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Passchendaele, August 1917 – a survivor’s diary

July 30, 2017

A hundred years ago today, Harry Hickson, my maternal grandfather, entered the First World War. After months of training as an artillery officer, he made his way to the Western Front, where he encountered the Third Battle of Ypres. Over the subsequent four months over a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth troops were killed or wounded, and about the same number on the German side. My grandfather survived.

This is my small contribution to the commemorations of the campaign, better known as Passchendaele, taking place today in Britain and Belgium. Over the past few years I’ve posted edited extracts of Harry Hickson’s war diary at significant anniversaries. But for my family this is perhaps the most significant, because it marks the day on which Harry was first exposed to what we rather casually refer to as the horrors of war.

This is his account of August 1917, unedited. It may not be the most exciting account of the events of that month, but it reminds me, sitting at home on a Sunday morning and looking out on my suburban garden, that for all my worries about the future of my country and the continent to which it belongs, life in Europe today is infinitely better than it was for my grandfather’s generation. May it continue to be so.

“August 1st: It is still raining and very uncomfortable in tents.  I stayed all day in camp.  Tonight in mess the Colonel announced that the big offensive in the Ypres Salient started yesterday and was quite a success. I wonder whether that we are bound for.

August 2nd: It is still raining and very miserable in a camp of tents. This morning the lorries left Havre and went on up country.  I went to the ordinance here and got a torch and a protractor for map work, they have a very good stock here.  At 10 o’clock tonight we left Havre by the Gard Maritime station, the battery is training there.  Our adventures are beginning. I wonder where we are going and what is going to happen to us.

August 3rd: We arrived at Rouen at 6 o’clock this morning and had breakfast at the Hotel de L’Angleterre – a very expensive place.  I reported to the R.T.O at 9.30am and received my instructions.  I then visited the Cathedral there, a very lonely old place.  And afterwards had lunch at the Officers Club in the Rue de Jeanne d’Arc.  We entrained again at 3.15pm and continued north.

August 4th: Today is the 3rd anniversary of the outbreak of war. I wonder how much longer it will last, we little thought it would last as long as this.  We passed Abbeville and Boulogne early this morning and arrived at Calais at 10.30am.  We only stayed there about half an hour and then proceeded via St. Omer to Hazebrouck.  We stayed there about an hour as I believe the Bosche were shelling Poperinghe and eventually arrived at Hopoutre, a suburb of Poperinghe, at 4.30pm.  Just as we got there the Bosche put over a shell, which landed about 100 yards away, it gave me quite a start.  The first I had ever experienced that was really fired at me, so to speak.  Then came the parting of ways, for the battery was to split into two sectors, much to my regret.  We detrained at Hopoutre and lorries were waiting for us there.  Flint took the Right Section of 401 S.B to 306 Siege Battery and I took the Left Section to 309 (H.A.C) Siege Battery.  We travelled through Pop to Trois Tours Wood where the headquarters of the battery were.  There I met Major Edmondson who is in command and some of the officers.  My first impressions are good, the battery is manned by H.A.C officers and men, all good stout fellows I’m sure, and the major seems particularly nice.  We are in the XVIII Corps of the 2nd army under Lieutenant General Sir Ivor Maxse.  The Brig General Heavy Artillery is Brig Gen Brake R.A.  we are in the 65th Heavy Artillery Group under Lt Col Webb R.G.A.  I slept in my first dug out under a bank in Trois Tours Wood and had a very comfortable night.

August 5th: This morning I went with major Edmondson and a party of 401 up the line to a new forward position at Turco Farm, to get ready for the guns coming, by the way the guns are 6″ howitzers and very good ones with the quick release gear for loading.  The Bosche were strafing rather badly and I got the wind up, but no one was hit.  I saw my first dead men today, two poor fellows evidently killed in the big advance, they had an uncanny fascination for me which I can’t account for, I had to keep looking at them.  We returned to the dug out to sleep and I watched the bombardment at night, it was quite a thrilling sight.

August 6th: This morning I went on duty to an intermediate battery position just in rear of the railway near Orielen and stayed there all day.  The Bosche put over a few nasty ones during the day, and Sergeant Saunders was hit in the leg.  I slept in a tin shed near the guns and did not feel very safe!!

August 7th: Today I took part in several shoots and stayed on duty in the battery till 6pm, when I returned to Trois Tours and had a bath and change of clothes, both of which were very welcome.  Major Chamberlain was hit in the arm but not very badly, Major Stewart left 309 S.B and was sent to No. 18 Siege Battery with 12″ guns. That is the big fellow which fires at night close to here and keeps us awake.  However, I had a very comfortable nights sleep.

