Down the Ploeg ‘ole

10th November 1914

Like a series of hurricanes, the battles of La Bassée and Armentiéres had blown themselves into the battle of Messines and they all culminated in what was developing now: the First Battle of Ypres. Really they’re just one long series of German attacks and British defence and piecemeal counterattacks, while the French continued to attack where they could, with huge resulting losses on all sides.

We are witnessing the last gasps of the British Expeditionary Force. Only the trenches, the one thing we most associate with the horrors of World War One, saved them from utter annihilation.

Poor Frank has now been living in shallow, poorly dug, filthy trenches for a week. The trenches at the beginning of the war were little more than holes in the ground. In Ypres, where the waterline was shallow, they had to build up breastworks on top of the ground. Sometimes they dug along hedgerows or tree lines and pulled the hedges down to form the breastwork. Most of the time sandbags and fascines of twigs were heaved out into no mans land to form a defensive line.

Dug outs for the men were practically non-existent. Some holes in the ground were made and covered over in sheets of corrugated iron, stripped from farms here and there. The farms and outbuildings themselves tended to house the HQs dotted along the frontline at this point in the war.

The Dorsets reported another quiet day with shelling throughout the night.

KV and other posh expressions

27th September 1914

If you’ve been reading this blog since the outbreak of the war, you’ll notice that we’ve recently entered a period of trench-digging. This was to become the standard routine for a British Solider on the Western Front until 1918. Periods spent in the line and periods resting in reserve. Long days and even longer nights with little happening apart from the odd shell and burst of small arms fire.

But the British soldier in September 1914 was not versed in the arts of trench warfare. In their eyes, this was a temporary hold up. The leaders on both sides had the same thoughts. As in a boxing match, the two opponents had come together like bulls and fought to a standstill. Now, exhausted, they leant on each other, panting and gathering strength. But the next bout was coming. As both sides tensed themselves for the next round of onslaught, it was easy to panic and spread pandemonium. Gleichen writes:

On one day, the 27th, we had a false alarm, for the enemy was reported as crossing the Condé bridge at 4 A.M. in large numbers, and everybody was at once on the qui vive*, the Cheshires, who were in bivouac behind Rolt’s farm, being sent back (by Sir C. Fergusson’s orders) to Rupreux, the other side of the river. We rather doubted the news from the start, as the Condé bridge had, we knew, been blown up, and there was only one girder left, by which a few men at a time could conceivably have crossed; but the information was so circumstantial that it sounded possible.

The BEF was not prepared for this type of static warfare and it’s often said that the ever-resourceful Germans were ahead of the game. They certainly had better-suited equipment with digging tools, periscopes, grenades (hand and rifle) and heavy siege guns; designed to attack the huge Belgian and French forts and now free to use on a more mobile enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols’ determination to make of fortress of Missy counters this claim to some extent. He and the Royal Engineers rendered Missy really secure, even under severe bombardment.

And severe bombardment is exactly what happened throughout the rest of the day. The false alarms sent the Germans into a similar state of panic and they responded with an artillery barrage. Gleichen again:

Missy was shelled particularly heavily that day from 10 to 6, and it was painful to watch great bouquets of 8-in. H.E. shells exploding in the village, and whole houses coming down with a crash; it seemed as though there must be frightfully heavy casualties, and I trembled in anticipation of the casualty return that night.

The Dorsets diary reports “very heavy shelling which continued until dark – both shrapnel and high explosive”, adding  “Casualties. Nil – not withstanding heavy shelling”. This is either a cocky boast or an early reference to the stress and psychological damage a heavy bombardment inflicted on troops.

* Qui vive. At Prep School we used a term “KV” or “Cavey” to alert fellow pupils when a master was approaching. I always thought it was Latin but I wonder if it comes from this phrase which has its origins in a French sentry alert; a kind of “who goes there”.