The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 4 The Somme
At length the training came to an end and we were to start marching again on Saturday July 1st. On this day, after the usual preparations we fell in about mid day in the boiling sun and marched to St. Omer which we reached about 4 o'clock and entered the station to entrain for the scene of action. We were put in wagons, 25 in each, which proved too many for comfort, and travelled all night passing Calais, Boulogne and Abbeville and so on until in the early morning of July 2nd we landed at Doulleus. Here we had a piece of French bread and a small drop of coffee provided by the nurses of a hospital near the station and which we ate seated in the road, but by this time we were used to having our food anywhere so it did not matter. Having finished this welcome, if not large repast, we continued our journey by road to the village of Gézaincourt, some 3 miles from Doullens, which we reached about 4.00 a.m., knocking the inhabitants up to find billets. These secured we endeavoured to get some sleep before breakfast which came up about 9.00 a.m. and then washed in a stream which ran behind the farm. In the afternoon when it became known that we might do a lot of marching, we had feet inspection, and then we knew that we were to take part in the offensive that had started on July lst.
That night we were aroused about 10. 30 p.m. and told we were wanted for a job near the village and to be ready at 11.00 p.m. At this hour we fell in and made our way to the clearing station just outside the village and throughout the night assisted the RAMC orderlies and stretcher bearers in the work of helping the wounded carrying stretchers and such like necessary jobs.
Never shall I forget the sight of so many wounded men stained with the mud of the battlefields of the Somme be-spattered with blood, their arms in slings, heads in bandages, all of them living emblems of the horrors of war. It is one thing to see the wounded hero in hospital blue, once more clean and civilised, then he is in keeping with his surroundings, but it is another and an altogether different thing to see him coming down from the line, unwashed, unshaven and with the mud soaking through his clothes. It is then that one feels that the war has been brought home to one.
Many were the eager enquiries we made of the men of different regiments as to how they fared in the attack. Some told stories of the successful taking of their objective, while others told of a fierce resistance and the heavy losses of their Battalions.
About 5.00 a.m. we were given some tea and bread and cheese and then after another spell of work, made our way back to our billets. There had been no sleep that night for us and now we learned we were to fall in at 8.30 a.m. to continue our march. Luckily we did not have a great distance to go, only about 8 miles that day but we were all glad to reach our destination and get some rest.
After this we stopped marching by day and marched by night covering about 10 miles. each night about 12 or 1 in the morning., As the weather was very hot this was undoubtedly the better method of progress, and also we were now approaching the line. During some four or five nights in which we marched in this fashion we kept the line on our left and could plainly see the lights and hear the thundering of the guns, one continual roar and rumble. At length we arrived not far behind our line and the next day shifted further up and bivouacked on the ground which had been 'no mans land' before the first of July, by Bonfray Farm. The weather was warm and we were not troubled by much rain. It was usual to sleep in pairs and construct a shelter of waterproof sheets. Dixon and I constructed such a shelter and this served the purpose of keeping off the rain and as we slept with our overcoats on we were not so very cold at nights but we didn't get a great deal of time to rest at night for we had not been settled down for more than a night or two when fatigue parties started up the line which took up the best part of the time
The distance between the two lines was then about 2000 yards and about half way between there was a large bank at the bottom of which a railway used to run which had been used by the Germans.
Nearly every night the fatigue parties had to carry wire, stakes, ammunition and such like up to this bank where it was dumped to await the day when another attack could be brought off by us.
On the very first night (a Sunday) that we went up on fatigue, we were unfortunate enough to meet with an accident. We had started off, a party of come 200 strong and after we had gone down the road about 2000 yards we fell out for a rest on a grassy plot on the side of the road, and also to await until it got a little darker before we continued our journey. We were all sitting fairly closely together when suddenly there was a loud explosion near at hand, and a great volume of dust and smoke rose in the air. Thinking that we had been seen by the enemy we made a clash for cover while the crys and groans of the wounded could be heard on all hands. But this luckily was not the case. We therefore returned to the spot to attend to the chaps who were hit and found that someone had been playing with a German bomb with the result that it had gone off. Some twenty men were wounded by the explosion, one of them a Corporal, died some five minutes after being hit. (Corporal J.H Mullins No 18267 )It was therefore a much older and a wiser party that continued its way up to the dump some half hour later. From the dump we took different sorts of stuff up to behind the bank and left it there returning chiefly by way of the captured German trenches to our bivouacs.
