June 15th 1916

 

Deane EB

Private Edmund Deane (10th Bat. Canadian Infantry)

Whilst our attention has been focused on the Battle of Jutland, the Germans have launched another attack in the Ypres region, which claimed the life of Edmund Deane on June 3rd.

An official account states: “It was about 10 a.m. on June 2nd when the German preliminary bombardment of the Canadian position burst with the suddenness of a summer thunderstorm. A terrific drumfire of mixed shrapnel and high explosive swept over Hill 60, Mont Sorrel and Observatory Wood – the right apex of the Salient – isolating the sector absolutely. Warfare had never witnessed such a stupendous concentration of gunfire.

Storms of explosives rolled over the Canadian front and support lines with hurricane force and more than a hurricane destructiveness, wrecking position after position with ghastly thoroughness.

At 1 p.m. the German infantry emerged from their trenches and trotted over the scarred, shell-tossed earth where three hours previously had been well-built trenches manned by the best blood of Canada. They met with no resistance.

The 10th Battalion in the Brigade Reserve, when the storm broke, was at once ordered up to Mont Sorrel support lines in Armagh Wood, to assist the 7th Battalion, which was about to counter attack.”

The exact circumstances of Edmund’s death are uncertain, but we understand he was killed in the counter attack.

Edmund was at the OPS from 1879-83, under my predecessor as Headmaster, Rev AE Clark.  We overlapped by one year, as I joined the school as an Assistant Master in September 1882.

June 15th 1915

JBS Haldane

Lieut. JBS Haldane (Black Watch)

If anyone could be said to be enjoying the war, it is Jack Haldane. For him, life in the trenches is apparently “an enjoyable experience.”

Having joined the Black Watch, he has discovered the joys of bomb-throwing. His detachment have been allowed to roam along the line, firing off trench mortars and experimental devices at will. Such visits are not always popular with those around them at the time, as Charlie Childe, now a lieutenant in the Gloucestershire Regiment, told me.

“These trench mortar people are a little tribe of pariahs, who stalk up and down other people’s trenches, drink their whiskey, and make themselves quite pleasant. Meanwhile their satellites stealthily fire the beastly things, knock in some Hun dug-outs, put out a few of their cook-houses (you can see the smoke coming out of their trenches here and there), and thoroughly annoy the Hun over his lunch – a most ungentlemanly thing to do. Fritz then urgently telephones to his gunners, and the creators of all the fuss have meanwhile gone away somewhere else.”

Jack’s previous experiences helping his father, John Scott Haldane, understand the dangers of gases in mines, have turned out to be of particular help to our war effort.

When on April 22nd 1915, the Germans released a gas attack allied troops at Ypres, it was not surprising that Lord Kitchener should turn to the good Dr. for advice. JS Haldane went straight over to France to investigate the situation personally, returning with the lung of one of the dead to investigate in the laboratory at his home, ‘Cherwell’. It was imperative to confirm the exact nature of the gas and develop an effective respirator as soon as possible. Here, aided by a long-standing family friend, Aldous Huxley, taking notes for him, he carried out numerous tests on the effects of chlorine gas on himself and other volunteers.

Last month JS Haldane was back in France, where he set up a laboratory in St Omer. Jack was summoned from his bombing duties to assist him. The Professor could think of no-one better than his son to have in his gas chamber, reporting on the effects of the gas he was inhaling.

“We had to compare the effects on ourselves of various quantities, with and without respirators. It stung the eyes and produced a tendency to gasp and cough when breathed. For this reason trained physiologists had to be employed.”

But why did it have to be him in the gas chamber? Jack continued:

“An ordinary soldier would probably restrain his tendency to gasp, cough and throw himself about if he were working a machine-gun in battle, but could not do so in a laboratory experiment with nothing to take his mind off his own feelings. An experienced physiologist has more self-control.

It was also necessary to see if one could run or work hard in the respirators, so we had a wheel of some kind to turn by hand in the gas chamber, not to mention doing 50 yard sprints in respirators outside. As each of us got sufficiently affected by gas to render his lungs duly irritable, another would take his place. None of us was much the worse for the gas, or in any real danger, as we knew where to stop, but some had to go to bed for a few days, and I was very short of breath and incapable of running for a month or so.”

Jack, on learning that his troops were about to go into an attack, returned to the trenches. Here he suffered wounds from shell fire and found himself being given a lift by the Prince of Wales to the Casualty Clearing Station. “Oh, it’s you.” The Prince is reputed to have said. They had met in Oxford before the war, where one of the Prince’s tutors was another OPS Old Boy– Lionel Smith.

