The Battle of the Somme

Nothing to do with my books this, or even fiction, but it occurs to me that some might be interested in the following and today seems an appropriate day to do it. This is from the memoir of my great grandfather, James Alison Glover, who was a doctor during the battle of the Somme among other things (the Boer war for one); never published but written from his diaries for his grandchildren.


On the 26th we moved nearer the lines and again on the 29th.  On the 1st. July the great battle of the Somme began.  It was to cost the British Army some half a million casualties.

As I understood it the British plan was to break through on a large front and when this had been done the Cavalry Division was to ride through the gap and fan out in pursuit.  We were to follow the Cavalry.  Most of the lst July we waited on what I think was the Hedauville-Bouzincourt Road, all ready to follow the Cavalry.  We could see shells bursting but none came near us.  But no break-through was accomplished and we moved up to Martinsart and opened up partially receiving a few wounded, though most of them were sent direct further back.  Our baggage and possessions were left at Bouzincourt.  Next day was again one of waiting.  I selected a steel helmet from a pile of them discarded by wounded.  It was a fine specimen and I have it still, having had it relined for my Home Guard Service in 1940.

Very early on the morning of the 3rd July, I was wakened and told to go to the 6th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment, whose medical officer had been wounded.  The battalion was said to be in the line in front of Thiepval, but the message had not come from the regiment (when I found the Colonel he had not heard that his M.O. was a casualty) so that no runner had been sent to guide me.  After a hasty breakfast, I got a van as far down as it could go and then on foot went to cross the Ancre.  All the bridges and crossings were being shelled but I got across safely by Chateau Bridge.  It was not much of a time for wandering about but I pushed on, more or less parallel with the rivers asking for, but receiving little information.  I came to a Brigade H.Q. dugout, where a conference of officers had been leaving the entrance, when a shell burst on top of them.

The wounded had been removed when I got there, but the slain had not.  Further on (it seemed a long way) I met men coming down and found they belonged to the 6th.  Soon I found the O.C. Lt. Colonel Bateman, who was surprised to see me, as he had not heard his doctor had been hit.  The battalion, which had had a bad time, was on its way out to third line in Aveley wood.  I think we got there by Black Horse Bridge.  When we got in, I was glad to get some food as I had had an early start and a trying “lost-dog” day. Everyone at Regimental H.Q. were very friendly though much preoccupied with reorganising.  The C.O.2 the second-­in-command and the Adjutant were all first cousins.  The machine­gun officer was a South African veteran, only two years my junior.

I held sick parade which was no joke.  Stringent orders had come round that every possible rifle should be kept at the front and many slightly wounded and sick men, whom one would have liked to send back, had to remain in the line.  Another order was that anyone with the smallest head wound must be sent back.  This made one young lieutenant very indignant.  The danger was of unsuspected penetration of the skull but being sent back meant to him that on return he might be transferred to some other unit.

My orderly, Corporal A.A. Strutt, a bank clerk in civil life, was most intelligent and helpful and I owed him much on this and many other occasions.  After the war he came to work in London for an insurance company and I was delighted to see him again.  The sergeant in charge of the H.Q. stretcher bearers was J.H. Whiteley, a Boer War veteran and a splendid fellow.  After the war he died of nephritis and I had a long and unsuccessful tussle with the Ministry of Pensions who hardheart­edly maintained that this was due to rheumatic fever sustained before his service, while I argued that it and his death were due to his years of service in the trenches.

The rest of my team of headquarter bearers were L/Corporal J. Blackwell and Pte.Ernest Sharpe, both as strong and brave as lions, and Pte.  John Pickup, who, though physically and mentally not quite of the same calibre, was a stout-hearted fellow.  Whiteley got a well merited D.C.M. and Blackwell and Sharpe the M.M. I cannot remember the events of my first night with the battalion except that I was very busy.  In the afternoon of the 4th July the weather broke and we had a perfect deluge.  My dugout rapidly filled and my few belongings for as yet I had no kit, floated round.  My orilux belt lamps however remained workable.  All I had brought with me was a Burberry and a cardigan, so I did not have the bother of changing.

