Whiz-Bangs Krumps and Coalboxes

Little Willie Leads to Big Cock-up

The idea of a mobile armoured vehicle capable of carrying a crew and fighting soldiers was dismissed by the Army powers that be as being impracticable.

However, in February 1915 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, formed a “Landships Committee”. Its purpose was to develop an armoured fighting vehicle to convey mass numbers of troops, with a capability of breaking the deadlock that had emerged on the Western front as both sides “dug in” heralding the stalemate conditions of trench warfare. This effort was to result in a prototype vehicle being produced by the autumn of 1915 which became known as “Little Willie”, produced by William Foster & Company of Lincoln. The term “Little Willie”, possibly being an insult to the Kaiser.

Development was taking place in the utmost secrecy, even the name “Tank” was used to fool the enemy into thinking they were making water carriers to convey fresh water to the front line.

Little Willie

Little Willie

The first prototype led to the production of another grander more powerful machine named “Big Willie” which in turn led to the Mark 1 tank.

During February 1916 Churchill had contacted General Haig to convince him of the worth of these landships. They were to be used as an infantry aid and any instructions were to be given and commanded in conjunction with an infantry unit. Haig though was a cavalry officer and thought like a cavalry officer. Some have said that Haig was slow to take on new technology and relied too heavily on the use of the horse. An unfair assessment in many ways as he had set up a training school in St. Vernant to train officers in the use of rapidly developing weaponry such as new trench mortars. So he was quite susceptible to the use of new equipment.

Forty nine Mark 1 tanks were eventually delivered to France. Untried and untested, they were sent for evaluation and training in preparation for unleashing a terrifying secret weapon upon the Germans.

Haig though, was under increasing political pressure at the lack of a breakthrough during the Battle of the Somme with the enormous humanitarian cost. Losses of approaching 60,000 on the first day alone followed by continuously mounting casualties and the battle now descended into a war of attrition. This present of a brand new weapon was too much of a temptation. He ordered the tanks to be deployed at a new phase of the battle to begin in the middle of September.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette began on Friday 15th September 1916. The untried tanks were to be a central part of the operation. The great lumbering beasts, a development of an agricultural tractor with a top speed of around 4mph, powered by an engine around twelve times the size of a modern car engine and carrying a crew of eight, rumbled into the front line for the first time.

A short movie explaining the development of the tank can be seen here.

Out of the number of tanks delivered to France only about 32 made it to the assembly points. Out of these 7 failed to start and only 9 were still serviceable at the end.

As battle commenced the initial effect on the Germans was one of shock and terror. Nothing like these gigantic monsters had ever been imagined in the history of warfare, but soon the tanks’ early vulnerability became apparent. Crews had no training of any kind, they were unfamiliar with anything these machines were capable of, or the terrain they were to be introduced to. Developed in England where they were able to easily cope with ploughed fields and open farmland, they were then thrown onto the moonscape of the Western Front and found the challenge too demanding. The crews not only had to withstand the searing heat of the interior but leaking exhaust fumes filled the tank causing choking and poisoning. The enclosed space of these landships, pitching violently and crashing over the rough terrain, caused seasickness in the crews. The machine gun bullets although not penetrating the armour caused white hot metal to fly off the point of impact on the inside which would stick to the skin of the occupants. There was a lot to learn.

See the Mk1 in action here.

Replica First World War tank used in the 2011 film War Horse on display at Horseguards today 15 September 2016

Replica First World War tank used in the 2011 film War Horse on display at Horseguards, London,  today 15 September 2016. It normally resides in Bovington Tank Museum, Dorset

Despite having some initial success, they also failed to cause any great lasting victories and would not be used in earnest again until the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Nevertheless, Haig was sufficiently impressed with their ability to immediately order a thousand to be delivered a.s.a.p.

Winston Churchill was less than impressed with Haig’s desperate use of the prototypes and wrote angrily. “ My poor Land Battleships have been let off prematurely on a petty scale… This priceless conception containing, if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the price of a few ruined villages.”

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

13th September 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.

“Capt Hadly relieved me on 13th Sept 1916, when I returned to the 130th Field Ambulance at Proven where we ran a hospital in tents and the local school. I got a billet in a clean house, and had a real comfortable bed again.”

"A view in Proven, Belgium. Note the dog transport."

“A view in Proven, Belgium. Note the dog transport.”

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

6th September 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.

We were relieved at 10pm on the 6th September, and went into the Brigade Rest Camp huts in a wood near Trois Tours Chateau – for a period of rest from the trenches.

Here I was kept busy with sick-parades, etc, and also put the whole battalion through a hut filled with tear gas in order to test their new respirators. All went well.

