Memoirs from Pincombe 1/16th London, QWR, D coy, 6th & 56th Division (Not our boys’ coy.)
Trench Duties – Ypres 1915
There were 300 men at Southampton in camp at the top of the High Street waiting to go aboard the transport boats for France. Submarine activity in the English Channel had been reported and had held up procedure. But eventually the command came to deport. The 300 draft of men had come from Richmond Park, Surrey, where they had been especially trained in route marching, drill, physical and bayonet fighting, musketry etc. the London territorials had some thousands at Richmond Park. Well known Regiments being prepared for active service.
The transport, being loaded, departed and being midnight little could be seen except the movement of the navy destroyer that zigzag to evade the submarines.
In mid-channel a wonderful object appears, a red cross ship lit up with the red cross blazoned on the side. Wounded men were coming back from the theatre of War. One felt proud to be chosen to go with the draft and the moral was high. As the red cross ship receded one felt proud of the men aboard having heard of their splendid defence against odds. At last a land mark come to view. Eventually we dock at le Havre near the entrance to the river Seine. Having deposited some odd artillery we were soon going up the Seine and later stopped at Rouen where we landed and marched to a camp some km away.
Regular NCO’s had taken over and with 300 men marched to a large reinforcement camp. The men were numbered and detailed to huts. Reveille was at 6 o’clock next morning and gunfire. A Dixie of tea was brought to each hut. Parades now took place morning and afternoon drill, musketry etc. after 4 days and on parade the Battalion Sergeant Major called a list of special names, about 20, and we were marched to the station in full marching order. Where were we going? Reaching the Station we were seated comfortably in compartments as ordinary tourists and the long train started. One soon realized that train movements in the war area were different to the daily London to Brighton service. And for hours the train moved forwards and backwards Hazebrouck and Frevent became familiar names as it was first one and then the other. Stops were made for tea drinks and at these stations the local boy and girls asked for souvenir cigarettes and the boys kindly obliged. Many gave their cap badges and were later reprimanded. At last the train pulled into Poperinghe station. We were in the Ypres salient and as we detrained other soldiers were ready to enter the carriages they were being moved to another area after service at Ypres. Individuals tried to impress us of dangers ahead.
Assembled on the road we were marched to a hut camp about 2 km on the left of the road to Vlamertinghe. The road was a direct route a cobbled one with rough and well worn surface and much shell holed to Ypres. The first and second battles for Ypres with many subsidiary had been fought in the salient from the early days of the war. Arriving to the hut camp the new arrivals were taken to the aid post where the doctor and sergeant were ready to receive and examine us. During this procedure the doctor called out to me.
“What is your name?”
And I replied, “Rifleman Pincombe, sir.”
“I want him stripped sergeant. In the nude.”
And later was standing before him.
“How did you get accepted for the army service?
“Me sir, why what is wrong with me?”
After an intense examination the doc said “Pincombe can go home. You can go home tomorrow.”
“Me sir? I have passed all test at home”
“You may have done but you had no physical examination,” said the doc.
No explanation was given but I pleaded with him and said, “what a disgrace it would be”
“Very well as you wish but it is your funeral. You will not last a month.”
That evening I was alone in a hut awaiting the return from the trenches the men of the 16 platoon. They were returning from sanctuary wood area and Hooge on the Menin road. Arriving in the early hours of the morning and full of chat candles were soon lit and each took up the a lot of space granted by circumstance of numbers making a pillow of the boat and pack. Then each took his shirt off his body and by the candle light started searching for lice. The conversation was interesting as one after another gave his impression of the experience of the last few days of battle . One was startled by some references and one did not assimilate the fact that one would be expressing the same in a month’s time.
An extra hour was allowed for the weary ones and later I was introduced to the colleagues of the platoon. I was the junior although one of the eldest for most were about 20 years and had to do the fetch and carrying such as obtaining supplies from the camp canteen.
The second day everyone parade was the order and then I saw the men who had just recently been in action with the Germans. A soldier one learnt to pay respect to for his fighting and his other qualities. One was to meat him and a many vicissitudes in the future actually for the next 3 ½ years.
Discipline took over and men were inspected, shaved and number and the company QMS took demands for any replenishment in the way of new kit, from cap badge to boots. Hair cuts were instructed and men taken in batches to Poperinghe for baths in the local brewery vats.
