by D.D. Hall
After it was taken, the South Africans (and Rhodesians) in the group sat for another photograph - no less than 37 of the 78 officers in the battalion at that time.
One of the South Africans was 2/Lt Robert Elliott Stevenson. At the age of 20, he had left his home in Port Elizabeth, and had sailed to England in order to join the British Army. He was commissioned on 26th June 1916 and posted to 3rd/7th London Regiment, and then on 2nd November to one of 7th London's active service battalions, 2nd/7th London Regiment of 58th (London) Division.
Second Lieutenant Robert Elliott (Bob) Stevenson
Dr Stevenson had many interests other than medicine. He was a member of the SA War Graves Board for many years; he was National Vice-President and a foundation member of the Simon van der Stel Foundation; he served on the Board of the SA National War Museum (now SA National Museum of Military History); and much else besides.
In retirement, Dr Stevenson lived in Pietermaritzburg. He died in June 1984 at the age of 88 - but let us return to the young 2nd Lieutenant who, on 22nd December 1916, celebrated his 21st Birthday as he waited with his battalion for the order to move to France.
Fortunately for us, Bob Stevenson kept a diary throughout the time he served on the Western Front. It is a remarkable account of a subaltern's life. It illustrates the wide variety of activities and incidents that a young officer had to contend with. It tells of the horror of the trenches, and the squalor of the mud. It reveals something of the courage of those who fought under such terrible conditions.
There were moments of relaxation, too, and the diary shows how important those moments were. Every opportunity was taken to escape from the horror and 'to charge up the batteries of courage' by taking full advantage of every moment out of the trenches; and by enjoying every bit of entertainment and recreation available. The joy of a 'Blighty' leave is described, and we learn how important was the strength and support which came from the friendship and company of other young men with whom this life was shared.
Appropriately, the story starts on New Year's Day, 1917.
Monday 1 January - At dinner, message recalling all of 58th Division to their units.
But excitement was followed by anti-climax.
Tuesday 2 January - Arrived camp at 4 pm. Nothing much was stirring.
Then it was back to normal training again.
Wednesday 3 January - On range all morning. Sick of it. In afternoon went through gas chamber. Managed to get a brand new gas helmet and so had absolutely no effect on me. Wore a very old tunic and the buttons turned green. Also rather spoilt my nice new chamois waistcoat by making red marks all over it.
Thursday 4 January - CO inspected all companies in Overseas Order.
Friday 5 January - Brigade route march. Quite enjoyable. Went about 15 miles. Back at 2 pm. Left for Bath by car at 6,45. Arrived at about 8 pm and to a dance at the Assembly Room. Danced every dance. Jolly good time. Back in camp about 4 am.
Notice how the effort of a 15 mile route march was easily shrugged off by a fit young man.
Monday 8 January - Commenced another revolver course.
Friday 12 January - Battalion left camp at 7,30 and marched out with most of the rest of the infantry of the division on to the Downs. Frightfully muddy. On Downs, waited from 10,45 to 1,30 in bitterly cold wind during which the artillery gave three brief exhibitions of barrages of different kinds. Marched back, snowing like blazes.
This was a bad winter, and more bad weather waited for 2nd/7th London in France. But all this training was beginning to show results...
Thursday 18 January - Inspection of platoons in the huts by the Brigadier. He was particularly taken with my lot and said they were the best he had seen.
There was to be one more route march. By now, everyone knew that 58th Division was at last on its way to France.
Wednesday 24 January - Route march in full overseas order in morning. Several recruits fell out, but none from B Company. London Rifle Brigade left for overseas at about 7,30 am.
Then came the big day.
Friday 26 January - Platoon parade at 6,30 am. Pitch dark and very cold. No breakfast. Marched to Warminster and entrained at about 8,00. Shearman, Symonds, Mantle and I played vingt-et-un until reached docks at Southampton at about 12,00. Waited until past 4 o'clock and embarked on 'Mona's Queen' - Isle of Man paddle boat. Hastie* very officious and objectionable. Black cat - good sign. Sailed about 5,00 pm. Lovely and clear but heavy sea. Just began dinner in stuffy saloon and had to do a bolt on deck. Men lying everywhere. Seas breaking over decks. Men sick everywhere - too sick myself to worry.
That was bad enough - but first impressions of France were worse.
*Some names have been changed to protect reputations.
Saturday 27 January - Arrived Havre at about 4,00 am. Disembarked at once. Feeling very seedy and weak after having been sick so often. Marched to Sanvic Rest Camp. Pitch dark, no food. All up hill over cobbles and frozen. Frightful experience. Found a filthy estaminet for brekker. Lunch at club. Back to camp and had to remain in at Hastie's orders. Valises arrived and we had a fairly comfortable night tho' 10 in a tent (16 men in a tent). Cold was terrible. Four men of 6th Battalion frozen to death next night.
French troop trains were notorious.
Sunday 28 January - Left Havre. Entrained. Men crowded so tight with equipment that they could scarcely move. Eight of us in a 2nd Class carriage without windows. Travelled all day and night at snail's pace. At certain stations hot water available for tea, but always tremendous scramble. Dummy and I got a compartment together for the night but one window was broken and it was freezing hard. Only had a waterproof sheet in my pack and we nearly froze to death.
Monday 29 January - Arrived Auxi-le-Chateau about 4,00 pm. Started to march to billets, took wrong turning but fortunately it was discovered before we got very far. Another bad march about 8 miles over terrible frozen roads - pitch dark. Men stuck it like heroes.
There was to be much more marching in France than ever there was in England, but the men were fit, and they soon recovered.
Tuesday 30 January - Men looking a bit brighter. Cleaning up.
