Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade

 

 

Back to 'Henry Williamson and the First World War'

 

 

Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade

1914–1915

 

an illustrated timeline

 

 

lrb jan15crop

9689 Private Henry William Williamson

London Rifle Brigade

 

 

P Company, London Rifle Brigade: A 1914 Roll Call

 

The 'Chyebassa' re-union dinners

 

 

Sources, without which this timeline could not have been compiled:

 

[Anon.] The History of the London Rifle Brigade, 1859-1919 (Constable, 1921) – referred to below as the 'Official history'

[A. S. Bates], Short History of the London Rifle Brigade (Privately printed, 1916)

K. W. Mitchinson, Gentlemen and Officers: The Impact and Experience of War on a Territorial Regiment (Imperial War Museum, 1995)

Anne Williamson, A Patriot's Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War (Sutton Publishing, 1998); HW's letters home are given in the book in full; selected extracts are included below, with permission.

The Henry Williamson Literary Archive

 

Thanks to Christopher Rippingale for providing more detailed information about the LRB, P Company, and some of the photographs.

 

 

1914  
   
9 January HW enters in his diary: 'Territorial grant £4, Clayton (Tailor) 10/-.' Three days later he notes 'paid Tailor £2.' He later claims that he enlisted so that he could afford a new suit from the grant, and his diary entries seem to bear this out. However, two weeks' paid leave at the annual summer camp – in addition to his standard holiday entitlement – must also be a considerable attraction!
   
22 January

HW, aged 18 on 1 December 1913, enlists in the Territorial Force, the 5th Battalion City of London Regiment, London Rifle Brigade (LRB), enrolment No. 9689. He is expected to attend three drills a month, with obligatory attendance at the summer training camp. He joins P Company as a private.

 

The LRB's Members' Register open at the page showing his enrolment entry, sixth from bottom:

 

lrb register

(Image courtesy of Chris Rippingale)

 

On enrollment HW is given a copy of the current issue of the LRB; all that still exists is the cover:

 

lrb school1

 

lrb school2

   
August

The LRB's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Earl Cairns issues mobilisation orders:

 

lrb mobilisation1

 

lrb mobilisation2

(Images courtesy of Chris Rippingale)

 

 

The LRB's two-week summer camp on the coast at Eastbourne is cancelled following Germany's declaration of war. The men at first return to their homes, but after a few days it is decided to keep them together, first at the Central Foundation School, Merchant Taylors, and then at Charterhouse School (the schools being empty as it is the summer holidays).

   
15 August The battalion is asked if 'it would volunteer for foreign service, an idea which had been mooted before, but not so seriously. The Commanding Officer, Lord Cairns, addressed the LRB and put the facts before them, saying amongst other things that the regiment had always claimed to be one of the foremost in the force, and that now was the time to prove it. The matter required consideration on the part of many, for they were in receipt of good salaries, and had heavy responsibilities to bear, but the predominant idea in the mind of all was that, if the regiment were to be kept together and go out as the LRB, they were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, and Lord Cairns was in a position at once to say that 75%, the minimum number acceptable, would accept the foreign service obligation. . . . The prevailing idea was, that all would be over by Christmas, and that the utmost use which would be made of the Territorials would be to give them duties on lines of communication.' (Official history)  HW is among those who volunteer, although technically under age (albeit by only one month): volunteers are supposed to have passed their nineteenth birthday.
   
20–22 August The 2nd London Brigade, consisting of the 5th (LRB), 6th, 7th, and 8th (Post Office Rifles) Battalions, leave London by 'March route', and proceed to Wimbledon Common. on 21 August the LRB is billeted at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, and the next day the Brigade reaches Bisley. 'The march down had been a sort of triumphal procession with the people coming out of houses cheering and offering refreshment, while the men were also in high spirits, but want of condition and hot weather combined made the casualties in the brigade very heavy, although they were not all due to exhaustion. The LRB dropped only one man, and he had a fit.' (Official history)
   
24 August

The LRB is camped at Bisley. HW writes to his mother on this day:

 

'We sleep 12 in a tent like sardines, and have an awful time all day marching in full kit, on Sat we marched 13 miles with full kit, 70lbs in the hot sun and dust, marching from 7.30–1.30. . . . I sometimes wish I hadn't joined. . . . It takes a lot to exhaust me, as it does father, but after a 20 mile (or 8 hour) march without food & full kit & rifle in the brazen sun, one flops down and gasps for water and breath. Marching here we (the LRB) passed literally hundreds of chaps, grown men and youths, lying still on the roadside, overcome with sunstroke and exhaustion.'

