Q.6.a and Other places Part 1
Q.6.a and Other places.
by Francis Buckley.
In the following pages I have tried to set down as faithfully as I can some of the impressions which remain to me now of three years' service in France and Flanders.
I have naturally suppressed much of the grim and ghastly horrors that were shared by all in the fighting area. A narrative must be written from some point of view, and I have had to select my own. I regret that so much personal and trivial incident should appear. Perhaps some will be able to see through the gross egotistical covering and get a glimpse, however faint, of the deeds of deathless heroism performed by my beloved comrades--the officers and men of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, the officers and men of the 149th Infantry Brigade, the officers and men of the 50th Division.
The climax of the story is the battle on the Somme where so many dear friends have perished. The name is taken from a spot where a small party of the 7th N.F. did something long afterwards to avenge their fallen comrades.
Finally no criticism of the Higher Command is intended by anything that has been written. If such can be read between the lines, it is unintentional and a matter for sincere regret.
Q. 6. A
RECOLLECTIONS OF 1916, 1917, AND 1918
WHEN IT BEGAN
Before the war I was living in London, with chambers at Lincoln's Inn.
I was not surprised when the trouble started. Ever since 1904 it was reasonably clear to me that our country would have to fight the Germans or go under.
The days before we declared war on Germany were spent in London.
During the last few of them it was as though a terrible thunderstorm was hanging overhead, ready to burst: gloom and foreboding on the faces of all. There is no doubt that most of our people were taken by surprise and that they were aghast at the sudden gathering of the war cloud. But when the stroke of fate fell and we were committed to the war, there was a curious sense of relief in many hearts. Better death and ruin than dishonour. A shameful peace or neutrality is for most Englishmen harder to bear than all the horrors of war. Besides, this struggle for freedom had to be fought out, though few can have foretold the cost.
I had been rejected for the Territorial Force by the Army authorities in 1908 on account of weak eyesight. I had therefore few hopes of better luck in August 1914. At first only trained men were enrolled at the Inns of Court O.T.C., and this went on for some months--till the nation in fact began to realise the size of its task. So after two or three vain attempts to find my way into the services, I had to be content with the truncheon and armlet of a special constable. With this force I had no special adventures, but I learnt a good deal about the Vine Street Police area, and about the electric power stations of the West End. Christmas Day was spent on duty in the streets, and Easter Day found me still there. Then something happened which decided my own little fate, as well perhaps as the fate of Europe. This was the sinking of the good ship _Lusitania_ on May 7, 1915, under peculiarly barbarous and inhuman circ.u.mstances. Eventually it brought the Americans into the war, when they came to understand that the German people gloried in the deed of shame. As for me, it took me once again to the doors of the O.T.C. in Lincoln's Inn. If I could not go as an officer I would at least go into the ranks. But by this time the rush of officer recruits had died down, and they were not so particular about eyesight. So on May 10, 1915, I found myself in possession of a suit of khaki. It was second-or third-hand and an indifferent fit, but it enclosed a glad heart. The die was cast, and one little boat fairly launched on its perilous pa.s.sage. Never have I had cause to lament this step. If it has brought me great troubles and anguish, it has also given peace of mind and the satisfaction of using to the full such energy as I possess. It took me out of the stifling heat of the town and gave me at least four years of an open-air life.
For which G.o.d be thanked! If it did not bring much promotion or honour, it brought the friendship of real men, and a treasure greater than all the stars and ribbons in the world.
A recruit at the Inns of Court O.T.C. had nothing to fear from those in charge if he was willing to do his best. There was little boisterousness or horse-play among the recruits, the dark shadow was too close for that; and the spirit among my new comrades was one of great earnestness. For the first two or three weeks we were trained in Town near the H.Q. of the Battalion in Lincoln's Inn. After that recruits were sent on to the camp at Berkhamsted for field training.
We were billeted on the local inhabitants. I stayed at the house of Mr. Charles Dipple, from whose family I received much kind hospitality. It was a sudden change for one who had spent the greater part of ten years in London chambers. And at Berkhamsted they worked you hard, almost to the last degree of physical endurance. Save once, during a dark two weeks in France, I have never before or since felt the same fatigue of body. Also the change of food was a little strange and startling at first. The drill and discipline could do nothing but good to a healthy man. The enthusiasm of nearly all was great, our chief idea being to get ready and out to France or elsewhere before the war should be over. Little did we know what the future had in store.
