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.

A dot ball for the Dorsets

21st January 1915

The Dorsets remained in Bailleul for another day, preparing themselves for an inspection by “A Corps Commander”, according to the 15th Brigade’s records. I’m pretty sure this means the OC for II Corps, Sir Charles Fergusson (perhaps A means Army).

If you remember, Fergusson had been booted out from leading 5th Division by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, after the furore at La Bassée. But he came back in January as CO of II Corps underneath his old boss, Smith-Dorrien, who was in command of the newly-formed Second Army.

A thin rain fell throughout the day. Up at the frontline the two sides continued to take sporadic pot shots at one another with their artillery, as the waters, once again,  began to rise .

A shot in the arm

1st January 1915

Frank’s year began with a visit from the business end of a hypodermic needle.

Any men who hadn’t previously volunteered to be inoculated against enteric fever, which is more commonly known as typhoid, were now duty bound to receive the jab. This usually resulted in suffering from some side effects, such as fever, stomach upset and vomiting. All of which promised a lovely start to 1915 for the Dorsets.

I finally have access to the 15th Brigade’s war diary again. The one for August until December stopped at the end of September. Perhaps a visit to the Public Records Office would reveal the missing pages.

Another welcome return is Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Bols who reappears from convalescence to command the 15th Brigade in Gleichen’s absence, replacing Lieutenant-Colonel Griffiths of the Bedfords. If you haven’t read about his adventures at Givenchy then I recommend you do so now. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about his injuries but if he had been shot then he recovered remarkably quickly.

It appears that the two men had an interview with General Sir Smith-Dorrien, Second Army, and General Morland, 5th Division. The 15th Brigade’s diary doesn’t go into any more detail about what was said and neither does the 5th Division’s.

Not so Stille Nacht

26th December 1914

The Dorsets enjoyed, if that was possible, another quiet day with no shelling. Strangely both the Bedfords’ and the 5th Division’s diaries record that Sector B was shelled.

The Dorsets’ diary also mentions in the margin that the G.O.C. 2nd Corps visited the fire trenches – this was General Sir Smith-Dorrien, although he was now technically G.O.C Second Army.  The BEF had just been split in two armies for better control over the growing number of troops in Belgium and France. First Army was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, Second Army by Smith-Dorrien. It could be argued that the BEF now ceased to exist, but the term continued to be used when referring to British troops in Belgium and France through the rest of the war.

Could Smith-Dorrien’s visit have really silenced the Dorsets when it came to talking about fraternisation with the enemy? He had issued a sharp order on 5th December warning his troops:

Friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.

This, coupled with his criticism of the 15th Brigade, could have certainly put the Dorsets under pressure to appear blameless at this time. Or perhaps my imagination is now running away with me. Amaretto and nocturnal babies does that to the best of us.

At 8pm singing could be heard coming from the German trenches. The Dorsets’ diary inexplicably adds a comment that the trenches were strongly held. Perhaps this was a sufficient amount of men to give a particular range to the choral performance.

A white lie Christmas?

25th December 1914

Merry Christmas everyone. I am writing this from my leather wing-backed armchair, fire crackling in the grate, chestnuts roasting (must move back a bit) and dogs at my feet. A glass of Lisbon’s finest at my side is pepped up with some meths from the garage, while Val Doonican croons festively from the gramophone. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…

Christmas day 1914 in Wulverghem began with a sharp frost and most of the day was foggy. The Dorsets’ war diary reads as follows:

Quiet Day
Nothing to report
Casualties Nil

Good eh? Now, as everyone is probably bored to the back teeth by already, there were unofficial truces up and down the line on Christmas Day 1914. There are countless reasons why it happened and I won’t go into those here. This book, The Truce, by Chris Baker looks very interesting if you want to read further – although I’ll admit that I haven’t had time either so you’re forgiven too.

The 5th Division’s war diary records the following information:

In afternoon opposite Sector B a large number of Germans and our men meet half way between the trenches and fraternize (sic). Badges show the Germans to belong to Schulenberg’s Landwehr Brigade.

The Bedfords, who now shared Sector B with the Dorsets, also record nothing much in their war diary.

Christmas cards from Their Majesties the King & Queen distributed to all ranks of the Battn. Also present from Her R. Highness Princess Mary. Cold & frosty day. Quiet day. Germans semaphored over that they were not going to fire. Hard frost all day.

However, the Bedfords website annotates this with “[note that a private diary by a battalion member records fraternisation between men of B Company and the Germans in No Man’s Land]” but it doesn’t provide any information about how to find this diary. I thought I would be able to post excerpt here but only found quotations from the 2nd Bn Bedfords. It’s easy to muddle reports as the 2nd Bn Bedfords also met up with Germans further to the south.

So Sector B was visited by Germans yet the Dorsets fail to report that any meeting took place. I am very skeptical about their side of the story. We’ve seen the Dorsets skirt around facts a couple of times since they came to France. Once when attacking Hill 189 in September and another time when their attack failed at Givenchy in October.

The History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919 quotes from Ransome’s personal diary.

“Nothing unusual in this connection occurred on the Dorset front, except that no shot was fired by either side , but further south a certain amount of “friendly” intercourse took place.”

If we believe the 5th Division’s war diary then the fact that Germans came across to Sector B surely contradicts this statement by Ransome. Its inclusion of a denial in the regiment’s official history could be seen as an admission of guilt – when no guilt was deserved in the first place. Did the Dorsets agree to a blanket ban on talking about what happened 100 years ago today? Perhaps regimental pride dictated this silence, or perhaps it was the CO’s wishes. Or perhaps nothing happened at all. Until I find any evidence the official history stands true, or course. But did the Dorsets meet with the Germans, or at least bury dead in front of the trenches together?

We know that 15th Brigade had been criticised by Smith-Dorrien in the offensive at La Bassée. Did they feel that admitting to any fraternisation with the enemy would further dim their star? Is that why the Bedford’s diary is also silent about Christmas day? I need to do more research about this in order to satisfy they were telling the truth. But it cannot be ignored that Germans did come over into No Man’s Land in their sector. Count Gleichen, who still commandeered the 15th Brigade, admits that it happened in his memoirs – he’s only a mile up the road at Brigade HQ in Neuve Église.

The trenches were much less pestered with shells and bullets than the Dranoutre lot, and it was easier work altogether for the men. We quite enjoyed it, and on Xmas Day so did the Germans. For they came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible at the moment was done—and some of our men met them halfway and began talking to them.

Whatever happened the Dorsets enjoyed a quiet day without the usual danger of enemy fire. I do hope Frank enjoyed his new vest and pants and perhaps a lovely bar of “Choc”.

I also hope you have a lovely day with your families.