Preliminary bombardment | 21 Sep 1915

Offensive on the Western Front

All up and down the great front, British and French guns are opening up on the enemy. Second Champagne, Third Artois, the Battle of Loos. While the scale of the barrages will be thoroughly dwarfed by those to come, at this point they’re far heavier than any previously laid down. Bombardier Dunbar, who we ran into six days ago as he camouflaged his gun, has a front-row seat. With his gun dedicated to wire-cutting duty on the morning of the battle, all he has to do is cover his ears and wait.

A bombardment started up, and it seemed to us that all the guns for miles were taking part except us. It went on for a week, and we wondered where they’d got the ammunition from. It certainly disturbed our rest at night, and having finished all our work we were hoping for a little peace.

Naive words from a bombardier. Meanwhile, Gunner Alan Watson of the Royal Garrison Artillery (who operate the BEF’s heaviest howitzers) has a rather less Barthasian view of things.

Heavy firing all day by the Field Artillery, continual roar all day. Sounds champion after doing nothing, and we have great hopes of advancing. Fired twelve rounds off my gun.

His workload will increase soon enough. More to come.

Louis Barthas

Speaking of Louis Barthas, he spends most of the day in transit, and can’t even muster the energy to complain.

Passing by Vercqueil we could hear a hellish cannonade. They told us that three British armored trains were firing on La Bassée, Lens, and Liévin.

At 11 a.m. we halted at Saint-Pol. This was our “unknown destination.” Right away, packs on our backs, here we are heading out along a dusty road, in torrid weather, to arrive later that afternoon in the little village of Ecoivres.

Our section was badly housed. A dark, cramped, and filthy compound. Facing us were three pigpens, two of which were occupied by quadrupeds, the middle one of which was empty. I set myself up there, with a comrade. We didn’t do too badly, despite the grunts of our neighbors and the huge rats that devoured the contents of our musette bags during the night.

Ecoivres is a little village indeed, located a hard day’s march behind the front at Vimy. Which is in turn right in the middle of the front for Third Artois. Oh dear.

Kenneth Best

Meanwhile, on Gallipoli, Kenneth Best’s condition continues getting worse.

Am living on a little badly made corn flour 3 times a day. In afternoon bury one of 5th East Lancs. Why send a burial party down fully equipped tramping several miles when they are already dropping with fatigue? Just finished burial when I am rung up by Staff Captain asking me to bury another 5th East Lancs in Fusilier Bluff. A Turk had been seen and this poor chap in his excitement put his head above parapet and had top of it blown off.

I borrow 4 legs from the dump as my 2 legs won’t carry me. Ride up to Geogheghans Bluff – pass above communication trench and visit 5th East Lancs. HQ, feeling ready to drop. I fortunately meet Baird who gives me a stiff brandy and chlorodyne. Glorious ride back and impressive funeral – only I was just about played out. Eleven times during the night did I have to bolt for it. Curiously enough I would wake up regularly at twenty past hour. This was too much – pain and sickness intolerable.

More tomorrow.

Ypres salient

And there’s goings-on in the Ypres salient, as the 4th Gordon Highlanders take a break from training for the diversionary attack on Hooge Chateau to be inspected by a most august personage, none other than Lord Kitchener. Sergeant Alex Rule:

He bluntly told us that our attack was in the nature of a sacrifice, to help the main attack which was to be launched “elsewhere”. For that reason, he said, no attempt had been made to conceal our preparations. He congratulated us on the position of honour and responsibility that had fallen to us as a Territorial unit, and he wished us “as much luck as we could expect”.

It’s a nice thought, I think, to at least tell them that they’re not expected to win the war single-handedly.

German intelligence

Still on the subject of those Gordons, before they left the trenches to train for their attack, the Germans had placed a highly dispiriting placard on their barbed wire (but one that makes for a mildly funny story). It said:

WHY NOT ATTACK TODAY, JOCK? WHY WAIT UNTIL THE 25TH?

This is a highly worrying situation. Clearly there’s a major leak of some sort. They know they have Scotsmen opposite them, and that an attack is planned for the 25th. No raids or captures have occurred that might explain it.

The answer will be some time in coming, and when it does arrive it will shake and shatter one of the BEF’s most fundamental assumptions. But for now, there’s just good-natured perplexity.

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