WAR DIARY of AA Laporte Payne 10 June 1917
Brigade Diary, Personal Diary, Operation Orders, Note Books, Memoranda
R.P. June 10, 1917.
Now you know why we have been so very busy for the last few weeks. But no doubt you guessed from my letters what was in the wind. The papers will have given you an account of the operations so I will not weary you with a repetition. But still I have just seen a headline, and that was enough for me.
For this show I was responsible for the communications of a Group of Artillery, which consisted of our Brigade and other batteries, for getting information back from the front line of the attacking infantry, and for maintaining the lines between batteries and Headquarters. There was a good deal to see to as we had an intricate system of buried cables to get into perfect working order and maintain it during the attack. After zero hour it proved impossible to keep in touch with the attacking infantry advancing across the shelled area and through the German Lines. No cable of course be buried, and we knew that the wires would not last a moment across No-Man’s-Land in shell fire. So other means had to be adopted. I had two officers with twenty-four signallers with the front line attacking, and they had been supplied with eight carrier pigeons, lamps (electric signalling), discs, shutters, and flappers, all for visual signalling, and also telephones and miles of wire for use if at all possible. But it was of no avail. I got no message from these parties while I was in our original front line. If anything had gone wrong in the attack everything would have depended on quick and accurate information being sent back. As it was the attack went through to the final objective.
My first post before the attack was near the top of a hill just behind the front line on the left of Ploegstreet Wood. There I hoped to see some visual signals. But I could get none as it was still dark when the attack began, and the dust and smoke from smoke shells and bursting shell of other kinds caused a thick fog through which we could not see. It was disappointing.
After the attack had rushed through the Boche began his barrage. Of course he knew an attack was coming, but he may not have known exactly when. So he took a little time to get going, but when he did he gave us a bad time.
The attack was a success for one reason only: the furious concentrated bombardment we put down, assisted to some extent by the mines. It was an awful thing to watch, and a wonderful experience. It thrilled me. The attack being strictly limited, the concentration was devastating. I have had a good experience on the Somme but I have never seen anything like this. The wire and German trenches simply did not exist. The ground was like the Atlantic frozen in a gale to solid earth. There were few Boche dead about, and there seemed to be very few prisoners. They must have fled before the barrage or been killed or buried in their dug-outs and trenches.
Nevertheless there was obviously a lot of Boche artillery in the vicinity. For though our casualties in the actual attack were really nothing considering the nature of the operations, later we suffered far more when the carrying parties began to go up through the hostile barrage. For as our barrage lifted our troops followed closely behind, in some places as near as twenty yards. This was vastly different from the Somme. But the men going forward slightly later had to go through the hostile fire.
When the forward lines got to their objectives they just sat down and dug themselves in. most of our casualties were caused after this to the rear parties, and only much later to the front liners, when the Boche discovered where they were.
A wounded Colonial Captain wrote and thanked us afterwards for our barrage fire, which I think was very decent of him. My movements were as follows: The day of June 6th I spent making all the final arrangements, handing out pigeons, wire and orders, and going through once more the plans with the various officers concerned. At 9 p.m. I had something to eat at Brigade Headquarters, and then about midnight I went up with my signaller, Corporal Corrigan, to my Observation Post in Gas Trench on the hill (60). We had to go through a corner of Plugstreet Wood. The Boche were firing quite heavily with gas shells on the batteries, roads, and tracks; but we got there alright.
On arrival there, we waited, looking down into the black valley, and up to the village of Messines, a misty and dark shadow in the first sign of dawn. It was most strange. I had a carefully synchronised watch and counted the minutes and seconds before the barrage was to crash. At first ordinary night firing was going on, and there was no sign of anything about to happen, except a number of wakeful but quiet men in the trenches. All the talk about singing men in the trenches is all rot, and the stupid fairy stories of newspaper correspondents who do not frequent the front line.
As the time approached we were breathless with excitement. I got up on the side of the trench with my watch in one hand. Then suddenly at 3.10 a.m. the mines shot up and the concentrated barrage fire opened up. I could hear the heaviest guns start first right in the rear. Immediately all was frightful noise, and the early morning light turned to smoke and dust. You could not hear yourself speak. I strained to catch something in the confusion of sight and sound, but could see nothing, except at first a few crouching figures rushing into the smoky gloom near the front line. Then nothing more, and I felt again the horrid feeling of uncertainty, and wanting to do something. But I could not leave the post in case any message was flashed back for transmission. This went on for over two hours, and as I could get no message back, a signaller and I went across No-Man’s-Land to the German Line to see what information we could glean. Headquarters kept on ringing me up asking whether I had heard anything. We found none of our men for some way, and the absence of our dead was very cheering. Then we struck some infantry, and we learned that they had got to their objectives without being held up. Actually while going across No-Man’s-Land I saw only two of our dead, so that will show how different it was to the Somme.
If you have a map you will see the way I went – from LA PETITE DOUVE FARM up the RIVER DOUVE to SCHNITZEL FARM and on to MESSINES. When I had verified that all was well I hastened back to my post where the nearest telephone was to report the good news.
