Whiz-Bangs Krumps and Coalboxes

14th June 1916 Wednesday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

Planning and preparation for the coming offensive that would start a fortnight later in the Somme Valley had begun in the January of 1916. Clearly Douglas hadn’t been kept in the loop by the ‘powers that be’ as no mention of an ensuing engagement or “big push” has been mentioned thus far. Possibly the units hadn’t been informed of any date for such an action. At any rate the reason Douglas hadn’t mentioned it in his diary isn’t clear. Maybe he had no idea of the reason behind this sudden movement from the area, but my view is that they must have had a good idea that they were being readied for something quite serious.

Next day we were up early and marched off to Villers-Chatel  fifteen (11.5) miles away. It was a stiff march through some fine country. I walked most of the way and felt very fit. Our headquarters was in a huge Chateau, owned and inhabited by a French Countess and her two daughters. It was a lovely place, with extensive gardens, lawns and paddock all round.

Lt. Buckly and I were sent about a mile further on to take on the hospital buildings at Mingoval. These consisted of three large wooden huts each capable of accommodating 60 patients. They were pleasantly situated, but in dirty condition, left thus by the 76th Field Ambulance. Our men were billeted in one of the huts. I had a comfortable room in a small cottage and Buckly was in the school house where we had our mess. Mingoval we found to be a small, scattered village, situated in a pretty well-wooded country side and with only one shop run by refugees from Vermelles.

We had only a few patients to look after, they were all convalescents. Most of our time was taken up with lectures on first-aid and stretcher drill with the men. We also had some fine route marches through delightful country. The roads were terribly dusty however.

We spent our off duty time very pleasantly in the beautiful grounds of the Chateau. From a small hill we got a gorgeous view of the surrounding country and could see Mt. Eloi very clearly. Some of us would get out the riding horses and have some fine chases up and down the park between the trees in front of the Chateau. We even erected some jumps and had great fun with hurdling and competitions.

We even played tennis with the daughters of the household. It wasn’t very good tennis but we managed to get plenty of good fun out of it.”

Chateau Villers-Chatel as it is today.

Chateau Villers-Chatel as it is today (via Creative Commons)

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13th June 1916 Tuesday

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A March to Auchel

“We were up at dawn on 13th June and left Busnes at 9 o’clock. We tramped via Lillers and Burbure through uninteresting and hilly country. Some of the hills were very steep and we had trouble with the wagons. Then we came into the coal mining district and rested in Auchel for the night. This was a typical, dirty mining town with rows of brick houses. There were some good shops and we were able to purchase some sweets and most excellent apple tarts. I was billeted in a miner’s house and was very comfortable.”

The 7 mile march from Busnes to Auchel

The 7 mile march from Busnes to Auchel

The town of Auchel

The town of Auchel

Auchel. We had our hospital in this town hall for one day

Auchel. We had our hospital in this town hall for one day

A Postcard of Auchel street scene C.1916

Postcard of Auchel street scene c.1916

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10th June 1916 Saturday

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 “At 3am on June 10th we received orders to pack up at once and proceed to Busnes. We had a great morning packing up and had to leave a good deal of our equipment behind as we couldn’t load it all onto our wagons. The 2/1st Field ambulance (61st Division) relieved us and we marched off at 1.30pm. We got a great send off from the populace. The whole town turned out to say farewell to us. We marched via Lestrem, Merville, Callone and Robecq, through some very pretty country. I rode most of the way on my black pony. It was a tiring trek for the men with their heavy packs, but they were very cheery and sang Welsh songs most of the way. We got to Busnes at 8pm. Here was a very pleasant one streeted village, with a good billet for Elliot and I, wherein dwelt five charming French girls (mama and papa too, of course!) Elliot and I soon got on good terms with the family and the three evenings we spent there passed very quickly and pleasantly in teaching the girls (Marie, Marguerite, Mart, Bert and Irene) our parlour games and in sing songs with myself at the piano.

Whilst at Busnes, I was in charge of the Divisional Baths there and spent most of the day seeing that the men of the division got a bath and a change of socks. The baths were in a disused brewery of sorts. We had a great deal of difficulty in getting a fire going to heat the water and I only had four men with me to get things in order and to issue socks etc.

The men bathed in vats. It was great fun to watch them as they enjoyed their hot bath and they splashed and smacked each other like kids.”

