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.

 

 

 

 

April 1st 1915

England v France 1914

England v France, April 1914.

It is only a year ago that we were reading of England’s great victory at rugger over the French – now our allies – in a match that our dear old boy, Ronnie Poulton (now known as Ronald Poulton Palmer) captained the side to a 39-13 victory, scoring four tries himself – a record, surely, that will stand for a long time.

‘The Sphere’ reported the match in glowing terms, describing Ronnie as providing the moving spirit:

“It was a tremendously fast game, marred to some extent by roughness on the part of the French players, who do not yet seem to have learnt the true spirit in which to play the game. Poulton Palmer was again the moving spirit in the English attack and he has entirely confuted those critics who were for leaving him out of the English side this season on his poor showing in the trial games. Palmer is always worth playing in our international side as long as he is willing to do so, partly because of the fear he engenders in the opposition and partly because he is always likely to win a match off his own bat.”

‘The Field’ magazine commented that “Much has been said of his dodging, but his effectiveness has really lain more in his promptitude in discovering the right direction for his runs and the point at which he could best support his comrades.”

Ronnie is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Berkshire Regiment and we hope to follow his progress over the coming months and fervently hope that he will be returned to us safely when this war is over to resume his captaincy of the England team.

On crossing the Channel to go to the Front, he is keeping a journal and these are his first entries: 

RWPP profile

Lieut. RW Poulton Palmer

 

Tues 30th March. “We found ourselves boarding the ‘Onward’, the ordinary traffic steamer – Folkestone to Boulogne. I believe I crossed in it for the French match this time last year…

The embarkation was very well done, the men being quiet and orderly and our time of embarkation only just second to the Bucks, who easily beat the record for the port, which has seen 55,000 troops cross over. It was an eerie crossing, a full moon, a smooth sea, and a torpedo boat zigzagging about in front of us…

At Boulogne we disembarked and I found the Port Commandant was old Col. Eastwood of the Oxford OTC. We formed and marched up the hill to a camp. Here we fitted the men and got in ourselves and spent a very cold night (under canvas with only one blanket per man. They awoke to driving snow).”

Wed 31st March. “We marched off to the Pont des Briques , a matter of four miles. The men found the pack rode very heavy and two or three fell out. At the station the Battalion was divided into parties of 42 – each party to go in a goods van… There was a ghastly crush in the train, since we were one truck short and as many as 50 were in some. They could not sit down, but had to stand on the six hour journey. Off we went about 11pm and arrived at St. Omer via Calais; then on to Cassel which was our detraining point. A ghastly cold night and little sleep.”