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Harry Hickson’s War Dairy – The Road to Armistice

November 11, 2018

On this hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, I’m sharing extracts from my grandfather’s war diary covering his experiences as an artillery officer on the Western Front in the run-up to the final day. This is the penultimate of several extracts of his diary that I’ve posted at key anniversaries over the past four years. In the previous post, Harry Hickson took part in the Battle of Amiens, an offensive that turned out to be the decisive action of the war.

Before the armistice finally arrived, there was much fighting and dying to come. Harry himself came within a hair’s breadth of death. It’s strange to think that the lives of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren depended on the depth of the German-dug hole in which he had taken cover when a bomb came his way.

The war by this time was increasingly fought in the air. Those on the ground had reason to fear bombs as well as the usual explosive and gas shells. In these entries Harry,among other things, bears witness to the aerial war, which provided an additional dimension of terror both to the airmen and those below.

As the weeks progress, he notes events beyond his immediate world as they slowly lead up to the armistice. I make no apology for the length of this post. The original diary is twice as long. If I’d concentrated on the dramatic at the expense of the mundane, I would have given a skewed impression of Harry’s life at the front. Fortunately for him, fighting only took up part of his time.

August 20th: A dull morning with a fine rain.  I was up at 5.30am and went down to our near position in a side car.  A lorry from No 5 Squadron R.A.F was to take Lunt and I with a party of our men to Abbeville, but it did not turn up.  We returned on the ration lorry feeling very disgusted.  It turned out a lovely day too of course!!!  A very sad incident occurred after tea today.  One of our R.E.8 Observation Planes was hit by a shell from the 6″ howitzer battery it was observing for.  The observer was blown to pieces and the pilot was also killed, a horrible affair, which luckily very seldom happens.

August 22nd: Another lovely hot day.  The Bosche shelled us directly after breakfast and wounded Gunner English badly and wounded Gunner Button slightly.  Last evening I registered No 1 gun from the Tower O.P, had an excellent view being very high.  Nothing else very exciting today, a slack day.  I managed to get a very good Bosche ‘Luger’ revolver.

August 24th: A rather dull day but fine.  We played cards till midnight last night, there was no bombing near us.  Major Boulton, Cornelius and Taylor came to lunch.  No excitement today, but lots of bombing during the night, which gave us a bad shaking.  I hear the Bosche hit No 12 Canadian Battery Officers Mess with a bomb and wiped out all the officers. What bad luck, it might easily have been us.  They also caused 100 French casualties in Vrély.

August 25th (Sunday): A very nice day.  Not too hot.  I saw an exciting air scrap this morning, the Bosche was brought down in a spinning nose dive.  We had a very nice service under the trees this morning our piano was a great improvement.  The Major left us to go on leave, sails on the 27th and I am in command of the battery.  Saw another great air scrap, in which a Frenchman was nearly brought down by Fokkers.

September 2nd: Up at 8am and went to Warvilliers, then Mawby and I went on to Flenicourt to get food and cigarettes but had no luck.  We had lunch at Flenicourt and then went on to Abbeville where I got some grub, but very few cigs.  Returned to the battery for dinner to hear the good news that I was posted Captain of 135 Siege Battery on 8″ battery. Hurrah! The Bosche put two 4.2″ shells very close to me during the night and certainly put the wind up me!!  I won’t go to the new battery if they are any closer than that!

September 4th: Last night I had one of my worst experiences of the war, a perfectly rotten time.  The Bosche were bombing all round us and then some French guns quite near us opened fire when the Bosche was quite close, we could tell his engine.  The Bosche must have been very low, because I distinctly heard him release a bomb, right over where I was lying in a hole cut into an old Bosche trench.  I screamed with fright and the bomb landed exactly where I thought it would, on the ground right above me.  The earth came down on top of me and I thought I was going to be buried, but luckily not enough fell to be dangerous and I scrambled out.  Meanwhile the next bomb fell above Gay and Dew and they had an experience similar to mine.  It was horrible and an awful shock to me.  When it was daylight I saw where the bomb had landed, there was a fairly large circle of blackened grass round the point of impact.

A lovely day and very hot.  We hear the Bosche are retreating from here and I have orders not to fire west of Matiguy after 9pm.  Later on I pulled out No’s 1 and 2 guns ready for the road.

September 7th : I was up at 7.30, a lovely morning and afterwards a very hot day.  We packed everything up for a move on to Amiens. We left Le Quesnel at 2pm and I came by lorry with the men.  Our billets here in Amiens are in a school in the Rue De Faubourg de Hem, and they are quite comfortable.  We went to the Hotel de la Raise for dinner, which was quite good.  It seemed so strange to be amongst civilians again, for there are still quite a lot in Amiens.  We played bridge on our return and the guns arrived about 11pm.

Memo: The Bosche are still in retreat and the news continues awfully good all along the line.  Cambrai will probably soon fall to us again, then Douai I hope.

