I never had the slightest idea of what was going on


13th January 1915

The narrative on the blog has become much narrower since the war went to ground at the end of November. I haven’t written much about what was going on in the wider field of operations. The reason for this is threefold. Firstly I am lazy. Secondly, I am short of time. And, thirdly, I wanted this story to show the world from Frank’s perspective.

I feel that once the soldiers dug themselves into the ground they ceased to be part of a fighting brigade and became small parts in a larger war machine. They became less aware of what was happening beyond the confines of their trench as time went on. Battalions became less important than the company and ultimately the platoon became the defining relationship between fighting men in the trenches.

C.O.Lilly’s recollections describe this shift in perspective perfectly.

I never had the slightest idea of what was going on, my whole life was confined to one small portion of the line and now I realise what an extraordinarily bad training trench warfare was, and is, to teach a soldier his trade.

And in notes at the end of the typed document:

I don’t think it can be denied that trench warfare is about the worst sort of campaigning to teach a young officer his job. He never has any idea of what is going on, except what he can see with his own eyes from his trench.

The Dorsets were relieved by the Bedfords and moved back into billets in Dranoutre.

Three Dorset men were killed today, all privates: W J Mitchell, from Bermondsey, Stephen McCarthy, from Finsbury, and Frederick Thaxter from Thornton Heath, just to the south of Brixton. London supplied the Dorsets with an awful lot of men.

There’s no mention of these casualties in the diary.


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.


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.

The ballad of Frank’s censor

PC to Miss Crawshaw franked 18 De 14 – censor Tilly / Lilly
dated 17-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines to your welcome letter which I received alright. Yes that will be best as regards the underclothes and don’t forget the socks then Till I will write you a long letter when I receive your parcel, so hope you won’t mind PC for now. No I never received the Choc. Don’t talk about rain we are having plenty. Glad to hear that Mattie got my letter ask him what he thought of it. Well I am getting on alright and as well as can be expected. Well by the time you get this Xmas will be here so will wish you a Merry time and hope to see you soon. Now I think this is all for now as time is scarce and I hope you are all in the best of health and still Totting love to all.


Another letter from Frank which is just a thank you postcard really. He still hasn’t had any chocolate from my Great Grandfather.

We now have the name of another censor, which is great. Geoff has written Tilly/Lilly and this is most probably Lieutenant Charles Otto Lilly. He went out to France as a subaltern with A Company. It’s very probably (one in four?) that he was Frank’s platoon commander. If this is true, then he’s probably the main contact Frank had with the officers of the Dorsets. Most communication from higher up would have come down the line of command through his NCOs.

Lilly was a similar age to Frank, just three years older. He was born in Paddington in 1890 to a wealthy family, just a few miles north from Brixton but a million miles away from Frank’s world. Lilly attended Public School (St Paul’s School in West London – here’s a 1908 cricket scorecard with him on) and then he joined the Dorsets in 1911 from a Territorial University unit but the Gazette doesn’t say which one. It was Jesus College, Cambridge as I’ve just found him on a War List of the Universities. If Frank and Charles ever did University Challenge it would be like this.

Lilly was mentioned in Dispatches in October 1914, and earned the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), presumably for the fighting around La Bassée (and possibly the 12th October 1914 when A Company held the bridge at Pont Fixe) where so many of Frank’s comrades ended their war. He sounds like a remarkable solider and it’s a shame we haven’t met him sooner. He’s actually the first officer I researched a few years ago and so I’ve blown the dust off my previous research today.

Lilly’s story will probably be returned to in the future so I won’t go into further details of his Dorset career here. He left the Dorsets in 1917 but he didn’t go far. He just took to the air. Lilly joined the 6th Brigade Royal Flying Corps, then part of the army, what eventually became the third arm of the forces, the Royal Air Force in 1918. He was assigned to a newly formed 120 squadron in 1918 so we can presume he flew bombers. He left the RAF in 1919 and returned to the Dorsets, but was put on the RAF’s reservist list as a pilot in 1940 aged 50. Lilly died in 1976 in Paddington, London.

Lilly wrote a memoir of his experiences and revisited Flanders in 1927. I would love to read it as it could be the closest connection to Frank there is apart from these letters. It’s quoted in Salient Points Three: Ypres & Picardy 1914-18 by Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith but it is listed in the bibliography as unpublished. I wonder where the authors accessed a copy?


I left this next bit off the post yesterday and those who get emails also got a garbled load of nonsense (more than usual) so apologies for the glitch. I blame the rum punch (I wish). The Dorsets marched at 3.50pm as the light faded and relieved the East Surrey Regiment east of Wulverghem. The relief was completed at a very precise 9.55pm. No one was hurt. I’ve posted the map in tomorrow’s post.