Veritable hell: “We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army”

Here is a dramatic account of life in the Army Service Corps taking water to the thirsty troops one terrible day in Mesopotamia.

(We publish the following account of an exciting adventure in Mesopotamia in justice to the gallant men of the A.S.C., in case there should still be any who are liable to despise the man not in the front line. ED)

“A Stunt.”
(By a FORD Driver in Mesopotamia)

We had just completed an eleven days’ continuous run, and were expecting a day or two’s well earned rest, but such was not to be.

We reached —— at midnight and “parked up” our cars outside the old Turkish Cavalry Barracks. I “clicked” for guard, and at 3.30 a.m. took a telegram from a despatch rider, containing instructions to move off and load up immediately, So at the first streak of dawn, amid much “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, we “wound up,” and after picking up supplies we started off on a joy ride across the desert to an unknown destination, for a journey of indefinite duration.

We arrived at ——, and to our great joy were informed that we were to rest for the remainder of the day. What hopes!

For the next two days we had barely time to eat the necessary “bully,” so busy were we rushing supplies of all descriptions to an advanced position.

At the end of the second day, thinking we had earned a little sleep, we had just got into our blankets when the whistle announced “fall in.”

This time (about 8.30 p.m.) it was to pick up troops, under sealed orders. For the first fifteen minutes all was well, then we pulled up, and the fun commenced. All lamps out, no smoking, talking or blowing of hooters, the greatest precautions to be taken.

Of course, you should know that we were on the desert, following a track which we had never travelled before, everything pitch black, laden with troops, with the knowledge that with us rested the success of the action planned for the following day break.

When returning the following morning, we could hardly believe our eyes, when we saw the route we had taken in the dark, deep, yawning precipices and huge boulders of rock, and the places of danger which we passed but “where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise.” Anyhow, after about an hour’s ride or so, during which time we had relieved the tension on our nerves by smashing a few radiators, losing the column and sundry other mere “inconveniences,” it was decided to pull up for one-and-a-half hours till the moon should show just a glimmer, for progress under the circumstances was absolutely impossible.

This hour-and-a-half was even more nerve racking than driving, as we hardly dared to whisper, for here we were, stranded in “No Man’s Land,” where, apart from the actual enemy, viz.:- Johnny Turk, the great nuisances were the hostile and cunning Arabs, who do not at all object to using us as targets for practical jokes of a serious nature.

At last we started off again, and after many and indescribable difficulties, we parked up under the shelter of a big hill to drop our men and to wait for dawn and further instructions.

The day broke and with the dawn our brave men went over the top of the hill, but Johnny was not asleep this time, for he soon started throwing a few shells over, and we, being somewhat interested, stood on top of our cars to watch the proceedings, until one of the enemy’s aeroplanes “spotted” our “place of rest” and gave information to his artillery, who got our range to a nicety, and we (reckless, daring spectators) began to discover, a few at a time, that the underneath parts of our cars needed attention, but I freely admit, that to stand and allow someone to throw 6in. shells into our midst, while powerless to reply or defend ourselves, did not greatly appeal to me at least.

However, our time of idleness was brief, for word came through, even in the early dewy hours of the morning, that the only water available for our advancing troops was from the salt lakes.

Then we got busy, packets, tanks, buckets, petrol tins, canvas water carriers, everything capable of holding water is flung aboard and we dash off by two’s and three’s from our “park” to gain a river some few miles across the desert.

But Johnny had anticipated our movement and had the river banks nicely covered with snipers and machine guns, so instead of running “en bloc” and filling up altogether, we had to dash up one or two at a time and fill up our receptacles.

When all the difficulties were overcome, and we were ready to commence our return journey, it was approximately 10 a.m., with a temperature of 110° in the shade, when we regained sight of our troops it was practically midday, with a temperature of 128° in the shade.

Then came a veritable hell, the water had to be got to the troops and orders came through that the M.T.’s were to “carry on.”

We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army.

The M.T.’s had never been under fire in Mesopotamia before and never since, except in cases of single cars on special detail, but here we were, about eighty cars in column, ordered to practically reach the front line trenches, shells bursting right and left. Did someone mention “Brooklands?”

