Saturday, 6 March 2010
Donald Banks, back in England having been wounded in early 1915, is returning to France.
The photoshows soldiers of the 48th Division on a bombing course at Otley in March 1918. Donald Banks stands third from right at the back.
I got back home and it didn’t take more than two or three hours from Clipstone Camp through Retford back to Lincoln and mother said, “What have you come home for?” I said, “Mother, I’m going back to France. I’m going to fight.”
“Oh,” she said, “you’ve done your bit.” I said, “Mother, I may as you say, have done my bit but I’m going because I feel it’s my duty to go and what’s more I’m coming back. I’ve got enough faith in God that he’ll bring me back for your sake.” Oh, mother wept.
They sent me this time to the 3rd battalion at Cork in Ireland; Victoria barracks up on the hill. They were the reserve battalion and I don’t think they were in any division. They put me on a Lewis gun course at Youghal, that is east of Cork, further along the south coast of Ireland. I was a beautiful little bay with a sugar lump loaf of an island, green island at the entrance to that bay. Beautiful place. I got on alright with the Irish people but I had to be careful because some fellas were deserting. You see when I first joined we were all volunteers. Since then, conscription had come and there were fellas who joined up who were not keen. And furthermore our pay had been raised. My first pay was a shilling a day and a clothing allowance of tuppence a day. I got up to one and six as lance corporal. First of all I was just acting lance corporal, then full lance-corporal then full corporal. Now I had some very good friends in Mansfield and I stayed out late one night. When I got back, the orderly corporal said, “Oh Corp, you’re for it. You’ve been reported.” So I went along - I was undressed - I pulled my trousers half up and staggered along to the guard room and said, “I’m reporting I’m in. I’ve not been feeling well.” Course, I was brought up before the captain the next day and I told him the same yarn and he looked at me and said, “you’re a fool corporal.” He as good as told me that he was going to make me a sergeant and I’d missed out on that.
I was not in Ireland for more than two or three weeks. As I say, they sent me on this Lewis gun course and I was also put on a funeral party and we were trained in reversing arms, funeral procedure and ceremonial. That was all useful experience and then they were going to send me on a musketry course but I said, “look here, I’ve got crossed guns, I don’t want a musketry course, I want to go out.” They all thought I was crackers.
They came to me and said, “Right, you’re down for musketry course.” I said, “Look, I’ve had enough. I came to join the war not to drill. You’d better get somebody else because I’m not going.” They gave me my draft leave and they sent us in the slowest train from Cork up to Dublin. We left Cork about half past nine in the morning and arrived in Dublin about five o’clock the following morning. Then across on The Leinster which was torpedoed a month later. Then I got the boat train to London, London up to Lincoln instead of going across through Crewe, Nottingham, Derby because it was quicker and more comfortable and I’d learned a few things. First time I tried it though, I got caught in a way.
I had a lady friend who was in the Wrens in London. She was a section leader, lived at Leicester and I knew her before the war and wanted to see her. When I left Clipstone Camp at Mansfield I should have gone to Nottingham, Derby, Crewe, Chester, Holyhead which was the direct route but meant a series of changes and so on. Instead I got a ticket home. I remembered they didn’t collect the tickets at Lincoln and I’d got a written warrant to Cork. The fella looked at it, “Cork? Where’s that?” I said, “Oh, it’s out in the west there. I’ve got to go round by London to get the boat train.” I got to Lincoln, had a day or two with mother and then got a train to London with no trouble. I met my lady friend and the following day departed. I went to the railway barrier at Euston and the ticket collector said, “Cork? What are you doing here?” I said, “ Well they said I was to come and catch the boat train.”
“Catch the boat train? You should have gone across...”
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t know.”
He called up the Military Police and said, “Take this fella to the RTO” (That’s Railway Transport Office. I was shaking in my shoes. I got to the railway transport officer and he said, “Well corporal, what’s all this? How do you come round here?” I said, “Well sir, I... I understood I had to catch the boat train and that I couldn’t get across country because there were no connections.” The ticket collector behind my shoulder said, “I think it’s a genuine case sir.” He countersigned my warrant and wrote me a chit, “Now take this up to the YMCA, you’ll get a bed there for the night and then off you go in the morning, eight o’clock.” I got my bed for the night, went to the station in the morning and there was nobody on the barrier, I walked straight onto the train. There was no trouble until I got to Holyhead, got on the boat and got across to Queenstown and by that time it was getting on. There was a train due in for Cork in about ten minutes but it didn’t actually get into Cork until two o’clock in the morning and I didn’t fancy another night journey so I walked round a bit. I found the RTO officer, showed him my warrant and told him I’d missed the train for Cork. He told me to take the warrant up to some barracks nearby where I could get a bed for the night and catch a train the following morning. I went up the barracks, reported in, got a meal, (didn’t have to pay anything) and got a train in the morning. Gosh it was a swift one, best train of the day, and I arrived at Cork at twelve o’clock. I walked up the hill to the barracks and reported at the guard room. Now this was where I was lucky. That transport officer at Euston hadn’t bothered to look at the date. That’s what I was afraid of but I got away with it and course, when I got to Dublin, well I’d just come on the boat, they didn’t know how long it took. And when I reported in at Cork they didn’t say, “You’ve been a long time on the way,” or anything. No trouble at all. I learned a few tricks and I’m not ashamed to say so.
