by Russell Barratt
After two months at Potchefstroom, my father, Creighton and many more were shipped to England in the hold of the Durham Castle. There followed three pleasant months of what seems, from my father's later accounts, to have been leisurely and irrelevant training at Bordon in Hampshire. At the end of June 1916, they received their orders for France.
To make good the horrifying losses suffered by the South Africans at Delville Wood, drafts totalling 40 officers and 2 826 other ranks were sent to France from Bordon during July 1916. Among these hapless men, inadequately trained and ignorant of what lay ahead of them, were Creighton and my father.
From their camp at Rouen, they entrained, making the acquaintance for the first time of the trucks labelled quarante hommes, huit chevaux. In due course they left the train and began to march, the sound of firing getting nearer. My father later recalled his shock - so unprepared were he and his fellows - at finding, as darkness fell, that they had no shelter for the night: no bed, no hut, no tent, no protection from wind and rain and mud. They spent that first night near the already ruined village of Bray-sur-Somme, at a spot euphemistically called 'The Happy Valley'. My father did not sleep: the noise of the guns was constant, and the light from the German flares made night almost day. Next morning, the forlorn, haggard remnants from Delville Wood arrived.
The South African Brigade had been in France, after its Egyptian campaign, since the previous April. It had replaced one of the three Scottish brigades that had made up the 9th Division: due to the very heavy casualties among the Scottish regiments in the previous year, the supply of available Scots was for the time being running out, and one brigade had had to be disbanded. The Scots, in their clannish way, had at first been rather upset at being joined by the South Africans, though everyone agreed that the new brigade presented a most impressive appearance, and that its standard of discipline was very high. Like so many other fine units, the four South African battalions that comprised the Brigade were destined to be more or less destroyed twice over on the Somme.
The 9th Division was not involved in the disasters of the first day of the Somme battle, but on 14 July the two Scottish brigades attacked the village of Longueval, and on the following day the South African Brigade was launched at Delville Wood. The wood abutted on the village, and together they formed an important wedge of high ground. Hence the order to the South Africans to take and hold the Wood 'at all costs', and the desperate efforts of the Germans to regain it.
The story of Delville Wood has often been told, for it has an epic quality. The South Africans took virtually all the wood without too much difficulty, but holding it proved another matter. German counter-attacks and shelling were ferocious and incessant. On 18 July, the shelling reached heights of extraordinary fury: often 400 shells a minute would fall on an area roughly 1 000 yards by 1 200. The South Africans repulsed with rifle and bayonet the heavy German attacks that followed. Finally, on the evening of 20 July, six days and five nights after their first advance, the last of the South Africans, 2 officers (both wounded) and 140 men, came Out of the wood. When all the scattered remnants were gathered together, it was found that the Brigade had lost three quarters of its strength, while of those who had actually entered the wood, 90 per cent became casualties.
The survivors from Delville Wood now joined the newcomers, including Creighton and my father, in 'Happy Valley'. There was one officer only of the 2nd Regiment, Garnet Green, who had been appointed on the field of battle, my father said, and was himself killed later. But my father was glad to see several of the men he knew, including two colleagues from the Justice Department called Walton and Cumming.
The South African Brigade was then withdrawn from the battle area for a sorely-needed reorganisation. Everyone was crowded into cattle-trucks, which set off for an unknown destination. Many hours were spent with the train stationary, and only a few with it in motion. Close proximity to the Delville Wood heroes had one immediate consequence for my father. He picked up their lice. While many men spent much of their leisure time hunting lice in the seams of their trousers and may thus have achieved partial and temporary relief, my father regarded such a result as incommensurate with the time and effort involved, and contented himself with applying Harrison's Pomade and Keating's Powder, sent to him by relatives in England. In this way the vermin were somewhat lulled. Hot baths and fumigation of clothing also brought some relief. This was apt to involve standing around naked in chilly breezes after the bath while clothing was fumigated. Nothing in the way of illness occurred as a result, but there was an awkward occasion when some French girls appeared and unconcernedly began to try to sell chocolate to the unclad troops. Either they were poor saleswomen or they had some other purpose in mind, for they could plainly see that none of the men carried any money.
In due course the 2nd Regiment, with my father in C Company, arrived at the village of Estré-Cauchy, north west of Arras. Inevitably the troops called it Extra Cushy. Certainly they found it comparatively restful. My father described the weeks his battalion spent there as a time of resting, doing a bit of training, eating French bread, wandering through the cornfields, spending evenings in estaminets and quarrelling over pickled onions. A bottle of pickled onions was a rarity, and highly prized. It formed an occasional item of the rations, and, being small, was allotted to platoons in turn. But there was always a dispute as to which platoon's turn it was, and, within the platoon, which section's. My father saw more quarrels and fights over pickled onions than over anything else capable of causing dispute in the ranks.
