The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
|Home Page||The Diary||A Short Biography||Links|
|Timeline||People & Places||Army Life||Fighting|
Chapter 11 A Brief Respite
What we were to do in the future was now our chief food for thought, should we go further back for reorganisation and training or were we to stay here and after the arrival of a draft or two to return to the line.
We now began going to Dainville and elsewhere for training in open country fighting, and stayed for a few days in the first billets, but soon we shifted back to nearer the station and it became apparent that we were for the line again when we had been sufficiently made up by drafts of new recruits from the Base. We stayed thus for nearly two weeks, and then as our turn came round again for the line in reserve to another division we gradually shifted nearer and nearer to the scene of activities. Now we were in a system of trenches known as the Brown line and were to go up and relieve a battalion that was going over that afternoon. They went and from the rear we watched the barrage that Fritz put up: later that night we started out making our way in single file over unknown ground until after many anxious moments we reached the Headquarters of the battalion whom we were relieving.
Relieving is always a nerve-trying job, for if we were spotted it meant the enemy would be sure to turn his guns upon us, and here, with only a shallow trench for protection, the chances of detection were trebled. After a while however, we succeeded in getting our positions without detection and began to settle down. We had not been there more than half an hour when word was sent down that the 12th Division were attacking on the left and a few minutes later the guns opened out heralding the beginning of the attack.
Fritz was not long in replying and in our position, that of the second line, we came in for a large amount of heavy stuff which he threw over to for a barrage. Shell after shell burst with stunning force around us and for a time things looked very black. No. 1 platoon which was on the extreme left of the line were having even a worse time than us for the trenches got shallower as they extended to the left, while the artillery fire in that quarter grew worse.
After a time however, the attack having succeeded, the enemy's guns slackened and we were able to have a look round and take stock of our new position.
The trench, was one recently captured from the Germans and freshly dug by our men: in front 600 yards away was the front line, a series of shallow trenches, some half full of water, in which it was counting death to put one's head above the parapet. Behind, nearly 1000 yards, was the village of Monchie, one of the finest positions for observation for miles around, and for which the fighting had been of the very fiercest.
When we arrived, the place was almost whole, but when we left, some 8 days later, it was a total wreck, nothing but a mass of bricks, dead horses, and dead men. Taking it all round, the position was not a pleasant one for, this being the reserve line and much more defendable than the first, we came in for the attentions of two or three batteries of 5.9's which fired on us continuously the whole time we held the position.
At first, we thought we were to be relieved at the end of 2 days, but that was not the case. On the second night, I had the most remarkable escape from death which had yet come my way. The enemy was bombarding us heavily, and we - four of us - sitting- in a shelter which we had constructed, consisting of some planks placed across the trench, with a number of sandbags on top. It was at least proof against shrapnel, although not the slightest use against a big shell, but it afforded a certain amount of security. Not long after the shelling started, I was sitting in one corner of the shelter and the thought seemed to strike me that the position was not safe, and without hesitation I moved to the opposite corner, diagonally across the dugout where I felt a lot safer. I had cause to congratulate myself upon this move later, for not five minutes after I had shifted a whizz bang (small high velocity shell) exploded on the top of the dugout just above where my head had been. The force of the explosion shook the dugout and covered us in dust, while the noise and flash both deafened and blinded us for a moment. At first we all thought we had been buried but when we had sufficiently recovered ourselves to examine the effects of the shell burst we found that none of us inside the shelter had been hit although the shelter itself was knocked about a bit. One chap on sentry had caught two or three pieces of shrapnel in the face, and beyond a very bad headache as a result of the explosion, none of us inside had suffered.
It was indeed a remarkable escape from my point of view, had I not moved when I did, I should probably have been killed or at least badly wounded.
The bombardment did not cease all that night nor all the next day, and it became apparent that the enemy meditated an attack sooner or later. If anything, as day wore on, the shelling increased and shrapnel flew over and about us ceaselessly.
