Contributed by Martin Watkins
(William was Martin's great-grand-uncle)
Soon after the war started Lord Kitchener called for 100,000 volunteers, so myself with many Pals went to enlist. We went to Buckingham on September 1st 1914, but were finally attested at Oxford on September the 4th 1914.
After a fortnight at Cowley Barracks, Oxford, I left with a batch of 500 recruits for Camberly Camp (Surrey). Here we were formed into a Battalion (6th Battalion Oxford & Bucks L.I). We spent about a fortnight here training, then went on to Cowshott Camp, by Bisley Rifle Ranges. I learnt my firing here at Bisley. After more training, we left for Blackdown (Surrey), in huts here, been under canvas up to this, (about 14 to a tent, lovely when it rained). From Blackdown we went to Grayshot, (Surrey) in billets. Good time here. Short stay, (too cushy for infantry).
We marched from Grayshot to Lark Hill Camp (Salisbury Plain), in three and a half days. First nights halt we stayed at Alton, in a school. Next night at Winchester in a school, and the next in a loft at some small village.
Stayed at Lark Hill and completed training, until we left for France.
We had some very hard training and some rather tough times, but I enjoyed it. I was also lucky for three months in getting batman to the Colonel, which exempted me from parades.
We left Lark Hill for France on July the 21st 1915. We marched to Amesbury station, (poured with rain all the time) where we took train for Folkestone, then on the boat, arriving at Boulogne 11.30p.m. same night. It poured with rain still, we marched to a camp outside Boulogne, and were drenched when we arrived. Had a few hours rest, off early next morning, marched three miles to a station, and after a six hour ride in cattle trucks, (standing all the way) and another march, arrived at a small village called Acquin same evening, all tired out. We stayed here till July the 29th, route marching most of the time. Left for Bailleul, arriving after three days hard marching. On the way we passed through St Omer. First nights halt we slept in a field at Campagne, next night in a field at Borre. Had a fairly good billet at Bailleul, my Company was in a barn. We stayed here till August the 9th, had a night march, rested in an empty house the next day. At night we went in the trenches for the first time, at Fluir Baix. Had twenty-four hours in with the Devons, to get us a little climatised. It was quiet, at the time, and we naturally thought what a cushy war, a silly idea we were soon taught to forget. After a few days of fatigues and working parties, we took this part over ourselves, the Germans must have known as they gave us a lovely greeting, shelled us continually, had a few casualties. After four days in we went back to Bailleul, most of us wishing it had been Blighty.
We stayed at Bailleul till August the 25th. Marched from here to the trenches in front of Levantie, staying in a field at Estaires one night on the way. Held these trenches for three months. The section of the front being from right of Armentiers to Neuve Chappel. In front of us was Aubers Ridge, rotten place as it made an excellent observation place for the Germans. We had a few more casualties here, as while in this part we were in the Battle of Loos (September the 25th). Our Battalion held the left flank of the attack, heavily shelled, lot of casualties this day. We were very short of everything in 1915, which made it harder for us all. How fed up we felt sometimes when the Germans continually bombarded us, and we and our artillery could not retaliate, owing to shortage of ammunition and guns. After the three months in this part, we went back to Estaires (nice little town) for eight days rest, and well we wanted it. Left here November the 23rd and marched back to trenches at Fluir Baix. Occupied this front for a few weeks, then marched back to billets (barns, the rat pit we called ours as it was undermined with rats) outside Douleu, December the 15th. Did nine days training here, then went back to same trenches at Fluir Baix on Xmas Eve, (how nice and happy we felt?). My rations for Xmas day being two biscuits, half a tin of Bully, and a small portion of plum pudding. If I ever thought of home I did that Xmas day. Still we kept smiling. To cheer us up more it poured with rain all day, but Jerry kept quiet, which of course was our main concern.
