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Trenches and Trees - Chapter 2

WHIPPED at "WIPERS"

We spent a few days at Rouen and then entrained for the Front Line. As the train moved out of the town we knew that this was the last stage of our journey and very soon we should be put to the test.

Map showing relative positions of Lille and Loos (France) and Poperinghe, Ypres and Brussels (Belgium)

Our first intimation that we were nearing the Front Line area was a slight rumbling noise like distant thunder. As the day wore on the rumbling became louder and finally we could see ahead of us a town with shell bursts over it. We had no idea where we were but later found out that the town was Poperinghe. As it was being heavily shelled at the time of our arrival we were detrained some miles outside the town. Rumour had it later on that the Mayor of Poperinghe had been executed as a spy and that he had been signalling to the Boche the approach of troop trains by means of the church clock. We marched towards Ypres and eventually joined up with our battalion headquarters and were shocked to find that all that remained was one young officer and one NCO, both being so covered in mud that it was difficult to see which was which.

We spent the night in the open lying on our ground sheets but I don't think there was much sleeping done. Personally I was so hyped up and excited that sleep was impossible. In the early hours of the morning we were formed up and moved off, entering and marching through Ypres, passing the ruins of the Cloth Hall. It was still dark and as we passed through a village quite near the Front Line the church was a mass of flames lighting up the surrounding ruins with a red glow. As it became daylight we passed lorry loads of wounded and gassed Canadians and further on long lines of walking wounded, some obviously blinded by gas as they marched with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front.

British soldiers blinded by gas attack. 
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer
British soldiers blinded by gas attack
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer

The white expressionless faces of these men, the blood stained bandages on heads, hands, legs, some limping on sticks, some half carried along by comrades, their uniforms torn and covered with thick layers of mud, their bowed heads and dragging feet, showed that these men had been through hell. This was our first contact with actual War and for myself I became aware that the funny feeling in the pit of my stomach was not excitement but fear. Shortly after passing the line of wounded we turned off the road and started to move along a single-track railway.

Having moved down the railway in single file we now formed line along a low hedge and commenced to move forward in short rushes through very heavy shell fire, taking the time from our young platoon officer. So far we had not seen any dead Tommies but now we came across dozens of them lying where they had fallen. Some were terribly mangled and had obviously received direct hits. Others lay sprawled on their backs like men resting after a strenuous game. It was hard to believe that some of them were dead, they looked so relaxed and peaceful lying there, but the sandbag or ground sheet thrown over the face told its own tale. The most terrifying aspect of the dead were the gassy staring eyes, gazing, so it seemed, accusingly to the skies. The few older hands among us made a point of covering up the faces of any dead as they passed, sensing that such sights had a terribly demoralising effect on youngsters in action for the first time. For a short time I found the sight of dead khaki clad figures very unnerving but as they became more familiar one just accepted them as part of the job, only feeling a sense of great pity when the body happened to be that of a very young boy.

Ypres, 1917. Photo credit: Jason Griffeth
Ypres, 1917.
Photo credit: Jason Griffeth

Inexperienced as we were, it was quite obvious that Jerry was out gunning us by about a hundred to one and when it was possible to talk, the most repeated remark was "Where the hell are our bloody guns?" The noise was terrific and the air full of shrapnel and clouds of earth and clods thrown up by the heavy HE Shells. During our second rush a shell burst a few yards away just as we went to the ground. I felt something strike my foot and found that the heel of by boot had been blown away. Glancing at my pal, Bill Easterby, I saw a queer look come over his face and his hand went feeling down his side. He felt something wet running down his leg and thought he had been hit. He was lucky; the bullet had passed through his water bottle!

From the time we left Ypres we had no idea where we were going or what we were trying to do, but now our platoon officer pointed out, a slight ridge of earth running parallel with the line of our troops. He explained "About one hundred yards over there is a trench from which the Boche has driven us by gas attack. We have to take it back. I want two volunteers to make the first dash across." I stepped forward "Here Sir!" Easterby stepped forward "And me!"

