades in the morning, spoilt by rain. The beautiful weather of the last few days seems to have broken up. We had several interesting talks with French soldiers who have just been relieved from the trenches. They were very cheery, but not very smart.

Franking the men’s letters is a great nuisance, though unavoidably one gets some interesting lights on their characters. The men were paid five francs this day.”

Easter Day was spent at Flêtre.

Monday 5th April. Flêtre. “The people round here in the farms are very much on the make. My French is coming on by leaps and bounds and I am doing my best to stop the fellows getting cheated. The food is very plentiful and good, but mostly tinned and biscuit; so they will buy bread at exorbitant prices.

It is much better fun than at Chelmsford because, though discipline is more strict in lots of ways and the punishments much more severe, the tone can be much more friendly with one’s men and it’s rather humorous to receive compliments unofficially by reading the men’s letters, as we have to censor them; and they are meant because the writers do not give their names and you only know that they come from the Company, but do not know which Platoon.”

From Flêtre, Ronnie has now moved on to Bailleul and it cannot be long now before he reaches the Front.

Boulogne-Bailleul route

April 2nd 1915

Those who were at the OPS with Ronald Poulton will never forget the match we played (in 1902) against St. Edward’s School Oxford Juniors, in which he scored fifteen tries. Even then, aged 13, he was finding his way through opposition defences with a “regular rugby swerve”, as one member of our staff commented.

One of his more recent opponents is reported to have said, ‘How can anyone stop him when his head goes one way, his arms another, and his legs keep straight on?’ How indeed!

Now in France with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, he and his men are making their way towards the front line, marching from Cassel to Winnezeele (on the Ypres road). Here they were billeted for the night.

RWPP profileThursday 1st April. “The farms were found to be very comfortable, especially the one inhabited by my Platoon. The woman in charge supplied them with eggs, milk etc very cheaply and the barn they slept in had plenty of clean straw. They had a pond to wash in and a field to play football in so they were all right… I lived in the pub and was quite comfortable though the room and bed were very dirty.”

We look forward to hearing more news from Ronnie over the coming days.

 

 

 

 

March 22nd 1915

News has been received of the battle fought at Neuve Chapelle earlier this month. Lieut. Nevile West (Royal Berkshire Regiment) was involved.

Nevile West

Lieut. Nevile West

Neuve Chapelle, 19/3/15. “I think I may tell you, now that it is all over for the present, that our Regiment and my Company led the attack on Neuve Chapelle, which you have probably read much about. The attack was dated for last Wednesday, March 10th, and the night before I was detailed by the Brigade to take a party out to remove all the wire in front of our trenches, the Germans being about 100 yards away, at the time a most precarious game, as they heard us working at it and cutting, and so sent up magnesium flares and opened fire on us. Fortunately none of us was hit.

The attack commenced the following morning with half-an-hour’s terrific bombardment of the Hun trenches, which, being so close, proved a terrible ordeal for us sitting cramped in the wet trenches, several shells pitching short in amongst us; anyway it blew all their barbed wire entanglements away, and their trenches and themselves to blazes.

When the half-hour was over, we advanced, the only opposition being a machine gun which did for several. The Hun trenches were a terrible sight when we got there, masses of horribly mangled remains, and the whole air full of picric acid fumes from the lyddite shells. The front line (ours) went straight across the three lines of their trenches, and proceeded as far as the near side of the village, when we started entrenching ourselves under heavy enfilade fire, shrapnel and high explosive shells included.

This was due to the attack on our left primarily failing; their second go cleared the situation, however. Another regiment then passed through us, took the village, and established a line a few hundred yards on the further side. The Indian Division was on our right, and they were too impetuous, and receiving less opposition, got too far ahead, and had to be brought back a bit. Prisoners and wounded were streaming down the road from Neuve Chapelle to our Aid Posts all day.

It was a terrible day, horrible sights. May it be a long time before I see such another, and when quiet came not with darkness, but about midnight, one’s nerves were all over the place. During the actual proceedings one has little time to think. The next day was quieter, the Huns shelled us continuously, but not so vigorously. My skipper was wounded, while next to me, by a shrapnel shell bursting overhead; and therefore left me in command of the Company, as I am still; being alone like that, at such a crisis, a horrible feeling of loneliness came over me, and does come now.

The next morning (Friday) the Huns made a counter-attack on our position, shouting in pure English, ‘Don’t shoot, we are the H.L.I,’ and as that regiment was on our right, and slightly in advance, we were at first taken in, but when it was discovered that it was the Huns advancing, rapid fire was opened, and the ground in front of our trenches now is heaped with their dead, and those that were wounded crawled into our lines. We cannot bury them, so must leave them there to rot; won’t it be terrible if the weather gets really warm, and the sun hot?

That same morning, the Huns, having failed in their counter-attack, bombarded our trenches and the village furiously for an hour, and God alone knows how we lived through it, the bits of shell and the fumes were horrible; it is impossible to get away from either, and I saw two men blown quite 30 feet in the air.

Their bombardment lulled at about 10.30, and at 11.00 we started bombarding their trenches preparatory to attacking again. We could see the wretched Huns flying for all they were worth. A and C Companies were then in support to the Rifle Brigade. When our bombardment ceased, the R.B’s got out of the trenches, and began to attack; they fortunately hadn’t gone far before (I should think) about 12 German machine guns opened fire, and God knows how any of them escaped; I was right in the open at the time and it was hell. Those that remained crawled back at dusk. A great friend of mine who was in the 1st Battalion with me was riddled with bullets, and killed instantly.

A bullet hit my camera which was in my coat pocket, and just turned its course enough. Otherwise, ‘I shouldn’t have gone no further.’ My luck has been extraordinary; may it long continue so. We have just been sent two more 2nd Lieutenants. Apart from that we have only five Officers left.

Well, such is my news, but you will learn more about it from the papers, as they get the operations taken as a whole. The Huns lost terribly, and I fear we did also, although with the modern machines of war, one can expect nothing else. It is terrible, real hell on earth.”