In the afternoon while standing outside our shelter for a brief spell, I had another narrow escape, a large piece of shrapnel striking my steel helmet and making a large dent, but not penetrating. Undoubtedly on this occasion, my helmet saved my life for the shrapnel came with such force that glancing off my hat it struck another chap on the ankle causing a large bruise. As a result of the terrific shelling our casualties were many and frequent. At the end of a 36 hour's bombardment, on the night of the third day of our occupation an anticipated enemy attack came off, and for a while the bombardment grew if possible, more severe, but they were twice beaten off by the Kings Own who were at the time holding the advanced line.
As a result of this attack we had to relieve the Kings Own the following night and the prospect in front of us did not look exceedingly bright. It now transpired that we were to remain in the front line for 4 days and so with this in view we started out about 9 p.m. to relieve the men in the front line. It was a clear moonlit night and one could see almost as far as in daylight. First of all we had to cross some six hundred yards of open country and this proved a trying time for again and again 'very' lights rose and fell and enemy snipers, thinking they saw, something, fired in our direction.
We managed, however, to reach the edge of the trench without loss and it was while waiting, on the top for the Kings Own to leave that the corporal of the platoon was hit by a sniper. So severe was the nerve tension at the time that as a result of his being hit everyone jumped into the trench below, taking no heed of what lay at the bottom. Some jumped into two feet of water, others over their ankles in mud. Luckily I struck a dry place so did not begin our occupation quite so uncomfortably as come.
That night, however, no rations arrived so we had to go hungry all next day, for it was impossible to appear on the top in daylight.
The second night of our stay, we received information from Headquarters that the enemy were expected to attack that night and therefore were very much alert, standing to all night on the lookout for the slightest move from the enemy's trench. Luckily, nothing happened and the morning dawned and relieved us from watching.
Isolated units of the enemy were always to be seen however, during the hours of dusk and dawn, going to their posts as snipers for the night and returning in the morning.
The third night I was picked with 9 others for what was the most risky of jobs on a front like this - that of patrol. About 10 p.m. we started out and going to the left, made our way to where the Kings Own held a portion of the line and where a new trench was being dug. From here we struck out towards the enemy's lines going from shell hole to shell hole in pairs for his snipers and machine gunners were busy and watchful and at the slightest movement shots came in our direction. We had not been out very long when we encountered one of the enemy. He approached us unknowingly from the rear and must have thought we were Germans for he spoke to us in his native tongue, but on perceiving his mistake, he turned and ran for it. My chum was quicker than I for before I could get my rifle to my shoulder his rifle rang out and the Hun dropped mortally wounded. Had he surrendered instead of trying to escape we should have been only too pleased to have taken him back, but he brought about his own end when he tried to run away. After this nothing occurred worth mentioning and we finally returned to our own lines as dawn was breaking and were lucky in getting in just before our guns opened out in a ten minutes bombardment of the enemy's lines to see that the range was correct.
At last the 4th night drew round and we awaited relief. The enemy were now shelling the open space behind us across which the relief had to come and it looked as if we might have to stay yet another night and day in the trench. However, they turned up at last about one hour before dawn and our thoughts now were only on getting away before the break of day, but misfortune still dogged our path. We got out of the trench to allow of the relief getting in and lay in the open until the officer was ready to lead us back. At length he came and we started but before we got 100 yards he fell badly wounded in the thigh. We therefore had to lay in the open for some 15 minutes while he was bandaged and carried back to the trench, and all the time machine gun and rifle bullets flew over our heads.
At the end of this period we got the order to carry on and doubled for the shelter of a bank some two hundred yards further away. This we reached without loss and after a brief spell continued our journey homeward. The enemy however was still shelling and many was the anxious moment as we heard a shell approach and explode in front or behind us.
On the way out we got slightly mixed, for the whole Brigade was being relieved and everyone was making for the rear as quickly as possible for dawn had now broken and if we were seen we should soon know it.
I went back with seven other chaps and we made for the Cambrae Road, and when we reached this we were pleased to secure a ride on an ammunition limber to our destination which was an old trench behind Tillery.