Never before had Ford cars travelled at such a speed, sixty pounders make excellent accelerators. There were many miraculous escapes, cars riddled with machine gun bullets and shrapnel, some cars put out of action, here and there was a man putting on a spare wheel under fire, but marvellous to relate, not one of our men was touched. I shall not forget a shell dropping and rolling under a car about two yards away.

Thank God, ‘twas a “dud.”

Eventually the trenches were reached, the sight was almost beyond description, dead and dying, troops mad with thirst, they had been drinking salt water, and more men had been “laid low” by sun and thirst than anything else.

Disregarding discipline, our cars were raided, the water speedily drunk, and all craving for more. Then we drove, hither and thither, picking up wounded and dying, and made our way to the field hospital. By this time it was “every man for himself,” and we practically worked individually, using our own discretion. During this time, two of our men gained Military Medals, and one of our officers was “mentioned” and has since received promotion.

Night was now drawing near, but it made no difference to us. Half was ordered to move the Casualty Clearing Station and then drive thirty miles (this time in safety) across the desert for more ammunition.

On the return journey, I, personally, and several of my “pals,” I know, fell asleep over the wheel, to be suddenly and rudely awoke by a “gentle” drop into a hole or a bump against a sand bank.
When we got back we found that our troops had retired about seven or eight miles, and while we were fetching the stores and wounded back, the Arabs had great sport “sniping” at us, and some of us nearly got into trouble for stopping to reply to their “overtures of good will.”

But we successfully completed the retirement, and Johnny did not follow up, so the “stunt” s finished, and we returned to —- for a rest, — what hopes, we were dead beat, no sleep for over fifty-six hours, but within twenty-four hours we were again on our ordinary work of carrying supplies from one dump to another, to be forgotten until the next stunt, but don’t forget, — when the M.T.’s are wanted again, they will be there.

The Newburian (magazine of St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury), July 1918 (N/D161/1/8)

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Victory for Lloyd George, accused of making a mis-statement about man-power

Major General Sir Frederick Maurice made a controversial allegation that Parliament had been misled regarding the manning of the Western Front.

10 May 1918

Another officer here – Australian Captain Goudie – Artillery.

Victory for Lloyd George. Asquith’s motion about Sir F. Maurice’s letter defeated. He accused Lloyd George of making a mis-statement about man-power. Mesopotamian troops & Bonar Law’s statement about the interversion of the line not settled in Versailles Conference.


Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“Master Chaffinch sings near by me despite the swish of shells through the air or craaack of shrapnel”

Sydney Spencer took comfort in nature surviving the battlefield, but the nice weather meant easy pickings for the German artillery. Meanwhile their brother Will was in touch with a former pupil in Germany.

Percy Spencer
9 May 1918

A lovely day again, worse luck. Huns shelled our boys with 8” & gas. 14 gassed.

Dr Caux had tea with us & told us pretty story of old lady who refused to leave until her children left, asked how many she had, she replied that she didn’t know, & pointing to the yard crowded with Tommies, exclaimed, “These are my children”.

Sydney Spencer
Thursday 9 May 1918

I was very cold in the night so felt rather cheap when I got up this morning. A glorious spring morning. The grass on which I lie now at 12.30 pm is sweet May scented. All around are the ubiquitous dandelions, daisies & buttercups, & here & there graceful patches of delicate green & white, made by the greater sketchwort. Master Chaffinch sings near by me despite the [illegible] and swish of shells through the air & the angry snip of 18 pounders, or craaack of shrapnel.

Now for some lunch. Saw a beautiful little ‘copper’ butterfly today. The last I saw was at dear old Thoresby Camp, Worksop, only 8 short months ago. After lunch a read or sleep & then worked out mess accounts. After tea continued on mess accounts. At 8.30 ‘stand to’. No 5 platoon dug my fire positions in new battle positions. Bed about 10 pm. Oh happy day. A long night’s sleep.