Junior officers had their responsibilities, and sometimes fared worse than the men.
Thursday 1 February - A route march. Quite enjoyable. About 3 pm told I had clicked to march a party to Ivergny. Men all tired - myself also after morning's march. Arrived at about 9 pm. Roads very bad. Reported at 173 Bde HQ and given a guide to show men their billets from Town Major. Guide lost himself and we marched through village for 2 hours. One man collapsed and had to be revived. Eventually got men to their billets and then found none provided for me. Back to Bde HQ and found Staff Captain up. Gave me a good meal and put me up for the night. No blankets. Used a window curtain - nearly froze.
The battalions of 58th Division now began to take their turn in the trenches, under instruction with experienced battalions.
Friday 2 February - Royal Fusiliers of 173 Bde went off up the line in lorries.
The four battalions of 173 Bde - 2nd/1st, 2nd/2nd, 2nd/3rd and 2nd/4th - were affiliated to the Royal Fusiliers. To the British soldier on the Western Front, 'going up the line' meant going into the trenches.
Monday 5 February - Marched to Beaurepaire. 5 and 6 Platoons very late on parade and made B Company late. Battalion late at rendezvous. Caught it in the neck. Roads in frightful state - frozen hard. Transport stuck and men arrived dead beat.
Now for the first glimpse of war.
Wednesday 7 February - Saw first Hun plane engaged by our Archies.
'Archies' were anti-aircraft guns. It was 2nd/7th's turn next for an introduction to trench warfare.
Thursday 8 February - Got into lorries about midday and after long wait, drove off. Had no idea where we were going. At about 3,00 pm debussed at a crossroads. All blankets taken from our packs and dumped. Hot meal from cookers. Discovered we were going up the line that night. Moved off as it was getting dark. Marched at platoon intervals to Berles. Long wait in streets. Eventually men dumped their packs and we got a guide from the battalion in the line - South Staffordshires. Up interminable communication trenches. Found we had come to stay in line with S Staffs for instruction. My platoon 60 strong. Dismay of platoon commander of platoon they were to be with. After struggle got all into some sort of shelter and duties arranged. Found Company dugout. Had a meal and went on duty - 2 hrs on and 4 off. Everything seems quiet.
Friday 9 February - Fine day, as was yesterday, trenches dry and frozen solid. No rations came up - no rum. Organisation of battalion quite broken down, probably fault of QM and Adjutant. Staffs relieved by their 5th Bn.
Saturday 10 February - New battalion of Staffs seem a better crowd - more capable than the last lot. Rations came up for us to-day - no rum. Warned to go on a course on sniping.
Sunday 11 February - About 9,00 am left line with Baldwin. Told to get to Auxi as well as I could by tomorrow at 8,00 am. No arrangements made for transport.
Baldwin was Stevenson's servant (or batman). The servant would normally go wherever his officer went. This gave him 'perks' such as this trip to Auxi-le-Chateau, and work, and often danger, looking after his officer in the front line. An officer did not have a servant because of laziness, but to relieve him of chores such as preparing his food, cleaning his equipment etc, so allowing him to devote his efforts to looking after his men in and out of the line - and commanding them efficiently in battle.
Transport was seldom provided to get an officer to and from his unit.
Monday 12 February - Arrived Auxi-le-Chateau 7,30 am. Found school and had a ripping breakfast.
Tuesday 13 February - School very interesting.
Wednesday 14 February - Realise that I have clicked for a 'bon' course and have a very 'bon' billet. The old lady gives me coffee and scones in the evening and sends up early morning coffee. I share a small room with McAdam of the 9th. Our servants have a room with beds as well, by the great kindness of Madame.
Friday 23 February - Won School Musketry competition by great fluke, probably.
Saturday 24 February - Exam in morning. Left by bus at about 2,00 pm to my great disgust. They might have allowed us to stay over until to-morrow, or even Monday. Only our bally division would do a thing like that.
Well! He was lucky to have gone on the course at all. Now back to the trenches.
Wednesday 28 February - Trenches near Ransart. Relieved London Rifle Brigade (LRB). Drew thigh gum boots at store near Bn HQ. Trenches very muddy. My platoon in reserve in dug-outs in rear face of a hill. They do carrying parties and I do usual turns of duty in the line. 3 hours on and 6 off. Pitch dark night and got lost for a couple of hours (4,00-6,00 am) behind our line. Had a 15 ft fall into the trench behind a dug-out. Got a very bad shaking up.
Friday 2 March - Took out fighting patrol with Sgt Marsh and 6 men. Out from 9,00-11,00 pm. During the day spent a short time in one of our OPs [observation posts]. Quite a good view of Ransart and Boche defences. Fairly heavy strafe of our part of line all afternoon. No casualties in B Coy. Much daisy clipping along our parapet by MG [machine gun] fire.
'Daisy clipping' means machine-gun fire sweeping along the parapet, designed to make the enemy keep his head down, and show who was master in that part of the line.
Sunday 4 March - Daylight relief by LRB. Complete by about 10,30 am. Just as we were settling down for the night, got a message from HQ that we are to go into the line near Berles again to-morrow. Made best of a bad job and slept like a log.
Monday 5 March - Marched up through Berles and relieved 2nd/6th in the line. Daylight relief completed by 3,00 pm. Good day out but we are short-handed for officers. Only two subalterns. Hastie won't take a turn on duty except between 10,00 am and midday so Symonds and I have to take alternate 3 hours shifts. Bit of a strain.
The Company commander - Hastie - was not popular, and did not take his share of the load. It was not obligatory for him to share watch-keeping duties, but most Company commanders did.
