Henry Williamson and 208 Machine Gun Company

 

 

Back to 'Henry Williamson and the First World War'

 

 

Henry Williamson and 208 Machine Gun Company

 1916–1917

 

 

208 hw 1917
Lieutenant Henry Williamson, 1917

 

 

Introduction

 

Training

 

France

 

208 Machine Gun Company: Photographs from Henry Williamson's archive

 

 

Sources:

 

Peter Cole: 'The 286th Machine Gun Company' (HWSJ 18, 1988), which compares the activities of the fictional 286 MGC, as depicted in Love and the Loveless, with those of 208 MGC

Anne Williamson: Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic (Sutton, 1995)

Anne Williamson: A Patriot's Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War (Sutton, 1998; paperback published as Henry Williamson and the First World War, Sutton 2004)

http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/

 

 

 

Introduction:

 

This page is intended to be an illustrated outline only of HW's experiences with 208 Machine Gun Company. HW's time with 208 MGC is well documented by his diary, letters home to his mother, a Field Correspondence book and a Field Message book. The books contain carbons of HW's messages and instructions, the originals going to the addressees. Anne Williamson, in her A Patriot's Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War, blends this multiplicity of material in a masterly fashion to present an evocative and full picture of HW's life, duties and experiences as 208 MGC's Transport Officer during this, his second period of service on the Western Front, which ended on 9 June when he was taken to a Field Ambulance Hospital and then a Casualty Clearing Station after being gassed when caught in a night bombardment while he and his mule teams were taking replacement machine guns and supplies up to the front line. He was invalided back to England on 18 June. Readers are recommended to search out a copy of this book, both editions of which regrettably are now out of print. The information that follows is necessarily a much shortened summary of HW's activities.

 

Private Henry Williamson was invalided out of the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, near Ypres, on 17 January 1915, suffering from dysentery and trench foot. (For further details about his service with the London Rifle Brigade during 1914–15, see Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade.) He was returned to England on 26 January and taken first to Ancoats Military Hospital in Manchester, and then to its associated convalescent home at nearby Alderley Edge, where he stayed for about a month. At a subsequent Medical Board he was given three weeks' leave, and returned to his home in early March. Recovering, he applied for a commission with the Bedfordshire Regiment, because his cousin Charlie Boone lived in the county – though Charlie actually joined the London Rifle Brigade and their paths never crossed; Charlie was subsequently transferred to the Machine Gun Corps and was killed on the Somme on 16 November 1916 (see Anne Williamson (compiler): 'Cousin Charlie: a tribute', HWSJ, September 2007). HW was commissioned as a 'temporary second lieutenant' on 12 April 1915.

 

 

beds hw april15

The newly commissioned HW –

his mother has noted on the back of this photo

'Harry April 1915'

 

 

Between April and September 1915 HW attended an officers' training course at Newmarket, being attached to the 4/1st Cambridgeshire Regiment. The adventures and experiences of this gauche young officer are well described, only very lightly fictionalised, in A Fox Under My Cloak. Training completed, on 9 October he was attached to the 25th (Reserve) Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, a newly formed battalion then at Crystal Palace, but which moved to Northampton the following month. On his return from a brief period of Christmas leave, HW found at the beginning of January 1916 that he had been posted to the Machine Gun Training Centre at Belton Park, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he was transferred to the newly formed 208 Company, The Machine Gun Corps.

 

The Machine Gun Corps was created by Royal Warrant on 14 October 1915, followed by an Army Order on 22 October. Its standard machine gun was the Vickers, which was fired from a tripod and cooled by water held in a jacket around the barrel. The gun weighed 28.5 pounds, and the water another 10; while the tripod weighed 20 pounds. Bullets were assembled into a canvas belt, which held 250 rounds and would last 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. Two men were required to carry the equipment, and and another two the ammunition. A Vickers machine gun team also had two spare men. Each infantry brigade maintained its own machine gun company of sixteen guns which generally remained with the brigade, moving in and out of the line with the infantry and providing covering fire whenever needed. There were three brigades to a division.

