December 11th 1917

This is the final instalment from Capt. Treffry Thompson‘s diary, covering the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto. The train eventually was able to speed up to take them across the River Piave to safety.

His final entry tells the story of how the Lieut.- Quartermaster had tried to rescue as much of their kit from the advancing enemy:

2/11/17 “At this point the Lieut.-Quartermaster turned up…

He said that he tried in vain to save our kits and ordnance, which he could easily have done if he could only have got lorries – he was promised lorries by Italian officers but none arrived – finally he bagged an old farm cart and an older horse and made a harness of belts and slings and straps. He opened all our kits and got out all valuable stuff and packed it on the cart.

He had with him an RAMC corporal with D’s motor-bike and one or two ASC men – they set fire to all the rest of the kit and stores… and they started off for the west – when they left the whole place was in flames and being shelled and bombed.

They got about six miles when the horse died – they harnessed themselves into it and the cart broke down – finally they had to leave everything as they were being sniped and came on as they were, riding a borrowed push-bike and harnessed up to the motor-bike.”

A gallant effort!

 

December 3rd 1917

With the Italian army struggling to hold the line at the River Tagliamento, crossed the previous day by Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men, Treffry needed to get them still further back if they were not to be caught up in the fighting.

This, the fourth day of the retreat, was to prove to be the most difficult for men tired from the march and extremely hungry.

30/10/17 “A roll call proved that we had got all the men across the river.

The Italian RTO’s Corporal Major decided, as the train that did come in was packed, that we had better try to secure some wagons which were a long way out of the station, but would eventually go on to a train. So we walked out to about 2 kilometres and found part of a train with five horse trucks already pretty well filled with Italian soldiers.

The Corporal Major opened the door of each and shouted, “This train goes to Udine,” (The Germans were in Udine by that time) and those trucks were empty in a moment, so we all got in. We had 6 officers and 28 men in ours, 20 patients and 8 men in another, and so on, and then we went to sleep just as it commenced to pour with rain once more.

A drawing by Treffry Thompson

We woke about 8 or 9 to find the train had gone about three miles and that now there was a solid line of trains buffer to buffer at least 5-6 miles long, actual movements being limited to spurts of 100-400 yards, perhaps once an hour….

The railway track was this hurrying mass of soldiery, without equipment and fighting mad for food, and refugees clinging desperately to their little all – little kiddy girls struggling along barefooted, often bleeding from broken glass, carrying some treasured possession – old women staggering under bundles of clothing – and mothers clutching a babe, or leading a couple of kids or crying wildly up and down the trains for some child which had got lost in the crush, while along the embankments of the railway and roads were the gleaming skeletons of mules and horses, in places three deep.

If a mule or a horse died, within half-an-hour it would be nothing but clean picked bones, so wild was everyone for food. The rain poured over everything.

We decided it was better to stay on the train where we had shelter and warmth, as the trains were bound to move down slowly and it was easier to starve in the train without collapse, than on the march when it would mean men getting left behind.

Finally, towards evening things began to look desperate and we started to forage in various directions. D and B managed to pick up nearly a sandbag full of macaroni where it had been spilled under a truck about three trains up the line. I achieved about 3-4 pounds of meat off the remnants of a horse I found. One truck made a meal off defunct mule.”

A couple of them went foraging to a farm and came back with two chickens, two ducks, about 40 lbs of hot polenta pudding and a sack of maize.

“Meanwhile we had got fires going in each truck – on piles of stones in tin helmets or old buckets and we had all those birds plucked, cleaned and cooked in no time. It was great sport, all sitting round, plucking hens. The revival of spirit was extraordinary and Rici sang to us from Il Trovatore etc.”

 

November 30th 1917

Having walked 20-22 miles the previous day, Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men still had some way to go to reach safety, and they were not the only ones on the road:

29/10/17 “Masses of 2nd Army pouring past us and road filled for miles with guns, limbers and army wagons; lorries, cars, ambulances and wagons, hand-carts with a family’s entire possessions pushed by the women-folk, farm carts drawn by magnificent pairs of oxen laden with everything from copper water pails to canary cages, with the younger members of the family perched on top, and possibly a brace of geese or ducks with them; motor bikes with or without side-cars, and finally the humble push bike or the wheel-barrow, also laden with some treasured possession. The whole jumbled into a slowly, very slowly moving mass…”   

On reaching Codroipo, they were told to make for a bridge over the River Tagliamento – another 4 miles away.

“The river seemed miles away, but eventually we reached it about sunset, and then became wedged into a solid mass of soldiery frantic to get across the bridge and all jammed at the entrance.”

When Treffry finally arrived at the bridge, he had something of a fright:

“Between the rails it was open to the flooded Tagliamento forty feet below, since the bridge was an open one with the rails only being carried across on the sleepers, which merely rested on the open framework of the bridge. We moved on, foot by foot, to the entrance of the bridge, the crush becoming terrific…

I found myself suddenly shot forward and looking right down between the open rails. I grabbed the fellow behind me and, as he did not want to come too, he grabbed the fellow behind him, so we all swayed on to the gangway once more.”