While I was at Clipstone Camp I was given an escort duty twice. Well the first time was to fetch a fella out of Derby jail. Now my girlfriend lived at Leicester. From Clipstone I had to go to Nottingham, Leicester, Derby. There was another train that goes through Trent and avoided Leicester but I wasn’t going to avoid Leicester of course. Now although I hadn’t been told by the sergeant major or anybody else, I was given to understand that you were allowed twenty four hours for escort duties. I took my time, got to Leicester and visited my girlfriend, got a train to Derby and went to the jail. Closed. Closed at seven o’clock. Well what am I to do? I went to the police and they gave me a chit for a hotel. I stayed at a hotel that night and fetched the fella out next morning. I took him to the station and it was a one-ended station so you couldn’t get out the other way. I said, “Look here fella, can I trust you? I want to go and see a friend for an hour or two.” I did. I got back and he’d been having a nice time with the girls on the platform who served refreshments. I’d gauged him right, he was alright, he wasn’t one of those. You can usually tell if a chap’s going to play you. We got back in the afternoon and I was well within the twenty four hours. I took him along to the battalion orderly room and the sergeant said, “alright corporal, dismissed.” He never queried about how long I was away.
Then there was another time when I had to go and escort some men to Bulford camp on Salisbury Plain. I took these fellas on the first train I could catch to London, then to Salisbury and on to Bulford. I remember seeing a place “Trifle, sixpence” and oh, did I like trifle, I’d never seen it for years. Yes, I had my trifle and I caught the next train back to London and I was up at Leicester by early morning. Spent the day at Leicester and reported back that night, I was back within the twenty four hours. The sergeant said, “Alright corporal.” Old soldiers have their ways; you learn ways and means. Maybe it’s deceitful in a way but I feel I’d done no wrong, I’d fulfilled a duty within a specified time and that was my business.
We were leaving Cork to embark for France and we caught a very slow night train, reached Dublin and embarked for Holyhead and the train arrived somewhere about midday in London. We had to wait a good while before we entrained on the South-Eastern Chatham line I think it was. That’s when the railway lines were run by companies like the Great Northern, Great Central, Great Eastern, Great Western. We reached Dover, we had an uneventful crossing and an hour and a half on some form of transport I don’t remember and were then put into a camp just outside of Calais. There we were about a week when our draft was called and we were put on a train and set off. We didn’t know where we were going. Course, nobody ever was told where they were going to be, everything had to be kept secret; only those in command knew. We boarded these box waggons and the train puffed leisurely along. I have one vivid memory of the train going up an incline so slowly that some of the lads got off and helped themselves to apples in a neighbouring orchard as we passed and then rejoining the train. Except one fellow who evidently wanted more than he could manage and just as the train got to the top of the incline and started down I have a mental picture of him panting up on the railroad track trying to catch the train up, which he never did. He did arrive subsequently in another troop train. Course, I never saw any passenger trains. All trains going eastward were troop trains.
Well we rolled on through various countryside. I remember when we came to Achet-le-Grand, Achet-le-Petit, Peronne, Albert and all those places on the Somme. There was very little sign of any village, just rubble and piles of brick. This country had been fought over and over and there was no sound buildings to be seen, just a half wall here and there, otherwise piles of brick and shell holes. The train jolted along and stopped at intervals - we never knew why - in a most desultory fashion. Eventually it stopped, somewhere near Albert I think, and we got out of the train and we were lined up. A man arrived - known as a runner - to take us along. Now the weather deteriorated and it began to pour with rain. We were walking along, squelching in mud, and we acme to a series of little low mounds. These mounds contained dug-outs and we were glad to escape from the rain. Around us was Martinpuich Wood which consisted of a series of shattered stumps, not one whole tree left standing, but stumps from two to six feet all shattered by shellfire. This had been taken and re-taken by both sides several times. And there we slept for the night in these dug-outs. This would be July 1918.
The next morning we set off again, a long wearisome march, and I remember the officer was very strict. When some fellas attempted to avoid the puddles he called out not to break the ranks, keep on marching. It was a long wearisome journey.