There is nothing much to tell of this part of one's experience. One of the most pleasant incidents was a fortnightly leave of thirty-six hours at the week-end, which I used to spend with my friends in Town.
Night manoeuvres on Wednesdays and Fridays and guard duty were perhaps the most unpleasant part of our lot. Some would add the adjutant's parade on Sat.u.r.day morning. But that was short, if not always sweet.
I had the good luck to win an unpaid lance-corporal's stripe towards the end of my stay, chiefly, I think, on account of a certain apt.i.tude for drill, a clean rifle, and clean boots. Of this small achievement I was and still am a little proud.
I left the battalion on getting my commission with respect for the officers in charge of the training. The short experience in the ranks was to be of great value afterwards, when I came to deal for the first time as an officer with men in the ranks. It gave a certain sympathy with them and taught what to avoid. It was the custom of our C.O., Lieut.-Col. Errington, to give a few words of advice to those leaving the battalion to take up commissions. And I have never forgotten two of the principles which he urged upon us. One was the constant necessity for a soldier to deny himself in little things. The other was the idea that every officer in his own command, however small, had a duel to face with another officer in a similar position on the other side; and that in this duel the one that used his brain best would win. And so this embryo existence came to an end--a careless, happy time with no particular thought for the troubles ahead. In the middle of July 1915 I obtained a commission in the 3rd line Battalion of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, Territorials, supplying drafts to the 1st line battalion in France. I had no desire to display my ignorance of things military before a group of neighbours and possibly relations, so I applied for a commission, not in the Territorials of the West Riding Regiment, but in a north-country battalion of Territorials, with the 1st line fighting in France. The Territorial Force seemed to me most suitable for one who had no military career in view. And France, the land of old time romance and chivalry, gave a more urgent call than Egypt or the East. The choice of a unit, if one can be said to choose it, is fraught with greater consequences to oneself than might be supposed. I cannot say after a lapse of three years that the choice has proved unfortunate to me. It came about in this way. We were doing a rifle parade one day at Berkhamsted, when Lieut. Reynolds (N.F.) appeared with our company commander, Capt.
Clarke, and asked for the names of any men who would like to join the 3rd line of the 7th N.F. The 1st line battalion, he said, had just been badly cut up in France, and we should be out there in four months perhaps, certainly in six months. That was all the information we had, but it was enough for me. A north-country territorial battalion and France in six months--those were the attractions. I had never spent more than one night in Northumberland and I knew of Alnwick only by name. It was therefore rather a step in the dark; but to one who was still ignorant of the meaning of a 'Brigade' or a 'Division' only general considerations could appeal. And so on July 30, 1915, I set off for Alnwick to join my battalion, with a new uniform and kit, with a somewhat nervous feeling inside, but with a determination to do my best.
THE MEN OF THE NORTH COUNTRY
I have a great respect and admiration for the men of Northumberland.
Especially for those who come from the country towns and villages, the farm-lands and mines in the northern parts of the county. As soldiers they have gained a name the world over, of which it would be idle for me to talk. A cold climate and a fighting ancestry that goes back many hundreds of years have produced some marked qualities in the race of Northumbrians to-day. There are few of them that are not true to type, few that you would not care to have as comrades in a tight corner.
Their stubborn courage and contempt for danger have been proved again and again. The worse the outlook the more cheerful they seem to become. St.u.r.dy independence is there, and for this allowance has to be made--slow to like and slow to change; if you are known as 'Mister'
So-and-so, whatever your rank, you have won their respect. No better soldiers in the land can be found to hold or to fortify a position.
But I doubt whether they have quite the same genius for the attack. A certain lack of imagination, a certain want of forethought, have always, as it seems to me, been a handicap to these brave men when they attack. Again and again during an a.s.sault they have fallen in hundreds, they have shown themselves as willing to die in the open as in the trenches. But have they the wild fury that carries the Scot, the Irishman, or the Frenchman over 'impossible'
obstacles? No, they are not an enthusiastic people, nor a very imaginative one. And these qualities are needed to press home a difficult attack. They are not as a whole a quick or a very intelligent race. But for stark grim courage under the most awful surroundings they stand second to none. There is a streak of ruthlessness, too, in their dealings with the enemy; a legacy from the old Border wars with the Scots. They are quite ready, if need be, to take no prisoners. A hard and strong, but a very lovable race of men.
