March 29th 1917

It is now over a year since Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) last visited us. His witty poem, sent to the boys before their performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ earlier this term was much appreciated, and now he writes to sing the praises of our French allies. He is quite a Francophile!

Here he describes his experience of taking over a section of the trenches from the French:

“I think that none of our party shared my excitement and joy at meeting the French army in the field. In the British area it is difficult to feel that one is in France; even Amiens and Abbeville breathe a mixed (a very mixed) atmosphere. But here, below ground (in a dug-out), we were in France at last. We got to business at once and I began my duties as Brigade Interpreter. The French Brigadier impressed us all very much…

As it was now mid-day, the Colonel suggested that we should have lunch before we came to business. We agreed, and ate one of the best lunches I ever came across. There were five courses, there was red wine, there was champagne, yet everything was simple and the meal was short. At first everyone was shy and I had to do the talking for the English side. But as time went on, both sides thawed, and by the time we had coffee everyone was talking some sort of French.

After lunch we got to business at once. The Colonel was wonderful. He had every detail that we wanted at his finger tips and scarcely ever referred to his Adjutant. After an hour in looking at maps and discussing dispositions, he took us some way forward to an O.P, from which we had a wonderful view of the German front…

The next day I returned with the Brigade Major and again called upon the French Brigadier in order to arrange the final details of the forthcoming relief…

He spoke the most exquisite French and had the most exquisitely simple manners. I am sure that he is descended from one of those French Officers of the old days, who used to call out to their men ‘Messieurs les gendarmes de la maison du Roi, veuillez assurer vos chapeaux. Nous allons avoir l’honneur de charger…’

The French fighting man is a glorious creature and the sight of him should convince any armchair pessimist that nothing can ever kill France, however full her cemeteries may be (and they are terribly full round here)…

Let there be no misunderstanding about what France is. She is, and has been for a thousand years, the most civilized country in the world and her salvation is the first and greatest object of the war, for the presence of a single German soldier on French soil is an obscene thing.

My dear Dragons, educate yourselves to love France. Learn to read and speak French well, NOW, and, after the war, get your parents, whether they can afford it or not, to take you often to France…

There is nothing un-British or decadent in this love of France; and there is something very stupid and ugly in the want of it.  Every civilized being ought to write on his heart the fine old motto, ‘Chacun a deux pays: le sien et La France.’

Clearly we must have more French lessons!

January 28th 1917

The 2/4th Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were deployed to France towards the end of May last year and with it a number of Old Dragons.

2nd Lieut. Walter Moberly was an early casualty, wounded on a reconnaissance up to the German wire (in daylight). Only with great difficulty was he able to make it back to our lines.

Capt. Douglas Rose, who returned home wounded in July, kindly wrote to us shortly afterwards with a full description of how he was hit. Happily his brother, Capt Geoffrey Rose is still going strong.

We are delighted to hear from Lieut. Sholto Marcon, who performed on some pretty muddy hockey pitches in his time (Oxford XI 1910-13 and English International), but nothing compared to what he is currently experiencing:

marcon-csw16.1.17. “For the last two months we have been in mudland and about that spot north and south of which you can see in the daily paper, there is generally shelling going on…

Dec. 25th found us in (the trenches) less than a week. No fraternising of course took place, though a Hun, bored to distraction with the war in general, came to see us at HQ that day. A fine fellow, and, considering all things, most astoundingly clean!

One experience I suffered: I had to be dug out of the mud one night, and not till one has suffered this experience can one realise that it is possible for people to get drowned in the mud. We had gone out to lay a line, and about 20 yards from HQ I stepped into a mud patch, and there I had to stay till a duckboard and a spade were brought, and my leg was dug up, as you would dig up a plant.

The men stick the mud and weather conditions generally in splendid style, and are real bricks in all they do.

They had their Christmas Dinner on Jan. 4th, as they were well ‘back’ by then and with the help of the eatables kindly sent out by a Committee in Oxford, and supplemented by purchases from Canteens out here, everything was ‘tra bon.’

In the evening the Sergeants had a dinner on their own and seemed very cheery when we looked in half way through the proceedings.”

