December 31st 1916

With 1916 drawing to a close, we look back on the terrible loss of life we have endured and remember in particular the nine Old Dragons who were killed in the four and a half months that comprised the battle on the Somme:

July 1st.

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Geoffrey Clarke (2nd Lieut. Rifle Brigade). Aged 33.

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John Ruttledge (Capt. West Yorks Regiment). Aged 21.

July 6th

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Christopher Counsell (Lieut. Hampshire Regiment). Aged 26.

July 7th

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Robert Gibson (Lieut. South Staffs Regiment). Aged 21.

July 14th

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David Westcott Brown (Capt. Leicestershire Regiment). Aged 23.

July 27th

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Paddy Burton (Temporary Capt., 4th Bedfordshires). Aged 23.

August 22nd

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Frank Benham (Captain, RFA). Aged 30.

October 7th

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Oswald Blencowe (2nd Lieut., Ox & Bucks Light Infantry). Aged 26.

October 10th

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John Raikes (2nd Lieut. Essex Regiment). Aged 20.

All these families have suffered tragic losses and Claude Burton, Paddy’s father, a regular contributor of verse to the ‘Daily Mail’ under the pseudonym of ‘Touchstone,’ has put into words most poignantly the feelings of sacrifice and pain experienced by parents:

Killed in Action
The world seems full of you, now you are gone.
You were, of all these dear familiar things,
Part of our daily life that still drags on
And still around small, trivial objects clings
The sweet and subtle fragrance that is you,
Half balm, half torture to the stricken heart 
That knows high courage is a hero's due - 
That we, like you, must strive to bear our part.

Though the blood drip unseen from wounds within
That even length of years must leave unhealed - 
You bid us conquer pain that we may win
To that high goal your passing has revealed.
You gave your life, and if we too must give
Our very flesh and blood - a sacrifice
That that great cause that claimed you still might live;
Surely the gift is fitting in God's eyes.

Somewhere beyond the range of mortal sight
We know you strive as nobly as of yore,
A soldier still amidst the Hosts of Light;
Though we may see your well-loved face no more.
Oh! Pity us if from these realms unknown
Your eyes look down upon our mortal pain
And plead for us before your Captain's throne
That we may reach those heights you died to gain.

December 5th 1916

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) was last in touch back in October, to tell us the story of his regiment’s involvement in the Somme battle in August. He said then that the Somme trenches were “very horrible.” His latest letter tells that, for the time being at least, he has escaped them:

23.11.16. “When you have been wet through for a week, have just come out of the trenches and are standing in the main street of a horrible and historic village, looking through glasses at the German lines, it is pleasant suddenly to have your elbow jogged by your Commanding Officer and to be told that you are to report forthwith at the Brigade Headquarters. Every so often a subaltern is detailed for attachment for instruction in staff duties…

As I approached Brigade Headquarters, I remembered that I had neither washed nor shaved for a week and felt very much ashamed of my appearance…

I was conducted into the presence of the Brigadier, a young and very handsome man with many medals. He was reading the ‘Times’ and told me to sit down and eat.

After a pause he put down his newspaper, looked long at me and in a mild, tired voice said, ‘Soaked through I suppose!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the men?’

‘Soaked through all the time, Sir.’

Then he gave a very refined groan and went on reading the paper.

It was not long before I learnt that this Brigadier was as ready to be soaked through as any of the men, but, at the time, he seemed an exquisite being, remote from war, and mud, and hardship.

I made myself presentable by lunch, when we were joined by the OC Machine Gun Company, no less a person than L Grundy OD. He is my junior by many years and we had never met before. Now we meet nearly every day, but have not yet found time to talk much about the School…

By night I was mostly at Headquarters, but by day I often went out with the Brigadier on his visits to the various Battalion Headquarters. We were frequently shelled and once or twice had quite narrow escapes, but the Brigadier’s personality is such that I think no shell would dare to come too close to him…

My chief job was to write the daily Brigade Intelligence Report, which goes on to the Division. To do so sometimes made me shiver at the cold-bloodedness of my task. It is one thing to put down, ‘The right-half Battalion sent out a patrol between 2 and 4 a.m. which did so and so,’ and a very different thing to go on patrol oneself. The same is true of ration-carrying parties. How well I know them! One must see the game oneself in order to realize how much hardship, danger and often heroism, is compressed into six cold lines of an Intelligence Report.”

 

November 30th 1916

2nd Lieut. Maurice Jacks (KRRC) has returned wounded from the Front. He was involved in the attacks that took place around the River Ancre earlier this month.

jacks-ml3“The preliminary bombardment was in full swing, and our guns were giving the Germans beans; we were in the middle of them, so the noise was pretty terrific. The censor will not allow me to tell you how many there were, but I believe in this battle there were more than in any other of the Somme offensive.

It was the night of November 12th when we swam into our tents; we had to be up early the next morning ready to support the Division who were attacking. At 5.40 a.m. the guns loosed off ‘five minutes intense,’ and at 5.45 the infantry went over the top.

Shortly afterwards we moved up close behind them and halted in a valley to await orders. Bunches of ‘kamerads’ were coming in, many of them wounded and all more or less sullen; even our witticisms failed to cheer them up. Absurdly exaggerated reports of the success of the attack were current.

It was not until late in the afternoon that our orders arrived; and it was dark when, heavily laden with every conceivable form of tool and weapon, we went over the top. The guns showed amazing excitement, and their flashes were even more brilliant and alarming than Skipper’s lighting in ‘Macbeth.’

Our job was to clear out the first three German lines, which in their haste the attacking troops had not properly dealt with in the morning. There were any number of Huns, especially in the fourth line, where we finally settled down; all were reduced more or less to the Kamerad stage, with the exception of a few rash Prussians, and all night long we were coming across large dug-outs full of prisoners.