In this manner we lived for nearly a week, sometimes the camp would be shifted from one place to another but never very far. On one or two occasions we were compelled to take cover for the time being owing to Fritz sending over a few long range shells. On the first occasion that this happened, the very first shell that he sent fell on the road which was crowded with transports at the time, and did a fair amount of damage. A space of some five minutes elapsed before he sent another and by this time the traffic had been stopped and the road cleared, so no damage was done. We continued this for about half an hour and then stopped. Daring the same night however after we had returned from one of our usual journeys on fatigue up the line, he started shelling again and we therefore all made our way down to the trench some 500 yards away where we sought safety for the time being returning to our bivouacs and endeavouring to sleep when he had finished.
On the night before we shifted our quarters word came along that there would be no fatigue parties that night but that one and two platoons would go out on patrol. I had been transferred by this time to No. 2 platoon as this platoon had suffered most in the recent accident and so of course at 7 p.m. I was ready with the rest for the job on hand.
Of the many risky jobs to be had in the line, this was one of the most dangerous for one had to be prepared for anything. One might meet with a hostile patrol, and a fight ensue as a result or in fact anything might happen and one had to keep one's wits about one, and be on the alert.
Well after losing our way and taking some four hours to get there we at length reached the bank from the shelter of which we were to commence operations.
No. 1 platoon was to take the right of the brigade front and No. 2 the left, so we took up our positions and with bayonets fixed and rifles at the ready we slowly made our way towards the enemy's lines which lay behind the ridge which we were ascending. When we had reached nearly to the top we lay down and took cover while the officers with great care went forward to have a look round. But nothing out of the ordinary took place and about 2 a.m. we started back for our bivouacs which we reached just as it was breaking daylight.
That afternoon bombs, sandbags, ammunition and picks and shovels were served out and then we learned that we were to go into the line that night in reserve to one of the other Brigades of the Division and that a big battle was to take place at dawn.
Before we shifted the Brigadier paid us a visit and encouraged us to do our best saying that he thought this ought to be a decisive battle, and when we fell in the Colonel also gave a short address. At dusk we shifted, and made our way to some old German trenches a good way from the front line and here we dug ourselves funk holes or shrapnel shelters in the side of the trench in case of a heavy retaliation to our bombardment and here we remained until next morning. Just before dawn the bombardment opened and it was one of the most fierce of the many I have witnessed in France. When we found that there was very little doing in the way of retaliation we stood on top of the trench and watched the flashes of the guns which lit up the sky seemingly on all sides. The scene was splendid and at the same time terrible, and it must be said that Fritz was getting a little bit of what, for the first year of war, our lads had had to stand.
At dawn the battle started, and although we could not see what was taking place the opening of machine gun fire told us that our boys were nearing the German line. At about 8 a.m. we moved up a little further towards the line in order to be at hand in case of need. On the way, we were going in columns of fours along the top of a trench when Fritz began to shell us. The first shell dropped some 200 yards away doing no damage, the second some hundred yards nearer, while the third fell right in amongst the company in front but wonder of wonders didn't go off. By this time we had had enough so we all promptly got in the trench and continued our journey in this manner. At length we reached our destination which proved to be an old German trench and here we stayed for some four or five days., Although we were so near the firing line we were not shelled to any great extent during this period and this was accounted for by the fact that in my opinion the enemy had withdrawn a large number of his guns lest by a big advance we might capture some more.
At night we were always on fatigue carrying different stuff up the line and one of these fatigues was the worst 1 have been on while in France. We had been warned unexpectedly about 10 p.m. one night and after carrying were up from the dump to the village of Longival which was at the time being held by the 1st Gordon’s of our Brigade, we were told that they were going to attack next morning at dawn and that the bombardment was to start at three. Under these circumstances we were to make two more journeys and be finished before three carrying a box of ammunition each for the first journey and water on the second.
The road up to the village was pitted with shell holes which in some cases touched each other showing how fiercely the enemy's barrage had been put up, and this made the going terribly. hard in addition to which the box of ammunition proved too much for me for one and others besides so that we had to resort to carrying one box between two and then returning for the other box. This of course took longer and it was 3 o'clock before we succeeded in getting the second box to the dump in the village and then the bombardment started. Heavy shells commenced to roar in to the village exploding with terrible force and shaking the ground beneath us. We then began to make our way back while the enemy commenced to retaliate, shelling the road along which we had to pass. Luckily he did not hit the road very often so with much running and dodging we succeeded in escaping without any casualties. We got back to our trench and in the morning awaited eagerly to hear the result of the Jack's attack. They succeeded in taking the village but were forced by the terrific shell fire to return to their own trench.