 

In a later, undated, letter he writes:

 

'We are now quite used to the hardships, and are enjoying ourselves. The Bishop of London [Chaplain of the LRB] goes back today; his sermons have been excellent. I will send you a little book he gave us. . . . What do you think of the position now? The germans appear to be holding good positions, and I think it will take a long time, and a great waste of men to dislodge them; even then they will retire to still better positions.'

 

The cover of the Bishop of London's booklet:

 

lrb sermon

(Image courtesy of Chris Rippingale)

   
5 September

HW writes home:

 

'Are we cold here? In the daytime it's as hot as Hades. We don't notice the heat though. In the night the mists creep up, and saturate everything. With one small blanket, and often sleeping on the ground miles from camp, often with no blanket in the sand, with only an overcoat (this is part of the training scheme) one gets cold as the north pole. I can tell you, you won't recognise me when I return. My hands are horny, I can march miles with full kit without any notice of the heat etc, and my face is dark mahogany. I am what is known as a hard-bitten, silent, cursing tommy! (French foreign legion kind).

 

The letter ends:

 

hdl sketch reverse

 

On the reverse of this page HW has drawn an amusing sketch:

 

lrb sketch

   
9/10 September The brigade marches to Reigate, and then East Grinstead, marching past King George V en route.
   
16 September The brigade continues on to Camp Hill, Crowborough, Sussex, where it camps out under canvas. 'The training at Crowborough was much the same as before, although the men had some exercise in digging, especially with the small entrenching tool which each man carried, as very little information was received from the front about the requirements for the new style of fighting, and there was no one to show how they should be met. . . . Leave was given very sparingly owing to fear of invasion, and most men got only a few hours at home before leaving for France. . . . New rifles were issued just before embarking, and every man fired a few rounds with them.' (Official history)
   
1 October

HW writes home:

 

'We were innoculated yesterday (Weds) at 5 o'clock, and at 7 I was in a low fever and headache, and couldn't keep from positively rattling with ague. My left arm (where the serum as injected) is practically paralysed, and it feels as if I had all the arm festered. Perhaps I shall be better by tomorrow; as it goes off soon. I am normal now (Thurs) except for arm and general weakness.'

   
8 October

HW writes home:

 

'Would you please send me my black dress-belt and sword scabbard they are in my second long drawer. Dont forget my lamp either as I need it badly. As we are getting the new short rifle soon, I expect it will be very soon when we go off, probably where the Scottish are.' [The London Scottish, another Territorial battalion, then in Paris.]

   
(?)14 October

HW sends this postcard, quickly produced by an enterprising photographer, to his sister Kathie:

 

hdl crowborough

 

hdl crowborough reverse

   
18 October

HW writes home:

 

'. . . we are under 3 hours notice to move off at any time . . . There is some talk of going away at dawn tomorrow. I believe we are to fill up the gaps in the Kings Royal Rifles, that were sadly decimated at the Battle of the Aisne. If that is so, then it is goodbye for most of the chaps for ever. So if you hear of our departure you musnt mind at all. . . . We have a German officer as an officer in the LRB, naturalized it is true, but nevertheless a German. Incidentally he spends two months every year in the Fatherland. I wonder? By the way, don't you think that the situation in France is serious? The Germans are very near our coasts now. The nights are very cold here. In fact, terribly bleak. But we now have three blankets, and sometimes 4, apiece.'

 

The German officer to whom HW refers is Lieutenant Paul Adolf Slessor, who is Intelligence Officer for battalion headquarters. After the war's end he acts as agent in the purchase of Talbot House (Toc H) in Poperinghe, and returns there after the town's liberation in 1944 to check its condition after another world war.

   

19 October –

22 November

The first Battle of Ypres is fought, with a crisis point on 30/31 October when the London Scottish become the first Territorial battalion to see action, losing 321 men.
   
Late October New kits are issued to the LRB and each man innoculated twice against typhoid (HW seems to have received this earler in the month), signs that a move is imminent; rumours give the destinations as France or India.
   