 

 

December 5th 1916

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) was last in touch back in October, to tell us the story of his regiment’s involvement in the Somme battle in August. He said then that the Somme trenches were “very horrible.” His latest letter tells that, for the time being at least, he has escaped them:

23.11.16. “When you have been wet through for a week, have just come out of the trenches and are standing in the main street of a horrible and historic village, looking through glasses at the German lines, it is pleasant suddenly to have your elbow jogged by your Commanding Officer and to be told that you are to report forthwith at the Brigade Headquarters. Every so often a subaltern is detailed for attachment for instruction in staff duties…

As I approached Brigade Headquarters, I remembered that I had neither washed nor shaved for a week and felt very much ashamed of my appearance…

I was conducted into the presence of the Brigadier, a young and very handsome man with many medals. He was reading the ‘Times’ and told me to sit down and eat.

After a pause he put down his newspaper, looked long at me and in a mild, tired voice said, ‘Soaked through I suppose!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the men?’

‘Soaked through all the time, Sir.’

Then he gave a very refined groan and went on reading the paper.

It was not long before I learnt that this Brigadier was as ready to be soaked through as any of the men, but, at the time, he seemed an exquisite being, remote from war, and mud, and hardship.

I made myself presentable by lunch, when we were joined by the OC Machine Gun Company, no less a person than L Grundy OD. He is my junior by many years and we had never met before. Now we meet nearly every day, but have not yet found time to talk much about the School…

By night I was mostly at Headquarters, but by day I often went out with the Brigadier on his visits to the various Battalion Headquarters. We were frequently shelled and once or twice had quite narrow escapes, but the Brigadier’s personality is such that I think no shell would dare to come too close to him…

My chief job was to write the daily Brigade Intelligence Report, which goes on to the Division. To do so sometimes made me shiver at the cold-bloodedness of my task. It is one thing to put down, ‘The right-half Battalion sent out a patrol between 2 and 4 a.m. which did so and so,’ and a very different thing to go on patrol oneself. The same is true of ration-carrying parties. How well I know them! One must see the game oneself in order to realize how much hardship, danger and often heroism, is compressed into six cold lines of an Intelligence Report.”

 

October 15th 1916

blencowe-oc

2nd Lieut. Oswald Blencowe (Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry)

An eighth Old Dragon has laid down his life in the battle that has been raging on the Somme since July 1st. Oswald was killed on 7th October 1916 when temporarily attached to the Rifle Brigade.

It was the Brigade’s task to capture Rainbow and Cloudy Trenches, near Guedecourt. As soon as our barrage lifted the Riflemen (some of whom had been lying down in the open awaiting this moment) rose bravely to make the attack.  On reaching the crest of a hill about twenty yards from the German line they met with heavy machine-gun fire. All five officers of the two leading companies went down – four (including Oswald) were killed and a fifth severely wounded.

guedecourt-map

It is of some small consolation that the reserve troops coming up behind them were able to take Rainbow Trench.

A brother officer recalls Oswald most fondly:

“In the line he was of immense value to us, and in the most trying hours, when things were as bad as shells and foul weather could make them, he showed that rare kind of cheerfulness which does not offend nor depress by its artificiality. He set a high value on music and poetry. He sang well, and was strongly heard in a dug-out – carols, songs, and choruses, old English songs, and Gilbert and Sullivan. One day he pulled out the books he always carried with him – Omar Khayyam, and two volumes of the hundred best poems and three of us lay awake reading aloud to one another…

He was hit by a shell in the head in front of his men about ten yards from the enemy’s line, but such details are needless and unsatisfying; we know what he was when alive and in what manner and with what spirit he must have died. The circumstantial details are useless trappings.” 

We are thankful for information from the Colonel, confirming Oswald was given a proper burial:

“He had been temporarily attached to this battalion and had only been with us three days. He went into action alongside his battalion and was killed during a successful attack in which he was with the leading company.

He was buried by our Chaplain near the place where he fell, between our and the old German line.”

The news of Oswald’s death did not reach his parents until October 13th, six days after the event.

blencowe-telegram

 

 

October 3rd 1916

No regular reader of the newspapers and their lists of casualties can be in any doubt that the fighting on the Somme continues to be fierce and costly. (How grateful we are that we have suffered no fatalities since August).