That night the battalion moved back into the front line.  I had an aid post at Johnstone’s Post.” This had been constructed by the Ulster Brigade as its name showed.  Wet through, I was fortunately so busy as hardly to notice it.  Next morning was fine and I was able to get my bearings.  The Somme country is made up of rolling chalk hills not unlike the country round Amersham.  My aid post had been dug out from the side of a little secondary valley at right angles to the main river valley of the Ancre; its front was of sandbags with timber balks at intervals supporting the roof which was of sandbags, earth and flints on cross timbers.

The entrance had the usual gas curtain of blanket.  The ground dropped away in front, but had a sort of terrace upon which corpses awaiting burial were put.  The view from the entrance looked on the left towards the still standing church tower of Mesnil and, in front, on the blasted remains of Thiepval wood.  It was about 450 yards from our front lines which was here pretty close to the German.

The British attack on July lst had made little progress in the Thiepval section and had lost again what progress it had made.  Every night several wounded men would be brought in, who had been lying in no-man’s land for many hours.  One I remember most vividly – he had compound fractures of both legs and I had to give chloroform to splint them straight enough to allow the stretcher to get through the communication trench.  His wounds were full of maggots.  When he came round from the anaesthetic, I gave him tea and tried to give him some brandy before his further journey down to the field dressing station.  He rounded fiercely on me “How dare you give me that, I’ve been a teetotaller all my life.” I explained it was to be regarded as medicine but this made no impression on his unconquerable spirit.

Two young soldiers had a most unpleasant experience.  They had had the always unpleasant task of burying in no-man’s land, the dead (who could not be brought back) at night.  They had dug a shallow grave beside one corpse which they then rolled over into the grave.  The dead man had been holding a Mills bomb having taken out the pin preparatory to throwing it, and as he fell upon it his weight had kept the lever down.  Rolling the body over had released the lever and the body appeared to explode in their faces.  The poor boys were not only wounded but naturally upset and vomited so much I suspected abdominal wounds, but it seemed to be pure nausea together, perhaps, with the rum ration, which had been issued for the job.

The crevices in the sandbag walls of my aid post were full of the boldest mice, who ran all over one if one slept on the floor; to get any rest I had to suspend a stretcher by slings from the roof.  Someone left a haversack for two days in a convenient spot and a mouse made a nest and produced several babies in it.  Fortunately the mice for some reason prevented the rats, which swarmed outside, from entering the dugout.

My busiest night was, I think the 6th July.  Casualties poured in, the hurricane lamps, upon which we depended for light were continually being blown out by the concussions of near bursts.  One could not evacuate anyone as the passage of the communication trench by stretcher was too dangerous to be attempted in the barrage. The aid post was so full one had to walk on the stretch­ers on the floor, avoiding those suspended from the roof.  The climax came when a shell burst on the roof.  Fortunately it was only a three inch and most of the roof held and only light stuff fell on the wounded lying on the stretchers below.  This was enough to unnerve some already seriously wounded.

The lamps, had, of courses all been blown out and we were in darkness except for torches.  Secretly I was frightened but managed, I think, to preserve an appearance of calm and cheerfulness.Next day we repaired and strengthened the roof which survived for several months though it was at last blown in.  The next day was a comparative calm one and I got a shirt and socks from my kit sent up from the Field Ambulance.

On the 8th I had nine hours sleep and made up some of the arrears. Fortunately I kept, and even felt, very fit.

On the 9th we moved to North Bluff where, though only about 600 yards from the front line and about 700 from the Boche, things were much pleasanter.  Here I slept and ate in the Regi­mental H.Q. dugout with five others sleeping on rabbit wire beds (or hammocks) which were quite comfortable.  Here on the north side we were protected by the chalk hills and in front were the marshes beside the river.  Thus the heavy stuff went over either to targets further back or to explode harmlessly in the marshy raising great fountains of mud.  Despite this, the birds sang merrily and the ducks stayed on.  There were far fewer mice but far more mosquitoes.  I had a nice aid post.

The Bluff was enfiladed by a light battery somewhere in the Beaucourt direction but the Boche was so meticulous that one could usually avoid his attentions.  With great regularity he sent down four, or it may have been six, of the best at ten minutes to every hour and another lot at twenty minutes past, so one went to ground at these times, counted the shells and walked about in the intervals in comparative safety.  Both here and at Johnstone’s post (and in most posts in the line) there was usually a morning “hate” about six which was followed by a perfectly quiet breakfast interval. I suppose the idea was to discourage dawn attacks.