Some of us had a good dinner one night at Skindles in Poperinghe, and I had tea with our Brigadier – Price Davies, VC, DSO, &c – one day. “

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

5th September 1916 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.

“Capt Stokes visited me on September 5th to ask me to catch a live rat for him! He is investigating Weil’s Disease, or, Epidemic Jaundice, a disease which has been attacking troops on the canal bank, and which is thought to be spread by rats. (Stokes proved this to be correct. I caught one old diseased rat for him. It was full of tuberculosis and also had the germs of Weil’s Disease in it.)”

Back on 16th March 1916, Young Douglas Page described how in a lull in activity he was able to bathe the men’s feet, many suffering from trench foot, in the la Bassee Canal. I mentioned at the time of the possibility of Weil’s disease in the water. Today’s post reveals something remarkable. I had no idea of the significance back in March, having forgotten the detail in today’s posting of what seemed like a typically nonchalant entry in the diary. A fact that might indeed have had more significance to Douglas in later life than it did at the time of his diary entry.

Captain Stokes’ request that Douglas find him a live rat to experiment on was to result in conclusive evidence of Weil’s disease being spread by rats, the germs being present in the internal organs and being dissipated in the rat’s urine finding its way into the canal water.

Stokes had in fact been studying Weil’s disease for some time and was to quote a study by researchers in Japan that had produced a paper on it. The discovery was a key factor in diagnosing the illness that had affected hundreds of troops at the time on the Western Front, particularly those by the Yser Canal in the Ypres area.

rats

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

4th September 1916 Monday

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.

“On September 4th, with an officer and three NCOs of the Battalion, I journeyed to the Divisional Gas School for instruction in the use of the new British issue gas helmet – small box respirator. We walked to Vlamertinghe, when we boarded a London  motor bus, which took us to Divisional Headquarters. There we were put through drill with the new helmet, and also into a room full of tear gas, and another room filled with chlorine gas. None of us were affected by the gases, and all seemed to enjoy the experience.”

A B type London bus converted for war use

A B type London bus converted for war use

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

1st September 1916 Friday

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.

“On September 1st I went back to my quarters on the canal bank as the regiment was going into the line for five days. Just after I left the chateau ten shells landed in the courtyard, killing our tailor Ambrose Jones – and wounding four of our men, and some artillery men from the neighbouring batteries. I had a lucky escape! Our guns gave the old Bosche merry Hell for this and of course he replied in kind seeming to concentrate his fire on Bridge 6 just as I was about to cross the stinking canal. I had the wind-up properly, but dashed across to safety between the salvoes. The Hun was very angry all that night, and sent over lots of rum-jars* and rifle grenades. We had only one casualty – a bomber, hit in the cheek, and shoulder.”

*A “Rum Jar” was a slang term for a German trench mortar. It would typically contain shrapnel of random metal pieces inside what looked like a piece of iron pipe with a wooden base. A home-made affair, typically detonated by a time fuse.

Rum Jar

 

“I spent my days in the line in attending to sick and wounded, seeing that the sanitation was good and in visits of inspection to the companies in the front trenches. Snipers were very active, and one had to go warily. Gas-alarms were frequent. I didn’t like them. One felt so helpless with one’s gas-mask stuffing up one’s face, and with the dug-out doorways hermetically sealed up with thick heavy blankets. I always went out into the open when I heard the gas alarm – klaxon horns and bells sounding all over the bloody Salient. Whenever the gas alarm was given, our guns at a prearranged signal put down a barrage on the Hun front-line so as to stop any attack. Of course, the noise was indescribable, and when this happened perhaps three times in one night, it was not to be wondered at that we got tired and irritable.”

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

28th August 1916 Monday

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.

“On August 28th five of our aeroplanes flew over the Hun lines and dropped pamphlets telling the Huns that Rumania and Italy had declared war on them. On the same day I was caught in a Hun bombardment up Stirling Lane close to Dawson City. I lay low for a while and then decided to return to the canal bank! Brave lad! Our relief on the 28th was delayed as a report came in at 8.30pm that the Hun had remade part of his wire defence opposite Coffee Trench – the weak spot of our line. Everybody got the wind-up, and expected an attack, or a raid at least. We all stood-to, with gas masks at “the  alert”. Lewis guns were rushed forward and the Brigadier-General was chasing about all over the place seeing that the weak spots were guarded. Two patrols were sent out as soon as it was dark, and discovered a small gap in the Hun wire made by our shell-fire. Mr Bosche was busy repairing it! We had a good laugh when the patrols got back and gave us this report! But I didn’t get back to Trois Tours Chateau until midnight as a result!

Great artillery duels went on almost every day in spite of wretched weather conditions.

Most of these gun-duels took place at night and one could get very little peaceful sleep for the terrific din. The whole ground shook.