We’d been issued this time with the SMLE rifle - short Lee Enfield - and they were much easier to carry with the slings. Of course, we carried enough ammunition. Every man had to carry at least sixty rounds in his pouches and clips. We also had our packs on our back - our haversacks - and course, our entrenching tools - and we stumbled along till at last we caught up with the regiment we were posted to - the 7th battalion of the Lincolnshire regiment. They were one of the new battalions formed, known as Kitchener’s army and were part of the 17th division. I remember one of the units was the Border regiment, I forget what other regiments there were now. It was a peculiar mix up to us. It didn’t seem to be on any regional basis. So there I was with the 7th battalion Lincolnshires and most of them were from the county of Lincoln. They’d just had a spell in the trenches and we had just started to push the Germans back. The Germans had exhausted themselves in their pushes forward and we were now pushing back.
I reported to the sergeant major - again I was in D Company - and he said to me, “You’ll have to take those stripes down.” I said, “Well sir, may I show you these certificates?” and I took out my AB64 - that’s your army pay book - and took out my certificates I’d gained as an instructor in musketry, general NCO and bombing - first class bombing certificate. He said, “Right, I’ll take those to the captain.” Later he came back and said, “alright, keep the stripes up.” And so I was re-appointed corporal but whether that ever went through in course I never knew because we got into a very confused condition. We were preparing for an attack and we were to be the third and final line of the offensive and were to reach the furthest point of our objective. Our objective was a wood, Gauche Wood, to the right of the line off Gouzeaucourt. Beyond that was Menancourt and Villers Guislain and they were in German hands, so was this wood. The NCOs were called together in a group and we were given a rough drawn map of the position. We had to cross a railway track and eventually up various trenches towards this wood. Well, having been primed we were given to understand that there was no desire to take prisoners in view of the fact that some of our folk had been taken prisoner by the Germans and lined up and shot and there was rather bitter feeling about that. I can’t vouch for the truth of it but our captain indicated to us that we’d no desire to take prisoners as they would be an encumbrance in the advance.
While I was with them I remember we had paraded and the boys had got busy with their button sticks and spit and polish, to my amazement. Under those conditions spit and polish seemed to us incongruous. I didn’t bother to clean my boots up, I just brushed the mud off and I certainly didn’t polish any buttons or anything. As a matter of fact I don’t think they did polish buttons then because they were apt to show up and this was the time we wore helmets. Steel helmets had come into use. We’d no helmets in 1915 we’d just the service caps and we were told after a while to take the wire out so that they were floppy. Then later on I acquired one of those caps with a broad band on which I could let down over my head.
Also at this time we were issued with better equipment than we’d had before.
The company paraded and a junior officer came along. I saluted him and he said, “Corporal, I want to inspect these men.” So I called this particular platoon he wanted to inspect to attention, opened ranks and he proceeded to pass along the line. He looked at one man and said, “Dirty boots. Take his name corporal.” In fact I had to take the names of three or four men whose boots were certainly in a better condition than my own but the officer never commented on my condition. After the parade, instead of reporting these men back I conveniently forgot all about them and never heard anything further fortunately because we were going into a big attack.
Well the evening came - I can’t remember the date now - and we all packed ready. Eventually we lined up, formed fours and marched in columns in the darkness, going we knew not where but somewhere towards the battle line. It was ominously quiet. After some two hours we stopped and we were supplied with tea laced with rum; the usual procedure of men going into action. When we’d all had a pretty good drink and were feeling happy enough, we started on the march again.
And then we stumbled into a sort of shallow valley and I was conscious of other people nearby when a whistle sounded and in that moment, hell was let loose. We were in the forward guns position and the barrage was starting and it was continuous, wheel to wheel. The smaller ones were in front, the bigger ones behind and the howitzers behind them, all belching forth shells at the rate of hundreds if not thousands a minute. Fortunately Lloyd George had got us the guns that we’d needed. I was never a real admirer of his and I was never a liberal but I was always grateful for the fact that he organized the war so that we had the guns to back us up and could outrange the Germans. I remember as each gun blazed the flame seared my face and I had to turn away as we went past.
Eventually we came to a gap in the line of the guns, passed through it in the direction they were firing, and soon it was just the whistle of shells over our heads. It was a continuous roar of noise, I’ve never heard the like of it. There were the gunners sweating away, loading as fast as they could and just blazing away. And that continued for at least twenty minutes or more. Where they got all the ammunition from I don’t know. It was wonderful organization to convey all that ammunition up, thousands of shells in one terrific barrage. I heard many barrages afterwards when we were out of the line and it just sounded like a roll of drums, so continuous was the noise: rumble, rumble, rumble. We said, “Now Jerry’s getting another dose.”
Well we went and eventually we reached the first aid post and met the first casualties coming back. One was a sergeant I remember who said, “I’ve got another blighty” and he was glad to be out of it. Now this regiment was of a different character to the territorials. These were men who’d been conscripted and I began to hear unusual words like scrounge and swinging the lead and various other synonyms which astounded me as an old volunteer. No, they were not so keen they’d had to go to war. There were some good fellas amongst them no doubt.