 

 

Training:

 

For the greater part of 1916 (when fit) HW was training with 208 MGC as its Transport Officer, where, apart from learning about the maintenance and firing of machine guns, he also attended riding school and learned how to look after horses and mules. Officers in 208 MGC were also trained in trench warfare, and the training manuals given to HW still exist in the Literary Archive.

 

However, in the summer of 1916 HW's health broke down again, and he was admitted to Millbank Military Hospital (otherwise The Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital) in London on 31 May 1916. His Medical Board on 26 June stated: 'He is now better but has lost weight and is anaemic. He requires a complete change.' He was given two months' leave, the latter part of which he spent in Georgeham, North Devon, with his friend Terence Tetley, travelling down on HW's motorcycle. On 29 August he attended another Medical Board at Caxton Hall, in Westminster, where he was found to be 'still suffering from the effects of dysentery. He is anaemic and about 1½ stone below weight.' He was considered unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for three months and unfit for even light duties for six weeks. He was therefore given a further six weeks' leave. At his next Medical Board, also at Caxton Hall, on 23 October, HW was passed fit for Home Service, and returned to his training at Grantham. On 1 November he was promoted to full lieutenant, the notification appearing in the London Gazette on 21 December.

 

 

208 hw nov16
HW, 208 Machine Gun Company, November 1916

 

 

There are two particular training booklets in the Literary Archive that specifically cover the duties of a transport officer. Notes on Pack Transport, with only ten pages of actual text, lays down the weights that can be carried by particular animals ('Mule – 160 lbs, Horse – 200 lbs, Donkey – 100 lbs'), with instructions on loading and a table of weights (for example, a box of 1,000 rounds of .303 ammunition weighed 80 lbs 8 oz, while a pair of saddle bags of ammunition was 19 lbs). It further states: 'Of all forms of transport, pack transport requires the most unremitting care and closest supervision in order to maintain it in that high state of efficiency without which continuous operations are impossible.'

 

The second booklet is The Mounted Officer's Book of Horses and Mules for Transport, while the title page further states: The Care of the Horse and Mule and how the harness should fit. Clearly it was an indispensable handbook. The Introduction states categorically:

 

The object of this book is to assist those whose duties are with the Machine Gun Transport. It should also be found useful to all Officers who are to be mounted.

 

As it is considered a point of honour for the Machine Gunner to keep his Gun firing under all circumstances, so it should be a point of honour for the Driver to keep his animal always in a fit condition and ready for any emergency.

 

This can only be done by the utmost attention to the animals: watering, feeding, grooming, and correct harnessing.

 

Very often the animal is put down as lazy or bad-tempered when the fault really lies with the man in whose care it is.

 

The efficiency of the Machine Gun Companies' Transport depends absolutely on the condition of each horse and mule, and too much care and attention cannot be given to their treatment.

 

The illustrations in this book show exactly the correct position of each part of harness, and any deviation from such position will only result in injury to the animal, create work for the man, and greatly impede the progress of the guns.

 

Harsh treatment should never be meted out to mules or horse, and this applies particularly to mules, who strongly resent any beating and refuse to be worked as a consequence. But by kindness, coupled with a firm hand, much good work will willingly be done by these invaluable assistants to the Machine Gun Corps.

 

It further stipulated:

 

THE DUTIES OF A TRANSPORT OFFICER

 

1. He is responsible for the detailing of all regimental transport. He should arrange a system of detailing transport duties daily, unless transport will be unevenly worked. Otherwise wagons are called out at all odd times, unnecessarily interfering with watering, feeding, grooming and the care of harness. In the case of M.G. Companies, mules worked in single pairs should occasionally be changed from near side to off, and vice versa, otherwise one will always have to bear the driver.

 

2. The T.O. [Transport Officer] is responsible for the condition of all horses, harness, vehicles, and for all matters which affect their utility, and in order to keep his animals in a good condition he should arrange for the observance of a regular stable routine whenever practicable.

 

3. He is responsible that the quantity of forage admissable per horse is drawn and expended without waste.

 

4. That all harness is kept serviceable, and fitted properly to each animal. That the shoeing is kept up to date and that the vehicles are kept properly greased and ready for service.

