Christmas in the front line

Christmas in the front line

There swept across the country one of the fiercest blizzards France, or for that matter, Northern Europe had ever experienced and in a few hours, drifts of up to six and eight feet deep had formed. Our section was fortunate in finding shelter in a dug-out in an old British front-line trench, named Inniskilling Trench, and here we huddled while the storm raged outside. The poor old gunners though had no such luck and were forced to remain in the open with only ground sheets or pieces of corrugated iron to protect them from the swirling snow. The next fortnight was one of absolute misery. Food was scarce for it was difficult to get it forward through the pile-up and we lived chiefly on bully-beef and hard biscuits. At first there was an ample supply of rum and for a time this helped to pour oil on troubled waters. There was, of course, no such thing as a fire for warmth and we had to endure our hardships as best we could, in our sodden clothes and boots. Fortunately for everyone little activity was displayed by either side during the period other than a few isolated raids which led to sporadic bursts of artillery fire. Every time our guns had a spell of firing, the heat of the explosion would melt the snow in front of the positions and these dark patches had to be hastily covered to avoid detection by spotter aeroplanes. At long last we were informed that we were to be relieved on Christmas Day by a Brigade of the Naval Division's own artillery. It was, in fact, the same Brigade that had relieved us at the end of August and, as had befallen our own Brigade, there it had to remain in the line after the departure of the infantry to cover other troops.

We looked forward with great eagerness to the relief, conjuring up visions of warm billets and good food. Alas, these dreams were rudely shattered by the news that Colonel Simpson had acceded to a request from the incoming OC to postpone the relief until Boxing Day. It appeared that, having just come out of the Salient, the Brigade had been led to expect spending Christmas Day out of the line and the officers had laid on some Christmas fare for the men. "Would the Ulster gunners object to spending one more day in the line and let his men enjoy Christmas day out of it?", their Colonel asked ours. To which Colonel Simpson promptly replied, "My men will be only too delighted". Brrr. Strangely enough, after the first twinge of disappointment had passed, there was no resentment amongst the men of 173 for, after all they reasoned, there was no use in Christmas being spoiled for both brigades.

So Christmas was spent in the line after all. And what a cheerless Christmas it was. The snow was still lying several feet deep. We had no mail for ages and food was scarce. For breakfast we had a mug of tea without milk or sugar. Paddy, the cook, had in some mysterious way (a way known only to army cooks) gathered some potatoes and for dinner each man had one potato and a piece of bully-beef. Tea was a repetition of our breakfast. And the great calamity of all had befallen us - the rum had run out. I suggested to Lieutenant Achilles that he should ask the Colonel to try and wheedle some from the battery. This he did and with a request from the Colonel always being interpreted as an order, two of the batteries each sent over a jar. On the outside of a rum jar were the printed letters SRD which the troops sarcastically interpreted as 'Seldom Right Divided'. It was my nightly duty to issue a tot to each man and this being Christmas Night, was ordered to double the ration. Shortly afterwards it was repeated and everyone seemed better. 

Soon after this it became necessary for me to make my way to a company headquarters in the front line and was away for several hours. On my return, about 2 o'clock in the morning, I was horrified to find everyone gloriously drunk. Someone had sneaked into Achilles' dug-out and filched what was left of the rum and while the officers made merry in the Colonel's quarters the men had celebrated likewise in theirs. Two hours later it was Reveille and as I roused them from their drunken slumbers the dark looks cast my way revealed only too plainly how much, at that particular moment, they dearly loved their darling sergeant. The Colonel and his staff moved out shortly after daybreak and as usual I had to remain to hand over to the incoming Signals Section. It was about 7 o'clock in the evening before we were released and then began a nightmare journey as we trudged across country through the snowdrifts towards the village of Ypres in the rear. Here we were fortunate to get some warm food before continuing our long trek on foot to Baupaume. The heavy traffic had made the road like glass and we passed many horses lying by the roadside having had to be destroyed after breaking a leg. We reached Baupaume in the early morning to find everyone under canvas. Fresh falls of snow flying before winds of gale force again completely blocked all roads and forced us to remain here for over a week. The poor old horses were picketed out in the open and had to ensure these awful conditions without cover of any kind.

While lying at the Baupaume, we learned of the fate we had so narrowly missed. Four days after we had been relieved, the Germans launched a violent attack on the Naval Division, driving them off almost the whole of Welsh ridge. The casualties were very high, the artillery coming in for a severe mauling. A remark by Ginger James, a cockney, summed up all our thoughts when we heard the news, "Do you know chaps, I'm glad we helped those unfortunate lads to have a decent Christmas before they met their Waterloo!"

RT Grange

(copied from his unpublished manuscript history of Ballyclare)

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