29 October

HW sends lettercard:

 

'Dear Mother, Come on Friday with Father – in time for tea (4pm) at the Camp here. The LRB is one of several regiments (Territor) for the Front in France. No leave will be obtained at all. Southampton probably on Sat. at noon. If Father & you dont come on Friday, the last chance will have departed. Bring some money for me, a brandy flask (small for pocket) Dont fail. Wire reply. Love HWW'

   
3 November Orders are received that the battalion is to embark the next day.
   
4 November

HW writes a hurried postcard home while on the train to Southampton docks:

 

lrb chichester1

 

lrb chichester2

 

850 men, including 30 officers, of the LRB embark on SS Chyebassa, formerly of the British India Steam Navigation Company, at Southampton. P Company is under the command of Captain J. R. Somers-Smith, the other officers being Second Lieutenant H. L. Johnston and Second Lieutenant G. E. S. Fursdon. 'Companies were allocated particular areas, "P" for example being crammed in a hold with rudder chains clanking below and horses stamping above. Once under way the men were allowed to move about the ship. The Chyebassa was one of fourteen transports being shepherded across by three destroyers on a calm sea . . .' (Mitchinson)

   

 

 

lrb chyebassa

SS Chyebassa

(Image courtesy of John Frank)

   
 
lrb chyebassa2

Men of the 1st Battalion, London Rifle Brigade, relax as the SS Chyebassa sails

for Le Havre, 4 November 1914. A previously unpublished photograph.

(Image courtesy of Paul Staples)

   
5 November The battalion disembarks at Le Havre in the early morning and 'had a trying march, ending with a long hill, to No. 1 Rest Camp, which was found full of old soldiers, many of whom were "swinging the lead" and telling most sanguinary stories. This formed a very bad start for raw troops, and, to make things worse, owing to the shortage of tents a large number of the men had to spend the night, which was a frosty one, in the open. Iron rations had been issued on board, which, after considerable doubt as their nature had been expressed, turned out to be the grocery portion only, and required, as was discovered later on, a tin of bully beef and six hard biscuits to be carried in addition.' (Official history) LRB 'Chyebassa' men will instigate an annual 'Chyebassa' re-union dinner, beginning in 1915, with rather better rations.
   
7 November The battalion arrives in St-Omer by train. Not expected, no arrangements have been made for them and they have to wait in the train for three hours before marching to 'some old artillery barracks . . . about as dismal and dirty as can be imagined.' (Bates)
   
8 November

They march 3½ miles south-west to Wisques, to a 'large unfurnished and unfinished convent . . . There was no water laid on, no light, no method of heating or of drying clothes, no furniture, and no possibility of supplementing rations. . . . Training, which consisted chiefly of trench digging and artillery formation, was carried out daily regardless of weather.' (Bates) HW noted against this paragraph in Bates's book, 'Wisques. First heard the guns here at night.'

 

HW writes home on 11 November:

 

'We are having a hard time but its use will be seen & appreciated when we take our turn in the trenches. . . . I have a fearful cough thro the rain & wind.'

 

'It rained continually during these November days and because greatcoats were considered bad for discipline the men spent days and nights in sodden clothing, sweating and freezing in turn. Although they were not complete novices at roughing it, by now the men found the conditions trying.' (Mitchinson)

 

lrb Wisques November 1914

 The practice trenches dug by P Company at Wisques, 9 November. Left to right: Sgts A. C. Feast,

E. Hughes, Col. Sgt D. B. Sceats, Sgts S. T. W. 'Grannie' Henshaw, M. J. Ring and A. W. 'Gus' Allen.

A previously unpublished photograph.

(Image courtesy of Paul Staples)

   
16 November

The 'very tired and damp' battalion marches 17 miles to Hazebrouck. 'Although the road was principally uneven pavé and the men were not thoroughly accustomed to the weight of their packs, no one fell out: the exhaustion at the end was not entirely dissipated by the issue of a rum ration.' (Official history)

   
17 November The march continues to Bailleul where the battalion is billeted in a school.
   
19 November

The battalion advances to Romarin, a small village close to Ploegsteert, their march finishing in a snowstorm, where it is attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division, IIIrd Corps. Other regular units in the brigade are 1st Somerset Light Infantry, 1st East Lancashires, 1st Hampshire Regiment and 1st Rifle Brigade.

