World War I


[By way of contrast with the diary which was kept in Gallipoli by an Australian soldier, and is given on page 180, and as an admirable companion to that work, there is this diary of a young officer, kept by him while serving on the Western Front. The diary is of the small, leather-bound pocket variety, and it was kept by means of the little pocket-pencil accompanying it, in small, yet clear and coherent writing, despite shell fire, bombs and other warlike elements. The extracts are made exactly as they were entered from day to day, and they form a deeply interesting record of what is “the daily round, the common task” of a very large number of junior officers who have undergone precisely the same experiences with unfailing cheerfulness and courage. The writer after serving in an Officers' Training Corps, was posted to a Service battalion of a famous old Line regiment.]

Dec. 13th, 1915.

Marched to ——, seven miles. Water in places up to the knees. No billets for B Co. on arrival.

Dec. 14th.

Marched to ——, three miles.

Dec. 15th.

Marched up to trenches, ——, eight miles. Awful condition. Big craters in front, and three saps in our line.

Dec. 16th.

Narrowest escape of self yet recorded. Shell burst in trench and killed man one and a half yards away and blew your humble into the mud, together with another C.O. and others. Two other men wounded. Felt a bit shaky for some time.

Dec. 17th.

Relieved for forty-eight hours and marched to ——, four miles. Good billets. Delicious shave and wash, and two glorious nights in my valise.

Dec. 18th.

Pass into ——, to see H.[3] No luck—on leave. He returned ten minutes after I left for ——.

[3] H. is the writer's elder brother, a motor dispatch-rider, who has been at the front since the war began, and has done some fine, hard work.

Dec. 19th.

H. ran over to see me, and we had two full hours' “jawing,” and café au lait. Left for same trenches at 12.30. Had a warm reception with artillery, and owing to some “show” in the vicinity had to stand-to for hours. Raining hard and mud knee-deep—miserable, and thought and thought of the happy home, and wondered and wondered! Went out on patrol with one man at five next morning, but had to return post-haste, as three of the enemy were on similar job and washed our intentions out.

Dec. 20th.

Shelling all day, both sides. Few men hit.

Dec. 21st.

At stand-to, 6 a.m. Much shelling. Very uncomfortable. At 7.30 an enemy mine went up—a fearsome thing. The sensations were these—

I. A horrible rocking of the trench.

II. A tremendous dull roar.

III. A huge column of earth rising higher and higher into the sky.

Then came the falling matter, we lying in the bottom of the trench, while everything imaginable fell around—earth—huge clods—sandbags and timber. One big piece of wood landed with a thud a foot from my head and spattered me with mud. Escape No. 2 since I joined. Fortunately the mine was lifted just beyond our saps, and presumably in the same place as the crater. No one was seriously hurt—only two slightly knocked about. Of course an attack was expected, but none came, and we stood-to till 8.30. Had an awful time from mine explosion till we were relieved at 2.30 p.m. Marvellous how we all escaped. I thought my number was up every minute, and my nerves were not of the best and I was feeling a bit rocky. While relief was being carried on we had an awful time: all kinds of shells, big and small, landing everywhere. Very fortunate to get out with no casualties. Incoming regiment had a few. At 11.15 p.m. I returned to trenches in order to go out again on patrol. Was out for thirty minutes, took survey and returned safely, covered with mud and pretty wet. Returned to —— Farm, where my platoon is billeted. It is a small fortress, built up with sandbags from a big ruined brewery. Last night while asleep, about 3.30 a.m., a big shell burst just outside my cellar door, and again I thought my number was up. Earth, etc., was shot into my abode, and the doorway blocked up, not to mention bricks; but I was left intact.

[To face p. 218.


Dec. 22nd.

Shelling this ruined village —— all the morning, and the trips to the men at meal-times were very risky, the latter being in another keep 150 yards up the road. One had to dash for it every time. Shelling remained hot, so had to remain at the mess till after tea, 4.30 p.m.

Gas attack from our trenches at 9 p.m. Quiet for ten minutes, then fearful shindy. Stood-to in our redoubt, but had to get to cellars when shelling started—and such shelling: the worst I've ever experienced. They came in dozens. Then we began, and the noise was hellish. They fell all around us and some hit the shattered walls, making a hail of bricks.

