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)

“Rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another”

It was a hot and dusty day in France.

Sunday 7 July 1918

11.30 am. Lying under a tree in the shade alongside a hot dusty track between Harponville & Hedanville on my way to Battalion headquarters. Had a fine lazy night’s sleep. Got up at 8.30 & breakfasted while dressing. Started this 12 kilo walk to BHQ under guidance of Pte Killick & another chap. A tragically hot & dusty day for such a march. I did so hope for a day or two’s rest at Transport, but it was no go!

1.30 pm. On the Hedanville Forceville road. Have had a long rest here, & got some RFA men to make us some delicious tea.

Arrived Battalion HQ at 3.30. Up to front line straight away. Joined Ferrier in a wood. Thick undergrowth with occasional drives. In front of B Company’s posts only 10 yards between lines!

July 7th [1918]

I am on the way now to B in Head Quarters. I am lying under a tree for a few minutes rest from the almost tragic heat of the hot July day. I have about 16 kilometres to go along a track through acres of cornfields & the dust is about 3 inches thick & there is nary a bit of shade for miles except for this welcome elm tree now. I must pack up & get on trek again. I envy you your bungalow in Norfolk.

I am well & fit although rather tired of this ceaseless tramping from one place to another….

Your always affectionate
Brer
Sydney

Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15); and letter (D/EZ177/8/3/54)

We must continually pray for victory in this the greatest battle in the history of the World

There was more sad news for Newbury families.

We have had more losses among our old boys in the War.

Lieut. Nathaniel Gordon Burgess, RNR, serving in His Majesty’s Navy, was lost at sea on March 6th, after doing splendidly in the Service, and being clearly marked out for further promotion.

Sapper R J Drewell, one of the old CLB lads, was killed in action at Clery in France on March 23rd. His Commanding Officer writes –

“He had behaved splendidly… he will be missed by everyone”.

Mr and Mrs Wyllie have lost their only son.

There have been wounded Frederick Winkworth, Frederick Charles Darby, Percy Robert Styles, Philip Webb, a son of Mrs Tillett, a son of Mr Smart, and a late-comer into the town – Mr Hann. Several are reported missing. We offer our sincere sympathy to the relatives who are in sorrow or anxiety. We must continually pray for victory in this the greatest battle in the history of the World.

ROLL OF HONOUR [nb reno 68-79]

Copied and supplied to the Parish Magazine by J W H Kemp.
(Continued from last month.)

68. Pte Albert Corderoy, 26954, Herts Regt, killed in action in France, 22nd Sept., 1917.
69. Pte R Mason, 1st Royal Berks, killed in France, Sept. 25th, 1916.
70. Pte G Mason, Oxford Light Infantry, killed in action May 16th, 1915.
71. Killed at sea Lieut. Robert Morton Bridges Liddle, RN, December 23rd, 1917.
72. Benjamin Williams, ASC, drowned in the sinking of the SS Arragon Dec. 30th, 1917.
73. Sidney James Hughes, 1st Coldstream Guards, killed January 25th, 1915, at Quinchy, France, aged 23.
74. Pte Thomas Henry Harden Perring, aged 36, killed in action in Palestine, Nov. 13th, 1917.
75. Frederick George Hayward, 2/4 Royal Berks Transport, killed June 6th, 1917, at Tilloy Wood, France. RIP.
76. Pte E B Pounds, London Scottish, son of Mr H Pounds, 3, Enborne Road, killed in action in Palestine Dec. 27th, 1917, aged 21.
77. William James Quintin, killed in action in France, 1917.
78. Pte Albert James Geater, A Co. 1/4 Royal Berks Regt, killed in action August 16th, 1917. RIP.
79. Albert Deacon, 1st Class Steward HMS Marlborough, drowned at sea January 12th, 1918.


Newbury St Nicholas parish magazine, May 1918 (D/P89/28A/13)

Five days and nights in a cattle truck with barely room to turn around

Getting home on leave from the front could be an arduous journey.

Private Frank Earley was with us at Easter time on short leave from Italy. Something may be gathered of the fatigue which leave home involves, from his account of the journey occupying five days and nights in a cattle truck holding 30 soldiers who at night occupy with difficulty the whole available floor space with barely room to turn around. He left on the 12th ult., and has our best wishes at all times.

Earley St Bartholomew parish magazine, May 1918 (D/P192/28A/15)

“Many of our Missionaries are engaged in work amongst the troops”

Many British missionaries were now working with the troops when the latter were off-duty.

THE LMS ANNIVERSARY

This year the annual meetings of the Reading Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society are to be held on Sunday, November 18th and following days.

In the afternoon of [the Sunday] there will be the usual gathering of children and young people at Trinity Church, where addresses will be delivered by the Missionary Deputation…. The annual Public Meeting will be held at Broad Street … [where] we are to have addresses from the Deputation.