 

HW writes home on this day:

 

'All day & most of the night huge detonations shake the air around us, and the sounds are rather awe-inspiring at first. . . . We saw Taube aeroplanes being shelled by the British the other day, one was brought down, I believe. We also saw several ugly dirigibles, hovering over the battle, trying to get ranges etc. It is rather exciting out here.'

 

lrb 374 fun in the snow

Captioned in the privately owned album as 'A dummy gun in the winter firing line

with the L.R.B.' – the dummy gun being a tree trunk.

Left to right: J. T. Keeping, C. H. F. Castle, A. Pumphrey, J. A. Stannard and Carter

(Image courtesy of Robert Chester and Stanley Gardner)

   
20 November

Half companies are sent into the trenches where they are attached to the regulars for instruction. 'Gratitude was expressed that the LRB had come up to help the troops, who were tired out with their exertions during the first battle of Ypres which was just ending, and every possible help was given in teaching the duties required and how to make the best of the uncomfortable surroundings.' (Official history)

 

lrb 190 c company hq

C Company HQ in Ploegsteert Wood, November 1914.

Left to right: G. F. Funnell (standing), R. G. Wheatley, J. W. Aris, A. S. Hands and

S. J. Dean (all actually P Company men). A previously unpublished photograph.

(Image courtesy of Robert Chester and Stanley Gardner)

   
24 November The 8 companies of the LRB are combined to form 4 companies, to conform with regular army practice. P Company is joined with G, to form No. 3 Company, under the command of Captain and Hon. Major C. D. Burnell. 'From this date the battalion varied its turns in the trenches by finding working parties, mainly to convert "Bunhill Row", which was a ride [in Ploegsteert Wood] about half a mile behind the front line, into a line of defence, and to construct two corduroy paths through the wood, which was almost impassable without them owing to the mud.' (Official history)
   
 
lrb ploegsteert

Ploegsteert (Plugstreet to the troops) and its surrounds. Bunhill Row (so called because that is the

LRB's headquarters in London) is second row down, third from left, running north to south.

(Map taken from The History of the London Rifle Brigade, 1859-1919)

   
6 December

HW writes home:

 

'Quite well but rather seedy: just returned after 3 days in trenches [then crossed out but readable] – flooded out by rain. Rotten time this time: continually shelled and maxims and rifle fire.'

   
13 December

HW writes home:

 

'Last night we returned from the trenches (for the third time) and we thanked God that we had a decent place to go to. It has been awful in the trenches. For two days and nights we have been in nearly 36 inches of mud & water. Can you picture us, sleeping standing up, cold and wet half way up to our thighs, and covered in mud. As we crept into the trenches at dead of night over 1 foot of mud, the Germans sent up magnesium flare, and we had to crouch flat while scores of bullets spat amongst us. . . . When I returned my overcoat weighed 24 lbs! My feet are now twice their normal size, and I have such rheumatism in my right leg that it is agony to move. . . . I have a feeling that I will return safe. We all think the war will end soon, thank God when it does. The only danger in the trenches is the awful shells and snipers. . . . We have had about 30 casualties so far. I think, mainly snipers & shell fire which latter is hell. The destruction is awful here. Farmhouses and church shelled and burned, cows and sheep bayonetted, & shell holes everywhere.

   
17 December

HW writes to his father (most of his letters home are addressed to his mother):

 

'I am now resting from work in flooded muddy trenches (3 feet nearly of water) in a French cottage about [scored out but readable – '2 miles'] behind the British 'wall of steel'. After coming from the depths, my feet swelled to such and enormous size and were so numbed that I am now under the care of the Doctor. . . The trenches at present are in an awful condition, full of water, and awfully cold. Owing to the wet we cant light our usual coke fires, & therefore no cooking. We get into the trenches by communication trenches, but we have to creep up thro' mud & water to 50 yds exposed (we only go in at night). Generally we get in without any mishap. At intervals during the night the Germans send up brilliant white lights, to see if we are creeping up to attack. ['Intermittent' crossed out] A little rifle fire is kept up the whole time by the Germans. Their snipers in day time pick off a man now & then, as they are mostly crack shots. . . . I saw through a loop hole an Hun sniping, so a Corporal and I watched. I fixed my rifle on him & when the Corporal saw his head "up" I loosed off & we believe we got him for good. I hope so. We are all absolutely knocked up when we return [from the trenches]. Our rifles are a stick of mud & our coats are an awful weight – 20 lbs at least.'