Tuesday 6 March - B Coy relieved by 2nd/5th in afternoon. Got platoons out safely but had 3 shells land right in the middle of us while we were taking off gum boots and returning them to store. Fortunately they were only lachrymatory gas and beyond our eyes, we were all right. Two men knocked over by explosion and one shell landed within 2 yds of my feet. Remained in billets in Berles. 'Quelle' [what] billets! We all live in cellars. Heavy shelling of Berles. 6 men laid out in B Coy but none in my platoon. Warned to go up line tomorrow attached to A Coy. Bad luck. Still I will get in a sound night's rest.
Wednesday 7 March - Trekked up line to A Coy HQ. Arrived in time for a cup of tea, and straight on duty. Found Green in command with Walker and Eksteen. As Green occasionally takes a tour of duty himself, and even the CSM, things mightn't be so bad. One man killed by rifle grenade. Artillery not active but 'beaucoup' [many] trench mortars in support line, and rifle grenades in front line. Had to get artillery to retaliate twice during night. Cold awful, but fortunately frost holds and there is no mud in front line.
Thursday 8 March - Still in line. Very nearly done in by rifle grenade at top of Nasty Lane. Fragments hit my tin hat, and Baldwin and I were both knocked over. Another man killed and one wounded. Some cases of trench foot developing. Difficult to get whale oil to rub feet. Thank heaven for the rum!
Although this was a quiet part of the front, men were still being killed. Trench foot was becoming a problem. Evil smelling whale oil had to be smeared on the feet, and, when coupled with thigh length waders, it was effective. Officers were liable to be punished if their men got trench feet.
Friday 9 March - Relieved in afternoon by D Coy. Terribly tired.
Saturday 10 March - Loafed all day - but not very enjoyable as Berles was being intermittently shelled, and very heavily in neighbourhood of the church. Fortunately our billet is at the other end of the village. However we got one shell slap in the middle of the courtyard. Miserable day - snow and sleet.
Battalions resting were often not far from the front line, as was 2nd/7th here. The danger was frequently as great as if they were in the trenches. Nevertheless an attempt was made to get back to normal routine.
Sunday 11 March - Battalion Orderly Officer. No particular duties except stamped all the censored officers mail and saw the guard mounted.
This had been the worst winter in France for 35 years. While that had been bad enough, the thaw, when it came, was worse.
Tuesday 13 March - Up the line again in the afternoon. Trenches too awful for words. Now the thaw is in earnest. Newark Alley is utterly impassable. At some points, mud and water are high above one's waist. I have a dug-out in support line, but go up to the line over the top at night. Hastie hasn't been up yet except to right sub-section where there are duckboards all the way.
Thursday 15 March - Mud, if possible, worse. Clothes are wet from waist downwards but jerkins keep me very warm otherwise.
Saturday 17 March - Relieved in morning by 2nd/8th. Boche retired from trenches opposite us and were followed up by 2nd/8th. Slept soundly but felt strain of being in line almost continuously for more than a fortnight. Even when out, we were always subject to heavy shelling.
The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line was now in progress. This was a very strong defensive position constructed many miles to the German rear. It was a shorter line that that held by the Germans before the withdrawal, so its occupation required fewer troops. But Bob Stevenson now had another problem.
Sunday 18 March - Woke up in morning and discovered I was covered with a rash all over my body. Got up and went to the MO who said I had German measles. I was taken off to hospital.
Sunday 25 March - Lots of RFC men in hospital. Not very keen to get out as apparently the Hun has been clipping it across our fellows in the air a bit lately.
This was the time of German superiority in the air - and worse was to come. April 1917 was to be known as Bloody April to the RFC.
Wednesday 28 March - Got discharge papers from hospital.
Then the problem of finding the unit again.
Thursday 29 March - Got up at about 9,00 am. Had omelette at cafe, and then tried to get a train to near Humbercamps where battalion is said to be. No trains running on that line at all. Jumped a lorry which took me and valise past Beaurepaire of evil memory for me - to aerodrome at Bellevue. Found a limber passing through Humbercamps - jammed on my valise and trudged it. By now about 4,00 pm (last meal in morning about 11,00). When nearly at Humbercamps, met one of our cookers. Cooks said battalion moved to Grouches, about 1 km from Doullens. Took valise from limber and trudged again. After 3 hours, got to Grouches. Reported at HQ. Found B Company billet. Had row with Hastie. Valise not yet turned up so was very cold.
Sunday 1 April - Hear result of course at Auxi - top of the whole bally lot!
Tuesday 3 April - Orderly Officer. Guard mounting at 9,00 am. Got up late and missed it. Strafe from Freeston, the Adjutant and also from Hastie. Snowing a lot. Platoon comfortable in a tubular hut with two braziers. Awful amount of smoke and thick atmosphere. Still, they keep warm and enjoy themselves.
'Working parties' were a major part of infantry life in France. They covered every possible type of work - repairing roads and railways, buildings and bridges, especially in the wake of the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line; carrying defence stores into the trenches; and even establishing wire defences out in front of the trenches. Some considered working parties were more dangerous than being in the trenches themselves. Perhaps the most unpleasant task was burying the dead.
Easter Sunday 8 April - Working party all day on Serre road. Scene of some of the hottest Somme fighting of last November. Hundreds of our dead still lying about, also a lot of derelict tanks.
Monday 9 April - Working party.
Tuesday 10 April - Working party again. This time burying dead and salvaging material on ridge above Beaumont Hamel.
Wednesday 11 April - Working party as usual. Usual job of burial and salvage. Had time to look all over Boche trenches round Beaumont Hamel. Most wonderful dug-outs.
Friday 13, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 April - More working parties, the last in pouring rain.
