March 17th 1917

Having read in the newspapers over the past few days of the Germans’ “strategic retreat,” from the battlefields of the Somme, we are most fortunate to have another letter from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) and discover he was there to witness the event. His description of the land that is now in the hands of the Allies is, I am sure you find, of considerable interest.

14/3/17 “So it has happened at last! What a hopeless wish it seemed a year ago that in twelve months the Hun would be deliberately retreating, and that after shooting on a point one day at a range of 8000 or 9000 yards, we could go on the morrow and examine the very spot, and see the craters made by our own shells…

The newly captured ground resembles, more than anything I’ve seen, imaginative pictures by artists entitled ‘The Battlefield’ or ‘After the Fight.’

Dead men, dead horses, shattered gun emplacements, broken limbers and wagons, rifles, bombs, equipment, and all the ghastly filth of carnage. How the Hun has stood the hammering so long is a marvel. He says he goes willingly and I don’t doubt it.

There is a valley leading down to a famous ravine, which is enough to make one sick, if one hadn’t become hardened gradually to such things. In one spot evidently our guns caught a Boche battery taking in ammunition. The teams and their drivers had been blown to pieces, the wagons are pitiable wrecks, and the whole place stinks of death. It is gratifying and interesting to see shrapnel heads of your own calibre right in the middle of a gun emplacement at which you had been firing a few days before.”

The retreat took all by surprise and Humphrey’s account describes how the Hun took advantage of the weather conditions to put it into effect.

“During days of thick fog when all observation was impossible, he took the advantage of a couple of days of frost to get his guns away and destroy most – though not all – of his dug-outs, and retire behind the next line of barbed-wire with machine-guns to hold us up. Our infantry followed close on his heels as far as they could, and pounced on some patrols that came out to see if we were following.

But for the moment, of course, a halt had to be called to save useless sacrifice. Barbed wire cannot be dealt with except by guns, and guns cannot move up without roads, and roads there were none.

Oh yes, they are marked on the map all right, but it would puzzle you to pick out any but the two principal ones from the desert of shell holes; and even the principal roads are swimming in mud, pitted with craters, and at vital points ruined and blown up by the Hun.

Advance is a wonderful feat in this place. Light railways follow up to within a quarter of a mile of the infantry in two days… and armies of men set to work making new roads and repairing the faintest traces of old ones.

Soon our guns were ready to deal with the next line of barbed-wire, and having shattered it to bits and cleaned up the enemy garrison, the same thing occurred again. This time the Hun did not wait for the attack but bolted as soon as our shower of shells showed him it was imminent.

And so, I suppose, it will go on till the vaunted concrete line or ‘Hindenburg Stellung’ is reached.”

January 10th 1917

It is most gratifying to hear from 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) that our school magazine is giving pleasure:

arden6/1/17. “Thanks so much for ‘Draconians’; they are more interesting to anyone out here than all the Maudes, Bellocs or Churchills and other experts, from the War side alone, and of course one can’t do without the School news.

I was lucky enough to get home for Christmas, but the journey back counteracted all the rest I had had, chiefly owing to the accidental blocking of a port and the lack of accommodation at the one substituted. And anyhow 15 hours in a French 3rd class carriage with no facilities for food or warmth left me feeling like a piece of wet blotting paper…”

Humphrey’s letter goes on to give a most interesting explanation as to the capabilities of the artillery, which are clearly not as great as the infantry might like.

“Those who are not gunners mostly have two delusions and if the same men rise to command without having learnt better, silly things will happen – but of that more presently.

The two delusions are (i) that, when a gun is laid in such a way that the shell hits a particular spot, it will hit the same spot if it is laid in a similar way. With regards to the first, it is only necessary to remember that gunnery is a mechanical science and not a game of skill. Experts find out the laws of the science and the Royal Regiment follows the law. The personal element practically does not, or should not come into it.

