War Diary of AA Laporte Payne
Brigade Diary, Personal Diary, Operation Orders, Note Books, Memoranda &
The Brigade was reorganised in Six gun batteries, and became a Brigade of two six gun batteries instead of three four gun 18 pdr. batteries. B Battery was split up between A/175 and C/175, and the latter battery renamed B/175.
SEPTEMBER 1, 1916.
The weather has been truly awful this last week. For two days it rained continuously. One night I spent in the trenches, living like a water rat, and I felt like one. The dug-out or what passes for one in this area leaked badly, and my silly servant opened my bedding, and when I turned in I found a large pool in the middle. Cursing is ineffective for drying blankets.
We have ceased moving about for a bit, and after living in caves and holes in the ground the battery personnel is housed in a farm-house, and the guns in pits under the trees of an orchard, firing over a country lane much to the surprise of the unaware passers-by. Certainly the house is a dilapidated one and full of holes. But there is one fairly good room though small. One side boasts of panelling of sorts, and to cover up blemishes I am having it painted with white enamel with a blue edging. So it will look a bit more cheerful. At present we lack furniture, but looting will cure that defect.
We have returned to our old area. I have left my old battery and am now in a six gun battery, but in the same brigade, A Battery. The battery commander is an old Etonian and “shop” boy. He will now be a major. The subalterns are all regulars.
The battery is still in the line, and we do some firing when the spirit moves us; but it is very quiet. I am going into the town of A… this afternoon for tea at the tea shop.
Last night I watched the infantry rations come up. It was most amusing. The major wanted them to come up sorted ready for distribution in the G.S. wagons. But no! What has been must always be. Such is the army way. Rations must come up in bulk and the division made after dark where they are unloaded. The usual confusion followed. The orderlies seemed to chuck the rations in the air like small boys with nuts and scramble for them. Result, some men had two loaves, some two tins of bully beef, one had all the company’s salt ration. Another man looking miserable was asked by the O.C. what his trouble was, and replied that he had his dry ration of tea, but could find no water.
On the way up the relief had discovered a French civilian lying with his head on the metals of a railway which had not been used for two years. He must have been trying to wreck a train due for the next advance. The party did not know what to do with him. Can’t you imagine their consultation in the dark? And the varied advice offered? Eventually they took him along with them for some distance. At last the officer in charge discovered a civilian in his ranks. So as they could not possibly take a civilian into the trenches with them they lost him on the way. He must have been mad or drunk, the civilian, I mean.
The flies worry us a lot here too, but they are not as bad as they were in the south. There they were big and fat drunken looking blue and green things, and seemed to be every where. Here we also get mosquitoes, which love feeding on us.
The old routine has begun again, but it seems worse now after all our recent excitement.
Have you read “The Great Push” by Patrick McGill? I have sent for a copy.
September, 3, 1916.
A/175, Bde. R.F.A.
I am now with a six gun battery, and in accordance with the Colonel’s orders second in command.
At present we are living in an old and broken down farmhouse just outside a small village. There is one small but fairly watertight room which we use for a mess. It is panelled and we are painting it white with a blue border. The ceiling is also white and the beams black. Two polished cartridge cases serve as the only mantelpiece ornaments. One wall is papered with maps. We have looted some chairs, a table and a carpet.
The O.P. is quite near by, but does not afford a very good view, and is certainly not watertight. However I have had worse.
It is somewhat of a relief to get away from the south. Our artillery were there longer than most other troops.
One of my best friends, Haydon by name, an old Marlborough boy and a good officer, was killed only two days before we left while acting as Liaison Officer. He went up into the trenches and was never seen or heard of again. He was an excellent fellow. It was bad luck going through that time only to get killed at the last moment. He was in our battery for some time. Another officer, who was the Colonel’s Orderly Officer, was killed early on. Two F.O.Os were casualties on the 1st July. One, Hickman, was killed. I understand he was shot when wounded by a Boche. The other was badly wounded in the stomach, and is now in England. I suppose I am lucky. I was knocked over once and scratched, but nothing very serious. Well, it is something to have been through. Now we are out of it we can look back with some pride and say, “I was there.”
