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An artillery officer's view

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The Official View

The infantry officer's view

The artillery officer's view

18 Durham Light Infantry

Details about the Battle of the Somme

Lessons learned from the Somme

 

 

On leaving Kemmel, we went so far by train and part of the distance by road down South, our destination at the time being unknown. Packing up and getting away was a big job, as during our stay there we had accumulated many things which we had not with us when we arrived, and further, as it was an old battery we had taken over, our equipment in wagons, etc, was not so good as that brought out from England.

Towards the end of July 1916 we arrived near Albert, and at once saw signs of the British "push" which had started on the Somme. Our new Chief's headquarters were situated there. He invited me to lunch with him so that our future plans could be discussed. I sat next to one of his Staff Officers. The town at the moment was being heavily shelled and this officer very cheerfully remarked "I would not be surprised if a 5.9 shell dropped through here presently." I believe the General's reason for living here was to show the troops that he was sharing their dangers. Whatever his reason may have been, it did not materially add to the comfort of my lunch. Our wagon lines were just outside Albert, and remained on the same ground for a period of eight months which included the winter. We settled down on a clean green field near a potato field, and for a long time were not short of potatoes. As the winter advanced, this green field developed into a sea of mud which defies description. There were many places where you could stand in liquid mud which reached to the knees, and it is a fact that a horse from a neighbouring battery fell into the mud one day and was smothered. A great change from the wagon lines near Kemmel, but, as usual, all settled down to make the best of an unpleasant situation. The only time during the winter that we were free from the mud was during hard frosts, which were frequently so severe that we had to release our wagons by means of picks. It was very trying for the horses, but all ranks joined in to make them as comfortable as possible. The recreation tent which we had used during the warmer months was turned into a stable for the light riding horses. We did everything possible to accumulate corrugated iron sheets, tarpaulins, etc to make shelters for the heavy draught horses. We also made brick standings wherever possible, and, on the whole, were successful in keeping our animals in good condition. Getting about in the mud was a matter of some difficulty. If you stood still for a few moments, you had to be careful when you started moving again. On more than one occasion I shared the by no means unusual experience of stepping right otut of my gum boots which remained stuck fast, leaving me in the mud, in my stocking feet. This was invariably a source of amusement to any on-lookers who happened to be present, but was extremely unpleasant for the person concerned.

Our first gun position near Albert was in "Sausage Valley", so named, I understood, because of the sausage-shaped balloons to be seen in all directions. It was a most unhealthy place, as we had to live in ground which had been won from the enemy, full of shell holes, cut up with old trenches, strewn with filth of every description. I heard some of our men one day singing an old song, "The Valley of the Bhong", and learnt that they had christened the district we were in bythis name. If my recollection serves me rightly, the chief characteristic of The Valley of Bhing was its peacefulness, but this valley was certainly the reverse. We trekked up "Sausage Valley" with four batteries. Our battery was considered to have had the most experience, and were therefore given the place of honour well forward. As a matter of fact, when we arrived, the whole of the guns on this part of the line, the whole of the guns on this part of the line, with the exception of one small field battery were behind us. Guns of much smaller calibre than ours fired over our heads. We had to go up to our Battery position in the dark, and on our road up the first night all the guns in this valley were firing over our heads. It was a new experience to all of us, and a rather trying one too, as we hardly knew exactly where we were going. It was a great change from a comparatively comfortable billet at Kemmel, to have to settle down to a shell-swept piece of groun, and to make our homes as best we could in shell holes and old trenches. Sleeping out was by no means uncomfortable when we had become accustomed to the incessant din of our own guns behind us, a din to which our Battery very soon added its voice. We had only been in this position two or three days when the Battery was very heavily shelled, and one shell, fortunately a "dud", came through the Officers' Mess, just as we were sitting down to our mid-day meal. The Officers' Mess was a square hole in the ground near our guns, which we had dug ourselves with a few sheets of corrugated iron for cover. We left without ceremony quickly, and, a few seconds later, a live shell landed very near the same place, exactly in the same place, exactly in the spot where one of the officers had lived, and the whole of his kit "went west".

Our Battery joined in all the subsequent battles on the Somme. including the taking of Thiepval, and, as progress was made ahead by our infantry, the smaller guns behind were rapidly moving forward, and went ahead to what we heavy artillery considered to be their proper position, and then began a time when all the noise was in front of us, and it was comparatively quiet in the position we had originally taken up.

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