We pressed on in the darkness until we came to a trench. We got into this trench and spread out. On the right, a huge shell ploughed into the trench and there were casualties. The German counter fire was very sporadic. As our guns lifted their range, having shattered the front line pretty well, we got into the first line of the enemy. Then at the appointed time - I think that it was eight o’clock - the whistle sounded and we scrambled up as fast as we could out of the trenches and towards the wire because we had a timetable by which we were to go to various objectives. Some of the wire had been cut and there were gaps here and there but I have a vivid memory of bodies lying on the wire in grotesque attitudes, the casualties of this terrific bombardment.
Then we proceeded on till we came to a low ridge about three to four feet high. We crouched behind it and a fella next to me said, “Just look Corp” and there behind my heel were bullets digging into the ground, just within a couple of feet of my boots from some German concealed machine gun. Course, we crouched and none of us were hit just there. Meanwhile we had then to pass through a communication trench and we got part way when there was a halt and word came back for bombers. They didn’t call for me they just called for the bombs and eventually when we burst through we found ourselves in what was called a sunken road, a shallow valley about twelve yards across at the most. And on the other side of this valley were dug-outs and Germans emerging from them with their hands up surrendering, shouting “Kamerad”. Course, our tendency was to shoot them but I remember an officer waving his revolver saying, “any of you shoot your prisoners, I’ll shoot you.” But I never saw such a scene of bodies left and right. Evidently the Germans had gone down into these deep dug-outs when the barrage started and then emerged as the barrage lifted and passed beyond them to meet the oncoming enemy. And as our people emerged from the trench they were just mowed down one after another until somebody got the idea of bombs. And the regiment on our right - The Border regiment - came in and enfiladed them from the other end.
Then up through another trench we passed; a communication trench leading to this Gauche Wood. Course, it wasn’t continually straight, you can imagine all these trenches were zig-zagged to prevent enfilading fire, and we came eventually on the edge of the wood. And as I crouched on the edge of the wood there was a sharp crack overhead from a shrapnel burst and bullets scattered around. The man next to me got one in his right arm and one in his left leg near the knee and there were others who were also hit, I don’t know how many got wounded there.
We pushed on into the wood and there was a deep dug-out which we went down into and dressed this fella’s wounds till he could be taken back. Then we went along a trench in the right side of the wood until I came to a corner and one of our men said, “Jerry’s round the next corner.” I said, “alright, we’ll rest a moment.” The next moment, I saw some men on my right, way beyond there and my chap said, “What about it corporal? I said, “I’ll make them put their heads down” and fired a shot at them. They disappeared. Whether I hit them or not I don’t know. Well there we stayed and then we retreated back into the communication trench because on the left of us, about fifty yards from the wood, was an old British tank which the Germans were obviously using as a sniper post. One of our fellas happened to be passing a part of the trench where the parapet had been knocked away and he was shot in the head and died shortly afterwards. So after that when running the gauntlet we had to duck that particular point but there was no chance of reaching those fellas in the tank and I think they evacuated when darkness set in. Meanwhile we were told to stay in this communication trench and there we were.
Now A Company had gone in the lead and were on the left and had got part of the wood but we hadn’t got the whole wood. So later on there was a call for reinforcements and we withdrew temporarily while our artillery opened up again and our attack went forward. The next thing I remember was an officer shouting, “Look out here comes Jerry” and a whole body of Germans advancing down the trench. There was only one thing to do and that was to retreat. I retreated down the bottom of the trench, got mixed up with some other regiment and warned them that the Germans were coming through. I learned later that they were prisoners but there was no escort in front to indicate that they were not active combatants.
That night I got into a sort of artillery position. There were three or four slit trenches on the edge of a small copse and every now and then a shell would come and clip a branch off and fall unpleasantly near. I remember getting severe cramp. There were two or three other fellas - artillerymen and what have you - and we crouched there until daylight. Then I moved down the slope towards some trenches and came up with a regiment and they were just cooking their breakfast. They seemed to be alright and said they’d escort me back to my lines. I was escorted down a valley and up the lines and our boys were then also getting breakfast so all was serene and quiet after a very uncomfortable night.
We were there two or three days and things quietened down. Then word came through that we were to reinforce the front line at ten minutes to seven. I remember the time distinctly. We’d no sooner moved up into the wood along to our left when a terrific barrage opened by the Germans at seven o’clock. I dived into a dug-out where there was an officer and his batman and other fellas attempting to come in were warned off by the officer saying, “ If we’re hit there’s no good you all being killed. Find shelter somewhere else.” Where they did I don’t know but there I crouched as shells were bursting all around and fortunately one did not land on our dug-out. But it was a most terrific experience not knowing that the next one might be our last because the shells were coming down like hail all over the wood. That communication trench we later found absolutely shattered; limbs and bodies here and there.
Meanwhile, as the German barrage continued, eventually an orderly came running and said to the officer, “The SOS has gone up sir.” Now the SOS was signalled by Very lights. You fired a red, green, red light and when our artillery saw it they opened up. And did they open up! And there was nothing sweeter than to hear the sound of our artillery shells come swishing over and it so stopped the Germans.