58th Division had now moved to V Corps and had become part of 5th Army. The Battle of Arras started on 9 April. At first, 58th Division was not involved. The Australians were heavily engaged at Bullecourt, and on 12 May, 173rd Brigade of 58th Division relieved 15th Australian Brigade and entered the line. On 15 May, the Germans put in a last major counter-attack to recapture their lost positions.
Tuesday 15 May - Marched to Mory and got into rather extraordinary old bivvies and shacks under the lea of a steep bank. Heavy fighting going on up the line all day.
Wednesday 16 May - Stood to all day in expectation of having to make a counter-attack on Bullecourt. Our division has just taken this sector of the line from 7th Division Regulars). The 5th Londons attacked and took the whole village with a few prisoners. Our casualties comparatively light. Hope we can hold the village - the 62nd and 7th Divisions have failed so far.
A major event for the officers and men of 2nd/7th London was the arrival of a new Commanding Officer. The 2nd Line Territorial battalions were not normally blessed with good COs and before long most had been replaced.
Thursday 17 May - Our new Colonel arrived this evening - at present he is only a Major. His name is French, Lincoln Regiment. Said to be a fire-eater.
Meanwhile the battle continued. 2nd/7th went in and out of the line.
Monday 21 May - 6th attacked Bovis Trench - Boche main line of defence on far side of Bullecourt. Two companies wiped out and total gain in prisoners and ground nil.
But what about the new Colonel!
Wednesday 23 May - Made first acquaintance of Colonel French. Got the wigging of my life! A good beginning! Mantle was killed in the line and Eksteen and Hastie wounded.
Thursday 24 May - The new Colonel is certainly making things hum. Avoid him like the plague!
Friday 25 May - Freeston told me I was to take on job of Battalion Intelligence Officer - on probation. Sorted out all Mantle's kit, maps etc.
Until now, Stevenson had been a Platoon commander. His new job of Intelligence Officer was to take him to Battalion HQ, and away from B Company. His predecessor had been Alexander Mantle.
Monday 28 May - Moved up to Ecoust. My scouts man an OP in a ruin. Not very safe, but excellent view over Bullecourt, Hendecourt and Riencourt. Collected some fine flowers in garden of acquired chateau but shelling was heavy at intervals, and eventually Phillips and I had to double like hares.
Tuesday 29 May - Feverishly preparing maps for CO and Company commanders all day. Moved up the line through Ecoust village up Bullecourt Avenue to Bullecourt. In moving up, had a narrow escape. Shelling heavy all the time. One crump 10 yds, man next to me laid out. I am in front line with advanced HQ.
Wednesday 30 May - In line. Had a general nose round the village. Weather warm. Shelling intense. Casualties fairly heavy. Dead lying around literally in thousands. Stench terrible. Useless burying as ground continually being churned up by shell fire.
Friday 1 June - Shelling perfectly awful. About tell direct hits on our dug-out putting out the lights every time. One OP blown to blazes. Fortunately I had withdrawn observers about an hour before.
Sunday 3 June - Usual strafing during day. Increased towards evening. Relieved by 6th Londons. Shelling frightfully heavy. Many casualties.
Monday 4 June - We moved back to our old camp at Mory. CO, Doctor and I walked back together, CO very fresh and walked at about 10 miles an hour. Could hardly keep up.
It was a relief to be out of the line for a few days.
Wednesday 6 June - Not doing any particularly strenuous work. Physical jerks before brekker is a nuisance. In early morning, a Hun plane flew very low over the camp, almost touched the tents. No bombs dropped.
Friday 8 June - Concert party of 7th Division gave a show in the open air near Div HQ. Absolutely ripping - did us all the world of good. The men appreciably cheered up.
But all too soon - back into the line. In on the 9th out on the 13th. There was now to be a major attack by 173rd Brigade just north of Bullecourt. The IO [intelligence officer] was kept busy reconnoitring routes and new positions.
Saturday l6 June - Wakened in small hours by noise of barrage for Fusiliers doing their stunt. Had to reconnoitre a route for battalion to move up to the line in case of emergency. Returned to St Leger about 2,00 am. Reported to Adjutant who told me to be ready again at 5,00 am. Had nothing to eat since lunch but life saved by YMCA in ruin where I got hot cocoa and biscuit. Turned in on floor. Wakened at 4,45.
Sunday 17June - Reconnoitred new positions taken by Fusiliers last night. Walked for hours. Found remnants of Fusiliers relieved by LRB. Very hot corner.
The Intelligence Officer had a responsible job. He reconnoitred routes as required, and positions which his battalion might have to occupy. He took charge of all maps. He observed enemy positions and movements, and recorded all this in a log. The battalion snipers were his responsibility, although some company commanders preferred to control their own snipers. He took his turn as Duty Officer in Battalion HQ. He was a busy man.
Tuesday 19 June - Relieved LRB in line. One of our companies went astray and I had to go and find it. Very frightened - so was my runner. Shelling with shrapnel very severe. Had some close shaves. Harvest, the subaltern from whom I took over, killed by a 'pineapple' (grenade).
Wednesday 20 June - Raining - communication trenches muddy and HQ a mass of sticky chalk.
Thursday 21 June - Up the line with CO. Halsey killed by a sniper. Front line quiet except for occasional pineapples but dare not show our heads as snipers very active. Adams shot one night in the middle of the forehead. Padre wounded by sniper.
Friday 22 June - Relieved by S Staffs (7th Div). We all went back to St Leger. In a stable with no roof, but I have a big ground sheet. Slept from the time I got in (about 2,00 am) until midday when the CO found me and kicked me out.
Luckily there was 'a better 'ole' to go to.
