Billet minion

8th January 1915

The Dorsets remained in billets for the day. Lieutenant Lilly’s recollections of Dranoutre describe their billets as a farm, the location of which is unknown to me at this time.

Being in billets didn’t necessarily mean lying on a pile of straw, reading the latest letters from home. Duties were found for the soldiers which were called fatigues. It’s no surprise to find that fatigues were hated by the men. Tasks included carrying supplies, like sandbags and barbed wire, up to the frontline. If they weren’t helping out then they would be training and keeping fit through route marches.

It’s also interesting to note that inexperienced officers often disliked fatigues as the parading and marching was something they were not experienced in.

The BBC broadcaster and politician Vernon Bartlett was one such Dorsets officer. He joined the 3rd Bn Dorsets on 16th October 1914 but exactly when he joined the 1st Bn Dorsets in Belgium is proving harder to find out.

Image of (Charles) Vernon Oldfeld Bartlett
(Charles) Vernon Oldfeld Bartlett by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd) half-plate nitrate negative, 8 August 1932 Given by Pinewood Studios via Victoria and Albert Museum, 1989

I took the following quotation by him from the excellent Fantastic Writers and the Great War website.

Apart from the moments of acute terror the worst times, for me, were when we were back in billets, for I had been on so few battalion and brigade parades and was overwhelmed with the thought of the chaos I might cause by confusing left and right.


Water, water, everywhere


7th January 1915

The wet weather destroyed much of the hard work done to the trenches by the East Surreys and the Dorsets. Water ran freely up over the bottom of the trenches. At some points men stood up to their waists in freezing water. The left hand end of Sector C, to the left of the Dorsets in Sector D, was totally flooded.

So, for Frank and his “Bhoys”, it would have been a godsend to hear that, at the end of a quiet day, they were being relieved by the 1st Bn Bedfords. This was completed by 7.45pm. The Dorsets marched to billets in Dranoutre.

One man is listed on the CWGC as having been killed today. James Griffiths was another territorial reinforcement; a proper cockney, hailing from Bow in the East End of London. His death is not listed in the war diary.

The winter rain was affecting people back in Britain too. Like last year’s flooding, much of the Thames burst its banks between Marlow and Windsor, and all the way down to Chertsey and Teddington, leading to widespread damage and overblown prose from journalists.

How many bombs would a bomb chucker chuck?

2nd January 1915

Firstly, a big thank you to Stephen Potter for sending me a copy of Charles Lilly’s recollection of the first six months of the war. It’s short and lacking in finer details, having been written well after the end of the war (past the 1930s as far as I can make out – although it’s not dated), but it’s very opinionated and honest about his naivety as a young subaltern in 1914. He gives an insight into some of my ideas about the truth behind the official records of the Dorsets’ early months in World War One. I will return to him very soon and explore whether or not he was Frank’s direct platoon commander and we’ll also hear about what he thought of his superiors.

Another wet and windy day greeted the Dorsets as they lined up with the Royal Engineers for training in revetting and bomb throwing. Revetting refers to work reinforcing and developing trenches. This involved digging features like firesteps, dug outs and communication trenches and strengthening walls.

The British Army was scrambling to provide its troops with the requisite weaponry to fight in trenches. Bomb throwing was a vital skill. But first the British Army had to produce a bomb worth throwing. Gleichen explains about how far the Germans were ahead that winter:

Soon came the period of hand grenades, in which he had six to one the best of us in numbers; and then in rifle grenade ditto ditto; and then in trench mortars, flare-lights, searchlights, and rockets — wherein we followed him feebly and at a great distance; for where he sent up 100 (say) light balls at night, we could only afford five or six; and other things in proportion.

The official British hand grenade in 1914 was the No 1 grenade but it was pretty rubbish and even modifications to the unwieldy wooden handle didn’t make it any popular. The Germans could apparently bat them away using a wooden plank.

The Royal Engineers were beginning to make their own bombs out of jam tins. I’m guessing this is what they were showing the Dorsets how to use.

