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Memoirs & Diaries - On the Belgian Coast

British machine gunners in captured German second line trench at Cambrai I had not been in France more than a few weeks before I was detailed off with a permanent working party.  My friend H. was also put into this section, and our acquaintance soon developed into the richest friendship.  We were constantly together until he met his death.

About a dozen of us were eventually attached to the Royal Engineers' trench store dumps.  Our activities began at Fresnoy.  For the next three months we were kept fully occupied.  No short time on this job!  For the whole period I was there, I had only one half-day holiday.

It was easy to see where the money was going and why we were spending so many millions a day.  The amount of hurdles, duckboards, barbed wire, etc., we turned out of that dump was enormous.  I remember asking Sergeant M. how much we went through in a week, and he put the sum at 30,000.

Taken on the whole, my sojourn at this "park" was fairly pleasant.  I had a good billet, good food, and some good friends.

Orders at last arrived that we had to leave this place and take over a dump right on the Belgian coast.  We soon realized the difference between Le Fresnoy and Nieuport-Baines.  Instead of being able to work in the daytime, we had now to rush things through at night.

Well do I remember one incident which occurred shortly after we had taken over.  My duty was to get materials ready for the troops in the trenches.  A runner would be sent from the trenches with a chit for duckboards, hurdles, barbed wire, etc.

British tankThis particular afternoon an orderly had brought a chit asking for a certain number of feet of timber 7 inches by 2.25 inches to be called for later, and I set out to get it ready for the fatigue party, which would call for it at night.

This timber was kept in one of the shell-shattered villas on the front, in what had formerly been a bedroom.

I measured the timber and, instead of carrying the lengths down the stairs, I thought it would be easier to throw it out of the bedroom window.  After sending three or four lengths out, and just as I was in the act of throwing another, I was almost blinded by a blast of lightning.  I knew it was the bursting of a shell.

I had often heard it said that the shell which was meant for you always went about it quietly.

As soon as I was able to pick myself up I rushed from that unhealthy place like one possessed, and never stopped until I reached the safety of the subterranean passage running through the cellars of the house.  I was certain that Jerry would follow the first up with another, but he did not.

When I was able to take my bearings, I noticed a man running towards me who seemed to be saying something, for his lips were moving as if in speech, but I could not hear a sound.  The explosion had deafened me.

"Cannot hear," I said.  He came towards me, making a megaphone of his hands, and shouted, "I thought of picking you up in bits".  "Not yet," said I; "but it's been a near thing".

We went out together and found the nose-cap of the shell on the ground underneath the window.  I went back to the sergeant and reported the incident, still trembling through the shock, and he advised me to rest a few minutes and then carry on.  I carried on.

Recruiting in LondonIt was the intention to make a big advance here, and if possible to drive the German Army out of Ostend.  The enemy was not asleep, however, and just as we had got everything ready for the push, he opened out with a vengeance.

I shall never forget that terrific bombardment.  I never experienced anything like it before or since.  The shells were flying in all directions, heavies, lights, high explosives, armour-piercing shells of all calibres, some whistling overhead, to burst as far away as La Panne, others dropping in the village with a roar that shook the foundations of the earth.

Our only refuge was our billet, a most horrible and loathsome place - a cellar alive with cockroaches and other vermin.  And there we were, cooped up like rats in a trap, waiting for we knew not what.

Hour after hour the awful bombardment raged.  To venture out was certain death, for the enemy aircraft were dropping bombs and training their machine guns on to the cellars.  And we were without ammunition.

Evening came, and still the shells were dropping as fiercely as ever.  Midnight arrived without the slightest cessation in his devilish artillery fire.  The cry rang out, "Will it never end?"

One soldier cried "Can't we run for it?"

"Where can we run to?" asked Sergeant M.  "There must be no running or moving until we receive orders to that effect" - a thing that was impossible, for we learnt afterwards that all lines of communication had been cut.

The tempest raged all through the night.  No one slept; every man was waiting to be captured or slaughtered by the foe.

German ambulancesThe enemy now changed his tactics, and, in place of his high explosives, he turned upon us his new and diabolical mustard gas.  The order went through the dungeons, "Gas! All men put on your masks".  For four hours we had to keep them on.