At Extra Cushy, too, for the first and last time in France my father slept in comfort. The weather was fine, and the nights were warm, so that, rather than sleep among the rats and other vermin in the derelict barn that had been allotted, my father made himself a mattress out of some straw and a couple of spare sandbags, and slept peacefully under a tree.
Relations with such local inhabitants as still clung to what remained of their homes were good, though my father was involved in one unfortunate incident. He had gone with several of his friends to an estaminet. They ordered the favourite dish of 'oeuf chips' and coffee, which was served on trestle boards outside. One of the party ventured to draw Madame's attention to certain dirty marks on his coffee cup. She looked back, took the cup, and went indoors. Presently the door opened and out came her husband, no doubt an invalid from the front. He was pale with anger, and brandished a rifle and fixed bayonet in a manner that greatly alarmed my father and his friends. With his left hand he seized the table cloth and pulled it, spilling crockery, 'oeuf chips', coffee and all onto the cobbles. Toujours le même, les Anglais, he shouted, and added words to the effect that didn't they know there was a war on. Abashed by this display of Gallic emotion, my father and his friends silently withdrew.
Grandees appeared to inspect the Brigade - on 5 August, the Army Commander, Sir Charles Monro, and on 11 August, King George V himself. My father particularly recalled the latter occasion. The battalion was packed off to Divisional Headquarters; there the men waited in the hot sun, full equipment on their backs, for what seemed an interminable time. At length the King appeared and passed along the lines, stopping now and then to speak to some soldier whose ribbons caught his eye. My father was in the rear rank, and by a stroke of good fortune the King stopped immediately in front of him to speak to a ribbon-laden veteran. 'And how long have you been in the Army?' the King enquired pleasantly. To my father's delight, the brisk reply came, 'Never was in the Army, sir'. At this the King looked for a moment completely nonplussed, until the Colonel, who was following him round, hurried forward to explain that the ribbons the veteran was wearing were for various Native Wars in South Africa, and that the veteran meant that he had never served in the regular Army. In later years my father greatly enjoyed telling this story, and describing the royal confusion that arose.
By the middle of August the 9th Division was reckoned to be in a condition to go back into the line. There survives from this period of my father's life a small black notebook, four inches by two and a half. It contains jottings of one sort or another - addresses, lists of people to be written to, the times of trains, and so forth. There is a page headed 'Trench fighting', presumably summarising some talk my father had listened to on the subject. The talk does not seem to have been particularly informative. There are several pages, dating from his time as regimental blanket guard at Arras in the winter of 1916-17, which record blankets issued, handed in, lost, or in one case 'pinched from 3rd Regt'. Apart from all these odds and ends, the notebook contains, written in pencil, in a tiny hand, intermittently, and at times almost indecipherably, a diary covering the period from August 1916, to March 1917, when my father left France.
Here are the first entries:
'August 17. Leave "Extra Cushy". Things left behind as not know whether return or not and wish to make pack light. Night march to communications trenches. Seas of slime and mud. Fall down communication trench, miles of boarding. Reach dugouts. Packed 30 or 40 feet down. Perpetual night. Slept till about 10 am. Night working party. More miles of boards in single file. Then carry heavy girders from dumps about a mile. Trench twists and turns and great job to get round corners and make way for other parties. Navvies' work with a vengeance. Shots pass overhead. Return and make second trip - much relief only sacks. Get back 2 am. (left 8 p.m.) quite worn out. Meanwhile had changed dugout to one equally deep and dark and damp but only 7 of us so much more room. Make fire in dugout: smoke like kaffir kraal. Boil water and make cocoa and tea. Steel helmets. Awkward carrying loads with rifle and equipment also. German shells dropping fairly near our dugout. Quite nice in trench when fine.
August 22. Above programme has been carried out for 5 days. We now go forth at night, fully loaded up. Pack seems specially heavy. After very trying march arrive at quarters. Very decent barrack room, but uncomfortable wire bed.'
The 9th Division had taken over trenches at Vimy Ridge, the scene of ghastly fighting in the early summer of 1915. The Germans held the crest of the ridge - it was finally taken by the Canadians in April 1917 - their lines running north and south, while the 9th Division's front lay along the western slope. The South African Brigade first went into the line on 23 August, the four battalions thereafter taking it in turn to enlarge their experience of the great discomforts of trench warfare in the rain. For the weather was abominable: at one stage the men were standing in two feet of water, and in the last few days before the Division left the sector it rained so heavily that the parapets crumbled, and every available man had to be employed repairing them. The entries in my father's diary reflect this extreme unpleasantness.