 

The army-issue greatcoats prove unsuitable for the muddy conditions, and most soldiers, HW included, take to cutting off the long skirts to prevent the mud collecting there.

   
19 December

An attack is made by 11th Infantry Brigade  'with the object of rectifying its line, and keeping the enemy occupied'. The LRB is brigade reserve. The attack is not succesful owing to the mud which prevented men from getting forward, and disproportionate casualties. 'Late that evening, in pitch darkness and torrents of rain, the LRB was moved up to a line of breastworks in Hunter Avenue in case of a counter-attack, but fortunately this did not take place, as it would have been extremely difficult to deal with in the circumstances.' (Official history) A continuance of the attack by the LRB the next day is called off.

 

HW makes a recording in his later years for the Imperial War Museum, in which he describes his terror and that of his friend Baldwin 'with ashen face' as they waited in the trenches for the planned attack to begin, and that his abiding memory afterwards of the wounded being brought in was of one man singing 'Oh for the wings of a dove' as he was carried back through the wood.

   
23 December

Each company is attached to one of the regular battalions, No. 3 to the Hampshire Regiment. It is at this time that they occupy Hampshire T-trench – notoriously dangerous, as the German trenches curving round immediately to the north of its 'T' ending enfilade the trench, opening up its length to their snipers. At the 1926 'Chyebassa' reunion dinner G. E. S. Fursdon, in 1914 a second lieutenant in No. 3 Company and HW's platoon commander, sketched on HW's menu card the location of Hampshire T-trench (see The "Chyebassa" re-union dinners), which HW later fair copied:

 

chyebassa 1926 2c

 

(Fursdon's recollection matches well with Sketch Map No. 1 below from The History of the London Rifle Brigade, 1859-1919 – second square down and second from right.)

 

'The system was to have two companies in the line; one in support just behind; one resting in billets in Ploegsteert; and one washing in Armentières. An attack by the enemy would not have been easy to meet, as very little provision was made against it and there was no proper second line of defence, but fortunately all was quiet, because the Germans were as worn out as the British troops. . . . The LRB settled down extraordinarily quickly to their new life, so very different from anything that they had ever been accustomed to, one saving feature of which was that the food was excellent and abundant. The authorities provided goat-skin coats, worn with the hair outside, which were very warm but gave a most amusing appearance to the officers and men. . . . The Christmas mail of the battalion was enormous, almost as large as that of all the rest of the division. People at home were most kind in sending out not only food, but comforters, socks and other things likely to be of use, to such a generous extent that large gifts, which were much appreciated, were able to be made to the regular regiments who were not so well looked after. . . . Everyone received a card from their Majesties and an embossed tin box from Princess Mary containing a card, a pipe and tobacco or cigarettes, and many Christmas cards from the GOC and others were circulated.' (Official history)

   
25 December

The Christmas Truce takes place. For HW's description of this, and his involvement in it, see Henry Williamson and the Christmas Truce.

 

'The Germans were also determined to keep the Christmas season if they could, and their trenches on 24th December were outlined with fairy lights, while Christmas-trees were in evidence as well. As the weather was very frosty just then, the British troops arranged a truce with the Saxons who were opposite this portion of the line, in order that burying parties might carry out their very necessary duties, and this led to meetings in No Man's Land and an exchange of courtesies, which ignorance at that time of German methods and intentions in the matter of poison-gas and other horrors made possible. In some cases visits were said to have been made to the enemy's trenches by adventurous spirits, and there were rumours of a proposed football match, but the authorities frowned upon ideas of this sort and stopped them, quite rightly, because it would have been most unwise to allow the Germans to know how weakly the British trenches were held.' (Official history)

   
26 December

HW writes home:

 

'I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Ha Ha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?'

   
31 December

'Not a shot was fired after Xmas Day until a message was received on New Year's Eve, that "The automatic pistol would recommence firing at midnight." It did, but the shots were purposely aimed high, and gossip said that the adjutant, who was going up through the wood, was very nearly hit.' (Official history)

 

Total LRB casualties for the month are 11 'other ranks' killed, 2 officers and 24 other ranks wounded.

