While allied British and French troops were hammering away at the entrenched German positions on the Somme, diarist Will, serving with the Australian 1st Division as a machine-gunner, was travelling south from Flanders to Picardy.
If nine days under fire at Messines had been no picnic, they were about to join an infinitely more determined battle on the Somme.
Most of us are aware that the British Expeditionary Force had suffered huge losses in the first few days of a battle that was to go on for almost five months. And it’s probably no surprise that General Gough, in command of the British Reserve Army, would have liked more back-up immediately. But General Walker, in charge of the 1st Australian Division, was reluctant, insisting that his troops needed some preparation before being tossed into those ferocious bombardments.
The time allowed may have been less than Walker would have liked, but as the continuing diary entries make clear, once Will and his mates arrived in Picardy, training behind the lines was intense.
Tuesday July 11th: Wake up at 2.30am and find we have arrived at Dillions [Doullens] We detrained, and pulled our limbers about, and then marched 100 yards from station and had coffee with no sugar in. Got our packs on and started our 12 miles march. We had a rough time, marching about 3 miles in over an hour, and had about 20 minutes halt, arriving at Berteaucourt, and billeted in the worst billet yes, infested with hen’s lice. Buy some bread and [after] washing my face and feet, turn in about 9.0.
Wednesday July 12th: I rise at 7.30am. Get a wash and breakfast of tea and bacon. Get on our packs and move off, marching 3 miles down the same road as we came up yesterday. We halted for dinner in a small village. I passed through the village of Pernois where Bobbie [his brother] once was camped. We passed some lovely scenery and arrived in our fresh billet at about 5.30pm, at Flesselles. Camped in a Picture Palace, a very poor village, no place to buy anything, one bakers shop and is rushed for bread as our issue is very poor; biscuits hard. Spend night there.
Thursday July 13th: Rise at 7 and got breakfast, bacon (just) and tea, buy my own bread as none is issued. Spend morning on foot inspection and looking round, which is hardly anything to see. Packs on again and move at 2.30, stand 30 minutes before moving out; get showers of rain on way. Finally arrived at Rainville [Rainneville] and camp in old farmhouse. Very poor place, not a shop open, can buy no bread, a stinking pond is in the yard. A little mail given out, I get a letter (and paper) from home. I wash my feet, also two pair of socks and then turn in.
Friday July 14th: Get up at 7 am, breakfast tea and bacon, I have a little bread left, many have to live on biscuits. Get a wash, then it starts raining, the roof leaks and there is some fun. Fall in at 10.30 for foot inspection, to see if anyone has sore feet. Get rations issued, a loaf of bread between 3 men, and one tin of jam between 8 men. Afternoon have a lecture on use and detonation of Mills bombs, later an inspection of respirators by a doctor. My hose respirator is condemned by him. Get paid 40 franks and take a walk in evening and turn in about 9.30.
Saturday July 15th: Rise at 7. I am Mess Orderly and have to draw breakfast and following meals for day. Very misty up to the time the sun comes out, I get a wash and pack up once again for to move at a moment’s notice. Owing to so many men getting drunk, we have to go on parade. Gun drill and coming into action quickly. From 9am to 12 and again in afternoon from 2 to 4pm. Go into the field and have to scout out to find gun positions and to command a road, very interesting. Have to put dubbing on our boots, and pack up limbers. In evening I take a walk and look around the place which is very poor. There are no shops where we can buy anything.
Sunday July 16th: Rise at 7 and have breakfast, afterwards we get orders to pack up. We leave at 10am. The whole Division are on the move. It is a stiff march, mostly hilly country, but luckily the road is good in some places (asphalt). We arrive at the village called Lealvilles [Léalvillers – just north of Albert] and camp in a barn, much cleaner than our last billet. See three horse ambulances of wounded go by. In the next village are the 29th Division who we were with on Gallipoli, it also has a YMCA and a fine canteen. Very showery.
he following is my take on the above entries, written as part of the novel, Liam’s Story. Before enlisting in Melbourne, the 21-year-old Liam had been working in the rich farmland area of Victoria:
Away from the front lines, it was a place of misty woods and hidden valleys, of country lanes and half-timbered villages. Less intensively farmed, it was also much poorer. These people had little to sell and nothing to give. Two years of war had destroyed their harvests, while the troops moving back and forth had consumed everything else. Bread was a luxury and fresh meat a legend.
Liam had the impression at every halt that despite their forced smiles, the locals could not see much to choose between the marauding Bosches and defending British. Their own sons were dead and dying at Verdun and for those few who returned, a pathetic inheritance of shell-holes and fallow fields would be all that remained…
The novel was a bestseller when first published in 1991, but is now available in both eBook and print format, from Amazon and other online bookstores.