Will Spencer
9 May 1918

Was pleased to receive a long letter from Fraulein Hildegard Vogel from Cassel, telling me of her musical studies under Dr Zulauf (is now studying the Chopin Fantasia!) & enclosing a photograph of herself with her fiancé. J. thinks, from his uniform, that he is an officer in the Artillery. As the elder of her two brothers (aged 18) is in a Cadet School, & the younger, who is physically & mentally weak, is just going to a Waldpaedagogium in Berka in Thuringen, they (the mother and two daughters) are leaving Cassel next month & going to live in a smaller house in Naumburg a/d Saale, where they will be near Berka.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX802/28)

A fairly good strafe

Both Percy and Sydney Spencer were now close behind the front line.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 3 May 1918

A fine morning! Stand to 4.30. Weather clear till 5.30. Then [illegible] for about ½ an hour, afterwards a perfect day. Trench dried up beautifully, ground became hard & easy to walk on. Arranged a good many details such as ammunition, lamps, fire positions, etc, during morning. Much aeroplane activity & a fairly good strafe at 10 am on the village behind enemy registering with artillery on all points on our line. Slept from 10.30 am till 1 pm & from 2-3.30 pm. Then duty till 5.30.

After tea had a talk with my men on general information. Got a plan made out for Lewis Gunners. Came back to HQ. Got a message to say that Company HQ was coming up with the spare platoon of B Company. They arrived at about 8 pm. Dillon and Rolfe arrived at about 10 pm.

Percy Spencer
3 May 1918

Hard day – returns & re-organising. Weather fine. Fritz bombed near by. Ridley turned up & talked over old times.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and Percy Spencer (D/EX801/67)

“It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war”

Sydney Spencer was now very close to the action, as he confided in both his diary and a letter to sister Florence (written in pencil on a scrap of paper). His fluency in French meant he was the recipient of the sorrows of an elderly Frenchwoman.

Diary
Wednesday 24 April 1918

After a very peaceful night I got up at 7.30. after breakfast had a rifle inspection. Made up mess acocount. Wrote to OB. Sent cheque to W H Smith & Sons. We march off & dig in at 2 pm. We go to M-M. We arrived here at 8.45 pm. Our platoons dug in & made cubby holes. Before one could say knife they had scrounged any mount of loot & made cubby houses! One was named Norfolk Villa, another “Tumbledown Nest”. Another “Home sweet home”.

Two pathetic incidents, an old lady horribly crippled finished her plaint weeping, “Vous me donnerez, M’sieur, [meme?] grand service si vous tirez a moi”! [You will give me great service, sir, if you will shoot me.]

Another, outside our cellar here in the yard lies a cross with grave number & the legend ‘A British soldier’. Tonight Frost found some flour someone else went to move. Brought back some sort of [lime?]. The two were mixed before I discovered the mistake. Result chaos!

Guns are behind us now firing considerably in “crashes on suitable targets”!


Letter

24.4.18
My dearest Florence

A cellar in a ruined village, straw on the floor, 4 candles, a brazier, a table ‘scrounged’ from somewhere with glasses, table cover & supper in preparation. Artillery getting ever louder & nearer. And that is how I approach nearer the real thing. It all seems like a Cook’s tour to me instead of real war. I suppose it is a case of fools & angels again!

Only twice have I been made to feel the effect of war. Outside leaning against the wall is a small wooden cross torn up from goodness knows where & on it the legend “A British Soldier” and a grave number. An old lady, very crippled, who wept & spoke patois, poured her troubles into my ears, seated on a pile of wood & earth. I was the only one who could understand her so I had to bear the brunt of all her troubles. I will not tell you all she said, but when I told her gently that there was nothing I could do, she wept and pathetically asked me whether I would do her the kindness of shooting her! My captain, who says that he is a well seasoned soldier, was quite touched by the incident, so you can imagine that I had to take very great care to preserve an outward calm.

But still my darling Florence I am as I have repeatedly said, very perky & as well & vigorous as ever I have been. My tootsies are just a little weary after much walking about today, but otherwise c’est une bagatelle.

All love to you my darling sister &
Cheer Ho

Your always affectionate Brer
Sydney

Same address
I am Mess President of my Company. Tonight my [illegible] discovered some flour in a disused mill, another went for more & brought back some lime, both were mixed before I discovered mistake. Result chaos!!!