 

 

 

lrb 373 fortified farm

Men of 3 Company, captioned: 'House Garrison group in no man's land'.

Left to right: F. B. Hobson, E. C. Hollis, A. F. Gardner, W. F. Pothecary,

R. G. Wheatley, unknown. A previously unpublished photograph.

(Image courtesy of Stanley Gardner)

   
   
1915  
   
4 January

All companies of the LRB are recalled to billets at the south end of the village of Ploegsteert, preparatory to the battalion taking over a piece of the line for itself on the 7th.

 

lrb 388 tubby vincent and johnner

'Tubby' Vincent and 'Johnner' Johnston in the reserve line, Ploegsteert Wood.

Vincent was Stanley Baldwin's private secretary. A previously unpublished photograph.

(Image courtesy of John Frank)


lrb 3company officers

Officers of No. 3 Company outside breastworks in Ploegsteert Wood – left to right,

Captain J. R. Somers-Smith (holding a copy of The Tatler), 2nd Lieutenant A. E. Sedgwick,

Lieutenant E. L. Large and 2nd Lieutenant H. L. Johnston. This previously unpublished

photograph  was probably taken in late February/early March, as Sedgwick, a 'Chyebassa'

man, was commissioned in the field on 26 February.

(Image courtesy of Chris Rippingale)

   
7 January

The LRB take over the sector from the River Warnave to the Estaminet – square 28 at the lower right on the enlarged area of the sketch map below – with the East Lancashires on the left and the Monmouths, another Territorial battalion, on the right. This is Essex Trench, and is held by one company of the battalion, with the Support Company having the greater part of one platoon in London Farm (second square from left at bottom), a ruined farmhouse about 800 yards west of the front trench, a detachment in Mountain Gun Farm  (square 27) – so called because there had been an emplacement for such a gun in a haystack there – and another in the Red House (also square 27). The Reserve Company was billeted in the village and formed part of the Brigade Composite Reserve Battalion. The fourth company was in Armentières, resting and washing (details are taken from the official history). The companies rotate their duties over the coming days.

 

The Essex Trench 'was in shape rather like a lacrosse stick, lying with the handle to the south, and the strings to the west. Almost all the northern curved portion was flooded, and went right up to the Warnave River, quite a small stream in reality, which flowed from east to west or vice versa, according to the direction of the wind, a peculiarity which caused it to be named on one of the official maps, "the Warnave or McKenna River", after a well-known politician. The main Le Gheer–Le Touquet road ran some 50 yards behind, and parallel to, the trench. Company Head-quarters were in a trench alongside the road, and for some weeks the OC Company could not enter the front trench by day owing to the communication trench being entirely flooded and unsafe. The German trenches were about  100 yards away at the south end and 400 at the north, while all reliefs had to be carried out by night, and a tour lasted three days.' (Official history)

   
  lrb ploegsteert crop 
   
8 January

HW's postcard home reveals that he was been unwell for some time:

 

'Still a bit sick, but hope to be all right in a day or two. Awfully wet here; the trenches are often knee deep in water here, in spite of bailers & pumps.'

   
9 January

HW writes home:

 

'By the same post I am sending another [letter] of general interest. I see that my letter of Xmas day has appeared in the Daily Express [see Henry Williamson and the Christmas Truce]. Perhaps you would like to send it for the same paper but I think that the Daily Mail is a better paper. . . . About the waders, I think that they would be too fragile for trench work, but jack boots would be fine for the mud when doing fatigue work in the mud. Good stout boots up to knee (not rubber boots) and water-tight up to knee, would be the very thing. If you get them with lacings up the middle they will leak. I am sure that you could get them somewhere in London. The Germans have fine boots . . .'

 

The letter to which he refers is very likely this worn fragment of a newspaper cutting, which is in the Henry Williamson Literary Archive, although it is unattributed (perhaps because the beginning is missing), and the newspaper is unknown. The annotations are in HW's hand:

 

lrb hwarticle perhaps

   
10 January

HW writes to his father (he tends to write to his father about the strategy of the war):

 

'Now about the war here. We go up to the trenches as usual to relieve other Companies. We pump there as usual, we get wet, cold and miserable there as usual. We hold the same trenches as we held (i.e. the Allies) ten weeks ago. So do the Germans. Generally speaking the position has not changed here. We lose a small percentage of men owing to shell fire and sniping – so do our enemies. We see by this, that, if the war is to end by our military superiority over the Germans it is going to take a long time to drive them across Belgium, Our only hope is that, when the floods and ooze have subsided somewhat, we can, by superior numbers, drive their flanks right back and so force their whole line to withdraw. I see the French are doing splendidly in Alsace. I will, in another letter, sent simultaneously with this one, endeavout to tell you what this war looks like, and the battlefield to the observer. You might, if you think that its general interest warrants it, send it on to the Mail, as you did the other letter to the Express (rotten paper).

