Memoirs & Diaries - A Territorial in the Salient
August 1914 found me turned forty, engaged in an engineering business, and a Captain of Territorial Infantry. I expected the War, but I did not expect it so soon.
The Territorial Force was nominally for Home service only, our training was inadequate, and our armament obsolete. Yet we were more than half-way to being soldiers, and understood the position too well to hold back.
Why did the twelve Territorial Divisions volunteer immediately for foreign service? The motive was quite simple: the Germans were in Belgium, their presence there threatened England, and no one suggested any other way of getting them out except by force.
Before mobilization, we were greatly below establishment. Leeds was a very unmilitary city, and we had to face a good deal of veiled hostility from various quarters: partly genuine pacifism - that is, opposition to war in any circumstances, partly an ancient prejudice connecting soldiers with immorality and drink, and partly, a strong objection felt by Trade Union leaders to their young members coming under the personal influence of the "boss class" to which they conceived the officers to belong.
However, the first few days of August 19I4 proved that we could have filled the battalion twice over with likely fellows, many who had served a short term with us and dropped out, many who had no previous thought of serving. Our head-quarters were besieged by them.
So we completed our mobilization, which was done well and strictly according to plan, and we pushed off to Selby and York for war training. From the first day our men were well fed, well billeted, and well looked after. We had none of those deplorable scenes of incompetence and neglect which disgraced the raising and training of the New Armies.
We had the esprit de corps of a very old Volunteer battalion, with a long-established character for discipline, shooting, and good fellowship; and if some of us had not previously taken the question of war very seriously we had a high average of education and intelligence, and all a Yorkshireman's determination to make a job of anything he takes on.
All that winter there was an idea that they were going to send the New Armies to France before us - in fact, that was the official intention, although by Christmas our Division was equal to anything short of first-class regular troops.
However, the fight between G.H.Q. in France, who wanted us, and the "dug-out" Staff in Whitehall, who wanted to keep us back, ended in our favour, and after two or three months on the Lincolnshire coast we actually went. That time on the coast was the most peaceful and interesting part of our training. At York, we had continual alarms and were constantly being ordered to stand by ready for a move.
On the coast we were let alone, and we had priceless practice in occupying and relieving trenches and moving in the dark, and the companies, living and working independently, learnt to take care of themselves.
In April 1915 we concentrated at Gainsboro' and completed our war equipment, which did not include either up-to-date rifles or modern field guns. The new I8-pounders and the new rifles were reserved for the New Army, and in that respect the victory of G.H.Q. over Whitehall was incomplete.
We got into a train in the afternoon, neither knowing nor caring to which port we were going, and about midnight stepped out on Folkestone quay. Day was breaking as we landed at Boulogne and marched through the town and up the long hill to the rest camp, where we stayed until the following afternoon.
I had some splendid whistlers, and between these and the usual songs we were never short of music on the march. Going down to La Brique station they whistled the " Ca Ira" alternately with the "Marseillaise" faultlessly, to the no small joy of the villagers.
All through the spring night we rumbled along in the wagons and, after stopping at every signal post in the Pas de Calais, we pulled up in Hazebrouck. Here a sergeant reported that one of my men had got up and dived out of the window somewhere en route, and that the man was known to be an occasional sleepwalker. I wrote him down as our first casualty. The guns told us we were nearly there at last.
About 2 a.m. we turned out at Merville, and the next day we moved into farms in the Forest of Nieppe, and here my somnambulist rejoined. He woke up to find himself on the line, somehow reached a British police post, and was passed on to his unit. He served creditably all through the War, and when I met him the other day he told me he had never walked in his sleep since that night.
We went up in parties for trench experience, in the line between Armentieres and Neuve-Chapelle. La Gorgue, Estaires, and Laventie were still inhabited, but all frequently shelled. They had been looted by the Germans in 1914, and the Maire of Estaires had been shot for failing to produce the demanded ransom.
The farms here were still cultivated, and old men, women, and children were at work in the fields within range not only of shells, but of stray bullets. The old breastworks below the Aubers Ridge have been often described; my fortune led me to the point where Fauquissart Church lay in ruins in the trench line, and my instructors were the best possible, the 1st Grenadier Guards.
In a week or so our Division took over a line between Neuve-Chapelle and Fleurbaix. A country of little fields, innumerable roads and water-courses, hedges, woods, and thickly dotted with farms and houses. A country of deep soil, with water a foot below the surface, where (on our side) trenches were non-existent, and we held a continuous sandbag breastwork with sand-bagged avenues leading up to it from the nearest hedge.
On the German side, a similar parapet in front, but behind it the long slope of the Aubers Ridge, dug all over with communication trenches, and looking into every inch of our positions. There was very little shelling, but continual rifle fire and sniping, day and night. More than one German sniper fell a victim to some of my crack shots, so they did not have it all their own way.
There was a shelter in the support line that we used as a mess. Its top was visible from the German lines, and they had a fixed rifle trained on it. Someone had put an iron plate up where the bullets struck, and regularly every two minutes a bullet rang on the plate. This damnable and maddening iteration went on day and night, like the old torture of the regular drop of water on the victim's head.
I was in this place when the usual "ping" was replaced by a dull thud. I ran out to the front line, and found, as I expected, that someone had got in the way. A fine young fellow was lying in the trench with a hole in his forehead and the back blown out of his head. He must have died instantly, but he was making that awful throaty gurgle which follows brain wounds.
Shortly afterwards my second captain, a very promising young engineer, went the same way.
These cases made one think of the damnable cry of 1914, "Single men first". Who would have been the greatest loss to England, a man like myself, with half his life's work done and a family growing up, or these splendid lads just starting their careers, whose unbegotten offspring was cut off with them and lost to the nation for ever?