August 8th: I had a really slack morning writing letters etc, and after lunch went over to the battery position near the railway.  I had a very busy afternoon with shoots etc. Bdr West and Gunner Hatton were wounded, but not badly I’m glad to say.  A very heavy thunderstorm came on after tea and upset things completely.  I slept on the floor of a dug out and had a very hard restless night, hardly any sleep at all.  I think I was rather scared really, I haven’t got used to this fighting and facing death constantly properly yet.

August 9th: This morning I did a very good shoot with aeroplane co-operation.  Then we prepared to move the battery position.  I returned to Trois Tours at 8pm and had a very comfortable night with no strafing.  I was feeling awfully tired and done up.

August 10th: I have had a very busy day at the battery.  One section went forward to the new Boront Farm position.  I slept at the battery position near the railway.

August 11th: Today I went up to the new position at Boront Farm and was very busy building dug-outs etc ready to occupy it.  A violent thunderstorm came on after tea, but we had a cheery dinner in the new dug-out.  The other section with a supply of ammunition was expected up and I went to look for them about 11pm as they had not turned up, but they did not appear and I lay down on the floor of the dug-out.  I woke up about 1am to find I was lying in about 3″ of water and felt very cold and wet!!  I shifted quarters to another dug-out and finished the night quite comfortably.  The guns and ammunition were bogged on the way up.

August 12th (Sunday): It was a lovely morning, sunny and bright.  We did a very successful aeroplane shoot and got and O.K on the 13th round and several more OKs and Y’s during the shoot.  We had lunch in the open as it was so lovely, and in the middle of it the Bosche strafed us badly with high explosive shells and shrapnel.  The first shell landed only about 20 yards from us all (officers) and killed one man and wounded several, it was a horrible experience.  One man’s stomach was ripped right open, an awful sight.  I had my first letter from Dolly today, it helped to cheer me up a little, the awfulness of war seemed very realistic today, I am sure more of our wounded men will die they looked ghostly as we carried them away.  The Huns strafed all afternoon.

August 13th: We had a fairly quiet day today.  I saw a very exciting aeroplane fight, a Bosche plane forced one of our RE8 planes almost to the tree tops when another RE8 came along and shot the Bosche down and he crashed.  They were quite close and we gave a big cheer.  The Huns shelled us badly at night with gas shells and we had to wear our respirators.  Another long letter from Dolly.

August 14th: Another wet day, but we have done a bit of shooting – 576 rounds.  This afternoon 306 and 184 Siege Batteries were badly strafed, I hope Flint nor any of my old men weren’t hit.  We were bombarding Polecapelle from 8.30 to 9.30 tonight, a terrific din.  The Huns had a go at us tonight, splinters were hitting our dug out and we retired to some trenches on our flank from 1.15am to 2.30am when things quietened down a little.  There men were killed, they belonged to the K.O.L.I.

August 15th: It was a lovely day today with just occasional showers.  We continued our bombardment scheme as per yesterday.  I came back to Trois Tours (which we have still retained) at 6pm for 24 hours rest, I feel I need it too.  After writing several letters I had some hot rum and went to bed at 9.30pm.  The Huns were strafing No.18 S.B’s position close by, but I had a topping night’s sleep, in spite of our heavy bombardment nearly all night.  The attack was carried on this morning, zero hour was 4.45am.

August 16th: I woke at 8 o’clock this morning and had a cup of tea, then went to sleep again till 9.30 and had breakfast in bed!!  What a luxury!  I saw batches of Hun prisoners came into the cages and spoke to some of them.  I returned to the battery position about 5 o’clock and carried on with shoots till 8.30pm. The Bosches gave us another bad strafing and we retired to a trench and dug ourselves in for the night.  We slept on duckboards, and very hard they were, but fairly comfortable and fairly safe but the darned Huns sent a lot of gas over and we had to wear our helmets again.

August 17th: It was a lovely sunny day again and we did no shooting till 2.30pm.  The Huns put a few over at tea time and killed Gunner Jogden, a very fine fellow.  They also put over more gas about 9.30pm.  I slept in the dugout and had quite a comfortable night.

August 18th: It was another lovely day and we did no firing till 11.30am.  I wrote several letters.  This evening I left the battery at 5 o’clock and came back to Trois Tours.  Some Canadian officers came in and had a yarn and we got the gramophone going.  I had some hot rum and got to bed about 10.30pm, the rum helps me to sleep.  A Hun plane dropped bombs quite close during the night and the wood was shelled about 1.30am.

August 19th (Sunday): I woke at 8 o’clock this morning as usual and had a cup of tea then slept again till 10, and had a bath and breakfast.  It was a lovely day and I sat outside and censored letters.  Returned to duty at the battery at 4pm, and had quite a comfortable night in the dugout.

August 20th: Another lovely day, this morning I did another successful aeroplane shoot with 5zs 4ys and 2MOKs.  Tonight I moved the right section of guns up to the new position at Turco Farm and got them in position for firing.  I don’t like the position very much, it seems rather exposed.  Slept in a small dug out near the guns.

