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Harry Hickson’s War – Part One

July 21, 2010

In my last post I mentioned that I would be publishing extracts of the First World War diaries of my grandfather, Harry Hickson. Here’s the first episode. The diaries have never been previously published.

It’s August 1917. Harry is an officer in the British Royal Artillery. He’s just arrived in France. The “Dolly” he refers to is my grandmother. They were married earlier that year.

Note how, being English, he is able to report, amidst the horrific events he describes, that it was a “lovely day”!

August 4th

Today is the 3rd anniversary of the outbreak of war. I wonder how much longer it will last.  We little thought it would last as long as this.  We passed Abbeville and Boulogne early this morning and arrived at Calais at 10.30am.  We only stayed there about half an hour and then proceeded via St. Omer to Hazebrouck.  We stayed there about an hour as I believe the Bosche were shelling Poperinghe, and eventually arrived at Hopoutre, a suburb of Poperinghe, at 4.30pm.  Just as we got there the Bosche put over a shell, which landed about 100 yards away, it gave me quite a start.  The first I had ever experienced that was really fired at me, so to speak.  Then came the parting of ways, for the battery was to split into two sectors, much to my regret.  We detrained at Hopoutre and lorries were waiting for us there.  Flint took the Right Section of 401 S.B to 306 Siege Battery and I took the Left Section to 309 (H.A.C) Siege Battery.  We travelled through Pop to Trois Tours Wood where the headquarters of the battery were.  There I met Major Edmondson who is in command and some of the officers.  My first impressions are good. The battery is manned by H.A.C officers and men, all good stout fellows I’m sure, and the Major seems particularly nice.  We are in the XVIII Corps of the 2nd army under Lieutenant General Sir Ivor Maxel.  The Brig General Heavy Artillery is Brig Gen Brake R.A.  We are in the 65th Heavy Artillery Group under Lt Col Webb R.G.A.  I slept in my first dug out under a bank in Trois Tours Wood and had a very comfortable night. 

August 5th

This morning I went with Major Edmondson and a party of 401 up the line to a new forward position at Turco Farm, to get ready for the guns coming, by the way the guns are 6″ howitzers and very good ones with the quick release gear for loading.  The Bosche were strafing rather badly and I got the wind up, but no one was hit.  I saw my first dead men today, two poor fellows evidently killed in the big advance. They had an uncanny fascination for me which I can’t account for, I had to keep looking at them.  We returned to the dug out to sleep and I watched the bombardment at night. It was quite a thrilling sight.

 August 6th

This morning I went on duty to an intermediate battery position just in rear of the railway near Orielen and stayed there all day.  The Bosche put over a few nasty ones during the day, and Sergeant Saunders was hit in the leg.  I slept in a tin shed near the guns and did not feel very safe!!

 August 7th

Today I took part in several shoots and stayed on duty in the battery till 6pm, when I returned to Trois Tours and had a bath and change of clothes, both of which were very welcome.  Major Chamberlain was hit in the arm but not very badly, Major Stewart left 309 S.B and was sent to No. 18 Siege Battery with 12″ guns. That is the big fellow which fires at night close to here and keeps us awake.  However, I had a very comfortable night’s sleep.

 August 8th

I had a really slack morning writing letters etc, and after lunch went over to the battery position near the railway.  I had a very busy afternoon with shoots etc. Bdr West and Gunner Hatton were wounded, but not badly I’m glad to say.  A very heavy thunderstorm came on after tea and upset things completely.  I slept on the floor of a dug out and had a very hard restless night, hardly any sleep at all.  I think I was rather scared really, I haven’t got used to this fighting and facing death constantly properly yet.

 August 9th

This morning I did a very good shoot with aeroplane co-operation.  Then we prepared to move the battery position.  I returned to Trois Tours at 8pm and had a very comfortable night with no strafing.  I was feeling awfully tired and done up.

 August 10th

I have had a very busy day at the battery.  One section went forward to the new Boront Farm position.  I slept at the battery position near the railway.

 August 11th

Today I went up to the new position at Boront Farm and was very busy building dug-outs etc ready to occupy it.  A violent thunderstorm came on after tea, but we had a cheery dinner in the new dug-out.  The other section with a supply of ammunition was expected up and I went to look for them about 11pm as they had not turned up, but they did not appear and I lay down on the floor of the dug-out.  I woke up about 1am to find I was lying in about 3″ of water and felt very cold and wet!!  I shifted quarters to another dug-out and finished the night quite comfortably.  The guns and ammunition were bogged on the way up.

