The date is August 1914. The British Expeditionary Force is in France and You're in the Royal Field Artillery. You're riding alongside one of the battery's gun limbers on its way to the assigned position on the east side of Mons, Belgium. This begins your journey into the Hell they called World War One. To purchase this historical memoir go to https://createspace.com/3649268

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day 2014 - Nov 1914

From the journal of Captain Fred G. Coxen RFA

October 31st – Nov 6th

[We] marched through the beautiful old town of YPRES, which contains some very fine buildings, notably the Cloth Hall and Cathedral.
[We] took up a position of readiness outside the fortifications of the town, [where] we dropped into action in various places around, doing little firing.
The enemy commenced bombarding the town on Nov. 2nd with their great 17’ Howitzers. The noise of these shell[s] passing over our heads is almost indescribable.

On Nov. 5th a few of us in the morning had made one of our famous ‘Bully stews’ and we were about to commence the feast, when we heard some of these monster shell[s] coming; they fell in the fields on our right and rear.[i]

We had to move, [and] as we moved, we heard more coming. They dropped almost in the same place. One shell burst near a cow and threw it bodily about 30 yards. One came by the sound, directly for us, it was like an express train roaring through the air.

We crouched behind one of the ammunition wagons, the shell landed about 15 yds and exactly in line on our front. The concussion was terrific, and the wagon rocked as if it were near a minimum earthquake. 

We afterwards measured the hole; it was gigantic, 23 foot deep and 20 foot in diameter – fully three to four times as big again as the often met ‘Jack Johnson’s’.  I afterwards found out that these shell[s] were 11.2” and not 17” as we thought.
We moved by the river, and although very cold, I had a plunge – the first since the time of the retreat. It’s a very common thing to go a week or even more without having a wash. Since the time of the Aisne, food is a little plentiful.
[The] weather very wet, and the whole country is a veritable sea of mud.
The enemy seemed to shell everywhere haphazard, especially at night.
On the morning of 6th we were read an appeal from Gen. French urging us to hold on despite the overwhelming masses of the enemy, until reinforcements could be brought up.
Attacks were ‘twice daily’ and were nightly occurrences.
Our losses were very great, but despite the fact of our trenches being so thinly manned, and our guns so few, our line was formed and maintained. As the enemy were stopped in France, so were they in Belgium. [ii]

Thanks to the splendid leadership of our little army, and our chaps…[sic]… love for dangerous scraps, and [to] the splendid Infantry in the trenches who suffered infinitely more than us, in every way.

Nov. 7th – 12th

[We were] in various positions in front of YPRES – these days with Head ‘ Q[uarters] 25th [Brigade].

The Battery returned each night to a field off the main road, things were very quiet, but for occasional shelling.
On the night of 10th, I waited at the 25th [Brigade], for my horse to be brought over. After some time, George came and told me it was impossible to get over with horses, [so] we walked across to where the horses were, and [then] started to find the Battery. After travelling some good way we knew we were lost, it was very dark, and the road was being shelled. On coming to a deserted farm, where some Infantry were, we decided to anchor till morning - by a friendly straw stack. We got some food and tea from the infantry - with some straw from the stack and blanket from our horse, we had the best bed we had had for some time. We found the Battery next morning and there had been the usual speculation that we had got nipped.

When dawn arrived on 11 November it greeted the BEF’s 1st and 2nd Divisions with a heavy downpour, which set the stage for what the Official History described as ‘the most terrific fire the British had yet experienced’. The German artillery concentrated its fire on I Corps and on Wing’s ‘division’ of II Corps.
On the night of 12th we came through the most severe storm I have ever experienced.  I was simply blinded by the fierce rain and wind, [and I] had no cap. We were simply like drowned rats, [and] we had an awful march in the pitch darkness.
 [In the] storm I could not open my eyes, [so] I simply held on the saddle and let my old charger follow the rest. 

We were too wet to sleep in mud and rain that night, and after a deal of skirmishing, George, Collins and I got into a deserted estaminet[1] and remained there till morning. [iii]  
It was a horrible night and the shelter we got was acceptable. It took me two days to get dry – I would have given a deal to had [sic] sit before a fire in dry clothes.

Nov. 13th
One section of the Btty [Battery] was in action near ZONNEBEKE[2], I went with [the] other two Sections to a position by a small wood[3] –
about 3 or 4 miles NE of YPRES.
We did a little firing, and towards evening I ran a line to K Battery R.H.A. to get into communication with the trenches. It was very wet, and everywhere was bog and mud.

I was beside a railway embankment [and] the CO K Battery and I had high words about the communication. He promised to get me 5 years or shot – I told him to get on with it, etc.; he treated me quite differently next morning.