 

'I must close now. The paraffin in the peasants lamp here is costly, and I hear his sabots clopping as he comes to tell me that the straw is laid in his best room for us to repose. My muddy blanket is warm, and my fur coat looks inviting, so I must now go to bed. With a final drink of cafe, and a last cigarette, I close this letter.'

   
11 January

HW writes to his father, providing a vivid description of his present environment:

 

'I am writing this in the cottage of a peasant – our rest billets. It is a small cottage and occupied by a family whose house was burned and wrecked by the fighting here. The burned house in question lies about ten yards behind the German lines, & is the resort of their snipers, & they have two machine guns in there at night. However, this is by the way.

 

'As I write I can hear the sounds of rifle fire in front of me. There is a large field in front of the house – brown ploughed earth, pitted here and there with shell holes. In a corner of the field near the road are three mounds with simple white wooden crosses on them – three English soldiers graves – their last resting place. About half a mile in front, over the field, is a cluster of farm houses – all roofless, many burned, and all telling one tale, shelling. About three quarters of a mile in front of the farms – untenanted – is a large field and in the middle of the field a long line of earth thrown up, and about 100 yards in front of it, a parallel line. In the space between these lines of earth, one can see dead cows, huge shell craters, and, just in front of each line of mounds, a badly made (as an unknowing & unsuspicious observer would think) and untidy barbed-wire fence.

 

'Behind these mounds are deep ditches, all more or less half full of water and mud, and curiously made caves. One line of ditches is occupied by men in khaki, the other by men in grey. The same observer, if it were possible to stand in the space between the trenches, would not see a soul. The only sign of human life in all the vast wilderness and ruin would be the smoke from a wood fire here, and a sudden shot (sniping) there. That is all – in the actual trench. Very simple really, but awful to think of. The dead cows, the ruined crops, the shell wrecked houses, all tell their tale of misery and desolation.

 

'Let us go three miles or so behind the trenches & see the Field Artillery. We walk up to where we understand the battery to be, but see nothing. The guns are cunningly hidden and concealed from hostile airmen. Suddenly, pang-pang – followed by metallic screeches – we are shelling the enemy with light shells – shrapnel from field guns. In the house here, we hear the 'pang' just behind us, hear the screech of a shell, and look well over the ruined farms in the distance, and soon see a small white dot in the air appear – for all the world like a piece of cotton wool – the shrapnel has burst. The shelling of the enemy's trenches continues, but suddenly stops. Khaki clad figures round the hidden guns dive like magic into places of concealment. Why?

 

'In the air overhead is a speck – hardly moving. It looks for all the world like a kestrel hovering, but its wings are slightly curved. A minute passes, then 'pup' 'pup', little balls of white smoke appear all around it, scores of them. The Taube – for such it is – swings round and makes back towards the german lines – afraid. We hope he has not spotted our guns. If he has, we shall soon have shell upon shell over the house. The Germans will endeavour to silence the battery. After a bit the gunners come out, and 'carry on' with the shelling. We earnestly hope that it is effective, for the German snipers are rather deadly.

 

'If we go back eight or ten miles behind the trenches we will see the heavy artillery. The shells fired by these heavy howitzers are of the percussion variety and are mostly of high explosive, such as lyddite. Our observing aeroplanes, at the risk of their life, fly over the enemies country (that part of Belgium that they hold temporarily being deemed hostile) and, spotting something good to shell, a moving column of infantry, field guns, or heavy artillery batteries, or a farm full of troops, the direction, range etc., is dropped in a message bag, the artillerymen open fire, after locating the position on the map, and the aeroplane signals 'hit', 'miss', 'right', or the position of the shell.