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), who joined the Push on August 13th, tells me that he “has no great tale to tell.” I beg to disagree, as his description of the advances made from Ovillers towards Thiepval is most illuminating.

somme-map-2

“We struck north for Ovillers… it was my first sight of the front and I shall never forget it. Less than three hours march had carried us from corn-fields and unruined villages to an obscure desert which looked like nothing but the surface of the moon. We marched through Ovillers, passing streams of wounded and weary men who were returning from the front line.

Then we turned sharp to the left up a narrow, freshly dug, communications trench. In it I felt quite safe, though enemy 5.9 shells began to fall pretty thickly round us. We went on and on very slowly, and with many halts for half-an-hour, and then at last turned into the third line trench, which we were to occupy as company in reserve.”

Here Jack and his men had to endure some fairly heavy shelling, but were pulled back the following day for a brief period.

“We returned three days afterwards, and this time my Company took over the front line. We were heavily shelled from the first. One man in my platoon was killed by a shell, within three yards of me, just as we had taken up our position.”

Again, the shelling was constant but there were no infantry attacks and Jack returned safely.

“A week later we were back again, further to the left, and in full sight of Thiepval, which looks so harmless and so near in the strong sunlight of a hot morning.

In all this part of the line, the trenches were really not trenches at all. They had been blown to bits weeks before and gave scarcely any shelter to my men, several of whom were under fire for the first time.

On the afternoon of our first day up (August 23rd), an attack was to be made by the Bucks battalion on our left against the enemy line some 200 yards in front. I was in charge of a bombing section, with orders to push on to the enemy trench at Point ***  as soon as the Bucks went over, and to join up with them.

From a shell-hole I watched our wonderful preliminary bombardment of the enemy’s lines. It was terrifying, but extraordinarily interesting. I say ‘terrifying,’ because some of our shells burst very close to us; far too close to be pleasant. Then the barrage suddenly stopped, and the Bucks went over, alas, only to come back (what was left of them) in a very few minutes, for they were mown down by machine-gun fire which started the moment our own barrage lifted.

I now sent back for further orders, and was told to push on to Point ***  if I could. So I organised my bombing party, and sent two men up the communicator, where I already held a ‘bomb-stop,’ (a barricade in the trench dividing Br/Ger troops) to see how near the enemy was. They came back at once and reported about 20 of the enemy behind the next traverse but one. I didn’t believe them, so went myself, and found about 10 of them behind the next traverse but two. We looked at each other and I came back quickly. The attitude of the enemy was expectant, but not very menacing.

I waited for about half an hour, in order to allow the Huns to recover from the sight of me, and then advanced with my whole party. We all expected death, but there was no time to think about it.

When we reached the point at which I had sighted the enemy, I found a German, three yards in front of me, who was just about to descend into a dug-out. His head was already out of sight. I had a beautiful revolver shot at him, and his body and legs followed his head. It was a good moment.

Immediately afterwards the enemy woke up, and there was bombing at close quarters. We conjugated the verb “to bomb” in all its moods and tenses, and my party had wonderful escapes and only two slight casualties. The enemy then retired round the corner of the communicator into their own trench, and as I did not feel equal to attacking their whole first line with one section, I ‘consolidated my position,’ and remained where I was until I was relieved…

This is all I will tell you this time. The Somme trenches are very horrible; shells are very horrible; and fighting is tiring beyond anything which can be conceived at home.

What most impresses me is the speed with which one forgets the horrors as soon as one leaves them behind.”

 

 

August 23rd 1916

Rats are constant and entirely unwelcome guests everywhere where there is human flesh on which to feast. British soldiers fight as continuous a battle with them as they do with the Germans, and it is splendid that there should now be an Officer Commanding Rats!

Capt. Douglas Rose (Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry) writes of attempts at a scientific approach to their extermination:

DM Rose“It was at the Field Ambulance that I met O.C. Rats. I had come in that afternoon, not wounded this time but with a silly leg and foot which I hardly possessed it seemed, a result of sciatica. The medical officer for the day was looking round for the night and brought a companion with him whom he introduced at O.C. Rats.

I had been keenly interested in this appointment ever since we received the order in the front Line to look out for any Rats that appeared to have died from natural causes and to send any such, duly labelled, to Brigade Headquarters for examination by a Bacteriologist.