With regard to (ii), it would take too long to explain the ‘error of the gun.’ But it is a fact that if a gun is laid in exactly the same way for a hundred rounds, the shells will cover an oblong some hundreds of yards long and several yards wide. This ‘zone’ varies according to the gun and the range – any gun being much more accurate for line than it is for range. Take an example. 

Some months ago a cunning man thought unto himself a scheme. ‘We will bombard a piece of trench,’ said he, ‘and start at the outside ends together, gradually working in to the centre. The Boche will be forced to crowd in and finally will have to jump out of the trench and run for his life. Whereupon the Field and the Heavies (60 pdrs) shall slay him.’

Well, a Siege Battery was allotted some 200 rounds for the job and the trench selected was at right-angles to the line of fire, i.e the shells would have to drop at precisely the same range to a yard every time to hit the trench.

The Battery Commander calculated that 5 of the 200 might fall in the trench. That is to say. with the most perfect laying, ammunition and weather conditions, the gun itself could not put more than 2½ % of rounds in exactly the same spot at that range, and of course the ammunition, wind, temperature, barometer etc. never are perfect. So the Battery Commander did pretty well to get 3 of the 200 in the trench.

The Field and the Heavies waited in vain, or realising the fatuousness  of the whole proceedings, did not wait at all.

You must excuse this didactic letter. So few think it worth while to understand guns, whereas really they are the most interesting things in the War.”

November 23rd 1916

Most of our reports from the battlefield of the Somme have concerned the infantry thus far. 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) writes to redress the balance.

arden18/11/16. “I expect you have received a thousand and one letters descriptive of the Push during these last few months, but perhaps the gunners’ point of view is not so well known.

We have been on this front practically from the beginning of the show and so far have had no rest – as a unit – night or day. The “crowded hour” of going over, with, perhaps, rest or withdrawal afterwards is not for us. Infantry may come, field artillery may go, but we, the heavies, go on for ever…

Do you know, I haven’t seen a civilian for three months, nor been inside a standing house for four. Mud walls, sand bag roofs – et voila tout.

…It is a very different sitting in your own O.P with the battery under your thumb at the other end of the wire. Then one tells the guns what to do – which is so much better than being told by a total stranger what he (often wrongly) imagines they are doing. Besides, it cheers one up to see the cautious Hun duck and run for his life, and to pursue him remorselessly till he reaches his dug-out or gets out of sight. It is better still to catch him unawares and see the bits fly – as I did yesterday.

That sort of thing makes him peevish and he looses off blindly. His blind shooting is not, and never in my experience has been, good. Of course he is bound to hit something sometimes.

He put a good round eight-inch through the roof of a neighbouring battery’s officers’ mess some weeks ago. The shell happened to be a dud and landed on its nose between the major’s knees. ‘Dear me,’ said the latter, ‘how convenient,’ and he struck a match on the base and lit his pipe. A good tall yarn? Nevertheless it happened.

…Well, we expect to go on living in this blasted heath and with the help of the wheezy old tanks and their butterfly existence, and the incomparable infantry, be they Australian or Canadians or better still, old English regiments – for they all have their turn down here, we will blast out the wily Hun foot by foot till his moral sickness is greater than he can bear.”

Before the war, Humphrey was for a short time a master at Eagle House Preparatory School. He was due to go to Cuddesdon College to prepare for Holy Orders.

October 19th 1916

raikes-jf-2

2nd Lieut. John Raikes (Essex Regiment)

One cannot guess at the number of shells that daily pour down on our troops on the Somme. I am very sorry to have to relate that John has been killed near Flers by one such shell on 10th October 1916.

Rev. Raikes, John’s father, has shared with us a letter he received from a brother officer, who witnessed the event:

“We had just come up by night to the support line and I had just started up with a working party. John had gone to his dug-out to get some rest; we were being heavily bombarded, and a high explosive shell burst right on the top, destroying the place and killing him instantaneously.

We buried him where he fell and have erected a temporary cross over his grave. ‘In memory of Lieut. Raikes, killed in action, Oct. 10th. 1916. RIP’”

John’s servant, also aged 20, was killed by the same shell. This lad, writing home to his mother a few days before, had said, ‘You needn’t worry about me. I am with a proper gentleman.’                                 