Owing to the difficulties of travel in these days, and the fact that so many of our Missionaries are engaged in work amongst the troops on the Continent and elsewhere, the authorities at the Mission House have very few Missionaries at their disposal for deputation work…

Reading Broad Street Congregational Magazine, November 1917 (D/N11/12/1/14)

Gravel seized for a PoW camp

The County Council continued to monitor the damage caused to local roads by military traffic.

ASCOT AND WINDSOR ROAD

The section of the main road from Ascot and Windsor has been badly cut up by heavy military and other motor traffic…

READING AND SWALLOWFIELD ROAD

On the break up of the frost in February the main road between Reading and Swallowfield, which had suffered severely by heavy timber and motor omnibus traffic, became dangerous to traffic. The Committee as a matter of urgency authorised immediate temporary repairs to the worst sections of the road and forwarded an estimate of the cost to the Finance Committee…

ABINGDON AND SOUTH HINKSEY ROAD

This road, which carries a continuous service of motor omnibuses as well as a considerable amount of heavy military traffic, is now in a deplorable condition and there is little likelihood that the amount appearing in the annual estimate will be sufficient to keep the road in a safe condition for traffic.

MILITARY REQUISITIONS

Requisitions have been received from the Military Authorities for the supply of 170 tons of gravel for use on paths at the Prisoners of War Camp, Holyport; and for repairs to military roads at Ascot.

Report of BCC Highways and Bridges Committee, 21 April 1917 (C/CL/C1/1/20)

Should PoWs repair the roads?

Berkshire County Council’s Highways and Bridges Committee told the councillors of the impact of the war on the county’s roads.

Report of Highways and Bridges Committee, 6 January 1917

ESTIMATES, 1917-1918

The Committee propose to frame their Estimates for the financial year 1917-18 on the policy adopted for the year 1916-17, which aimed principally at keeping in good condition the main tarmac trunk roads in priority to other roads, and doing a liberal amount of tar-spraying. Owing to the enormous amount of heavy military and other traffic which is constantly damaging the roads, the high cost of labour and materials, and war conditions generally, it becomes increasingly difficult to even carry out the restricted policy except at a comparatively high expenditure.

MILITARY TRAFFIC

Ascot and Blacknest road.
The Committee understand that a recommendation by the Road Board for the payment of a substantial amount to the County for making good the damage done to this road is at present receiving consideration by the War Department.

Military Requisitions.
A requisition has been received from the Military Authorities for the carrying out of road improvement works at Northcourt Avenue, Reading. An estimate of the cost has been forwarded to the Finance Committee.

Census of traffic. In view of the damage which is still being done to main roads in the county by military transport traffic, the Committee have arranged for a month’s census of traffic to be taken at points on the Bath Road and the Reading and Ascot road.

POST-WAR ROAD IMPROVEMENTS

The Chairman of the Committee and the Acting County Surveyor attended a Conference at the offices of the Road Board on 27 November last on the question of works of road reconstruction and improvement likely to be undertaken at the conclusion of the war, or works which it might be desirable to promote to afford employment for capital and labour. Highway Authorities were asked to co-operate with the Board in preparing a schedule of works. The principle generally agreed upon was that such works should be confined to the strengthening and improvement of existing road crusts only; and should not include widenings or construction of new roads.

The Committee propose to furnish the Road Board with a list of roads in Berkshire which will probably need reconstruction or resurfacing. The Board have been informed that the Council do not, of course, bind themselves to carry out all or any of the works included in the list.

STEAM ROLLERS

It is anticipated that the first of the three new road rollers on order to replace those taken by the Military Authorities will shortly be delivered, but some time must elapse before the remaining two are received, as the manufacturers are busily engaged on war orders, and can only proceed with County work on a certificate from the Ministry of Munitions.

PRISONERS OF WAR

The Committee have had before them a resolution passed by the Kent County Council suggesting the desirability, in the national interests, of utilising the services of prisoners of war for the repair and maintenance of highways, and are making enquiries in the matter.

ROAD SERVICE IN FRANCE

In connection with the organisation of a special Corps of experienced Engineers and Workmen for road work in France, a list of eligible employees has been supplied to the Road Board.

BCC minutes, 1917 (C/CL/C1/1/20)

The Government demands Berkshire’s steamrollers

Military traffic was damaging roads at home, while road mending equipment was requisitioned to use on roads near the front lines.

Report of Highways Committee, 7 October 1916

MILITARY TRAFFIC

The Acting County Surveyor has reported that the road between Didcot and Harwell for a length of about 1 ½ miles, and a section of the Newbury and Abingdon road for a length of a quarter of a mile, have been completely ruined by Military Transport traffic from the camps in the neighbourhood. The Road Board has been informed of the damage and asked to make an inspection of the roads in question.

