Continuing the extracts from the 1916 diary, written by a 21-year-old soldier, serving in France with the 2nd Machine Gun Company, Australian Imperial Forces. In the Memorandum at the beginning of the diary, Will elaborates a little on his daily entries.
‘The trenches we entered on the night of June 25th were just in front of [facing] Messines in Belgium. We look right into the town which is held by the Germans, a small river separates us. The funny part which struck us, was that there were no communication trenches to our first and second lines. The reason is that the German trenches are on higher ground and look down on us. If trenches are dug they are enfiladed [by gun fire] and no one is able to get out of the trench till night. The night we came in, bullets made it very warm for us. The road is all shell holes and awful in wet weather. We have to do all our cooking inside the dug-out, and at night on account of the smoke.
We have a front line in front of us, but it is only inhabited at night, and only by a few, for when the creek [river] rises it floods the trenches. In bad weather they all retreat to our trench.
‘Our position there could only be reached by night, and going for rations we had to cross about 600 yards of open country, over which the Germans played a machine gun at intervals. The line about 1,000 yards to our right was enfiladed by shells of all calibres. The only time we saw our officers was at night and they only had a short time to stay. Our rations were very light, and we cooked our meat and bacon in one meal.
‘Near to where we were camped a railway passes by and is being laid down at a rate of over a mile day, nearly 2,000 men on each shift…’ [Commented on later, 5th July 1916.]
Monday June 26th: We are just in front of Messines town [on French/Belgian border] held by the Germans, our guns have destroyed it. German trenches are on side of a hill. Fire a great number of 5.9 howitzer shells in rear of us. German plane over. We do some good shooting at him. Later five of our planes drop liquid fire on 3 German balloons, I see them burst into flames. All return safely after heavy shower of shells from Fritz. 4 of Fritz’s balloons were brought down in flames on our right yesterday. We give a cheer and make Fritz fire bombs at us, but our artillery soon shuts them up.
Tuesday June 27th: About 1am our guns open up a terrific bomb on Fritz trenches, he heavily replies. He also uses 220 pound bombs, the crash of them bursting is awful, this kept up for about two hours, very few casualties on our side. The big naval guns are firing after 3 o’clock, Fritz reopens the bombardment but our guns soon silence him. It was a pouring wet night. We turn in about 4 o’clock, and I sleep till 12 noon and then have breakfast. We never sleep through the night. Many bombs and shells flying about.
Wednesday June 28th: Turn in for a sleep after 4am and about 10 o’clock Fritz wakes us up by the explosions of his big shells, also followed up by shrapnel. Our trench being very poor we move lower down. I then cook breakfast and then he starts again. We get our water from a creek or spring. But Fritz puts a big shell in it. Later our howitzers engage Fritz’s trenches. Dull wet day. Stokes mortar arrives in the line, and it takes about 50 men to carry up ammunition. Hear that we are going to put over smoke bombs first and then gas.
Thursday June 29th: Word comes along the line we are going to bombard from 11.30 and precisely to the moment our guns open out, and for an hour and a half go as solid as it is possible to go. Fritz retaliates with big shells and shrapnel. At 1.30 we have to put on our gas masks as we are going to use gas, but it is cancelled. Stokes mortar fires over 100 bombs, we get many near our gun pit. Total casualties for part of Australian Line, 4 men killed and 10 wounded. Germans have 2 planes over the lines. There are three raids along our line (1) the Buffs, 7 Batt and 28 Aus. Battn. Fine day.
Friday June 30th: At about 7pm last night the Germans opened up a terrific bomb of our trenches. Our trenches are enfiladed with guns from 5.9 inch upwards. Our guns reply, and it continues for 2 hours, then two more by us during the small hours, to which they reply, and through the day our guns are smashing up Fritz trenches. We also use smoke bombs followed by gas, and all through the night the bombard is going on, we get no sleep. With another I go about a mile through open country for rations, followed up by shrapnel and bullets. Many casualties.
Further blog posts to follow…
The Diary inspired my bestselling novel, Liam’s Story, originally published in 1991, now available in both eBook and paperback formats from Amazon and other online bookstores.
Painting – Messines by Charles Wheeler from
Australian War Memorial, Creative Commons