Memoirs & Diaries - A Runner's Story, 1916-1918
In November 1915 I was one of those accepted by Colonel Lord Feversham to be enlisted in the Yeoman Rifles being formed at Helmsley Park.
In January 1916 the battalion was transferred to Aldershot, where we became fit for our great adventure. Runners were asked for, and I volunteered for the job.
After a terrific route march (from the effects of which some died) and an inspection by H.M. the King, our ammunition and identity discs were issued and we sailed for France on May 4th, 1916.
We received our final training in the Meteren area before taking over the line at Ploegsteert.
In our first day in the reserve line we received our baptism of fire: a platoon of "A" Company was nearly wiped out during rifle inspection, and I helped to carry one of our first dead to the dressing station. That night. we totalled up our casualties and divided the number into the strength of the battalion, so as to estimate our expectation of life; not in a spirit of despair, but that we might face the facts as we saw them on that miserable night.
We soon settled down to trench warfare as an existence to be made the best of and joked about whenever possible. One night the deathly quiet of our sector was disturbed by one of our 18-pounder batteries shelling at regular intervals; we wanted rest, and cursed the gunners. The enemy replied by shelling, not the battery, but our Battalion Headquarters.
We were ordered to withdraw, but four of us were imprisoned by a shell blocking up our dug-out. Every other dug-out was wrecked. Ours was covered with earth and filled with fumes. In the morning we were disinterred for burial, but were found unharmed, a dud shell had half buried itself in a tree which supported our dug-out. Three of us played cards all night; the fourth prayed.
One day two of us were cycling along a duckboard track when we heard the approach of a shell. My companion dived into a trench. I foolishly cycled on quickly and was blown into a tree, but got off with scratches. My pal was not so lucky, the trench being full of water.
In August we were relieved to take our part in the Somme offensive. The incoming runners asked us if we'd been on the Somme, and on our replying that our only experience was at Ploegsteert they looked at us with scorn, saying, "And you think you're soldiers. They kill more there in a day than up here in one year."
Despite our numerous casualties we realized that Ploegsteert had been but an apprenticeship for sterner events. Notwithstanding shells and machine-gun bullets, Ploegsteert had, at the hour of dawn, been stirred by the songs of the birds, while the Somme was one black, evil-smelling waste.
On the morning of September 15th, 1916, our Division, accompanied by the Tanks, which were being used for the first time, attacked on the Somme. I was left behind at Brigade Headquarters. Shortly after the attack opened, I accompanied the Brigadier-General through Delville Wood to our battalion. He pointed out a German well within our lines who seemed badly wounded and helpless.
After reaching our colonel, the general gave me an urgent despatch for Brigade Headquarters, with instructions to go quickly, stop for no one, and return to the same spot, whatever I heard to the contrary. These instructions gave me a very exciting time, for, on re-entering Delville Wood a wounded Tommy shouted. "For God's sake, drop!" I dropped and found that the wounded German had shot this man and some others. The Tommy wanted me to hunt the Jerry, but, remembering instructions, I ran for it. On my return journey I found the German dead.
On nearing the trench where I had left the general, I was told to stop as the trench had been recaptured. But I was too keen to carry out my orders, and thought those fellows mistaken, so I jumped confidently into the trench amongst some Germans.
I was too surprised to do anything, but the Jerries more so, as all but one ran away. The remaining one raised his hands saying, "Mercy! Kamerad!" and came back with me. I handed over my prisoner and found the general, and heard that Lord Feversham had been killed. Our gallant colonel's body was recovered a month later by a small party including myself.
On October 7th we again attacked on the Somme, and I was continually on duty as runner. Our front line was a very hastily dug, shallow trench, and the Commanding Officer gave me a message to the battalion on our right, saying, "There is no room to pass along the trench, so you must run along the top. You'll probably be killed, but you must go." I returned safely and was greeted with "Hullo, Iley, still alive," and was sent with a similar message to the left. Again I was lucky, but had wind-up all the time.
We suffered heavily during the attack, one new draft of thirty men straight from England being almost wiped out within a day or two of leaving home.