That day we did a short fatigue road making in the recently captured village of Montauban but returned after about an hours work, and the same evening we moved up to Crucifix trench in support to the 2nd Suffolks also of our brigade who were going to try their luck next morning for the village of Longival (Longueval). This trench so named because of a large Crucifix which stood at the top contained some interesting evidences of the German occupation, foremost among which were two completely furnished villas, one with a verandah which had been occupied by some German General no doubt - floor cloth, bed complete, pictures, everything one could wish for. The roof was covered with grass to prevent observation and here they no doubt expected to stay until the end of the war.
All that night we slept with our rifles and equipment by our side, while a sentry group was posted by each platoon in case of emergency, but the night passed quietly and next morning we were told that the Suffolks had not been over. After dinner we shifted a bit further back and did some work on a trench under construction relieving another Company of the Battalion which had been working during the morning and about 4.30 P.m. that afternoon we received orders to move again this time going back to an old German trench not far from that which we had occupied on the night of 13th July.
Rumour then said that the Division was to be relieved next day and under these circumstances we began to congratulate ourselves on being the only Battalion in the Division that had not been in action. But we had shouted before we were out of the wood.
Our Captain told us to make ourselves comfortable for the night and we therefore began making shelters etc. in which to sleep and were just settling down for the night when about 9 o'clock word came down that the Captain wanted to speak to the Company outside his dug out and when he had finished speaking our spirits were down in our boots, for he said we were to go up that night to make an attack on Delville Wood in conjunction with the Suffolks who would try to take Longival on the left and that we were to be ready to fall in at 10 p.m. This was certainly a great surprise to us especially when we had reckoned on being relieved but it could not be helped and we began to console ourselves with 'what is to be will be' and if you are going to get hit you will get hit.
The British Tommy is at all times inclined to fatalism of this sort and it is not to be wondered at, for on most occasions one is absolutely helpless to preserve ones own life and one must admit of a Higher Power which watches over the destinies of each one of us.
Well we made up our minds to do our best, and at 10 p.m. we fell in, after a small tot of rum had been issued to each man. As far as I was concerned I did not take this for there is much to be said both for and against its use. As a result of the rum it was a rather lively lot that formed up in full marching order in the dark that night, but before the action commenced this effect had worn off leaving the men more depressed than before. This was one of the reasons why 1 never took rum except on two occasions during the whole of my time in France and even then it was not half a thimble full.
Well, we set off and made our way in file down the road and up to the trench from which we were going to attack. B & D Companies formed the first line and support while A and C were reserve. At dawn the bombardment opened and the first two Companies attacked while we lay in extended order in the open some 1000 yards to the rear, behind the crest of a hill, which hid to a great extent our view of the action at the beginning. As far as we were concerned we lay in this fashion under shrapnel fire for about half an hour during which we watched the firework display going on the other side of the ridge, and listened to the rattle of machine guns and the crack of rifles telling of the fighting that was taking place not so far away. At length we moved forward again and took up a position on the sunken road which ran along the edge of the wood and here we made head cover for ourselves in the side nearest the wood while the enemy's barrage was being thrown about 200 yards away from the road. This road was really a very dangerous place and the number of dead of both sides which strewed the whole length of it and filled the trench which ran along the other side of it, told how fiercely contested the ground had been. Here we began to suffer casualties and one of the first to get hit was the officer in No. 4 platoon. As we lay there with our heads in the shelters with the continual explosion and concussion of Fritz’s shells all around us, never knowing whether the next moment would be our last ones, thoughts could never be described as pleasant and many a man has prayed to be preserved, who at any ordinary time has never thought of God. At such a time as this one is brought face to face with death and although there is no fear one feels very curious as to what may take place should one be fatally hit.
From time to time, officers and men would run out from the wood, wounded in various places and ask to be bandaged up before going down to the dressing station while occasionally one man or another would be hit out of our own company and go back to the dressing station. At length we were moved by platoons into the wood, scrambling over fallen tree trunks, tripping over branches and roots, feeling sick at the sight of so many dead and mutilated men that met our gaze on all hands, until at last we stopped, and digging a line through the wood, began to dig ourselves in. This proved a very hard task for the roots required cutting and progress at first was very slow, but one doesn't require any incentive to work hard when Fritz is concentrating his attentions in the form of shells on your particular locality, so sweating all over we at last managed to dig a trench some two and a half foot deep which, by kneeling down in, afforded a certain amount of cover from flying pieces of shell and shrapnel.