Saturday 23 June - Marched to Courcelles. A nice little place but completely in ruins, of course. However, we are all comfortable in little shacks, etc. The men have long tables set out in an orchard for meals. So long as the weather keeps fine, that is all right. Good sleep.
2nd/7th now had a tough CO ...
Sunday 24 June - CO unfolded his plan of training us while we are out of the line. We are going to have some rush. I can see. Physical jerks at 6,30 does not appeal to me.
... and his standards were very high.
Tuesday 26 June - Worked like blazes.
Thursday 28 June - Inspection of battalion by CO. Everybody strafed. 'A filthy lot of hooligans!' He will inspect us again to-morrow and Court Martial anyone who does not come up to scratch.
Friday 29 June - All went on inspection in fear and trembling. CO said we were 'a fine lot, as clean as any he has seen'. What a change from yesterday!
Saturday 30 June - Work! Work! Work! Getting a bit fed up.
Monday 2 July - Inspected by Brigadier. We apparently have become 'a dirty mob of hooligans' again.
It was all very confusing for a young officer.
Tuesday 3 July - Inspected by our General (Fanshawe). Apparently we are the finest regiment in the British Army.
2nd/7th now moved to a new area. There were some sharp engagements round a certain Boar Copse.
Monday 9 July - Battalion moved in and relieved the Leicesters. Bit of a shimozzle about relief of Boar Copse patrol. CO and I went to investigate and got caught in a terrific barrage which preceded a Boche raid. Quite a stiff show but they didn't get past our wire where they left 8 or 9 dead. We had 1 killed and 5 wounded by barrage. Quite a satisfactory show.
Thursday 12 July - Shot a sniper. A bit of strafing on C Company's front. Established a new OP in a good position.
Friday 13 July - Dicky Hunt and I nearly snuffed it, being caught in the open in support lines by machine gun. Ran for our lives. Weather fine and shelling slight.
Saturday 14 July - My fellows got another couple of Huns though I saw nothing of it myself. Lovely day. We have been going about the line in shirt sleeves all this time.
Notice how conditions are described - 'Weather fine and shelling slight', also how the remark about getting 'another couple of Huns' is followed by 'Lovely day'! Life was cheap on the Western Front!
The Divisional commander - Maj-Gen Fanshawe - came to visit, perhaps to see if 2nd/7th really was 'the finest regiment in the British Army'.
Tuesday l7 July - Fanshawe round the line, and very pleased with my three OPs and sniper posts. They are rather good.
Wednesday 18 July - Relieved by daylight by 6th Battalion. Got to billets in Metz by about 4,30. Fine billets for HQ - tents on lawn of ruined chateau.
Although they did not realise it, 2nd/7th was about to have its longest spell out of the line in 1917. Their first reaction was to enjoy being alive.
Thursday l9 July - Sent Dicky's servant over to Ytres to the canteen for groceries. We are living like fighting cocks.
Saturday 21 July - Just loafed. Rode over with Montagu to Casualty Clearing Station at Ytres to try and get invited to tea by the nurses, but my luck dead out. Nominally went to see a dentist!
Tuesday 24 July - Realise that I am tired of war. We are all asking each other when the blue light will go up.
Although the battalion was out of the line, there was still danger about in the form of working parties up the line.
Wednesday 25 July - Wiring party 400 yds in front of our line. 8th Battalion afforded us a covering party and we had a quieter time than might have been expected. Man next to me shot through neck by machine gun, and killed on spot.
Is it a quieter time when the man next to you is shot through the neck and killed?
Stevenson always refers to the other battalions as '6th', '8th' etc. Strictly speaking they are '2nd/6th', '2nd/8th'. 58th was the 2nd /1st London Division, and all its battalions were numbered 2nd/7th etc. When at the beginning of the war Territorial battalions received more volunteers than they required, further battalions were raised hence 2nd/7th, 3rd/7th etc.
Saturday 28 July - Marched to Bertincourt. Frightful heat to march in and dust very bad. Thought I should die. Heaps of men fell out. CO came and said a few nice things and said he was sending me on leave. Felt very bucked and Dicky, Shearman and I cracked a bottle to celebrate.
Dr Stevenson's recent comment about Colonel French was that he rather liked him. He had received 'a frightful wigging' when they first met, but everybody got one. The Colonel had licked the battalion into shape, even though the men thought he was 'an absolute basket'. He later contracted pneumonia and had to be invalided out of the Army.
A good picture has now emerged of the day-to-day life of a battalion in France. It was not all the drama and tragedy of the trenches. Behind the lines were working parties, a considerable amount of training, entertainment, rest and recreation.
Wednesday 1 August - Worked like a nigger. The CO has shot all the dud shots of the battalion on to my hands and told me to make marksmen of them. Hell's own row with Adjutant of 8th Battalion who had pinched part of our range. We won and the CO was very bucked. Offered me a drink. Dicky got the devil of a rowing for something which he swears was not his fault.
Thursday 2 August - CO has no mercy on unfortunate subalterns. My liking for him grows but most of the officers hate him.
Friday 3 August - Sick of musketry instruction already. Am kept very busy with my own section into the bargain. Interplatoon football competitions being arranged; and battalion competitions in Lewis gunnery, scouting etc etc. Scouting includes a mile race, swimming race, sketching, reporting and firing of a number of shots accurately.
Some of the Intelligence Officer's days were very long and difficult ...
