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On the way in I came across these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in a shell-hole as though they were asleep.
(They were Gough’s XIV Corps. Guards. From the 38 Division commanded by General Lord of Cavan. They’d been held up on the west bank of the Steenbeck. Gas had been used by Jerry on as attacks had been made on Houthulst Forrest)
Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined.
They were not like an ordinary shell.
Gas came over like a dud.
You could see down this path from Courage Post right into the forest. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire, just all shell-holes and mud.
It had been raining heavily since the beginning of October.
The ground was like porridge. Parts of the front and turned into a lake. Simply getting to a front position was exhausting as you had to wade through this ooze and negotiate the rims of shell-holes.
(The rainfall in August 1917 over Northern France and Belgium was twice the August average. In fact, there were only three days that entire month when there was no rain).
Streams pushed their way through the crumbling banks of the craters and linked into impassable lakes of liquid mud. On the surface of the water there’d be an iridescent smear of oil. or it was green from gas on a puddle.
If you saw a film of red streaking the surface it didn’t take much imagination to guess what else was down there.
And the smell. It made you wretch.
There was no getting used to the stink from all the mess, body parts, rotting away … a lads inside, heads, limbs, hands … you can’t imagine the horror of it.
Even if you buried them it didn’t take much to blow them out of the ground.
Jerries, Tommies, mules and horses. The only thing that lived out there were rats and they had a feast of it.
This was when I heard this kid in this dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother.
I don’t know if he’d been hit or fallen in but it stopped me in my tracks.
There was a bit of an embankment down to the stream. When it rained it was like a river, full of frogs and all this filth. On the other side there was this shell hole. All I could see was his head and shoulders sticking up above the mud.
Shell holes could be 30-50ft deep.
They quickly filled with water which formed a muddy sludge of body bits, broken equipment and what not. This was behind the pill-box they named Egypt House 200-300 yards short of Houthulst Forest.
I leant down to get this lad, mind you with all that mud I might have slipped in myself. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby.
The line faced the Ypres Canal with Houthulst Forest on the other side
There’d been this attack to try to get around Houthulst forest which the French had taken on the 9th October. Doomed to failure from the start. That July the French had held a short piece of the line between Boesinghe and the Yser after which the remnants of the Belgians took over.
“Mother, mother.” He was saying.
So I grabbed this lad’s shoulder-belt and told him to help himself.
“Kick man, kick. You’ll have to get yourself out of this one.” I said.
He kicks about and I get him onto the duckboards.
“I can’t wait.” I tell him.
You couldn’t stand around out there with all the shooting going on.
And off I went.
Fig.1. International Corner, North of Poperinghe on the N321. The resting spot for the 104 MCG. By Paul Reed.
Our rest spot was International Corner, some seven or eight miles back from Passchendeale.
Fig.2. ‘International Corner’ is on the N321 east of the Abbey of St. Sixtus which is marked here. This is where J A Wilson MM of the Machine Gun Corps rested when out of the line during the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917
(This action takes between International Corner, the communications trenches across the Yser Carnal torwards Pilkem, Langermarke, Poelcappelle and Houthulst Forest)
“We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy had been frustrated, or words to that effect … ‘Enemy driven back with heavy casualties’. It was all lies. We knew because we just happened to know what had happened’.
I played football once at right-back against the trench mortar battery. It was during the winter and the ground was all icy. I went down on one knee and gashed it badly on a lump of ice.
‘We were called in from rest at one time to give support to the Canadians who were attacking Pilkem Ridge’. (Clearly the MCG were a peripatetic group who would be called in as and where required. This may have been around the 26th October as the 3rd Canadian Division moved toward Passchendaele. The Battle of Pilckem Ridge was earlier, 31st July to 2nd August).
We carried in ammunition, there were 250 rounds in a tin box.
When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent.
They give you writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked. I don’t know what we would have done without them, they were excellent. I always give them something when they come to the door.
There were rats on the Yser-Ypres canal bank at Boesinghe, that was real fun.
This was around November. There were all these holes; we’d bung them up with sods of earth and stick some cordite in the last one, slam some more turfs over it and wait for them to go off. You’d think the whole bank-side was ablaze and the rats. We’d try and hit them with bayonets and spades. They’d be down into the water and this little terrier which belonged to the cook would go in after them.
We tried to shoot fish with a gun.
We never got them. Someone would throw in a Mills Bomb, what we called a pineapple or just a ‘bomb.’ They’re called hand-grenades now.
Lice were a menace.
Get too close to the brazier in your dug out and you’d start itching. We used to do all sorts to try and get rid of them. If you took a candle and ran it along the seams you could burn them out. I remember once, it was in the middle of winter, I had a chance to give my shirt a clean – you only had the one. I hung it outside on a bit of line over night.
The next morning, you bugs, despite the frost the lice were still alive.