Having to turn out for a German


11th December 1914

It was the early morning of another damp day as the Dorsets trudged over the frontier, back to France, and into Saint-Jans-Cappel. Here they went into billets at 2am, which Gleichen describes as “a nice little village”. It became a popular destination for troops getting some respite from the frontline.

I’ve recently read an extract from a diary by Major (his name, not rank) Swindell of the 2nd Bn. Manchesters. His entry for the 2nd December 1914, which mentions our old friend Count Gleichen, made me chuckle:

### Dec 2nd 1914
‘Aunties’*. Had a generals’s inspection by General Count von Gleeson (sic) [this was Brigadier General Edward Gleichen, then OC 15 Brigade – ST Ed.] This made the boys moan a little, having to turn out for a German. Auntie went strong today. She put a chalk mark on her wood, & of course marks and all went. She got wound up & then the music started. She only stopped for breath. The only thing I can compare her voice with is a steam hooter.

* The Manchesters had named the local farmer’s wife “Auntie”. She tried to charge the troops a penny for a bucket of water and took away the pump handle when they told her where to get off.

That patrol emotion

9th December 1914

Image showing Captain H.M.Powell
Captain H.M. Powell

The Dorsets had another quiet day after sending in a report that there had been no change in the situation.The Dorsets’ diary notes that Captain Henry Mitchell Powell was killed today along with four others and one man was wounded. There’s no indication as to how they were killed. CWGC records three Dorset men died today.

Captain Powell was attached to the Dorsets from the 2nd Bn South Staffordshire Regiment and had entered France on 24th October. According to The Great War in Africa, he had recently returned from a tour in West Africa attached to the West Africa Regiment.

The Divisional and Brigade diaries are reporting more and more patrols at this time, in an effort to pinpoint weaknesses in the enemy line as well as assess its strength in numbers. An example of this is in the 5th Division’s diary entry for today which describes the 2nd Bn Manchesters sending a platoon across no man’s land which ended in disaster. With the British constantly probing at their enemy, the Germans seem to continue to dig in, snipe at their enemy and improve their defences.

Peppermints and perfumed soap

### 29th November 1914

Let’s begin today’s post with a deceptively bucolic description of the local terrain by Count Gleichen:

Imagine a bit of rolling country—rather like parts of Leicestershire,—fair-sized fields, separated mostly by straggling fences interspersed with wire (largely barbed), and punctuated by tall trees. Patches of wood in places, spinney size for the most part. Low hills here and there—;KemmelScherpenbergPloegsteert Wood,—but all outside our area. For villages, DranoutreNeuve ÉgliseWulverghem, and Lindenhoek, of which the two last were already more than half shot to pieces and almost deserted. Opposite our right was Messines—a mile and a half in front of our line,—its big, square, old church tower still standing; it may have had a spire on the top, but if so it had disappeared before we came. Nearly opposite our extreme left, but out of our jurisdiction and in the sphere of the Division on our left, was Wytschaete (pronounce Wich Khâte), one and a half miles off.

14th Brigade handed over control of the Dranoutre area to 15th Brigade in the morning. All the troops in trenches, including the Manchesters and the East Surreys, came under Gliechen’s command. The 14th Brigade moved with its ambulance and baggage train to Saint Jans-Cappel four miles to the west, just over the border in France. The 15th Brigade had just arrived from there after a short rest. Gleichen stayed with the local Curé…

who liked the good things of this world … and did not disdain to make the acquaintance of an occasional tot of British rum or whisky, except on Fridays.

The Dorsets received orders to gauge the Germans’ strength in front of them. Another quiet day is reported in the diary. The Germans kept them on their toes during the night with two outbursts of rifle fire.

At home the Daily Telegraph reports the war has gone quiet in France and Belgium all along the line.

The newspaper is still banging on about Christmas present ideas for the men. Peppermint lozenges and perfumed soap (bad breath and B.O. being a big no no when hunkered down in a stinking trench) should included be offered as small gifts for those family members who are “maintaining the honour of the Country”.

There are also recipes for feeding wounded soldiers. What they do to a fillet steak possibly breaks the Geneva Convention. After the steak has been hammered flat and fried for 10 to 15 minutes I am sure the men could have used it as a bullet proof vest. Thankfully, a letter from Ethel Jonson offers to set up a society to put recent Belgian refugees* to good use and teach the English to cook. She labels English cuisine as being “lamentably inferior to that of Continental cookery”. Plus ça change.

*Did they get tax credits, I wonder?

5th Division’s band aid

29th October 1914

Any attempts to reorganise with the new reinforcements was hampered throughout the day as various companies were ordered into the front line and then stood down. A and B Companies were put under the command of the 13th Brigade at 11am (the Dorsets now coming under command of the 14th Brigade) and pushed up to support the Manchesters on Rue de Béthune. Apart from a few injuries from shellfire they didn’t engage the enemy and returned to billets at around 6:30pm.

A lack of resources had broken up reliable teams of fighting units and officers were thinly stretched thinly over the cracks of command. The Dorsets were being used as a band aid for the 5th Division.

The relief of the 5th Division started at 6pm that evening. The Indian Corps moved into position under “leaden skies and pouring rain”, according to Captain Ransome of the Dorsets. The Dorsets remained where they were for the evening awaiting orders. Heavy firing started up all along the line during the night as the Germans renewed their efforts to push the British back.

We haven’t heard from Count Gleichen for a few days and I’ve missed the old goat. He’s still watching the Germans put in saps along their trenches “in a most ingenious and hidden manner”. The Germans were now only between 200 and 400 yards from the British front lines. Gleichen was somewhat apprehensive about the efficacy of the newly-arrived Indian Corps, although he didn’t doubt their fighting spirit:

I was very doubtful how far these untried Indian troops would stand up to what was evidently going to be a very difficult situation if the Germans went on attacking as they had been doing. Fresh troops, it is true. But they had had no experience of this sort of fighting, nor of trenches, nor of cold wet weather: and they were going to have all three.

Whether he wrote this in hindsight or not it proved to be a very salient comment.