The sector itself, however, was reckoned a quiet one. The enemy was rarely to be seen, but made regular use of his trench mortars. The shells would come plopping over the ridge, and down into the valley below. The safest place was in the trenches on the western slope. Down below it was a good deal more dangerous. The latrine was a particularly risky spot; many casualties occurred there, and constipation was at a premium. The cemetery, nearby, was none too safe either.
When not in the front line system, the South African battalions were either in Brigade or in Divisional reserve. Divisional Headquarters were at Camblain l'Abbe, and the 2nd Regiment had evidently been in Divisional reserve at the time of my father's next entry:
'August 29. Stayed in this village Camblain l'Abbe for 4 or 5 days, doing ordinary parades, etc. Hot bath. On Sunday afternoon start off for working party in trenches again. Very wet and slippery march. [word indecipherable] and get to dugout again - 6 men - Creighton, Cullis, Fleming, Treloar and self. Cullis cooks again. First night sleep in. Laze all next day. Next night carry [word indecipherable] up to first line of trench. Very heavy. To bed again about 3 a.m.'
In the trenches it never seemed to stop raining:
'August 31. A miserable wet cheerless day. Yesterday morning we were literally washed out of our dugout by a thunderstorm, and in the rain and mire had to go and look for other quarters. Eventually we found a small shelter and I started to level the floor while the other men went out on night-work. Ground very wet. Other men did not get back until daybreak after a cruel time. Had our breakfast at 2 p.m. Quite an expedition to get rations. No tea or other hot drink. September 2. Found quite a good dry dugout and ensconced ourselves therein. Up again at 4 a.m. and on march to reserve trench. Here we do fatigues day and night e.g. 2.30-5.30 filling and piling up sandbags [word indecipherable] 7.30-8.30. Out at 8.30. First do a ration-carrying fatigue. Then at 1 a.m. off through a foot or two of mud and water to a trench where we had to stay the night fixing up sandbags. There we remained in considerable misery till about 5.30 a.m. Had about an hour's sleep. Then hauled out to go on officers' mess fatigue. There I toiled all day washing plates etc. Had good meals but dead tired. Sore all over, boots finished, dirty and rheumatic. Following day put on mess orderly job - quite soft. Enjoy rest. Considerable strafing by Germans who have our range nicely. Two men killed one fell fairly near me. At night Very lights continually going up and strafing and gunners always busy.
Funeral going on but shelling so heavy that parson and all scoot.
September 5. "All togged up and nowhere to go". Usual thing, Great rush to get up and have "breakfast" (no rations or bread). March out in full kit. Halt in trench about half hour. Then about turn to camp again and put on carrying fatigue. I am excused, having a bad arm.
September 7. After 3 days break in Guoy Servins back to trenches again. My arm is worse - boils - and am on light duty. Fine weather, fortunately.'
The most important single incident of the South African Brigade's time in the trenches at Vimy Ridge was the successful raid on the German lines by B and D Companies of the 2nd Regiment at 04:00 on the night of 13/14 September. Under cover of an artillery barrage, 2 officers and 60 men rushed across No Man's Land and jumped into the German trenches, killing (according to the official history of the 9th Division) at least 12 Germans and bringing back 5 prisoners. The South Africans themselves lost only two men wounded, though one had to be left behind in the German lines. The entry for 14 September in my father's diary refers to this event, though his casualty figures differ somewhat from the official record:
'September 14. Have had spell of a week now in reserve trenches: mostly trench-repairing work, shifting sandbags (3 shifts: 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.) Creighton, Cullis and [name indecipherable] are all on the night shift and sleep all day. I have been most of the time on light duty and have had a soft time, my only duties being connected with sanitation. Rations have been rather low and parcels from home welcome. Fritz has bombarded us at intervals, and a good many casualties. Last night quite successful raid on German front line - result 5 prisoners, and 7 killed. Our losses one killed [name indecipherable] (whom I knew very well) and one wounded. We had to get up before 4 and hold ourselves in readiness - very cold morning. Shelling very heavy. Trench mortars etc - showers of shrapnel. Comparatively few hit.