Jack’s wounds were “blighty” ones and he is now back here in Oxford at ‘Cherwell’, recovering from an operation to remove a shell splinter.

The sounds of our old colleague Blair Watson, firing off blanks from his revolver on the school fields for the boys benefit, were resoundingly defeated by Jack exploding German bombs along the road at Cherwell.  He is clearly on the mend!

Indeed, together with his sister (Naomi) he is now going to set this term’s General Paper, to be undertaken shortly by our 5th and 6th forms.

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.”      

May 25th 1915

We have further news from Lieut. Jack Smyth (15th Sikhs), who has been in the thick of it at Ypres. It is remarkable to hear that he is the only officer in his regiment to have come through the war unscathed.

23/5/15. “We are in some support trenches now behind the firing line and I am writing this in a ruined farm, behind Jack Smythwhich we have made our headquarters; there are only six of us left and 190 men, so we don’t take up much room… 

We had the most extraordinary luck as a regiment up till the end of April, as, although we had had several officers wounded, we had not one killed, but during the last three weeks we have had six hit and out of these five were killed, which is real bad luck. Losing five officers makes an awful gap in a small community like ours, where we all mess together…

We struck the German 41 cm gun at Ypres for the first time. It makes a noise going through the air like an express train going through a station, and if it pitches anywhere within half-a-mile, you feel the end of the world has come. The situation there was perfectly extraordinary, as we were holding what they called the horse-shoe to protect Ypres (for sentimental reasons more than anything else) and so were shelled from all sides. It was a most extraordinary sight at night from our trench, as the German flares came from every side. We have just been in a very nasty bit of trench which was captured from the Huns, and we and the Huns were in the same trench with a barrier of earth in between. Most unpleasant!

A Corporal of the Shires made a grand remark the other day when the regiment was ordered to attack, ‘Now then No 3 Company, fall in for the thinning out parade.’

I am now the only one in the regiment who has been right through the show without being either wounded or invalided sick; the Quartermaster, who was the only other one, went down with measles last week!

We had dreadful bad luck with the weather last week, as the Huns did seem to be on the run, but then down came the rain and the ground became a swamp again and stopped the whole thing. I got out of my depth in a trench three days ago and had to swim!

I was most awfully sorry to hear of Ronnie Poulton’s death…

Well I must end up now, the best of luck to the OPS.”

 

 

 

May 23rd 1915

Who would have thought that childhood games of “forts” at the OPS would take on such significance in this time of  war? Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his colleagues have been struggling considerably with the building of dug-outs – sometimes with disastrous results:

18/5/15. “Cold and foggy, which prevented any shelling. Went on improving trenches. Rain continued and ground Teffrey Thompsonvery wet. In afternoon started building sumptuous H.Q. dug-out with great beams for roof with magnificent table and fine brocaded chairs out of neighbouring chateau. My experience at OPS in fort-building in the School hedge was of untold value.

Just before dark, Capt O was in his dug-out and saw a bit of entrance beginning to fall in. He started to walk out, shouting ‘Hi! Who’s walking on the roof?’ It was supported by a large iron bedstead, which collapsed and broke his neck. I was at the other end of our bit of the trench seeing the sick men, and of course he was quite dead when I reached him.

Had hardly got back to our dug-out when they asked me to go and see a subaltern who had apparently gone mad. I found L, who was one of the few who had come safely through the bombardment on the 13th and he was completely off his head from the shock of hearing of O’s death, on top of the previous strain. Gave him some morphia and got him quiet and put him in a dug-out.

No sooner back in our own dug-out than I was told there was a man with a broken leg buried in another dug-out. Went along and we got him out of the mud, and getting hold of some pieces of wood, fixed up his leg.

After this series of collapsing dug-outs, we turned everybody out of any dug-out that wasn’t absolutely sound. After much agitation over telephone, we managed to get the injured and sick away to an ambulance, but this was no joke as it was pitch-dark and the ground quite sodden. Of course the Germans must needs start shelling the Halte, just as we were getting the men into the ambulance on the road. However nothing happened.”

May 15th 1915

Lieut. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) is currently attached to the 18th Hussars as their Medical Officer and can vouch for all the horrors currently being Teffrey Thompsonendured by our troops at Ypres.

May 13th 1915. “Marched in evening north of Ypres across Canal to Bryke, then guided by guides who didn’t know the way, through much barbed wire to Wieltje.

We stopped on road near trenches. Enemy’s flares very active. Somebody told us it would be just as well to get into the ditch as a machine gun covered the road. We did so and the machine gun started at once.

