He seemed to like getting shot at

 

10th February 1915

Today we finally meet up with Royal Engineer Captain Johnston again. He’s been busying himself, relentlessly working 18 hours a day improving the defences up and down the 15th Brigade’s trenches. I am guessing by the name that his home is R.E. Farm, now a small cemetery on the Wulverghem-Wytschaete Road. Gleichen cannot praise him highly enough. He remembers a moment Johnston was thrown into a fit of berserking rage.

And with it all he was as plucky as the devil—he seemed to like getting shot at. One night he got a ricochet bullet over his heart, but this only put him in a furious rage (if you can use the word about such a seeming mild person), and spent the next twenty-four hours in collecting ammunition and bombs and extra trench-mortars and firing them himself; this seemed to soothe him.

The 15th Brigade’s diary records this happening on the night of the 10th February. Events like this usually ended with German reprisals and little else gained.

Sector E was still a collection of disconnected trenches running down from Hill 75 (Spranbroekmolen). Men were also holed up in barns and farms behind the line, long since lost to enemy shells and woodworm. So men were stuck in the trenches throughout the daylight hours.

It must have been tempting to stick your head over the parapet, whether through fatigue or curiosity or sheer boredom, but it was usually fatal. Ernest Shephard writes:

One man Charlie Nickells killed by sniper at 7.a.m. thro’ showing over the trench.

Poor Charles Nicholls, a Londoner, had been with the battalion since the 23rd October 1914, having joined the 1st Bn from the Special Reserve 3rd Bn. He left a wife, Mary Ann but no other records I can find of his life up to this point. I think he died of wounds later.

Another Dorset man was killed too; Hilton George Miller, this time a regular, originally with the 2nd Bn Dorsets out in India, joining the 1st Bn on the 27th August 1914. This seems a strange date to be joining the Dorsets as they were passing through St Quentin on the retreat to the Marne at this point. Miller hailed from Shirley in Southampton. They are both buried in Dranouter graveyard. The Dorsets’ diary records 1 killed and 3 wounded amid a day-long musketry fight and occasional shelling.

These deaths are an indication of a slow increase in attritional casualties. The Germans now knew the ground they were facing intimately and looking down into the British lines gave them considerable advantage over their enemy. Regular rifle fire kept the casualties mounting for the British, let alone snipers. As the winter began to recede, the shells were also increasing their relentless search for death.

Night raiders

26th January 1915

After a few weeks of two or three word grunts the Dorsets’ diary burst into life with the description of a raid.

Second Lieutenant Frederick Joseph Morley* went out at 3.30am with a patrol, found newly turned earth by some German saps and, on his way back, destroyed a sniper’s dugout.

Morley had been out with the BEF since the 17th August 1914 with the 11th Field Company Royal Engineers. At some point he transferred to the Dorsets, gaining his officer’s commission, making the awkward jump from the ranks  as a Lance Corporal to Second Lieutenant. His star continued to rise, gaining a DSO and the Military Cross in June 1915, and ending the war as a Major in the 6th Battalion Dorsets, which is some climb for a Lance Corporal. Sadly he didn’t survive, dying of wounds received in the last gasp German offensive of Spring 1918. He left a widow, Elizabeth Victoria Smith Morley.

After a day of shelling from the accursed light gun, the Dorsets were put alert for an imminent attack and so they thickened B Company in the firing line with one and a half platoons from D Company and a platoon from A Company.

One man was killed in all this shuffling around. The CWGC lists him as Serjeant William Ernest Ransome, a 27 year-old Yorkshireman. He left behind a widow, Elsie Linda, a native of Dorchester and a 3 year old son, Victor Ernest. Note the archaic use of Sergeant in the record which is apparently still used in The Rifles today. The Dorsets were merged into the Devons and Dorsets in 1958 and into the Rifles in 2007.

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.

Gorre blimey

 

26th October 1914

The Dorsets were formed into working parties and put under the orders of the Royal Engineers. They spent the day in and around Gorre, according to the Dorsets’ war diary. They returned to their billets in the Rue de Béthune at 6pm.

The Germans continued to press all along the front. The ragged Allies held on precariously. The French were being heavily shelled in Givenchy and the 5th Division HQ received reports from the 15th Brigade that the two French battalions there were “nearly wiped out”.

Further north the Germans had pushed through the 7th Brigade (part of 3rd Division) into a town that would become a household name the following year: Neuve Chapelle.

Steam punk engineers

26th September 1914

The Dorsets continued digging in, deepening existing trenches and connecting them with communication trenches.

They were assisted by sappers from the 17th Company Royal Engineers, led by C.E.R. Pottinger, who appears to have been a character out of a steam punk novel. Gleichen describes him; “young Pottinger, a most plucky and capable youth wearing the weirdest of clothes—a short and filthy mackintosh, ragged coat and breeches, and a huge revolver.”

Charles Evan Roderick Pottinger was born in Ahmednuggor, India in 1890. In the 1911 census he’s a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, 21 and living in Gillingham, Kent. This is the location for the headquarters to the Royal School of Military Engineering which is now the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive.

Gleichen annotates Pottinger’s name with this sad comment: “I grieve very much to see that he was fatally wounded outside Ypres (15th May 1916).” He actually died of wounds a year earlier than that, on 11th May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres. He also appears in the Irish list of Casualties of World War One, so I wonder if he was from Irish lineage? He lived at “Glenshee”, Cambridge Park, Twickenham, which is my old stomping ground, but I haven’t been able to unearth any more information about him at this time, not even a photograph.

He left an awful lot of money (£14,105 – the equivalent of about £1 million today) to Arthur Godfrey James who, in 1911, is living in bijoux Kensington with his wife Helen and a raft of domestic servants. James’ son’s first name is Evan. I wonder if there’s a family connection here? A little more digging around and it appears that the (very posh) Twickenham address was owned by Sir Henry Evan Murchison James. He’s another Evan. I’ve written to one of his descendants and am still waiting to hear back. I’ll update this post if I learn anything new.