September 23. We left Vimy Ridge on the 18th expecting to go into billets, have hot bath etc. Instead we are moved back to reserve trenches where crowded into a wretched rat-run of a shelter. Cannot sleep for rats running over us. Washing almost impossible. Very heavy rain. Nearly all dugouts washed out. My place fortunately dry. Daily fatigues navvy work repairing trenches. My boots give in. Have to wear canoes size 12. Fetch wet shirts at night. Fall into ditch. Improvement in rations. Receive letters Francie [his niece] especially good at writing so often. Moving off today to billets at Guoy Servins. Have blankets to carry in addition to other kit. Still rather fed up with the youths with whom one has to mix, but they are at any rate intelligent and observant and make excellent scouts. We are wondering what is to be our fate for the winter. Heaven send it be not the trenches of Flanders!'
But even the legendary horrors of the Ypres Salient might have been preferable to what now awaited the South Africans at the Butte de Warlencourt, during the concluding phase of the Battle of the Somme.
Two months had passed since the three brigades of the 9th Division had left the Somme, and during all that time the fighting there had continued. At the price of fearful casualties, the British Army had made some modest advances, but the great breakout, the gap through which the Cavalry might pour so as to roll up the German line, was no nearer achievement than it had been when the battle began on 1st July. By October, the autumn rain had started to fall steadily, and movement of men and supplies became increasingly difficult in the ruined countryside over which the battle had been fought. Behind the British lines, woods, fields and roads had been reduced by shell fire to a disgusting sea of mud, in which bodies, or parts of bodies, lay about unburied, and the smell of death fouled the air.
Nevertheless the British persisted. It has been estimated that, after a fortnight's fighting in October, 1916, the men of General Rawlinson's weakened Fourth Army, which at that time included the 9th Division, had managed to slog forward an average of 200 yards [190 m]. There were long stretches of the line in which, for all the assaults made and the casualties suffered, no advance was made at all.
Though the British commanders may still have cherished the hope that, in the face of this continuous assault, the Germans might crack, they increasingly talked in terms of wearing the enemy down. Strategic objectives gave place to tactical: capturing high ground so as to protect British gains against German counter-attack and provide a suitable jumping-off point for renewed attacks later. But if 'attrition' became the watchword, this could, and did, cut both ways, as the South African Brigade was about to discover.
The next entries in my father's diary are:
'October 2. Spent one night at Guoy Servins, then on the next day - a long march - to Lignereuil a small village where we have been ever since training with a view evidently to returning to the front at an early date. It looks now as if we must make up our minds to have the winter, or some part of it at any rate, here. On march formed one of the connecting files between B and C Companies. Creighton was first connecting file and managed to lose touch with B Company - which probably didn't matter much. Lignereuil nice little village with fine avenue of elm trees. Training not too strenuous. Barn free of rats. Very dirty and lousy owing to no hot baths. Chief attention now paid to feet. Foot inspection every day.
October 9. Left Lignereuil on October 5 and did long march to Fortel. There we stayed a day and a half, then after marching and waiting for hours taken by motor vans to near Beheaucourt where we stayed the night. Next day off again. Told only 3 miles. Turn out to be about 13. Worst march up to date. Just about gone in. Marched for 1,5 hours without halt and stood in full pack in thick mud for an hour. Eventually put into train. One hour's train journey then march in dark through mud to open trench where we encamp for the night. Get some canvas and four of us made a bivvy of it. Understand our destination is Mametz Wood. Fighting evidently in store for us.
As it turned out, however, one of the Scottish brigades was sent to Mametz Wood, where, though the wood had been in British hands for two months, bodies, both of British and of Germans, were still uninterred. The Scots were put to work burying them, and vainly attempting to repair the rutted roads than intersected the area. The South African Brigade, for its part, went into the line, the portion of the front trenches allotted to it being taken over on 9 October by the 2nd Regiment, with a strength of 20 officers and 578 other ranks.
My father's diary describes this:
'October 10. Haversacks and spare kit taken from us, but pack still abominably heavy and in addition we have to carry spades and sacks full of rations. Have to plough along a narrow muddy and uneven trench (instead of, as we might, go over the top) and to me personally every step is agony. Eventually reach our destination (at night) - an extremely narrow trench. Here we have to spend the night. I am placed on guard. Get of course no sleep. Night fortunately not too cold. Suffer from feet. Next day still on guard. No hot drinks or cooking. Enemy's fire very heavy and many men hit. No shelters or dugouts inside trench. Rotten part is number of dead men lying about unburied and wounded men crawling about in the open unattended.'