I felt a peculiar tightening round the heart when one of the big variety buried itself under the cellar wall I was in and failed to go off. It fairly seemed to lift the floor, and the sickening thud was as bad as the fearful racking explosions. It was nothing short of miraculous that our cellar got off scot-free.

All this time we could see through our loop-hole the explosions of the shells on the trenches, 300 yards to the front, and by their light and the light of the German searchlights and fires we could see the huge clouds of gas on their death-dealing errand.

The Germans put huge fires on their parapets to lift the gas over their heads.

It was an unforgettable scene, with their and our own star-lights making night into day. It was indescribable pandemonium.

The shelling died down after a couple of hours, and we stood down and tried to sleep; but it started again at 12.45 a.m. for an hour, and again at 4.45 a.m.; and this practically meant stand-to all night.

One of the worst nights I've spent out here—in fact, the worst.

About 2 a.m. I got word that ——, one of our B Co. officers, was killed while waiting to go out on patrol to ascertain the effects of gas on enemy. He was a fine chap, and most popular, and even now it is difficult to believe he is really gone. Another lucky escape for us (B Co.) that we were not occupying the trenches. They were blown out of all recognition and the casualties were awful, the lines being strewn with dead and wounded and buried men.

The trench occupied the previous night by my platoon is absolutely gone, and only six men are left in the platoon holding it at the time of the “show.”

Dec. 23rd.

Shelling continued all the morning—most uncomfortable, and we had many narrow escapes, walls round us being blown to h—; but still our cellar got off. We were relieved at 12.30, and, things being quieter, we got off down the road at top speed.

What joy to see actually motor buses waiting for us three miles back, which took us by way of —— to ——, a small village where our few days' rest and incidentally Christmas, will be spent. The change will be much appreciated by yours truly. I have just had my first wash and shave for four days, and feel cleaner than ever before in my life; and in a clean change and new suit I wouldn't call the King my aunt!

A delicious surprise was the sight of H. on the road, waiting for me as our convoy of buses neared ——. We had a good chat, and I hope to see him to-morrow again.

Dec. 24th.

Morning with platoon, cleaning up, etc. Afternoon obtained pass to go and see H. Had a glorious Christmas Eve, far beyond expectations. Good tea, theatre, dinner, and two hours' solo. Fine evening. Came back on the carrier at 10.30.

Dec. 25th.

Christmas Day in France.

Up at 6.30 and marched bathing party into ——. Left them and looked up H. In bed; got him up and had breakfast with him and a walk round, and marched my party back here —— by 10.30. Wrote two letters and found five waiting for me—long-delayed ones. This was a fine Christmas gift.

11 a.m. Went over to men's sports till 12.30 lunch. Helped to pay out from 2.30 p.m. till four. Tea and chat till dinner; chicken and plum pudding. Very good. Talked till 10.30 and then to bed. Very quiet evening, during which my thoughts were for the most part with the dear old folks at home....


Dec. 26th.

Quiet day. Morning, church parade and men cleaned up. Afternoon, other officers out, so I was O.C. for the time being. Spent two hours censoring eighty letters! Quiet evening. Dinner and chat; bed 10 p.m.

Heavy bombardment going on in distance.

Dec. 27th.

Morning, getting ready to move.

Moved at 2 p.m. Raining.

Got into trenches at 4.30 p.m. In reserve, 1500 yards from enemy—and a nice change for B Co.

At night I went on patrol with a man to find a way across country to A Co., who were holding a line to our right front. Awful going, but got there. Came back by road through —— village and Danger Corner. Out two and a half hours.

Slept as well as I could on a narrow board till 7.30 next morning.

Dec. 28th.

Quiet day. Went out at night with C.O. Got lost, and were out three hours. Good joke.

Dec. 29th.

Quiet day. Went out in the morning on voyage of discovery round old trenches. Went in to the left shoulder in mud and water. Another good joke!

Dec. 30th.

Quiet day. A few shells on the right; but we were left alone. At 5 p.m. I went out with a party of seventy, carrying all kinds of things to the front line. Out till 8 p.m. Quiet night.

