After the intensity of four nights under fire at Pozières – 19-23 August – Will and his machine gun section had been taken out of the line, returning through Sausage Gully and Albert to Warloy, a march of about seven miles.
In Warloy they’d been able to wash and clean up – but the next night’s halt in an orchard at Rubempré had no fresh water. Next morning, they were again on the move, marching through Marriuex to Amplier, just a couple of miles from the town of Doullens.
While reading the following entries try to imagine how Will and his mates were feeling after the hellish conditions at Pozières. Not just under fire in the front line, but in an area where the bombardments were terrific and shells were falling constantly. Their time fighting – and standing by in support – was less than two weeks, which doesn’t sound very long. But the casualty rate was huge – the Australian 1st Division alone had lost 7,700 men in a month.
After all they had endured, survival must have been hard to grasp. But euphoria – and the massive drop in adrenaline – quickly turns to exhaustion and depression. Will’s entries below, for the 25th and 28th, in which he does ‘not do a guard’ and is on ‘fatigues’ next day, strike me as significant. He sounds like a man who has had enough – he just can’t do it, and doesn’t care if he’s punished. He may even have been suffering the effects of shell-shock, as his machine-gun had been knocked out by a shell on 19th August – on the 20th, they’d had to take up a fresh gun.
This blog post is the last one, as ‘Flanders to the Somme’ takes us back to Flanders – to the trenches at Ypres, where the Aussies were relieving Canadians coming out of the front line. It was said they’d been posted to Ypres, ‘for a rest.’ When they heard that, the Canadians laughed…
Friday August 25th: Pack up again and after going to Ordnance to draw a new gun, we move off about 12.30 passing through Marrieuse, a fine clean place, and finally arriving at Amplier. We went into canvas huts, later we got a blanket issued, had a bath and turned in. We are duty section but I do not do a guard.
Saturday August 26th: On fatigue cleaning up round the huts, and spend rest of morning writing letters. Parade in afternoon to get new shirts, I get one. Pack up and move to a fresh hut, each section moves off with their own Batt. I take a stroll down the town before going on guard. It is raining most of the time, and makes everything unpleasant.
Sunday August 27th: Rise at 5am and begin cleaning up the huts, and after a lot of messing about we march to railway siding called Authieule two miles from Doullens. We had to clean out a horse box before it was fit to go in. We had 17 men in our truck and started off at 11.15am, passing a big town (St Pol) and finally arriving at Hazebrouck where we changed, and a British engine took us to Godersville, entraining about 5.30, and then we marched to tents near Poperinghe. Had good wash and turned in.
Monday August 28th: It rained and I got my blanket wet as tent door opened wrong way; but continues to be showery most of day. In morning we go for a route march to Poperinghe and returned 11.30. Had to do squad drill until rain drove us in. In afternoon we cleaned guns and filled belts and greased limber wheels. We had the usual silly orders read out, and later received news about Italy declaring war on Germany and Rumania on Austria. I receive letters from Leeds and Aus. I turn in early.
Tuesday August 29th: The guns at Ypres going nearly through night. Fall in at 9am and receive orders to pack up, ready to move by 1.30pm. It is raining all morning, fall in and march a roundabout way to Poperinghe, and billeted in an old warehouse, then a thunderstorm comes on and we are partly flooded out. Later the storm abates and I take a walk round the town. I miss being on guard and turn in about 9pm. It is a very hot, close night, we are warned we may go to the trenches.
Wednesday August 30th: Still heavy rain. I go on fatigue (sanitary). The rest of the company does a route march, I stay in and read till dinner time, after dinner I am again on fatigue, carrying boxes (etc) from a motor lorry in the rain. Then we have a muster parade and hear orders about gas and protection against it. The rain eases off a little, and after I get a pair of new boots I take a walk round the town, and return about 8.30 and turn in. The N.C.O.s go to trenches.
Thursday August 31st: Fine sunshine all morning, I have a good wash and put my overcoat out to dry. We are warned to be ready to move by 2pm. I go and clean my gun, and replace limbers and then go to Poperinghe to the pictures, and return and get our packs put away. We fall in and march to station. Entrain and detrained this side of Ypres [less than 5 miles] near an asylum. Then our march started for about 5 miles in the rain and sludge and shell holes, and finally unpacked limbers about 300 yards behind the front lines, and carried the gun and 14 boxes of ammunition to a gun pit. We could not move throughout the day…
If Will’s diary has intrigued you, and you’d like to know what happened next, you can read the fictional version of his life, from York to Australia, and from there to Gallipoli and France, in Liam’s Story. The novel was inspired by the diary and by further research to establish the bigger picture.
Its predecessor, Louisa Elliott, set in 1890s York and Dublin, was based on Will’s family history – both novels were bestsellers when first published by Chatto & Windus in the UK in 1989 and 1991, and went on to international success. Both are now available as ebooks and in print.