Whiz-Bangs Krumps and Coalboxes

7th June 1917 Thursday

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.

Today began the assault on Messines, widely regarded as a military success for the British and their allies, but at the same time some observers felt that its strategic value wasn’t that significant. The German viewpoint seems to confirm that it was a defeat for them, Ludendorff and Hindenburg later wrote of their regrets over Messines. It was a week long battle that did result in some gains and at the time served to improve morale at a much needed moment. It was also to be the precursor of the next “Big Push” by Haig in the next important stage of the war which was to be known as the “Third Battle of Ypres” or by its simpler name “Passchendaele”.

Hill 60 was in fact a pair of hills known before the war as Cote de Amants or Lovers Knoll, the northern of the two was known as Hill 60 and the southern the Caterpillar. British engineers had been tunnelling below Hill 60 for almost two years and had packed the tunnels with many tonnes of high explosives. On this day those explosives were detonated and thousands of German soldiers were blown to bits along with a large chunk of Hill 60.

At 4 a.m. on 7th June there was a terrific bombardment and later we heard that we had captured Messines and Hill 60 with 9,000 prisoners. All the casualty clearing stations at Poperinghe and Proven were very busy. We were kept busy too attending to wounded and gassed men.”

Mine Plan at Hill 60

Image by ViennaUK via Creative Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hill_60_(Ypres)#/media/File:Battle_of_Messines_1917_mine_plan_-_Hill_60.jpg

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6th June 1917 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.

The subject of gas had been very much to the fore of late so not surprisingly it was felt that the allies should respond in kind. The French were the first users of gas, almost from the start in August 1914. Following its use by the Germans, British forces first used gas in September 1915 with pretty disastrous consequences. At the Battle of Loos the wind turned after discharging the gas and blew it back over the British lines causing casualties to our own men. Coupled with the fact that the wrong keys to open the cylinders had been supplied, preventing the full discharge of gas supplies, it could be said, it didn’t go well. None-the-less the use of gas was continued and used by all the main combatants during the conflict.

You can read more on the subject here

“Next day – Wednesday 6th June, the Huns ‘straffed’ the canal bank all day long especially around Bridge 5, so that we were shaken up again badly. One of our men was hit on the head by a piece of shell as he was going from one dug-out to the other. The special gas-officer in charge of the gas brigade paid me a visit, and told me that he has five hundred small guns in White Trench ready ready to fire off one shell each, each shell containing 30lbs of liquid gas which explodes 500 yards behind the enemy lines, and having an enormous concentration, killing immediately. Such is modern warfare! I was relieved at night and proceeded back to Ambulance Headquarters. My heart was in my mouth on the journey back as shells were exploding everywhere. Dead horses and smashed limbers lined the roads.”

Dog with gas mask

Learn to adjust your respirator

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5th June 1917 Tuesday

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.

The trench system on the Ypres Salient was as in other places a labyrinth of narrow gauge railways that served the troops all over the Western Front. Douglas told us of his meeting Lt. Nesbit of 11th Army Corp Trench Tramways back on New Year’s Day 1916.  Canadian forces, along with the French and Australians were largely responsible for the creation and operation of much of the tramway network. Constructed along the lines of the French Decauville* railway system in 600mm gauge, the standard was adopted by all sides including the Germans. It was felt that the Canadians had a great deal of expertise in creating railways in the most extreme conditions and this experience could be put to good use on the Western Front. This also allowed the deployment of older men, railwaymen that normally would have been considered too old for fighting.

“On June 5th the Huns dropped shells all around us from 4.30 p.m. till 10.30 p.m. in an effort to smash up a field gun situated behind our dug-outs. Unfortunately the attempt failed. We would have been really glad to see the gun blown sky-high, for it annoyed us when it fired, and its fire always caused enemy retaliation. We all had the breeze-up pretty badly. When that was over all our big guns had a hurricane bombardment of the Hun front line for 10 minutes. The enemy retaliated and we had a lot of casualties, amongst them being some of the Tramway Company, two being killed and ten wounded. They were all old men – sixty or over. It was pitiful to see such old men being slaughtered like this.”

All Change for the Front!  Off-loading from standard gauge to narrow gauge at the battle of Passchendaele 1917

All Change for the Front!
Off-loading from standard gauge to narrow gauge at the battle of Passchendaele 1917

Decauville_Portable_Railway_System

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30th May 1917 Wednesday

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The ever-present threat of gas attack played on the minds of the men. The thought of suffering endless artillery barrages laced with the terror of gas is difficult to imagine. We have already heard about the various alarm systems and how applying the respirators and gas masks to men and animals would be carried out within seconds. Among other measures to be taken were special instructions as to how to deal with contamination.

