The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 8 Winter 1916
Had we succeeded in gaining our objective on the 13th there is little doubt that we might have been relieved but having failed the punishment was that we had to hold the line for the winter. It was now getting on towards the end of November and winter had set in and was proving the worst of the three so far during the war.
The trenches except a very few places were nothing more than deep ditches, 2-3 feet deep in mud and water and although it was decidedly more dangerous to go along the top than in the trench, it was the usual way as it was not wet and uncomfortable.
For practically the whole of the time we held this portion of the line we did four days in the trenches, four in reserve and twelve in brigade reserve called rest? at Louvencourt, during the whole of which we were in fatigue, road sweeping and such like jobs.
While on Battalion reserve for four days at Courcelles there were usually nightly fatigues up the line for the R.E's. On such jobs as these some 25 men under a Corporal or Sergeant would report to the RE's billets about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and after a wait of perhaps half an hour, would start off to the dump under the leadership of a private in the R.E's. They usually stuck across country passing Colincamps on the right and going through the batteries of 60 lbs. to the dump.
Here each man would be given perhaps a sheet of corrugated iron, a piece of winter work for the side of the trench, or large planks for dugouts etc. and with these we would stagger and slip on the muddy ground. If we had a good chap in charge we should go along the top and so get there quickly, but if there happened to be a 'windy' fellow leading then should Fritz drop a shell or two over he would promptly drop into a nearby trench and carry on through some two or three feet of mud, to finally arrive out of temper and wet through the skin at our destination, usually the front line where we would discover sundry parties of R.E's endeavouring to reconstruct the trench. This was nearly always labour in vain for directly Fritz from his superior observation, discovered any signs of renovation, he usually did his best to level that part of the trench to the ground a day or so after.
At length Christmas drew near and we began to wonder whether we should have the good fortune to be out of the trenches for this or not. Some twelve days before Christmas we did four days in the front line but instead of returning to Courcelles for the next four we had to stay in the Divisional dugout, not far from Euston Dump. This dugout was one of the finest I have ever seen made by us. Some 60 feet deep with 6 entrances it was divided into galleries and chambers with shelves along one side on which to sleep and was capable of holding an entire battalion.
During these four days I was one of three men who were picked for guard over a water tank which supplied the men in the line.
Some two hours after we had got settled down in the large dugout we were warned to pack up for the guard and, led by the corporal of the guard we were relieving, we set out in the pitch dark for the sentry post. After what seemed a never ending journey we arrived with wet feet at the dugout or shelter in which the guard was quartered. I was the first to relieve the last man of the old guard so with the corporals of the old and new guards, set off over the top to the sentry post by the tanks and here I took up my post for the first two hours. The guard was for the whole of the four days and we worked 2 on and 4 off the whole time. As it was not very safe to go over the top from the dugout to the sentry post some 400 yards down the trench, during the day it was necessary to go along the trench for that distance and the whole way was a lake or river of mud varying in depth from 1 to 4 feet. Having to go over the ground water so often we got to know the way even in the dark and got as less wet as possible, but for one who did not know the way the place was a proper trap. As a result of this the Corporal in charge, when returning from the sentry post, not knowing of the existence of a large hole under the water, stepped in in the dark and got wet through to the waist and splashed from head to foot in liquid mud. At last we were relieved by the Royal Fusiliers and as the Battalion had already left the trenches, we made our way back to Louvencourt where we were to stay over Christmas.
We were very lucky on the way back for we managed to get a lift on a limber from Courcelles to Bus and a ride in a motor lorry from Bus to our destination.
As usual we were billeted in a barn but we did not mind this very much as long as there was plenty of straw and we could have a fire.
Christmas Day came and with it our allowance of Christmas Pudding or rather that which the newspapers had collected for during the year. For dinner we had roast meat, nearly all fat and a small portion of potato followed by some of this pudding which was really very good. Of course most of the chaps had parcels or money to procure, such luxuries as they desired from the BFF Canteen and so no one went without.
However, the day passed fairly quietly and there was not much merry making even at night, when the estaminets opened, for the thunder of the guns up the line served to remind us that even at this time of peace and goodwill we were engaged on the greatest war of all time and that many of us might never see another Christmas in this world. Our period of holding the line was now nearly at an end for it was now pretty certain that we were to be relieved in the near future. At the beginning of December, as the result of the continued rubbing of ill fitting Jack boots and wet feet, I began to suffer from sore feet and just after Christmas I went to the doctor as it was almost impossible for me to get about. 1 was marked 'attend' and therefore did not accompany the battalion to the trenches when they went in after Christmas but was sent to the Detail Camp at Bus joining the Battalion when they got back to Courcelles. But my feet were no better and therefore 1 once again stayed behind while they went up to do the last 5 days before we were relieved. The Battalion as a whole was in a sorry state as the result of the severe winter we were experiencing, coupled with the close attention which the enemy afforded us, for unlike some parts of the line there were usually a fair number of casualties every time we went up.
At the end of three days therefore the Brigadier, thinking that the men could not stand 5 days at a stretch, ordered us to be relieved for two days and then to go up again to finish to the last two days after the rest.
But this was really mistaken kindness for the men would much rather have stayed in for the five days right off than do three days, come out for two and then have to go back for the other two. Still at the end of the third day they were relieved and straggled in, worn out and weary to the billets in huts at Courcelles. Next morning as usual, after a turn in the trenches, there was a large increase in the number of sick, and the following morning 250 men left in the Battalion reported sick. Of these some 40 were marked 'attend' (myself included) as unfit to go in the trenches while 5 or 6 were sent to Field Ambulance. But this was not the end of it for when the doctor was told that he would have to alter all those marked 'attend' to 'M and P' in order that they might go up the line, he promptly refused and instead sent them all to F.A. I therefore found myself on the way to hospital and finally landed at a field ambulance at a place called Vauchelles, some 5 kilometres the other side of Louvencourt. Here I stayed a week at the end of which, finding that I could get my boot on, and as during that time the 3rd Division had been relieved by the 39th, they sent me back to the Battalion. As they had shifted back for rest and training, I had to take a railway journey to St. Pol and from here there lay in front of us a 3 mile journey by road. We arrived at the station at night and as we did not care to take the journey in the dark we stopped in a rest hut until morning when we set out to find the Battalion. .By the time I got to my company's billets, the sores on my heel and leg which had been healing nicely had broken out again and causing me nearly as much pain as before.
The next day, being Saturday, I did a parade with the Company, but on Sunday reported sick again to get my heel dressed: as a result I was marked 'attend' and continued so for three weeks, the whole time the Battalion was stationed at that village, while the men were out training and drilling.
The weather at this time was bitterly cold and dry so I escaped so extremely painful drills etc. through being marked 'attend'. On the morning we left the village and started on a four day's march 1 was again marked 'attend' and should have been carried on a transport but finding there was no room on the already overloaded wagons, we had to walk. The whole Brigade shifted at the same time and the first day's march covered 12 miles. But by dint of resolution and exertion of will power I managed to stick it and finally landed some 2 hours after the Battalion at the village where we were staying the night. The remaining 3 day's march I managed to keep with the Company, and therefore when I went to have my leg dressed after we had arrived and settled down, as I had walked all the way I was considered fit for duty and never troubled the doctor again although my feet were still paining at times.
We were then in billets at a place called Hautville and here we stayed for some three or four days before going into the line for a spell really to take stock of the surroundings, for it was here that we were going over when the anticipated spring offensive took place.