 

5. In order that the sick and injured rate of his animals is kept low, he should impress upon his men the necessity of individual care of their charges.

 

6. When the V.O. [Veterinary Officer] is inspecting his animals, he should arrange his duties so as to be there or detail an N.C.O. to accompany the V.O. during the inspection, and should elicit any information he requires concerning the welfare of the animals under his charge.

 

7. He should render it impossible for any captured or commandeered horse to be placed amongst his own until such time that they are passed fit by the V.O.

 

 

The first page in HW's Army Book 152, Correspondence Book (Field Service), begun on 6 February 1917, consists of a list of the mule drivers in the Transport Section of 208 MGC, with later amendments:

 

 

208 field corrrespondence

 

208 14feb list of mule drivers

 

 

208 MGC's training was now complete, and its officers and men ready for their transfer to France to join 187 Infantry Brigade, 62nd Division. The Company's commanding officer was Captain Cecil King, and his second-in-command Lieutenant Clarence Rose.

 

In his Field Correspondence Book HW set out the 'Orders for Entraining' for the Transport Section, of which this is the first page:

 

 

208 orders for entraining

 

 

************************

 

 

France:

 

On Saturday, 24 February 1917, 208 MGC 'Left Grantham at 9.30 for Southampton', arriving there at 6.00 the following morning. The Company embarked at 7.00 that evening, although the ship didn't leave until the following day. It docked, after a 'good voyage, at Le Havre without incident at 2 in the morning' on 27 February, and the Company went to the same Rest Camp outside the town that HW had been to in 1914 with the London Rifle Brigade. 208 MGC was attached to the 187th (2/3rd West Riding) Brigade, 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division, on the Somme sector of the British line, and it moved up to join the Brigade on 4 March. The other two brigades making up the 62nd Division were the 185th (2/1st West Riding) Brigade and the 186th (2/2nd West Riding) Brigade. 212 MGC joined the 185th Brigade on 9 March, and 213 MGC joined the 186th Brigade on the same day.

 

This was no quiet part of the line, the countryside and villages having been devastated by the fighting that had taken place during the Battle of the Somme, which had effectively ended during the previous November. During the first half of 1917 187th Brigade played its full part in 62nd Division's activities, which consisted of:

 

  • The operations on the Ancre (15 February–13 March)
  • The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (14–19 March)
  • The first attack on Bullecourt (part of the Arras offensive) (11 April)
  • The German attack on Lagnicourt (part of the Arras offensive) (15 April)
  • The Battle of Bullecourt (part of the flanking operations round Arras) (3–17 May)
  • The actions on the Hindenburg Line (20–28 May)

 

The map below is a sketch of the general area where 208 MGC was involved during the spring of 1917, the Transport Section moving from village to village as the situation demanded to support those in the front line:

 

 

208 map

 

 

The centre part of this map is enlarged in the 'skeleton map' below, from HW's archive, which shows the Front Line as at 18 March 1917, with Ervillers at its centre:

 

 

208 hw map 18.3.17

 

 

On 24 February, the same day that 208 MGC entrained for France, the Germans withdrew from their positions astride the River Ancre as the first stage of their retirement to the newly prepared Hindenburg Line, consisting of formidably strong defensive fortifications that enabled them to shorten their line. The area that they vacated was laid waste, with buildings razed to the ground and booby traps everywhere.

 

On 4 March HW wrote to his mother:

 

We are in rest now, and need it after our experiences. The mud is awful: 2 feet deep: nothing can move, the guns never stop, day or night . . . The Bosche is only going back because of the mud, nothing can move in it, and we have the disadvantage of fighting over the ground that we have utterly ruined . . .

 

In his diary the next day he noted:

 

Section officers went to trenches at Miraumont today. Heard we are going to Hamel.

 

In a letter to his mother, postmarked 10 March, HW later related that:

 

There is nothing left of Beaumont Hamel now. All the bricks have gone to make the roads, and the village is one huge desolation and destruction. The work of the Salvage Corps is excellent, nothing is left on the old ground: all helmets, rifles etc are cleared up. I had a narrow escape yesterday. I was going up to the trenches & over came a few Bosche shells and one tore a limber up, & tore a chunk out of my helmet over my left ear: without the helmet I should be in blighty now with a broken shoulder.

