Author's book: World War 1 - From Notes and Well Remember Incidences
Sir John French:
The Aisne Valley runs generally East and West, and consists of a flat-bottomed depression of width varying from half a mile to two miles. The river follows a winding course near the southern slopes of the valley.
The high ground on both the north and south sides of the river is approximately 400 feet above the valley bottom. It is very similar in character on both slopes of the valley, which are broken into numerous rounded spurs and re-entrants. The most prominent of the former are the Chivre spur on the right bank and Sermoise spur on the left. [i]
The plateau on the south is divided by a subsidiary valley of much the same character is found on the small River Vesle, which flows into the main stream near Sermoise.
The slopes of the plateau overlooking the Aisne on the north and south are of varying steepness, and are covered with numerous patches of wood, which stretch upwards and over the edge on to the top of the high ground.
There are several villages and small towns dotted about in the valley itself and along its sides, the chief of which is the town of Soissons.
The Aisne is a sluggish stream of some 170 feet in breadth and measures15 feet deep in the centre; it is unfordable. Between Soissons on the west, and Villages on the east (the part of the river attacked and secured by the British Forces) there are eleven road bridges across it.
On the north bank a narrow-gauge railway runs from Soissons to Vailly, where it crosses the river and continues eastward along the south bank.
From Soissons to Sermoise a double line of railway runs along the south bank, turning at the latter place up the Vesle Valley towards Bazoches.
The position held by the enemy is a very strong one, either for a delaying action or for a defensive battle. One of its chief military characteristics is from the height of our plateau only small stretches of the enemy’s plateau can be seen. This is chiefly due to the woods on the edges of the slopes. Another important point is that all the bridges are under either direct or high angle artillery fire.[ii]
Fred’s journal entries:
Sept 13th (Battle of the Aisne)
[We] marched at dawn [in the] pouring rain, no food, or time to get any.
Took up position near PAISSY, from there [we marched] to CHIVY VALLEY to meet a German counter attack. [iii]
Our infantry suffered heavily, many wounded being near me.
The battery dropped into action, and we found an observing point on a high hill, directly in front.
In running our wire, old George and I were very lucky to escape the bullets, for we were in full view of the enemy – they all but got us once, a bullet coming between our noses as we were deciding the best way to run our wire. We laid down, for they were shelling very heavy all around. This was in the afternoon and the sun was very warm. I couldn’t move, I must have been tired for I actually went to sleep, [until] a Staff-Officer later was talking near by [sic] he must have thought I got bowled over.
We made our observing station under the shelter of a small rock, which undoubtedly saved us from getting completely wiped out of existence.
We fired heavy all day, and in the night the Battery moved a little to the right.
I remained on the hill on guard, and posted double sentries with order to shoot anybody, who approached without giving prompt reply to challenge. Towards dawn I lost two sentries and had very uncomfortable time searching for them, for the enemy was again very active.
[There was] heavy fighting all day. Our little rock proved a haven of refuge, all day we were heavily shelled by ‘ coal-boxes’ .
Major Johnson was killed near by [sic] and Major Madocks slightly wounded.
Some chaps dodged under our rock for shelter and gave us some tobacco; we were smokeless and foodless, my feast being that day a half biscuit, left from emergency ration. [iv]
[Today was the] same as yesterday. The 113th and 46th Batteries on our left were heavily shelled [and had] many casualties, we were more fortunate.
[There was] very hard fighting all day – was by this time [I] quite used to the thunder like clap of the coal-boxes, and other a sundry missiles the Germans were flinging about wholesale.
Their artillery was superior, we had no heavy guns to compare to them, nor anything like their number – and we suffered greatly, for sometimes it was like Hell let loose.
Heavy scrapping [all day].
In the afternoon we took up another position on top of MOUNT GOURTONNE, which commanded a good view of the enemies [sic] lines.
I galloped hard from our little rock and was sickened to see the dead horses lying around.
As soon as the guns left the old position the enemy peppered it with shell[s], for we had been spotted by aeroplane.
We took up position at night, [it] was raining hard [and I] was wet through, but had got used to that now. [I] slept under a gun limber [and] would have given anything for something hot to drink, and a good fire.