STEAM ROLLERS

On 4 September, 1916, the Road Board, at the request of the Government, made an urgent request that the three heavy steam rollers belonging to the Council should be handed over to the war Department for use overseas. As the matter was one of urgency, the request was reported to the Chairman of this Committee and the Chairman of the County Finance Committee, who provisionally consented to the rollers being released on the terms proposed by the Road Board, viz that the Treasury should accept a debit for the cost of three new rollers, and that the Ministry of Munitions should give the manufacturers a certificate to enable them to expedite the construction of the new rollers.

In the opinion of the County Surveyor, rollers of a lighter pattern would be more suitable for the work of the County than new heavy rollers, and the Committee have asked the Road Board to arrange for the delivery of one 8-ton roller and two 10-ton rollers. It has also been pointed out to the Board that the Government will effect a considerable saving by the substitution of light for heavy rollers, and a suggestion has been made that the War Department should discharge the cost of the hire of rollers required by the County in the meantime, to an amount not exceeding the estimated saving of £220.

Berkshire County Council minutes (C/CL/C1/1/19)

The difference between fair terms & absolute surrender

The son of the vicar of Radley, Captain Austin Longland was serving in Salonika with the Wiltshire Regiment, where he struggled with the heat, but hoped the Germans were about to give in.

Thursday July 6th [1916]

Temperature in here continues at 95-105 degrees I’m told by the doctor. Also I’ve just had my 2nd dose of typhoid & perityphoid inoculations & have a day off duty in consequence. Twice clouds have gathered, & once we had a violent storm of thunder & lightning but never a drop of rain. Needless to say all beauty’s gone. The sun glares down, trying the eyes, and our view of the town is blurred by a continuous cloud of fine grey dust. I have told you that from the sea up to the hills the ground rises steadily till the last steep ascent, & we’re therefore, tho’ considerably below the level of the actual hills, some height above the town which is about 5 miles away. We are to the left of the road this time, but we can see the sites of our 2 early camps and get a rather different view of the town & the citadel. You remember the shock I had on returning our bivouacs last Sunday fortnight & finding them gone and all my kit packed. My first idea then was that we were going forward – first stop Nish or Sofia, but when it was known that we were to march back over the hills no one knew what to expect.

The men were more cheerful than I’ve seen them in this country – all firmly persuaded that they were going back to France – an opinion which I hadn’t the heart to discourage, but did not hold myself.
Since then nothing has happened. From about 6 to 6.45 each day in the morning the battalion does its old physical drill, & parade which the officers, except Waylen who takes it, do not attend, going out instead to study tactics with the NCOs, each company by itself. This lasts 6 till 9. Three days a week we go a route march from 5-8 a.m. In the evening we parade from 5.45 till 6.15. doing physical exercises gain, officers & all – & that is the day. The NCOs class was ordered by the Brigade & is most useful – tho’ of course it’s what we ought to have done at Marlboro’. So from 9 till 5.45 every day & from 6.30 onwards we have nothing to do except sit in our hut.

Wood as usual is scarce, so there’s not chance to make a chair. At present I am seated on 2 sand-bags, which raises one off the ground a bit. We have a hut for a common room, but tho’ it has forms and a table, it’s very hot & full of flies. Here the flies grew so unbearable that I ordered yards of muslin from the town & with its aid we ae at last at peace. We feed in a hut off a sand bag table & seated on sand bag seats. I’ve just been busy trying to make that fly-proof – harder but even more necessary. If you sit still for a moment you can always count over 50 on the plate in front of you.
(more…)

Army traffic due to come past school

Children at Reading school got an early start to the weekend thanks to army movements. Battle School is not far from Brock Barracks.

17th September 1915
The children were dismissed this (Friday) afternoon at 4.20 as a great amount of military traffic was expected to pass the school building at 4.30.

Battle Infants School log book (SCH20/18/2, p. 265)

Eager to go into the trenches

A couple of Reading soldiers write from the Front:

NEWS FROM THE FRONT.
Service in a Cornfield.
‘We had a Church Service in a cornfield this morning and a Communion Service afterwards. It was quite a novelty; the grain was standing in the sheaves and the surrounding scenery was lovely. We are in a valley with clumps of trees and cornfields all around us, and in the distance one can see the spires and chimneys of a town, and on the other hand a little way behind can be seen the ruins of a smaller town where an occasional shell can be heard to burst. We had a good bath yesterday, the first we have had for about six weeks or a little more. Since I last wrote to you I have joined the Signalling Section, and I was about to you a few days ago on my station in the trenches, but just as I was about to start ‘Fritz’ got ahead of me with a few souvenirs in the shape of shells, trench-mortar bombs, rifle grenades, and such-like niceties, so I had to clear for action, as a demonstration by ‘Fritz’ is likely to make our wires pretty busy with messages. ‘Fritz’ got a direct hit on our trench in one place and we were lucky not to have our wire broken, which would have meant going out to mend it, shells or no shells. I saw Lieutenant Poulton Palmer’s grave the other day.
A. Goodson.