Monday 6 August - 6,00 am started on a bally route march. Got home 9,30. Musketry blokes at 10,00 so had no time for breakfast. Missed lunch too, as was on range until 2,30. Had tea and biscuits and just when I had finished and it was beginning to rain, CO ordered me to go to Wailly (8 miles) to reconnoitre old Boche trenches (evacuated in his February retreat) and report on them as to their condition and fitness for the battalion to do practice stunt next day. Arrived Wailly about 5,00. Did the job in about an hour. Had to trust to luck a lot as it was raining and getting dark. Fell into umpteen craters. Difficulty in finding my pony again. Arrived home 8,30. Not a single meal all day, wet to skin and covered with mud, and cold. Mess orderly drunk and I had a devil of a job to get anything to eat. Finished writing out report about 1,00 am.
... but good work was appreciated!
Tuesday 7 August - CO very pleased at yesterday's report, and he told me I might stay in bed all day if I wanted to. Said he would hurry up my leave if possible.
Bob Stevenson was still a young officer and rebellious on occasion.
Sunday 12 August - Bunked church parade. Freeston (the Adjutant) threatened to report me, but he can go to the devil.
Monday 13 August - Freeston did report me. Hell's bells! Dicky and Shearman and Halley all on the carpet, but I don't think the CO was really fed up.
Tuesday 14 August - Am to go on leave next Tuesday. Cheerioh! Passed out some more of these congenital idiots who can't shoot.
Leave came after approximately 6 months for officers and 12 months for other ranks.
Before ... The 3rd Ypres battlefield on 17 August 1917. Note Poelcapelle and the bend in the tree-lined road near Mewuer House
Wednesday 22 August - Leave in Blighty. Kicked out of His Majesty's Theatre. Good start!
The show was 'Chu Chin Chow'. Recalling the incident, Dr Stevenson said that he went to the show with a friend - both stone, cold sober. They had a box adjoining the stage. Their crime: they tried to tie together the ankles of the chorus girls sitting or lying on the stage near their box.
The Manager said: 'Gentlemen, you had better leave!' They left.
Tuesday 28 August - Last day. Cheerioh!
Thursday 30 August - Jumped a lorry going up towards Ypres and after much search, discovered our transport lines. Some long range shells killed some Jocks nearby and formed a fine welcome for us to the famous Ypres Salient.
2nd/7th was about to be engaged in the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This lasted several months and ended with the Battles of Passchendaele, by which name 3rd Ypres is better known.
Friday 31 August - Reported for duty. Colonel had indigestion and not at all pleased to see me, apparently. Told me I should remain on battle nucleus at Houtkerque. There is to be a big stunt up here and I am to be out of it. Glory be to God!
Battalions going into a major attack normally left out of battle a small number of officers and men. In the event of heavy casualties, the battalion would be reformed around this nucleus. Stevenson was relieved to be out of what was to be known as the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, or so he thought ...
Saturday 8 September - Hell! Recalled to battalion. Report immediately.
Sunday 9 September - Caught a lorry and reported to bally battalion. They have been in the line for one day only since I was last with them, but have lost a number of casualties. I am recalled to take that blasted Murphy's place. His nerve has gone and he goes back to Houtkerque to my comfortable bed. Rotten luck. We are due to go over the bags (over the top) any day now according to Freeston.
Wednesday 12 September - Practising our show over tapes laid out to represent the lines. Apparently we have the 51st Division next to us. Good! The 55th Division on our right. Not so good!
Thursday 13 September - While whole battalion was in mass formation, a Hun bombing squadron with a protection of scout machines dropped bombs on us and a big ammunition dump next to us, in broad daylight. Never seen men so shaken. We had several casualties and there was the promise of a calamity if the ammunition dump caught alight. However some of us managed to get the burning boxes isolated. Felt very seedy when it was all over, and a hole burnt in my tunic. Frightened near to death by the whole show.
Friday 14 September - Got into trouble with the Jocks for pinching the tapes of their sham battlefield. Frightful wigging! Not my fault ... fault of the Sapper officer who told me to pinch them.
Tuesday 18 September - A note ordering me to report to Bde HQ at once. Arrived at 12,15 pm and was informed that I was attached to Brigade staff as from to-day. My duties are to act as Forward Observation Officer in the Bund (a concrete pill box) on the day of the attack.
Wednesday 19 September - Spent all day at observation post picking out landmarks etc. Got a lot of help from artillery observers.
Thursday 20 September - Stunt started. Zero hour - Hell's own barrage and MG fire made too much of a row to hear oneself speak. At first too dark to see but afterwards a grand view. Casualties appear not too heavy. A great thing to see prisoners doubling back. Poor devils - some very badly wounded and all scared stiff. Kept very busy sending in reports. My eyes ached fearfully and the wounded shouting all round was very demoralising. Poor Cpl Rollings lying at my feet. Couldn't do a thing to help him. In evening, just about done. Sent in last report and doubled up. The attack was a great success. All objectives taken to the minute. Casualties moderate and umpteen counter-attacks smashed.
Friday 21 September - Brigadier very pleased with my reports. Felt quite elated. A sausage balloon coming down in flames nearly did me in.
Stevenson rejoined his battalion, which then came out of the line.
This had been 58th Division's first participation in a major attack. Speaking of the division in his history, Conan Doyle said: 'Their advance was a brilliant one and attained its full objective ....... Nowhere in the line was the ground more sodden and more intersected with water jumps. It was a magnificent battle debut and their coolness under fire was particularly remarkable.'
Lt Col French left the battalion just before the Menin Road battle, his place being taken by Maj. S.L. Hosking. Maj. H. Salkeld Green was killed. He had received a favourable mention in Stevenson's diary for taking his share of routine duties in the trenches, back in March. Cpl Rollings died.
Tuesday 25 September - Rode over to La Lovis to see Jim Macintosh. It is top hole to see a real pal again.
Wednesday 26 September - Sick seven times during the night. What did those fellows in the Tanks give me to eat, I wonder? Strafed by that fool Freeston for getting up late.