 

'Yesterday we had five large shells at the church here again. Only one burst, but that shattered half the roof and many windows of houses near were blown in. The inhabitants panic for a minute, & then all is calm again. They are used to war.

 

'It is interesting to watch a duel of aeroplanes in the air. It generally ends in the Taube running away. I am sure that we have better air-services now than the Germans, and better artillery. We are eagerly waiting for the Russians, as we know that the whole issue depends on their offensive.'

   
17 January

HW is by now seriously ill with dysentery and trench foot, and invalided out of the front line. He writes a brief note to his mother:

 

'I write hurriedly to let you know that I am now on my way to base, where I shall be in hospital. I am suffering from a rather ['severe' crossed out] bad form of 'enteritis' accompanied by rotten pains in stomach & head & am very weak. I have been rotten for 3 weeks. There is no cause for any worry at all. I am very thin and pale but am not downcast. I am writing in the Red Cross train, which accounts for the uneven writing. The arrangements for 'malades' on it are ripping & the authorities are kindness itself. Will drop a card later.'

   
18 January

HW sends this card home:

 

lrb hospital

   
26 January and after HW is returned to England. He is taken on a stretcher to the train, supposedly for Birmingham; as the hospital there is full he ends up at Ancoats Military Hospital in Manchester. Following a check-up he moves to its associated convalescent home at nearby Alderley Edge, where he stays for about a month. At his subsequent Medical Board he is given three weeks' leave.
   
early March

HW returns home. His older sister Kathie, speaking in her old age over sixty years later, describes his return, still imprinted on her mind:

 

'He was a terrible sight; when he appeared at the bottom of Eastern Road we could hardly recognise him. He was very pale and thin. He looked lke a scarecrow; his uniform coat was torn and covered in mud. He had dysentery and red puffy swollen feet from being constantly wet and frozen.'

 

These two studio photographs are taken after his return, his greatcoat clearly showing where the skirt has been hacked off with his bayonet:

 

lrb hw march1lrb hw march2

   
9 April

HW is discharged from the LRB, having been gazetted to a commission (second lieutenant) in the 10th Service Battalion The Bedfordhire Regiment:

 

lrb discharge

   
12 April

HW's commission as a temporary second lieutenant:

   

beds commission

   
April                      

A delightfully informal photograph of the newly commissioned second lieutenant; it is inscribed on the back by his mother, 'Harry April 1915':

 

beds hw april15

   

 

 

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At a 'Chyebassa' Re-union Dinner, probably in 1960, HW asked A. E. Blunden – in 1914 a lance-corporal in P Company and HW's section leader – if he would write down his impressions of HW as a young private in the LRB. In response, in May 1961 Blunden sent the following assessment:

 

On the 4th November 1914, less than 3 months after the outbreak of the first world war, the London Rifle Brigade sailed for France, and amongst its numbers was a very young soldier, Henry Williamson, who was in my section. He was a tall, thin, rangy lad, not very tidy in his dress, as he had little use for “spit and polish”, even when the regiment was training in England.

 

He was a great talker, could give an opinion on every variety of topic that arose, from the cleaning of equipment to the strategy employed by the “Brass Hats”, and he always seemed very sure of the soundness of his views: but who isn’t at the age of 18!

 

He adapted himself easily to life in the trenches, was a good fighting soldier, did his duties as a matter of course, but otherwise seemed quite indifferent to his surroundings – the dirt, noise and cramped conditions, as well as the dangers around him – and went on talking in his spare time.

 

He nevertheless was an engaging companion and often his views were very entertaining.

 

I think his indifference to his surroundings was one of his chief characteristics, for it enabled him to concentrate on his thoughts and, when not on duty, he appeared to inhabit a world of his own. This I think was one of the factors in making “Tarka the Otter” such an outstanding success.

 

He certainly was an individualist, and whilst the memory of others, in those far off days, may fade, that of Henry Williamson never will for me.

 

                                                                                                   A. E. BLUNDEN

 

 

Arthur Edmond Blunden was seriously wounded at Second Ypres on 2 May 1915, an arm being amputated four days later. He was discharged from the Army the following August. He died in 1978 in his ninetieth year.

 

 

 

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P Company, London Rifle Brigade: A 1914 Roll Call

 

The 'Chyebassa' re-union dinners

 

 

Back to 'Henry Williamson and the First World War'

 

 

 

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