War Diary Whinge

Major Geoffrey Hayes, commanding 11 DLI Pioneers, apologised to 20 Division HQ for sending in the monthly diary a couple of days late on 2 October 1916: “I forward herewith War Diary for September 1916. The delay in sending this in is regretted but was unavoidable owing to continual moves and lack of office accommodation in the trench.” Even a cursory glance at his report shows just how true was his justification.

The first week incorporated the Battle of Guillemont, in which the battalion played a considerable role. After a short ‘rest’ involving copious amounts of drill and road-building, they were back in the line at Bernafay Wood and immediately employed digging more assembly trenches for another assault at Lesboeufs. They were back out to Méaulte, where they had barely cleaned out the filthy billets before they were sent up to a different part of the line in the Maltz Horn Valley to try to create shelters in the midst of heavy rain before more track-building and then marching across country back to Trônes Wood area and back into the trenches at Waterlot Farm. They were seldom more than a couple of days in any one place.

But enough of the battalion HQ whinge. Come the middle of the month the strength was down to 440 men organised in four companies, half the normal strength, and they continued to take casualties. For readers of my book, they will be familiar with the death of letter writer Private Robert David Bennett and the horrific accident taking the lives of three more men when one of them hit an unexploded shell as they cleared trenches. On a personal note, my grandfather, Corporal Thomas Bashforth was promoted to Sergeant in B Company on the last day of the month. None of their names appear in the diary, of course, unlike the arrivals of several new officers and some shuffling of their posts. That’s my whinge on behalf of the ‘Other Ranks’.

Guillemont 1916

On 5 September 1916, 11 DLI were ‘resting’ in shell holes covered in tarpaulins and whatever other debris could be found by way of shelter. It was not much of a rest after several days of exhausting work. On 3 September ‘A’ Company with 59th Brigade and ‘D’ Company with the Irishmen of 47th Brigade made a finally successful attack on the German strongpoint at Guillemont, going in perilously close to a creeping bombardment to increase the level of surprise. The plan worked and the two companies from 11 DLI promptly set to making the trenches good for following troops while the infantrymen pressed on. They were quickly followed by reinforcements from B Company and C Company, who took over from the infantry to both consolidate and hold the line under the command of Major Lloyd. It was an astonishing feat that lasted more than 48 hours before they were relieved, short of water and supplies. Of all the times that 11 DLI went into action this was probably the clearest example of what it meant to be Pioneers – labour and infantry combined. At least 27 were dead and missing. Many more were wounded.

The Somme – Another Way of Looking

Recently in Norwich, where I live, there visited a commemorative display called ‘The Trench Experience’. It purported to be about the battle of the Somme. It was most remarkable for being completely Anglo-focussed. There was barely a mention of the involvement of the French forces and nothing at all about the consequences for French civilians caught up in the carnage. It was exactly the sort of thing that adds nothing to public understanding but merely exploits public interest in the crudest possible way.

Two things have been brought to my attention that I feel expose different sides of the story. Most readers of this blog will be more familiar with what is being shown on British TV. By far the best programme to appear in many a year has been the current series on BBC2 hosted and researched by the historian and battlefield archaeologist, Peter Barton[1]. The series is called ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Despite his every effort to be balanced and professional, sticking closely to the evidence, you can see how he is frequently visibly upset and emotional about what he has discovered. Watch it! It is a horror story that sadly involved tens of thousands of victims, well beyond anything the most gruesome Hollywood movie might show. Only by understanding how the Germans responded to the Allied offensives can you really appreciate the disaster in its totality, its inhumanity and its ultimate stupidity (though Barton might not wish to use such a word).