 August 12th (Sunday)

It was a lovely morning, sunny and bright.  We did a very successful aeroplane shoot and got and O.K on the 13th round and several more OKs and Y’s during the shoot.  We had lunch in the open as it was so lovely, and in the middle of it the Bosche strafed us badly with high explosive shells and shrapnel.  The first shell landed only about 20 yards from us all (officers) and killed one man and wounded several. It was a horrible experience.  One man’s stomach was ripped right open, an awful sight.  I had my first letter from Dolly today, it helped to cheer me up a little, the awfulness of war seemed very realistic today, I am sure more of our wounded men will die they looked ghostly as we carried them away.  The Huns strafed all afternoon.

 August 13th

We had a fairly quiet day today.  I saw a very exciting aeroplane fight, a Bosche plane forced one of our RE8 planes almost to the tree tops when another RE8 came along and shot the Bosche down and he crashed.  They were quite close and we gave a big cheer.  The Huns shelled us badly at night with gas shells and we had to wear our respirators.  Another long letter from Dolly.

 August 14th

Another wet day, but we have done a bit of shooting – 576 rounds.  This afternoon 306 and 184 Siege Batteries were badly strafed. I hope Flint nor any of my old men weren’t hit.  We were bombarding Polecapelle from 8.30 to 9.30 tonight, a terrific din.  The Huns had a go at us tonight. Splinters were hitting our dug out and we retired to some trenches on our flank from 1.15am to 2.30am when things quietened down a little.  Three men were killed, they belonged to the K.O.L.I.

 August 15th  

It was a lovely day today with just occasional showers.  We continued our bombardment scheme as per yesterday.  I came back to Trois Tours (which we have still retained) at 6pm for 24 hours rest. I feel I need it too.  After writing several letters I had some hot rum and went to bed at 9.30pm.  The Huns were strafing No.18 S.B’s position close by, but I had a topping nights sleep, in spite of our heavy bombardment nearly all night.  The attack was carried on this morning, zero hour was 4.45am.

 August 16th

I woke at 8 o’clock this morning and had a cup of tea, then went to sleep again till 9.30 and had breakfast in bed!!  What a luxury!  I saw batches of Hun prisoners came into the cages and spoke to some of them.  I returned to the battery position about 5 o’clock and carried on with shoots till 8.30pm. The Bosches gave us another bad strafing and we retired to a trench and dug ourselves in for the night.  We slept on duckboards, and very hard they were, but fairly comfortable and fairly safe but the darned Huns sent a lot of gas over and we had to wear our helmets again.

 August 17th

It was a lovely sunny day again and we did no shooting till 2.30pm.  The Huns put a few over at tea time and killed Gunner Jogden, a very fine fellow.  They also put over more gas about 9.30pm.  I slept in the dug out and had quite a comfortable night.

 August 18th

It was another lovely day and we did no firing till 11.30am.  I wrote several letters.  This evening I left the battery at 5 o’clock and came back to Trois Tours.  Some Canadian officers came in and had a yarn and we got the gramophone going.  I had some hot rum and got to bed about 10.30pm, the rum helps me to sleep.  A Hun plane dropped bombs quiet close during the night and the wood was shelled about 1.30am.

 August 19th (Sunday)

I woke at 8 o’clock this morning as usual and had a cup of tea then slept again till 10, and had a bath and breakfast.  It was a lovely day and I sat outside and censored letters.  Returned to duty at the battery at 4pm, and had quite a comfortable night in the dug out.

 August 20th

Another lovely day, this morning  I did another successful aeroplane shoot with 5zs 4ys and 2MOKs.  Tonight I moved the right section of guns up to the new position at Turco Farm and got them in position for firing.  I don’t like the position very much, it seems rather exposed.  Slept in a small dug out near the guns.

 August 21st

The Bosche gave us a terrible strafing this morning from 9am to 12.30.  They did what they call and area shoot and we were in the middle of it!  They use all the calibres from field guns up to 8″ and we estimate they put over at least 1200 rounds, it was an awful experience.  We were lucky enough to escape with only two men wounded.  The afternoon and evening were fairly quiet and the men built dug outs.  I went down to the Burnt Farm position for dinner and returned afterwards and slept in the small Battery anchorage dug-out.  The Huns strafed badly with H.E shells during the night, and put over great quantities of gas shells from 12.30am onwards.  We had to wear our respirators from 12.45-2.15am and at intervals up to 4am when it was fairly clear.

 August 22nd

Another big bombardment started at 4.45 this morning.  We found Sergeant Welham was badly gassed last night and he was taken to the dressing station at Essex Farm. We have lost a good man in the Sergeant.  We got an officers dug out made in the ruins of Turco Farm and some billets for the men.  I returned to the Burnt Farm position at 11pm for a good sleep but the Huns strafed badly during the night and I couldn’t sleep.