Another night in the rain, could not lie down, had a wet ‘standing up sleep’ by the embankment.

Nov. 14th

Went with left Section and positioned beside 51st Battery, [which was] on a ridge a thousand yards in rear of the trenches. We could see the German fire trench - and watch our own lyddite[4] burst. [It was] a very near position and we had hardly began to fire when they had us spotted.

That day the Prussian Guard made a big attack, [but] our guns with the 51st did great slaughter, and from the trenches, the ground was covered with dead Germans and many of our chaps.
During the morning they peppered us, but we kept on replying, and the 51st with the quick-firing 18 pounder did grand work keeping up a wall of fire on the German foremost trench. [iv]

Early in the afternoon we had to desert our guns, for it was suicide to stay. We took cover in some small trenches about 30 yards behind the guns. About every twenty minutes, [we would] run up to the guns, loosed off a couple of rounds gun fire, and back to cover. The 51st rushed up and let go six rounds gun fire in grand style, and ran back to cover.
I was with the 51st at this period, [and] we had been two days almost without a drink of any description and my thirst was troubling me more than the shell and bullets. When running from the guns, I came across the Officers’ cook in a dugout, about 50 yds in rear of the guns, and he gave me a mug of rather dirty water, but it tasted grand.
I went back to the guns with the Sergt Major of the 51st, and a shell dropped within 10 yards of us. The concussion rather shook us and we immediately fell down and dodged splinters. On getting up we were both surprised to find that the other was not hurt - the shell cut down a tree, which fell across my overcoat, which was lying close by.

We kept up firing until dark.
George, Collins and I were beside a wagon getting something to eat, when the enemy’s infantry attacked, and the bullets rained over.  We ran to the guns for shelter of the shield when Collins pushed me a little aside, a few seconds later [he] got a bullet in the foot – the thick boot, luckily diverting its course. Had he not pushed me, I should have caught it, and with perhaps not such lucky result.

After a while George and I managed to get into a small trench, he had dug during the day.
The attack dropped off, but they shelled us throughout the night.  We had a good sleep [even though] it was cold and wet, but we were strictly exhausted and slept. [v]
In the morning the ground all around was peppered with shell-holes and we were indeed fortunate that one did not drop in our little trench, for quite a few were very near.

Nov. 15th

The section continued firing during the morning – we were shelled a little, but nothing in comparison with previous day - I went over to the 51st Btty, to get my telephone, which I had left in a dugout the day before when we had to leave the guns - but found that a shell had dropped plumb into the dugout and destroyed the instrument - there was two other telephonists with me the previous day and had we not run when we did - undoubtedly we should have all shared the fate of our instruments.

I went back to the Section and about noon we had orders to take up position with our right Section - [while] the 51st Bty remained and had it as bad, or even worse than the previous days. Two guns were put out of action, and their casualties were heavy. One shell killed five and while they were being buried, another dropped among the burial party killing four more.
We reached our right Section in the afternoon and I remained with the wagon line, and was in PIEGUAT – very wet and cold, shelling all night.

Nov. 16th

I removed some wagons into an adjacent wood for aeroplane cover.
While going to a ruined farm nearby, a bullet hit a wooden gate post as I was passing. I dodged behind the post, for I thought a sniper had me, but it must have been a spare bullet, for nothing else came near me. During my look round the farm - I got some water, a few potatoes, and a couple of onions. On returning to the wagon line, [upon] getting a tin of ‘bully’ prepared a dinner, which I had not had for a considerable time. [vi]
I had just got it nicely on the go, when I was sent for from the guns, and was ordered to run a line to the reserve trenches.

 George and I ran the line and I remained with a borrowed instrument from a Sergeant of the R.E’s in a dugout with a Gordon named Bruce (whom I afterwards learned was the famous runner).

I was warned by him to keep low, as snipers were pretty busy – and almost as he spoke a fellow coming towards me got a bullet in the chest - the bullet just missed me, so I took his word and kept low.
It was terribly cold – he gave me some bread and cheese, which I gratefully took. I sent the orders to the guns until after midnight, and things seem to quite down.

 I pitied Bruce in his bare legs and kilt, but he slept sound, but I could not sleep a minute for the cold, and was glad when morning came. I was stiff with cold, and dared the snipers in running up and down for a few minutes to [undecipherable] warm myself.