On our way we ran into a collection of Boche wounded and others who were gibbering idiots, gathered about a dug-out that had been partially smashed. They waved their arms and mouthed at me. I left them for someone else to collect. I do not like armed lunatics. I was probably more frightened of them than they of me. After all you cannot shoot in such circumstances, and I could not be bothered to round them up.
In the afternoon I went up again to Messines, and brought away with me two Boche rifles. One I gave to the Colonel, and I have kept the other. I have been trying it today, and I hope to get it home.
I had nothing to eat all day, and as it was hot I drank gallons when I got back. Struggling about that ground laden with helmet, gas bag, revolver, ammunition, map case, glasses, and what not, was not an easy or a cool job. I returned to Headquarters about 1 a.m. the next morning, and snatched three hours sleep, the first for over forty eight hours.
That day the batteries were ordered to move forward, so I had to attend at once to laying new lines to the new positions taken up by the Batteries.
And so we go on.
The Boche could not resist simply because he was blown to bits. I can thank heaven that I was not a Boche in this show. But the papers are not telling the truth when they declare that on our side the show was almost bloodless. It was not, for we suffered quite a lot after the initial move forward, as I have stated.
The night before the tanks bivouacked near us, and I took the opportunity of going in one. It was most interesting. I watched them working in the attack, but they had practically nothing to do, as the attack went like clockwork. It was as well to keep far from them, for the Boche whenever he spotted one shell it and all around it furiously.
Now the Boche is attempting the usual counter-attacks; but every time he does he is blown back by artillery fire. He did so last night, and we opened up at once. This was just before we had planned a small attack on our particular front. The result was splendid. For after his attack had come to an in failure, we lifted the barrage at the proper time, and our infantry went through to obtain their objectives. So instead of the Boche regaining ground we advanced. I hope the shock was a nasty one.
So once again I have taken part in a major attack on the Boche. First the Somme and now this. I am getting quite an experienced soldier. And I have had front seats on both occasions. This show, as you can imagine, is much more to my liking than the Somme, although the gunners had a far worse time than they did down south, thanks to the new method of counter-battery work by the enemy. Our battery positions came in for very bad shelling, I am sorry to say. We have had a good many casualties. A large number of fires have been caused at battery positions through the Camouflage and boxed ammunition catching fire.
I am very fit, have got very brown, and feel gay after such a good show; but I am a bit tired. But we are not out of the wood yet by any means. However I hope you at home are pleased with our little effort. It will be a feather in old Plumer’s cap, good luck to him, and many of them. He is a better man than Rawlinson.
JUNE THE TENTH 1917.
I am sorry for my long delay in writing.
There has been no post and no parcels, so we are living on bully beef and biscuits, and have been for the past five days……
No doubt the papers will have told you why I have been unable to do any letter writing lately. You knew it was coming off, so it was no surprise to you.
The papers will have given you better general accounts of the fighting that I can here. All about the enormous mines, and the singing birds, and cheering men, all in excellent journalese including a large number of superlative adjectives. Personally the mines did not impress me very much, and I did not hear the birds, neither have I heard troops singing on their way to the attack. But there I must not be too incredulous or sarcastic. Perhaps they do these things where the war correspondents live and move and have their being.
I have just seen the first paper containing the news, and the headline was enough for me.
In this little show I had to be responsible for the communications of a group of batteries commanded by our Colonel. It consisted of more than one brigade, and included Colonial troops. My job was to keep in touch with the attacking infantry, and supervise all telephone lines and other communications between O.Ps. Batteries, and Group Headquarters and up to Division. We had a large system of lines of buried cables with telephone exchanges at various places up to the front line, with lateral wires forming a network, so that if one line or even more were cut it was still possible to get plugged through indirectly to the exchange desired. It did its work, and no one post was completely cut off so far as I know. Wires soon get cut if nor buried very deeply. The great difficulty was with communications across No-man’s-land, which of course could not be buried beforehand.
Communication with the attacking infantry had to be improvised as they advanced. For this purpose I had two subalterns forward with the front line infantry attacking, and twenty four signallers and linesmen. I provided them with eight carrier pigeons, electric signalling lamps, signalling shutters and helios, all for visual signalling, which was thought possible beforehand. They also were given field telephones and miles of wire in case they should be able to get a line going across the captured ground to link up with exchanges established in the front line whence the attack had started.
A great deal depends on quick and accurate information sent back by F.O.Os., especially if the attack is held up or if anything goes wrong, to the Staff, and more urgently to the guns.
My initial station was in a trench (Gas Trench) on the forward slope and near the top of a hill (Hill 63) just behind our front line. There I should have received messages from the forward parties; but I got none, neither visual nor telephonic.
When the attack began it was dark, and the dust and smoke from all sorts of shell soon made a thick fog, through which it was impossible to see.
It was most thrilling! The thing which impressed me most was the way in which our guns suddenly rose in an instant from the ordinary desultory night firing to a crash of a terrific bombardment and barrage all together and to the very second. To me the mines were not so impressive. I had expected a louder crack and a quaking of the ground. Instead it felt to me like the earth sighing.