The general, sir H.Plumer KCB had an ex-battle inspection and then the Battalion prepared for the next occupation and duties required in the trenches the area assigned to the 6th div covered Potijze, St.Jean, Wieltje trenches and a reserve position along the Ysser canal which rang from the Belgium coast to the Ypres terminus. There was another support post termed Kaaie and these were changed during heavy concentration gun attacks. The exchanges by bn were done at night as day exchanges would be to risky. All details being attended and the hut camps left clean the bn was given to advance in any movement required with eh men in full marching order with the rifle and bayonet’s slung across the shoulder swung away to the main cobbled road that lead to Ypres. Then the remarks began to flow, ‘Hi there what do you think this is, a bloody funeral?’ then one starts, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.’ Everyone joins in and soon the atmosphere is happy and gay. Being my first trip one felt proud to be with such fine fellows and one wondered what trench life would be like.
Km after km passed then Vlamertinghe. Then the suburbs of Ypres until we passed the dead end of the Ysser canal and soon the Ypres square with the much damaged cathedral, the cloth hall. Swinging to the left we were soon passing the spot where a memorial exists today and then on passed the Menin road to Potijze. The bn has split up now and coys, A,B,C,and D take over the various areas from the relieved bn. This is quite an exercise and takes time, sometimes hours for the advanced posts bomb and listening are between the opposing fronts and security against a sudden attack has to be considered. Quiet has to be maintained for the enemy could and had on previous changes caused much casualty. During heavy rain periods the exercise was a task. At last the change is complete and the coy takes over routine duties. They are specific. The front line men do the sentry work and after dusk each man takes a 2 hour spell in his respective fire-bay. The front line is split into bays so that in the event of an attack and an enemy entry the bays can be blocked and shut off giving strength and concentration in defence. The fire bays are places raised for the sentry to stand and his head and shoulders are exposed to the enemy line. His duty is to watch and note any movement and raise alarm. In the trench is an empty shell case and a wire attached. This wire goes out with others to the listening posts. A listening post is a place to be occupied by say 3 men. These men are in battle dress and rifle and bayonet fixed. The procedure is to mount the parapet and make way down being careful not to slip especially when wet, up to the wire. This wire has a way in and a way out and it behoved one to make correct mental note. The sergeant usually took the 3men to the post which was a selected one. Detailed one to get on his belly and given the wire that was to be pulled in the event of a sudden attack. This pulled wire shook the shell case at the other end in the sentry bay and warned . only in extreme cases must the wire be pulled vigorously for instance, not if a German patrol was seen. Each listening post was relieved after , say 2 hours. The sentries in the front trench bays were warned when the listening post men went out .
Co-ordination was essential. While all this procedure was taking place both sides had rocket men who fired very lights in the sky. When the rockets burst No-man’s land was temporarily lit and everyone stood perfectly still whatever the purpose. The rocket did not light long and everyone concentrated on his particular project.
At first it was a trial to do front line sentry duty without qualm but through experience one never gave it a thought. One went through this phase of fear and became toughened. At early daylight the word ‘stand down’ was given and the front line sentry stood down.
One colleague on his first morning was late in standing down and was shot through the head immediately. One went over the top in daylight at risk. The German airmen took photographs.
Bomb-saps went out from both sides and one could sometimes when the wind was in the right direction, hear enemy conversation in theirs.
Tunnelling went on at certain parts and if undisturbed and successful in reaching the British trench an explosion would occur causing many casualties. The latrines made by the pioneers men detailed for special duties, were also noted by the Germans and a telescopic rifle fixed to fire at night at regular intervals. It all helped to keep the mind alert.
Dug outs in the front line were very primitive and were just positions dug out of the trench, low down and only entered when on all 4s. the pack being emptied of the overcoat one used as a pillow. Some managed and others filled a sand bag with earth. Boots were never taken off. The overcoat served as a blanket . one essential was to have the rifle always clean and serviceable and was placed at hand for any emergency.
The German was very methodical and one could almost time his efforts to a point. At 9am, if in the mood, he would start and through anything in the way of iron or steal from light field gun shell to heavy howitzer. At 10am he would seese. The casualties would vary but in some instances he would kill or wound nigh on 30.
Lille the large French town near the frontier was an area of activity and at night was often lit up. The battle of Loos was around the corner and although we were many kms away and ignorant, the artillery of both sides was active many weeks prior to the actual, physical clash. Raids were frequent from both fronts as the intelligence was always keen to receive prisoners for interrogation. And when on, the atmosphere was lively.
Raids were committed by daylight as well as by night and the men would be blackened in the face and hand. First and second lines relieved each other in duties after a week and this kept one fresh.
After the service in the front and second lines the battalion moved again, one company to the Ysser canal bank. Dugouts were cut out of the rising ground from the path that ran alongside and in the warm atmosphere when available a swim in the canal was refreshing. This was the reserve line and was there to succour quickly and support any defence against an attack from the Germans. One attack was made upon Potijze with gas clouds and the alert came at night.