The main feature of the ground facing the South Africans was the Butte de Warlencourt, a prominent artificial mound of chalk about 50 feet [15 m] high. The Germans had turned it into a strong point, with powerful machine-gun defences, and the Butte, and the ridge on which it stands, presented a formidable obstacle to the British advance. Contemporary accounts and illustrations of the Butte indicate a much more distinctive eminence than is to be seen nowadays. In 1916 it rose stark, bare and chalk-white from the ridge, a fabulous and haunting place that seemed, according to one observer with a poetic turn of phrase, to leer at you like an ogre in a fairy-tale. Now its outline is blurred by a ragged growth of bushes and small trees, and the mound itself seems to have been somewhat worn down; certainly it does not look 50 feet [15 m] high. Nor does it appear white; more a dirty grey. Nevertheless one can still see on the ground that the capture of the Butte would present difficulties, even in good conditions. In the conditions prevailing in October, 1916, an attack upon it was a suicidal impossibility.
The Butte de Warlencourt in March 1989. The Butte itself is concealed in the clump of trees in the right centre of the photograph
The 47th (London) Division had attacked it unsuccessfully on 7 October. No doubt it was their dead and wounded whose presence so disturbed my father two or three days later. Now it was the South Africans' turn to have a go. On their right, one of the Scottish brigades of the 9th Division was to attack as well. Zero hour was set for 14:05 on 12 October. B and C Companies of the 2nd South African Regiment were to lead the attack, with A and D Companies in support. This arrangement did not bode well for my father and his comrades in C Company. From their trenches on a slight forward slope below the ruined farm of Eaucourt l'Abbaye, the 2nd Regiment could look across a shallow valley to the Butte. Advanced German positions, with machine-gun posts and a trench system, ran across the valley in front of the South Africans. The 2nd Regiment's first objective was to occupy these positions, several hundred metres away. Then, according to the plan, they would move up the ridge and capture the Butte itself. During this operation, however, they would be continuously exposed to the German machine-guns sited in the valley and up on the hillside below the Butte.
Preparations for the assault were sketchy. General Furse, commanding the 9th Division, had protested. The confused fighting of the past weeks and the frequent rains had led to a good deal of uncertainty about which of the muddy jumble of trenches in which the area abounded was occupied, and by whom. General Furse urged, in vain, that before the attack went in, a day or two should be spent on reconnaissance, so that the supporting artillery might be sure exactly where the Germans were. As it was, the barrage, though heavy, was inaccurate, and failed to demolish the German trenches and machine-gun positions. So when the South Africans came over the top, and started down the slope towards their first objective, the German machine-gunners were ready for them.
C Company - or what remained of it after three days under shell-fire - lined its trench ready for the signal to climb the parapet. Looking at Creighton, waiting alongside him, my father was struck, he later recalled, by his friend's extreme pallor. Perhaps, my father reflected, the Angel of Death had already cast his shadow on him - or perhaps his own face was equally pale. That was the last time he saw Creighton, or many of his other comrades. When C Company went into the trenches at the Butte de Warlencourt, my father shared a dugout with four other men. A few days later, he was the only one still alive.
For a long time Creighton's mother and sweetheart clung to the belief that he would return. But he never did, neither has he any known grave. His name - Private V A Creighton, 2nd South African Infantry - can be seen on one of the panels of the great Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. It was, in its awful way, a classic operation, everyone's nightmare of an attack on the Western Front. None of the heroics of Delville Wood here. No medals won or legends created. Simply over-burdened men climbing out of a trench into the mist and smoke of a drizzly October afternoon; trudging, the grey mud an anchor's weight on their boots, into a sheet of machine-gun fire; and being shot down without reaching even the first of their objectives.
My father's diary records his part in this fiasco:
'October 13. My 39th birthday yesterday. By a miracle I am still alive. Had enough the last two days of the horror of war to last a lifetime. October 10. Came off guard and put on party shifting dead bodies out of trench. Then a ration fatigue. Finally to bed in dugout. October 11. Van Reenen hit twice by shell. I propping him up when hit second time. Died that evening. Shelling of trench continues. Men hit every few minutes. Spent day in dugout. That evening went out digging an advance trench from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. German sniping. Back to dugout at 6 am.