We held this part of the line till January the 11th 1916. The marched back to Morbecque, for a Divisional rest. Arriving after two days march. Stayed here a week, then went on to Cassel, in barns, decent billet. After a week or two of hard training, left on February the 5th, and marched to a camp by Poperinge (Belgium). Watou name of camp. Did fatigues and working parties up to the line till February the 11th, then on to some Chateau grounds at Elverdinge. Awful place. We were Brigade reserve for a few days, then up the line. On this front a fortnight, our section here was in front of Ypres, and on and joining up with the French. The reserve line being on the bank of the Yser canal. This was a terrible part, worst so far we had met with. We relieved our own 5th Battn. The first night up we lost quite half the Battn. We were right in the centre of the Salient, Germans could shell us from all directions. From here we went back to B camp for Brigade reserve for eight days, on working parties each night, which was a rotten job around Ypres owing to Jerry?s terrible shell-fire. The Battalion went back to this front, (not many of the originals left), but I was such a wreck with nerves etc. that I had to be sent back to the Transport Lines, for a rest. This was the first time I had missed going in with them. Helped to put up some huts here. It wasn't all honey though, as we were two miles nearer the line than Poperinge, which was constantly being shelled and bombed, and so were our transport lines.
The Battn. came out of the line here on April the 17th, to go back to M camp by Watou, for a Divisional rest, where I again joined my company. We stayed here ten days, then went on to Calais by train. This was the first bit of real civilisation we had seen since landing in France, it hadn't been long, but it seemed years to us, especially after horrible Ypres. We had a lovely time here, with the French girls etc. Remained at Calais till May the 6th. We then started to march back to the trenches. Did fourteen miles the first day, staying the night at Zutherque. Next day did eighteen miles, stopped at Bollezeeke the night, and next day twelve miles to some barns between Wormout and Herzeele. Rested for a few days, then on to Poperinge on the 19th of May, another twelve miles. From here up to the line, passing through Ypres on the way. We carried full marching order all the way from Calais. This front was on the right of where we were before, on the left of Hooge, next to the Canadians. We relieved the Irish Guards. Still in the Ypres Sector but not so bad as our first taste of Ypres. I was with the 83rd Field Coy. R.E.s for a time here. Our billet was at an old mill at Vlamertinge, behind Ypres, not very healthy, but a change from the line. Didn't last long though, as my Battn. left this front on July the 16th, and of course me with them. We went straight from here to the front line at Frommels (by Neuve Chappel), to help the Australians in an Attack. We had a rough week, as besides ordinary casualties, the Aussies knocked several out by dropping their shells short.
After this attack we marched back to a field outside Steenwerch, rested for the night, on next day to St. Jean Capel (by Balleul). Left here on July the 25th, for the Somme, where the Somme battle was on. The first day we marched to a station eight miles away, taking train for Frevent, which we reached after six hours ride in cattle trucks, another march of ten miles found us in Luxheux? (not quite sure if this is the right name). Next day we marched eight miles to a camp by Louvencourt. From here we had another march of six miles to stand-to billets and up the line at night July the 29th (Somme front). In reserve. Several of us had another spell with the R.E.s here at Courcelles. Although this was called the Somme front it was well to the left of where the actual attack was on. We left this part on August the 14th, and marched to Orville, about eight miles. Rested a day and onto Candas, ten miles. After a few days training we left Candas on August the 20th, went by rail (through Amiens) to a small village, stopped the night in barns. On to a camp by Albert next day. From Albert we marched five miles to the reserve lines (We were actually in the Battle of the Somme now) on August the 22nd. We were Brigade reserve for a start, working parties each night. This reserve line was at Montauban (or where Montauban was) front line just behind Guillemont. On the night of September 2nd we took over the front line, heavily shelled all night, and at midday Sunday the 3rd we went over the top. It was a very successful attack, with the Irish Division on our left we advanced about a mile and a half, capturing Guillemont. Although we suffered heavily, the Germans? losses were terrible, piles of their dead lying about. We also captured a lot (they were like the majority of us getting fed up with the war). We dug ourselves in and held the position for thirty-six hours. After being relieved, what was left of us, went back to the reserve line. Everyone utterly exhausted, we had been working and fighting hard for three days and nights, with very little to eat of drink. It was a very touching scene next morning at roll call. Had a days rest, then back to reserve line at Montauban. The Somme was in an awful state by now, the battlefield being one mass of mud. Rested here a night in the trench (some rest, lying in mud). Next day he we marched back to Corbie, about