 

A few selected diary entries from this period describe his activities and serve to illustrate the hazardous life of a transport officer at the front, whose days were spent chiefly in dealing with the administration of the transport section and other tasks as required, but who by night escorted the teams of mules laden with supplies and ammunition, with their drivers, up to the front line, often in foul weather, through the mud of the crater zone and enemy bombardments. The Germans frequently used a mixture of high explosive and gas shells to cause maximum disruption and damage along the known supply routes, which could only be used at night.

 

Tuesday, 6 March: We are relieving 34th MGC tomorrow. Went to Engelbelmer about billets.

 

Wednesday, 7 March: Rode over to B.H. [Beaumont Hamel] Beaucourt and nearly to Miraumont today. Awful desolation. Aeroplane down. [A photograph taken of this aeroplane is in HW's photograph album, and is reproduced in 208 Machine Gun Company: Photographs from HW's archive.] No letters yet.

 

Thursday, 8 March: Took over from 34 MGC transport in valley at Hamel. Up at night to Coy. HQ. Road (Railway) badly crumped. Gunners lost 1 horse & G.S. waggon. Freezing at night. Slept in bell tent. Took 24,000 rounds to Miraumont.

 

Friday, 9 March: Bosche shelled Railway Road a bit. 30,000 rounds to Miraumont tonight. A few whizz-bangs in Suicide Valley. . . .

 

Saturday, 10 March: Early morning intense bombardment. Bosche prisoners. Building a dugout. Went to dinner with Canadians. All got tight.

 

Monday, 12 March: Artillery ominously quiet early morning. Davy wounded by bomb. Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment. 3 letters from home. Took 16 pack mules thro' Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o'clock dead beat. . . .

 

Tuesday, 13 March: Dull day, nothing doing. Heard Bosche evac. Irles and 290 prisoners & 15 m. guns. 5 letters. Took stuff up to Beau Regard. Awful [unreadable]. Shelled & 2000 gas shells. Arrived home 12.30 am. Raining like hell.

 

In a letter to his mother dated 13 March, HW expanded a little on these rather terse diary entries:

 

. . . The mud is awful 3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here she is a hog (father will translate) & has already killed ½ my drivers and mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him.

 

On 15 March he instructed his Transport Sergeant, Sergeant Mitchell (carbon copy in HW's Army Correspondence Book):

 

 

208 B 15mar message

 

 

 That same evening he noted in his diary:

 

Thursday, 15 March: Bombardment of our heavies all day off & on. Very busy finding billets at Engelbelmer. Saw 34 and 213 MGC. Bombardment intense at night, Achiet le petit the objective. Up all night.

 

In fact there were problems with the billets at Engelbelmer: with 208 MGC coming out of the line to rest, HW had been authorised to take over the billets of  213 MGC at Belton Park, a camp midway between Engelbelmer and Martinsault, but with only about half of 213 MGC going up the line, there was no room  for 'men, H.Q., or C.Q.M.S's stores'. The matter took three days to sort out.

 

Saturday, 17 March: Shifted finally into Engelbelmer. Rotten bad accommodation. Cold huts. Trouble with Sgt. [HW's problems with Sergeant Mitchell, whom he later described as 'a conceited, rather pert man, who undermined my authority', are fictionally portrayed in Love and the Loveless, where Mitchell is Sergeant Rivett.] Bosche evac. Bapaume.

 

Sunday, 18 March: Bosche evac. Achiet & Bucquoy. Evidently falling back on Arras Cambrai Line. Went all day on bomb carrying fatigue. Cavalry in action west of Bapaume. Bengal Lcs. Dgr. Gds. Bosche poisoning wells.

 

Even though the company was technically 'resting' out of the line, HW noted on 19 March that the 'Company goes to Miraumont to build Railway.'

 

Thursday, 22 March: Moved in evening in snowstorm to Miraumont. Arr'd 12 midnight. In tent with O.C. Coy.

