A Shephard joins the flock


9th February 1915

The most well-known account of life in the Dorsets during the Great War is A Sergeant-Major’s War by Ernest Shephard. It’s also perhaps one of the best accounts of life in the trenches by any regular soldier in the First World War.

Ernest Shephard, born in 1892, was a professional soldier to the core. He was a regular soldier who, like Frank, had joined the service from the Special Reserve. He had been promoted to Sergeant back in August 1914 and was assigned to recruitment duties in the Dorset region. He was a native of Lyme Regis but, interestingly for us, he was also familiar with Brixton. His elder sister, Ethel, something of a mother figure to Ernest, lived there with her husband, Thomas Francis. Each finished diary was posted to Thomas as 113 Elm Park, Brixton Hill.

100 years ago today, Ernest joined the 1st Bn Dorsets as part of a reinforcement draft. Shephard went into B Company. Not that the Dorsets’ diary mentions anyone joining them that day. His arrival, and those with him, was something of a baptism of fire. The 15th Brigade returned to the front, via Dranoutre and Wulverghem, in pouring rain.  His entry describes the difficulty men had getting back to the front in the dark.

On the way the enemy was constantly sending star shells which lit the country brilliantly over a large area. At each shell we halted and stood still. The ground leading to the trenches was very difficult. I only slipped once, quite enough, I was covered in mud.

The movement of so many troops sent the Germans into a frenzy of musketry and sniping. Again, the Dorset war diary doesn’t mention any activity. You can forgive Ernest for being on tenterhooks during his first experience of trench warfare. It must have been a surreal and very frightening experience for him.

The Dorsets took over Sector E at the very top of the 15th Brigade’s area of operations. They relieved the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) in trenches numbered from 14a in the south to 20 in the north. The brigade finished their relief at about 9.20pm. The night was bitterly cold.

Belgian chocs away

8th February 1915

The 15th Brigade fumbled around in cold windy weather looking for the parade ground assigned to them for inspection by the King of the Belgians. Eventually they found it in a field opposite the Lunatic Asylum, which was now host to an aerodrome for 6 Squadron RFC, the second to be established in Bailleul. Most of the brigade fitted inside the field but the poor 6 Bn Cheshires, ever the bridesmaids, were made to wait in the adjoining road.

The King of Belgium inspected the brigade at 11.23am. The diary says “Royal salute & inspections & presenting officers. Went off well.” Whether that was a Royal gun salute (I doubt it) or that King Albert saluted the troops (more likely) it doesn’t say. British Army, Corps and Divisional Commanders were all present for the parade. That would have been General Sir Smith-Dorrien (2nd Army), General Sir Fergusson (II Corps) and Major General Morland (5th Division) respectively.

And so we move into a week I’ve been dreading for some time. It’s been a slog at times, but it’s been fun most of the time, but my six months of daily post writing ends this week. Please be sure to check my posts this week as, weather permitting, I am going to be reporting live from my warm billets in Ypres on Wednesday and Thursday, hopefully nursing a decent Belgian beer and plates of cheese and salami.

Bomb boy duck

6th February 1915

While Gleichen inspected his transport on this rainy Saturday, the brigade continued to learn the art of “bombing”.

A new grenade became available to the British troops in February 1915; the No. 2 grenade. This was a variant on the much disliked No. 1 grenade, originally designed for the export market but hurriedly pressed into service. It consisted of a stick, like the German potato masher, with an explosive charge on the end, but it looked like it had been put together by a schoolboy in ICT. The new No. 2 version had a shorter handle which was designed to prevent it catching against the lips of trenches but it still didn’t get away from the reality that the design was too cumbersome and too obvious to the enemy to be used as an assault weapon. It had cloth streamers on it which gave its trajectory away for a start. No wonder men on the ground were making their own bombs out of jam pots. The grenade was later adopted by the RFC to be used as a hand-dropped bomb by simply adding a frayed rope to the end.

Unfortunately the 15th Brigade’s diary also allows us to see how close the civilian world was to the army. Perhaps too close. A boy, standing “60 yards behind grenade throwers” is injured in the forearm from a bomb fragment. Quite what he was doing anywhere near grenade throwers is another question. Boys will be boys I suppose.

Tommies, Cooper


1st February 1915

At 12.25 pm the 15th Brigade, including the Dorsets, was relieved by the 13th Brigade, marched to Bailleul and went into billets there.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bols left the Dorsets and took over command of the 13th Brigade because its current commander, Brigadier-General Cooper, was taken ill. According to the Order of Battle of the British Army 1914 Cooper’s initials were F.J. and he took over command of the 13th Brigade on 3rd December 1914. I can’t find any mention of him anywhere else, including Ancestry. Could this be a typo and he’s actually Brigadier-General R. J. Cooper, ex-CO of 1st Grenadier Guards, who went on to lead the 29th Brigade at Gallipoli, where he was seriously wounded.

The author of 15th Brigade’s diary was very pleased with their new HQ billets. 28 Rue de Lille in Bailleul. The 1915 Trip Advisor review: “Good!”.