Dec. 31st.

A wet day. The road behind was shelled heavily all day, but fortunately it was quiet while we were being relieved after dusk. Had the real Bank Holiday feeling on getting to reserve line billets two miles away, and enjoyed a splendid night in my valise. Had one drop of whisky at 9.30 p.m. to drink the health of the New Year; but sleep was by far the most important thing, so to bed at 10 p.m., to dream of home and the dear old past.

Woke during the night to hear the guns in the back garden booming in the New Year, and shaking and rattling walls and windows. Dreams shattered!

Jan. 1st, 1916.

What luck for the New Year?

How fervent is the hope for a glimpse of the end  before many of the new months have gone.

In the morning looked round the men and inspected several things, followed by a little revolver practice. Had a sleep, or tried to, after lunch; but attempt was futile, owing to thoughts.

Went out with party of fifty at 5 p.m. to the trenches, repairing roads, filling up shell-holes, etc. Returned at 9 p.m., and to bed.

Sunday, Jan. 2nd.

Church parade in top floor of rickety old barn at 11 a.m., followed by an impromptu Communion Service, during which my thoughts wandered.... These services always touch me more than anything else I know of, and unbidden thoughts rise and fill me with longings and yearnings that are inclined to be unpatriotic, as well as bringing the familiar lump to the throat which every one experiences out here at times, and a queer feeling round the heart.

Afternoon, went to —— in company with other officers in motor lorry, to attend lecture on telescopic sights and sniping. Returned at 6 p.m., and joyfully found I had just missed a working party to the trenches.

Tucked myself in my valise at 9.30.

Jan. 3rd.

Platoons cleaning up. Inspected rifles, etc. Had my first lesson in riding. Felt rather insecure at first, but found the “bump” after an uncomfortable 100 yards jogging about, to the great delight and amusement of my men; at which I joined in. Had a small gallop before finish, and stuck on.

Afternoon, writing letters and reading, and out with working party to the trenches at 4.30 p.m., mending shell-holes in roads, etc. Returned at 9 p.m., and to bed.

Jan. 4th.

Relieved and went to —— for a four days' rest, at 11.30 a.m. Spent afternoon in reconnoitring old trenches in neighbourhood, to see necessary repairs required, stores, etc. Quiet evening. Splendid billet—bedroom to myself, feather bed and sheets, wash-stand; very lucky for once. First bed since leaving Boseghem four weeks ago. Good mess-room, fire and two arm-chairs. House kept by two middle-aged women, very kind, do anything; also little niece, aged eight, who speaks English well. She and I are good friends.

Jan. 5th.

Out with working party to repair trenches from 9.30 a.m. till 1.30 p.m. Lunch and letter-writing. Went up to —— later to execute several shopping commissions. Had splendid crop first since —— after patiently waiting one hour. Oh! these French hairdressers! One snip of the scissors every five minutes; one requires the patience of Job.

Went to pictures; pretty fair; and had dinner at the Lion d'Or. It seemed very quiet and deserted compared to my last visit, when the M.C.s were there. Back at 9 p.m., and to bed between the sheets.

Jan. 6th.

Out with working party, as per yesterday, from 10 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. Lunch 2 p.m. Inspection of B Co. by C.O. Me in command of company! Two-thirty, paid out to the men. Awful long job.

Jan. 7th.

Morning, 10 a.m. to 1.30 p.m., out with working party. H. called for few minutes, 2 p.m. Lecture on arms and care of rifles, etc., 4 p.m. Met H. at Lion d'Or in B. at 4.45 (splendid being able to do this). Tea, long chat and theatre at six o'clock. Panto.,Alladin. Really tip-top, although men were disguised as girls. Plenty of fun and laughter. Sent in an application to-day for post as observer in R.F.C. Have great hopes. Life consists mainly of latter nowadays.

Jan. 8th.

Working party repairing trenches 9.30 to 1.30. Lovely morning. Two p.m., lecture in field on use of rifle—old as the hills (lecture); but I suppose they must work on the motto, “Anything to keep the time employed.”

Sunday, Jan. 9th.

