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Harry Hickson’s War – Part 2 – Passchendaele

July 24, 2010

In this extract of my grandfather Harry Hickson’s diaries, he describes his experiences in the Battle of Poelcapelle. This was one of a series of battles now known as the Passchendaele offensive, in which British and French troops attempted to break through the German lines and force them to abandon the Channel Ports. The Passchendaele offensive, fought on reclaimed marshland between July and November 1917, resulted in the Allies gaining 5 miles of territory near Ypres at the cost of 150,000 combat deaths. Five months later the Germans recaptured the ground with no resistance.

Harry’s experiences speak for themselves. Where he uses acronyms I have expanded them in parenthesis.

 September 20th

Our big push came off this morning – the Battle of Polecapelle. Zero hour was 5.40am.  Our guns had been continually firing from 3am.  Yesterday the prisoners started to come down from about 9am.  I got a button as a souvenir from a huge Bosche who came down in charge of a wee Argyll and Sutherland Highlander!  They seemed to be the best of pals!!!  We were very bucked up with the news of the push; things are going well.  I slept in the afternoon, then wrote several letters.  Very comfortable night.

September 21st

I got up at 8 o’clock this morning, it was a glorious day and I spent a very lazy morning as we are out of range now.  I wrote several letters while I had the chance, we shall be busy again soon.  The Major and Amos went in the car to Poperinghe. We had a pretty bad strafe from some of the Bosche long range guns in the evening. We played cards in the evening and then had quite a comfortable night.

September 22nd

Nothing exciting happened, a very quiet day.

September 23rd

We have had a very busy day getting the right section ready to move to a new position further forward at Hindenberg farm, just beyond the Pilchem Ridge. The Major and Hendry went forward early and we had the guns ready to move in the afternoon. It entails a lot of hard work getting 9.2″ guns on their carriages in 3 pieces ready for transport. At 8.15pm after dinner the Major and I started off with the guns and caterpillars etc. 

After a lot of delay owing to bad roads, we got them to the position about 10pm and started to mount them.  About 11pm the Huns started strafing the Rilckern Road and ridge, but none fell near us until about 2am, when they started a furious barrage of 8″, 5.9″ and all kinds of gas shells.  It all came on so suddenly that we had hardly time to get on our gas masks. Shells seemed to be falling all round me and one gas shell exploded with a dull thud not more than a yard from me – saw the cloud of gas issue from it. We all tried to clear out as quickly as we could, but it was pitch dark, we did not know the country at all, never having seen it in daylight, and we all got right into thick barbed wire and shell holes. We could hardly see in the gas masks in any case. 

It was perfectly awful, the most terrible time I have ever had. We could hear men shouting out all round us, but could do nothing for them. I had a few men with me and we eventually reached a dugout (I could see a light faintly glimmering, that was how I found it) and we stayed there till 5am.  Gas shells and H.E.(High Explosives) were falling all around, but luckily the dugout was not hit and we sat there in gas masks feeling very wet and miserable. I got back to the position about 5 o’clock but could only find a few of the men. We collected some and carried on with the mounting till Hendry arrived with a fresh party to relieve us about 7.30am. We finished mounting No.1 gun by 8.30am. What an awful night.

September 24th

We arrived back at Foch Farm at 9am and after breakfast got into bed and slept till lunch.  I had lunch in pyjamas, followed by a hot bath and felt much better.  It was a very misty morning, but turned into a glorious day. After my bath I lazed in the sun in vest and breeches.  It was lovely and hot, then wrote some letters.  We played cards after dinner. Then I slept very soundly.  They tell me the Bosche strafed very badly during the night but I did not hear it.

September 25th

A glorious day, got up at 8am nothing exciting happened in the morning. In the afternoon went up to the Hindenburg Farm with Hendry, and returned to tea.  After tea we were told we must register our forward section and we rushed back the H.F but found the visibility too bad.  We returned for dinner and played cards afterwards, then left a third time for H.F and tried to get the guns in the zero line as we heard that another stunt would probably come off in the early morning, but we could not find our datum mark – a crab apple tree – so we left them on the centre traverse and got to bed about midnight, but could not sleep.

September 26th

I was up again on the guns at 3.30am, to start shooting at 3.50am. Zero hour was at 5.50am and we were firing till 6.15am, when our ammunition was expended. I got back to bed from 6.30 to 9am.  Spent the morning on the guns, and was told at noon to go to a forward O.P. (Observation Post) to shoot on some enemy concrete dug outs.

I had an awful job to get there as Bosche were putting up very heavy barrages.  I got as far as Maison D’Hibon (the headquarters of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry) with my two signallers, but it was impossible then to go further forward on account of heavy shelling and I was advised by the Colonel to stay there for a time. As soon as I could I went forward, but found the O.P. I was bound for had been blown in. I went to another concrete mebus on the right and was rather alarmed to hear someone talking in German! It proved to be a wounded German soldier who said he had been there seven days. He was nearly starved and begged me to finish him as his leg was shot away and he couldn’t move. He was terrified of being left alone again.  I gave him all I had, which was a little chocolate and some water, and he was very grateful, but there was a terrible scene when I was leaving him. He cried bitterly. 