“One day all the guns on the 2nd Army Front bombarded the German front line and blew it to ‘blazes’. The shrapnel barrage was a sight worth seeing, at the same time we put up a smoke barrage, and filled our front trench with dummies in order to draw enemy fire and spot the position of his guns. However, the wily old Bosche kept his guns quiet. He had evidently spotted the ruse. He retaliated later on in the evening and we had many casualties. Ypres was very heavily shelled, and starting at 11.30pm he kept up an all-night bombardment of Salvation Corner with gas, tear and flame shells. It was a terrible sight. The gas blew over to our dug-outs, on the canal bank, and we soon all began to cough, and our eyes to water. Gas respirators were donned, and had to be worn all night. For days after I felt extremely tired, and had a headache, sinking sensation in the stomach and rapid pulse. I vomited severely at night, and felt better afterwards. No doubt the gas had affected me before I got my respirator on. We had to deal with a lot of gas casualties after this night of terror – 80 cases in all. The Huns used phosgene gas along with the Lachrymatory or tear shells. The 39th Division had over 80 cases of gas poisoning.

Instructions for gas contamination

Instructions for gas contamination

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28th May 1917 Monday

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Strombos Alarms (see May 15th)  were heard at HQ just before 2am. This sent the whole camp scurrying into a state of nervous alert and all very quickly got into their protective equipment. The state of the alert remained critical until the all clear was given at about 3.30 am. Despite the gas alarm Douglas and his men still had a busy time treating the wounded throughout the night.

“At 2.30 on the morning of May 28th, there was a false gas-alarm which put the “wind-up” most of us. Then at 4.30am after a terrific bombardment the Huns raided 39th Division trenches at Turco Farm, capturing two of our men, one of whom subsequently escaped. We captured one Hun. The excitement was intense, and every gun in the salient was blazing away. 

Nearly every day we got large numbers of wounded to attend to, and pass on to the main dressing station by ambulance car after dark, when the cars could come right up to the canal bank. Most nights I was never in bed, and usually got my sleep in the afternoon. Even then I seldom got much rest, as our mess was always a favourite one for officers to drop into to have a drink, and exchange views. Even the Prince of Wales dropped in one afternoon. He was often up in the trenches hereabout, but no fuss was made.

Gas alarms, and artillery bombardments made night hideous, and wounded trickled in all night, and every night and had to be attended to. It was a nerve-racking life. Rumours of intending ‘pushes’ came along each day. Whatever is going to happen, both sides are extremely nervous, and a tremendous artillery ‘straffe’ suddenly broke out on the least provocation. The whole salient is plastered with guns, large and small, and troops.”

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22nd May 1917 Tuesday

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.

“Artillery bombardments were almost continuous up here, and our nerves soon became dreadfully jumpy. Aerial activity was great too. At nights our men were out in the open digging assembly trenches for the ‘great push’ which is to come off here someday. They went out with their faces and hands blackened, and their feet and rifles wrapped in sand-bags. We had very few casualties to deal with considering the number of shells the Huns sent over. One afternoon our trench-mortar team sent over thirty-two 150 lb ‘flying-pigs’ which did great damage to the Bosche front and support lines.”YpresYpres-1-postcardYpres-3-postcard

The postcards that Douglas included in his diary go a little way to show the enormous damage inflicted on Ypres, or Wipers as it was known to the Allies. The pictures show the beautiful Cloth Hall originally completed in 1304, in the town centre and just behind it, St Martin’s Cathedral. Ypres was almost entirely flattened during the conflict, a state that Churchill wanted to preserve as a memorial after the war. Thankfully the local people had their way and the town was rebuilt.

Today it is a beautiful town with a thriving tourist industry. The rebuilt Cloth Hall houses the “In Flanders Fields Museum”, a must see venue for visitors. The enormous memorial at the Menin Gate was built in the 1920s and contains the names of more than 54,000 victims that perished on the salient*. Each night at exactly 20.00 hours the “Last Post” ceremony is performed, a very moving experience for the many that attend this eternal ritual to commemorate the dead. It takes place every single day of the year.

Ypres has a useful array of gift shops, pleasant cafés, restaurants and museums as well as traditional Belgian handmade chocolate shops. Of course Belgium is also famous for its many award winning beers, which can make your visit very pleasant indeed. You can also take one of the many guided tours and visit the plethora of cemeteries, all beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, including the sadly impressive Tyne Cot which contains 11961 marked graves of which 8373 are unidentified and on the memorial wall almost 35,000 names of the dead never accounted for. It also now has a very moving visitor centre.