The time came to return to Poperinghe fro a week and clean up. Eventually the change over at Potijze area to0k place and the companies came away no singing allowed until passed the canal bank and on the way to vlamertinghe then the weary throats gave vent.
Poperinghe was nigh and soon the thought must have existed of the estaminet and Marie with the fat bottom. Oh to get the boots off and have a go at the lice. The company quarter master sergeant was waiting with the interpreter and order given ‘A’ company left turn ‘B’ company right turn, ‘C’ & ‘D’ company carry on.
The ‘A’ & ‘B’ had billets in the school house. C & D in the big barns next to Talbot House, known later as the famous Toc House. The Rev. Clayton was the originator and fed with the Officers of the visiting battalion. Our pioneers built him his Chapel a splendid man for the troops. That evening all were for fun and games, some this and that. There were estaminets the divisional concert party all men. Some dressed as girls, a comedian, a vocalist and ‘did you hear that Mrs. Smith’s dog had an accident yesterday and had its nose taken off. No how sad for both, how smell? Bloody awful’ was the reply. A cinema was 2 films with Charlie Chaplin. These were a great success and I saw them upon every opportunity. 30 Francs was the pay out and the pound gave 25. so this was 25 shillings. If a man gave an allowance to his wife, well he preferred the trenches. Of course mothers and friends sent parcels and cash.
I had a parcel every month sent out by a tobacco company. Others had parcels and casualty parcels were never wasted after all personal gifts had been taken by the CQMS. We shared everything to a point. No-one went without.
We used Talbot House or TOC house and wrote our letters there. The reverend Tubby Clayton was always about with help even to supplying the necessary stationery. A wonderful character and loved. The estaminets were full of beer, coffee, cognac, vin ordinaire, red or white and champagne flowed while the money was available.
The QWR were a London territorial battalion and in the 6th Div. And the other regiments were regular pre-war soldiers such as the E & W Yorks, Durham light infantry, the Leicester & Sherwood Forrest regiments. The pre-war soldiers were splendid and headed the territorial. Its men manhandled the machine guns and did duty in the emplacements specially placed in the bay in the front area. The Germans held the high ground that was to be fought for. From this high ground he had observation advantage and he managed to get his water turned towards enemy lines. Many men had feet trouble and this was termed “trench feet sickness” and many had to be carried from the trenches at night to the Russian dump where wagons took them to the sic k bay. Later grease was issued and men had to massage their feet once a day .
The qwrs was one of a group of London territorial termed the ‘grey brigade’. One had to pay 25 shillings to join (!) this was relaxed when conscription was made law. In the main the members were clericals from the offices in the city of London.
A letter from E.G. Morley, Pt. Doesn’t say which company he’s with but still QWR
There is a sketch of himself at the front of the letter.
29.12.14 somewhere France
you seem to be having a toffee time for a soldier what with your Christmas cards, your straw mattresses and blankets. Three blankets. Think of your ol’ pal sleeping in a water proof sheet lain on cold wet clay. With all his clothes, overcoat on both of which are sodden with clay and covered with a soaking wet blanket. its an absolute fact that when we came out of the trenches, I with the help of another wrung the water out of my blanket and overcoat. When dry it stood up by itself . still while I carry you I do not grudge you your comfort. Be as comfortable as you can while you can. Fine bit of luck of you to meat houd t to have sombeyd and dolly to visit you. If you see Harold again give him my love and say that I have the more masculine pleasure of having a drink with him @ some future date. We were in the trenches again 3 days before on Christmas day and relieved on Boxing morning go in again on Jan 1st so start the new year will the last time was not so bad as regards weather it being chiefly frosty and as regards the war was a perfect scream. I will tell you we had decided to give the Germans a Christmas present and 3 Christmas carols and 5 rounds rapid. Accordingly, as soon as night fell we started under the strains of while shepherds beautifully rendered by the choir! Arose in to the air we finished that and paused preparatory to giving the second item on the program but lo! We heard answering strains from their lines. Also thatey started shouting arias to us. Therefore we stopped any hostile operations and commenced to shout back/ one of them shouted merry Christmas English. We’re not shooting tonight. We yelled back a similar message and from that time on until wit were relieved on boxing morning and 4 am. Not a shot was fired. After the shouting went on for some time they struck up a light. Not to be outdone so did we. Then up when t another so we shoved up another soon the two lines looked d like an illuminated fete. Opposite me they had one lamp and 9 candles in a row and we had all the candles and lights we could muster. Stuck on our swords along the parapet. At something we sang god save the king and with the exception of the sentries turned in . most next morning , Christmas day they started getting out of the trenches and waving and some came over towards us. We went out and met them and had the curious pleasure of chatting