Meanwhile I rushed down to the front of the wood and there we all fired as hard as we could go. I fired three rifles until they were too hot to hold, at the advancing enemy and he never reached our trenches. And then we settled down. Now I remember carrying two extra bandoliers of ammunition and a machine gunner calling out, “Any more ammo?” I said, “Yes, you can have this bandolier.” He stripped them off the clips and put them in the long clip leading to the machine gun and we certainly stopped the Germans re-taking the wood.
Then things settled down for a couple of days. Things were fairly quiet except for occasional gunfire in the distance and then blessed relief. I remember it was another battalion of the Leicesters that came quietly at midnight and relieved us. We were taken back into reserve about a mile back, into some trenches. The countryside around us was all bombed, shell holes, churned up fields and what have you and we lay down and slept for twenty four hours after a jolly good drink of tea from the dixies.
I never learned what our casualties were but I know that more than half the battalion was lost in that attack. I don’t remember it had any particular name but it was part of the general advance on the Somme when we started to drive the Germans back. It was the last battle of the Somme I should imagine. To right and left of us were various regiments advancing, some a few yards, some by half a mile or so. The thing was to keep coordinating with the people on your left and on your right to provide no gaps for the enemy and the runners were continually busy in that respect. And of course, by this time we had a system of telegraphy: hand microphones, wires all over the place - sometimes cut by gunfire or other reasons - but there were means of communicating with the rear apart from the Very lights.
We then slept for two or three days and then German heavy guns stared up and we had to move because they got unpleasantly close but I don’t think we had any casualties. I remember in our move we came across a dead German sergeant major and I remember that they took his name and all his papers, wrapped them up in a little parcel and sent them back to headquarters to be forwarded to the Red Cross so that they would forward them on to his relatives who would know that he had been killed and where he’d been killed and the date. We did inform one another in that respect.
Then came word that we were to go back into action. This time it was between the wood and Gouzeaucourt and the regiments on the left of us had taken half the St Quentin redoubt.
We had to cross a railway line which was an embankment built up on piles of stone and granite and our boots made a rare old clatter as we climbed up over this bank. The line of course, had been cut in various places and there were no trains running on it. It ran parallel to our trenches but it definitely came from Gouzeaucourt originally but where it led in the other direction I never knew. Well then we were guided up into a trench and there was another trench leading out of our new front line trench into the German trenches. I was instructed to take my bombing squad along and occupy this position ahead of our lines. There was one deep dug-out and a fire platform near it on the right and half a dozen boards set at angles across as a sort of barricade so I posted sentries, one on the fire step to keep an eye on the right and the other one to look down the communication trench. I got my entrenching tool and scooped out the side of the trench so that he could be half hidden with his rifle resting on the boards down the trench. And then I retired round the bend, hollowed out a place for myself and told the others to dig in. We all dug our own little shelter in the side of the trench and by that time I was very weary. I thought I’ll just take a few minutes rest and I squatted down and I was just dosing off when bang, bang, bang and I heard one boy say, “He’s got me Corp” as he dashed past me. The other fella I never found. I dashed out and I started picking up bombs and throwing. Now we had some new type of bombs called egg bombs. They were about the size of a duck’s egg and on one end was a stud which you banged on something hard and that set the fuse going before you threw it. I was throwing these as hard as I could and I looked round to find that I was alone. They’d all forsaken me and fled. I was pretty mad. I ran back down the trench to the front line and told them what exactly I thought about them and their ancestors and telling them to follow me, I led the way back to my position with my rifle at the ready.
Incidentally I had a small revolver my father had given me which I kept in my left hand pocket; so my rifle’s ready and I had to just dive into my pocket - and I kept it loaded. I got the revolver out and carried the rifle - with of course, the bayonet attached - and regained the position. Up came an officer and asked me what the trouble was. I said, “They’ve just shot the sentry sir. I’ve posted two more but something will have to be done.”
“Alright, we’ll see in the morning.”
Later on the chaplain came up and said, “I hear you had a bit of trouble here” I said “Yes sir”. He said, “You’ve done well to hold the position anyway.” Well I never thought anything else. I never thought of retreating. If the Germans had come on I’d have used my bayonet. But they’d evidently been reconnoitering in the dark and I think that those two sentries of mine had been talking and while talking had evidently moved and so they’d been shot. I warned the new sentries to keep a very low profile and keep their eyes properly skinned and we’d no further trouble that night.
In the morning the captain came up and I made my report. Then along came a junior officer and he said, “Corporal, let’s have a look, se what’s happening here.” We went over the barricade and along the trench and of course, he being the officer, I didn’t lead. He led and his batman behind him and then me. We turned three or four corners then all of a sudden he turned and bumped into me and said, “Run Corporal, we’ve run slap into Jerry.” I was carrying my revolver in my left hand, my rifle slung over my shoulder and a grenade in my right hand. I couldn’t do anything else, he was in front of me and I couldn’t fire and he’d knocked me over. I picked myself up and he and the batman and I ran back. Fortunately the Jerries had not set a watch. Being broad morning they hadn’t expected anybody to suddenly jump on them or I wouldn’t be here now. As we ran along we passed another trench on the left and the Germans were just beginning to file down that trench but we got back safely. Course, the officer reported to the captain and the captain brought along two Lewis gun teams and a team of orderlies proceeded to build up a sandbag barricade, knocked the bottom of an ammunition box out, put that in and sandbagged around as an aperture through which the Lewis gun team could fire up the trench. The other fired over the right bank and he also gave me a stokes gun team posted at the deep dug-out just behind us and things settled down.
Then the Germans began shelling and using gas shells and we were laying there for hours with our gas masks on. The folk on the left got a packet of it but we fortunately escaped that. Then things quietened down again but I can tell you it’s no fun lying there for hours with a gas mask on, the smell of these fumes around. Eventually when the order came “All clear” and we took our gas masks off we had to be pretty careful.
Time passed and eventually again we were relieved. This time it was a clear evening when the relief arrived and we’d been together about fifteen days in action then. The sky lit up, a clear starlit night, and we waited at midnight for our relief to come, all with our packs and equipment ready to go as soon as they came. In the distance we could hear a German band playing their troops up to the reserve line. Often our bands would play us up to within a mile or so of the trenches to cheer us up. Then the relief arrived. We filed down the communication trench, out into the open space behind, and then started to cross the railway track. And did our boots rattle in the still night. We hadn’t gone very far before swish, crack, swish, crack: shrapnel coming. The Germans had heard us alright and they sure let us have it.
Well we ran until we dropped - I managed to keep going - until eventually we turned right parallel to our trenches and out of range. Fortunately for us the German range was just too long. The shells bursting over our heads spread the shrapnel just beyond us. If it had burst short of us we’d have got the shrapnel. We were weary and worn, what was left of us, and we marched on and on and at last we met our field kitchen. And did tea ever taste sweeter? I gulped and gulped tea because our throats were parched with the fumes of the cordite and powder as well from running.
We started off again and eventually we arrived at a shattered place where boards lay against what were left of walls - there was no building sound - and we lay and slept for two or three days, just waking and having tea and going to sleep again, we were so weary.
Then we began to get organized again and I began to take my bombing squad in hand for more training in warfare; training in the warfare of trench bombing. There was rifleman number one and bomber number one. Bomber number one threw his bomb and the rifleman dashed round the traverse ready to bayonet anybody still alive. Number two then threw his bomb and number two rifleman followed up. There was a certain drill that I had learned and I had to practice this particular drill in taking trenches as well as developing their muscle power and their knowledge of explosives. We were using the number five or Mills grenade which proved a very satisfactory bomb.
We went into rest and then we started some football and there were boxing matches and then we started off again for the next attack. This time Gouzeaucourt had been taken and our big heavy guns were on the St Quentin redoubt. We’d heard during the night in fitful dreams the dull roll of drums. Really those were terrific barrages as series of attacks, one after the other, pushed the Germans back.
We went through Gouzeaucourt into country that was less spoilt because we were getting beyond our original positions that had been fought over and over. Then we ran into a trap and there were more casualties and I got one on the leg. I picked up a stick and could just hobble along but I couldn’t keep up with them and what happened then I don’t know. Whether it was a piece of shrapnel or what I don’t know but it messed my leg up on the thigh and I couldn’t walk. I tried to keep up with the lads but eventually I had to desist and they took me in an ambulance back to a rest camp and after some days, down to the railway. I was taken in the train this time near Boulogne. My leg began to improve but I couldn’t do much without a stick. I’d cut a stick out of a hedge and fastened a cross handle to it and staggered along.
Then I was sent to Cayeux convalescent camp at the mouth of the Somme not far from St Valery. The town was about five miles form the camp but there I was given a job as a librarian. Then, as my leg got worse, I decided I should report sick and that’s where I think I made a mistake. I was still pretty lame and yet acting as librarian at the church army hut, playing the organ for the services. A partition separated the little chancel from where we operated and there was a little fella named Cowie from Plaistow in London, a real cockney fella who was my companion and help. We didn’t get much news, letters began to come.
Meanwhile I figured I’d got to get better somehow and that I couldn’t go on like this so I reported sick and was taken to the sick bay. There I remained all day, wondering what was going to happen. The orderly kept saying that the ambulance would come soon then word came through that the war had stopped, it was armistice day. And everybody was in high jinks: there free drinks, free everything. All except me, stuck in that little stubby hole alone until in the evening an ambulance arrived driven by some WAACS. They put me on a stretcher and started off. After an hour they stopped, they got out and I heard them arguing. Eventually I called one of them and said, “Where are we?” They said, “We’re back where we started from, we got lost.” They’d been enjoying themselves evidently.