I found there was no hope of doing any shooting. It was impossible to keep a telephone line through.  We got into an awful barrage on the return journey and had a narrow escape from two shells.  The sights and smells of dead men – both ours and German – were appalling; I saw one poor Scotsman with his hands up as though he had been praying and kneeling in the bottom of a shell hole with his head on one side, he had evidently been killed in that position. We had a fairly comfortable journey after passing Masion d’Hibon, where I called to tell the Colonel about the German.  He said if he sent a stretcher party they could only be shelled, he couldn’t risk his men, especially as the Hun would most probably die. Poor devil, he had my sympathy. I wonder what became of him. I was awfully tired when I got back and went to bed early, my bed had been wired during the day.

September 27th

I got up at 8am after a very good night’s sleep.  In the morning Hendry and I sat on the top of our dug out and registered our guns on Polecappelle Church which we could see clearly with our glasses, it was very successful.  We had a quiet afternoon and evening and we occupied our time in cleaning and white washing our dug out!  After dinner we played cards till 9.30pm, then had a comfortable night, but the Huns strafed nearly all night and shook our dugout.

September 28th

I got up at 8am and went across to the position after breakfast. I came back to our dug out to visualize a target on the left of Polecappelle Church, which a place was also to observe for us.  After only two rounds the Huns started to shell the battery (11am) and they continued till 4.5pm, putting over approximately 250 rounds. One shell hit the earth box of No.2 gun and put up some cartridges, it was a lucky escape for the gun. They shelled us again with 8″ from 6 to 7pm. Then we had a fairly comfortable night, but they sent over some gas about 3am.

September 29th

Got up at 8am and went over to position after breakfast. Built a new Section Commander’s dugout. The Colonel came up to look at the position. Huns started shelling us with 5.9’s about noon and continued till 4pm. We tried to do an aeroplane shoot near Polecappelle Church, but there were too many hostile planes about. They seemed to have command of the air in this section. We did a blind shoot on it after dark, and we also selected a new position for the left section. Comfortable night.

September 30th

A quiet night.  Made the new gun emplacements for the left section on the opposite side of the road. Two new officers – Miller and Bellfield – came up and joined us. We are very glad to have them. Hendry went off in the car to St Omer about 8pm. The guns of the left section came up and we started to get them in position in bright moonlight. Bosche planes came over bombing and must have spotted us and wirelessed back about 9pm. Ten minutes later shrapnel, 4.2s and all kinds of gas shells came in quick succession. We managed to escape to some dug outs on the right and about 11pm we got back to Hindenburg Farm. Another awful experience, but not quite so bad as the last.  This seems to be an unlucky position. Turned in about midnight.

October 1st

I got up about 5.30am and carried on with the left section of guns. The Huns started shelling again with H.E. (High Explosives) very heavily and we had to leave the guns again.  We went back as soon as the shelling eased up and we had nearly finished at 8am when they started again and we retired from the position for breakfast. We managed to get them ready for firing after breakfast. We tried to register them about 5pm, but the visibility was too bad. We were relieved at 6pm by the Major and other officers and we came back to Foch Farm. Played cards after dinner.  Comfortable night, but the Huns strafed us badly and wounded 3 of our men, worst luck.

October 3rd

2nd Lieutenant Dew and myself went up to the Vieille Maisons near the front line to shoot on a concrete mebus near Delta House.  The visibility was very bad until about 2.30pm when it was good for half an hour. However, we could not establish communication with the battery on account of the heavy shelling, we mended 20 breaks in the telephone wires. Then the Huns spotted us and strafed us with shrapnel and 4.2s. We were in touch with the battery from 3.30pm to 4, but unluckily there was no visibility. The line went again and we returned to Hindenburg Farm about 6pm. I had a cup of tea there and then came on to Foch Farm, very tired with the long hard tramp and a very disappointing day. I turned in at 9.30pm and had a good night’s rest.

October 4th

I got up at 8am and took a party of men into Poperinghe by lorry for a bath etc.  I had a fine bath myself, then a topping lunch in the club.  Returned for tea via Ypres and had a good look at the place. What a ghastly mess the Huns have made of it.  Wrote several letters and played cards after dinner, turned in at 10pm.  Another of our stunts came off this morning. Zero hour was 6am. Reports this evening seem very favourable, our boys have captured all their objectives including Polecappelle, permanently this time I hope.

October 5th

I got up at 8am and had a very quiet lazy day and wrote several letters.  Hendry went up in a balloon to shoot on Nobles Farm and got 7 OKs. Today I saw a horrible sight, two of our planes collided in the air and came down in bits. It has been a miserable day, rain and hail.  Comfortable night.

October 6th

Got up at 8.30am, very wet day.  Major and Hendry went off to Pop (Poperinghe) in the car, we whitewashed the Foch Farm dug out.  Nothing exciting happened. Time was altered to normal again at midnight.

October 7th

A fine morning, ordered car to go to Bailleul and went to the canal bank to meet it, but it did not turn up and we returned to Foch Farm.  Car eventually arrived at noon (new time).  It was pouring with rain all the way, a miserable journey.  We arrived at Bailleul about 1.30pm, and had a very nice lunch at the Officers Club.  We afterwards did some shopping and started back at 5.45pm and arrived at Foch Farm at 7.30pm, a fine night but very dark and tricky on the roads.  Hendry went out to dinner with Capt Dowell, an old friend in a neighbouring battery, and a crowd of them came back here about 2am, feeling very merry! They pulled Mawby out of bed, and we had rather a disturbed night.

From → History, UK

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