 August 23rd

Gunner Stewart was killed at 5 o’clock this morning during the strafing at Burnt Farm, and we buried him at Bard Cottage Cemetery at 3 o’clock this afternoon.  It seems awful that a strong healthy man should be alive and well in the morning and under the sod in the afternoon. Such is war.  We cleared up shells, furzes etc at the old position, and the Huns strafed us again, one shell fell near the orderly room and wounded three men.  They put a lot over during the night too, they were very persistent!

 August 24th

I got up at 5am and went up to an Observation Post (O.P) in an old Hun dug out on Pilcham Ridge, and had a very interesting day.  I passed a grave with this inscription, “Here lies the body of an unknown Highlander”.  I saw the ruins of Zangemarck church in the valley and also Zounebeke and Polecapelle churches in the distance, all in the occupation of the Huns.  I returned to the Turco farm position at 7.30 pm, and had a fairly comfortable night in our new dugout in the ruins.

 August 25th

I have had a fairly easy day on the guns, the Huns strafed us again but not badly, I was orderly officer at 6 pm and did a “night lines” shoot from 9 to 10.30pm, then a bombardment shoot from 11pm to 1 am, when the Huns strafed us again, in retaliation I suppose.  The bombardment was a lovely sight at night.

 August 26th

I was wakened again at 5.30 this morning to do an aeroplane shoot, which was quite successful. Spent the rest of the day making dug outs etc.  I returned to Trois Tours at 6 pm, and paid the men who were there, we keep a certain number back there all the time for a spell and clean up.  After dinner I got the gramophone going and went to bed at 10 pm, feeling very tired.  Some shells fell quite close during the night and it rained very heavily too.

 August 27th

I woke at 9.30 this morning and had breakfast in pyjamas, then had a bath and general clean up till lunch.  I wrote a letter of condolence to Stewart’s mother, he was one of my original men in 4015.B.  I returned to the Turco Farm position at 4 pm in pouring rain and got wet through, especially at the knees.  I found the battery had a “stunt” on, and after tea went on the guns and got very wet.  The major lent me dry socks and I slept in my wet clothes!  I hadn’t any to change to.

 August 28th

I spent the morning wading in mud on the battery position, it was most uncomfortable, and occasionally we could see some poor fellow’s boots sticking out of the mud and the know the rest of him was only just covered.  We cleared up empty cartridge cases etc.  Did a blind shoot in the afternoon, very windy and showery.  I was Orderly Officer at night and did a shoot about 10 pm.  Slept in a small dug out with P. H. Edmondson the major’s brother, and had a very cosy night.  It was a lovely moonlight night too.

 August 29th

We spent the morning getting the gun trails settled on the platforms, very showery.  Did a blind shoot in the afternoon and afterwards drained the position. Comfortable night in dug out.

August 30th

The Huns started strafing us at 8 o’clock this morning with 11″ and 8″ shells, big fellows, which made a great shindy.  We cleared off to a flank and let them go ahead, so had no casualties and no guns were hit.  They continued till tea time and put over from 300 to 400 rounds, and the road was very badly cut up.  We did a shoot in the evening and I had a comfortable night.

 August 31st

We did three counter battery “stunts” during the day, I hope we relieved some of our batteries of the Bosche attentions.  The Huns later on retaliated with more of their 8″ stuff, which isn’t a bit pleasant.  I was Orderly Officer and ammunition arrived for us about midnight, and also had to turn out for “night lines” shoot at 4.30am.  Then I had to report at 7 am so had very little sleep.

September 1st

I have spent all day getting the position and ammunition squared up after the strafing we have had, it was very showery again.  We did a 200 rounds shoot in the evening.  The Huns strafed again during the night and nearly hit Nos 1 & 3 guns, they evidently spotted our battery.  I turned out at 3.15 am to do a shoot for P.H. who had to go to an O.P.

 September 2nd

A lovely day but slight showers.  We did a 200 rounds shoot this afternoon at battery fire 1 second.  Then tried a shoot with P.H. in the O.P., but the light was too bad.  I came back to Trois Tours at 7 pm. feeling very tired, and had a very comfortable night.  Several Hun planes dropped bombs in the vicinity.

