Yesterday the Dorsets’ diary placed the battalion about Dranoutre. Today the battalion are at Dranoutre. Who knows if that means they moved a few yards or none at all. To be honest, the war diary entries are so short now, I am looking for meaning where there probably is none.
I’ve never really taken any notice before, but the war diary is signed to the right of every entry. The initials are hard to discern. I’d always assumed that they were some arcane military scribble, but I now think they are the initials of the ever-present Adjutant, Captain A.L. Ransome*. I’ve found his medal card and I believe his handwriting is on the back. I’ve posted a Photoshop image of the two and I think it’s a pretty close match. He’s the writer of our ever-duller diary. I also believe that he’s the glue holding the battalion together and had little time for niceities. Or diaries.
If we pull back a little out to the 15th Brigade, their diary entry records that the weather was improving, so more work could be carried out on the trenches. Improving weather, however, meant more activity from artillery and that’s exactly what the Bedfords experienced in the afternoon, losing an officer, Captain Basil John Orlebar to a direct hit on one of their dugouts, along with 4 other men. Orlebar was a Territorial who was a Civil Engineer in civilian life and is mentioned by name in Gleichen’s memoirs when he drew up a scheme for flooding the land around Missy when the 5th Division was clinging perilously to the north bank of the Aisne in September. The brigade withdrew from Missy before the plan could be carried out.
Out to the 5th Division and their entry reports that the night was lively with trench mortars, hand grenades and musketry keeping both sides busy, as well as shouting and cheering from the 14th Brigade, which wound the Germans up no end.
Further afield still, we turn our attention southwards and back to the River Aisne. On the 9th January the French had launched an assault on the Germans ensconced on the heights above Soissons, a key city on the banks of the Aisne. Initial success turned sour when the raging Aisne broke its bank and tore its way through the French pontoon bridges. The French were forced to retreat. The Germans counterattacked at the same time, with the whole campaign ending in disaster for the French with 12,000 men killed or captured. The Telegraph writes “there is little fear here that the Germans will succeed in taking Soissons” and summarises that it is too early to know who has won the engagement, but that the Aisne itself would decide the outcome as, in its flooded state, it ultimately prevented the Germans from taking the city. The two sides dug in defensively and Soissons was slowly pounded into a pile of rubble.
* He’s, deservedly, a Brigade Major by the end of the war.
The clipped “situation unchanged” in the Dorsets’ diary sounds like a British Rail announcement and described, with economy, another day of monotony in the trenches.
The Dorsets’ Captain Partridge features in the 15th Brigade’s diary entry for today. He’s been busy with an unnamed Royal Artillery officer, sending intelligence back to Brigade HQ. Major General Thomas Morland’s report for the 5th Division bears this activity out the following day, with the line “observations from front trenches show the great value of powerful periscope binoculars.” Presumably Partridge was using something like this through which to observe the enemy lines:
One Dorset man died today, according to the CWGC: His name was Francis James Harwood and he was 34. Intriguingly, he served under the surname of Westlake. He’s listed as having been killed in action in the medal rolls. There’s also evidence that he served with the Somerset Light Infantry, which makes some sense as he was born in Bridgewater, Somerset. Quite why he’d transferred to the Dorsets is a mystery. It requires more time, and I have run out of minutes in the day, so I will leave poor Francis James alone and return to him another time perhaps.
Regrettably, yet inevitably, the Dorsets left Dranoutre and relieved the Bedfords in Sector D during the late afternoon. The rain continued to fall.
The Bedfords had endured a fairly awful time in the trenches with continued rain causing the edges of the trenches to collapse, with murderous sniping (six killed on the 8th January), regular shelling, and an irritating mobile gun shelling them from various points along the Messines-Wytschaete Road (or at least west of Messines) causing several casualties. The 5th Division describes the gun as being a light gun. The Bedfords’ diary goes further and suggests it’s a “quick-firer (probably motor-gun)”. It was probably a standard FK96 7.7cm artillery piece attached to a horse-drawn carriage or motor vehicle. The troops couldn’t respond with small arms due to a bulge in the land between them and the road so it must have been extremely frustrating for all concerned.
The author of the Dorsets’ diary remains taciturn. I don’t think they were enjoying themselves.
Today was a very quiet day, according to the Battalion’s war diary. However quiet it was to the diary’s author, German shelling still claimed the lives of two men from the Dorsets: George Kenway, from County Cork, and Frederick Abel (spelled incorrectly as Able on the CWGC records) Skinner, from Poole in Dorset. He was only 17.
The 5th Division writes that “a good proportion of the enemy’s shells were blind”. Some of them clearly weren’t.
The weather got even worse throughout the course of the evening with heavy rain making work on the trenches very difficult. It looked like all their previous hard work was going to be washed away.