 

The commanding officer, Captain King, and HW did not get on, which must have made for an uncomfortable relationship between the two. HW, in a letter to his mother dated 22 March, told her that:

 

. . . I had rather a row with the chap who is boss here, the result being what happened to me at Grantham with that supervising fellow – only as yet I have heard nothing only I should not be surprised if I were sent away from this Coy. anytime.

 

In a later letter to his father, dated 18 April, he  further explained:

 

. . . With regard to my position in this crowd the boss of it is a silent man sort of business. When I had been out here 10 days I was sent for by the General, who said, 'I have received this report from your Commanding Officer' – I looked & saw a dreadful report – careless, slovenly, no control over men, etc etc. Of course I was absolutely staggered & told him it was a bunch of lies – when I took over this section it was a bunch of waifs & strays and through my unceasing efforts at Grantham I had turned out one of the smartest transports in this Division. The other animals die of cold & neglect – the drivers are slack, but in my section I had 37 drivers & grooms to look after, and 47 mules and 10 horses. Each driver has a set of harness & 2 mules to look after, besides himself, his rifle and equipment etc. They often work all night & day perched up on a donkey absolutely frozen – and never complain – and are always willing – thats my section.

 

Of course I was greatly distressed at the report, especially as I knew I did not deserve it, but thats 7 weeks ago, so I suppose the report is squashed – anyhow if I had been turned down I should have raised hell.

 

Anyhow I shouldn't worry now if I were sent back to Grantham – I've had enough of this war – especially in its concentrated form as we've had it since we came out. We've followed the Bosche up step by step & are now 15 miles from his old line of Feb. Some of our poor tanks – oh lord, you people think they're invulnerable – oh dear wait till I see you. . . .

 

During this period HW had two narrow escapes: on 14 March he wrote home 'I am pipped a bit in left arm otherwise OK, am not going to hospital, all right in a week.' And then on 29 March:

 

Excuse this bad writing, but I've been hit again, ever so slightly in the right thumb so I've been wounded twice in this little campaign. It was a crump that burst near me and killed my horse & dented my hat, but didn't hit me except in the thumb, & has only caused a little cut 1 inch long on the inside of the bone. My arm is quite OK now & neither is bad enough for hospital.

 

 In his Field Message Book is a carbon copy of written orders given to Sergeant Mitchell on 1 April:

 

 

208 B 1apr field message book

 

 

What prompted the order about the issue of rum isn't known, though perhaps it was not unconnected with an unspecified incident mentioned in a letter to HW from Driver Martin in 1936, in which he reminiscenced, 'I still remember the rum incident at Mory, and have not tasted it since.'

 

The Arras offensive began in early April, and on 9 April, Easter Monday, the Canadians stormed Vimy Ridge; by 12 April, counter-attacks repulsed, it was firmly in their hands. HW's diary entry for 10 April noted:

 

Arras attack successful. Australian attack failed. Bosche preparing big blow attempting to retake MORY. [208] Coy. in the line. Big rumours of cavalry action. Bombardment midday at Arras, Beginning to feel the strain a bit – head aches like hell. . . .

 

And two days later:

 

Great excitement. Bosche broken in north, & expected to evac. H. Line [evacuate Hindenberg Line]. Artillery all day. Up all night. Gas attack, in early morning (3AM) Friday by English. Great attacks up north. Awful snowstorm. . . .

 

There was brief hope of a real breakthrough, and at 7.00 that same evening (12 April) HW wrote the following message to his Transport Sergeant in his Field Message Book:

 

The Coy. may have to move at any moment. ['15 packmules will be saddled up and 8 mules saddled up with G. saddles – to carry ammunition etc.' crossed out and 'see later' added.] Each of these animals will carry on itself a days rations, including hay and waterbuckets. In the event of the Coy. going forward, the limbers will not be used, but all carrying will be done by pack. Drivers will carry rifles and ammunition (for purposes self-defence) Please arrange for all drivers to draw their rations for tomorrow now.