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6th June 1916 Tuesday

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“We were kept very busy in the hospital all during the month of May and up to the time in June when we left La Gorgue. Many wounded had been attended to and as most of these cases came in during the night it meant many a sleepless night, but we were always glad to do our best to make the sufferers as comfortable as possible after their nightmare in the trenches and the long trek back. Badly wounded cases requiring immediate operation were generally sent straight on to the Casualty Clearing Station further back, but slighter cases and cases of sickness were put to bed after a hot meal.

The Corps Commander General Haking visited us on June 6th and was very pleased with all he saw.”

Many of Haig’s Generals earned themselves what we would politely call mixed reviews during the Great War. General Sir Richard Cyril Byrne Haking attracted criticism even from his peers for some of his tactics during the conflict. We need to temper any such criticisms against a backdrop of poor communications, faulty equipment and a rigid adherence to army training and procedure.  Haking nevertheless probably deserved much of the criticism, as did his colleagues. Read more on him here.

Holroyd, John Newman; General Sir Richard Haking (1862-1945); The Royal Hampshire Regiment Collection

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Riez Bailleul revisited

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I remember the difficulty I had experienced when trying to research Riez Bailleul. Douglas had misspelled the name which made it difficult to find at first. Little did I think at the time that a few short months later, I would actually be at Riez Bailleul. Whilst outside the building taking one or two pictures, an indignant sounding lady pulled up in a car and asked us what we were doing? Our inquisitor proved to be the owner of the historic farmhouse. Luckily she also spoke good English so after a few polite words of explanation her mood lifted and we were invited into her house to meet the family. Madame and Monsieur Walle have made a nice job of the interior of the house whilst totally retaining the character of the exterior. M. Walle, a tax inspector, has made the job of restoration a structured one, completing the job in stages to make a lovely family home as and when the finances allow. They explained how they have been hampered with some historical finds in the grounds, such as an abandoned British ammunition store for which they had to call in the bomb disposal squad from Arras. This was a small part of the enormous amount of ordnance, at least 70 tonnes, that is still discovered annually by farmers and landowners along the whole of the Western Front.  Mdme Walle then produced from their display over the fireplace a thankfully disabled British shell and a mud covered shell fuse. We were then able to show them a picture of a sectioned live shrapnel shell that we had previously published on the blog which proved what it was.

Riez Bailleul October 1917

Riez Bailleul October 1917

Riez Bailleul now

Riez Bailleul now

Liz with current owners of Riez Bailleul, M. & Mdme. Walle in the modern open plan farmhouse, with a find from the garden, a British shrapnel shell.

Liz with current owners of Riez Bailleul, M. & Mdme. Walle in the modern open plan farmhouse.

Mdme. Walle with a find from the garden, a British shrapnel shell.

Mdme. Walle with a find from the garden, a British shrapnel shell.

shell

Part of the extensive trench tramway system

Part of the extensive trench tramway system

The rear of the farm yard is best described as a work in progress. M. Walle told me how they have found many pieces of discarded rails that were once part of the extensive tramway systems used to convey ammunition and supplies to the artillery gun emplacements. Laying on the ground were examples of narrow gauge railways as well as the heavier rails of standard gauge lines. Local people have been using them for lintels or RSJs in building works, examples could be seen in the farmyard.

An old rail from a trench railway can clearly be seen supporting the brickwork.

An old rail from a trench railway can clearly be seen supporting the brickwork.

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28th May 1916 Sunday

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As May was coming to a close fighting had intensified and the hospital was kept busy, especially during the night. Sunday morning came with a stroll through the town.

“On Sunday 28th May I witnessed a very pretty sight. A procession of children to church. The little girls were clad in white and the boys wore bowler hats and carried white wands. It was their first communion.

A German Aeroplane flew over during the progress of the procession through the main street and a ‘dud’ anti-aircraft shell (British) fell into a field close to the church. The excitement was terrific. The children and their admiring parents and friends scattered in panic. It was pitiful to see them and many of the little girls were knocked down and their pretty dresses ruined. Order was soon restored and there were many laughs amongst the scared Frenchmen at the fright they had got.

One day one of the captive balloons (sausages) broke loose and drifted over our heads and away over the Bosche lines. The two occupants jumped out with parachutes and we were very relieved to see them land safely and unhurt”.

captive balloon

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26th May 1916 Friday

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After reporting for duty on his arrival in France back in December, it was Colonel Morgan who took Douglas in his car to meet his new colleagues in the 130th (St.John) Field Ambulance. Now though word spread quickly throughout the local units that Douglas had been denied compassionate leave to attend his father’s funeral. Colonel Morgan must have had his reasons for such an apparently heartless decision, but resentment grew amongst the men. Douglas received this letter of support from D’arcy Edwardes the son of the theatre impresario George Edwardes, famous at that time for his production of musical comedies.