But, on the whole, life was now sheer bliss.
Friday 28 September - Best billet I have struck in France, so far.
Sunday 30 September - This place is too priceless for words. Almost forget there is a war on at all.
Tuesday 2 October - Every morning before breakfast there is to be a subaltern's riding school. Should be rather decent. Payne, the low bounder, crept out of it by saying he had ridden a horse for years in South Africa. Liar! He is turning out just as I expected.
Wednesday 3 October - Mucked around and enjoyed life. Dicky and I managed to-day to talk round Madame of our billet and she is letting us use her best room as a Mess. The gramophone pleases the kids like blazes. Dicky hates them but they follow me all over the place and are a perfect curse.
Sunday 7 October - Went to Church with Madame and saw little Helene confirmed. She can't be older than 10. Maria was removed screaming. CO, Freeston and Doctor came and had dinner with us. Willis had excelled himself and the goose was top-hole. Freeston and the Doc removed paralytic and the CO very squiffy, and told anecdotes and sang songs until midnight. Got very tired and bored but our guests at any rate, had a good time.
Monday 8 October - Doctor in bed with an upset inside as a result of last night.
Tuesday 16 October - Parades are to be stiffened up again. We are apparently for the line again in about a week's time.
Preparations were under way for the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele. This part of Belgium was now a muddy, shell-holed morass. The drainage system had been completely destroyed. In all this shambles, a final attempt was to be made to capture the Passchendaele Ridge and break through to the open ground beyond.
Thursday 18 October - Marched section out on to the Downs and with aid of drummers, made a sham battlefield. Then acted as a barrage by waving bally flags in front of the advancing battalion. Tiring work.
Friday 19 October - Out on Downs again acting as barrage. Did a counter-attack on my own hook, but it was a hopeless wash-out and I felt frightfully ashamed. Sneaked off after that feeling bally awful. Feeling very sick at leaving to-morrow. Had a great romp with the kids before they were put to bed. Pity Madame doesn't make Maria wash more often.
Tuesday 23 October - CO showed me plans of a very complicated attack we are to take a leading part in next week. Cheerioh! In evening, Shearman and I went to see 'Anchor Follies' - a pierrot troupe of 63rd Naval Division. Jolly good. One of the best concert parties I have seen in France.
Thursday 25 October - Four company commanders, CO and I reconnoitred line. Heavy shelling at times and Berliner had the shock of his life. The CO and I had a very close shave on two occasions. This is a lovely bit of line to have to live with. We all foresee a hectic time ahead. Horrible stink. Some fellows done in by an aeroplane bomb during the night.
7th London Regiment history describes the route to the front line as being just a track winding along the crater lips, a track made ten times worse by the passage of hundreds of men so that progress was at a crawling place. Every now and then a man would stick helplessly in the mud and the nearest to him would grab his hand or equipment, or pass him a rifle butt and pull until he was free. Speed was essential, for while this work of extricating a man was going on, others were steadily sinking, and often on these occasions, several more would have to be pulled out.
Friday 26 October - Battalion left Canal Bank at 9,00 am and marched to Cane trench where we were to have spent the night. We met Harrison-Jones who told us that 173 Bde had been cut up and had lost some line and were in a precarious position. Ordered us to move up to front line immediately. Rushed off and found things pretty bad. Plenty of casualties. Murphy's nerve went completely and this will be a Court Martial case this time. A good thing, too. Shelling like blazes. Took Payne up for the first time and he didn't like it. Relieved 173 Bde, two companies in front and two in support. Mud awful. Had to change our line in the middle of the night. HQ Company caught at cross-roads by terrific shelling. Was only officer left and had a poor time. Extricated from position with difficulty.
After ... The 3rd Ypres battlefield on 27 October 1917. Poelcapelle now a sea of mud and craters, with the bend in the road at V20b57 in the distance
Sunday 28 October - Got man out with assistance of REs. After 48 hours, a wonder he was not dead. At 6,00 am, a report from front line by runner. Apparently our positions are all wrongly placed on map. Very serious on account of our artillery also being wrong, so woke Freeston and set out for line in Poelcappelle to try and clear up question. Quiet enough journey. Too many dead for comfort. Found Shannon had done most of the work already but gave him as much help as I could and verified his work. Ran the gauntlet back to HQ. Should have been killed umpteen times but got in safely. Others less lucky. CO very relieved at my report and has promised great things for Shannon and me, though it is Shannon's credit. Relieved by 6th Battalion. Bad trek back to billet at Kempton Park and was so done up that I collapsed and Phillips had to undress me and put me to bed. Remembered nothing more.
Phillips had taken over from Baldwin as Stevenson's servant.
Monday 29 October - Slept until about midday. Moved from Kempton Park to Canal Bank. Heard that Gregory was gassed and very bad. We are all slighty affected by it. Sore eyes and voice gone.
Nine days later the battalion was ordered back to the front line. Stevenson was not 100% fit.
Thursday 8 November - Feeling quite weak through having been sick all night. Needn't have gone up line but I know we are short-handed and the CO wouldn't think much of my determination if I stayed behind. Quite a quiet trip compared with last time.
Friday 9 November - In line. Cheerioh! Nothing like last time but no picnic. Watched 63 Div do a terrific stunt on our right. Not too successful, and I was very pleased to be out of it. Rained like blazes. Wet through ever since we have been here. Met a cousin of mine in the Artillery whom I had never seen or heard of before. Jack Elliott. He didn't know me but overheard Freeston call me 'a Port Elizabeth loafer'.