with a ma n who had been doing there best to kill us and we them. They were not German battalion a reg. The 107th and 179th . I exchanged a cigarette for a cigar with one of them. Not a bad exchange, eh! And as some of them spoke English had quite a long conversation. The fellow said that as soon as the war was over he was going over to England by express. He had a wife, two children on the Alexander road. They had no idea of where they were. Of course they knew the name of the towns through which they had passed but did not know what part of the map they situated. The fellow remarked that they receive official news every day of the war but that all although the statements were always said they were moving forward we are always pushed right back. One of our fellows said that one asked him how the sentries were posted around Buckingham palace apparently being under the impression the guards were in eland. I cant vouch for this. We also took the opportunity of something around the remains various remains ruined farm house dotted about the farming area. They were in some mess. Only one having interior left. On our left there is a church the steeple or tower looking like this. I expect it to collapse at any moment. (steeple is at right angles to the rest of building.)we are now billeted in a large cotton spinning factory and sleep on the stone floor between the looms. Have quite a comfortable bed on a hemp of flax and cotton threads. Absolute luxury after the trenches this town is about the first place we have struck where one can buy any luxuries in the shape of food or of any description. It is a large place and has some magnificent shops and buildings half of which are in ruins as the Huns have subjected it to severe bombardments for no reason what so ever and there is no battery in it nor is it of any strategically importance I went to the other day and have a four course dinner at the hotel du France for 2 francs. This afternoon 3 of us went to a barbers to get a shave the second I have had since dec 1st. its was a scream a boy carved us and a woman wielded a razor and by the way she scraped me i began to think she must to be of German origin with evil designs! Any rate I came off with only one cut and three pimples off. Then I had a wash and a shampoo at which 3 persons, the woman the man and the by helped. Meanwhile the other 2 fellows sat and roared but return came when they sat on the chair of torture. The cost of the whole lot came to 3 ½ d. ! makes an English barber blush It was very cheap but I think I shall give it a miss in future while we are out resting we are making hay while the sun shines and lifting on the fat of the land. I went today to an estaminet and had much to coffee and pomme de terre frites just to pass away the time. We had real eggs in the omelette there were 3 of us. Cost us 3 d. each. Apart from the cooking so I suppose it is unnecessary to state that we have been paid. I am writing this on a board stuck between 2 looms while I sit on the floor. I feel quite proud of something. The first day we were here we made ourselves very comfortable with little fires in empty tins etc. but the order has come out that no naked fires are to be used so we have no fires. We are not aloud to smoke and we have had to enclose the candle I am writing by a light chimney pinched off a useless gas bracket there being no gas on. I suppose they are afraid of the iron works of the machine or the stone floor catching fire. Will close now wishing you the best of luck. And a decent time. Will we meet again on the Planck.
Lt D.G. Bunting vol 1 of 3 Letters to his wife.
Easter Monday, 9th of April 1917
Yesterday was not without its xxxxxx exciting moments. They were far from easterly however. I prefer Buxton thrills. It was a case of back to the land for us and although we returned to billet later I am glad we didn’t stay the night there as it rained.
I haven’t a map but t from what I remember I will these are breadless days
We had quite a night’s xxxxx if it isn’t shell proof its shower proof and that honestly is much more important this morning s weather a mixture of snow and sunshine as soon as we opened the flap of our hole to let the precious sunshine in down comes the neige. These are breadless days. Bully and biscuit days but thanks to you we had some little extras. The curried rabbit and marmalade. Also like the sensible men we are brought three tins of sardines with us.
My darling, last night my bed was of the earthly 3 years ago it was but even last night was blissful there was no war in my dreams and surely, surely you are aware of my presence. Not all the eventfulness of yesterday could make me unmindful of the day 3 years ago when a few words ratified our already solemn and settled union. There are so many things in my mind but they’re things I can’t make abrest even in a queen enveloped letter. They’re things to be whispered to you in the dark. Perhaps you heard me last night.
Its been snowing all the after noon.
Monday 16th 17
We moved farther back yesterday after noon it was a cold wet depressing day and the march across open country was rather a strafe for us and when we arrived we had to wait about for hours while search was made for accommodation for us.
(No mention of casualties.)
There are umpteen parcels today that will have to be stashed up as the troops say what else can be done with them. Oh its pathetic when they serve out the post on occasion like this.
“ Gone west, corporal.”
“rifleman B?” no-one knows anything about him. You will be sorry to hear splendid Mr. ? is wounded he was simply great. It was a black day