I now began to acquire quite a reputation as a tooth-­tugger, with the three forceps provided.  The men showed a Chinese-like indifference to pain.  One man had two frightful wrecks extracted each in two separate portions.  As I left the dugout for lunch, I found him lying in the entrance and thought for a moment I must have broken his jaw.  I said “What is it?” and he replied “If you don’t mind, sire as I am here, I thought perhaps you would kindly take this one out too.” He came back and had a third stiff extraction.  He was not from my battalion and went straight back to duty.

By now my boots were nearly dry.  Back over the river, I borrowed a cycle and rode to a village where I got a hot bath and was relieved to find no more lice, as I had found a couple at Johnstone’s Post.  For seven weeks we had alternated between North Bluff and Johnstone’s Post.  I induced the H.Q. Mess to have tea served at every meal as it had been in the New South Wales Field Hospital in South Africa.  Officers, so often under strains are apt to take whiskey and soda to cheer them up.  Tea does better and is much less harmful than whiskey frequently taken.  Charles Coubrough came to tea one day at the Bluff and charmed the mess.  Next day, returning to the Post, we had a big straafe which lasted four hours. We often put over smoke to divert attention from attacks made elsewhere.  These were always followed by fierce strafes from the Boche, so presumably they did what was intended.

I was amused one day about 700 yards from the Boche line to get a letter from a dear old lady patient asking me to be her trustee.  Though it seemed quite likely I might not survive her, I accepted.  When she died some ten years later I found she had left me £100 for acting as trustees as well as a legacy of £500, and a lovely old bracket clock. (Miss Vincent)

One quiet afternoon at the Bluff, I walked as far as La Boiselle and explored the crater made by the great mine which was exploded to start the attack of July lst.  I also looked for Carl’s grave but could not find it.

After seven weeks in the trenches, the battalion was pulled out and went back to a well-earned rest.  The delight of walking safely in the dark country and of feeling the night wind blowing fresh and free after the stuffy and smelly trenches would be a fitting subject for a poet.  Arriving about 3 a.m. I found a fine meal with tea waiting and a large mail.  As medical officer I was always at the tail end of a march.  It was my first night in pyjamas and no early sick parade next morning to worry one.  Nearby were my old friends of Shoreham, the 8th Bedfords and one night I had dinner with them.  Seven, including Alan Fleming, remained of those I knew and the Quartermaster.

I had by now acquired my third charger of this war, a very tall mare named Florrie, sixteen and a half or seventeen hands.  She much disliked gunfire and fixed bayonets, but otherwise was the type of “confidential” mount, who suited me well.  Rumour hinted that in civil life she had been a canal horse.  I always had either to get a mounting block or else let down the stirrup to climb up into the saddle.  Once there I could look down on everyone.  My Boer Sjambok was greatly admired, but I brought it safely home never having used it on Florrie save for ornament.  One day I was riding solo through a wood when I suddenly came on an enormous concealed gun with a man apparently just going to pull the lanyard.  I was taking no chances with Florrie so I threw my arms round her neck and slid to the ground.  I led her away as far as I could and the shot was fortunately delayed till we were at a safe distance.

One day the Colonel and some of us drove the twenty odd miles to Amiens where we had a marvellous lunch of crayfish.  I remember the beauty of the Cathedral, enhanced by that of a lovely girl passing by.

During this rest we lost our adjutant on promotion to second in command of a famous regular battalion and our machine gun officer also on promotion – both great losses to the mess.  Our new adjutant was Captain F. Longden Smith (always Peter) an old Rugbean and a capital fellow.  He made me the compliment of saying “my complaint of the doctor is that he doesn’t take the war seriously.” My main sources for this narrative are my daily letter to Katie, but as for security purposes I could never mention place names, I am very hazy as to where we rested.  Forceville, Bouzincourt and Hedauville were some but I cannot give their sequence or where others were,