September 10th : What a great day!! The Major gave me my leave warrant at breakfast time.  I was so excited I could hardly contain myself! Cheers!!!  I was motored as far as Abbeville and I caught the 12 o’clock train from there and arrived Boulogne at 4 pm.  I met Justice (Adjutant) there and we had dinner together at the Metropole, very nice it was too.  I saw Alexander of the Lancs. & Cheshire there.  Slept that night in an attic at the Hotel de Louvre, all I could get, but I was feeling so happy  I didn’t mind where I slept!

For the next two weeks Harry rejoined his wife in Liverpool and took a short holiday on the Isle of Man, where his brother-in-law was a parish priest.

September 24th : My last day of leave, how rotten it is, but has to be faced.  Went to town after lunch and did some shopping, then we met Major Cattley for tea at the Adelphi and returned home about 6 pm.  Said goodbye about 11 pm, it was awful, wondering whether I would ever come back.  There was a crowded  train to town, and I slept a little en route.

September 29th : Zero hour for the show was at 5.30 this morning, it was very misty and damp.  I went over to the left section.  Things went well on our front and we captured part of the Hindenburg line by 8.15 AM (the Billenglise part by the canal).  It rained after lunch.  I had a busy morning and evening as I took over the B.C. Post and we did a lot of counter battery work (answering aeroplane H.F. calls).  We fired nearly 1100 rounds today, a record!!  When one considers that each round is 200 lbs. weight, what a lot of metal we sent over to the poor old Bosche!!

October 3rd: I left with the guns at 11 pm last night, and we had a long trek up to Magay Le Fosse, where the new position is.  The Bosche were bombing badly near us when we left, and we were lucky to get away without casualties.  We had a taste of gas on the way up to and had to wear masks, but we arrived there without incident at 4 AM this morning.  We carried on getting the guns in position, and they were in action at 8.15 AM.  We were very tired and it was a cold night.  Soon after daylight a Bosche aeroplane came over, and the pilot had the cheek to fire at us with his machine gun, but did not damage!! The Major went off to the O.P. after lunch to register the guns.

Memo: The French walked into St Quentin on Weds, after we had nearly surrounded it.  Our Corps are now only 4 miles from Lille. Things seem to be moving now.  Bulgaria made an unconditional surrender on Monday, and the Turks threw up the sponge on Friday, but this is not confirmed yet.

October 17th: Zero hour was 5.20 this morning and things appear to have gone well, as lots of prisoners came back.  We ceased firing at 11.20am.  I saw President Poincaré come through the main street this afternoon, the inhabitants of Bohain were very excited and gave him a great reception.  We have gone in reserve again with the 12th Brigade now.

October 18th: At 5.30 this morning the Bosche shelled Bohain with a long range 9.45″ gun, it made an awful noise and mess.  One shell hit the Town Hall.  One of our men – Gunner Wade – was killed, and also two women.  Curtis and I started out to get stuff for the mess, but the old Ford would not go and we returned for lunch.  We attacked again at 11.30 this morning and appear to have done well.  I hear we have retaken Ostend and Bruges, also Douai has fallen to us.

October 19th: The Bosche shelled the place with their big gun again this morning, and woke me up feeling none too safe!  Gregson, of 69 Siege Battery and I went down the line in their car to Peronne, and then to La Flague for a hauser and mess gear.  It was a very cold ride.  The Bosche put over three big shells this evening, and then stopped.

Memo:  We hear the naval crowd took Ostend yesterday, also Bruges, very good news indeed.  Zebrugge too has fallen, and we are on the coast of Holland.

October 21st: Another wet miserable day, not fighting weather at all, the P.B I must be having a rotten time.  Had a busy day getting ready Cinema Hall for the concert and a rehearsal this afternoon. The concert was from 6 to 8.30pm and was a great success.  The hall was packed with infantry as well as gunners.  Nothing else happened, we had a parade this afternoon in full marching order, hadn’t had one for moons.

October 25th: The old Bosche wakened me up at 2.30 this morning, again shelling the place, they must have a special hate against it!  A fine morning but dull.  I was busy with drill this morning and the concert after lunch.  The concert was a difficultly as the H.L.I wanted one at the same time and place, but we had ours before theirs and it was another success.  I had a rotten headache, I am not feeling at all well.

Sunday 27th October: A lovely fine morning.  I still have a wretched headache and feel off colour. Took the battery for a route march this morning to keep them fit.  This afternoon we played ‘soccer’ against the officers of 68 S.B and drew 1-1.  I had a topping bath afterwards and took two aspirin and felt better.  Early to bed.

October 28th: I felt awful again this morning, I do hope I am not going to be really ill. I was on parade all the morning, but after lunch I had to give in and go to bed.  I am ill and feel rotten. Slept most of the time.  It was a lovely day too.

