Memoirs & Diaries - A Labour Company at Ypres

Scottish territorials being examined in a dressing station during Battle of Menin Road, Belgium, 1914 The delusion existed, and probably still exists, that no labour companies were ever nearer the line than twenty miles.  But when I tell you that the company to which I belonged - originally half of a Scottish labour battalion - was for the last seventeen months of the War never at any moment out of range of Jerry's guns, and that when he did get us he got us with his biggest guns and with his high-velocities, from which there was no dodging, and that during the struggle for Passchendaele in the autumn of 1917 our company were awarded a Military Cross, a D.C.M., and eight M.M.'s - well, we must have been within hearing distance, anyway.

The word "labour" also gave people the impression that we were an uneducated, uncivilized, unwashed lot of beings, whereas we were composed of exactly the same sort of men as every other branch of the service, except that most of us were short-sighted, and some of us wanted a finger, or possessed varicose veins, or suffered from some other stroke of luck.

In my own section alone (I was a corporal), I had all types of men, from Bill Barnes, whose ideas of conjugal felicity had caused his wife to throw herself from a high tenement window in Edinburgh, with the result that Bill served his country for seven arduous years in a northern institution, to the man (I forget his name, but I honour his memory) who, wounded on the roads at Ypres, went to hospital, and in whose kit, to make an inventory of which was part of my duties, I found a volume of the Golden Treasury, a copy of As You Like It, and Hume's Treatise on Human Nature.

I confine my narrative to these few months in the fall of 1917.  We had been billeted at Dickebusch, a ruined village south of Ypres, and at that time about five miles behind the line.  On July 30th, the day before the Third Battle of Ypres began, we moved up to a spot about a couple of miles behind Hill 60, and just in front of Scottish Wood.

Here we dumped our kit-bags, immediately in front of an East of Scotland battery of 6-inch guns, placed just within the edge of the wood, and there we remained for three solid weeks with no other protection than canvas bivouacs in a region where everybody else lived underground.

These "bivvies" were merely canvas sheets hung over poles and stretched out at each side and pegged down.  To get inside one had to crawl on all fours, and into each of them crawled every night to sleep eight weary and generally wet men and a large and varied assortment of other creatures which, though they crawled, did not sleep.

Wilhelm II and Ferdinand of Bulgaria meet at NishI can feel the guns of that battery in my ears yet.  Every time a gun went off it felt like hitting your head against a stone wall.  I am reminded here of our sergeant-major.  While the rank and file slept in "bivvies," the officers and the sergeant-major were allowed to put up tents, both bivvies and tents being camouflaged with leafy branches.  Being at that time company clerk, I had the privilege of sleeping in the sergeant-major's tent.  Nobby was an old Regular, a bluff Yorkshireman of the "Ole Bill" breed.

Although not a thing of beauty, he was to me a joy for ever. He wore a body-belt.  I think he had to, he was so stout.  And a flannel body-belt on a fat man acts exactly like the small flowerpot a gardener inverts on top of a dahlia stake to trap earwigs.  They crawl up the stake into the flower-pot at night, and are caught there in the morning.

Nobby didn't wait till morning.  He lit his candle, took off his body-belt, and set to work.  He got on famously for a minute or two, then when on the point of making a particularly valuable capture, one of the guns went off, out went the candle and Nobby lost his prey.  He found his tongue, however, and his matches, relit his candle, and proceeded on his quest.

How we weren't all sploshed out over and over again while in that camp, I do not know.  Between us and the battery a railway ran straight up towards Messines Ridge.  It was used by one of those big railway guns, which used to slip quietly up during the night, fire a few rounds and slip down again.  On our other side was a light railway on which ran small cars conveying men or ammunition.  In front and crossed by both railways ran the main road from Ypres to Lille.

Just behind us was one of our captive observation balloons; and Jerry was always having tries for one or other of these.  He smashed up a battery of guns on the other side of the main road; he cleared out another labour company on the other side of the light railway; he blew holes in the road and blew up the railway; and one day he came across in one of our own planes, fired explosive bullets into the balloon, setting it ablaze, and calmly flew back again to his own lines.

During those five months of fighting for Passchendaele our company worked on the forward roads in front of Ypres, advancing as our line advanced, working parties being sometimes in front of the field guns.  On one occasion a party were working exceptionally far forward, and from a recently captured pillbox in the vicinity of Westhoek Ridge were watching our shells bursting over the German trenches.

Some line men came down past, clearing out as far as they could.  "Come on, Jock," they shouted to one of our men.  "What the 'ell are you hanging about here for?  If Jerry spots you, he won't half give you gippo."  "Och, its a' richt, chum - sanny-fairy-an.  We're workin' here."  "Working! My Gawd!" and they stayed not upon the order of their going.

It was certainly no joke working on these roads when there was a stunt on.  Jerry had them taped off to an inch and was shelling them unmercifully.

The St. Quentin Canal tunnelThe traffic on such a road was a wonderful sight.  It is a steady, continuous stream, a stream often temporarily checked when a block occurs perhaps miles further up.  A shell has landed in the road and knocked a hole in it and, as likely as not, put out of action a lorry or a man or two.  The traffic stops dead, perhaps both ways, and the danger of destruction is greatly intensified.

