The War Diary of George Culpitt, Royal Welch Fusiliers
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Chapter 19 the Developing Air War
On the l9th we were relieved during which Fritz shelled with heavy gas shells necessitating the use of our helmets. About midnight of l9th-20th we reached Harpeuville where we had some breakfast and a couple of hours sleep before continuing our way to Rubampre. During this march special precautions were taken against aircraft attack. A Lewis gun being carried on top of a limber ready for instant use. The air war was now developing Quickly while a new school of thought decided that the number of lewis guns per battalion should be increased while a Battalion Hqtr Lewis Gun section of 4 guns was also created. During this time out of the line therefore the extra teams were created and I was chosen among others for this new enterprise under Battalion H.Q.
We moved Harpeuville on the 4th June to Achieux where we were, Put into tents in a wood nearby. I was in Achieux in 1916 and can. therefore notice the difference now. Most of the people have left owing to the shelling. Only the YMCA Hut remains as before. Our section was attached to B Company for whom we mounted an Anti aircraft gun on June 5th. I was warned that I was included in the party going up to take over the new section of trenches but was later cancelled. After tea, prior to our going up, the R.N.D. Band played selections for our benefit and there were also items of singing included. The noise of the guns not far away added to the noise if not to the appreciation of the concert.
At 9.30 we fell in for the trenches, parading with B company Headquarters. As a precaution against air attack and the possibility of shelling we went ahead in ½ platoons. It seemed a tremendous long way and we were fairly 'knocked' when we -reached the line. The country was hilly and open with no cover. We relieved the Royal Naval Division. All the Lewis Guns were in the support line and we carried. on sentry through the night of June 5th-6th. These summer nights are luckily short so stand to at night. is 9.45 p.m. and stand to in the morning 3.30 a.m.
June 6th was quiet by our standards but next day was more active with Trench Mortar shelling all day. This opened, up again on June 8th during the morning, but not sufficiently to interrupt the fatigues we were doing for the R.E.s. some 15 minutes after stand to at 9.45 the Division on our left made a raid on a large scale. At zero hour every machine gun on our sector opened up to draw the enemy's fire away from the main raid. Fritz's lights were up immediately and his artillery came down on us at once. For ten minutes things were hot but his artillery switched off to the left where our boys were going over, and only M.G. fire and a few Trench Mortars came our way. Before things settled down again two hours went by, after which we carried on with our jobs.
At stand to at 3.30 a.m. on June 9th a fresh stunt came off on our right and we came in f or some of the enemies.barrage fired f or some 3/4 of an hour. After this the day passed quietly and we were relieved by D Company at 10.15 p.m. We occupied Reserve lines in a road near to BH2 where we did Arete A. work.
June 10th also passed quietly except for the attention of four enemy planes at intervals during the day.
June llth passed with T.M. activity during the day followed by Artillery Activity on the right and centre, and the following day was also a quiet one. During the early hours of June 13th Fritz heavily shelled our rear with gas shells and all the morning there was great aerial activity on his part. At 9.30 p.m. we were relieved by the 16th Battalion and went further back to some trenches about 600 yards in front of Eglebruck and from here we went on RE fatigues digging trenches and wiring, etc. for the next, six days.
It is to be noted here that as Fritz in his March attack had driven us beyond our original reserve trenches, it was necessary that a complete new system of trenches had to be dug, behind our present front line. No one knew how long we might remain in this position or what efforts the enemy might make to drive us further back and so between his turns in the front line the poor infantry was made to dig and wire huge stretches of Somme clay. In the night of June 19th we were spared our job owing to a strafe our Corps were giving Fritz which lasted the best part of the night.
June 20th turned out wet and that night also we did no fatigues owing to various stunts on our immediate front. The 14th Battalion went over on a raid at 2 p.m.
June 21st was wet but quiet and next day we were relieved by the 2nd Battalion and went back to Proseville where we bivouaced under a ridge just outside the village.
June 25rd was passed in inspections and the Divisional Band played during the afternoon.
Next day the Headquarters Lewis gun section of 4 guns was broken up and the men returned to their companies. As a result 1 had one of the few pieces of luck which fell to me during the war. The new arrangement as regards Lewis guns was that only one team should be retained on H.2. and I found myself detailed as No. 3 to a Lance Corporal Thomas with instructions to proceed to the Transport lines which were some distance behind and mount an Anti aircraft gun.. I was very thankful for this respite for the strain of this period was tremendous. We therefore relieved another team on the transport lines on June 24th and for 6sSplendid summer days, we had an easy time, broken only by Fritz dropping bombs in our vicinity at night, when we used to rush out of our tent and. fire in the direction of the sound of his machine. This was a nightly occurrence, and I could never really see what good we did firing haphazardly into the air, but it justified our being out of the line and gave some amusement. Bombing behind the lines was the trouble at this time and one got so used to it that unless things got unpleasantly close no notice was taken.
The night of July 2nd-3rd was the occasion for a terrific straf on our immediate front. One felt thankful not to be in it. as in our tent we could hear the distant thunder of the guns and feel the ground vibrating beneath. Owing to the shelling of the village near to our present pitch we were compelled to move on July 4th and took up residence in the transport lines.
The fine weather continued during our stay here and except for considerable activity in the air things were quiet. This period was interesting for the opportunity given to study the enemy's methods of attacking our observation balloons.
Sometimes, coming over the lines at a great height, in order to escape observation he would suddenly swoop down on some hopeless balloon firing rapidly in order to set it alight. Immediately our guns would open out and the din would be terrific. Auto aircraft guns and machine guns going full pelt. As the balloon burst into flames the pilot and obscured would leap out on a parachute, unless of course they had been killed or wounded by the machine gun fire of the airman, while the blazing balloon sank slowly to earth.
Then away Sped the Plane until as the guns dropped out of range they stopped firing and the excitement was over until the next time. Such an episode as this took place at least daily and sometimes two other times a day and some fine exhibitions of flying were to be witnessed as the pilots endeavoured to escape the gun fire directed at them. Once we saw an enemy aeroplane at a good height being heavily shelled. White blobs of shell bursts appeared all around it and even at times blotted the tiny speck from view. At last he was seen to be apparently falling down, straight down the plane came twisting over and over while the guns ceased fire. Then call of a sudden it righted and flew swiftly away, having 'dished' the guns into belief that they had registered a hit and caused them to lose all semblance of range and direction.
On July 13th the Battalion came out of the line and on the 18th the Division was relieved, after postponement from the 16th, and we rejoined our Battalion on the 20th at Varrenes.and then Forceville.
The next day passed quietly but the 22nd brought rumours of an exdected attack by Fritz and we fell in in Fighting order reacy to take upbattle positions in case of attack. This,thank goodness, did not mature and we continued our 'rest' and training in the usual manner, firing on the Range, inspections etc.
On July 30th we left Forceville for Raucheval arriving at 5 p.m. and next, day we went firing on the range at Ichiva.
August 1st, 2nd and 3rd was spent in practising the retaking of Headaville Switch should occasion arise. On the latter day, however, we learned that Fritz had vacated Avaluy Wood and Hill 45W. On August 4th, after Church parade at 10.30, we marched F.M.O. to Harresant starting at 2.10 p.m. which we reached at midnight. A parade at 10.30 a.m. on August 5th for inspection of our rations warned us of difficult things to come for when they inspected our war rations we knew there was a possibility of us being in a place where some difficulty would be experienced in sending up our morning bacon and eggs?!