When we were due to leave this sector I guided the incoming C.O. to our battalion. He asked me about the line and I told him it was quiet, but that we'd filled one cemetery and got well on with another, and various other true but unnecessary things. The adjutant told me later how amused he'd been at my efforts to put his wind up. The colonel had won the D.S.O. at Gallipoli and seen a lot of hard fighting.
One dark night two of us runners had to leave our usual track owing to shell fire, and were suddenly ordered to drop by an artillery sentry. Some guns fired immediately over our heads. I n Seaham Hospital months later I heard a gunner relating how two infantrymen nearly had their heads blown off, and how he, as sentry, had not observed them until almost too late, owing to the intense darkness. I questioned him as to time and place, and surprised him by telling him that I was one of the men.
During the Messines advance on June 7th, 1917, when all the mines were exploded I pointed out to an officer that he and I were advancing too fast and were losing touch with the colonel, so we sat in a shell hole until Headquarters caught us up. A sergeant seeing us sitting there and apparently not noticing the officer, rushed at me with fixed sword, shouting, "Move on, you bloody coward." The officer's revolver held him up and he passed on swearing.
When moving up for the Third Battle of Ypres on July 31st, 1917, I had to guide a party into the line, and had a fearful journey. The enemy evidently expected an attack, as he shelled all roads heavily with gas shells and shrapnel.
My party was the last to leave, and I took them by a route not taken by the other parties. The officer was alarmed, thinking I was lost, but we reached our position first. Wearing gas masks, we doubled most of the way, dropping into ditches here and there and always finding a shelter when most necessary. We galloped over the Ypres Canal, a heavy shell just missing our rear, but reached our destination without casualties. I felt handsomely rewarded when the officer and each man shook hands with me. Most of the parties going up had suffered heavily, many being gassed.
At 5 a.m. on September 20th, 1917, our Division attacked Tower Hamlets Ridge, Passchendaele. I lay next to our commanding officer waiting for zero. Watch in hand, he counted the seconds - fifty, forty, and down to ten, five, four, three, two - and off we moved to meet a very stubborn resistance from the pillboxes which had not been touched by our barrage.
Their machine guns swept us with bullets, and some of our new men wavered; this was their first experience in the War. The colonel rallied them and ordered the section I was in charge of to rush a pillbox that was holding us up.
We rushed straight at it. The Huns threw a flare bomb in our midst and mowed us down with machine-gun bullets. Of my section of ten, five were killed and four wounded.
I felt as if a stone had hit my leg and spun round. Two bullets had gone through my thigh, but they were not dangerous. Other bullets passed through my clothes without touching me. As I lay I heard that the colonel was badly wounded, and another section had captured the pillbox while we drew the fire.
I made my way back, and, resting awhile, fell asleep, to be wakened by a German touching my shoulder. For the moment I thought I was captured, but found that he was the prisoner. He helped me back about three miles to the main road, and assisted me into a passing lorry. I turned to thank him, but he was gone.
After passing through the base hospital and Whalley Range Hospital I was sent to Seaham Hall, one mile from home. I mended very quickly, had a jolly two weeks' leave, and was sent to the King's Royal Rifle Corps Command Depot at Tipperary, where I found the Southern Irish very bitter against the British troops.
After a short spell there, I was passed AI and transferred to Sheerness, where, after a severe course of training, I left for active service again, rejoining the Yeoman Rifles in January I918. We went to Italy, which was very quiet, our chief casualties being caused by vino.
Early in March we arrived back in France, and, to the sorrow of all ranks, the Yeoman Rifles were disbanded. A s the various detachments marched away to other battalions veterans of many actions wept. They marched away with heads erect and smiling faces as we shouted our "Good-byes", but the tears were showing through their smiles. A few of us were transferred to the Machine Gun Corps.
On March 21St, 1918, the German offensive commenced and we were rushed up the line to Achiet-le-Grand.
I retained my job as runner, and was with Battalion Headquarters. News came through that all in front had perished, and I was detailed with another runner to go forward and discover the position of the enemy. Our commanding officer gave each of us a revolver and instructions that if necessary we had each to shoot five Germans and then ourselves. He gave us each a drink of whisky, and as we left our chaps shook hands with us and looked as if they thought us doomed.
