Memoirs & Diaries - A Boy's Experiences
I was born in November 1898 so that when war was declared I was at school. I joined the School Cadet Battalion in 1914 and was appointed corporal.
At Whitsun, 1915, I told the O.C. cadets I was going to join up. "Good," he said. "How old do you want to be?"
We fixed things between us, and armed with a letter from him, I presented myself, after attestation, to the colonel of an infantry battalion which was just being formed, and on the strength of the letter I was appointed a lance-corporal and told to get my hair cut.
I did so and afterwards saw the regimental sergeant-major, who put me through my paces and told me to get my hair cut. In ten weeks I had been made sergeant.
We did the usual training in England until May 1916, then went to France as a complete division. Some of the N.C.O.'s were sent up the line for instruction with a Scottish battalion at Ploegsteert. What a lovely war that was!
In complete daylight we marched up to and through the wood to find a network of trenches and sand-bags. Still in daylight, but now through the trenches, one was able to wander up to the front line.
During instruction with the Scottish, I was sent out on a wiring party. We were subjected to machine-gun fire, but oh, blissful ignorance, I kept upright, a perfectly good 6 feet of human target!
"Git doon, ye fool!" and, crash! my legs were knocked from under me and I fell flat on my face with a good coil of barbed wire in my stomach. The Scot explained and marvelled at my ignorance.
Our time in the line was occupied with patrols, wiring parties, and minor offences. The minor offences consisted of sending over a few rifle grenades, sniping with periscope rifles, and generally asking for trouble. We were not to rest too long, however. Time and "Intelligence" decreed that a raid had to be made on the German line.
Volunteers were asked for and I asked the company commander if I could go as the N.C.O. The major had seen service in Gallipoli, and was not nearly so bloodthirsty as we new soldiers, and he promptly asked me if I wanted to end my young life. Being facetious, I answered that I thought there was a war on. I had my wish and the raiding party was sent back from the line to prepare.
The night of the raid was perfect so far as weather was concerned, but something went wrong. Either the wire had not been cut in front of the enemy trench, or it had not been cut in the right place, or the Germans had been successful in filling the gap.
In any case, we did not get through and luckily enough the raiding party suffered but few casualties, although there was quite a number in the company from the barrage put down by the enemy. One of the casualties was the company sergeant-major, whose place I had to take before I was eighteen.
From "Plug Street" we went slightly north to Messines Ridge, and spent about thirty days in the line and in supports without getting a change of clothing. This was a little more like the war we had read about at home and less like a rather dangerous picnic.
About this time the great Somme attack started, and we were chafing because we could not get there. We were still joyfully ignorant of the real conditions, but we were soon to experience them. The Division was moved to the shambles.
On the first day the tanks went into action, the Division went over and this was our real baptism. We had marched all one afternoon and part of the night to reach the front line, which consisted of a tape along the shell holes. What a contrast! From the comparative quiet of a proper line and minor shelling, to come to this shell-torn tape line, absolute din, rain of shells and machine-gun bullets.
We had had our instructions, however, which were to attack at zero hour. We composed ourselves as best we could for the rest of the night and at dawn the attack began.
During our transit from Messines to the Somme the major had impressed upon me the necessity for removing all maps and documents from his person as soon as he was hit. I endeavoured to "pooh-pooh" the idea; but he knew. How he knew only God can tell; within two minutes of the start he was hit, and badly. I heard later he lost a leg, and I expect he was thankful to get away with that.
To carry on with the attack. I took the maps, etc. and looked round for another of the company officers, but could see none. There were only two, and I found out that one of those had gone out about the same time as the major. I had to keep the papers and carry on.
The tanks were at once a delight and a disappointment. They were fairly easily ditched, but at the same time they were impregnable. I saw a party of the enemy clamber on to one in motion and endeavour to put it out of action, after firing at it point blank with a machine gun and throwing bombs from about 5 yards range.
I saw another run along a thick belt of wire in a sunken road, and so clear the way for us. Yet another spotted a machine gun in a house in Flers; this fellow wandered up the road, did a sharp turn, and ambled through the house.
Shortly afterwards I had one of the best meals I can remember. We had been attacking since dawn; it was now about 1 p.m. I produced a hunk of cheese and some biscuits. Another fellow scrounged a huge Spanish onion. That onion made the meal.