Sept 17th – October 13th
We have effectively formed our battle line known as the AISNE RIVER. [v]
This long period of fighting all day and almost every night, seems to come to one as a second nature.
We fire an average of 250 rounds per day – it is really siege warfare.
Night attacks take place almost nightly [and] I have dug a hole at the back of a limber, as my home.
All days seem to be alike [except that] some days the fighting is more severe than others. They shell us occasionally and it is never safe to move from one dugout or the shelter of the guns.
Our wagon line are in the great caves, which are a wonderful work of nature, but even there we have had quite a few men wounded, and several horses killed.
At times when they shell us severely, we have had to desert the guns and take refuge in an adjacent cave, which undoubtedly has been the means of saving some lives.
I slept in this cave one night, and on going to the guns before dawn next morning [I] lost my way and wandered towards the enemy’s lines. When it became light, I was lost and in a valley between us and the Germans. I was confused, and hardly knew what to do.
I could hear rifle bullets whipping uncomfortably near. The ground was full of great holes caused by the German heavy artillery. I knew that when it became light, [I] would be [in] a veritable death trap.
I was hopelessly lost and worse, unarmed, so I decided to take refuge in a shell hole and await throughout the day. [I would wait] until nightfall and try to make my way back. After a while, I decided I would chance it and rather get to our own lines or meet whatever came my way.
After a deal of wandering and exciting moments, I met an officer who was forward observing, and he directed me to where he thought our guns were. [vi]
I reached them without further mishap, and my off man and the others thought I had got swallowed, for nobody saw me go. Strangely the path I took from the cave, took me within 10 yds of the guns, by which I could see now daylight had well advanced – well! I laughed.
On the 20th
I managed to get a bit drop of water to wash my face, for it had not seen water for 8 days and I had not shaved for over a fortnight. I looked at myself in somebody’s little pocket mirror – and thought what a picture I was.
Was [going to] be [a] well remembered day of this period.
During the morning things were a little more quiet than usual, we were sitting around the guns. I left my telephone, which was beneath [a] gun limber. We were having a feast of Bully Beef and potatoes - (potatoes did not come our way often), [when] a battery of German artillery found us with shrapnel. The first round burst directly over our No 3 gun, which was just by me, we [all] scattered.
Poor old Bramwell, who was by my side, ducked, and got it in the head.
I dived under the limber to phone my chum Collins, [while] two more gunners dragged Bramwell to the limber, for what shelter it gave. [Then] the two gunners were hit. Collins and I did what we could to poor Bramwell, but it was useless.
The [shell] bullets simply hailed on the limber, and we expected to be hit every second, but it saved us. [vii]
After the shower stopped, we removed poor Bramwell, it was an unpleasant sight to see a chums brains by ones [sic] side.
A shell case was stuck in the ground 2 yards from where I lay – lucky it didn’t splinter for Collins and I. would have been bowled over.
Everything seemed to bear marks of that lively hour excepting we two. We dug a hole that night and many times while there the hole saved us, for when it was most quiet, inevitably they would switch over on to us.
Several were wounded at different times when it was least expected, and about this time, night attacks were very frequent and severe, often 3 attacks during the night.
My wire often got broken by shell fire, through a wood of the observation point, in spite of a double line and was unhealthy at times to repair.
On the morning of the 8th October a ‘ coal-box’ dropped by No 5 gun – killing one gunner and wounding four. We were shelled in the afternoon [and] they flung no fewer than 40 ‘ Dud’ shell [sic] over us in an hour. It was amusing to feel the thud when they struck the earth, and no explosion ensuing.
We lost several horses and a couple wounded in Wagon Line.
A party was sent out to prepare a new position, but [they] were shelled out. The Major asked us at night would we prefer to move as the position was warm, but we decided at once to stop, for our place was as good as another.
October 12th, was the anniversary of my wedding and the thoughts of my dear wife and child, were more to me than the scrap that day. [I] had a long chat that night, with Lieut Marshall on the duration of the war – we thought ‘ about Xmas’ . [viii]
 Bully Beef: Canned corned beef that was the principal protein ration of the British army.
 Shell Bullets: When a shrapnel shell explodes it splinters and releases round balls called bullets