Ronald Palmer Club
“Just a line to let you know that another old club boy has managed to get to France. We left Southampton at 7 p.m. on Saturday, august 7th, and arrived in France at 1 o’clock in the morning, but we did not disembark until 8 oc’clock. We went to a rest camp about two or three miles away for the next night. Next day we started to move nearer the firing line. we started at 6 p.m. in cattle trucks and travelled all night until midday the next day, and we were cramped, tired and dirty. We then had a march over rough cobbles to a town, where we are now billeted in barns waiting to be moved into the line, but I am afraid it will be some time before we get there, though our fellows are all eager to go into the trenches. We see a number of aeroplanes hovering round here all day long. I saw one of the old club boys the other day, J. Sawyer of the RHA; he went to our first camp with Mr Heaton, and enlisted just after. I hope the Club and all concerned are getting on well.
Lance-Corporal Bushell.

August 4th
From the four corners of the earth,
Where’er the British flag shall float,
Our vow of victory we take,
Resolved to drown the craven note.

For there are those within our midst
To whom NO peace is premature;
But our’s to war to end such war!
And ne’er again this curse endure.

Not for our gain – a year ago –
‘Twas not for greed we drew the sword,
But to defend our plighted word
Our blood and wealth have been outpoured.

The Empire’s vow’s the Empire’s bond,
All round the world today she’s bound –
This pledge to keep her sword unsheath’d
Until her cause with victory’s crowned.
A.W.E.

Reading St John parish magazine, September 1915 (D/P172/28A/24)

The County Surveyor offers himself

A letter from the County Surveyor to the Lord Lieutenant was read aloud to the Berkshire County Council Standing Joint Committee on 12 June 1915. It is hard to imagine one of today’s senior council officials volunteering to join the army, even if as terrible a war as the First World War were to engulf the nation, but Fred Hawkins of Berkshire wished to use his abilities on behalf of the nation:

Shire Hall, Reading
11th June 1915

Dear Sir

For a long time I have been anxious to volunteer my services to the Government during the War, but in deference to the strongly expressed opinion of Sir Robert Mowbray and Mr Ferard that my services were more required by the County, I have not hitherto felt justified in doing so. Now, however, matters have taken a different turn.

I understand unofficially that the Road Board in conjunction with the War Office are considering the formation of a Company of Engineers for work either in England or in France and Belgium for construction and repair of roads and bridges, and should such Company be formed, Public Bodies will be asked to release as many men as possible with practical road experience now in their employ.

Although I do not anticipate that my services will be required immediately I have been asked to put myself in a position of being able to take up an appointment at very short notice in the event of my being called upon to do so.

As I arranged for the general repairs to Police Stations to be carried out during the first quarter of the financial year as far as possible, most of this work will be completed by the end of this month, and I, therefore, consider that my present staff, with the addition of Mr Clayton, whose existing temporary appointment would in the ordinary course terminate about September 1st, should be able to carry on my work for the Standing Joint Committee, and even though the supervision generally cannot be so efficient, nevertheless, I feel strongly that it is my duty to give my services to the Government should they be required….

Yours truly
J. Fred. Hawkins
County Surveyor

[The Committee agreed to release him should he find a suitable opportunity.]

BCC Standing Joint Committee minutes, 12 June 1915 (C/CL/C2/1/5)

Excessive military traffic: a claim for compensation

Berkshire County Council’s Highways and Bridges Committee wasn’t very pleased with the army, which was churning up Berkshire’s roads and hogging the railways.

MAIN ROADS
Certain main roads have been considerably damaged by excessive military traffic, and the cost of repair is estimated at £1,761. as this estimate is only for the damage up to the 23rd November, the Committee ask the Council to authorise an additional expenditure for the current financial year of not exceeding £2,000… The Military Authorities have been informed that a claim for compensation will be made in due course…

Owing to the call on the railways by the Military Authorities there has been a great difficulty in obtaining delivery of materials, and only a small portion of the repairs have so far been carried out…
The Engineer Officer in charge of Roads and Railways, Southern Command, has inspected the road from Reading to Eversley, which is one of the roads damaged, and on which it is understood there will continue to be a great deal of heavy traffic, and a requisition has been received from the Military Authorities for certain repairs to be carried out to the road.

CA Ferard, Chairman, 9th January 1915

Report of the Highways and Bridges Committee to Berkshire County Council (C/CL/C1/1/18)