Marched to trenches (same place as Dec. 15). Beautiful day and everything quiet—not a day for war at all. On nearing the line the noise of guns and bursting shells broke on our ears, increasing in sound as we drew nearer, until we got as per usual in amongst them.

Had to go in single file at intervals up the infernal road. No one hit.

Got in the same old corner, and found to our relief the trenches had been built up again passably well after the bombardment of the night of Dec. 22.

Jan. 10th and 11th.

Contrary to expectations had two quiet days—of course, the usual few shells, but no great quantity. My platoon occupied the trench on left of company, instead of, as last time, close up on the right, 1000 yards from enemy.

Relieved at 8 p.m. on 11th, and we came back to the old keep (—— Farm). Everything very quiet all night, and enjoyed a good sleep on a stretcher in one of the cellars, despite the attentions of rats in plenty.

Jan. 12th.

Quiet walk up to Headquarters for breakfast and back. Enemy began shelling roadway close by, and everything else within reach, at 11.20; still going on at time of writing, 12.45. When shall I be able to go up for lunch?

Got there intact.

Jan. 13th.

Quiet day. Went back to front line at 7 p.m. for a further forty-eight hours. Quiet night.

Jan. 14th.

Found in the morning that in addition to the usual bombs, grenades and shells we had a trench mortar opposite us, which kept lobbing big black objects over all day, burying men and knocking our trenches to pieces. There was not much else they could use on us now; but we gave them back two for every one we received, and at 2 p.m. we commenced a big “strafe” with rifle-grenades, bombs and mortars. It was good to see them bursting, and altogether we expended over 800 (!) in an hour.

We got all manner of things back, from a bullet to a 6-inch. The latter were falling 100 yards from the rear of our breastworks, and we could actually see them falling the last fifty feet or so.

All quiet by 4 p.m. Quiet night—far different to our expectations.

Jan. 15th.

Each side shelling all day unceasingly, with the usual quota of bombs. We were relieved at 7.30 p.m., and came back in safety to ——, after six more days of LIFE?

Very weary, and thankful for quiet and my valise.

Sunday, Jan. 16th.

Marched to a small village—seven miles, and found we had comfortable billets, and a mattress for the writer. Moving again to ——, nine miles from here, to-morrow. HURRAH! We are (or should be) “out” for sixteen days.

Jan. 17th.

Marched to —— on the famous cobble-stones of France the whole way. Poor feet! On arriving was delighted to find I had a cosy room with feather bed and a good mess 200 yards down the road. Spent the evening trying to get level with correspondence. Hope we shall stay here all the time. Shall spend most of my spare moments writing—one of my chief pleasures when out, especially now I've got a respectable pen!

Jan. 18th.

Slack day. Enjoyed the luxury of a “mess” and a fire. Spent a lot of time writing.

Jan. 19th.

My second birthday in the Army....

To-day's events, musketry and rifle drill, and shooting on a temporary range in afternoon. Lovely day—like spring.

Jan. 20th to 28th.

Detailed for course of bombing instruction; and between these dates I learn much concerning these nefarious love-tokens.

Jan. 28th to Feb. 14th.

Our period of “Rest.” (Time spent out of the trenches is so miscalled in the Army!) It was extended for reasons known only to those in lofty positions, and we spent the time in performing all the evolutions of an infantry battalion in training, drill, manœuvres, etc. Of course, all this is very necessary after the sometimes enforced inactivity of the trenches, and helps to pull out the kinks; but it gets rather monotonous, and when we heard that we were off to the line again every one was glad.

Feb. 15th.

Said good-bye to our friends of the village and headed once more for the Land of Thrills. It took us three days, doing it in easy stages.

Feb. 18th.

Found ourselves in cellars in a much-ruined village just behind the line, viz. ——. There were exciting events last night, before our arrival, a few enemy mines having gone “up,” and as soon as we arrived we had to begin fatiguing, connecting up the craters with the front line.

(At this point the diary abruptly finishes; but the writer was kept busy from day to day in the routine manner, doing his turn in each line, with the usual “hate” progressing, but nothing of great importance happening. Long exposure to the severe weather sent him into hospital, thence home, invalided. The very day after he reported “nothing of great importance happening” many of his comrades fell in a gallant and desperate assault on the Hohenzollern Redoubt.)