(October 12) No water. Orders to fall in at 12 ready to go over top. Rifles damaged by shell. Fleming hit in leg. Cullis bandaging him hit in back. Parade mustered 20 in platoon 11, 7 in platoon 12. Just before went over shell knocked Creighton and me over unhurt and buried Joubert (taken back with shell shock). Went over at 2.5. I between Treloar and Creighton. Just as I stood on the parapet and was jumping down was hit and fell over, rifle falling away. Crawled into shell hole and eventually decided had not lost my head, but found difficulty in walking. Pitched my shovel off and found I had wound at back of neck. After a time made a dash and got back into trench. Found Sergt Tayfieid who had fallen and come back without wounds. Other wounded men came back over trench. Lay in trench for some hours amid continuous fire. Saw some wounded men going along to dressing station and went with them. Went along trenches for miles. Great difficulty in moving on, over corpses etc. After hours emerged on road and then started on long walk along road. Great relief to be out of reach of shells. Had a lift in a wagon and another in motor van and eventually reached Divisional Dressing Station, helping wounded men along the road: one man with eye gone got on horseback. Arrangements at Dressing Station wonderful and all doctors ambulance men very kind. Gave us lots of cocoa and bread and butter and cheese. Then sent on to casualty clearing station. Then had the first proper night's sleep for a long time. Following day put in train with ticket tied to my pocket. Possibly wound not so slight as I had thought.'
The attack on 12 October was by no means the end of the South African Brigade's disasters at the Butte de Warlencourt. Though the 2nd Regiment had melted away, the other three were involved in a great deal of fighting in the next few days, and, led by the 1st Regiment, made another unsuccessful and costly assault on the Butte on 18 October. This was the occasion when two entire companies of South Africans disappeared into darkness and rain, and, with the exception of a Lewis gun post and a few wounded, were never heard from again. Only later was it discovered that almost all of them had been killed. From 9 October, when the 2nd Regiment went into the line, to 19 October, when the Brigade was relieved, South African casualties amounted to about 1 150. And so intolerable were the conditions, the rain, the mud, the cold, the lack of hot food and often of any food at all, the bodies and the smell of death, that, taking the 9th Division as a whole, more men were lost over this period because of illness and exposure than were killed or wounded.
The Butte de Warlencourt was never in fact taken during the Battle of the Somme. Ironically, it fell into British hands when the Germans voluntarily withdrew from it in February, 1917, as part of an adjustment of their line.
While these further calamities were taking place, my father was on his way to the rear:
'October 15. After 24 hours in train arrived at Etaples where we were taken to Canadian Hospital. Noticeable that arrangements not so good as among the RAMC and manners of Canadians brusque and not too obliging. First had to throw all one's clothing away and have a bath (or struggle for a bath with several other men) and dry oneself with a wet towel. Then we put on the hideous blue clothes of the wounded and our wounds were dressed and we were put into different wards (canvas marquees - very dark). No one in my marquee whom I knew. Food rather rough and each man has to scramble for it. Good night's rest.'
An enduring memory of my father's from this time was the pain caused when each day an orderly would wrench the bandage from his neck, opening the wound afresh.
'October 18. Left Canadian Hospital yesterday and not sorry as think very little of the manners or methods of the Canadian people who are running it. Said goodbye to Lazarus, Webster, Howard, Selkirk, Stancel, etc. all of whom are bound for Blighty, though Webster's wound in particular very slight. March a little way to Convalescent Camp where housed in marquee. Came across Brokensha and Arnold (of Pretoria). Came up before MO this morning and given a docket for reclassification on arrival at base (Rouen). Strolled about the different camps. Swarms of soldiers and lots of recreation huts of all sorts, but Tommies not allowed in Etapies without pass. Rather depressed over position of Roumania. Are the Germans really too strong and clever for us? Papers give our losses on Somme as slight!! In my opinion we must have lost quite three to the Germans' one, but I may be pessimistic. Wound healed, but back aches.
October 26. Stayed in Etapies "Con. Camp" only a couple of days. Told the MO was not quite "up", and was given docket for reclassification at base. Know from bitter experience that my physique is not equal to the navvy work up the line. Marched from Con. Camp to the Detail camp where we were treated to witticisms of an old SM. There we slept the night (10 to a tent) and the following day entrained for Rouen thirty five of us in a cattle-truck (only two SA's, myself and a Scotty). Night comes on bitterly cold, keen frost. No blankets. Wrap feet in newspapers. Just getting warm when have to change at Abbeville into a colder draughtier cattle-truck. Even the hardened Tommies complain of the cold. Reach Rouen in early morning and after long wait in train (trains do a lot of waiting in France) march up hill to our camp. Comparatively few of our men about. A lance-corporal in charge of details of 2nd Regiment. Next day (Sunday) inspected by doctor - a hard-hearted brute - who tells me that I look all right! Loaf about all day. In afternoon met Measures (who has got a job in record office in town) and follow him to hospital where are Forester and Halliwell. On Monday afternoon go down town and meet Measures and have dinner at restaurant. Find that Creighton is marked as "missing". This afternoon attended a so-called "Medical Board" which was composed of one viz, the hard-hearted doctor aforesaid! He said my wound (neck still bandaged) is getting better but said nothing about my general physical fitness, for which I thought I was being boarded. Mention my teeth. Decide to let matters take their course.