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter to Florence Image (D/EZ177/8/3/22)

“All of a tremble: I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire”

Sydney Spencer and his battalion were on the move, and getting ever closer to the action.

Tuesday 23 April 1918

Rose at 7.30. Got kit packed & mess kit packed. No parades today. Went for short walk in woods. A lovely morning. The young trees looked their lovely ‘shrill green’. Violets & cowslips everywhere. After lunch we had a mess meeting. Drink bills were settled up, thank goodness. I paid in for B company 160 francs. It is now time to get ready for our route march to Lillevillers, so we is off [sic] 5.45 pm.

10.15 pm. Arrived at Lealv-s at 8 pm. Have had supper. Papers have arrived. We move on tomorrow & dig in behind Mailly-Maillet by daylight. So I shall probably get my first experience of being under shell fire. I am all of a ‘thremble’ [sic] at the idea and as Aunt L would say, here’s a nice kettle of fish. Hervey and I are billeted at No. 75. Artillery is making some row just at present.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

It is all so like soldiering in England except for the rumble of artillery and the latrines

Sydney Spencer’s soldiers complained about smelly, unsanitary toilet facilities.

Tuesday 16 April 1918

Had the warmest and most comfortable night’s rest since being in France. Rose at 7.15. Am now inspecting billets. 9.30.

10.50 am. Have finished orderly officer’s work for time being. Latrine accommodation was the great bug bear! Had to “square” smell up, as poor old Archdale would have said had he been alive.

I am beginning to settle down nicely now although one can hardly say settle down because it is all so like soldiering in England except for the rumble of artillery which is distant from line.

It is warmer today & wind has dropped. Just a spot or two of rain, that is all.

[Continued in pencil:]

My pen has given out so pencil is the only resort. After lunch I got hold of a cottager’s wife who would bake our pots for tonight, & also bought a chicken for 7 francs.

Diary of Sydney Spencer of Cookham (D/EZ177/8/15)

“My perfect innocence of what is what in war”

Sydney Spencer was interested to find an American doctor was treating British soldiers.

Saturday 13 April 1918

8.53 pm. Enemy seems to be attacking from NE as I write. Heavy art[illery] duel seems to be in progress, at any rate it seems heavy to me, in my perfect innocence of what is what in war.

Cozens Hardy is not at all well. I think he has a chill. He went to bed early. The American doc dosed him with salts. He looked so quaint with his rough burly form squatted on the ground solemnly making up his dose. He wore his wooly lining with [Sarn brown?] over the top & looked quite of the Northern latitude.

This morning I took charge of company for digging trenches round 17.40 over by the hangars. Another day [illegible]. Task lasted from 9-2.30. Slept till 3.15. Then inspected company for gas masks and equipment etc. Had dinner at 7.15. Am now in bed. A rough windy day. No aeroplane work today.

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

The greatest of inventions that this war has produced

Percy Spencer was instructed by sister Florence to write to her husband John Maxwell Image about a new kind of weapon – the Stokes mortar, invented by Wilfred Stokes in 1915.

Mar. 13. 1917
My dear John

I’m under orders from WF to write and tell you “all about the Stokes gun”, with a sort of threat that if I don’t I shall forfeit your affection. Do please give her some lessons on the ‘power of command’.

And now to show she needs none, I’ll tell you, not everything, but a few things about our famous little strafer.

I suppose the character of this war was bound to lead to the development of the mortar. For one thing, in a vast number of cases the distance between the opposing trenches is so short that to hit the enemy trench without damaging one’s own demands closer shooting than modern artillery has yet completely achieved. Hence, as I say, the development of the mortar which from its size and easy portability to forward positions was bound to become an important weapon for short range work. But no one who saw the primitive weapons of this kind which we possessed in 1915 had much hope that the “wonderful Stokes gun”, the existence of which was at first a carefully guarded secret from the Huns, would prove the success and surprise to the enemy that was expected by the experts.

Its advance upon old types was at once recognised, but I do not think its unique effectiveness would have been thoroughly appreciated, but for the perseverance and pluck of our men who work the guns.