As day was beginning to dawn, the twenty-four hours' awful tornado ceased.  What a transformation met my eyes when I went out for a breath of air.  Houses, theatre, Casino, the Church were levelled to the ground.  During the day we learnt that two thousand of our lads had been slaughtered or taken prisoners.

In fact, every soldier on the other side of the Yser Canal, excepting one or two, was rendered hors de combat.   The result of Jerry's attack drove us out of the village, and we attempted to establish a dump at Laitre Royale.

Every night a train of five trucks, loaded up with trees, pit-props, hurdles, elephant shelters, etc., came to the dump.

It was whilst engaged on the task of unloading the train that I lost my pal H.  We were carrying the pickets, etc., into the dump, a matter of some 20 or 30 yards, and were making good progress with the work, for so far there had been little shelling.  We were congratulating ourselves that we were going to have a quiet night when Jerry opened out.

I heard a shell coming, and before I had time to fall, the shell burst with a terrifying crash.  The concussion sent me headlong over the rails.  In an instant I was on my feet, and rushed off to the gable end of Laitre Royale for cover.  When I got there I found that H. and a few more of the working party were already there.

The shelling soon became violent, and it was obvious that Jerry was after the dump, for the shells were gradually closing in upon us.

I turned to H. and told him that I was going to make for the covered communication trench, which was about 100 yards away, as I thought it would be safer there than where we were.

Scottish territorials being examined in a dressing station during Battle of Menin Road, Belgium, 1914"I think we are better here," said H.  "He will have to blow this house over before he can get us".

"If you think you are safer here you had better stay, but I'm off for the tunnel," and, after waiting until the next shell burst, I made for the trench.  I had just got about a third of the way when I heard another shell coming which exploded some yards distant.

I flung myself to the ground before it burst.  Thinking I might gain the trench before another arrived, I picked myself up and made a spurt, but before I reached that harbour of refuge, another was on me, and such was the effect of the concussion that it lifted me clean off my feet and pitched me over a stack of wire some 3 feet from the ground.

I again attempted to reach the tunnel, when I heard H. calling me.

Retracing my steps, I found my friend lying on the ground in great pain.

"What's the matter, H.?" I enquired.

"The square-headed b-- has got me this time, George."

"Where are you hit?"

"Right in my back."

"Do you think you can manage to get to the trench if I help you?"

"I'll try, George."

W. Birdwood, H. Rawlinson, H. Plumer, George V, D. Haig, H. Horne, J. ByngStooping down, I put his arm round my neck and assisted him into the trench.

How we got there I never knew, for the shelling became intense, and the shells dropped round us like hailstones.  Having got him under some semblance of cover, I asked him how he felt.

"George, I am done."

I tried to comfort him by telling him they would soon put him right when he got to hospital.

"No, Jerry's done me this time."

Stretching out his hand and placing it into mine, he said "George, you have been the best pal I've had.  I want you to write to my wife and mother and tell them that I died doing my duty."

"No, no," said I.  "But I'll write and tell them that you are wounded and that you are in hospital."

"But what's your address?" I asked him.

He motioned to me to feel in his tunic pocket.  I did so and took some of the letters he had there.

I could see that he was mortally wounded.  Every time he spoke blood spurted out of his mouth.

"One more thing I want you to do for me," he said.

"What's that, H.?"

"Pray for me now."

"I am not much used to praying, H.," I replied, "but I'll do my best."

I knelt down and offered up a simple prayer, and I was conscious that the prayer was received.  My friend again seized my hand and thanked and blessed me.  The stretcher bearers arrived, placed him upon it, took him to the dressing station, and I saw him no more.

After three months there, with never a rest, I was ordered to rejoin my battalion, which was about to go over at Passchendaele.

Ypres, Belgium, 1919When I reported to the sergeant-major, he said;

"You'll see some soldiering now." I smiled, for I considered I had received my baptism of fire.

When we went over the top the sergeant-major was miles behind the line soldiering at forming an echelon.

We had scarcely got there before we were making ready for the grand assault.  Our officer came to make an inspection of us.  In my section there were ten soldiers, differing in many respects: some taking it as an adventure; one or two were developing nerves - none more so than the lance-corporal who was supposed to be in charge of us.

The officer asked us if there was anything we required.  I replied asking if we might be allowed to give our rifles a "pull through".  We had constantly been falling into the mud during the twelve hours' march, owing to the terrible state of the roads, with the result that our rifles were covered with dirt.