 

Later. 12 pack mules will be saddled up at 11 oclock tonight – these will be mainly for use in B section. All the TS will be paraded and told they must stand by in their shelters, ready to clear off anywhere during the night. For tonight all transport will be by pack. All drivers must have their gas masks on now, and from henceforward. In order to enable you to understand what may be the situation and what is required to meet it, the following information is given for your benefit. The 7th DIVISION has got into position that threatens the Hindenberg Line, a withdrawal from which by the Germans is expected. In order to encourage this, BULLECOURT is going to be extensively gassed at 3 am tomorrow 13th inst. If the enemy retires, this Coy. will follow up with packmules. Resistance by scattered parties of Germans may be expected, also gas. You will remain here with the remaining limbers and animals and be prepared to follow on the advance guard. Further orders will be issued as soon as known.

 

The next day 208 MGC received copies of the order for an attack on the Hindenberg line at a date to be notified later '(not before April 16th.)', a copy of which is in the Literary Archive. This is the first page:

 

 

208 E 13apr orders for May 1917 attack 

 

 

In the event the attack did not take place until 3 May, after several postponements. Until then the Transport Section of 208 MGC continued its duties of supporting the front-line troops, in often atrocious weather. The carbon copies in HW's Field Message Book and Army Correspondence Book detail the minutiae involved in its daily organisation, and a few examples are given below:

 

 

208 D 20apr roll

 

 

208 D 24apr message

 

 

208 D 26apr message

 

 

On evening of 22 April 208 MGC moved from Mory to Ervillers; the next day HW sent this message to 'O.C. Mobile Station AVC [Auxiliary Veterinary Corps]. 62nd Div. Ervillers' (carbon copy, Army Correspondence Book):

 

We have a mule hit by shellfire in near foreleg; it is unable to walk. It is in our own mule lines at MORY: we have shifted and are now at Ervillers.Can you please arrange for an ambulance to be sent immediately. Another mule hit in the back for admittance please.

 

On 24 April, he had to send the following to his Commanding Officer (carbon copy, Army Correspondence Book):

 

The ADVS [Assistant Director Veterinary Surgeon] inspected the animals this morning, as was very dissatisfied with the condition of the mules. He remarked that some were apparently neglected, and wasting away. I explained with was the case with some animals, the reason being hard work, irregular watering and feeding (due to fatigues), the poor quality of the fodder and corn, and the under-establishment - this being 1 GS [General Service] waggon, and six mules. He has authorised me to protest in the event of too frequent fatigues. I also explained that rest at night was broken at intervals by the proximity of the battery at MORY.

 

On 1 May, an Order of the Day was issued to the 62nd Division:

 

 

208 E 1may order

 

 

Two days later HW noted the opening of the long-awaited attack on Bullecourt in his diary:

 

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford  [2/Lt. A. C. Montford of 208 MGC] killed.

 

Friday, 4 May: Gen Gough pleased with 62nd Div., why, God alone knows. 7th Div. badly cut up – apparently H. L. [Hindenberg Line] too damn strong for us at present. Another attempt at night fails. Coy. badly mauled. Have been very lucky.

 

Over these two days HW, in command of the rear party, ensured that fresh supplies of food, water and ammunition were reaching those in the front line, as illustrated by this message to Captain King:

 

 

208 E 4may message

 

 

The next day HW noted that the attack appeared to be stalling:

 

Saturday, 5 May: Early morning HAC [Honourable Artillery Company] & Warwicks attack again. Fail again. Evening Devons & Welch try again. Barrage at 10 oclock. Sgt Mitchell a casualty. Bosche attack smashed. Raining in evening.

 

He revised again in his Army Correspondence Book the nominal roll of the Transport Section, and set out the daily timetable for looking after the mules:

 

 

208 E 6may roll

 

 

208 E 6may transport programme

 

 

On 7 May 187th Infantry Brigade was taken out of the line. HW wrote in his diary, 'French take 5800 prisoners. Raining at night. Tremlett DSO. McConnell MC. Me nothing. . . . 2 Gordons take Bullecourt.' Lieutenant Elias Tremlett, aged 27, was killed on the night of 22/23 May, and is buried at Mory Abbey Military Cemetery, Mory.