Of course owing to their weight and difficulties of ammunition supply, all guns, mortars and mechanical contrivances for trench warfare diminish rapidly in value as an attach advances, but for preparing the way for an assault I believe the Stokes gun is one of our most valuable weapons, and perhaps our most valuable trench weapon. I should not be surprised if it were ultimately classed as the greatest of inventions that this war has produced, excepting, of course, the Kaiser’s utterances.

I’m told its rapidity of fire has the most terrorising effect and in one heavy battle last year, when the preliminary preparation had not been thoroughly completed, it was our Stokes strafe (creating I believe, a record for volume of fire) which not only ripened the harvest for our fellows, but actually gathered it in, for the Huns never waited for them, but ran in with their hands up.

Curiously enough, arising out of a discussion in the mess yesterday upon the reward of the great inventor, some said that the joy of personal achievement was his real reward, others that it was determined purely by the extent of his cash profit, and another that his reward was essentially the consciousness of having benefitted humanity, the latter opinion being cited as Mr Stokes’ recompense; and upon its being suggested that the last was rather a matter of point of view, like a true Christian and Britisher, he challenged the suggestion and stood to his statement.

So, altho’ I’m afraid Mr Censor will not pass any remarks as to the principle of the gun, its rate of fire, ranges and kinds, anyway you’ll be satisfied that it’s a bonnie weapon [censored].

A little while ago WF asked me if a report of “our raid” was true. It was indeed a champion affair, never do I remember such a tornado of fire, but as you will have realised, beyond the broad facts that there was a raid, and I believe the most successful one ever made by the British, the newspaper report is sheer nonsense. The gorgeous gentleman who resides in comfort somewhere behind and seems to have the newspaper glory of this Division peculiarly under his care, succeeds only in getting well outside the truth, and making us appear ridiculous in the eyes of those who do know what is and what is not possible.

Recently I have missed 2 opportunities for souvenirs. One, the top of a brass candlestick discharged from a shrapnel shell at us last night – whether Fritz has grown humorous or artistic, I don’t know, but it strikes me as a rather charming idea of conveying “evening hate”. The other was very curious. In clearing the manure refuse etc from a farmyard midden a stone’s throw from here a Uhlan, intact, with lance complete, was discovered standing upright in the mire. Unfortunately he had been completely souvenired before I heard about him, otherwise you should have had a morsel. It would be interesting to know how he met his death.

Well, I think that’s all the news I have to tell you just now. Life is fairly lively, and we still have to do a good deal of shell dodging.

However it’s all towards the end of the war.

With love to you both

Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

Major Dinkum

Florence Vansittart Neale heard some gossip and tall tales from army officers. “Dinkum” is actually an Australian word, and the story, ascribed to an Australian officer, is recorded as being in circulation elsewhere.

25 December 1916

Had 5 Remount Depot to dine with us.

Major Remount Depot told me – hear [Colonel?] RFA told him how a spy had been caught. Posed as a Major who came to their Division & gave orders to bombard [later?] a salient! Said he had been sent from the HQ, also seen and arranged for other divisions etc etc. A Canadian present said. “Is this dinkum”, a slang word meaning is this true. He answered Yes, I am Major Dinkum. Whereupon the C[anadian?] rushed on him & held him down & they found he was a spy & was taken out & shot.

One day the artillery was told to bombard heavily but unluckily the ammunition was forgotten!!

Hear the new Government dare not conscript Ireland.

I hear Sir D. Haig sent for 1000 miles of railway lines, 400 engine drivers & heaps of locomotives, & that has caused the reduction of trains & increase in the price of tickets to begin Jan 1 1917.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches

Percy Spencer wrote to his new brother in law with a vivid description of life in the muddy trenches.

26.10.15
Dear Mr Image

Almost it seems another world that last I saw you in. we move so often and crowd so many events into our time that the clock seems to have more hours in it nowadays than in ordinary peaceful times.

Here I am in a long lean dugout made by the Huns. [Censored.]