By this time we had secured a couple of miles of enemy territory, and while going through the doorway of a building I was hit. It was only a shrapnel bullet but it felt as though half the house had fallen on me. I was bowled over and, on trying to get up, found my leg would not move.
I had by now lost at least half my bravado, and was sent back, having to hop and crawl as best I could; but eventually I did get there, and in due course arrived at a base hospital. Our losses must have been fairly heavy, but those of the Germans were at least three times as great.
We seemed to take hordes of prisoners, and numbers were left behind waiting burial, either proper or accidental.
In due course I arrived back in England to experience the joys of hospital life.
The men in blue were well looked after. Even towards the end of 1916, after two years, the hospitality of the general public was astounding.
Until the end of June 1917 I was convalescent at the regimental depot and at reserve battalion. The application for a commission, which I had made in the early part of 1916, before going to France, was then entertained, and I was sent to an officers' cadet battalion at Oxford.
Four months were spent there preparing for the examination, at which I was successful. I was granted a commission in my old regiment and returned to the same reserve battalion.
After a short time at the depot, I was sent to France to join a very depleted battalion, in the early days of January 1918. This battalion was temporarily under the command of a major from another regiment, and I regret to say he was not at all popular. Being fed-up with him, another subaltern and myself applied for transfer to the Flying Corps.
The first part of our time was spent in the line in the northern part of France. When we took over, it was deep in snow and we held a string of outposts on the eastern side of a stream. The first trench patrol I did, I spent most of my time in the stream.
There was only one way to get to the sentries and if one deviated from the narrow path by so much as a foot, it usually meant one had to remove one's waders to empty out the water.
In January, in this part of the line, the war was not waged very furiously.
The trench mortar batteries used to come up and let off a few rounds, then go back. We were left to patch up the trenches after the usual replies from the "Minnie" brigade.
Those Minenwerfers! I shall never forget their soul-destroying qualities. To be hit by something you could not see was not too bad, but to see something coming, sufficient to blow a crater of 15 feet diameter and not to know which way to go to avoid it, was enough to destroy the nerve of a suit of armour.
You can imagine, therefore, how decidedly unpopular the trench mortar batteries became. The daily "strafe" too, was far more intense than in my earlier days. I have already said that my bravado had been reduced, and this did not improve it. In various ways one was able to forget, but I nearly gave out.
It was in the early days of March. The Germans were raiding; we were counter-raiding. Each company had only three officers in the line, and it usually meant two patrols in No Man's Land each night. In addition to this we were subjected to intermittent gun-fire and "Minnies" during the day.
Luckily, the colonel, who had returned by this time and who was one of the best men I have ever met, talked to me very severely and made me pull myself together. It was an effort, but, thank God! I succeeded.
About March 20th we were relieved from the line and started rest. I lost eighteen men the first day on a working party.
Next day came news of the great enemy attack. We received orders to dump all surplus kit and pack up to go south again. We started early in the morning, and reached a village towards evening. We were shown our billets and the cooks prepared a meal.
Just as we were sitting down the "Fall in at the double" was sounded. Good-bye dinner.
Throughout the night we rode in lorries and chars-a-bancs, and towards noon we reached some deserted huts, had a short rest and a shave. Then we started to march on to a position between Bazentin-le-Grand and Bazentin-le-Petit. We never arrived. The Germans were first.
From there we changed direction and retired through Pozieres, where we managed to set fire to the place. It burned for three days and nights, so we did that job well. We eventually took up a position along the railway line in Aveluy Wood.
On the first night, the enemy marched through on the left of us in column of fours, blowing bugles and singing. He was beaten back and next afternoon we were attacked from the right flank, and the Germans were again behind us. Again we rallied, beat them back and retook our position along the railway.
We were attacked again that night, and next morning found ourselves very short of ammunition. The colonel wandered along the line carrying over 2,000 rounds in bandoliers round his shoulders.
That night we were relieved, but simply took up another position at dawn on the top of a hill. In the evening we were attacked again, and the colonel was wounded once more, making the seventh time. We were relieved next day and got back to rest, a sadly depleted battalion.
When we got back to rest I think every man slept the clock round. The men were falling asleep during the march back and after every halt it took us nearly ten minutes to wake them up.
During the time we were in the wood, five of our aeroplanes went over and were shot down in flames, making me begin to wish I had never applied for transfer. But after two days rest our transfer to the Flying Corps came through, and my chum and I promptly hurried back to England, arriving there the first week in April.