D’arcy Edwardes was a regular soldier who had enlisted in 1907. He was promoted to Major towards the end of 1915 and so it is interesting that he doesn’t understand Colonel Morgan’s decision. Although he was a senior officer when signing off the letter he doesn’t add the prefix Major, indicating that he regarded Douglas as a friend. Sadly D’arcy Edwardes met his own end at Memetz on the Somme a few weeks later on 10th July 1916.

A letter of support from D'arcy Edwards

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24th May 1916 Wednesday

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Telegram saying father is dying

“On Wednesday 24th May I got a telegram to say that my father had died on the 22nd. It was a great shock to me. Everybody was most sympathetic. I immediately applied for leave to go home, but it was refused by Colonel Morgan, the A.D.M.S. and no reason was given. I asked to be allowed to appeal personally to the General commanding the division, but wasn’t allowed to see him. It was a nasty blow. I could have been allowed home for a day or two quite easily as there was no ‘push’ going on and there were any number of medical officers with little or nothing to do. Feeling ran high amongst all ranks on this incident and Colonel Morgan wasn’t at all popular. Lieut. Elliot, the wild Irishman, was a good friend to me and did his utmost to cheer me up, taking me to tea at Estaires and then on to Hazebrouck in his friend Croker’s car. We dined excellently at the Hotel des Trois Chevaux.”

Father dead

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22nd May 1916 Monday

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As May passed, Douglas had a rather peaceful time of it although he was kept busy with less terrifying events than he had seen in the recent past.

“I had a trip to Hazebrouck 12 miles distant, one day in an ambulance with a French girl who had a tubercular wrist. We went via Merville and it was a delightful run on a fine, sunny day. It was very pretty in the Foret de Nieppe. Hazebrouck was a fine clean town, with a fine large square and town hall. The civil hospital was in a monastery and the ward I took the little patient to was full of French people. I met the French doctor and countess who were both very gracious. I had a walk around the town and made a few purchases. There were a lot of New Zealanders, Australians and Indian Cavalry about.”

Combat de coq

“One Sunday afternoon Capt. Anderson and I walked into Estaires to see a cock-fight. It was held in the back yard of the Hotel de Ville and admission was 3 francs. There was a big crowd present, consisting of French civilians and British officers, including many staff officers. The cocks fought in a railed and raised platform in the centre of the yard. We saw five fights. Each cock had a long steel spur fixed on to its legs. It was a cruel sport and didn’t raise any enthusiasm except amongst the Frenchmen who laid bets freely.”

imageedit_6_9908842209.jpg.opt757x499o0,0s757x499

Cock fighting has been popular all over the world particularly in Central Asia since at least 524 BC but gradually the appetite for blood sports has slowly decreased. Now banned in many countries it is also a crime these days in France, with some exceptions. In some regions where it is held to be an important tradition cock fighting is still permitted.  Nord Pay de Calais region, where Douglas and Capt. Anderson witnessed the event is today one of the last areas that can hold the sport legally. In the present day there are 12 “gallodromes” that host regular contests where locals and enthusiasts from across the nearby border with Belgium, where it is outlawed, attend the contests. Specially bred cocks known as “Comabattant de Nord” are reared in the area for the purpose.

Cockfighting was banned in England in 1835, but survived another 60 years in Scotland until 1895 when Douglas was one year old.

“On May 22nd I gave a demonstration with six men of the new Rogers trench stretcher before General Pike, a high (ranking) French officer and other staff officers. General Pike was greatly pleased and thanked us profusely. The Frenchie was also highly delighted and took one of the new stretchers away with him!”

Stretcher bearer Trench stretcher

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4th May 1916 Thursday

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Douglas was pleased to be allowed a little relief as his unit was relieved from the front line and they moved back to relative safety.

“I found La Gorgue to be quite a pleasant little town with good houses and clean streets. It was untouched by shell fire and crowded with civilians. It was fine to be billeted in such a spot after dug-outs and unfurnished ruined houses for so long. My billet was in a lovely, well furnished and airy room above a boot shop, the best billet I’ve had in France. Our hospital was in a large building and we had accommodation for over a hundred patients.

I saw my first Zeppelin on May 4th when one passed over us at night and dropped a bomb close to us. It didn’t do any harm.”

Laventie Trench Map (courtesy of http://130thstjohnfieldambulance.co.uk )

Laventie Trench Map (courtesy of http://130thstjohnfieldambulance.co.uk )

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