Being in a Hun’s trench naturally the parados [sic] is our screen from the enemy. And that makes life fairly exciting, for the parados is very low in places with here and there a gap. Bullets are plentiful and shells quite frequent, but at present we are all here still and keeping fit. You can’t be anything else while life overhead is so exciting, and life underfoot is equally so, for swimming, sliding, gliding and staggering along the trenches the slightest error will land you at the bottom of a shoot 15 or 20 feet deep – German funk holes scarcely wide enough to admit a man, diving steeply into the bowels of the earth: a tribute to the power of our artillery.

Another thing that strikes one is this evidence of the Huns to stay for the duration of the War. The officers’ dug-outs are walled, floored and ceiled with wood – spacious beds are built between walls at either end. The walls are papered with a cheerful pattern; the ceiling is also papered. Between beds 2 small tables, a couple of chairs, a comfortable arm chair and a full length mirror. On the floor oil cloth – on the walls a few pictures. A stove with flue carried up and through the wall heats the room. The trench leading down to this palace is floored with wood gratings: at the entrance door there is a good scraper – overhead a porch formed with a circular sheet of corrugated iron – “Home from home”.

Well, we’ve run up against a pretty rotten kind of existence as the result of our “push”, but no doubt if this war goes on through the winter which God forbid, when our line is straightened and settled down we shall get better quarters. At present we are “fighting” our men from pretty close up.

This morning I went round the reserve lines with the Brigadier and at one point got well “strafed”.

The reason apparently was a man standing in full view of the Huns on his parapet. He was looking for a bottle of rum another had taken from him and thrown over the parapet. Queer how men will risk their own and others’ lives.

Well, we’ve a strange collection of men and I find them a humorous one too. We all get as much fun out of this life as we can and the dry hunour of our Signal Section is a constant source of amusement to me. One “Taffy” speaks a weird language he describes as pure English. He’s been advised to have a phonetic vocabulary printed down one side of his tunic with the English equivalent opposite, so that we should only have to run our fingers down until we came to the sound he was making. He’s not at all pleased.

It’s 11.30 pip emma as the Signallers say, so good night my dear friend.

With love to you both
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/10/11)

A distant roar

Florence Vansittart Neale was still in Kent and heard the artillery again.

12 July 1916
Still good news. Our gains consolidated. Severe fighting. Heard guns again – very distant roar.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“You will be proud of our boys when I tell of the splendid way they went over the top”

The first bloody day of the Battle of the Somme”>Battle of the Somme was described to Earley churchgoers by one of their lads who was wounded that day.

The Great Attack of July 1st

One of our old CLB and Sunday School boys now wounded writes:

My wound is most serious and I progress favourably. I still have bullet in my leg though, but am going to have it taken out soon. You will be proud of our boys when I tell of the splendid way they went over the top. We had a busy and sleepless night on the Friday. We all knew what the morrow meant, and were waiting in eager anticipation of coming to grips: it is a feeling which comes over you suddenly and makes you see red. Well, we saw red.

At 7.30 our colonel blew the whistle, and the line advanced. It was splendid; looking right and left, one could see a single even line “charging” at the walk. We were the first line over. Their artillery had been smashed by ours before, but oh! the machine gun fire we came under was hell itself, and we suffered.

When we got to the German line the enemy dead were piled in heaps; the sight was awful, but our boys stuck it and were just as though on the parade ground. It was a spirit never to be forgotten. We had captured three of their lines before I was hit. It was bloody work indeed, they do not like our bayonet at all, and I managed to get back to our lines after two hours struggle for the German machine gunners are cowards; if they saw a wounded man crawling back to safety, or in a shell hole, they would train their guns on him and give him an unpleasant time. This was one of my experiences; I got through though.

A Newbury man was among the many reported missing:

We deeply regret to hear that 2nd Lieut. Basil Henry Belcher has been reported missing in France after an attack on July 1st.

Meanwhile Florence Vansittart Neale was optimistic back home in Bisham.

1 July 1916
The great push began – we took La Boiselle. Going on well.

Earley parish magazine, September 1916 (D/P192/28A/14); Newbury parish magazine, August 1916 (D/P89/28A/13); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Italian Intelligence methods are “totally different to ours & in my humble opinion rather unintelligent”

An Intelligence officer contact of Ralph Glyn’s trying to work out how the Austrian army was deployed was unimpressed by his Italian counterparts.