“Well,” I said, “how’s business?”

“Nothing doing,” he replied. “I have only had two carcasses to examine, one of these had most of its ribs broken and the other appeared to have died of senile decay.”

‘B,’ in the next bed, said he had fired 72 rounds with his revolver at the beasts, and generally had a shoot at night, but had never seen a naturally deceased rat. I related my experiences with a cane and how I had once made the mistake of moving my foot too soon when I trod on one in mistake on the duckboards.

O.C. Rats said we must let some of them die naturally, otherwise how could he judge the effect of the serum which had been given to the rats by a thoughtful Government with views to exterminating them entirely.

I explained to him that when a Platoon Sergeant lost his upper denture completely, rats having taken it off from the shelf in his dug-out whilst he slept, and the Company Sergeant-Major had all the vulcanite bitten off his lower denture when having a siesta, one could hardly expect a truce between the men and the rats, so that the serum could work out to a scientific conclusion.

We all promised to secure some remarkably fine specimens for the Rat Commander and I fancy he will find some lively corpses when he opens the bag I intend to send him. Curiously enough, I have just heard from the Quarter-Master Sergeant that the dirge which the infants sing about fifteen times day in the schools adjoining is Fontaine’s Fable “The Lion and the Rat.”

Ragging the OC Rats is entirely in character with a young Douglas in his schooldays!

 

May 13th 1916

Following the news of the fall of Kut on April 29th we have now heard from 2nd Lieut. Leslie de Selincourt (who, you may recall, transferred from the 7th Hants to the OBLI), who has been wounded. He has written to us from the Club of Western India, Poona.

de Selincourt L27/4/16 “I lent my valuable assistance during the battles of Feb 21st and March 8th, though unfortunately both turned out rather abject fiascos.

On the night of March 16th I was out in front of the parapet of the front line trench burying some bodies, which had lain there too long to make living next door to them enjoyable. The moon appeared from behind a cloud; an ill-mannered Turk saw me and hit me in the arm; annoyed because I didn’t drop down on my stomach and crawl home, he hit me again. Unfortunately in a more disabling place, the bullet entering my shoulder and reappearing out at the small of my back. I dropped like a stone and was unable to rise until three weeks later.

I experienced the usual sensation when hit – ‘never more pained or surprised in my life.’ Some ribs got cracked, but no vital part was touched and I have been the subject of congratulations from every doctor.

Now I am going up to Naini Tal – a very good spot in the Himalayas. Then I suppose I go back to the Gulf.”

* * * * * * *

Lieut. Leslie Murray (RFC) was also involved in the efforts to relieve Kut and he too is now in hospital:

3/5/16 “I expect you will be sorry to hear I have arrived at the Funk Hole at Buzra, otherwise known as the British General Hospital. I had been feeling pretty rotten since last Thursday (April 27th) and on Friday I discovered I had a temp of 100.3 degree, so I retired to bed altogether. The heat in my tent was almost unbearable, the only breeze was a hot draught.

The next day I was just as bad, so, as our Naval Doctor has gone down with dysentery, I was sent along to one of the Field Hospitals close by. It was very hot there and the biting flies were most irritating, as I had not got the energy to drive them out of my mosquito net.

It was in the afternoon that I got the news of the fall of Kut, which was rather depressing, although most of us were fairly certain that they could not hold out much longer and it seemed fairly obvious that under the present conditions it would not be possible to get through, because we had a very difficult position to attack.

The Turks were very strongly entrenched at Sannaiat, and with marsh on one side and river on the other, it would have required a much larger division than we had got at the time, to get through.

Of course, several attacks were made on the position, but whenever they got through, they were driven back. We expected Kut to surrender any time, as we knew we could not feed them from the air much longer. Neither the machines or the pilots could stand it…

I suppose we prolonged the agony for four or five days… By the way, the things we usually dropped were ‘atta’ (a native flour), sugar and occasionally chocolate. I usually took 200 or 250 lbs and an observer; the food was placed inside two strong sacks, four 50 lbs sacks being placed on a specially devised bomb rack under the engine or between the floats, the fifth bag was put in the observer’s seat to balance the back of the machine and was heaved overboard by him.”