November 5. (In train at Doullens) Started from Rouen to rejoin regiment at 1 o'clock on the 3rd. Have been at this station now for about 20 hours and no sign as yet of leaving! Had a pretty soft time in Rouen. Only 2 days parade. Went down again to town. Saw Cathedral. Service inside.'
By the last week of October the entire 9th Division had been taken out of the line, and sent back for the period of reorganisation that necessarily followed any major attack in which heavy casualties had been suffered. The 2nd South African Regiment spent much of November in billets at Lattre St Quentin, a few miles west of Arras, occupying itself with training, repairing roads and communications, and preparing for its next spell in the line. Early in December the Division took over trenches outside Arras.
The entries in my father's diary covering this period read:
'November 7. Left Doullens Station evening of November 5th (Sunday). Arrived Saulty Station 10 p.m. Marched in rain 15 miles to join Regiment. Arrived 3a.m. Had 2 hours sleep on floor. Posted to C Company. Parades same day. Bayonet fighting! Corrected by fussy subaltern for wrong stance! Mud and rain. Rain and mud. Slept in shed. No blanket but dry. Place called Agnez.
November 8. Two days at Agnez. Parades etc. Put in letter to OC. Left Agnez this morning and arrived at Lattre St. Quentin about 6 miles off. Weather still wet.
November 23. Have been at Lattre St. Quentin all this time. A lot of new officers whose one object seems to be to make the private's life one long misery. They won't let you alone for a moment - a constant round of irritating parades inspections etc. Today got 3 extra fatigues for having a dirty bayonet!
December 4. Left Lattre St. Quentin in motor buses for Arras. Took over front line of trenches. Sentry day and night wiring parties etc. Trench mortars active.
Those who experienced it in France never forgot the winter of 1916-17. It started out wet and mild: on 14 November my father was telling his niece in England that winter clothing, including a goatskin coat, had been issued, but that 'the weather is quite mild for this time of the year'. By 1st January, however, he was reporting from the trenches that, though he was 'snug' in his dugout, it was snowing outside. The hard frost continued throughout January and February, the most severe since 1839. Men in the trenches had in fact rather better protection from the bitter wind than those in windowless and draughty buildings in Arras. But for everyone it was a bad time. For three months, throughout the worst of the weather, the South Africans stayed in the line. The CO of a Scottish battalion in the 9th Division wryly commented afterwards that 'there had been some doubt how the South Africans would stand a northern winter; the matter was settled by keeping them in the trenches all through that season!'
Official accounts state that the South Africans' health stood up to the conditions remarkably well, though my father's diary suggests otherwise. As far as enemy action was concerned, the sector was considered relatively quiet. Even so, the German artillery and trench mortars were busy, and there was a steady stream of killed and wounded; my father's diary entries for the period refer to some of these (the candle factory which he also mentions is plainly shown on contemporary maps, in the South African sector about half a mile behind the front line; nowadays the whole area is part of the suburbs of Arras):
'December 8. Came out of front line into town of Arras. Pretty cumfy billets in cellar of a convent.
December 9. Had a good view of Arras on way to having a hot bath. Fine big town with good buildings. Now in a pitiful state of deserted decay. Hardly a building left intact. Cathedral and town hall a mass of ruins. Still one or two small businesses chiefly butchers, restaurants going.
January 6. Month since last entry! Have spent it continuously in trenches. Very trying time. Crater guard. No sleep. Eventually report doc. and am given light duty-gas guard. Xmas and New Year in trenches. Pretty rotten. Three of our men in 12 platoon killed on Xmas Day. Company very weak, lots having gone to hospital.'
My father had by this time come to realise that the work of a private soldier in the trenches was chiefly, almost wholly, navvying - coaxing long iron girders on one's shoulders along narrow twisting trenches, carrying heavy shells to the gun emplacements, digging trenches, filling sandbags and hauling them into position: all these tasks, and many more of the same kind, went on by day and. night. He kept going as long as he could, but, at 39, eventually found the physical strain too much for him:
'February 2. Another month gone by finds us still in the trenches, though myself hardly in status quo. After struggling along under difficulties I eventually told the doc. I couldn't carry on any longer. He examined me and found the action of the heart weak which did not surprise me as I had felt a strain in that direction for some time. The doc. put me on permanent light duty and for the next medical board. At first I was put on gas guard, then Humphreys sent me to the candle factory as Blanket Guard - almost a sinecure, receiving and issuing blankets every other day to companies coming into the Reserve trenches. Another man (Cunningham) and I occupy room on second storey of very dilapidated building. Plenty of blankets at night, but room extremely cold. Severe frost day and night and everything in the room freezes in a few minutes. We have fires but impossible to make the room really warm as open on top and very draughty. Waterpipes frozen and for some days we melt down snow for domestic purposes. Place filthy dirty and one has to become reconciled to being chronically dirty. Might be taken for a coloured man. Shave every other day - a heroic process in this Arctic weather. Constant rain of shells and "minnies". Fritz has lately become very aggressive and blows our trenches about almost at will. Casualties fairly frequent. Candle factory in very exposed position and near one of our batteries, but has so far escaped. Wish to goodness we were out of it.