Yes, I think all the world of the men of the north, although I am not blind to their faults. Taken as a whole no more handsome or manly set of men can be found in the British Isles.
The Northumbrian dialect is difficult to understand until you get the trick of it. And the trick of it is in the accent and intonation, and not so much in any peculiar form of words. They have a peculiar way of dropping their voices, too, which is sometimes disconcerting. But it is a clean wholesome language, undefined by the disgusting and childish obscenity which is too often a disgrace to other districts in England. It reminds me a little of the Scottish tongue, but rather more of the country speech in the northern parts of Yorkshire, but in some ways it is all its very own. It must indeed be one of the earliest surviving types of the Anglo-Saxon speech. I had no great difficulty in understanding it, but to this day I am sometimes puzzled to pick up what is said owing to that curious drop in the voice.
A word or two as well about the officers of the Northumberlands, meaning, of course, the natives of the county. For them as well as for the hardy miners and farmers of the north I have a very sincere respect and liking. Better comrades on the field of battle no man could wish for, better officers for a Territorial battalion it would be hard to find. Their unbending courage, their gallant bearing in danger, their cheerfulness and their care and thought for their men have been responsible in a great measure for the successes won by the Northumberland battalions and for the lamentable but n.o.ble sacrifices when success was denied. Gallant and devoted soldiers they have been, and well they have earned the love and admiration of their men. Always cheerful whatever was on foot, readiest of all to turn a danger pa.s.sed into a jest. There could not be a better spirit in which to face the long delays and the bitter disappointments of the war. Two outstanding features in their character are, to my mind, practically universal, whatever form they happen to take. An inherent pugnacity, and a whole-hearted belief in and love of their county, which amounts to something more than clannishness. They know everything about every one in Northumberland, and with others they do not trouble themselves much. They do not talk about it like the Scots, but it is there all the same; and it has a profound influence on their actions and judgment. Within this sacred circle, into which no outlandish man can break, their pugnacity develops countless local feuds. And these feuds can be bitter enough, and I do not think I ever met a north-countryman without one. Generally there are two or three on foot at a time. One town against another, the men who did against the men who did not.
Sometimes I have thought that these queer hereditary instincts, for such they undoubtedly are, have led the men of the north astray. The house has been divided against itself, justice has not been done, or it has been delayed, incompetence has been allowed to spread its blighting influence. In other words the love of their county and the strength of their local feuds have at times blinded the men of the north to the real interests of their country, when a united front and a concentration of the best effort available were absolutely necessary to get on with the war. To me the Northumbrian officer has been universally kind, and I have never had the least discourtesy or injustice from any of them, but many acts of kindness. But I have seen with regret on several occasions a loss of effort and strength through the divisions caused by prejudice. Thoroughly cheerful and a generous and charming comrade, much given to hospitality, I do not think the Northumbrian officer is always a very brilliant person intellectually.
There are many notable exceptions, but they are notable enough to establish the impression.
Beyond these general observations it would be unwise--and I do not intend--to enter into the domestic history of any battalion or brigade. Better comrades one could not have, and a n.o.bler and more devoted body of men I have yet to meet.
 This criticism can of course be made of any troops of English nationality.
A short sketch of my stay at Alnwick may not be out of place. For though it did not seem very adventurous at the time it had a great influence on my subsequent career, both in France and afterwards. It is a most romantic spot, with one of the finest castles in England.
The heather hills run down through corn-land towards the seash.o.r.e; and the general features of the countryside reminded me much of my own home in the West Yorkshire hills. The curious battlements and gates in the town and the monuments outside tell of a time when it was one of England's front line posts against the raiding Scots. It seemed to me to be a fitting spot to train men for the wars.
When I arrived at the end of July 1915 the H.Q. of the 3rd line battalion were at the Star Hotel in Fenkle Street--very comfortable but rather expensive quarters. Only a few of the officers had arrived as yet. Just a few new-comers like myself, very green and raw, and about four or five officers of the 1st line battalion who had returned wounded from France. These latter had for the most part been wounded at the battle of St. Julien in April 1915, during the 2nd Battle of Ypres. They were now discharged from hospital and attached to the draft battalion for training before going out once more. They were very friendly and nice to the new-comers; and indeed we looked upon them quite as veterans, although their active service in France had not exceeded a few days. Capt. J. Welch, Lieuts. J.W. Merivale, E.