August 21st: The Bosche gave us a terrible strafing this morning from 9am to 12.30.  They did what they call and area shoot and we were in the middle of it!  They use all the calibres from field guns up to 8” and we estimate they put over at least 1200 rounds, it was an awful experience.  We were lucky enough to escape with only two men wounded.  The afternoon and evening were fairly quiet and the men built dug outs.  I went down to the Burnt Farm position for dinner and returned afterwards and slept in the small Battery anchorage dug-out.  The Huns strafed badly with H.E shells during the night, and put over great quantities of gas shells from 12.30am onwards.  We had to wear our respirators from 12.45-2.15am and at intervals up to 4am when it was fairly clear.

August 22nd: Another big bombardment started at 4.45 this morning.  We found Sergeant Welham was badly gassed last night and he was taken to the dressing station at Essex Farm, we have lost a good man in the Sergeant.  We got an officers dug out made in the ruins of Turco Farm and some billets for the men.  I returned to the Burnt Farm position at 11pm for a good sleep but the Huns strafed badly during the night and I couldn’t sleep.

August 23rd: Gunner Stewart Jn was killed at 5 o’clock this morning during the strafing at Burnt Farm, and we buried him at Bard Cottage Cemetery at 3 o’clock this afternoon.  It seems awful that a strong healthy man should be alive and well in the morning and under the sod in the afternoon, such is war.  We cleared up shells, furzes etc at the old position, and the Huns strafed us again, one shell fell near the orderly room and wounded three men.  They put a lot over during the night too, they were very persistent!

August 24th: I got up at 5am and went up to an Observation Post (O.P) in an old Hun dug out on Pilcham Ridge, and had a very interesting day.  I passed a grave with this inscription, “Here lies the body of an unknown Highlander”.  I saw the ruins of Zangemarck church in the valley and also Zounebeke and Polecapelle churches in the distance, all in the occupation of the Huns.  I returned to the Turco farm position at 7.30 pm, and had a fairly comfortable night in our new dugout in the ruins.

August 25th: I have had a fairly easy day on the guns, the Huns strafed us again but not badly, I was orderly officer at 6 pm and did a “night lines” shoot from 9 to 10.30pm, then a bombardment shoot from 11pm to 1 am, when the Huns strafed us again, in retaliation I suppose.  The bombardment was a lovely sight at night.

August 26th: I was wakened again at 5.30 this morning to do an aeroplane shoot, which was quite successful. Spent the rest of the day making dug outs etc.  I returned to Trois Tours at 6 pm, and paid the men who were there, we keep a certain number back there all the time for a spell and clean up.  After dinner I got the gramophone going and went to bed at 10 pm, feeling very tired.  Some shells fell quite close during the night and it rained very heavily too.

August 27th: I woke at 9.30 this morning and had breakfast in pyjamas, then had a bath and general clean up till lunch.  I wrote a letter of condolence to Stewart’s mother, he was one of my original men in 4015.B.  I returned to the Turco Farm position at 4 pm in pouring rain and got wet through, especially at the knees.  I found the battery had a “stunt” on, and after tea went on the guns and got very wet.  The major lent me dry socks and I slept in my wet clothes!  I hadn’t any to change to.

August 28th: I spent the morning wading in mud on the battery position, it was most uncomfortable, and occasionally we could see some poor fellows boots sticking out of the mud and the know the rest of him was only just covered.  We cleared up empty cartridge cases etc.  Did a blind shoot in the afternoon, very windy and showery.  I was Orderly Officer at night and did a shoot about 10 pm.  Slept in a small dug out with P. H. Edmondson the major’s brother, and had a very cosy night.  It was a lovely moonlight night too.

August 29th: We spent the morning getting the gun trails settled on the platforms, very showery.  Did a blind shoot in the afternoon and afterwards drained the position. Comfortable night in dug out.

August 30th: The Huns started strafing us at 8 o’clock this morning with 11″ and 8″ shells, big fellows, which made a great shindy.  We cleared off to a flank and let them go ahead, so had no casualties and no guns were hit.  They continued till tea time and put over from 300 to 400 rounds, and the road was very badly cut up.  We did a shoot in the evening and I had a comfortable night.

August 31st: We did three counter battery “stunts” during the day, I hope we relieved some of our batteries of the Bosche attentions.  The Huns later on retaliated with more of their 8″ stuff, which isn’t a bit pleasant.  I was Orderly Officer and ammunition arrived for us about midnight, and also had to turn out for “night lines” shoot at 4.30am.  Then I had to report at 7 am so had very little sleep.”

In memory of the soldiers of all nations who perished during that awful month, and of my grandfather, who was spared.

From → Books, History, UK

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