Royal Garrison Artillery signallers on the Somme, September 1916. Photo by official war photographer Lieutenant John Warwick Brooke
Our guns were situated on the outskirts of Martinsart and our observation post was in a trench running along the ridge of a small hill. It was called JPI and was approached by a communication trench winding up the hill. They were favourite targets for the Germans as troops were constantly going up to the front and second line trenches or coming down from them. Picture the scene. Two of us going up to the O.P for 24 hours duty at 6 a.m, mud bespattered, carrying a two-gallon petrol tin filled with drinking water, gas mask, steel helmet and haversack containing food. Part way up the trench we would frequently meet about 200 infantry men coming down. The trench could be anything from ankle deep mud to nearly up to the knee. We would stop and flatten ourselves to the trench sides whilst 200 men, fully equipped with rifles, etc., would pass by. They were tired and cared little for us. When they had passed us we continued our way to our observation post.
One morning going up at 6 a.m., it was quite daylight and my companion was a great friend of mine. We had worked together quite a lot. His name was Jim Pearce. We were just approaching the entrance to the trench when the Germans started one of their periodic sessions of shelling the entrance. We were absolutely in the midst of the bursting shells.
Jim dropped everything he was carrying and ran away as fast as he could. He took a great risk as shell splinters were flying in all directions. Had just one splinter hit him he could have been killed or seriously wounded. For myself, as soon as the shelling started I too dropped everything, but instead of running away, I dropped flat to the ground, burying my face in the mud and gripping my steel helmet on the back of my head and over my neck. It was all voluntarily and done on the spur of the moment. I was frightened and found myself praying, saying out loud: “Oh Lord stop them shelling,” and “Oh Lord don’t let them hit me.” I don’t profess to be an extra-religious man and these prayers came quite naturally and spontaneously to my lips. As it was, I was showered with falling lumps of earth blown up by near explosions.
Then the shelling stopped and I was up on my feet and racing for the shelter given by the entrance to the communication trench. I was pleased to see Jim Pearce racing up a few minutes later. We then proceeded to our observation post to do our stint of duty. Very shaken but so very thankful to be alive. I think it was shock to the nerves but my whole body was bathed in perspiration. I have never had it again.
On another occasion coming from our observation post we had to walk part way along a narrow Decauville railway track, used by our troops to take up supplies. The Germans started shelling the track and we, Alf Seales and myself, ran for our lives. Life was very, very uncertain.
Again at Martinsart our corporal signaller and four other signallers were sleeping in the cellar of a small brick building when the Germans shelled us. They hit their building which collapsed on top of them. We had to remove a whole pile of bricks to get them out. Fortunately the cellar withstood the weight of the bricks piled high over them. They all came out alive but the corporal went home with shell shock, a common complaint, and never returned.
Battle of the Ancre November 13th – 19th, 1916
Then came the two battles of Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel (Battle of the Ancre). Both were quite successful as the Germans were thrown back and had to vacate their strong defensive positions. Again Jim Pearce and myself were very much involved. We went up to our observation post the day prior to the attack with two days rations and a can of water to make tea if possible. These two days were the heaviest of my army career. We sent back hundreds of reports of enemy firing, our own firing, SOS flares, etc. Additionally our telephone line was broken at least twenty times. This was the worst part for one of us would have to climb out of the trench, telephone line running through one hand until we came to the break and then wait until a signaller from the battery arrived when we joined up the break. It was dangerous work and we took turns to sally out. We had no sleep for 48 hours, were mud-stained from head to foot, wore a gas mask, steel helmet and telephone as our only equipment. When we were relieved we staggered down to the battery and fell asleep straightaway in our cellar. We slept non-stop for over twelve hours each and awoke ravenously hungry.
IWM Field Communication Q36080
Rest and Recreation
There was a very pleasant sequel to our two days and nights of trial. Some two or three weeks later we were told to our utter astonishment that both Jim Pearce and I were to go for a week’s rest at the seaside. It had never happened previously to anyone in the battery and sad to relate it never happened again. So off we went to a seaside camp which had been established for troops needing rest and quiet. It was a tiny French village called Onival (north of Dieppe), occupied by civilians and very, very peaceful.