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Harry Hickson’s War – Part Three – Aerial War

July 30, 2010

This is the third set of extracts from the diaries of my grandfather, Harry Hickson. It’s Autumn 1917. The bloody and muddy Battle Of Passchendaele continues, although Harry and his colleagues still find time for a little recreation. He describes visits to local towns to buy lingerie for my grandmother, and days bombarding the Germans followed by evenings of bridge.

 In these extracts you can see how the aerial war became an increasing threat to those on the Western Front. The Allies used aircraft and balloons for observation and to plan shoots. In Harry’s area, German bombers seem to have operated with little resistance from Allied air forces.

 At the end of the section Harry is appointed the Corps Gas Officer – not a job I would have relished, but at least it took him out of the line for a while. Notice that they were still using carrier pigeons for sending signals….

 October 11th

Got up at 8am and went to the right section at 9.30 for an aeroplane shoot, which was fairly successful.  We did a shoot on Meuniers Houses in the afternoon. The Huns retaliated with 5.9’s about lunchtime, then had another go at us about 5pm, when several fell very close. We start our shoots now with a salvo of 4 or 6 guns on the chance of catching them unawares, I hope they won’t do the same to us! Turned in at 9.30pm.

 October 14th (Sunday)

Inspected the men and their gas helmets etc. before breakfast. About lunchtime 17 Gothas came over in perfect formation, and dropped bombs on a camp near us.  Followed by a fleet of 9 fighters half and hour later, they seemed to do as they pleased and met with no opposition whatever. Another fleet of 9 Gothas bombed on our left just before tea, and we had another lot over at night. They have had a busy day! We have done no firing all day.  One of our kite balloons was brought down by a Bosche.

 October 18th

Amos, Dew and Lunt went to White Mill as Forward Observation Officers. I shot on some pill boxes. Hendry came up to relieve me and I left after lunch. 15 Gothas came over and bombed the locality and put the wind up me rather badly! I called in to see 309 on my way down and arrived at Foch Farm for tea. After tea I had a lovely hot bath, the first for 10 days!!!, and a change of clothes and felt decidedly better. I got into slacks for a change after continual rubber boots. I got to bed early and had some nice hot rum.  Comfortable night.

 October 24th

Up early to work out barrages etc, a very busy day. Started firing at 8am and continued all day. Several Gothas came over and bombed us when I was on the guns. I ordered all the men to get under the gun carriages as being the best protection I could see at the moment, but two of the men were killed on the railway, the bombs fell very close to us, and also shook our dug out badly. We fired in the evening, and continued harassing fire all night on cross roads etc. I worked out more barrages etc until nearly 1am, and then got to bed, but had a very disturbed night again.

 October 26th

I was up again at 3.30am to work out our zero shoots. Zero hour for another show was at 5.40am.  It was a wet miserable morning but cleared during the day. I had to put No 3 gun out of action as she tilted dangerously – we were firing all day. Hendry and Mawby relieved Dew and I after lunch and it rained all the way to Foch Farm. I found 3 anti-aircraft officers there – Captain Carr, Biddulph and Oak-Rhind – who had been shelled out of their position near Kitcheners Wood. I changed into slacks and felt comfortable. Played bridge and afterwards had a very comfy night.

 November 3rd

UP at 8.30am. The major and I went to look for a new position, and then tried to go to Group H.Q, but the Huns were shelling so heavily with 8″ and we couldn’t get there so returned to Hindenburg Farm. We got to Group after lunch and saw the Colonel, afterwards went as far as the Steenbeek to look for a position. The country was very desolate and the Huns were putting over gas. We saw about a dozen dead horses lying about and stench was very bad. We returned to Group for tea and back at Hindenburg about 5.30pm

 November 7th

W started the barrage at 5.30 this morning. The Huns replied and at 6.30am they put up a dump of 174 Siege Battery consisting of 539 shells, 300 cartridges and 600 furzes. There was an awful explosion which shook our dug out and gave us all “wind up”. We thought it was one of their 17″ arrived, we have had several over lately and they make a tremendous hole! I started a ‘plane’ shoot on Papa Farm at 1pm but it rained heavily and we finished up by making it a blind shoot. Hendry relieved me at 4pm and I returned to Foch Farm. Mitchell (our Transport Officer) and McQuaker came to dinner and we played cards afterwards. The Major and Mitchell, Dew and McQuaker had a rough and tumble and we had to put Dew to bed, rather tight!!  We got to bed at 1am, but the Huns bombed close to us during the night and caused terrible havoc. 375 Siege Battery were moving their guns and the Huns evidently saw the sparks from the exhaust of the tractors and bombed them. They killed Capt Bannerman A.S.C and killed and seriously injured 30 men of 375 S.B., a ghastly business.