October 29th: A lovely day again.  I got up at 9.30 and felt a little better, but my head still feels very heavy.  Went to Brigade Headquarters to sit as member of a Field General Courts Martial on Gunner Paterson of the 1/1 Highland Heavy Battery.  It was a very serious one. “Cowardice in the face of the enemy”, and really involved the death penalty, the only Courts Martial of that nature it has been my misfortune to sit on.  He was only a lad who had lost his head and run away during heavy shelling.  I felt intensely sorry for him.  The Resident – Major Moss, a merciful man – with our consent altered the charge sheet and he was sentenced to two years imprisonment.  I saw the Doctor at Headquarters and he gave me some medicine.  I got back to bed about 3 o’clock.  We are probably going back into the line tomorrow, so I must get fit again.

October 31st I was up at 8am, a miserable day. I still feel very rotten and my head is very bad all the time.  I went to Brigade at 10am for a lecture by the Colonel, which lasted 1½ hours!!!  I saw the Doctor and he advised me to get back to bed.  I had a busy afternoon though getting the guns and remaining lorries away, but I was all clear by tea time and able to go to bed.

November 1stA lovely day, I stayed in bed till after lunch.  I hear that last night the Battery had very bad luck in pulling into the new position.  The Bosche shelled them badly and Gunner Bruce was killed and three others wounded.  I had tea and dinner with Brown of 116 Battery and discovered that he was on a signals course at Newport Pagnell, and knew lots of people I did, so we had something to talk about!  We hear Turkey and Austria have both signed an armistice, good news.

Sunday 3rd  November: A fairly quiet night.  The Major and I are sleeping in a hole dug in the ground with a tarpaulin over it !  It is near the guns. The Bosche were doing a strafe early this morning, I was glad we were below the ground level. A fine morning, but started to rain before tea.  The Major went off to the O.P and registered, the calibrated the new No. 1 gun, it was quite successful.  The Major told me later that he calibrated on Merzières Church and got several direct hits on it. It seems rather a shame to do that at this stage of the war!  A fairly quiet night.

4th  November: Another attack at 5.45 this morning, to get across the canal. We put up quite a good barrage, and things appear to have gone well for us. The canal was soon forced, and lots of prisoners came back past us.  The Bosche shelled us badly about 9 o’clock, and had a direct hit on our mess.  Luckily we had finished breakfast, or it might have been a catastrophe!  They also got a direct hit on our motor-bike and side car and blew it to bits!  A fine day, but misty in the early morning.  I have had a rotten head nearly all day.  We had to make another mess, a dug out this time, the other was in a farmhouse.

November 9th: A fine sunny day for a change.  The Major and Jones went off to Wassigny with the Battery Sergeant Major to get billets.  I got the caterpillars down and the guns ready to leave hen marched the battery to Wassigny.   The billets are quite comfortable, but it is a very cold night, I feel frozen!!!

Memo: We hear rumours that the Kaiser has abdicated, and the Crown Prince will not take the throne.  Also that internal affairs in Germany are in a desperate state, all very good news indeed.  The Bosche are given till Monday to decide whether they accept our armistice conditions.  I have been having some awful boils lately.

November 10th: A fine morning with a sharp frost, a lovely sunny day.  I saw the Doctor this morning, and he lanced my boils and bound them up.  I had a bad quarter of an hour!  I feel sure my system was all out of order when I had all those headaches in Boheim.  Miller came in to tea, and I afterwards visited my old battery 185.  I am in a cosy room now.

November 11th: Monday.  A lovely day.  I saw the Doctor again this morning and he dressed my boils.  We hear that the Armistice comes into force at 11 AM today, we can hardly believe it, it sounds too good to be true.  After lunch our fellows played 185 at footer and the latter won 3-1, then we went on to 185 and played bridge.  Later on we celebrated the Armistice – and only had rum to do it with!  I simply can’t imagine no more shelling and bombing, and the feeling of safety is wonderful.

Finally, a few observations on these entries.

The juxtaposition of the momentous events taking place and Harry’s affliction with his boils, while almost comic, shows that the everyday concerns of a soldier’s life couldn’t be ignored. He had suffered several bouts of sickness during the last year of the war, possibly through a depressed immune system, so it was hardly surprising that he should comment on his latest ailment even on the day of victory.

Then there’s the court martial, which shows him to have been a compassionate man. Gunner Paterson was lucky. Over three hundred of his fellow soldiers accused of the same offence were executed. And lastly a reminder that a junior officer’s job was not confined to leading his men into battle. Of equal importance was paying attention to the morale of the troops, hence his efforts in organising concerts and endless football matches.

So Harry survived, but his troubles were far from over, as we shall see in the final episode of this series, which I hope to publish in the next couple of days.

I post this in memory of all who were killed or wounded in that awful war.




One Comment
  1. shon hughes permalink


    Best so far Kind Regards

    Shôn – ex PBI

    Mobile: +44 (0)7990803110

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