The second came from a French friend in the form of a special supplement from the Courrier Picard covering the recent 1 July centenary commemorative events at Thiepval, Amiens, Albert and elsewhere. It is tucked away on a back page and refers to a new book by Philippe Nivet and Marjolaine Boutet: ‘The Forgotten Hecatomb’ (my clumsy and literal translation from the French). The article is an interview with Marjolaine Boutet. Those of you who have visited the Somme battlefield area will no doubt be familiar with the Historial at Peronne and its even-handed coverage of all nations involved including the civilian experience. This book is another contribution to that broader understanding of the whole experience and Marjolaine Boutet works at the Historial. It seeks to retrieve what she calls the common human experience of what happened and to overturn the odd way in which French people themselves seem to regard the Somme battles as being somehow not to do with them. As she says: there were at least 204 000 French soldiers killed or wounded. She goes on, speaking to a French audience: ‘When you walk in the Somme, each farm, each site of the sector has an history, a crater, some buried shells. And yet, it is not only the British who were there. That is a shame. These are places of memory. You should go there!’ She doesn’t quite say it, but the way in which Picardy has become a place of British pilgrimage and tourism has somehow overshadowed the French experience. Remember that next time you visit and also take another look at some of the photographs in Peter Barton’s TV series showing the scale of destruction of French farms, villages, towns, roads and infrastructure.

Finally, a tribute to my French friend, who is hosting a website looking at the 1918 Somme Battlefield area in the vicinity of where she lives and where my grandfather and several more men from 11 DLI served and died. You can find it via this link: https://somme18.com/

She too makes no distinctions between nations. This is part of a common, human experience we all share with regret and sorrow.

[1] Joint author of a brilliant book on tunnelling, among others.

The First of July

As the grotesque slaughter began further along the line to the south-west, 11th DLI was stationed at Brandhoek. The war diary for the day reads:

“2nd Lt A.I. Ward and Sergt. McEvoy commence month’s course at 2nd Army School, WISQUES.”

It is a salutary thought as the centenary commemorations take part this year, that 100 years ago most of the British Army was not involved – though, for most, their time would come to be put through the mincer.

Readers of this blog will have their own thoughts on what they may or may not do as a personal contribution to this particular centenary commemoration, and that is how it should be. This writer has tended to avoid getting caught up in any of what is going on, as there is too much danger of it slipping into some form of glorification, however well disguised. There is no glory in war.

There has been one mainstream commemorative event that has meant a lot here in Norwich: Fierce Light, a collaboration between poets and film makers reflecting in their own distinctive ways back on those times. It included Jackie Jay, Bill Manhire, Paul Muldoon, Daljit Nagra and Yrsa Daley Ward and has resulted in slim volume. Equally moving (and shared at the same event) has been the similar contribution by Simon Armitage called ‘Still’, a mixture of poetry and images from the Imperial War Museum’s collection of aerial and other photographs of the time. He uses a translation from the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics, superficially a treatise on farming but ‘underscored with some of the tensions and anxieties of Virgil’s own era, including military conflict, politics and nationhood’ and focussed on the earth under our feet.

Those who have walked these old battlefields will quickly understand the allusion, but do read this work – it is uncanny and disturbing and very timely. This land was fought over for thousands of years. Do not imagine it could never happen again.


Excuses for not working

One hundred years ago, throughout May 1916, 11 DLI was stationed near Oudezeele in Flanders. From here groups of men were sent out on work parties around the Ypres sector. However, 11 DLI was tasked with the job of securing the trenches at the eponymous Burgomaster’s Farm (which really was the local burgomaster’s farm and he and his wife still lived there) and preparing a defence plan in the event that they came under attack from the enemy.

This was a reminder that Pioneers were paid extra because they did two jobs. They provided labour for the Division and anyone else running short of hands for urgent tasks such as 6th Division this month, or tunnelling companies and the Royal Engineers, in this case laying cables from Ypres to Poperinghe. More often than not it was ‘trench work’, usually listed by each trench’s name in the battalion diary, and in this case mostly on the eastern bank of the Yser Canal. But Pioneers were also infantry, trained and armed as such and often so used, particularly providing guard duties for Divisional HQ this month and, as in this case, manning reserve trenches or relieving front line troops.

Excuses to get out of this were few and far between. All through the month, officers were on a shuttle service of leave, their movements assiduously reported in the battalion war diary, or they were off doing training of some sort. The best excuse for the men was a ‘sickie’ and 17 of them were sent away for treatment for scabies. This was a common and nasty bacterial infection caused by tiny mites burrowing into the softer parts of the body and laying their eggs. It was often related to similar problems with lice and was extremely contagious. Definitely good for a few days off!

Now that April’s here!

As the centenary ticks by, I keep looking at the battalion war diary for 11th DLI and reflecting on what they were up to, especially thinking about my grandfather, Corporal (as he was then) Thomas Bashforth, and any little notes that might involve him and his comrades in B Company.