Nov. 17th

I was under the direction of Major Baird,[vii] Gordon Highlanders, to send the orders for our guns to cover the trenches, as much as possible.
Shortly after dawn, the enemy made a big attack and considering the small number of men in the trenches, it was marvelous that the enemy didn’t break through. About 9 o’clock they started to shell us. The first shell went into a dugout a few yards in front of me and killed a Lieut. Colonel and his servant, [while] another fell 10 yards to my right, and killed or wounded 3 officers, who were buried – they were hastily dug out, and presented a pitiful sight. Many were wounded during these first few minutes. [viii]

 An Artillery Officer and a man rode up and dismounted. The man jumped into my dugout, hitching the two horses to a tree about one yard away. Almost immediately a shell burst right over - [and] killed the two horses, one of whom fell dead, right on top of the dugout - the blood running in.
Then the shells came in terrific force – all the Gordons had to run, for it was murderous – I felt like running – but could not leave my instrument, as the guns would not be firing.
So I stuck [while] they all ran, bar Bruce. He asked me if I was going to stop, I said yes, and he answered – ‘If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me’ as he stopped with me. In the run, a chap passing got a splinter in the leg and a bullet in the arm. I dragged him in and we bandaged him up; he was with us throughout the day.
Two more attacks took place, and every available man was pressed forward – and that was very few.
During the day Bruce was telling me that of the 1400 hundred in the regiment who left Plymouth in September – all that remained of the number was 34, and he was one of them. They had had some terrible times, he said, but this is worse than any of them. I fully believed him, for I was sick with the smell of powder and blood.     

Bruce very pluckily ran to and from where Major Baird and the rest were in trenches outside the wood, to take messages from me, and to bring the orders for the guns.

All day the enemy kept up the fierce bombardment.    
Old George came and relieved me that night, for I was fairly done and felt bad, [because] four nights out of six I had had no sleep and very little food. I was absolutely more like a sponge than a man, and on reaching the guns, Collins took on the instrument and I got my two blankets. They were wet – it was snowing and freezing hard, but I slept like a top, and in the morning [I] felt a little better and quite able to carry on with the business. [ix]
Nov. 15th – 21st

I remained with the guns and George with the Gordons. We did considerable firing, but [with only] an occasional shell coming over, it was peace compared with the previous 17th.

We were informed that we were to [be] relieved by the French. [We] were to be withdrawn and to have a rest, to refit and get made up in horses and men.

 I was also told that the Centre Section had had a warm time. Hodges[5], my lube offman, was killed. Taylor[6], Farmer and several others wounded.

We were elated at the idea of a rest, and a change from the ceaseless scrapping of the last weeks – and we sadly needed a rest.

Nov. 22nd

Left our position at dawn and marched to YPRES, the whole country was in a terrible condition, not a farm was standing – and the town itself was ruined. The beautiful buildings destroyed, how different when we marched through less than a month before. We got safely through the town and marched all day. It was very cold, [and] I walked most of the time, for my old charger could not keep his legs on the slippery roads.
 We arrived at night and billeted at a farm a few miles from MERRISS, where we were to stop and rest. How strange it seemed to be away from the ceaseless roar of gun fire, etc. The sheds, barns, cow-houses in which we slept seemed to us like mansions. [x]

Nov. 22nd – Dec. 12th

This, our period of rest, was greatly appreciated for a time, but soon became monotonous.
 Our Officers had short leaves, and I was fortunate, through the good graces of Major Madocks, to obtain 48 hours to BOULOGNE. He kindly gave my dear wife instructions on his arrival in England, how to get to BOULOGNE, time etc.
I left camp on the evening of the 1st Dec and rode into HAZEBROUCK. [I] arrived by train at BOULOGNE 7 o’clock next morning, [and] I expected to meet my wife at 5 o’clock. [I] was delighted to see her at 11 o’clock – our stay together was short, the shortest 28 hours of my life, and to leave her next day was the hardest thing for me through the campaign.

 I arrived back in camp next day – and we were all getting impatient to get to business again. [We] were pleased to hear on the 11th that we were [leaving] for the firing line next day.

[1] Estaminet: a small and simple café, bar, or bistro.
[2] The Battle of Nonne Boschen – ‘Nun’s Wood’ began on 10 November with an attack on the French positions north-east of Ypres. The attack convinced the French generals – incorrectly – the new German attack would fall on the lines between Bixschoote and Zonnebeke. Neillands, Robin, The Old Contemptibles – The British Expeditionary Force, 1914 location 5848
[3]  The small woods may have been Polygon Wood
[4] Lyddite: British explosive used for filling artillery shells in World War One. Actually molten and cast picric acid.
[5] Corporal   George James   HODGE   42275   43rd Brigade, 40th Bty 
[6] Corporal  Frank W  Taylor   54212  rpt wounded 8/12/14 – killed in action

[i] Ibid

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii]  Alexander Walter Frederick Baird was born on 2 October 1876 - He fought in the First World War, where he was mentioned in despatches nine times and gained the rank of temporary Brigadier General of the Gordon Highlanders.
[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

No comments: