BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND THE FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
AT 5 a.m. on July 22 the Battalion left Bailleulval, marching to Mondicourt station, where it breakfasted and entrained for Belgium. After seven weary hours in the train it reached a village called Godewaersvelde (pronounced by the men” God help us”), and detrained. On detraining the battalion were given a four hours’ march to Houtkerque, eventually arriving there at 12.30 a.m.
It was laid down that the 2nd in Command, two company commanders, the assistant adjutant, two company sergeant-majors, with a proportion of platoon commanders and other ranks, should not be taken into action, but left at Houtkerque, in order that the Battalion might be reorganised quickly in the event of heavy casualties.
These personnel was accordingly left behind when, at midnight on July 30/31, the 1st Bucks moved to St. Jans-ter-Biezen, which lay just east of Poperinghe. No sooner had it reached the camp at 4 a.m. than all the guns of the two attacking armies opened fire, and the Third Battle of Ypres had begun.
The weather was dull and cloudy, and towards evening rain fell, which continued unceasingly throughout the night. Official communiques from General Headquarters informed us that the first three objectives had been gained, but, although it was not stated, inferred that casualties had been heavy. This was confirmed when, on the following day, the battalion was ordered to send one company (C) up to the line to assist the 39th Division in bringing in their wounded.
The rain continued in torrents during the whole of that day and the next, and the prospect of the operations being successful and working to plan grew dimmer and dimmer. The whole area had become a quagmire, and the task of moving up guns an impossibility.
A continuance of the operations was therefore postponed until such time as the guns could be shifted and the movement of troops became possible. The enemy meanwhile was presented with an opportunity of reorganising, bringing up reinforcements, and making new positions preparatory to our next onslaught. He was, moreover, being driven back on to comparatively clean ground, while our armies were moving forward on to ground which had been shelled by our own guns for months past, and where roads no longer existed.
On August 4 the Battalion moved through Poperinghe to a spot known as Dambre Camp, which lay about a mile north of Vlamertinghe. After a day’s reconnaissance of the line, the Battalion relieved the 1/1st Hertfordshire Regiment and a battalion of the Cheshire Regiment in support. These two battalions had suffered heavily in the attack.
The Bucks found the conditions even worse than reports had led them to believe, for in addition to the sea of mud, which made movement almost impossible, enemy shelling was constant. Communication with companies was difficult as telephone wires were cut by shelling almost as soon as they were laid.
It was in this area too that the Bucks first made their acquaintance with the German concrete blockhouse. The large majority of these constructions had stood the test of the bombardment which preceded the original attack, and they now provided a few headquarters with good cover; but the insides of these blockhouses were in most cases too filthy for words, and several of them were half filled with stagnant water.
On August 7 the Battalion relieved the 5th Gloucester Regiment in the front line, on the western outskirts of St. Julien. A and B Companies held this outpost line, while C Company was in support round Canopus Trench, and D Company in reserve in California Drive and Falkenhayn Redoubt. Battalion Headquarters was at Vanheule Farm, which now consisted only of a flooded blockhouse.
D Company Headquarters, with one platoon and the Regimental Aid Post, occupied Cheddar Villa, which was a superior blockhouse to Vanheule, except that the Germans, when they built it, had made a particularly large entrance which, now that it was in our hands, was completely exposed to enemy shells. The accommodation being very limited, the platoon were, on the first night, packed closely inside the opening trying to get a little sleep. The very first shell which landed near the blockhouse arrived straight through the opening and burst in the midst of the slumbering platoon. The effect was appalling—many were killed, and of those who were not killed, several lost limbs, many their legs. Happily the Medical Officer (Captain L. E. Hughes) was unhurt, and, as usual on such occasions, excelled himself in the relief he gave and the amount of work he accomplished in the next few hours.
The battalion were relieved on the following night by the 1/5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment, and moved back to Dambre Camp. The march from the line was exceedingly unpleasant, for the Battalion was literally chased out by shells of the 5.9 variety.
Considering that no active operations had taken place, and that the Battalion had only been twenty four hours in the front line, with forty-eight hours in reserve, casualties for the tour, amounting to two officers and sixty-seven other ranks, were certainly heavy, and they give a fair idea of the daily wastage due to shelling.
The weather had again turned wet, and, although it was known that the attack was to be resumed at the earliest favourable opportunity, it was not until the 13th that the battalion got definite orders. From these, it transpired that the attack was to be carried on along the whole front of the Second and Fifth Armies, and that the XVIIIth Corps was to employ the 11th and 48th Divisions.