The trench was about one foot deep, having been battered out of recognition by our artillery. All the hours of darkness we had to spend in trying to make some cover, and when the foggy morning came we had it about four feet deep.

beaucourt-2We were not more than 70 yards from Beaucourt – or what was left of it; and at 7 a.m. we were to attack and take it. About 6.30 the Boches clearly ‘got the wind up,’ and bombarded us vigorously; a large chunk of shell hit me in the shoulder, but the wound was not bad; I was buried four times, and the fifth burial, which was complete, finally laid me out – leaving me with nine bits of shell in the head and face.

Somebody dug me out and bandaged me; and for the next half-hour I was busy digging out my Company Commander, who had been buried by the same shell, and tying up badly wounded men. Then feeling rather ‘groggy’ I decided to try to get out; by this time the trench had been nearly filled in, and the Germans were active with their M.G’s; so the journey was not altogether a safe one.

I came across a wounded Hun (a Prussian) hit in the foot and walking with difficulty; I gave him a hand – he was in a terrible funk, and full of ‘Kameradie’ (a very technical term), and altogether rather beastly! He thought that we would win the war but ‘would not need many ships to take our men home.’ This, I must say, is a very prevalent idea among the German privates.

On the way down, I met a man I knew escorting a bunch of prisoners, among whom were two officers; the latter, he said, had complained to him at being put under the escort of a private soldier – they expected English officers to escort them!

At the dressing-station I was patched up, and from there my progress to Blighty was slow and painful, but sure.”

Maurice arrived back in England on November 20th and has now been granted 8 weeks sick leave. Not surprisingly, he is still suffering from headaches. We wish him a speedy recovery.

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.

November 19th 1916

Seeing the long lists of those killed or wounded, which appear daily in our newspapers, one could be forgiven perhaps, for wondering what good it is doing. There has been no real break-though on the Somme; indeed the gains seem small.

One of our Old Boys has laid his hands on a captured diary written by a Lieutenant of the 2nd Company, 180th Infantry Regiment of the German Army. This entry indicates that the enemy is clearly suffering as badly as our troops (or perhaps worse?)

Aug 25th: “Thiepval and Hill 141 represent a hell that no imagination can picture. Shelters are destroyed and uninhabitable; trenches exist no more. One lies in shell holes which change hourly, no, each minute. The heaviest shells come whistling in, close this one up and unearth the dead.

All communication is above ground, therefore the losses are startling. In 2-3 days and nights at most, a company is wiped out. Wax-yellow, without expression, the stream of wounded passes. Warm food is not to be thought of; one takes iron rations, which the stomach can scarcely digest.

Today we had a tremendously heavy bombardment, which surpassed anything I have ever experienced. Who can say if it was our own or the enemy’s artillery? Our own artillery has always shown an inclination to shoot short. We stand here under the most severe artillery fire ever seen by the world; directed so accurately by 29 captive balloons and about 30 aviators that bring under fire every shelter and every junction of a trench.

Against that, we have 6 captive balloons, which venture up a bare 600 ft high for fear of the enemy’s aviators… they are so far behind (our trenches), in order to get out of range of the naval guns, that our artillery can scarcely be said to have aerial observers. Even though the infantry observers do their duty to the uttermost, that is insufficient compensation.”

This can be said to be encouraging, but it was written back in August, and here we are in November…

 

 

 

 

 

November 1st 1916

Our old friend ‘Fluff,’ Lieut. – Col. Stuart Taylor (West Yorks) has recovered from his wounds. He returned to command his battalion on September 16th and, although he cannot say as much, I think it highly likely he is somewhere in the region of the Somme.

We are most grateful that he has found the time to write to the boys:

Stuart Taylor 2“We are living in stirring times now and there is much doing. I wish I could tell you all about it, but the censor rules are very strict.

There are one or two things I hate in the trenches worse than the Boches – rats and cats.

The rats are enormous grey shiny looking things with great fat tails, and they come out in swarms at night and eat up all the horrid things they can.

You would think the cats would eat the rats, but they do not, I regret to say. They are kittens which have been born since the war, in the desolated and ruined villages and towns of Northern France, and they are rapidly forming a new species of wild cat, living in old disused trenches or holes in the ground and coming out at night.

There is so much to eat lying about that they do not kill the rats or mice.”

 

This is not the way of nature, but it is to be supposed that war is bound to have some sort of effect on all who partake in it – even cats and rats, it now seems.

 

October 19th 1916

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2nd Lieut. John Raikes (Essex Regiment)

One cannot guess at the number of shells that daily pour down on our troops on the Somme. I am very sorry to have to relate that John has been killed near Flers by one such shell on 10th October 1916.

Rev. Raikes, John’s father, has shared with us a letter he received from a brother officer, who witnessed the event:

“We had just come up by night to the support line and I had just started up with a working party. John had gone to his dug-out to get some rest; we were being heavily bombarded, and a high explosive shell burst right on the top, destroying the place and killing him instantaneously.

We buried him where he fell and have erected a temporary cross over his grave. ‘In memory of Lieut. Raikes, killed in action, Oct. 10th. 1916. RIP’”

John’s servant, also aged 20, was killed by the same shell. This lad, writing home to his mother a few days before, had said, ‘You needn’t worry about me. I am with a proper gentleman.’                                 

I remember Johnnie as a good-hearted, merry little fellow with a keen sense of humour. We went on several bicycle expeditions with the boys to his home and he always enjoyed showing us around the Zoological Gardens in the neighbourhood.

Although he failed to impress Winchester quite enough for them to offer him a place, he won a scholarship to Radley and thereafter a Mathematical Exhibition to Corpus Christi College Oxford – the first Radleian to have won a Mathematical distinction at the University for many years.