After a week we moved in heavy rain back to the line.  This time we were in Thiepval Wood, across the little valley from Jolinstone’s Post, about six hundred yards north east of that delectable spot and even nearer the Boche line.  My aid post was in “Belfast City” constructed by the Ulster Brigade.  It was a good one seventeen steps down with an elephant roof.  After we had been there six days, the British made an attack on a wide front, the left wing of this assault being a second attack on Thiepval.  We held the line until, on the night of the 3rd September, the attacking units moved up through us to their jumping-off points.  The attack was to begin at dawn on the 4th.  The night of the 3rd was unusually quiet, and I spent the long hours of waiting playing demon patience.  While I was doing this, Katie at home was seeing more of the enemy than I did for, from her bedroom windows she saw a Zeppelin in flames passing north to fall a blazing wreck at Potter’s Bar.

At 2.30 a.m. on the 4th we got the order to clear out and started our long trek back.  On Thiepval itself, the attack made little progress, but further to the right tanks were used for the first time and considerable gains were made.  I did not see a tank and knew nothing of their advent.  Some of my bearers remained behind and did gallant work for other battalions of the attacking force.  Our brigade itself had suffered very heavy casualties and the 6th was sadly in need of a rest so that I had some heavy sick parades.

Our rest camp this time was in the ground of a small chateau and we were quartered in semi-permanent marquees.  We were cheered by glowing accounts in the papers of good progress elsewhere.  Someone in my absence had given poor Florrie a sore back but I got some good rides on a dear little mare, Nancy, lent me by the Transport Officer.  We had some good concerts by “The Tykes” (all service performers), “If you were the only girl” and “When I get back to Tennessee” were the popular songs of the day with “The Long Trail”.  The songs of the first war were on the whole, I think better than those either of the second war or of the South African war.

About this time I had to decide whether to go on at once in October to a third year contract with the R,A.M.C., or to take the opportunity of making a short break before re-engaging.  I, a married man with two children had been away from my single-handed practice for two years, a practice which included the death vacancy I had only held for nine months.  On the other hand if I broke the continuity I should lose the 6th to whom I had become much attached and with whom I had acquired some standing.  With regret I decided to break.

The decision had a remarkable effect on my subsequent career owing to an entirely unexpected opportunity when I did re­engage; an opportunity which led to my leaving private practice for thirty two years of civil service.  But of this, more here­after; At this place I became the temporary master of a small black dog, who slept with me.  Dogs often remained in the rest billets attaching themselves to new masters, as they were too knowing and gun-shy to go up to the line.  At one place in the line, I had a Great Dane but he was so shy and ate so much bully that I was greatly relieved when someone took him back.  I think he must have been left behind by the Boche.

Here we tested a new gas mask – the first of box type and the fourth type I had had in three months.  It had a nose-clip which I found very trying and salivated me, but it-seemed efficient in a mobile gas chamber.  The last day I had a lovely three hour ride through peaceful harvest fields.  Then we had a long and tiring march back to a sector of the line new to us.  It had only been captured about three days before and taking it over was a dark and stormy business.  One always disliked taking over new stations in the dark as one invariably had to do, but it was not so bad for the M.O. as for the other fellows in strange trenches and forward dugouts.

The ground had been pulverized and the mud was prodigious.  Fortunately for aid-post I had a really magnificent German dugout, one of those forming the Wonder Work.  It was in a shocking mess but we soon got it ship-shape.  It had three compartments separated by long corridors.  Each had a separate exit staircase with twenty-four steps to the surface.  The main room was all matchboarded with little drain pipes to catch drips from the ceiling; a door to the staircase had gone, but a half glass one and the corridor remained.  It had a boarded floor and had had a stove, a tele­phone and a speaking tube to the next room, all these had gone.

There was a large timber pillar in the centre, shelves and a bench as well as a movable table and a bed in a recess.  The bed cover was heavily bloodstained.  A nice old armchair and a mirror probably from the Chateau.  My servant Dean had been shell­shocked by a near burst so for two nights I put him on the bed.  To return to our survey of the dugout – the corridor was about thirty feet long, five feet nine inches high and three feet across and led to another large room, which was my dressing station.  It had another huge stairway entrance, an oil stove cooker, three bunks in tiers and a table.  It was matchboarded but not floored.  Then another long corridor with steps up to a small room which had been blown in and was unusable and then a very low corridor leading to a little room.  In the main room I found two rifles and chose the older as it had its regiment plate number (57 R.I.) still in.