After that they managed to drag themselves a further 3-4 km to the railway station at Carsarsa (just north of San Vito on the map) where the night was spent huddled together beside a siding. There was no food and the trains were all full. They can have got little sleep that night.

“Very cold, men huddled together with haversacks as pillows, but only for a few moments as it was too cold.”

November 28th 1917

This is the second entry from the diary of Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) describing his experiences on the retreat, the start of which I shared with you on November 26th.

28/10/17  “The patients, who were lying in the ordnance sheds, well supplied with blankets, were now ordered to be evacuated through St. Georgia. Only eight ambulances available, but all worst cases sent under G. They eventually failed to get a train at St. Georgia and had to proceed to Postoguaro and were 13 hours in the ambulances.” 

With these patients off his hands, Treffry turned his thoughts to his group:

“Being allowed free run of ordnance stores, as it was going to be fired shortly, we picked what we wanted… While we were in this store a huge fire started on opposite side of town covering whole place with dense black smoke, and we were all ordered out at a minute’s notice from the store and town….

We found a seething conglomerate mass pouring through the Udine gate and up the westerly road to Codroipe.

Orders were then received to march from Palmanova to Codroipe in order to cross the River Tagliamento and find what they hoped would be safety.

“We reformed officers, personnel, Italian interpreter, Rici (an Italian opera singer attached to the hospital), 25 walking patients and a few others…” 

At this point an AOC officer, claiming to know the quickest way to the bridge over the Tagliamento, promptly marched them round Palmanova and a further six miles south before heading in the right direction.

“B and I brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers, which was a pretty heartrending job. The men began to shed their kits into the ditches and frequent halts were necessary. Rici the singer was very lame, but stuck to us and an enormous pack of kit…

We finally reached Gonas about 1 p.m., with the men very done, as they had then marched 16-17 miles and had had no rest since the day before and no food since the evening before…

We got the men some apples and pears and temporary shelter in an evacuated hospital. We shared a small bit of bully given by an Italian officer between the six of us. It was decided to push on to the next village at least, as there was no food in Gonas and the civilians were evacuating.”

At the next village there they found a larger evacuated hospital for the night.

“Got the men some food, first of the day – one tin of sardines between three, and half a loaf of bread per man…

Slept like logs, having done some 20-22 miles.”

 

 

November 26th 1917

There has been much in the papers in recent weeks regarding the Italian Campaign. The advance of the Austro-Hungarian and German forces which has threatened Venice has, we hope, now been checked. Currently, Italian forces are struggling manfully to hold the line on the River Piave.

This follows the defeat of the Italian forces at the Battle of Caporetto, after which there was a general withdrawal in which Capt. Treffry Thompson, who has been with the Croce Rossa Britannica (British Red Cross) in Italy since the summer, was caught up.  He has written from the safety of Torino about the retreat he has endured with the Italian forces.

“I have had a fairly exciting time during the last fortnight. We got away all right but were reduced to eating anything we could get, even to the extent of bits off the bones of defunct mules.

At present I am ‘in contumacia’ for five days, which being interpreted means quarantine, as all those coming from that part of the front are put in quarantine by the Italian authorities…

My entire kit has gone in flames, including my sketch book and photos and some rather nice local curiosities…”

Treffry has also kindly sent us entries from the diary he kept throughout this period. His adventure starts in Versa, which is just west of Gorizia.

27/10/17 “On the road in the middle of a mass of retreating troops I saw the latest thing in Paris costumes, furs, high heels and silk stockings, walking along the road.

We received orders that conveyances would be supplied to evacuate hospital on Monday morning. Changed into slacks. Roast ducks for dinner. Versa street a solid mass of moving troops and vehicles of all kinds.

After dinner ordered to move at once and evacuate via Palmanova where our Ordnance Stores were situated and there was a railway station. Changed and packed. 21 mule carts available. Hospital equipment in the shape of bedding etc sent off. Began to pour with rain; ambulances arrived bit by bit, and finally five lorries.

All patients and greater part of hospital stores and valuable equipment was got away to Palmanova. B and I marched personnel to Palmanova and reached Ordnance Depot, where the patients had arrived, about 4 a.m.”

Treffry’s account is a long and detailed one, so I am stopping at this point. It will be continued over the coming days.

June 23rd 1916

TOT +GCV 3

Treffry, recovering from his wounds last summer, with Mr Vassall

Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) has recovered from his wound and is now working on a Medical Board at the Cowley Barracks assessing those who are a little less enthusiastic about joining up, following the introduction of conscription earlier this year.

He has written with details of some of the cases with which he has been involved.