September 5, 1916.
I am now in A Battery, to which all letters should now be sent.
The weather is typical Flanders weather. It always seems to be raining. In contemplation of a winter here we are trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. We have removed the horrid French stove in the mess together with its iron chimney, and chopped away the plaster and exposed the brick. It looks quite nice and I hope will give a good fire. The woodwork is being painted white. The windows are a problem as the glass is all broken, and it will be difficult to find unbroken panes. We need some chairs too. But I have no doubt we shall find some in the houses in the neighbourhood.
As ornaments brass cartridge cases when polished do very well with an old enamelled ginger jar. We must do something to cover up the atrocious wall paper. On a shopping expedition last Saturday the B.C. and I bought a lamp, table cloths, and other requisites of civilization.
Today I am up at the O.P., but there is very little doing as it is pouring with rain.
Have you seen any moving pictures of the Somme battles. I hear they are worth seeing. We do not come into any, but I saw an operator one day.
September 11, 1916.
The Thatched Cottage,
(at least it was once.)
What a fuss they are making at home about the Zeppelins, and the fellow who was lucky enough to bring one down. I understand it is contemplated erecting a large monument. It would be better to use the money for other purposes, for instance the wounded and disabled soldiers after the war. When the danger is all over they will be forgotten. We can hardly expect this war to be an exception from the rule of other wars when the returned soldier stank in the nostrils of civilians.
Our mess is now furnished with a round table, two arm chairs, and four small chairs, and large oak chest, three earthenware jars, and one solitary picture.
At present things are very quiet here, but there is plenty to do as we are one officer short.
It is raining hard this afternoon again.
After our meagre fare on the Somme we are indulging our appetites a little. A little greediness may be excused. The other night we had for dinner: Sardines and olives; mock turtle soup; curried prawns; Roast beef with potatoes, cabbage and beans; fruit salad and cornflower; anchovies on toast; cheese and biscuits; your melon (most acceptable) and grapes (the contribution from home of another member of the mess); and coffee. For drink we had French red wine, beer, liqueur brandy and whiskey.
Another blessing is that we can get our washing done decently, and not by one’s servant, badly and only occasionally.
There is hardly any night firing either, and we can now get a good night’s sleep.
So you see we are in luck’s way. Of course it is as it used to be when we were first here, but the comparison after the Somme makes it so different.
My clothes are sadly dilapidated. I am still wearing the old service jacket I had when I first joined two years ago. It will be pleasant to wear mufti again.
Then the gramophone is nearly worn out and makes scratchy noises, but it still has to go on duty every evening.
SEPTEMBER 14, 1916.
“THE THATCHED COTTAGE”
We are glad to be in a “house” again. I have put its name on my letter. Some one painted it up the other day, but he was rather off the mark, as there is not much thatch left now. Other names have been suggested, e.g., “Au retour du Somme”, or “The Berkeley”, or “Porty’s Estaminet” or even “Au Reve de Blighty”. This place is not merely a house. There is the usual courtyard with the usual square brick manure pool, which we have filled in with earth, and planted with rose bushes. It was necessary. Then there is a delightful orchard full of shell holes at any rate. There are also two or three barns where the troops sleep and nibble their biscuits by way of rations. Last but not least there is what looks like a lodge at the entrance where the officer’s mess cook presides over tin plates and broken glass. These hereditaments deserve, I think, the description of park or demesne. Further description I may not give you, for you may be a German spy.
The other evening I was alone in the battery, sitting in proud but lonely occupation of our mess, and feeling more or less contented (unusual), and censoring letters (usual), when bang! A 5.9 landed right in the middle of our estate. My first reaction usually urges instant flight. On this occasion I actually hesitated. How could I leave the precious mess we were trying so hard to make decent and comfortable to the hard hearted 5.9. H.E.? On second thoughts, however, I fortunately realised that it would be better to save myself, as I could not put the mess in my pocket and run away with it. I dashed out shouting the necessary orders to leave the buildings, but the place was deserted. Even the officer’s dinner was left to look after itself. It is always best to leave bricks and mortar when H.E. is flying about. No, you are wrong, quite wrong, for after a few rounds, doing no more harm than cover the place in dirt, and churn up a bit more of the orchard, and without hitting the precious mess, the Hun left off. Delicately, like Agags, the troops came trickling back.