Most of the Mausers had plain discs for security reasons.  The Colonel brought me a German medical case, a sniper’s magazine and two bayonets, one of the long type and one of the short.  Fine though the aid post was the sector was the worst I was in for mud and smells.  One’s best walking pace was about a quarter of a mile an hour.  I got a shell fragment through my tunic but it did not hit me.  I had a busy time first with casualties and then with sick with minor pyroxias, of which complaint I had a slight attack myself.

We had a little cat, which used to lie on the stretchers with the wounded and not only kept them warm but cheered them up.  None fortunately seemed like Lord Roberts who could not remain in a room with a cat.  It was a very untidy sector and for days there was a trench boot with a leg in it in quite a conspicuous place.  After eight days we were relieved.  As I was marching out with my German rifle, Brigadier-General Adlercron saw me and said “It’s no good, Doctor, you trying to get that home.  I had one taken off me last time I went on leave.” But, by good luck I did get it home as I shall tell later.  Half way out I met Wilfred Attlee, of my year at St. John’s, Cambridge, and we had a bathe together in a mill pond where the bank gave good shelter while we were swimming but on emergence we put on our helmets first. Pedlow, M.O. of the 7th battalion of the Duke’s, a Canadian had an immediate award of the MC for gallantry two nights before when he guided a platoon to its objective.  Partridge, a friend in the Field Ambulance, also had one. These were both well merited and most popular awards.  Both the following days we were marching and after a short rest in nice billets where I had a fine ride on Florrie with the Colonel, we were in the line again.

This sector Fonquevillers (or “Funkyvillas”), was at this time a very quiet sector though it had been the scene of fierce and unsuccessful fighting earlier.  My aidpost was a French dugout of timber construction full of rats and lice but not unpicturesque. The rats made a lot of noise at nights but other­wise it was a quiet time, with heavy rain and very wet trenches and slippery duckboards.  One of my first duties was a very pleasant one – to go to the front line with the Colonel to see him present the ribbon of the D.C. M. to one of the company stret­cher bearers.  My relief, Captain Stoker, a nice Irishman of twenty-six appeared and I showed him the ropes.

Although he had been in the Army two years this was, for no fault of his own, his first time at the front.  He did well and later got the M.C. After four days at “Funkyvillas” we unexpectedly moved way back in a pouring wet night.  I was too tired to find my billet and slept on a stretcher in the mess room but next day moved on to a nice billet. The weather was quite atrocious for three days with oceans of mud. However, one lovely day gave me a fine farewell ride on Nancy with the Transport Officer, visiting a Casualty Clearing Station in a nice little town; the name like so many others escapes me. On the 5th October, I got my orders to start home and I had to may goodbye to the battalion in which I had been so happy. They were all most kind and the Colonel was very complimentary.  One would have thought one’s last rest places from which one started for home would have been firmly engraved on one’s memory, but I cannot be sure. It may have been Gaudiempre.

I was driven into the railway, I think, at Doullons where I got something to eat and a night goods train to Boulogne. I slept fitfully in an empty van with an officer who was going home for a machine gun course.  We arrived at Boulogne on the Sunday morning about ten minutes before the boat was due to sail. The other fellow, a young man with little kit just caught it, but I, burdened with my valise, a rifle and a kit bag heavy with trophies, got to the quay just in time to see her stern with thirty yards of clear water between us. This, however, had a compensation. I had my precious German Mauser in a cloth guncover.  A French gendarme examined the butt to make sure it was not a French Label.  Then a porter came up and said “You will never got that on board, Sir” I thought of what the Brigadier had told me, so when the porter said “if you let me have it, Sir, I will take it on board when no one in about tomorrow and meet you at the gangway and show you where it is”, I most gladly said Yes.

I departed with the rest of my baggage to the Officers’ Club and after breakfast had a quiet Sunday resting and touring the walls.  I heard some kind people say how tired and war worn I looked! On Monday, the 8th October, I got down to the ship with my luggage and found the faithful porter on the gangway, who showed me where he had stowed my rifle and I suitably rewarded him. Curiously enough I had no further trouble about it and it still adorns my armoury with the five Boer rifles.

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