On July 21st I was back in France, this time with the Air Force, wherein life was great.
One had only a nominal amount of work to do compared with the P.B.I. In fact, if you had to work more than four hours a day, you were decidedly unlucky.
After about six weeks with the squadron I was third senior observer. This rapid change of personnel was a serious drawback, but otherwise everything was much more comfortable.
One morning, taking off at dawn, we hit the top of a hangar in which were sleeping several mechanics. Their language was an education in itself. The machine was written off, but the flight commander and myself escaped with a shaking. We did no more work that day.
On another occasion, while taking a new pilot over the line, we were closely shelled. I smacked him on the head and told him to get back, as he appeared quite unconcerned. When we returned to the aerodrome, the bus badly riddled with shrapnel holes, which I pointed out to my pilot, he said he thought the shell bursts were small clouds. I thought of my first wiring party and said no more.
Our job was to do contact work in machines that were designed for artillery observation. Contact, of course, had to be kept with people working, on the ground, and, in the particular kind of machine we were using, was an unenviable task.
About this time we were beginning to win the War, and one night the Squadron Commander outlined our job in an advance for next day. It was very ambitious, and was met with some facetious remarks. From the squadron point of view, the first job was for all machines but one to go over and drop smoke bombs at dawn.
The other machine, containing my pilot, aged seventeen and a half, and myself, had to take off about an hour and a half later and watch the Canal du Nord, which at this particular spot emerged from underground and was supposed to house large numbers of the enemy.
Whether it did or not I never knew. We got over the line, flying just below 1,000 feet, to find that the usual late September ground mist and the effects of the squadron's smoke bombs were such that the ground was obscured.
We could not see the line but apparently could ourselves be seen, for a machine gun was firing at us and I, as observer, was firing in the direction of the sound, with my back to the pilot.
Suddenly the nose of the machine went down and we started to spin. I turned round to ask what the--. Imagine my consternation at finding the pilot shot through the head and leaning forward on the joy-stick. I had no visions of my past life; I merely clutched at the straw.
In other words, in a fraction of a second I had the spare stick out of its place on the fuselage and into its socket for dual control. With the other hand, I stopped the spin by hauling on to the rudder wire alongside my seat, then I pulled at the stick, and can dimly remember the nose of the plane rising.
The next thing I remember is being offered a drink by a German officer. This I refused, so he drank it himself and offered me another from the same bottle. I could only have been semi-conscious, for I again refused. Once more I lapsed into unconsciousness and returned to find somebody taking a souvenir in the shape of my wrist-watch.
I was then told to sit at the foot of the steps of the dug-out, as our attack was expected. I was to call up that there was a British officer there. Having myself dropped bombs into dug-outs first and asked questions afterwards, I suggested going to the top of the steps.
This did not meet with approval, so I was left below to nurse a cracked chin, a bleeding head and a very sore body, the only ill-effects to myself. Our attack was not successful, so I was not rescued, but was sent behind the German lines.
During my short stay in Germany, I was in many camps, the chief of which were at Karlsruhe, Kamstigall, near Munich, and Landshut, near Konigsberg. From Munich to Konigsberg we travelled through Berlin, where I bartered half a bar of Sunlight Soap for five shillings' worth of cigarettes.
I arrived back in England before Christmas 1918, thus creating what appears to be a record of every Christmas at home during the War. In 1915 I was lucky in a ballot at Aldershot; 1916, being convalescent at Epsom, I was allowed out a certain amount and plead guilty to taking a little more without being found out; 1917, I was on draft leave; and 1918 I have just recounted.
C. J. Arthur enlisted in May 1915, after Whitsun weekend in camp with Boy Scouts, and within ten weeks was promoted to Sergeant. Went to France May 1916. Wounded September same year, and awarded M.M.
In hospital until December, then convalescent until February 1917. Thence to depot until gazetted in November 1917. To France again, January 1st, 1918, until April 5th, when he was sent home for transfer to R.A.F.
On July 21st again went to France and was shot down on September 29th, and taken prisoner, returning to England December 20th, 1918, and demobilized March 1919.
Whilst in the infantry he served with the (Queen's Own) Royal West Kent Regt., both in the ranks and when gazetted.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
French tanks were used for the first time in battle on 17 April 1917, when the 'Char Schneider' (as they were known) was used during the Second Battle of the Aisne.
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