MI2C
War Office
Whitehall
SW

3.V.16

My dear Glyn

Many thanks for your two last letters & the paper on artillery. I’m just back from a visit to the Comande Supremo, where I had a chance of seeing the Italian Intelligence at work. Their methods are totally different to ours & in my humble opinion rather unintelligent. However of that more when we meet again.

Since your last letter of 25/4/16, the Italians claim to have identified the 57th, 59th Divs & 10th Mountain Brigade from Albania in the Trentino. The 57th & 59th Divs appear to form an VIIIth Corps (not an XVIIIth, as they previously swore). I don’t think much if anything has gone to Macedonia from Albania. The containing force there at the moment appears to be 47th Div (probably keeping order in Montenegro), 53rd Div & 10th, 14th, 17th Mountain Bdes, two of which may be incorporated in the 62nd Div, if it still exists.

The only artillery unit I can definitely locate in Balkans is the 2nd Howitzer Bg of the 10th Mountain Artillery regiment (from intercepted correspondence of interned Austrian!) with the 103rd German Div. There are certainly many more Austrian artillery units there, but Lord alone knows which they are. The Italians won’t dish up the enemy artillery on their front other than in terms of guns – never by numbered regiments, batteries, etc, as the normal GS does, & information from Russia, seeing that the Intelligence mission is at Petrograd dependent for its information on Russian War Office, & not at GHQ, is correspondingly scanty & inaccurate.

The composition of units in the AH [Austro-Hungarian] army changes so rapidly that any attempt to reduce it to cut & dried book form in watertight compartments (as you can with the Boche army) seems foredoomed. The book as soon as written is found to be out of date.

However everyone here is anxious that I should carry on with it; and it certainly has been useful here in many ways, so I am going to produce it eventually. But it is awful work, so little reliable information being forthcoming, & so much being left to pure conjecture, that I sometimes give up all hope of making anything out of it.

I had a very interesting visit to the Italian front, of which I will tell you something; it was a welcome change after all the months of unrelieved monotony I had had at the WO.

No time for more
Yours

E M B Ingram

Letter to Ralph Glyn (D/EGL/C32/34)

A real spirit of reverence: an army chaplain’s first Sunday at the Front

T Guy Rogers, former vicar of Reading St John, wrote back to his former parishioners to describe his new life as an army chaplain.

EXTRACT FROM A LETTER FROM Mr. ROGERS.

Dec. 6th

…My first Sunday at the front… I had several strenuous days trying to make arrangements, sometimes riding up and down a street or locality for about half an hour, trying to find a particular headquarters, or officer. My job was to arrange services for all units of the Division (as far as was humanly possible!) – quartered in my particular neighbourhood- the place where the dressing station is. That meant not only for my own Brigade (such part of it as would be out of the trenches) but engineering sections, pioneers, machine gunners, artillery and anything in the way of Divisional troops round me. No one seems to have had the job before, as the Guards have only recently come here. At any rate I was left to sink or swim. However, all my arrangements came through and I had a successful Sunday…

I started off at 8 a.m., with my servant, both walking, carrying communion bag, robes, hymn-books for the congregation etc. After about 20 minutes we reached a big barn, in the loft of which I was to take a parade service, followed by a celebration for a company of Engineers. When I arrived, men were sleeping and dressing, hanging up their clothes and sitting by the braziers making their breakfasts.
It was really rather an awful moment, but we soon got a fatigue party to sweep up the place. I got some forms, rather dirty I’m afraid, and fenced them round a rough table for communion rails; put on a white tablecloth and got ready. The bunks were pushed well back and we got a clear space, though rather a wet one, in the centre. Then the officers came in and we had a very happy little parade service of about 30 or 40. Everybody stood all the time. Of course we had no instrument but some of the men started some of the well known hymns. This was service number one. Then I took a short form of celebration for about 7 or 8. The surroundings were very odd, but there was a real spirit of reverence. (more…)