It wasn’t until 1915 that a decent hand grenade became available to Commonwealth troops: the Mark 5 Mills Bomb. It remained the iconic British grenade up until the 1980s. My Action Man never went anywhere without a belt-load of them. I worked in a building in Twickenham that made the detonators for them and I believe that a factory up the road in Richmond (which was later converted into Richmond ice rink) was where they made the actual grenade body. This article gives you a lot more information about the Belgians who worked there.

The development of the British grenade is explored in detail in this article on the Western Front Association website.

Later in the day Bols, and the Brigade Major at the time (possibly Griffiths), rode to Dranôutre and then onto Wulverghem to see the trenches they were going to take over from 14th Brigade. The sectors they saw, C and D, were “very wet, some undercut, parapet not thick enough and communication trenches impossible”. The Dorsets are in for a treat.

Brew ha ha


14th December 1914

You may have noticed yesterday, but we finally have a name to put to one of the censors. E. Rogers is revealed to be Censor No. 1611. He’s the Second Lieutenant who drew the map of the trenches on the 2nd December. We are pretty sure he’s an officer in A Company and here he’s probably revealed as being Frank’s platoon officer. That’s an incredibly granular piece of information and if I can find some history about E.Rogers it will help fill out more of Frank’s journey. But I cannot find anything about him, other than a name on a medal roll.

How the censor numbers were organised, I can only guess at. The officers weren’t always reading the letters though. Sometimes the officer in charge of censoring letters would leave them unread. This is explored in this Spartacus Educational article. Other times the censor stamp was passed onto an NCO to take care of the duty. I don’t have the originals of Frank’s letters but I am sure Geoff would have written a note if any of them been edited by a censor.

The main thing Frank has to complain about, in his second letter from yesterday, is the price of beer. Beer had increased to 3d a pint in 1914, mainly due to the huge jump in duty imposed on a barrel of beer by the government in November of that year: up from 7s. 9d to 23s per barrel. All these facts are taken from the European Beer Guide website.

By 1920 beer was was 6d a pint. Interestingly, the average strength of beer reduced in that time by a quarter, from a strong 1051 OG in 1914 to 1038 OG in 1920 (about the average for today’s dreary lagers.)

All of this change conspired to reduce drunkenness. In fact convictions for drunkenness fell from 183,828 in 1914 to just 29,075 in 1918.

At 6am the Dorsets marched with the rest, or what the war diary rather tellingly describes as “the remainder”, of the 15th Brigade. Their destination was a field just to the west of Dranoutre.

Here they waited until it got dark before moving to Neuve Église. But they didn’t leave the field without some difficulty. Such was the state of the wet ground that over time they must have sunk into the Flanders mud and they struggled to get anywhere. It must have been a miserable day for Frank.

Why were they even moving? I think it had to do with II Corps launching an offensive alongside the French against Wytschaete, Messines and Petit Douve farm. It came to nothing but 264 deaths over the next couple of days, according to the CWGC.

Had Frank been in the trenches, the day would have been even more miserable.

Super furry animaux


1st December 1914

The Dorsets didn’t enjoy a very long rest but, if the East Surrey’s war diary is anything to go by, they might have stocked up on winter clothing which had arrived at Dranouter the previous week. This included fabulously bushy fur jackets made from goatskins.

Image showing men of the 11th Hussars in the trenches at Zillebeke during the winter of 1914-1915
Not a yeti. Men of the 11th Hussars in the trenches at Zillebeke during the winter of 1914-1915. IWM Q 51176

In the afternoon they marched via Neuve Église and relieved their old friends, the East Surreys. The Dorsets were now in trenches, according to the diary, to “the north of Wulverghem-Messines Road”. I’ve indicated it on the map. Frank and the rest of A Company went into the reserve trenches alongside the Battalion HQ dugouts.

The 15th Brigade’s war diary documents that I’ve downloaded from the Public Records Office, although it’s meant to include August to December, only goes up to September. I wonder if the papers are lost or if they are just not digitised yet. Luckily some of the Dorsets’ trench maps for early December are tucked into the 14th Brigade’s records.