April 1916 was a game of two halves. To begin with, the battalion were stationed in a chateau near Elverdinghe on the Ypres Front in Belgium. From here the men set out on various working parties in different parts of the lines, mostly on the Yser Canal Bank. B Company was no exception, working under the command of one or other of the Infantry Brigades from 20th Division. They even got a letter that month from the Commander of the Royal Engineers who supervised their work, ‘eulogising’ what they had done. Lt RLS Pemberton, who had been in charge of them for the past month was made up to Temporary Captain.

Any idea that being based in the grounds of a chateau might have been idyllic was constantly and rudely shattered by German artillery. Such a building would have been well within range and clearly mapped, making it an obvious target every couple of days or so. Several men from 11th DLI and the infantry regiments were wounded in the process. No doubt the second in command, Major Geoffrey Hayes (later to lead the battalion), was delighted to get away for a few days training with Staff.

The whole battalion got away in mid-month, for a break at Oodezeele for their Easter holidays. Not that that entailed much rest for anyone, officers or men. In truth the Division was merely allocated to ‘Corps Reserve’ for a few days. For the ranks that meant training from 8.30 am until after noon: bayonet practice, bombing practice and PT were favourites. Following this excitement, they could indulge what was left of their energy in sports and games – officers mostly on horseback. In preparation for church parades on Easter Day, they also had the pleasure of a route march in heavy rain. In the evenings, the junior officers and NCOs had the pleasure of a series of lectures. The one on ‘gas preventatives’ would have been more useful one imagines than the one on ‘Lessons from the South African War’.

Even this relief was short-lived: back to work straight after the Easter weekend and no Bank Holiday Monday. The Pioneers were set to work in various places behind the main lines, where they were inspected by the Divisional and Engineering commanders (not including the batch sent to join 177th Tunnelling Company). No doubt the various groups of men returning from sick leave with Entrenching Battalions were glad to be ‘home’.

A Terrible Beauty?

Easter has come a little early this year. One hundred years ago the Easter weekend culminated on Monday 24 April 1916. In Dublin on the steps of the GPO building, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation of the Irish Republic and the end of British rule in Ireland, heralding what we now know as the Easter Rising. It lasted a week until the rebels surrendered to overwhelming British military force assisted by a battleship in the Liffey. Hundreds were subjected to Field General Courts Martial, most were jailed, the leaders were executed, while some supporters and civilian sympathisers in the streets around were despatched under a ‘shoot to kill’ order.

At the same time, the men of 11 DLI were stationed near Oodezeele on the Ypres Front in Belgium. There had been church parades the day before but on Monday it was back to work, mostly behind the lines on roads and constructing new billets. The added attraction was a visit from top brass from 20th Divisional HQ come to inspect the Pioneers at their work. Otherwise the week that followed was a period of general rest and recuperation, interspersed with training and sports activities. 

So what is the connection between these two coterminous sets of events? It has to do with the reasons for fighting. The men of 11 DLI, along with the rest of the Army including several battalions of Irish volunteers, were ostensibly on the Western Front in defence of smaller nations such as ‘plucky little Belgium’ against imperialist German militarism. The personal reasons for the men involved could have been very complex, though this might well have been a part of their motivation.

The rebels of Sinn Fein were also asserting the rights of smaller nations in the face of (British) imperialism and military might. They were a little clearer as individuals, as they were following the clearly stated aims of the Proclamation: that the Republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens” and it would resolve “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the national equally”.

In terms of the wider context of the Great War, all parts of the British armed forces, wherever they were stationed (at sea, in western Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India, in Africa) including Ireland, they were in practice defending and maintaining the integrity of the British Empire and that would become even more clear three years later at Versailles. That was as true of the Irish divisions as 20th Light Division.

In the end the ordinary men did not, in either case, get what they might have thought was their due. When it came, Home Rule in Ireland fell a long way short of the ideals of the Proclamation. The miners and labourers of 11 DLI who survived what was to follow went home to face years of continued exploitation and, indeed, military repression when they struck to stop wage reductions.

Meanwhile, just two months on from Easter 1916, tens of thousands on all sides of the front met their deaths in the slaughter of the Somme.  While the poet WB Yeats could classify the Easter Rising as ‘a terrible beauty’, no such description has ever been applied to that.