"Right chaps. Run like hell when I give you the word, and I shall come over next with a few more men. The Sergeant will send the others over in batches at short intervals. Fix your bayonets and if the swine are still there give it them in the guts. Ready lads - GO!"

Easterby and I jumped to our feet and ran as fast as we could towards the trench. The shelling was still pretty heavy but we were so hyped up for what was awaiting us only a hundred yards ahead that we took no notice of that danger. We were very nearly there now and I was praying that my particular Jerry would not be too big as I did not fancy my chances in a bayonet scrap with a Prussian Guard. We reached the trench; no signs of Jerry; we jump in and get the shock of our lives; we land up to our waists in running mud!

Volunteering to be first across proved to be lucky for Bill and me for the enemy observers spotted the movement and opened up with everything they had got so that the following men got a terrific pounding and only about half of them got across. We felt a lot safer in the trench and when we had recovered from the dash over, Easterby said "Harry, do you know what day it is?" "No." "It's Whit-Monday, what about our ruddy day off.

At the rear of the trench line some quarter mile or so away, stood a large white mansion which somehow had escaped destruction and we were told to make for that. Any old sweat who fought in the 2nd Battle of Ypres will readily recognise this as the White Chateau. Before we got more than half way to the ridge on which the white house stood, Jerry became aware of our movement, raised his sights again and before we got over the ridge he gave us another dose of everything he had from coal-boxes to whiz-bangs, tearing gaps in the ragged line of retreating troops. Once we got past the White Chateau and beyond the ridge the shelling became less intense and we made our way to a reserve line of trenches in comparative safety. It was now late afternoon and we had been dashing about under heavy shell fire since dawn in our full equipment including our packs and now reaction took place. We just flopped down completely exhausted.

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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Boche or Bosche.

derogatory World War I slang, Originally French: A German, a German soldier.

Ypres.

Ypres (or Ieper) is in Flanders, one of the three regions of Belgium, and in the Flemish province of West Flanders. During World War I, Ypres was the centre of intense and sustained battles between the German and the British Empire forces. The town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire. After the war the town was rebuilt with the main square, including the Cloth Hall and town hall being rebuilt as close to the original designs as possible. The rest of the rebuilt town is more modern in appearance. The Cloth Hall is today a museum dedicated to Ypres's role in the First World War.

N.C.O.

abbreviation: Non-Commissioned Officer.
An NCO is a soldier who has been given authority by a commissioned officer. The NCO corps is the 'junior' management of the military. Typically NCO's serve as administrative personnel, as advisors to the officer corps, as trainers and as supervisors of the lower-ranking or less experienced personnel.

Front Line or Front.

Relating to the most advanced or important position - the line along which opposing armies face each other.

Poison Gas.

The first use of poison gas by Germans was on April 22, 1915. They used chlorine gas, a yellowish-green halogen gas with a peculiar and suffocating odour, also used for bleaching and disinfecting.

Tommy or Tommy Atkins.

Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) has been used as a generic name for a common soldier for many years it is particularly associated with World War I. German soldiers (equivalent nickname: Jerry) would call out to Tommy across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". The origin is a subject of debate, but it is known to have been used as early as 1743; A letter sent from Jamaica about a mutiny amongst the troops says "except for those from N. America ... ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".

Jerry, also Gerry.

Although a nickname for German soldiers or the German armed forces that was originally created during World War I, Jerry it did not come in to common use until World War II.

HE Shells.

abbreviation: High Explosive.

High explosives produce uncontrollable blasts. The first high explosive was nitro-glycerine. Initially dropped from aeroplanes (from World War 1).

White Chateau (Ypres).

It is not clear if Harry is referring to the "White House" at Ypres or the "White Chateau" in nearby Potijze. Both locations had Advanced Dressing Stations and many of the dead were burried in cemeteries in the surrounding areas.

Trench.

From late 1914 until nearly the end of the war the fighting consisted largely of trench warfare. The trenches consisted of parallel lines of interconnected trenches protected by lines of barbed wire.


diagram of typical trench layout

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Ypres, 1917. 
Photo credit: Jason Griffeth

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British soldiers blinded by gas attack. 
Photo credit: Ray Mentzer