The cooler weather has settled the flies for us; but I would rather have flies than the cold of today. I am at present perched on two bits of wood in the rafters of the top attic of a house (Moat Farm), and supposed to be observing. The wind is cold and high. It is raining hard, and the water comes in through the roof. On my right is a 60 pdr. Observing officer using most vile language; on my left is a 4.5 How. ditto pretending he likes it. Down below whispering together are our respective signallers or telephonists and look out men. When the rain clears, the everlasting buzzing of field telephones will begin again, and the monotonous repetition of “’ullo, ‘ullo, Battry, ‘ullo, ‘ullo”, till the light quite goes.
My horses are not bad, but nothing like the chestnut I used to have, which got killed by the Boche. The old thing is buried near here. I am glad I am with the guns in this weather. The wagon lines would drive me frantic. I might take care of three or four horses in this weather, but when one is responsible for keeping two hundred in good health and well groomed and the harness clean with too few drivers to do the work it is a melancholy job. In such conditions personally to superintend in pouring rain early morning stables, the watering of horses four times a day in meagre troughs, and other wagon line work in open muddy fields is hardly exhilarating. I prefer the excitement of the gun-line.
You ask me what I think of Patrick MacGill’s book “The Great Push”. Not much. I am suspicious of all war books. It is not possible to describe for those who have not been here what the war is like because there is no common experience, and words are inadequate to convey impressions of it to another. There is also the writer’s bias, which usually tends to give another wrong ideas. The emphasis is of too high or too low. Ian Hay is cheerfully optimistic, leaves out the horrors, and writes for maiden ladies or boys. His presentation is not true. MacGill, on the other hand is realistic, but dwells on the horrors disproportionately. Certain incidents are not perhaps overdrawn but life here is not a continuous series of such incidents. While the war is on I do not see the use of writing such books, for they only upset those whose men are out here without being able to alter things in any way. The idealistic books are of far more value while the war is on. We should make the best of conditions while it lasts, and so hearten people. But I daresay he wants to make some money. Even MacGill has to be reticent about some things. “The battle line is a secret world, a world of curses. The guilty secret of war is shrouded in lies, and shielded by bloodstained swords; to know it you must be one of those who wage it, a party to dark and mysterious orgies of carnage.” It sounds silly doesn’t it? But still there is something in it. So why write about it? It is certainly a contrast to the rot journalists write in the daily papers. He describes Loos. One day stronger language will have to be used about the Somme.
For the rest he is sometimes inaccurate. By “star-shells” he means “Very Lights”; few cellars are safe; cats don’t “croon love songs”; concussion shells are usually called “High Explosive” or H.E. for short; and all soldiers do not get drunk the night before they “go over the top”. Finally gunners do not sleep all day, and they do not organise “strafes” of their own free will without being ordered to do so.
Now you see what a wet day in the line can produce.
September 16, 1916.
We are still in our Thatched Cottage. Things are getting much more lively here now. Excellent news comes from the Somme, but I always feel now that I have to discount a good deal of what one hears.
The weather is still bad, and it is much colder now. Our bedroom requires considerable renovation, especially as all the windows are out. There is no proper door either. The wheeler must do something about it.
September, 16, 1916.
The Thatched Cottage
I am told I am getting blasé and easily bored. I admit it. But I never am when I get the chance of killing Boche. It is far more exciting than killing pheasants because, I suppose it is more dangerous. But the job is not so easy. One has to keep cool and send to the battery some sort of intelligible orders, “5 minutes more right, add two five, Corrector 160, repeat.” That sort of thing.
The weather is as usual beastly, and now it is getting cold.