The following one concerns a time when two gypsies were presented to him:

“The entire room is suddenly disturbed by loud groans from No. 2 of the above pair who is in the hands of the 2nd Inquisitor.

Watch the performance. He groans loudly while his arms and legs are gently moved; swears he cannot move his right shoulder; forgets this a minute later and says it is his left. Says he has violent pains in the right knee and cannot bend it. Limps badly on trial, but unfortunately on the wrong leg.

The 4th Inquisitor arrives with another victim; a hard burly looking man, obviously very reluctant to be passed.

‘This man says he cannot work and never has.’

‘How old are you?’’          ’32.’

‘What’s your work?’          ‘Labourer.’

‘When did you do any labouring?’          ‘I can’t do none.’

‘What do you live on?’          ‘On me wages.’

‘Well you can work then?’          ‘Yes.’

‘What do you complain of?’          ‘Pains.’

‘Where?’          ‘In me ‘ed.’

‘Do you get any pains in your chest?’          ‘Yes, awful pains.’

‘Do you get any in your stomach?’          ‘Yes they does fair double me up.’

‘Do you get any in your back?’          ‘Yes, something cruel.’

‘Do you ever drink any beer?’          ‘What me? No never. Well perhaps I does have a drop occasionally.’

‘Do you get any trembling fits?’          ‘Yes, I goes all of a tremble at times.’

‘Especially when you see work?’          ‘Yes – er no.’

‘Do your feet get cold?’          ‘My feet gets terribly cold.’

‘Well, when you are in the army you can find out what “Cold Feet” means.’”

 

June 3rd 1915

Lieut. Treffry Thompson (RAMC), having been looking after the wounded in the Ypres ‘horseshoe’ with the 18th Hussars, has now himself been wounded, although thankfully not seriously. The circumstances of his injury are most distressing however, and he was extremely lucky not to have been killed.

24/5/15. “At 2 .30 a.m. we were awakened by one of the subalterns who was blue and coughing madly, dashing into Teffrey Thompsonthe cellar shouting ‘Gas! Gas!’ We nipped up and shoved on our respirators and put on our kit. The captain of one of the squadrons came down with his respirator on, looking very bad and said the men were retiring. The colonel immediately sent a telephone message along the trenches to say that they were not to retire, with what result I do not know.

We all went outside and immediately got our first impressions of gas; even through the respirator there was a sense of fearful choking suffocation…

The gas was awful and gave one a feeling of absolute terror and helplessness. We went outside the chateau ruins and, just as I got beyond the wall, there was a loud crash just in front of me and I thought my arm had gone and had to look down to see that it was still there.

The whole place was a hell of shrapnel and rifle and machine-gun fire. I got in a blue funk and bolted, still however holding on to my mackintosh with my left hand. I fell into various ditches and lines of trenches, got tied up in the wire, fell again into the trenches where the Territorials were and was promptly kicked out on the farther side.

Beyond this was a long open slope, swept by shrapnel fire and thick with gas. I fell into a shallow ditch and fainted. Somebody came and pulled me out by my wounded arm, which brought me to my senses. I made for the dug-outs down by the stream; there some men tied up my arm and I became less of a raving lunatic.

When the shelling quietened down a bit, four of them put me on a stretcher and carried me down to the Menin Road, where we failed to find the dressing station; so they carried me along the road towards Halte. Just before we got there, some reinforcements were coming up and the Germans, spotting these, began to make Halte a hell of shell-fire. I made the men put me down and we took shelter in the ditch under the embankment on the south side of the road. The road itself, just over our heads, soon became plastered with ‘fizz-bangs.’  

The reinforcements went up the ditch safely where we were and about 30 or 40 wounded collected there. We stayed there for about two hours. K______, the new machine-gun officer, was lying beside me dying from gas. He was a ghastly sight, turning from white to blue and back again. He had been caught asleep in his dug-out by the gas without a respirator on.

The Germans started to shell the south side, so we cleared off into the GHQ line of trenches, which were already packed with reserves. There, some brilliant fellow gave me a drop of water and, after recovering my breath for about half-an-hour, I looked at my watch expecting it to be p.m. and found it was 8 a.m.

We then heard that the infantry on the left of the Menin road were all retiring and, as it looked as though the GHQ line was going to become the fighting-line, I thought this was no place for me and made off towards west of Ypres. Avoiding the railway cutting, which was buzzing with shells, I crossed the Zillebeke road and, taking a separate course through the corn-fields, got on to the railway south of Ypres.

There I found a battery and asked for a drink. While drinking some red wine, which made me sicker than I ever hope to be again, a ‘crump’ fell beside one of the guns and killed two men. I again thought it was no place for me and went along the railway towards the Lille gate. I was staggering along when a subaltern in charge of a working party saw my condition and helped me along to his medical officer, who made me lie down and finally packed me off in a motor ambulance to the dressing-station.”