"Oh, no," said he.  "You have no time to do that.  You must be up and over at once."

"But who's going to lead us?" asked one of the squad.  "Surely you do not expect us to go over with W. in charge.  Look at him; he's frightened to death."

True, poor W. was in a bad way; his face was the picture of death.  I felt sorry for him, for it was evident that he was feeling his responsibility.  In the section was a soldier who had recently been reduced from corporal.  The officer turned to him and asked him if he would take charge of the section.  He replied that he did not wish to go over the head of the lance-corporal.

And there we stood, arguing the point as to who should lead.  The situation appeared so ludicrous to me that, in spite of the awful carnage that was going on around, I burst out laughing.  The ex-corporal noticed me, and immediately struck a dramatic pose.

Brandishing his rifle in the air, he cried, "Follow me, boys, I'll pull you through.  This is no laughing matter - it's the real thing!"

View of Mudros showing French wine store, Lemnos Island, Aegean Sea. Dardanelles Campaign, circa 1915The situation was so funny, I could not help laughing louder still.  Here we were, in the midst of our own barrage and the German barrage.

Shells were falling round us and taking their toll of human lives.  And we were being entreated to look upon it as the "real thing".

The officer came to us once more, and, taking the matter into his own hands, cried out in an heroic tone, "Follow me".

He rushed off, pointing his revolver into the air, shouting, "There is your objective; take it".  He then began to fire into the clouds and it struck me he must be trying to kill skylarks.  Had it not been so tragical, it would have been a farce.

We followed as best we could.  We had not gone far before we had to plunge into the sodden ground.  Someone gave the alarm "Gas!" and we struggled into our gas-masks.  No sooner had we got them on than the officer ordered us to take them off as there was no gas.

We advanced in rushes, and on looking round I found we were mixed up with men of another battalion.  An officer approached me and asked who I belonged to.  I told him the 5th East Lancs.  "Come on," says he, "follow this sergeant; you will be all right".

I kept up with my fresh non-com. until, passing over a shell hole, I felt something like a red-hot needle go through my shin.  It dropped me into that hole, one foot resting on the other, and I realized that I was wounded.  The sergeant asked me what was the matter.  I told him I was hit, but advised him to go on as I thought I could manage.

It was not until I tried to liberate myself that I found out what a trap I was in.  The shell hole was full of mud, slime, and barbed wire, and for three hours I was held there as if in a vice.  I felt myself gradually being sucked under.  The slime was rising higher and higher, until I found it above my waist.  My cries for help were unheeded.

I suppose every man had as much as he could do to look after himself.

Verdun: underground hospital ward and mascotWhen I was giving myself up for lost, a lad from the 4th East Lancs saw the plight I was in, and came and rescued me from that awful death.

If he did not win the V.C. that day, he won the eternal gratitude of the soldier he had liberated.

Whilst in that hole, I heard a heavy thud, and, looking up, I saw a soldier crouching on the top.  I told him not to stay there, as Jerry had got me there.  Then I noticed that he had been hit behind the ear.  He must have been killed instantly.

This soldier, who was a sergeant wearing a green flash, was of the same battalion as the soldier who came to my rescue.  I pointed him out to my friend and told him that he was killed and fell like an ox.  He looked up and recognised the sergeant, then turned to me and said, "It's Sergeant R.  It serves the b-- right".  I knew what he meant.  I had had some myself.

The wound which I received got me back to Blighty, and, among thousands of others that day, I counted myself very fortunate.

Private George Brame joined up under the Derby Scheme in 1916.  Drafted to Colchester in the 2/5th Battalion East Lancashire (Territorial) Regt., 66th Division.  The Division arrived in France early in March 1917.  They took over the line on the Givenchy and Festubert front.

In April became attached to the Royal Engineers and served in the dump at Le Fresnoy.  A few weeks afterwards, transferred to Nieuport-Baines.

Rejoined battalion in the autumn of 1917.  Went over the top with them in the Passchendaele attack, and was rather badly wounded.  Remained in hospital until April 1918, having undergone two operations.

Again in France, November 1918, in 1/5th East Lancashires.  After the Armistice was billeted at Gilley, Charleroi, and worked in the demobilization office until April 1919.

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Bellied" was a term used to describe when a tank's underside was caught upon an obstacle such that its tracks were unable to grip the earth.

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