Here also we took part in our first battle, the attack on the Aubers Ridge, on May 9th. We were to support by fire an attack straight up the Ridge, and afterwards to join in the advance. The usual notice was given by a feeble bombardment, the Germans were well wired in and quite ready, and the attack achieved nothing but the destruction of several good battalions and a very few Germans.
Assembly trenches had been dug for a brigade in a ten-acre field just behind the line and in full sight from the Ridge. If you had not known they were assembly trenches, you would have thought the field had been ridged up for potatoes. This may have been an early effort at camouflage, or pure stupidity - the result was the same.
The next day I re-manned my company from those assembly trenches with short rifles and bayonets and handed our obsolete rifles into store. It was watching this tragic performance from the tower of Laventie Church which convinced Sir John French of the obvious fact that he had not enough guns or shells, and started that famous agitation which resulted in his losing his command, in the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George, and in the all-too successful search for some place to send Kitchener whence he would not come back.
In those days generals used to visit us on blood horses, with an orderly carrying a lance with a little flag, in case the troops should fail to appreciate the extreme salutability of these high personages.
But Rawlinson, who was our Corps Commander, would go about with one A.D.C. for company, and have a friendly chat and pass on the latest news of the capture of three Germans, six yards of trench, and a sanitary bucket to any humble officer he might meet.
He even came up into the front line, where his red hat stuck up over the breastwork. We believed that the Germans would never intentionally shoot a British general, for fear his successor might do something unexpected. But it was a good thing that they did not shoot "Rawly".
In June, we moved off northwards, and relieved, in the Ypres Salient, a Regular division which had been badly cut up in the Second or Gas Battle.
We took over the northern half of the Salient, with the 6th Division on our right and a French Territorial division on our left. Our line, as is well known, was a semicircle overlooked in every part by the foe, and fired into at close range from three sides. We held that line without divisional relief for six solid months.
We went in with companies 250 strong, and were reduced by losses to less than fifty per company before we came out. The trenches were cut deep in the rich black soil. This ground was full of corpses, mostly French, and when we dug any new work we resurrected bits of them.
My first dug-out in the front line was adorned by a boot (with foot more or less complete) sticking out of the wall. It was unpleasing to the senses and unreliable as a clothes-peg, so I sacrificed one-sixth of my space by walling it up.
All reliefs, trench repairs, carrying, and general labour had to be done at night, but whilst the dry weather lasted we had communication trenches by which "brass hats" could visit us in the day-time and wake the unfortunate officers to make suggestions for filling up our spare time and stimulating the fighting spirit of the troops. When the rain came in autumn, the trenches disappeared and the area became a lake of mud.
Our Divisional gunners had still the obsolete 15-pounders, for which no new ammunition was being made.
They were restricted to three rounds per gun per day, which they saved up for emergencies. Day after day, we were shelled and shelled and shelled - whizz-bangs, gas shells, trench mortars, 9-inch and, occasionally, 17-inch "heavies".
Our guns could only afford "retaliation" when the shelling was exceptional; and if they pushed over twenty 15-pounders, we usually got about 100 "five point nines" back. Steadily and surely, we filled up the cemeteries on the Canal bank, notably the large one at Essex Farm, where our Divisional Memorial now stands.
The fewer the men, the heavier became the work, especially as the weather grew worse. Rations, trench grids, wire, etc., had to be carried up by night; the battalions in support had no more rest than those in the line, and wheeled transport stopped at the Canal, 1,000 to 1,500 yards in rear.
"Trench feet" made their appearance, and someone in our very energetic Division conceived the bright idea that this was due to want of exercise, and could be cured by imposing more labour on men worn out by overwork, exposure, and want of sleep. We got it down eventually by the aid of dry socks sent up nightly with the rations and "gumboots, thigh." We were several times seriously attacked, but they always found us wide awake, and we never lost a yard of ground.
I landed in France with four subalterns; when we had been a month in the Salient I had one, and my platoons were very well commanded by sergeants. The first time we got a real barrage, the one thing the company wanted was for the attack to develop and "get it ovvered with". The keynote of the whole business was hard labour and insufferable boredom. Something to shoot at was what we needed, but hardly ever did the Germans give even a sniper a target.
I honestly believe that no other troops in the world but British would have held the Salient, and no other generals but ours would have asked them to do it, or conceived such a line to be worth holding. It was a triumph of sentimental over military considerations.
From the German point of view, the Salient was a spot where they could always depend on a regular supply of Englishmen to slaughter with the minimum of loss to themselves. They thought at first that it was also a place where they could break through when so disposed; and, by all the rules of commonsense, it was.
There were good positions prepared in rear, but there were no troops to put in them. However, the Second Battle of Ypres taught them that no ordinary rules applied to that thin khaki line in its untenable and absurd positions.
In August the Brigadier took me out of the line to be Staff Captain of the Brigade, and my work and way of life entirely changed.
The War as a whole was a crime and a tragedy. But it was not the same from both sides. The Germans set out to achieve a purpose. They underestimated the task and failed. We set out to prevent that purpose, and to that extent we succeeded. The men on both sides were sacrificed, as they always have been, to retrieve the errors of the statesmen and the generals.
But sharing toil, exhaustion, hardship, and danger does not destroy a man's soul. The soldier is not the man who makes war - he is the man who offers his life to end it.
Major F. L. Watson was mobilized with his Territorial battalion in August 1914, in command of a company, proceeding to France in April 1915. From August 1915 until March 1917 he was Staff Captain of an infantry brigade in France, being recalled on the latter date at the instance of the Ministry of Munitions for technical service. He was subsequently sent to the Admiralty for similar service, and was demobilized in 1919. Mentioned in Despatches, July 1916. Military Cross, January 1917. Territorial Decoration, July 1920. Retired with rank of Major, November 1921.
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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