I remember Johnnie as a good-hearted, merry little fellow with a keen sense of humour. We went on several bicycle expeditions with the boys to his home and he always enjoyed showing us around the Zoological Gardens in the neighbourhood.

Although he failed to impress Winchester quite enough for them to offer him a place, he won a scholarship to Radley and thereafter a Mathematical Exhibition to Corpus Christi College Oxford – the first Radleian to have won a Mathematical distinction at the University for many years.

 

November 23rd 1914

The arrival of winter weather has put an end, at least for the time being, to the fighting at Ypres. Both sides have suffered most horribly and there have been times when British troops have risked their lives to help the enemy wounded. George Fletcher (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) describes an incident in which he was involved.

George Fletcher

“We were fortunate in being able to rescue one wretched man. He was one of the advanced party in the charge, and had seven bullets in him. He stopped for a day in front of us shouting, but we were getting such a peppering from snipers all that day that we were not allowed to fetch him. At night I got two volunteers to come and fetch him, and just as we were getting out such a hail of bullets came that we nipped back.

I kept up a conversation (shouted) with him next day – he told me the Germans had been practically up to him in the night, but had refused to help him. I told him to hang on till night, and we would try and rescue him again. So at dusk I got two volunteers again, and we pulled him in successfully, and doctors say he will live in spite of his seven wounds. Funny thing, war.”

 * * * * * *

Whilst the war takes up the thoughts of us adults, it is important that life at the OPS continues as smoothly as possible for our young Dragons.

rugger

The beautiful weather which held for the first month of term made rugger impossible. In the first match, against Eagle House on November 4th, considering all things, although the team lost 0-22, they made a good show and look as they might develop into a good side.

I am not convinced of the desirability of keeping each boy to play in a particular place practically always. To know the game properly, a boy ought to be prepared to play half or forward or three-quarters as he may happen to be asked.

There seems to me nowadays a sort of prevalent fear of doing the wrong thing, and not enough initiative, not enough determination to get through and to score against the opponents…

I must say I think criticism of an individual’s play, sometimes very emphatic and loud-tongued, should be entirely abolished during the progress of the game; and nothing but encouragement allowed. Personally I know what the effect on myself would be if I were yelled at as a slacker or funk in the middle of a match!

Why, oh why do not Winchester, Charterhouse, Repton and Shrewsbury play rugby instead of the disgraced ‘soccer’? Malvern, Radley and Rossall have abandoned the professional game and joined the Rugger ranks…

 * * * * * *

The boys have sent stamps to the Base Hospital, and indeed have made a very large money collection considering their small incomes! The ‘Blue Dragon’ gramophone with its lovely old records and many new ones has delighted the inmates of Medical Ward V, where it is guarded jealously from the raids of other wards.

Hum Lynam

Hum Lynam

‘Hum’ has been almoner-in-chief and has installed and looked after Belgian refugees at the Lodge and elsewhere. He has also collected and forwarded sweaters, pipes, pencils and writing books, subscribed for by the boys, to various quarters, including HMS Colossus, HMS St. Vincent and HMS Russell.

 

We have had the following replies:

H.M.S. St Vincent

First Battle Squadron

November 20th 1914.

My Dear Dragons,

Pipes very much appreciated – now smoked by His Majesty’s Jollies.

Pipe 1
Who owned?                         

 

 

And the other one that might have been made by Krupp?

Pipe 2

 

It was a kind thought and entailing some sacrifice I’ve no doubt – parting with old friends – Censor allows no news.

William Fisher (Capt. R.N.)

H.M.S Russell

21/11/14

Dear Dragons,

A line to thank you all for sending us that generous supply of briar pipes. The men are no end pleased, and wish me to thank you for your kind thought for them. I only wish I could come and thank you all personally for them! But I shan’t be able to do that until they become Pipes of Peace.

 Lance Freyberg (Lieut-Commander R.N)