After working for about an hour and a half on this trench a number of us were taken to reinforce the front line some 75 yards in front, and consisting of shell holes and a shallow trench, here I found myself with three other men in a shell hole which formed a connecting link between the left of our battalion and the right of a battalion of South Africans and under any circumstances the outlook did not appear very enjoyable. It was courting death to look over the top of the shell hole owing to the attention of an enemy sniper with which the wood was infested, a fact which was amply testified by the fate which befell one of our number while getting from our hole to the next. Two shots rang out and he fell into the next hole fatally wounded. This warned us to be careful and so after some deliberation we set to work with our spades and entrenching tools to deepen the hole and dig through to our own trench on the right. As far as I was concerned I did not feel apprehensive of great danger but determined if possible to stick to the other three chaps who had all been in action before and therefore knew what to do for the best. They suggested that as the position was so precarious and the enemy's shelling so terrible, we should, when a suitable opportunity presented itself, endeavour to join up with some of the battalion in the line behind, and having agreed on this they just waited until they saw their way clear.
Meanwhile I was digging energetically to join up if possible with these on our right but hearing a row behind-looked back to see the three chaps getting out of the hole to run back to the next line. Without any more hesitation therefore I quickly grasped my rifle and bayonet and followed suit.
Directly I got on the top, the sniper started paying me his attentions but by dodging and running round various shell holes and falling over tree trunks and such like. 1 did not give him much chance to get any aim. At length, sweating and out of breath I espied the trench in front and utterly exhausted by my efforts fell into it glad of even the very slight cover it afforded. Here I stayed for about three hours while we underwent a very heavy strafing from Fritz, every shell seeming to fall very near the trench, so terrible was the force of some of the explosions. When the bombardment had abated I made my way again to the trench where I had dug in first thing that morning and here coming across some fellows of my own company got in with them. Out of the many sets of equipment I succeeded in salvaging a pack to replace the one I had left in the shell hole in front and also some rations for which I was grateful for we had not had anything to eat since 9 o'clock the night previous, and now there was a lull and one began to feel hungry. So we partook of some bread and cheese and a little of our precious water and feeling refreshed began to settle down and dig a bit deeper, clean our rifles and do sundry odd jobs of this sort to prepare for a counter attack from Fritz which was anticipated.
Slowly the darkness crept upon us bringing with it the manifold dangers of the night, making the waving, swaying trees appear to be moving and causing us to think that the enemy was coming, but with the exception of a number of false alarms, nothing occurred and we were warned to get ready to be relieved about 12 o'clock midnight by the 4th Royal Fusiliers of the 9th Brigade.
Midnight arrived but no relief appeared and it was not until 2 a.m. that the first company came up and relieved a portion of the line, and not until 6 a.m. did anyone come along to relieve us. Then they came, and, worn out and exhausted by our nights vigil and terrible nerve strain we staggered rather than walked out of the wood and down the sunken road and so back the way we had come to the trench from which we started out. On arrival we had some tea and then made our way to those shelters which we had made such a few hours before but which only a few had survived to share. a shelter made for 3 or 4 chums now held only 1 while our own which had been made for three held two, the other having been killed. The next thing was a visit to the other platoons to find out how our own chums had fared. Of our draft Dixon (no35056 Private F J Dixon) and Blackman (no 3479 Private W A Blackman) were wounded and Lindsay (Private Albert Frederick Lindsay 34649 Died 20/07/1916 commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial Pier and Face 4A) had been killed. Of the rest in A Company two had not been in action while the others had survived the ordeal. The day was devoted to rest and a wash in a mine crater, and in the evening a voluntary thanksgiving service was held by the Welsh minister and never have I attended such an impressive service. It was held in the open with an occasional shell falling nearby and was indeed a real and sincere thanksgiving for our preservation from danger.
The next morning a Master Roll Call was held and it was found that of some 530 who had gone into action about 250 were killed, wounded, or missing. It also appears that the enemy had twice counter attacked just previous to our attack and that as a result, when we went over in the half light of dawn a battalion of the Essex Regiment on our right not knowing we were going to attack thought we were Germans and fired on us when we were going over, all this of course making our chances of success very much less.
The first two companies succeeded in getting to the enemy trench but after some hand to hand fighting were driven out leaving a number of prisoners in German hands. As far as our own company was concerned we lost our Captain and 2 other officers, leaving a 2nd Lieutenant in charge, together with a number of NCOs and men. In a short address the Colonel said how sorry he was that we had been led into such a death trap and congratulated us on our escape.
We stayed in that trench until we were relieved by another division some three or four days later and then we commenced our march back to the place where we were to rest and reorganise. First of all, however, we spent four days in Divisional reserve in tents in a wood and from here we had a much needed bath and clean change. then the four days were up we left the wood and marched to Morlancourt where we were billeted in a barn with plenty of straw.