 November 9th

Up at 9.30 this morning and had a lazy lay in slacks, slept in the afternoon.  7 Hun planes came over and bombed in the morning, they seemed so close that we fired at them with rifles and revolvers!  Early bed and comfy night.

 November 10th

Another stunt this morning, zero hour was 6.50am. I got up at 8.15 and took the first parade, after lunch I went to “Siege Park” (where our tractors, lorries etc were kept) to a footie match between our boys and theirs, we won 2-1, quite a good match.  We organised a smoking concert after tea, then had dinner with Captain Comfort, Mitchell and McQuaker, a topping meal of 7 courses – goodness knows how they managed it! We played roulette and cards after dinner and got back to Foch Farm at 3.30am.

November 15th

I was up at 5.30am to carry out the barrage. The Major and Gay went up to Hϋbner OP to shoot on Papa Farm and Cameron Houses. 10 Gothas came over and bombed us about 11am, two of the bombs fell near me when I was on No 2 gun, badly got wind up again!  The Major and Gay returned for tea, a lovely day.  Hun planes came over again in the afternoon, they seem to have the absolute mastery of the air and come over just when they like. Our planes can do nothing. Comfortable night, played cards.

 November 22nd 

Justice came along with their car this morning and we went to Poperinghe and on to Hazebrouck for lunch.  A very nice lunch and then we carried on to Aire.  Bought lingerie in the square and some syphons. We went to ‘Alice’s’ for tea and started back about 6pm for Cassel. We had dinner at Yvonne’s Place (Hotel Lion Blanc) and very nice ‘fizz’. Justice played the piano very nicely. We left at 9.30 and when we got back found Hendry just off to Blighty on leave.  We drank his health and then went up on to Hindenburg Farm. I felt awfully tired, but had to work out shoots till 2am.  The Huns strafed us during the night.

 November 29th

A lovely day. Evans and Lunt went off to Aire, I spent the day in slacks at Foch Farm.  Wrote letters. The Huns strafed all day, in the vicinity and also fired a lot of shrapnel at our balloons. The Major, Comfort and Mitchell arrived at about 2.30am and pulled Evans and Bellfield out of bed and we had rather a rough house till 3.30am!!

 December 8th

Mitchell turned up to breakfast and we got the old No 4 gun away. This afternoon we turned up the flooring boards of our dug out and killed 17 mice!  We smoked and gassed them with cordite first.  They must thought it a very Hunnish trick!!!  A comfy night after that.

December 12th

This morning I saw two Hun planes brought down, one of them in flames. The pilot of the latter plane jumped out when the plane was still about 1000ft up! Poor beggar, he must have been roasting slowly and went mad or else he had a remarkably strong nerve and decided that that was an easier death. I hear he made a big hole in the ground with the force of impact and was like a piece of pulp. I went to Poperinghe with a lorry load of men and had a topping bath and nice lunch in the club.  After lunch I went to the station and loaded up our old No 3 gun.  I was back at Foch Farm for tea and read till 10pm.

 December 14th

I went to Bailleul today in the car and took Mawby and Evans, we spent a very enjoyable day. A nice lunch with some topping ‘fizz’ at the club. We returned at 6.30pm and I heard rumours of my appointment as Corps Gas Officer. I rang up the Adjutant and he told me to report to the Staff Captain at Headquarters at 10.30am tomorrow.  No one seems to know anything about the job as it is a new one. Presumably I shall be responsible for anti-gas measures in all the batteries in the Corps, it should be interesting work, lecturing etc. 

 December 15th

I was up at 7.30am and started to pack up after breakfast.  Left Foch Farm in the Sunbeam at 10am and went to H.Q Heavy Artillery and reported to the Staff Captain there.  He told me I should be under the Corps Chemical Advisor and was to go to the 7th Heavy Artillery Group H.Q and live there with them.  I hunted them up and found they were living in dug outs cut into the canal bank.  I saw the O.C Colonel Eady, an awfully nice man, Williams the Adjutant, Duncan the Doctor and Fairburn the Orderly Officer and Pigeon Signals.  Quite a nice crowd. I was promptly dubbed “stinks”, which strikes me as being rather appropriate!!  I got my kit down after lunch and after some trouble I was allocated No 107 dug out on the Canal Bank. It was very cold with no store, and only a canvas door, very different from our comfy little dugout at Foch Farm. We yarned till 1am and then I had quite a comfy night.

From → History, UK

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