February 15. Left the candle factory for Arras on February 9th after a continuous spell of about 2 months. Day we left had busy struggle with the blankets which were lamentably short in number. Then had to tramp into Arras and found myself very tired. Eventually joined the company at the convent and there have been enjoying a lazy life while my comrades have been working hard! Do not yet know what is to happen to me re medical board etc. Later was made mess orderly.
February 18. Moved out of Arras last night. Walked out by myself and found it rather a job to find my way in the dark. Had spent all day on guard over company's blankets, counting, doing up, and labelling: later packing them on to the limbers. Frost broken, now lots of mud - which I prefer (i.e. with my present onerous post!). Take up residence again at candle factory with 3 other men representing the other companies.
February 24. After a few days at candle factory was relieved of my job as Blanket Guard by Brokensha and told to go out to Etrun (first line of transport) to take over post of Issuer, Headquarters. At same time had news of father's death. Went out to Etrun (about 6 miles) next day. Kit was to have come out with limber but didn't turn up, so had to go to bed without blankets or overcoat. Was to have relieved Harrison, but he could not be spared, so I remain to assist him. Chief work from 12 to 3 or 4, loading up limber with rations and stores. Sleep in huge attic where miscellaneous crowd of details. Nobody except transport men gets up before 8. Very muddy. Do not feel fit and think heart must be a bit crocky.'
During March 1917, the three brigades of the 9th Division were withdrawn from the line in turn for periods of training for the new British offensive which started north and east of Arras on 9 April. The South African Brigade took another fearful hammering at the battle of Arras: the 2nd Regiment lost over two thirds of its strength in a wretchedly unsuccessful attack on 12 April. No doubt if he had taken part in it, my father would have been amongst the casualties, but by then he was back in England, having been regraded Permanent Base. In the end, he left France with some reluctance. More than twenty years were to elapse before his next visit.
'March 9. Stayed at Etrun until about a week ago when Regiment came out of the line and I rejoined C Company. First night in hut near Etrun. Then on next day to Tilloy. I and a few other light duty men rode in motor trolley. Tilloy small village. No. 11 platoon housed in usual sort of draughty barn: straw. Platoon does drill and fatigues while I am left practically alone. Wish something definite would be settled as present position unsatisfactory. Bitter weather again. Frost and snow.
March 19. At St. Pol en route for Rouen! From Tilloy Regiment moved to Monchy Breton, not far from St. Pol. Day we moved from Tilloy started with fatigue party at 9 a.m. for Hermaville - about 2 kilometres away. Cooled our heels at Hermaville until 1 p.m. Then marched off a mile or two to do fatigue, cleaning big shells. Waited in cold shed till about 8 p.m. Then marched back to Hermaville, where we boarded motor buses which took us to Monchy Breton, where we arrived about 11.30 p.m. Whole of C Company in one big barn. In this place I had a day or two in battalion Orderly Room (with a view to a job in Brigade Orderly Room). Then was made Mess Orderly and twice spent the day marking at the range. On March 16th accidentally discovered Medical Board was being held in less than an hour. My name not on list. Went to adjutant who told me to go down. Went down and saw doctor who added my name to list. One Medical Major constituted the Board and polished off about 20 of us in less than as many minutes. Just asked what was the matter and one or two questions. On Sunday night heard result - PB in my case. Handed in gear to quartermaster and walked with other men this morning to St. Pol where I am writing in rest camp (we go off tonight). Halliwell one of the party. Saw a labour battalion going past which made one think one had better go back - halt, lame and blind, old and infirm. Never saw such a collection of crocks in my life.
March 20. Arrived at St. Pol about noon yesterday. Left by train at 12.30 midnight. Arrived Abbeville about 9 this morning, and spent day on Station (YMCA and Exp. force Canteen huts). Train journeys in France "no bon" these days.'
That is the final entry in my father's diary. By the beginning of April, he was back in England.
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