Just ahead I could dimly see the ghostly forms of our men clambering out of the trenches, and then they were lost to sight, and nothing happened, except the all enveloping sound of the roar of the guns. Overhead I could see the glimmer of the 60 pdr shell fuzes flying along their trajectories.
In fact the whole thing went off extremely well, and because of one thing, not so much the mines, or staff work, or tanks, or heavy and gallant fighting, but because the Boche had literally been blown to pieces by the preliminary bombardment and that during the attack.
Before the day the Boche had given us a very bad time. They seemed to have a lot of guns up, and used a large quantity of gas shell. They pumped gas into the wood to our right all night during the assembly of the attacking troops, and I came in for a fair amount on my way up to my O.P. in the early hours before the attack. Gas shell do not make much sound when they burst, but they seemed to be everywhere and soaked the wood fairly effectively. The papers of course say nothing about that.
If the Boche’s artillery was strong, his infantry was no where, and our men had practically no opposition. I have seen some pretty bad places on the Somme, but I do not think I have seen anything like this. Our gun-fire was here much more concentrated. The Boche fortifications had ceased to exist, and the ground was like a very rough sea solidified into earth.
There were very few prisoners on our sector of the line and I did not see as many dead as I expected. 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 quite flattened out or buried contained the bodies of dead Boche.
Our casualties during the actual attack were surprisingly light. This was undoubtedly due to the absence of really heavy machine gun fire, which was such a fearful feature on the Somme. But we suffered casualties after the objectives were gained from the very heavy gun fire, which started shortly afterwards. As carrying parties were then moving forward this was inevitable.
In the first attack as our barrage lifted our troops went up under it, and when they got to their objectives they sat down and dug in.
June the Sixth was a busy day. All final plans were completed and checked, 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 were shelling the road and the wood but we got through alright. We got very hot running and then breathed gas until we seemed to be full, but it really could not have been much as we should have felt worse than we did. It had no very great effect on me, at least so far. So now I hope I am alright.
We waited breathlessly for 3.10 a.m. by the light of my luminous watch, and watched the ridge as far as we could see it. Rifle and gun fire were normal, that is, as it had been for the past fortnight, really what at other times we should have considered heavy.
It was most curious waiting there in the dark together, looking at our watches, knowing what was about to happen, and aware as far as we could be of what it all meant. For some reasons I remembered youthful days when I imagined myself a soldier, and never dreamed I should be; but I never thought it could be anything like this.
Then to the second by my watch the much talked of mines went up and the barrage opened. I could not hear myself shout to Corrigan, and I could not see for smoke.
After a while as I got no messages from the front, I crossed No-Man’s-Land, and up the hill to find our fellows digging in and quite happy. The way I went was across by the Douve River and up the hill towards Messines, which I soon reached as it was not a great distance. But I could not find our two observing parties anywhere.
I saw only a very few of our dead in No-Man’s-Land. What a contrast to La Boisselle! This was Plumer’s show. It was indeed different to the Somme.
I got back to the Cable head after an exciting rush, but safely. On the way I discovered some horribly wounded and some whole Boche in a dug-out, but they were all gibbering idiots, and waved their arms at me – so I left them not knowing quite what to do with them when they were in that state. I don’t like Boche in that state, especially mad ones, and I could not control them nor could I shoot them in cold blood. I was probably more frightened of them than they were of me. 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.
In the afternoon I went forward again and got two good rifles. One I gave to the Colonel, and the other I have been trying this afternoon.
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, the complete modern soldier as far as equipment went. Then I was silly enough to carry back a German rifle.
I visited the tanks the night before and had a ride in one. I saw them go over but they did not put up much of a show except to attract all the hostile fire of the battlefield.
The Boche appears to be 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 Barrage right in the face, and then we lifted onto our attack and instead of counterattacking we gained all our objectives in the confusion of his troops. 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 constructed. I shall always hate the telephone all the rest of my life. The number of messages and conversations is unbelievable.
I hope you all at home are satisfied with our little show. It has meant a lot of hard work. It has cost some lives, some time, some trouble; but we have the Messines Ridge, and Ypres has this side of the salient flattened out.
I should like to take you up to Messines, but the smells would annoy you, and you would probably twist your ankle over the rubble.
We have now to move forward.
After the Somme, Messines. I wonder how many more big battles we shall have to fight before it is all over.
My signallers have been perfectly splendid, especially one, an Irishman, named Corrigan. I should have been lost without him.
40th Battalion, A.I.F.
16, June, 1917.
Reference: MESSINES Operations.
I am in receipt of a letter from my O.C. A, Company, in which he says, “I ask if you will convey my congratulations on the work of the gunners. The battery which covered my sector did splendid work.” The sector mentioned is…..(censored)…. Again, it is reported to me that “one little thing I shall not soon forget was the sight of my boys sitting down on the eastern side of the river (Douve) and lighting their cigarettes, waiting for the barrage to lift from the front line just in front of them.” Our troops were able to follow close up on the very admirable barrage with confidence and safety.
It is truly extraordinary that the Battery to which we owe so much should have covered us in this offensive.
Again we are deeply grateful to you all.
(signed) J.G. Chord. Lieut. Col.
(received by 175th Brigade R.F.A.)