Forward the "Labour Corps!"  A squad of men is quickly on the spot with pick and shovel, and the hole is filled up with any mortal thing that can be found - stones, beams, bricks, railway lines, sleepers, bits of cars or lorries, wheels, cases of bully, tombstones, dead horses - anything that will occupy space, and in a few minutes the traffic moves on once more, and the War goes on!

After it had become evident that our hopes of an immediate advance were doomed to disappointment, our company was taken back to Dickebusch.  There we built a camp for ourselves, where we spent the winter before moving up to Shrapnel Corner near Ypres in the springtime.

The C.Q.M.S. and myself built a little hut of corrugated iron with a good sound 3-foot-high parapet all round.  Our Quarter-bloke at that time was a big, black-moustached, clear-to-hell-out-of-it sort of chap, just the very man for a company of 500 skrimshankers like ours.  While he was a Q.M.S. and I only a lance-jack, in civil life I was a schoolmaster and he a school janitor.

However, we worked and lived together in great harmony and friendship for a year.  I did the work and he took the responsibility.  He was a beadle (church officer) in the Auld Kirk, and a teetotaller.  I was a deacon in the Free Kirk, and drank his nightly tot of rum at bedtime as well as my own.

Our hut was about 8 feet by 6 feet, and just so high that if the Q.M.S. wanted to stretch himself he had either to lie down or go outside.  He slept under the duckboard table-shelf-desk on which the rations were kept during the day, and I on a stretcher, with a little "Queen" stove between us.  In the morning at Reveille - perhaps - I rose, lit a fire in the stove, on the top of which I put a petrol tin full of water for shaving and washing purposes.  If the chimney smoked, as it usually did, I went outside, mounted the parapet and cleaned it out with drain-rods.

German Officers Dug-outThen I drew my breakfast at the cookhouse.  When the petrol tin began to steam, the Quarter-bloke rose, shaved and washed, and I, having breakfasted, partly on what I got at the cookhouse, which generally consisted of a square inch of ham fat and a mug of ham tea, but chiefly on bread, butter, cheese, and jam (strawberry) that had never seen the cookhouse, proceeded to do the same, washing contentedly in Sandy's second-hand warm water.  He then went for breakfast to the Sergeants' Mess, and I sat down by the stove to rest and smoke.

In this job there was not much to be done during the day.  Perhaps one went for the rations, or to the A.O.C. dump for clothing or shovels or gum-boots, or to Pop for beer for the canteen, but our busy time was at night when the boys returned to camp.  There was clothing of all sorts to be issued, allotments of pay had to be adjusted, remittances to be sent home, and all sorts of correspondence to be conducted between the men and the pay office with regard to their domestic relations.  The number and nature of the family secrets I got to know would have made my fortune were I a blackmailer.

I used to have quite a number of unofficial visitors when the Q.B. went to dinner.  A head would pop in at the door, and there would be a hoarse whisper: "Could ye spare us a candle, corporal?  I want to write hame, an' Jock McGreegor's usin' oor ane to heat a Maconochie wi'."

" Anything to read, Jimmy?" inquires a pal.  I used to keep a small circulating library of magazines and books.

"Are ye in, sorr?" from an Irishman.  "Could yez give us a house-wife?  My threid's all done."

"Hello, dominie." (Another pal.)  "Any buckshee fags?"  "The answer is in the negative."  "Get out!  Here's some oatcakes I got in a parcel to-day."  The fags are forthcoming (" Flags " this week).

A platoon officer: "You might give this man a new shirt, Morgan.  The one he had has just walked across to the incinerator."

Bloodhounds used for locating wounded soldiersThen when the Last Post had sounded, and I had drunk my tot of rum, and the little tin hut was vibrating like a French cattle truck in sympathy with the continuous bombardment of the guns, I drank the Quarter-bloke's tot, and I laid myself down on the stretcher, the handle of which had been accidentally broken in order to make it useless for its proper purpose, and, with my feet against a sack of bread and my head in aromatic proximity to half a cheese, I fell asleep.

Corporal J. C. Morgan was on the National Reserve of Officers before the War, but was rejected for service owing to eyesight, until accepted in Class B2 under the Derby Scheme.  Being a schoolmaster, he was not called up for "Labour Abroad," but enlisted as a private in July 1916, and was posted to 9th Cameron Highlanders (Labour Battalion).  Landed at Havre in September, and until the formation of the Labour Corps in 1917 was employed at various jobs in the back area of the Western Front.  In April 1917 the battalion became the 8th Labour Company, and in June were sent up to Dickebusch; remained working on the forward roads till the Armistice, Corps Troops, II Army.  Then followed the Army into Germany, marching on foot all the way - the halt, the maimed, and the almost blind.  "Our Platoon," he says, "whistling (of all things) the Russian National Anthem practically the whole way."  Reached Cologne on December 30th and were billeted at Ohligs.  Sent home for demobilization in January 1919.

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

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Eggs-a-cook" were boiled eggs sold by Arab street vendors. It was later used by Anzac soldiers when going over the top.

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