Saturday 10 November - Relieved by 2nd/6th. Very glad to see them. Still pelting with rain. Had to wade through water up to my neck. The company had to go hand in hand. Wet as we were, got into lorries and started singing. Sang continuously until the noise was drowned by our teeth rattling.
The last attacks had captured Passchendaele village and the ridge, but the hoped for break-through did not materialise. Mud had proved to be the victor. 2nd/7th moved out of the line again. Would it now be possible to relax?
'Mud in this sector awful'
Friday 16 November - Hard work. Took over billets from 18th Lancashire Fusiliers. Billets very scattered and not enough accommodation. Had to be worrying the old Town Major continually.
Saturday 17 November - Battalion arrived about 2,30 pm. All safely in billets and most satisfied. A Company officers grouse because they have only one bed. That is for Halley Jones and the rest can go to blazes. The Billeting Officer can't work miracles.
Monday 19 November - Entertained the bally old Town Major to dinner. He told the Colonel that I was 'a persistent youth' and asked to borrow me for a job tomorrow.
Tuesday 20 November - Did a job for the Town Major. Some job! It took me nearly 12 hours to reconnoitre and survey the ground alone, and another 5 to prepare maps and a report. All I got was the offer of a whisky and soda from the old blighter.
For the next few weeks, life was a combination of recreation, moves and training.
Wednesday 21 November - Bioscope with Padre, Doctor, Hare and Hooker in evening. Saw Charlie Chaplin and nearly died with laughing.
Thursday 22 November - Mucking about and pretending to be very busy. There are very rarely air raids here, thank Heaven.
Friday 23 November - Had a riotous evening with Walker and Jackson. The CO is most amiable these days. Dicky Hunt is back and taken over charge of company, but the CO is very fed up with him and is chucking him out of his job as Signals Officer and putting Payne in his place. A disgusting shame!
Friday 30 November - Rode over to Desvres with Dicky. Bought a goose and a lot of butter and wine. Came home laden. Rest of the Mess delighted with us. A very cheery dinner that night. Shannon got the MC gazetted to-day. CO said 'Better luck next time' to me.
Wednesday 5 December - Left at 3,45 and came to Welsh Farm near Elverdinghe. Found I had clicked for a job of Area Commandant of a long section of Canal Bank. This is really a permanent job but doubt whether the CO will allow me to keep it. He will exchange me for one of our hopeless duds.
Saturday 8 December - Justified my existence by making a huge fire in a dug-out and making soup which I distributed to a battalion coming out of the line. The Adjutant came and thanked me and said he would get his Colonel to write to our Colonel about it. Unexpected Kudos. Cheerioh! Phillips got squiffy.
Sunday 9 December - Went fishing in Canal with bombs. Awful looking fish but great sport.
Monday 10 December - CO came and told me Knox was coming to relieve me as soon as they could get sanction from Corps HQ. Rather a pity.
Tuesday 11 December - Made a yacht out of petrol tins, duckboard, a tent pole and waterproof sheeting. Fell in twice.
Disappointed at having to leave this 'cushy'job, Stevenson was determined not to leave empty handed.
Friday 14 December - Handed over to Knox and rejoined the battalion which is at Kempton Park. Pinched a lot of Canal Bank stores hessian, waterproofs, blankets, wire beds, paint etc - anything worth having, and carted it away in a limber.
Saturday 15 December - Knox rang up about the missing stuff. We knew nothing about it!
The Americans were now in the war.
Thursday 20 December - A young American subaltern - Walsh - attached to us to learn. Intelligence work to be done out of the line as we are now. Showed him my telescopes, compasses, and telescopic sighted rifles etc.
Friday 21 December - My section did a stunt rather decently to show the Yank what was what. I took him up to our front line to show him what crumps and machine gun bullets were like.
A whole year had passed...
Saturday 22 December - My birthday. CO gave me a dummy. Silly old fool. Freeston a rattle. The Yank left us. Haggis for dinner and the Doctor got sick.
... and it was Christmas again.
Christmas Day - Xmas service in a hut. There was a smoky brazier which made us all weep copiously. Working parties as usual and nothing to show it was Xmas except that the men of the transport were blotto when they brought up the rations. CO and Freeston also blotto. Also Padre and Doctor. Everyone not on duty, in fact.
Wednesday 26 December - The fellows who were on duty yesterday got blotto.
The war carried on, and these final extracts from the diary reveal the effect it was having on Bob Stevenson - and no doubt, on all the other young men on the Western Front.
Thursday 27 December - Though we are not in the line, the strain of this place is telling on everyone. I shall be frightfully pleased either to move forward into the line, but more so of course, if we move back away from it.
Always having casualties from air raids and shells, and we are living amongst our guns, which kick up a terrific din.
Friday 28 December - Rumours of a big Hun push. We all pray that he will wait until we are far from the line.
Bob Stevenson was promoted Lieutenant on 28th December 1917. His good work during the year was rewarded with a Mention in Despatches on 30th December. He served on with his battalion until April 1918 when he was gassed.
His Commanding Officer, Lt-Col Hosking, said of him: 'This officer was employed as Battalion Intelligence Officer from July 1917 to April 1918, when he became a casualty. He performed these duties with keenness and ability, and was, further, a good instructor both in his own department and in musketry generally.'
Bob Stevenson should have the last word. In his diary is this plaintive verse, which aptly sums up life in the trenches:
Little stacks of sandbags
Little lumps of clay
Make our ruddy trenches
In which we work and play
Merry little whizzbang
Funny little crump
Makes our trench a picture
Wiggle woggle wump.
The author is indebted to the late Dr R.E. Stevenson who was interviewed at length concerning his experiences in World War I, and who agreed to the publication of extracts from his 1917 diary.
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