WW1 Part 2 | My adventures in France 1915 to 1918

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Reminiscences of two world wars by Captain H.J. Alderson, R.A.S.C

My adventures in France 1915/18

The Battalion remained in Bethune for some weeks, training, after which we were transferred to the front line in the La-Bassee Sector on Canal (research). Things were very quiet except for sniping activities and some shelling.

The sector was not very comfortable and weather conditions very bad.

Mud was knee deep in places and communication trenches were very treacherous to use (research). It was pitiful to see men, especially when wearing “thigh boots”, being sucked down in the mud. By exerting pressure on one foot to get the other out they went in further, and it was a regular thing to have to dig them out with shovels which were normally carried as part of one’s equipment.

Our casualties at La-Bassee was one man killed.

After La-Bassee we were transferred  to Festubert (research). This place was in marshy ground and it was impossible for trenches to be dug. This had been tried, and there were a series of trenches but these were full of water. Duck boards were placed all over these to walk on.

The front line at Festubert consisted of a series of “Breast works” built up of sandbags. Each “breastwork” to eight men which was a section and were approximately 100 yards apart with gaps in between.

The German line was exactly the same, and in some places were only 50 yards away. Communication between these posts was by runner who had to follow the duck boards from one post to another (research).

All communication was over the top, not a trench was possible to use.

Things were very quiet in this sector except for shelling and minor raiding parties.

We suffered no casualties at Festubert, but were very lucky considering the conditions. After Festubert we came out for Xmas 1915 (research) which was spent behind the line. The usual English festivities were kept up, billets being decorated to the best of our abilities and the civil population done their share towards making us comfortable by supplying foodstuffs such as pork, birds and fruit.

We remained out of the line for some time in training. Digging trenches in reserve and resting periods.

This appears to have been done for a purpose because after some weeks we were marched to the “Suchez” front and Vimy Ridge, in this sector we remained for some considerable time in and out of the line. Resting when out at Courelles and Albert (research).

Things were not so comfortable in this part. Raids were heavier, shelling more regular and the communications far more dangerous to venture along. On the whole it was a death-trap to approach as to get to the Ridge one had to proceed through a series of trenches far away from the Ridge and them come out from this cover to cross a valley at the foot of the ridge known as the “Deaths Valley”. This was completely under observation of the Germans at the far side and it was not until one was practically under the Ridge that one was from sight of the enemy.

A crater (diameter 116 m, depth 45 m) after the explosion of 19 mines placed underneath German positions near Messines in West Flanders by the British on June 7, 1917

A crater (diameter 116 m, depth 45 m) after the explosion of 19 mines placed underneath German positions near Messines in West Flanders by the British on June 7, 1917

The Germans held the “brow” of the Ridge with our front line on the slope. The mud in the valley was terrific and duck boards had to be used when crossing it.

My 18th birthday was spent on Vimy Ridge and on that night both the Germans and us blew up mines together which practically lifted the top off the Ridge (research). My job then was to proceed with others to the “lip” of the crater that had been made and prepare defence positions. We worked by starlight and the Germans did likewise about 100 yards away. We could see each other but not a shot was fired.

Battle

German soldiers emerging from the crater of a recently exploded mine, similar to the one described by Horace at Vimy Ridge

Vimy Ridge turned out to be one of the warmest places we had been to date, and quite a few casualties were sustained both in the line and out of it.

When in Courelles or Albert both places were shelled heavily and it was necessary to keep under cover in dilapidated cellars or trenches best part of time.

The Naval Brigade held the line with us half the time and we eventually were relieved by Canadian troops after some weeks holding this sector (research).


My comment
Many of the places described above I have no knowledge of but I’ve certainly heard  of Vimy Ridge. Notorious for being an area contested viscously throughout WW1 and it seems that Horace’s recollections back that up. What’s interesting is that he’d spent his 18th birthday on the line at Vimy Ridge when the German and British mines were exploded, described as “practically lifted the top off the Ridge”. When I was 13 years old, I visited Ypres in Belgium on a school trip the purpose of which was to learn about WW1. We stopped of at the remains of a crater of an exploded mine and it was shocking how big it was. We were told that in order to destroy large sections of German re-enforced trench network, the British dug underground beneath the Germans. The tunnels were then packed out with high explosive. This was detonated prior to an attack with infantry. The resulting explosion from this was pretty close to a tactical nuclear weapon going off. It was reported that the sound of the explosions could be heard in London! My 18th birthday evening wasn’t spent advancing to hold the lip of a mine exploded crater, it was down the pub with my mates.

Click for part 1