eight miles. We were expecting a good rest, but after forty-eight hours, had the order to stand to. Went back to Meaulte. I got made L/Corporal at Meaulte, and put in charge of a bombing section. From here we went into reserve to the Sixth Division, working parties most of the time. Then took over the front line, we held this for three days, an awful part, a salient, continually bombarded, and very bad weather. The Coldstream Guards relieved us. Went back to the Citadel, (a camp) in huts, stayed for a few hours and on next morning to a village called Ville-Lous-Corbie, had a few days rest, and marched back to the Citadel. Got reinforced around this time with men from the Queen?s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. Stayed the night and on the next day to reserve lines by Louez Wood. At night we took over the front line by the French, not far from Combles. Held it for thirty-six hours, heavily shelled (put the wind up the poor Hussars) as although most of them had been under shellfire, none of them had had front line trench experience. We found them good fellows though. Marched back to dugouts by Carnoy. Left September 29th, and on to Trones Wood, dug ourselves in, and stopped here as Brigade reserve. Did working parties up to the line, which with the mud and the bad weather, was not a very thankful job. Took over the front line for twenty-four hours on October 3rd. Back to the reserve line at Trones Wood. At night on October 6th, we went up just behind the front line ready to make an attack, in a quarry, fearful place. As L/Corporal it was my it was my job to post sentries at one end of the query, nearly everyone was either killed or wounded, so by morning I was almost a wreck, in fact my nerves were so bad, I was ordered back to the dressing station. This happened just before the attack (of course we had other companies spread along the front, only my company in this quarry). Just when the barrage was at its height, and going through I got wounded in the chest by shrapnel. I crawled to a sunken road, which the Germans were shelling terrifically, lying there was the most awful experience I had during the war. I was alone, and with the pain of my wounds, and my wrecked nerves, it was horrid. I reached the dressing station in time, and how thankful I felt.
My wound was dressed at the Field Dressing Station, then on I went by ambulance to 34th Casualty Clearance Station at Grovetown. I spent two days here, then on to Rouen by Hospital train, took us thirty-six hours. I had a few more days in hospital at Rouen, then on the Hospital Boat (Western Australia) to England. I arrived at Southampton on Sunday the 15th of October 1916, and taken straight by Ambulance Train to Hospital at Huddersfield. So ended my first spell in France. On leaving hospital, I was sent to a V.A.D. place at Brighouse (Yorkshire) for convalescence. While in hospital and convalescence we were treated with the utmost kindness, everyone doing their best to get us well, and give us a good time.
My Battalion was in the 60th Brigade, 20th Division. When I left them on the Somme, only a very few remained of the original Battn.
Everyone on the Somme had a hard time, when not actually attacking, we were constantly on the go, fatigues and working parties. The battlefront being one mass of mud too, made it very difficult to get about, to get food, guns and ammunition up. We could have done with more troops too, been far easier, as it was, the same fellows had to continually carry on. Our Air Force and Artillery had increased considerably by now though. Which put more heart into the men.
General Joffe of the French Army said the average life of an infantry- man in the trenches was three months (Of course he meant a casualty, not necessarily killed or wounded, but anything to keep him from carrying on) as I did nearly fifteen months of it, I?m sure I had enough of it. Plenty more poor devils did longer than that though. (I am re-typing this in September 1926, after all the suffering and bloodshed, look at the state of the country we fought for. Food twice as dear as before the war, coal-strike been on nearly four months, and un-employment worse than ever been known, the worst of it is, the majority of the un-employed are ex-service men, makes one think and wonder.)
Naturally I had some narrow escapes, a few of my worst experiences being:-
I also had some exciting times on patrol, listening post duty, wiring etc. And had a turn of all infantry duties, finishing up with being a bomber. Although we had some very rough times , we also had good times. Whenever out resting, we made up for lost time. Going through the dangers and hardships together, we all thoroughly understood each other, and when out resting, we were like one big happy family. Chats were one of the curses of the trenches, it was impossible to keep free from them, no matter how clean one kept themselves. Everything was done to keep us as clean and healthy as possible. A hot bath and a clean change wherever it was possible. We always had plenty of food too when back from the line. Not much in the trenches though. The Somme was the worst place, almost starved when in the front line. Also short of water, but as the battlefield was one mass of mud for two or three miles back, it was impossible to get much up to us. We had to be careful and rely on what we took with us.
Lieut-Colonel White commanded the 6th Battalion Ox & Bucks while I was with them.
