July 1st 1916 – the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, about 60-70 miles south of Messines, where machine-gunner Will, serving with the Australian 2nd Brigade, was presently in the front line. (See previous blog for first-hand description of the situation at Messines.)
Saturday July 1st: Get a little sleep from about 4 till 10am, again wakened by bursting shells. I cook breakfast of bully beef and onions, later have a wash, the first for three days, how I enjoyed it. During the previous bombardments, part of our dugout was knocked in by a shell bursting in the trench, but no one was in at the time. Great aerial activity, enemy planes chased by our gun fire. Fairly quiet in afternoon, several big shells burst near us. Fine day. Warned of another bombardment by us at 12pm, which is carried out. After, Germans are very uneasy, and are continually sniping.
Sunday July 2nd: Fine day. Fritz fires many big shells where the artillery are, also big green smoke shells in the air. German plane over but does not stay long, great aerial activity on our side, we also fire 12 inch howitzers. We are warned to pack up, to be relieved by another of our teams. The Batt is relieved by the Queen’s Regt. But we are not relieved. [During the night] our heavy guns engage the enemy batteries and have an aeroplane directing their fire by dropping lights, going practically all night. Our battle planes bring down 2 Fokker monoplanes.
Monday July 3rd: Fritz has two planes up from daybreak till 9am directing the fire of his heavy guns. We reply, our howitzers start a fire in Messines, and he continues to fire at us most of the day. Many planes over his lines. Our rations very poor, we again pack up, and at dusk we carry some of our stuff out, but later have to bring it back. We are relieved by a team of our section, and later we are relieved by the West Kents. We pack up our limbers and finally after a lot of messing about, march to a bivouac.
Tuesday July 4th: We camp near a small village called Romane [?] on Belgian territory. Spend morning digging drains round tents and canvas bivouacs, later pack up limbers. In afternoon from 2 till 4 do squad drill and rifle exercises. Very wet and muddy all day, also thunder and lightning. Receive letter and photo from home. In evening I get issued with a revolver for range finding, as rifle is too cumbersome to carry. Roll call at 8.30 and have to be inside bivouacs by 9.0pm. Get paid 40 franks.
Wednesday July 5th 1916: Spend morning moving limbers and general straightening up of gun stores. In afternoon again do squad drill from 2 till 4pm, afterwards I am warned for guard which we mount at 7pm. 3 of us do 2 hours on and 4 off till 7 in morning. Day much better and showery in evening. Not many yards away are thousands of men laying down a line for bringing armoured trains. A great quantity of light artillery moving down, I was told to where a great advance is taking place.
Thursday July 6th: During early hours of morning, we [the British] use gas, followed up by a bombardment, continued for about 2 hours. In morning at 10.30, we march to other side of Neuve English [Eglise] to the baths which are hot showers. We also get a change of clothes and we do enjoy it. Fine warm day. Have afternoon off on account of being on guard, and in evening I take a walk to Romane [?] Gets dull again and finally sets in for rain.
Here follows an extract from my novel, Liam’s Story, based on entries in The Diary:
Euphoria at leaving the line was further dampened by the weather. In the midst of an electrical storm the men marched back to camp to find it flooded out. The morning was spent digging drainage ditches round tents and canvas bivouacs. Too tired to sleep and needing suddenly to get away from the press of other human beings, Liam went for a walk. The storm had cleared the air, leaving the sky pale and fragile, reflected like a string of pearls in puddles along the road.
Beyond the woods which flanked the camp he heard strange noises, hammering and tapping which bore no resemblance to gun-fire. Investigating, he came across an army of engineers laying track-beds and rails at a tremendous rate. Fascinated by their activity he stood and watched for a while, noticing as he did so that much horse-drawn artillery was moving south on a road close by.
Sauntering past a group of pioneers who had stopped to brew up, he asked what was going on.
‘Don’t you know, mate? It’s for the advance. All that lot’s going down to Amiens, and this here track’s for the armoured trains.’
‘Lord, son, where ‘ave you been? Australia?’ The old sergeant cackled at his own humour, while his men shook their heads. ‘Big push north of Verdun. Helpin’ the Frogs out, we are – doing all right too. We’ll soon ‘ave Fritz on the run!’
Against a hard little kernel of disbelief, Liam’s spirits lifted; because he wanted it to be true, he laughed, said it was tremendous news, and wished them well with their task. On the way back his step had a spring to it, and almost in spite of himself he repeated the story as though it were gospel fact. It certainly fitted with what they knew already, that the Germans locally had been rattled into vindictiveness, and probably by the news that they were being defeated elsewhere.
Within a few days, Will and his mates would be moving south. Initially by train to Doullens in Picardy, but then by stages on foot to Albert, on the Somme.
Photo: Australian War Memorial, Creative Commons