 

Tuesday, 8 May: . . . Raining all last night and till midday. Sgt [Mitchell] comes back. Intense fire at 9.35 pm. another attack (counter attack on Bullecourt).

 

 He wrote to his father that same day:

 

Today it is raining like hell so I do nothing except sit in my tent, read, smoke, & write letters. We had some good news yesterday – Bullecourt has at last fallen, after four attempts. We know the reason now why the Bosche left his Ancre positions – they would have been child's play to take compared with his Hindenberg line.

 

I think you at home will just about be able to see what happens if you read our official reports – and the German reports. I have found the latter strictly accurate in all details. . . .

 

 On Monday 14 May his diary records:

 

Taking rations to Bullecourt tonight. Shelled a bit and about 200 phosgene shells sent over. Found a magpie's nest in bush near front line. Returned at 12 oclock.

 

There was an all too brief interlude two days later:

 

Wednesday, 16 May: Weather changing for the worse. Went to ASC [Army Service Corps] Mule races in the afternoon. No Bosche retirement. [It had been rumoured that the Germans were withdrawing to their Drocourt-Quéant line.]

 

There is a copy of the race programme in the archive – not in HW's handwriting, so it was probably written down by Sergeant Mitchell:

 

 

208 E Mule Races 16 May 1917 War Vol p. 122

 

 

The next day it was back to the routine:

 

Thursday, 17 May: Took rations up to Embankment near Bullecourt at night. Hellish bloody time. . . .

 

On Saturday, 19 May HW wrote to his mother:

 

Just a line to tell you I am quite well. I am dead beat, as I was up all night in a relief, shelled to hell with tear shells & crumps. . . . Well this is my fourth month and not a sign of leave yet – oh my hat I am bored stiff – I love the life (except the strafes of course) but am pining all the time. Thank God I'm a transport officer & dont go up again to the awful slaughter they call our front line – with the Bosche grinning 1000 yds away in a position much stronger than Beaumont Hamel, with his concrete dugouts & machine guns, & his tearing 5.9 inchers. . . .

 

The next day he wrote to her again:

 

Am going down the line a bit for 5 weeks to do a Signalling Course why I dont know I am very fed up with losing my Transport job but dont worry they won't get me in the infantry. I will return to the Coy as T.O. I hope, but I don't know. . . . Well till 24 June I shall be well out of the fighting: I shall be at the vth Army Corps H.Q. . . .

 

Why Captain King sent HW on an inappropriate signalling course is not known perhaps just to get an officer he did not like out of the way for a while. The CO's dislike seems to have been shared by his second-in-command, for on 21 May, before he left for the course, HW wrote in his diary:

 

Rather dull artillery going ceaselessly. Rode up line to see CBR [Lieutenant C. B. Rose]. Snubbed again by the bounder. Hellish Bosche shelling.

 

HW was evidently not cut out to be a signaller, for he did not last a week there, writing to his mother on 25 May:

 

Dear Mater, Have been chucked out of the course as I know damn all about signalling . . .

 

And in his diary:

 

Saturday, 26 May: Sent back from Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding]

 

The situation between him and Captain King had clearly come to a head, and HW applied for a transfer to another Company, as his diary shows:

 

Monday, 28 May: Brigade commences shifting to Bihucourt. Applied for transfer to another Coy.

 

Writing to his father on 3 June, HW informs him that:

 

. . . I am not very fit feeling rather run down and weak have had a touch of enteritis the last two or three days . . . Well father after 4 months of continuous warfare on the Ancre and against the — line I am really fagged out. My work hasnt been extra dangerous but we have been incessantly shelled and working as I have all day and all night the nervous strain is too much. you would be surprised how awful it is to go 6 miles up & 6 miles down the line every night right up to the gun positions shelled like hell all the way stinking horses, broken limbers, gaping shell pitted roads urgh, I am tired of it all and really shant be sorry if I am sent into the hospital here in which case I might go down to the base.

 

And in a letter to his mother the next day:

 

. . . All I can tell you about myself is that I am very unwell having been in a considerable period up the line while the Bosche was sending over Phosgene gas I got quite a lot of it and my insides generally done in & done up those long sweats up the line night after night, usually through heavy shelling and dead horses, and gas etc. have just about fed me up . . .