After leaving hospital I reported to the Reserve Battalion Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth. (I had had a fortnights leave). I went through the usual training again (which seemed to me and others who had been through the mill, ridiculous, fancy a young N.C.O. never heard a shot fired, showing us how the bayonet should be used, one hand so far up the rifle etc. made me sick). I went in front of several Medical Boards at Portsmouth and was finally marked unfit, made no difference though, suppose there was a shortage of men, anyway, I had to go out to France again. (Lost my stripe in Portsmouth). We sailed from Southampton, arriving at Rouen, March the 20th 1917. Did ten days training, then onto Robeque by train for more training. Our draft went from here up to the line, where I joined the 2nd Battalion Oxford & Bucks (The Regular Battn.). This was the end of April, on the Arras Front. The day before I joined them, they made an attack on Oppy Wood and Village, so all the draft went straight up the line, same night, stretcher bearing. A nice start straight from Blighty, as Jerry was shelling heavy, and of course fresh ground to us. I had a week in the line here, but the attack over, we only had to dig ourselves in and hold the position. The Battalion had suffered pretty heavy around Oppy, but as we didn?t reach them until the day after the attack, we missed the worst. From here we went back to a village. We called it Charlie Chaplin, as it was pronounced the same, for a rest. Marched back to the same trenches after a few days rest. Had a long spell in the line here. A bit rough sometimes, but we didn?t have many casualties. From here we went on to the Bethune Front. First we marched to Mont'St- Eloy, where we had two days rest, then on to Bethune by lorries. Had one night in Bethune. (Paid out, and as we knew we should be in the line next night, what a night we had.) Took over the trenches in front of Cambrin, just on right of Givenchy. This was a quieter part. Had eight days in, then back for a rest. Took over same line again, on July the 12th. I was a lewis-gunner now. Next night, exactly on midnight, I was on duty with the gun, Fritz opened a heavy bombardment, all sorts of shells, including many Gas-shells. A great number of us were gassed, some died of the effects. (An awful sight, anyone dying of gas, turn green and froth at the mouth.) I wasn't so bad as some, but the Medical Officer came up in the morning, and myself with many others, were sent back to the dressing station, and on from there to Bethune. After a few days, we were put on a hospital train, and taken to Etaples, in No.7 Canadian General Hospital. I was feeling pretty bad by now, gas is awful stuff to get rid of. From Hospital I was sent to No.6 Convalescent Camp, a week here then went by train to No.5 Convalescent Camp by Cayeux. Stayed here six weeks, then went back to my Base at Rouen. Was sent from here back to my Battalion at Marles-Le-Mines, where they were out resting, I was still feeling the effects of the gas, and far from fit, so instead of going back to the line, the M.O. ordered me back to hospital. I went to Bethune first, stayed a few hours, then on to No.1 Casualty Clearing Station at Chocques. Spent a night here, and on to 22nd General Hospital at Camiers (by Etaples), by hospital train. I remained till November the 6th. The doctors could see that I was pretty ill, so they sent me over to England with the next batch of sick and wounded. Went to Calais by train, and on the boat for Dover, landing a midnight November the 7th.
I was a patient in Colchester hospital, on discharge from there I joined the Depot again at Dover (Depot had moved in the meantime from Portsmouth).
I had a much easier time with the 2nd Battn. than the 6th, but as I had been marked unfit, I shouldn't have been sent out for the second time. Was a Lewis Gunner with the 2nd Battalion. After a spell at the Depot I was marked permanently unfit for anymore infantry work. So got transferred to the R.A.M.C. in February 1918, sent to Blackpool first, then to 20th Coy. R.A.M.C. at Tidworth, where I stayed till demobilised, at Chiseldon, March the 11th 1919. After four and half years in the army.
