A.A. Laporte Payne letter to Muriel 10 June 1917
June 10th 1917.
Thank you so much for your letter of May 30. You seem rather down in the dumps, dear – why? Has the far-away kind of feeling disappeared. I do hope so – and I have contributed to it, I know, in delaying so long my letter. Your account of your domestic trials amused me greatly. We are living on bully biscuits now, and have been for the last 5 days, no chicken for us!
I hear you are remaining on to do farm work. It is very good of you. I should love to run over and see you. It would be lovely to get some leave during this fine weather but it is quite impossible at present as things are now.
How are you keeping? Fit and well, I hope – and no doubt getting very brown. Are you going away for a holiday after your work is over? The seaside would be lovely just now. Are your people alright? I hear Mrs Cross has returned from her holiday. Give her my love when you write. Is Maude behaving herself and has her nose stopped peeling? What I want now is a good rest at the seaside. Shall we arrange a week at the sea?
No doubt you have been saying awful things about my slackness in not writing but perhaps the papers have told you partly why I have been unable to do any letter writing. You knew it was coming off, so it was no surprise for you.
The papers will give you better accounts that I can about the fighting. All about the enormous mines and the singing birds and cheering men – all in perfect English and with a large number of superlative adjectives – Personally the mines did not impress me much – and I did not hear the birds, neither have I ever heard singing troops in the trenches on their way to the attack – but then perhaps they do these things where war correspondents are – you would hear the mines, the birds & singing men say ten miles away. I have just seen a paper and the headline was enough for me.
In this little show I had to run the communications for a Group of artillery commanded by our Colonel. It consisted of more batteries than one Brigade. My job was to keep in touch with the attacking infantry and supervise all telephone lines and other communications between batteries & Group to Division. We had a large system of lines of buried cables with telephone exchanges at various places up to the front line, and you could get any one on the line.
Wires don’t hold when they are not buried deeply so we could not rely on telephones across no-man’s-land and up to the Infantry. I had two officers forward with the front line attack with 24 signallers and I got for them 8 carrier pigeons, electric signalling lamps, signalling shutters and helios – all for visual signalling together with telephones and miles of wire in case they could work it. Everything depends upon quick and accurate information getting back if there is any opposition at all or if anything goes wrong and for information for the guns.
My station was on the top of a hill just behind our line to receive messages from these parties; but I got none. It was dark when the attack began and the dust & smoke from all sorts of shell soon made a thick fog through which we could not see.
The whole thing went off extraordinarily well – because of one thing – not mines – or staff work or anything like that – not tanks or awful fighting but because the Boche had literally been blown to pieces by the weeks preliminary bombardment and during the actual attack. Before the day we had a very bad time from Boche shelling. He had a lot of guns up – the papers of course say nothing about that. If his artillery was strong his infantry was nowhere – and our men had practically no opposition. I have seen some awful bombardments and smashed lines on the Somme but I have never seen anything like this – the Boche fortifications did not exist – and it was like a very rough sea made of earth. There were very few Boche prisoners on our bit of the line and I did not see many dead. They had either fled before the storm or were buried in their dug-outs and trenches. Probably the latter – as the ones that were not so badly smashed in contained bodies of Boche.
Our casualties during the actual attack were light but we have had some since from heavy shell fire, which of course was inevitable. As our barrage lifted our men went up under it and when they got to their objectives they sat down and dug in.
June 6th was as you can imagine a busy day – all final plans were made and then the secret message came giving the time of attack as 3.10 a.m. We only knew late that night. I had something to eat, and then went to the trenches about midnight with a signalling corporal. The Boche was shelling the roads but we got through alright – very hot with running and filled with gas from gas shell – but it has had no effect on me so far – touch wood.
We waited for 3.10 a.m. and watched the Ridge as far as we could see it. Rifle fire & gun fire were normal – that is – as it had been for the past fortnight – really very heavy. It was very curious waiting there in the dark and looking at our watches – and just on the minute – the much talked of mines went up – and the barrage fire opened. You could not hear yourself speak – and you could not see for smoke.
As we got no messages after sometime I went across and found everything OK our fellows digging in and quite happy. The way I went was across by the Douve River and up to Messines.
I saw only one or two of our dead in no-man’s-land. So that shews you how different it was to the Somme.
I got back to the Cable head after an exciting rush. I saw some Boche in a dug-out but they were gibbering idiots and waved their arms at me – so I left them! I don’t like Boche – especially mad ones – and I could not shoot them in cold blood, could you. I was probably more frightened of them than they were of me too! I pushed on back and reported to headquarters what I had seen and knew as to the success of our fellows. It was the first news they had from the battle. I got two good rifles in the afternoon – one I gave to the Colonel – the other I have been trying to-day.
It was an awfully hot day – I did not get anything to eat but I drank water like I never drank it before. I went out like a Christmas tree, with glasses, gas-helmet, map-case, revolver – and then I was silly enough to carry back a Boche rifle.
I visited the tanks the night before and – saw them go over but they did not put up much of a show.
The Boche is trying to counter attack but he is not having much success. Last night one began just before one of ours was to begin – he got the S.O.S. Barrage right in the face & then we lifted onto our attack and instead of counterattack we gained all our objectives in his confusion. This was of course only in a little corner of the front here.
And it still goes on after a fashion. – It is hard work and not so exciting now, and a new telephone system has to be completed. I shall always hate the telephone all the rest of my life. The number of messages & conversations over the poor thing is awful.
I hope your ladyship is satisfied with our little show. It has cost some time, trouble and lives – but we have The Messines Ridge, and Ypres has no longer the salient to flank it.
I should like to take you up to Messines – if it were safe – but the smells would annoy you and I am sure you would twist your ankle over the rubble.
I must stop now as there are heaps of things to be done. We have had a move forward.
With all my love darling
And many kisses