Nixon, and E. Fenwicke Clennell became special friends of mine, and I am grateful for many acts of kindness from them both then and later on abroad. The men of the battalion, also raw recruits and wounded men returned from hospital, were quartered in the houses in the town. The O.C. battalion was Major (afterwards Lieut.-Colonel and Brevet Colonel) J.J. Gillespie, T.D., and the Adjutant Capt. W.A.C.
Darlington. The C.O. was a man of great personality, so much so that he is one of the best known and most talked of persons in the Northumberlands. A great organiser and a hard worker, who generally got his own way with small and great, he has done much to make the drafts efficient. I was lucky to find favour in his eyes, and our relations were always friendly.
We had as near neighbours in Alnwick the Brigade of Tyneside Scottish, who were encamped in the Pastures near the Castle, as fine a body of men as you could wish to see. After staying for a while at the Star our battalion moved out to Moorlaws Camp and we remained there under canvas till the middle of October. In the meantime I was lent for about five days to the 21st Provisional Battalion N.F., a home service battalion, who were encamped at Cambois ('Cammis') on the sea-coast.
This was like a picnic for me, for all the officers there treated me kindly and did not work me hard. One night I volunteered for night duty and had the experience of visiting the sentries (all with loaded rifles) at the various posts along the sh.o.r.e. Shortly after returning to Alnwick I was sent, on September 2, to the Army School of Signalling and Bombing at Tynemouth, and went through the Bombing course, which lasted about a week. So primitive were the arrangements, even at this date, that we were only taught how to improvise grenades out of old jam tins, and how to fire them out of iron pipes as trench-mortar bombs. We were indeed allowed to handle precious specimens of the famous No. 3 (Hales) and No. 5 (Mills), but there were not enough available for live practice. The West Spring Thrower had not arrived, but I saw a trench catapult in action; and some dummy Stokes bombs were fired off for us to see. At this course there was an examination, and I got a first-cla.s.s certificate as a grenade instructor, an event which had considerable influence on my career in France, as will appear later on. When I got back to Alnwick I found the battalion under canvas at Moorlaws. Here I became 'grenadier officer' to the battalion, and I had daily cla.s.ses of men who had volunteered to become bombers, or 'grenadiers' as they were then called.
Live practice was carried out entirely with improvised bombs, old jam tins and black powder. But we procured a certain number of dummies of Nos. 1 and 5 to practise throwing. Major N.I. Wright (who had returned wounded) took a great interest in our proceedings and had some dummy grenades made for us. A gallant soldier with hard service in South Africa and the Great War, he has always been a good friend to me. I went on with the bombing till about October 20, when the battalion returned to Alnwick and went into wooden huts in the Pastures. The officers were billeted at a house called 'Alnbank,' a mansion some little distance from the men's quarters. After this move I was appointed Company Commander to C Company, a newly formed company with only raw recruits in it. My second in command was Lieut. Joseph Robinson, a dear friend, who had come all the way from the Argentine, and whom I first met at the O.T.C. at Berkhamsted. He was known as 'Strafer Robinson' on account of being physical drill instructor, and a pretty exacting one. I found the recruits in C Company most willing and anxious to learn their job; and they never gave me much trouble either in orderly room or on parade.
I was kindly treated by every one at Alnwick. My stay there has only pleasant memories. Major the Hon. Arthur Joicey, who had returned from the 1st line, gave me several glorious days after partridges at Longhirst. The number of these birds so far north fairly astonished me. The doctors' families in Alnwick were also very kind and hospitable to all our officers. Mrs. Scott Jackson, the wife of the Colonel of the 1st line battalion, could not do enough for us; and many happy evenings have been spent at her house; notably a great New Year's Eve party for all the officers, just before I left for the front. I took part in a Rugby football match, the first time for eleven years. The 3rd line 7th N.F. succeeded in defeating the reserve battalion of the Tyneside Scottish, largely through the prowess of 2nd-Lieut. McNaught at half-back. There was rather a pleasant inst.i.tution towards the end of my stay--namely, a meeting of the senior officers for dinner every Wednesday evening at the Plough Inn.
They did you well there, and it was a pleasant change from the mess dinner.
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