|Arras||Large town, about 5 miles from the front line. April 1917. Almost destroyed by shell fire|
|Albert||Town, not far from the line. July 1916. Somme Front|
|Amiens||Large town, Somme district. Long way from the front|
|Arleux||A village on the Arras front, close behind the firing line, April 1916. Blown to the ground by shell fire|
|Acq||Village, rested here for a few days, 1917|
|Annequin||Village, between Bethune and trenches, hardly touched by shell-fire, and only 2 miles from front line.|
|Acquin||Village, rested here soon after arrival in France. 1915.|
|Bethune||Town, about 7 or 8 miles from firing line, shelled a lot.|
|Bruay||Town, 10 or 12 miles from line, and Lens, 1917.|
|Bax-un-Mair||Large village, not far from Armentiers, our Divisional baths were here, 1915.|
|Bapaume||Small town on the Somme front, destroyed by shell-fire.|
|Bailleul||Town, long way from the trenches, the Battn. rested here few times.|
|Boulogne||Large town, used as a base for troops, I landed here first time to France in 1915.|
|Borre||Village, between St Omer and Bailleul, rested one night here.|
|Bouvrie||Village between Bethune and Annequin, the Battn. rested by here in 1917.|
|Bray||Small village by Albert.|
|Cassel||Town, long way from the line, rested by here 1915.|
|Cambrin||Small village between Bethune and trenches, almost destroyed.|
|Carnoy||Small village on Somme. Destroyed by shell-fire. 1916.|
|Calais||Large town, used as a base. Troops also land here, rested here once after leaving Ypres.|
|Cay-eux||Town on the sea coast, not far from Abbeville, was in the Convalescent Camp here. 1917.|
|Campagne||Village. Rested here a night, on way to Bailleul.1915.|
|Camiers||Village, by Etaples, was in hospital here. 1917.|
|Chocques||Large village, not far from Bruay. In C.C.S. here in 1917.|
|Couin||Large village. Somme District.|
|Courcelles||Village, between Couin and trenches, destroyed a lot by shell-fire. 1916.|
|Chappel-Chablain||Large mining village. The Division (2nd) rested here a few times.|
|Candas||Large village we passed through on the way to the Somme, 1916.|
|Etaples||Large town used as a base, several hospitals here.|
|Elverdinge||Village, not far from Ypres, destroyed by shell-fire.1916.|
|Estairs||Town, about 7 or 8 miles from front line. Out resting here 1915.|
|Frevent||Village, got out of train here, on way to Courcelles. C.C.S here.|
|Fluir-Baix||Village, not far from trenches, by Armentiers, almost shelled to the ground. 1915.|
|Guillemont||Village on the Somme front, blown to dust, I was in the attack when the British took this. Sept. 3rd 1916.|
|Hazebrouch||Town, long way from the trenches, shelled occasionally.|
|Herzeele||Village, rested here, 1916.|
|Houdain||Town, not far away from Bruay.|
|Lillers||Town, long way from trenches.|
|La Gorgue||Town, joins Estairs.|
|Levantie||Large village, between Estairs and trenches, shelled a lot. 1915.|
|Mont-St-Eloy||Village, good way from trenches, marched from Oppy Wood to here for rest.1917.|
|Marles||Large mining village, not far from Bruay, rested here.1917.|
|Metren||Village, not far from Bailleul.|
|Montauban||Village on the Somme, blown to the ground, by shell fire.1916.|
|Meaulte||Village on the Somme, shelled a lot.|
|Marlincourt||Village on the Somme.|
|Nueve-Chappel||Village just behind the firing line, destroyed by shell-fire.1915.|
|New-Brighton||Seaside village by Cayeaux.|
|Poperinghe||Large town, 7 or 8 miles behind front line, 1916. Shelled.|
|Pernes||Village we marched through on the way to Arras.|
|Rouen||Large town used as a Base, our Base was here.|
|Roclincourt||Village on Arras front, destroyed by shell-fire.|
|Robecque||Large village, not far from Lillers, did some training here. 1917.|
|St-Jean-Cappel||Village by Bailleul.|
|St-Valery||Town. Passed through here on way from Cayuex to the Base.|
|St-Omer||Town, marched through here, 1918.|
|Sailly||Large village not far from Estairs, was here 1915.|
|Steenwerck||Large village, passed through here 1916.|
|Sylvester-Cappel||Large village not far from Cassel, rested here 1916|
|Vlamertinge||Village between Poperinge and Ypres. Almost destroyed.|
|Willerval||Village, just behind trenches on the Arras front, destroyed.|
|Wormout||Village we marched through on the way from Calais to Poperinge.|
|Watou||Small town we passed through on way from Calais to Poperinge.|
|Watou-St-Jan||By Watou, small village, stayed at camp here.1916.|
|Ypres||Town, about 2 miles from the firing line, 1916. Destroyed by shell-fire. The worst part of the whole British line.|