Well eventually I arrived at Abbeville and I was taken to Number One Australian Hospital this time. There I found things very lax. Occasionally they tended to me and a nurse came and said, “Well, I don’t know what to do about your leg.” We were allowed to keep our uniforms and after lights out we used to stroll down into town. I remember there were some very good films and that’s the first ones I saw of Charlie Chaplin; I saw some most laughable films. Usually the boys would say to me, “You going down? Bring us back a bottle. Here’s ten francs for champagne.” Well, I never saw anybody the worse for it. It was most irregular but apparently the Australian people had a different technique or understanding of things because you couldn’t possibly have done that in an English hospital. The doctor only came about once a week and things seemed very lax and then I was sent back to convalescent camp. Back on the train to Noyelles and then from there a little gauge line ran to Cayeux, a little narrow gauge with open carriages.
By the way, when I got to the hospital everybody was in bed. They’d had a fine old day, they whooped it up and I was too late. I went into hospital ion the wrong day alright, especially when they told me about the free chocolate. It wasn’t the free beer that attracted me, I was no boozer. I, by that time, was smoking a pipe and they issued us with a tobacco called White Cloud which I’ve never heard of since. I don’t know who made it but none of the other fellas seemed to want to smoke it so they passed it on to me and I acquired quite a few. When I went into Abbeville I took these with me and if I met a French soldier I asked him, “Desirez vous tabac Anglais?” “Ah, oui. Combien?” “Deux francs.” I made a little bit of money out of it, they were satisfied and so was I. The other fellas all smoked cigarettes and I never did like cigarettes. The money I spent on chocolates and sweets.
At this convalescent camp things began to move. Various units suddenly disappeared and I’m sorry to say that some men woke up to find all their money and possessions gone. We were in big long barrack rooms and during the night somebody had skipped through and rifled among possessions. Fortunately for me I wasn’t troubled because I slept in the little room attached to the chapel with Cowie on the floor, we’d not proper beds of course. But it was very unfortunate. I can’t mention any particular regiments but things sure disappeared and though there was consternation you could do nothing about it.
But I remember while I was in the barrack huts, before I got this job again, I met some very interesting characters there spinning yarns late at night before the lights went out. Lights out would be about ten o’clock to quarter past ten. The usual regulation would be first post - by which time we had to be in - at half past nine, last post at ten, lights out at quarter past ten. There were the usual jokes about fellas meeting the ladies with their dogs & being used.
Now the chaplain there was a very good chaplain and he’d bring in a pile of letters for me to frank. I didn’t have to read through them I just had to stamp them : “passed by censor”, and he’d come and just scribble his initials all over them when I’d done that and off they went. There was really no need for any further secrecy. Padre Heywood was his name he came from the North, from, from - I think - Darlington, somewhere in Durham, and he was a very good padre. I remember on one occasion he said, “Corporal, when’s that leg of yours going to get better?” And I was rather startled and surprised and stammered out, “Well I haven’t decided yet sir.” And he burst out laughing and all around him at my unusual reply. You see, if you got this post as a sort of orderly or at these various jobs you could be sure of staying at the convalescent camp for six weeks and people were glad to get hold of these various jobs as there were only a few going. Being able to play the organ was an advantage to me and being a churchman, I suppose, too. Anyway, the padre and I got on very very well together and I was sorry to see him go.
And then eventually the came when we were half empty, Christmas came and there were great festivities in the church hut. Meanwhile I’d been given a lovely pair of Canadian leather mitts and I remember that I was so busy serving, preparing, working that I hadn’t time even to eat myself; as these fellas came in and enjoyed themselves. And I left my mitts on the top of the piano and never saw them again. I regretted those lovely mitts, they really were warm.
After Christmas things settled down and various units began to appear and disappear and I still continued with my studies in Greek although my pal was taken away for evacuation. I don’t know how they decided who to take, whether it was by unit or division, but the time came for the rest of us to entrain and we had to march down to Noyelles, a five mile march. We rolled greatcoats, carrying them across our shoulders in the fashion, and it came on to snow; heavy, wet, thick snow , a real blizzard. We took our coats off but they got wet and sodden. Eventually we reached the little station and got on these carriages which had no windows and were open to the winds and the weather. After an hour the little train started and rattled on into Abbeville. We had to get out then because it was only single track and get into big forty men or eight horses vehicles, big vans. I crawled in wet, sodden, exhausted and got severe cramp. I got up and tried to stretch myself but it was agony. I also got terrific toothache but eventually the train started. Now we each had a batch of NCOs and officers on and eventually we arrived at Le Treport. The officers came along and said, “Now, you’ve got an hour here you fellas so you’d better get our and enjoy yourselves.” Course, we’d had no food or anything, no rations, and we were desperate for something to eat and drink. So the fellas disappeared and I went with the other NCOs when sergeant came round and said, “Say,, that train’s going in ten minutes and I can’t find the officers.” We never did find the officers. We rounded all the men up, got them back on the train and it started off.