We had a dinner party the other night. It was as follows, Sardines and olives, bottled mock turtle soup, tinned fish, joint and three vegetables, tinned fruit sweets, savoury of anchovies on toast, three kinds of wine, fruit, coffee and cigars. We do not dine like this every night.
SEPTEMBER 21, 1916.
From Bois Grenier the Brigade moved to Houplines and came under the orders of the C.R.A. Frank’s Force.
This Force relieved the 51st Highland Division in the line.
September, 23, 1916.
We have left our happy home, and moved again. They cannot leave us alone. We moved out at three hour’s notice, and were clear in ¾ of an hour. Then we marched eight miles. As we could not move until it was dark, we were rather late in turning in. We had to leave our precious mess, and it was the staff who robbed us of it and not the Boche. We went into action in another place two nights afterwards in quite different surroundings. Still we have an excellent billet with plenty of furniture. We each have a bedroom with doors still on, which is unusual. We are short handed, one officer away and one short.
SEPTEMBER 30, 1916.
34th Division carried out a raid with the Mushroom Salient as the objective, and captured one prisoner.
SEPTEMBER 30, 1916.
There are people who write “How fine and jolly it must be giving the Germans a good hiding”. This was actually written to one of our officers the other day.
The Y.M.C.A. are doing a great work out here. Of all institutions for helping the troops they are the best.
You seem to be having an exciting time with Zepps in London now; but they seem to have a rotten time when they arrive. I suppose more heroes will be getting V.Cs and untold wealth.
The Boche after all did not deprive us of our mess. It was our wonderful Staff who did that. They moved us out at an hour’s notice. Now we are in another part of the line. (Houplines). We have a large billet (a factory), and much more furniture. I have a large bedroom to myself. Two officers are away. One was posted elsewhere, and the other is on leave as he had not been home since last November. But leave for the rest of us has now been stopped just as we were hoping to get away. Of course all the Staff and the A.S.C. have theirs regularly. Poor things! They do have such hard work and nerve shattering times in their offices and chateaux and seaside towns behind the line. We cannot grudge them their little relaxations.
The Captain is away and I am in charge with only two subs to help in all there is to do. The Colonel has been worrying on the phone all the morning; numerous notes have been arriving from various higher commands; the men are getting slack and lazy. I have lost half my kit and the rest is not fit to wear. The weather is getting much colder. I was up late last night or rather this morning playing bridge. Now I have sore ribs from falling down a big hole in the road the other night with the B.C. on top of me. We were coming back in the pitch dark from dining out (in Armentieres). No we were quite sober! But we were walking along what used to be the pavement when it suddenly ceased in a big shell hole. I fell in first. And twelve stone on top finished me. Such is my tale of woe.
But still today is fine. It is getting nearly time for the mail to arrive, which it does soon after dark.
So tennis is still going on. Heavens! I have not seen anyone in whites this year, except the B.C. in his wonderful “robe de nuit”.
One or two famous institutions run by civilians have closed down owing to the unwelcome attentions of the Boche, but the tea shop carries on though depleted somewhat of its former glory.
I have discovered a delightful old oak chest well carved. Unfortunately it has been covered with cheap varnish. This is now being scraped off by various members of the mess with bits of glass, at odd moments. How I hate varnish. It is of the same moral category as eye-wash much in evidence in H.M. Army, especially among the higher ranks.
Franks’ Force R.A. G/69
175th Bde. S/39
In future the Victoria Cross or other immediate reward will not be given for the rescue of wounded, excepting to those whose duty it is to care for such cases.
Such attempts, more often than not, result in the death of would-be rescuer and rescued. Moreover, it depletes the fighting strength of Units perhaps at most critical moments.
Please communicate this decision to all concerned as soon as possible.
(sd.) W.E. PEYTON, Major General,
to Commander in Chief.
Passed to you for information and communication to all concerned.
(sd.) J. Knowles, Major,
A.M.S., Second Army.
(175th Brigade Right Group, R.A. Franks’ Force 5-10-16