* Names that are on the Menin Gate or any of the other memorial walls in the CWGC cemeteries relate to soldiers whose bodies haven’t been identified.  In 2009 the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers were discovered in mass graves in Pheasant Wood (Fromelles).  In 2010 all these soldiers received military funerals and were re-buried in individual graves in a new cemetery. Those soldiers who were identified by means of DNA testing had their names scrubbed off the relevant memorial walls. (Footnote research by Joanna Moncrieff.)

Poignant inscription on grave at Pheasant Wood Cemetery- "You were lost but now are found"

Poignant inscription on grave at Pheasant Wood Cemetery- “You were lost but now are found”

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15th May 1917 Tuesday

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.

The fear of gas was ever present. It is thought that the fear of the silent weapon was actually more potent than the reality of an attack itself. Alarm systems had been developed to give as much warning as possible and these manifested as claxons, bells, whistles etc., and a device known as a Strombos Horn. These horns were placed at intervals of a quarter of a mile along the front and were powered by a compressed air cylinder which allowed the horn to be sounded for up to a minute continuously (see illustration). As soon as the alarm was heard, men were ordered to don their masks and respirators as quickly as possible. Horses were afforded the protection of a nosebag filled with wet hay.

Back at 130th HQ on this Tuesday at 10.50 pm a Strombos alarm was given and the entire camp quickly got into their protective gear, this took only a few seconds. Fifteen minutes later the all clear was given.

Strombos Horn

Strombos Horn, Mk II (FEQ 847) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30028503

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14th May 1917 Monday

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“Next night the 39th division on our right raided the enemy trenches, and captured three Huns, with the loss of one man killed and one wounded. Once more the bombardment shook us all up. A lot of heavy stuff fell near us, and our old dug-outs shook to their foundations!”

The fighting had been very intense over the last couple of nights. It’s not hard to imagine the tension amongst the men under continuing and intense bombardments, with both sides invading each other’s positions. Douglas and his crew were not put under any great pressure, but it was to get worse over the coming days.

gassed

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13th May 1917 Sunday

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“On the 13th May I went up to an Advanced Dressing Station (A.D.S) on the canal bank for a spell of duty with Captain Burke, my Irish friend. I took an ambulance car as far as Brielen Village – or all that is left of it, and then walked up the road to the A.D.S at Sussex Farm on the canal bank. The Huns were busy shelling some of our batteries near Ypres, with heavy stuff, but nothing dropped near me. ‘Billie’ Burke and all the 13th Royal Welsh Fusiliers crowd welcomed me back to the good old Salient (I don’t think!) . That night the enemy attempted to raid our trenches, but failed. Many Huns were killed and wounded, and one wounded Hun captured. Our casualties were five men slightly wounded. This occurred at 3am and the bombardment was terrific.”

The day after arriving back at his old unit, Douglas is sent up to the Advanced Dressing Station at Sussex Farm on the Yser Canal very close to Essex Farm just to the north of Ypres. His old pal Captain “Billie” Burke had been at Sussex Farm since the beginning of the month, but Douglas was to relieve Lt. Hogg of the RAMC.

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7th May 1917 Monday

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“Next day, May 7th, one of our motor ambulances was hit by a shell at Dawson’s Corner. Six of our men were wounded including our Sergt.-Major. One died and another had an arm amputated. This incident cast a gloom over us all. The Field Ambulance was functioning in huts and tents in the famous Ypres Salient, not far from Poperinghe. Every night the din was awful, as both sides indulged in artillery bombardments, as soon as daylight left us. One night the Huns blew up one of our ammunition dumps. It was a great night.

I was kept busy attending to sick and slightly wounded men every morning.”

Trench map

Trench map. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Dawsons_Corner_today

Dawson’s Corner today

Below is a schematic of the functioning of field evacuation and medical attention for the wounded. It didn’t always work like clockwork, conditions varied enormously. Medics such as stretcher bearers, nurses, VAD’s and doctors were unarmed in most cases and often performed their duties under fire in extremely dangerous conditions.  The utmost bravery could be attributed to many of these unsung heroes and was rightly reflected in the award of medals etc.

http://www.academia.edu/2037351/The_Royal_Army_Medical_Corps_and_the_Role_of_the_Field_Ambulance_on_the_Western_Front_1914_-_1918

http://www.academia.edu/2037351/The_Royal_Army_Medical_Corps_and_the_Role_of_the_Field_Ambulance_on_the_Western_Front_1914_-_1918

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here