 September 3rd

I got up at 9.30 this morning and had breakfast in pyjamas, it was a glorious day.  Had a bath and good clean up in the morning.  I left Trois Tours at 3.45 pm and when I got near the position I found the Major and all the men in trenches to the south west of the position as the Huns were having a terrific “area strafe”.  We went back to the mess about 6 pm and the Huns were still shelling the ridge about 100 yards in front of us with 8″ stuff.  We went across to the battery and found that about 200 fuses and 600 cartridges had gone up, and they also had a direct hit on No 4 bunker.  We cleared up the debris and camouflage and then had tea.  The Huns started again near the battery at 8 pm with 8″ and then about 10 o’clock sent over a lot of gas, which did not disturb us very much.  Very comfy night in the little dug out.

 September 4th

A lovely day, nothing exciting happened.  We tried to do two aeroplane shoots, but no luck owing to bad visibility.  I got into pyjamas for a change, but heard at midnight I had to man the O.P. next day.  Comfortable night.

 September 5th

I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and went to the O.P. with two signallers.  I had a very busy day there but rather monotonous.  Returned at 9.30pm, and had dinner, then slept on the ground in the mess as Forsyth was O.O, and had quite a comfortable night.

September 6th

I spent most of the morning getting No. 3 gun down to the road to go to workshops.  Did a very successful shoot in the afternoon with 2 OKs (one a direct hit on No. 4 gun pit) 3 Y’s and 3 Zs.  I have had a wretched pain in my stomach all day, I don’t know what has caused it.  I turned out to do a shoot at 8.30 pm and felt very rotten.  I slept in the little dug out but did not have a very comfortable night as the Bosche put more gas over.

 September 7th

I felt very seedy this morning and went down to Group H.Q. to see the doctor, who thought the water was the cause of the trouble or that I was slightly gassed. I should think probably the latter.  I then saw Gunner Patten off to G.H.Q. for duty.  Had a slack afternoon waiting for an aeroplane shoot, which did not materialise, so did a blind shoot at 5 pm.  The Huns started strafing again at 8 pm and got a direct hit on one of the men’s dug outs.  Gunners Heathcote and Upsdale were killed, Read and Terry badly wounded.  It was an awful business sorting them out from among the debris in the dark and hearing their moans. Slept in the little dug out, but very uneasy night.

 September 8th

Very misty morning and slight rain. Felt a little better, but my stomach is still out of order, spent the day getting the position squared up, and  building furze and cartridge recesses.  Read died of his wounds today, a most unlucky shell for us.

 September 9th

I had another wretched day with stomach trouble.  Spent the day on the position, still carrying on, we dug out a “dud” the Bosche put under No 4 gun position.  We also rebuilt our dug out, and it is now much more comfortable.  I was Orderly Officer at 6 pm.  The Huns strafed us again very badly during the night, and the whole battery had to clear out at 2.30 am. Our men are getting a bit “windy” and no wonder!  Luckily we had no casualties, but one shell hit the ration bivouac and upset our food!  It was a lovely day.

 September 10th

Another bright day, nothing of note happened.  Spent the morning on the position clearing up etc.  Felt a little better.  Fairly comfortable night, although we were shelled again, and the Bosche also gave us another taste of gas. 

 September 11th

A glorious morning, lovely bright sun.  Spent the morning censoring letters and doing an unsuccessful aeroplane shoot.  I saw the doctor again and he advised a 24 hour rest at Trois Tours.  The Huns shelled us again at 3.30pm and got a direct hit on another dug out, which luckily was empty, the second shell nearly hit our dug out and we cleared to a flank in double quick time!  This constant shelling is getting rather too much. It upsets one’s nerves.  We were lucky that second shell just missed us, or the battery would have needed a new compliment of officers!  We waited for another shoot till 6pm and as that didn’t come off I left for Trois Tours, called at Camp H.Q en route for medicine and arrived at T.T at 7.30pm.  I had a light meal and after writing to Dolly I had some hot whisky and went to bed.  At 11pm I received news that the battery was to go out of the line for a short rest – we badly need it.  The Huns dropped bombs very near and also shelled during the night, but I slept very soundly.

September 12th

I got up at 9.30am and had a bath and general clean up, then wrote several letters.  My stomach still feels very rotten.  The Major arrived for lunch and Knox (Captain), P.H and Forsyth later.  I left Trois Tours with the men at 2.45pm, and met the motor buses on the Vlamerstinghe road about 3.45pm. The Major, Knox and myself went in the Sunbeam car and left the buses on the Poperinghe road and went on to Cassel for tea at the Hotel du Sauvage, it was a lovely trip and already the war seems a long way off.  After tea we motored through Noordpeene to Lederszeele (where we had a puncture) and on to Millaine, our rest camp, where we arrived about 6pm.  We found no one in camp and we bagged a nice hut for ourselves and tents for the men.  The others arrived about 8.30pm and we all soon settled down.  Very comfy night.

From → History, UK

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