Our journey was uneventful for a while. Shells fell occasionally; then we saw hazy figures, then a tank, and found them to be British troops. The tank officer suspected us as spies and would give us no information. We reached a wood and found some of our machine-gun companies.
Things had been very bad, but were now quiet. The troops in the line had suffered heavily, and Brigade Headquarters were manning the trenches.
We got such information as we could and were shelled freely on our return journey, having found our big adventure as tame as a Sunday-school treat.
We found our camp deserted and our equipment left. Our headquarters had evidently left hurriedly, as a half-bottle of whisky and some rum were left in the mess. We soon disposed of this, donned our packs and left to find our headquarters. We found them in a trench. The C.O. was pleased with our report and sent us to rest.
We were soon disturbed and sent to Divisional Headquarters with a message. As we returned we met the British Army in retreat. Moving forward keeping to the side of the road we were passed by galloping artillery, staff cars, and infantry, swearing and shouting as they rushed backward. The retirement was "according to plan", but we had a feeling that we were losing the War.
When we got back to our trench everything was quiet, the returning troops had all passed and the enemy had not yet reached us. We just stayed there, knowing we had no reinforcements and that for some miles back the country was deserted, that the Huns were feeling their way towards us, and that we might expect some trouble that night. While we were awaiting the attack, the regimental sergeant-major sent me back for some water. I found water and a store of whisky. I returned with some of each.
Just then we observed the enemy approaching over a ridge some 700 yards away. They advanced in open formation and appeared to be assembling in the hollow where our camp had been. We kept up a steady fire and took things comfortably as their shells passed over us.
Quite suddenly German cavalry, which had assembled behind a wood about 300 yards away, charged us. This was a new experience, and my heart jumped. We fired rapidly and wiped them out, shooting the fallen riders as they endeavoured to crawl away. After a lull more cavalry attacked from the right. One of our tanks appeared from nowhere and, assisted by our machine guns, soon turned them.
As dusk approached we sent out a patrol. They never returned, and a second patrol, consisting of a drunken major and myself, was sent out. We wandered about aimlessly when a hut window, about 600 yards in front, lit up. The major ordered me to put that light out. In the dark I pointed my rifle in the direction of the light and fired. The light went out, and I surmised that some German, having lighted his cigarette, had blown out the match. On our return the major swanked about me as being the "best shot in the British Army".
We were then ordered to withdraw to the new line some 12 kilometres back, where the enemy advance was finally stopped.
We moved up behind Ypres, where it was my privilege to instruct the first American runners in the line, although they first objected to being taught by "a boy".
On leaving the line we were sleeping in a hut when I suddenly felt horribly afraid and told the others, who laughed at me. I got up and dressed, and had just lain down when a shell hit the hut. We lit candles and found, in the next partition, two medical orderlies, one almost blown to pieces and his friend wounded. In the room at the other side the colonel's servant was dead, and in the next hut some were killed and many wounded.
As we carried one man up. I saw the wounded orderly dying bravely. Smoking a cigarette, he told the medical officer to dress those who would live. He died in the ambulance shortly afterwards. There was a gaping hole in my steel helmet, a piece of shrapnel in my towel, and the hut was riddled, but I was untouched.
Soon after this our big push that was to end the War started. We kept the enemy on the move and talked excitedly when the first rumours of the Armistice came through. On the morning of November 11th I was with a section in the front, and had orders to harass the Hun until 11 a.m. when hostilities would cease. At eleven o'clock we halted at an estaminet and amazed the landlady by demanding beer and shouting "Le guerre finis".
Following the Germans next day to make sure that they were retiring, we met frightened figures in strange clothing - men of the Allied Armies, fearing and starving, staggering towards freedom. Some died by the roadside, dead on the day of their delivery from a living death, turned out by an enemy without any provision for their safe return.
Corporal Robert William Iley enlisted in 21st (Service) Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps (Yeoman Rifles), November 20th, 1915. Transferred to 41st Battalion Machine Gun Corps about March 19th, 1918. Wounded, September 20th, 1917. Awarded Military Medal, June 1917. Mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's Despatches, April 9th, 1917. Demobilized, January 1919.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".
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