The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 7 The Battle of the Ancre
Dawn was late in coming owing to a fairly thick mist and when after a short but exceedingly heavy bombardment the first line of the brigade went over, observation as to direction was difficult. This part of the line had always since the lst July proved our stumbling block and our chances were none to grand on this occasion but it was with something akin to consternation that some ten minutes after the commencement we saw the Suffolks returning, having failed to get through the German wire. During this time we had been lying in the open with very little cover under the enemy's barrage, and I am sure I shall never forget the morning of November 13th.
Overhead could be heard the continual swish swish of our shells as they past on their way to the German trenches while on all sides could be heard the crash of the explosion of Fritz's shells and trench mortars, as he replied vigorously to our bombardment. The wounded too were now beginning to come back and it was therefore with no pleasant thoughts that we awaited the order to go into action. Next to our dismay the Gordon's retired through us and now we were all fairly mixed up. We were on the extreme left and no orders came to us, on the right some men were moving forward and charging but we had not the faintest idea what was happening or the direction we were to take.
Some of the Gordon's N.C.O.'s were making valiant efforts to rally the men for another attack but there was little response, meanwhile we moved forward but finding ourselves isolated and out of touch on both flanks we were entirely at a loss to know where to go and what to do. By this time the retirement to the trench had become general so we also made our way back feeling that we had badly failed and made a mess of the whole thing. One very great cause of the failure however, was the fact that the men were so badly knocked even before the action that they had not the energy or strength left to attack again. But as far as our Battalion was concerned we had not done so badly. The two companies in front had succeeded in reaching their objective but owing to the retirement of the Suffolks and Gordon's had been isolated on the 4th German line with the result that Fritz had walked back down his 2nd and 3rd lines and captured the better half of two companies, and their officers. The fact that the flanks also had been held up completed the ruin and so at the end of the action we were no better off than previous to it. When we were in the trench we attempted to reorganise and a large number of the Battalion got together in the second line. Under the leadership of the Adjutant we then went forward to our most advanced position which had been at one time a good trench but which was now a mass of shell holes with very little cover from shell fire.
On arrival here we spread out down the line in two's and three's and awaited any sign of an attack on the part of the enemy, but this never came off, for he was too busily engaged on the right where our attack had been entirely successful, capturing the village of Beaumont Hamel which made the village of Serre be flanked on both sides.
We had not been long in this trench before the German's began to pay us their attentions at first with light shells. In front of us could be seen the enemy trench and some figures firing but owing to the mist which was still hanging about, we could not be certain that they were the enemy, for we knew that our men had been in front and these chaps appeared to be firing at an angle and not towards us. It was chiefly owing to the rifle fire which we let fly at these figures that gave the information to the enemy that our trench was occupied in force and he therefore lost little time in paying his compliments! As the hours passed his bombardment became more intense until it seemed that nothing could live in it. Shells of all sizes burst in front and behind the scanty cover we had and time and again messages were sent back telling that we were completely out of touch on both flanks with no machine guns and very few bombs, but no orders came through in return and things looked very black. It appeared certain that if we stopped there long enough we should all get wiped out.
In the beginning there had been about a hundred men occupying the trench but this little garrison was now sadly thinned out, as by two's and three's they had been killed and wounded. In the next bay to us or rather the next hole, were three officers, some privates and a man too badly wounded to get back on his own, and the finishing touches came when a shell burst clean in the centre killing the three officers and the wounded man and wounding some others. A sergeant from further along then came to a sergeant nearly where I was and after a brief consultation they agreed that as all the officers were now knocked out and that as there were so few men left with no orders from headquarters, it would be best to get back in three's to the main trench, some two hundred and fifty yards down the hill and await orders. It was then passed along to retire by three's and in this manner those of us who were left made our way back to the main body.
After this exceedingly unpleasant experience we had a few hours rest in a dugout and about 8 p.m. made our way to Rob Roy trench, our real front line where we had something to eat and awaited relief by the Gordon's which was to take place about midnight. At length they arrived and we made our way back through the trenches to Courcelles passing on every hand evidences of the heavy reply that Fritz had made to our bombardment. Here we rested the night in huts and next day had a roll call to see how many remained. The casualties were somewhere about 350 officers and men. A costly day's work with no result as far as we had been concerned. It was with great sorrow that I found my chum Early among the killed. (Private 35072 H Early ref A14 RAILWAY HOLLOW CEMETERY, HEBUTERNE)
That night we were under orders to go up again and after tea fell in for the long march to the trenches, no pleasant prospect worn out and weary as we were. We got there at last and held a reserve line for 24 hours and were then relieved again for a few more hours before starting back again to hold the line for three days, this time in the first line.
During the day the most advanced line was held by machine gun and bombing posts but during the night a platoon of men were sent in as an addition. The first night of the four our platoon was picked for this job and when darkness had set in we made our way to that series of shell holes which constituted our front line and which had received such a heavy strafing only a few days before. We were put out so in a hole and during the night took turns of half an hour each as sentry. About midnight it commenced to snow, the first we had experienced that winter, and as we lay there five of us in the hole with one looking over the top, unable to move for fear of being seen, we became gradually enveloped in a mantle of white so that we were barely distinguishable from the snow-covered ground which was on all sides.
At length dawn began to appear in the sky and we made our way back to Rob Roy trench but not without incident. Cur limbs stiffened by the cold and lack- of exercise during the night, some of us experienced difficulty in keeping in touch with those in front with the result that instead of keeping to the firm ground over which the first men had gone, one chap lost his way and finished up in a hole full of water up to his waist. 'When we had pulled him out we looked round and finally espied the route to be taken and at last landed at our destination i.e. 'A' Company's dugout. A few minutes before we arrived at the dug out a terrific bombardment started on the right in front of Beaumont Hamel as our troops tried to advance their gains of the 13th November. As a result of this the enemy retaliated on our section of the line with extreme energy, making things exceedingly, unpleasant for the whole of that day.
Still we did not suffer many casualties, owing to most of us being below ground in the deep dugouts which could withstand anything but a bombardment of heavy shells.
During the four days that we held this portion of the line, we got very little to eat and nothing to drink while the trench was in such a terrible state of mud and water owing to the snow and bombardments, that it was extremely difficult to get about. At length, to our great joy, we were told that we were to be relieved that night at 10 p.m. but although we were all ready long before the time indicated it was long after midnight before they turned up and then we had to make our way back to the village of Bus changing our Jack boots at Courcelles.
We went to the same billets as we had left before making the attack, and it was here that we really felt the loss of our comrades, for where they had been before, now their places were empty, some killed, some wounded, still it was the fortune of war and perhaps next time some of us would not be there to answer the roll call.
The attack was now a thing of the past and as far as we were concerned, practically a failure, and many rumours were about that we were to be relieved soon, but there was no such luck.