 

The night of 7/8 June saw another of those journeys up the line, and this time HW's team of mules were hit by an enemy barrage. HW wrote about that night just once, a little over ten years later, introducing his essay 'Reality in War Literature' with this vivid passage:

 

A motor car suddenly slowing down in the lane outside my window made a downward droning sound, and in an instant the sunlight was put out, and I was in deep sucking mud, helplessly and hopelessly pulling the reins of a mule, laden with machine guns, lying on its side on a slough of shell-holes. The vast negation of darkness, in hopeless travail with the dead weight of human and animal misery, was scored by white streaks arising in a semi-circle before us; burdened men, charred tree stumps, overturned limbers, sunken tanks, were wavery with shadows homeless in the diffused pallor of everlasting flares. To avoid the timber track, broken and congested with a battalion transport which had just received several direct hits, I had led the file of pack-mules across the morass, and one had fallen into a shell-hole; the foundering beast snorted and groaned, while the mud glimmered silver behind its ears. High explosive shells burst in salvoes around us, with ruddy glares and rending metallic crashes; bullets, arising in ricochet from the outpost-line nearer the flares, moaned and piped away overhead. I stood, hot and sweating, clogged with half a hundredweight of mud. Somewhere near the voice of a young colonel was cursing in high overwrought screams, for one of the mules had been hurled by a shell-blast among his men. They were coming out of the line after relief. Cries of horses mingled with the cries of men. Suddenly yellow-forked narrow flames rose to a great height in front, as though one of the poplars once lining the road were recreated in fire. One of the tanks going up to their jumping-off points for the morrow's battle had been hit. Within a minute the enemy harassing fire was concentrated on the road, and the flaming poplars rose, one beyond the other, into the rainy night. Then a soft downward slurring sound, followed by a dull thud; another, and another, and another. Gas shells! My box-respirator, at the alert position across the chest, was treble-weighted with mud. I could hardly discover my face, so heavy and monstrous were my arms. While I was struggling to fit the mask the brutal whine of five-nines began again along the track, and a salvo dropped in our midst.

 

A driver named Frith started screaming for his mother, and the light of my ordnance torch, through the misty panes of the gas-mask, projected a weak shine upon arms and legs tangled and twisted with shreds of a waterproof cape in a heap of dark red slime. A leather-covered trace heaved under the mass, and tautened; a stricken mule reared up gaping, and sagged, and under it Driver Frith sank into the slough.

 

Ten hours later our remaining mules, with their ears drooping, were standing, mud to fetlocks, along the picket line with its gnawn wooden posts. As for our night's work, nothing at all, as life went; an ordinary incident in the night job of any front-line transport.

 

The body of Private Willis Hirwin Frith, aged 20, was never recovered, and his name is one of the thousands carved on the Arras Memorial (Bay 10). For further details about Private Frith see the Homage to Driver Frith on this website.

 

HW's diary entry for Friday 8 June reads matter-of-factly:

 

Went sick this morning. Medicine & duty. Raining in evening. . . . Gassed at B. [Bullecourt].

 

He was admitted to a Field Ambulance Hospital the next day, constantly vomiting from the gas he had inhaled, and was put on a milk diet. From the Field Ambulance Hospital he was sent back to 44 Casualty Clearing Station, where his belongings, forwarded by 208 MGC, caught up with him, and he countersigned the list that had been made:

 

 

208 F june possessions

 

 

The war diary for 208 MGC, in the entry for 9 June, records his hospitalisation:

 

 

208 F june war diary

 

 

HW was invalided home on 18 June after eighteen weeks’ active service in France. Thereafter, for the rest of the war, the many medical boards he attended would pass him as only fit enough for Home Service. He first needed a long period of recuperation before joining the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, Suffolk in October 1917, with which he served until he was demobilised on 19 September 1919.

 

 

 

208 Machine Gun Company: Photographs from Henry Williamson's archive

 

 

Back to 'Henry Williamson and the First World War'

 

 

 

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