When it had finished, we took over trenches on each side of the road. We were disgusted at the rotten condition of the trenches, but we discovered the reason next day: it was very wet and mushy and we started to repair trenches, but found remains of Frenchmen in the mud, and couldn’t go any deeper. We got one dug-out built before dawn and the trenches repaired a bit. Started to go to sleep at dawn, but inferno of shell-fire started and lasted from 3.45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

At the very beginning the telephone dug-out was blown in, removing our luncheon basket and my box of cigars. Three very frightened telephonists suddenly tried to get into our dug-out.

The shelling was appalling. For hours on end the whole place rocked, and afterwards we heard that the trenches had been invisible owing to dust and smoke. Dozens of wounded began to come in to our part of the trench where ‘C’ squadron were. The Major went along to ‘A’ squadron and there was wounded and then killed.

‘A’ squadron retired, with their trenches blown in, across the open to some alleged trenches further back. These they could not find and had to advance again across the open to their blown-in trenches. There was a complete gap of 40 yards blown in and covered by a machine gun on the right of ‘C’ squadron, which made it impossible to get along to see anybody.

I had the dug-out and a portion of protected trench filled with wounded and when they got so thick that we couldn’t turn round, told them they had better take their chance and go. I pointed out the position where there was less shell-fire in the direction of Bryke and at the end of day heard that 100 had got through all right.

After about four hours, the German fire occasionally slackened and we expected an attack, but could only see a few Germans looking over their trenches. The shelling, chiefly groups of 4-6 exploding ‘crumps,’ continued to blow in our trenches, and about mid-day the Captain decided that we should move to the left where there was less shelling. He did not go, but some of us moved across the road to a support trench filled with East Lancs…

Starting down a communication trench I suddenly found myself on my hands at the other end, as a ‘crump’ seems to have gone off just behind me. I got across the road, but the man behind was caught by the machine gun through the chest, but we carried him down to the support trench, where I did him up and it took two grains of morphia to quieten him…

During all this shelling we could actually see the ‘crumps’ before they hit the ground. They looked just like pointed cricket balls, and really stand about 2.9 high and are 8.2 in diameter.

Towards evening, the shelling died down and I tried to find our dressing-station. Couldn’t find any trace, but heard that the Cavalry had been wiped out. Wandered back to chateau west of Ypres, got some more dressings, heard that remnant of the regiment had gone up again under one of the Captains, so bolted after them on a bike. Raining hard; wandered half the night trying to find them. Went back to chateau and slept. Three officers, practically untouched through this awful day, as a result of the nervous strain of the shelling, had the jumps so badly that they had to be sent sick.”

 

May 4th 1915

A number of Old Dragons are involved in the battle that has been going on in the Ypres area since April 22nd. Donald Innes enlisted immediately at the start of the war as a despatch rider in the Motor Cycle Corps:

Donald Innes

Sgt. D. Innes

May 1st 1915. “On one of my rides I came across Treffry Thompson OD at Hazebrouk; he seemed very fit. Since Ypres is at present the centre of interest, perhaps a short account of it would not be amiss… 

One’s first view of the Cathedral reminds one of Magdalen tower; and the cloisters attached are very like those there also. The town has been smashed up more or less in zones, just short of and just beyond the Cathedral: where the shells fell short or overshot it. I was there the night before the attack on Hill 60, and then the Cloth Hall did not seem so very badly damaged, but of course I don’t know what this other bombardment has done.

The inhabitants seem to take things very philosophically, and one got a limited but quite excellent dinner there in a more or less patched up café. Where the shops are absolutely smashed, the owners sell their goods in the street outside.

With regard to the actual fighting, one sees very little of it and it is just a matter of chance if one happens to be there at the time, the trenches acting as a kind of touch-line inside which we play; so I will leave the description of that to ODs who are in the thick of it. 

I saw a little of Neuve Chapelle, and for an infantry man a modern attack can only be described as ‘Hell let loose.’ I thanked God I was a Despatch Rider. Our troubles are rather neatly put by one of the D.Rs in what he called the D.R’s prayer:-

From holes, shells, and motor ‘bus

Good Lord deliver us.”

 * * * * * * *

Donald Innes was one of the five Old Dragons to win Oxford hockey blues in 1911. All five of them are now in the Army.

1911 Hockey Blues

Standing: Donald Innes (Sgt. Motor Cycle Corps) and Patrick Duff (2nd Lieut. RFA in Gallipoli)

Sitting: John Brooks (2nd Lieut. Indian Army), Sholto Marcon (2nd Lieut. OBLI), Ronnie Poulton (Lieut. Royal Berks).