One day I was having a stroll across the fields towards Essex Farm, when our guns began to bombard the German front line trenches. Of course, the enemy retaliated and sent over lots of “pip-squeaks” in the region of Essex Farm. One shell landed beside six men and wounded them all. One poor devil got both legs blown off. What a shambles!  I rushed as fast as my legs could carry me to their aid, and was nearly blown over by the explosion of a big “Crump” en route. Stretcher-bearers of the 129th Field Ambulance cleared five of the wounded in record time but I was left behind with a wounded sergeant in the middle of the road beside a grim pool of blood, a leg, (minus the body) and a stretcher. Luckily, an engineer chap noticed my predicament and speedily came to my aid. We heaved the sergeant, who was hit in the thigh on to the stretcher, but almost immediately had to roll him off it into the ditch by the roadside as some more Hun shells came on and burst uncomfortably close to us. However, we got him on to the stretcher again, but had some job getting him across country to the Dressing Station. He weighed close on 15 stone!

Another day we watched the enemy shell one of our batteries close to the Chateau. The gunners had a cow and it was comical to watch them evacuating the milk-producer from the danger-zone, when the shelling commenced. The silly brute wouldn’t budge, and had to be hauled and shoved by furious and “windy” gunners!”

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

24th August 1916 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.

“On 24th August, we went into the trenches, relieving the 14th Welsh. I had a good Aid-Post on the canal bank, close to Battalion Headquarters, and with good sleeping accommodation – nice bunks. The artillery liaison officer shared the dug-out with me. This was my abode for four days in fine weather, but not too hot.

There were lots of dead bodies – British, Canadian, Bosche – lying buried, not too deeply, in the banks of the canal, and the canal itself with very little water in it was stinking with decaying flesh. It was a ghastly spot. Both sides of the canal banks (facing away from the enemy) were honey-combed with dug-outs of all sorts and sizes. Some were wonderful concreted palaces and others just tiny sand-bagged funk holes. Well-kept duck-board tracks made communication easy between dug-outs, and numerous wooden bridges erected by the engineers, crossed the stinking canal. Rats abounded in millions – great, fat brutes, as big as cats. They slunk about at night pinching our food and ruining our clothes.

One night I awoke with a feeling of weight on my chest. On putting up my hand a rat ran over my face! I got a creepy scare that time! The brutes even ate our playing cards and candles. We organised hunts at nights, and killed them with heavy sticks and revolver shots. Even terriers were sent up to help us.

During the four days in the line, I went up the communication trenches each day and visited the companies in the front line. I also had sick-parades each day and inspected dug-outs and the latrines on the canal banks. Some of the dug-outs had to be sprayed out with Cresol solution as they were verminous.

We had several casualties, mainly due to Hun rifle-grenade fire.”

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

20th August 1916 Sunday

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.

“At 10 o’clock on the evening of August 20th we stealthily left the camp and marched into Poperinghe where we entrained for Vlamertinghe. Our train was an armoured one with all lights out, and we rushed through the night at express speed. From Vlamertinghe we marched along a very much shell-holed road to our new abode “The Chateau des Trois Tours”, close to the shell-battered village of Brielen. My medical inspection room was in the stables adjoining the chateau, which was quite an imposing building, quite untouched by shell fire, strange to relate. It was rumoured that the building belonged to a German, hence its intact condition. Anyhow it was quite a comfortable billet for us with its big airy rooms, and large fireplaces, where we indulged in roaring fires when the chilly evenings arrived. Headquarters staff occupied the Chateau whilst the companies occupied shell-battered farm houses and cottages round about. One company was in good dug-outs on the Canal (Yser) Bank, about 2-3 miles across country from us, and nearer the enemy, of course.”

Chateau des Trois Tours

Chateau des Trois Tours

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

6th to 19th August 1916

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.

“On  August 6th, in brilliant sunny weather we moved about a mile forward into “L Camp”. It was rather crowded as the 15th, and 16th RWF (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) were in the same camp. I shared a tent with the Padre, and here we remained resting, refitting and recuperating after the Somme Battle until the 20th of the month. I had lots to do in training new stretcher-bearers, planning latrines, lecturing to the troops on health matters, inoculating officers and men against typhoid, etc. The weather was generally very hot and sunny and we soon got well  tanned.

In the evenings we usually went into “Pop” for dinner at “Skindles” and when we got back to camp had great rags – letting down tents on peacefully-sleeping occupants etc.

HM King George V passed by our camp on the 15th in a large car, but didn’t stop to inspect us. We gave him a great cheer.”

Poperinghe Town Hall

 

This building was used by the British as a hospital, but was wrecked by bombs and shells towards the end of 1916

Poperinghe: this building was used by the British as a hospital, but was wrecked by bombs and shells towards the end of 1916

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