In the darkness we arrived at Dieppe and reported to the railway transport officer. He didn’t know anything about us or our officers, he didn’t know anything about them. They’d missed the boat and so had we because he said he’d no word about any camp ready for us. After kicking around for an hour or two there was a funny little train - I’ve never seen the like before or since - a double-decker train. We climbed up steps at the end, sat on seats facing outwards, and this little old train set off for St Marie-Eglise. We arrived at St Marie-Eglise and I don’t know how long it took because it wasn’t an express by any means and it was pretty cold sitting up there. Some fellas managed to get in the carriage below with the civilians but I was stuck up at the top. We eventually arrived at this little station and it appears our officers had gone to St Marie-Eglise because they knew that was the camp we should go to. We’d gone past it into Dieppe and then we had to come back. Of course, the train stopped at the far end of the camp and we had to march right round two sides of this big camp before we could get in. Then we were billeted in bell tents on a very steep hillside and there was more than one man had a broken leg through sliding and falling down that hillside.
Well in that bell tent I suffered agonies. I woke up with blood streaming from my mouth from this tooth giving me trouble. For meals we had to line up and they dished up through a little sort of pigeon hole a bowl of hash into your billy tin. There was a little shop nearby and occasionally a little batch of biscuits might appear and you were lucky if you happened to get in on those. I never saw such a mess.
At intervals the officer or a sergeant would come out and call out a list of names, telling them to be ready in half an hour. Then they were lined up and marched off. I waited in vain for my name to be called. Another night set in, another day of starvation. But I do remember there were two fellas there and a piano and these fellas just rolled off operas and Beethoven’s sonatas when I suggested they play. They were absolute professional musicians those two and that was the one comfort of that camp.
Well, I got into such a condition that I reported to the orderly office and they sent me down to a dressing station where here they told me that I’d got an awful temperature and sent me to a little hospital for the Chinese coolies who were working around the camps. Our beds consisted of what were called biscuits: three padded slabs and a blanket. I begged the orderly to give me something and he got some carbolic acid and cotton wool and I jammed that into my hollow tooth. Then a day later an ambulance happened to come by and I was taken into the hospital at Dieppe.
When we got to Dieppe we were put on a funny little steamer and of course, there was no accommodation and you just lay on the deck. After an hour, the little vessels chugged out into the harbour and at the edge of the harbour she stopped and down went her mud hook as we called the anchor. Rumours: captain’s drunk, crew’s drunk, tide’s wrong, nobody knew and the only thing was to lay down and sleep. Eventually an hour or so later we started off. I was dead tired and when I woke up it was morning. And there were the white cliffs of Dover. Hooray, we’ll be there soon. But no, we didn’t go to Dover. We turned parallel to the coast and went round by Deal, Ramsgate, Margate and out into the North Sea and then we turned westward into the mouth of the Thames. What a sight. Sticking up all around were masts and funnels of ships that had been torpedoed and our vessel wound its way between them and up the Thames until in the afternoon we arrived at Tilbury. There the tenders came alongside and took us off. We were then escorted into a room and given a sandwich and a hot cup of tea. Oh wasn’t that wonderful! Back into another room; more sandwiches and tea and we were told that the train would be going in about an hour and we were shown to the train. Things moved smoothly once we were this side. Well the sandwiches were just wonderful: real ham, real bread. No more bully, no more biscuits, no this was the real stuff this was.
No more ration parties. When I used to think of when we were in the trenches hoping to be on the ration party which went out to back to meet the fellas bringing up the rum and rations. The Army Transport Corps brought them up the rear of the trenches and a squad was detailed to collect them and bring them to the quartermaster’s store where they were dished out. And no more Tickler’s jam. I’ve never understood how that firm started. I know it was based at Grimsby and folks since around there have told me that there were field s and fields of turnips put to use. Anyway, Ticklers’s jam provided something. There was machonochie as well and you were lucky if you got a tin of machonochie. Sometimes we were alright, other times it was in short supply. But you see, I was never a vegetarian. I wasn’t keen on the vegetable part and all I wanted was the meat. However, I survived.
There was a different attitude in 1918 to the one in 1915. I never heard talk about scrounging and swinging the lead and dodging the column and various things like that in the early days. We were all volunteers, keen to do our part and there was a camaraderie which wasn’t so evident at the last part. I met some good friends but I only kept in touch with one person form the last battalion after the war. There was a lot to be said for the territorials because coming from the same territory they were pals often before they went into the army. And coming from the same district they spoke the same language and had the same customs. It was very different.
Donald Banks - Narrative - Part 1
Donald Banks - Narrative - Part 2
Donald Banks - Introduction and War Diary - England 1915
Donald Banks - War Diary - France 1915
And see too, my posts on my Army Service Numbers blog regarding the Lincolnshire Regiment: