Chapter 20

The Somme Offensive, 1916

 

Up to July 1916,1 had nearly one year in action - Loos, Lens, Yser River, Ypres, Menin Road, Messines and La Basse, being among the battles, in which one third of our Royal Field Artillery personnel were killed, gassed or wounded, half of our eighteen-pounder guns put out of action and one quarter of our transport horses immobilised. Now as a regrouped, fully staffed unit of the 24th Division we moved our guns into position at Mountaban on the Somme.

Before we could consolidate we were met with a bombardment of phosgene gas shells, whizz-bang shells and 5.9 high explosives. We looked funny guys in our nosebag gas masks. One explosive shattered all our rations, except cheese and tins of marmalade. We had a large supply of shells and when the gas was over we really got into action.

I sat for four hours at the gun and fired over three hundred shells. The battle area was one of dreadful noise, our guns -hundreds of them -firing and enemy shells bursting. The day before the battle of Guillemont 100,000 shells burst around us and treble that number fell on the enemy side.

On the morning of the big day we advanced and by a miracle dug in our guns near Bernafay Wood and commenced continuous firing. At noon Captain Goodwin called me to check a fault in the next gun. A shell burst in the gun pit I had left, killing all my crew. Ten minutes later another gun was blown up and the crew, including the Captain, Lieutenant and four NCOs lost their lives.

With all guns out of action and a lull in the shelling we buried our dead, with the help of eight Royal Engineers, in Meanlte Cemetery. Two Engineers made a cross from trench boards. At ten a.m. we had fifty-four Officers, NCOs and Gunners - by two p.m. we had only twelve men.

Our sad duty completed, we hurried to the shambles of our gun pits where we found our Colonel Spillar, a very courageous man. He told us new guns and men were moving up to new positions. On reaching our new site it was sad to learn the rear wagon lines had been destroyed, with great loss in drivers, horses and stores.

After nearly twenty-four hours on chunks of cheese, topped with marmalade, we were given a thick slice of bread, four ounces of corned beef, a quart of water and two 1 oz hard biscuits. It was a delicious meal.

The reinforcements were new and it was their first time in action. Some were bewildered, especially our new captain. He had commanded about half a dozen batteries in as many battles. He tore off his tunic and cursed everything and everybody. He was obviously unfit to command and it was my unpleasant duty to run to a unit nearby and request the senior officer to come to our aid. He did and that evening a very ill, shell shocked and raving madman was taken, tied on a stretcher, to hospital.

The tide had turned in our favour. A first-class campaigner, Captain Birch, took over and within twelve hours we were in the thick of battle. Days dragged on, it was a case of ebb and flow and the smell of death always hung all around. Dixies of stew arrived cold and so-called plum duff had more sandbag jute through it than currants, while tea made with chlorinated water was revolting.

To my joy a food parcel arrived from home. Its meat cubes, chocolate, sweets, cake, shortbread and bottles of lime concentrates made me happy for hours. It was shared with others; I always found pleasure in sharing. My sister Netta had made it her job to collect items for these parcels which she regularly packed and sewed up in linen and posted to me and my two brothers in France. It must have been a hardship for those at home as food was scarce but the parcels and the regular correspondence did much to keep me physically and mentally well, despite the hell around me.

Mid-July found me in a Canadian War Hospital, at Dunes Camier. I was wounded during a German counter attack. They opened out with every calibre of gun. It was abortive and short-lived. It was fine to wake up after my operation, to be between clean sheets again and to be served good food by charming nurses and to feel safe - or were we safe? Bombs dropped not far away each night. My wounds took a long time to heal and I became restless. So when a wire arrived from Captain Birch requesting me to rejoin my old battery I agreed, against medical advice.

From this time on I had increasing and debilitating symptoms of shell shock together with terrible head pains, later in life brief personality disorders and later still sudden blackouts lasting from a few minutes to many hours, followed by ignorance of what had happened. In 1986 my Doctor Morrison from Cupar X-rayed my head and to my astonishment revealed that the Dunes Camier Canadian doctors had repaired my damaged skull by screwing on a metal plate.

 

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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.