WEEK 149: A HOT RENDEZ VOUS
Monday 30 April to Sunday 6 May 1917
At the end of April 1917, Pat Armstrong had his first experience of chemical warfare but was fortunate to get away with nothing more than a bad fright. The use of gas during the First World War had first been utilised on a large scale by the Germans in January 1915, when they fired 18,000 artillery shells filled with chlorine gas on Russian positions near Warsaw. Chlorine gas was also an important component during the Second Battle of Ypres where it caused some 7,000 casualties among the Allies, including 350 deaths. The British had first experimented with chemical warfare during the Battle of the Somme but it was not until the Second Battle of Arras that gas shells were successfully used on an extensive scale by the British army. Their weapon of choice was phosgene which could take up to 48 hours to take effect, causing coughing, nausea, vomiting and breathing difficulties.
Monday 30 April
Muz went in to meet Kate in the carriage, she came from Malvern & got here at about eleven. We showed her the garden, & then went down to the Dingle. We found a pheasant’s nest with five eggs. After lunch she saw the house, & then we sat in the drawing room & talked. She wants me to go to Evendine.1 Muz, Tom & I went down in the carriage to see her off by the five train, & then went to church, & then talked to Mrs Welch for a bit. We met Mr Willis on the way back, & he told us all kinds of things about the stars. We have taken Arleux. Since Saturday the prisoners number 976. The Americans are to send an army over of two million men.
SOUASTRE. Glorious warm day. All down early. The Gen went away at 9.30 am. A very sad day.2 Gen Jelf went round Battns. Walked round to Dublins Hd Qrs met Gen Pitman. Gen went to conference in the afternoon at 3 PM. Had conference of C.O’s3 here at 6 P.M. discussed operations for the 3rd. We are to attack from red line along N side of ARRAS – CAMBRAI road. Issued orders for move. Then the Gen & I dined with Gen Pitman.
Tuesday 1 May
Mended all morning, & again after lunch, & cut papers. Muz wrote letters. After tea Tom & I went in to the town to do a lot of shopping. We had rather fun, as it was the May Fair. We watched the “three shies a penny”4 for a long time, & didn’t get back till late. Letter from Pat dated 27th he had been slightly gassed the day before, & got his steel helmet dinted & a hole in his coat. He has got another little sore on his leg, & I sent him some stuff for it. After dinner Muz wrote letters, & we went to bed at about 11-30.
SOUASTRE. Glorious day. The Bde marched at 6.10 AM for Gouy-en-Artois. Stayed in bed till 11.30 AM. Col Fuller & Carden Roe came in. Said to ask Miller for a car. Sent Legge over to his Div. Wrote letters. Went over to Gouy in an ambulance in the afternoon. Very nice chateau. The dope had little effect. Went to bed early. Received orders to march to Arras the following day.
My dear wee Mus.
This cursed thing has broken out again. I thought it wasn’t anything but the beastly thing started when I was up in the line and now it’s one of the old sores. However it’s burst and not hurting me. I was inoculated last night with some stuff that they say will kill it & have been told to stay in bed all day. As a matter of fact I’m dressed but am staying very quiet. I hope to be alright in a few days now. I’m glad the stuff isn’t making me feel seedy. I always think it’s a good sign if these things don’t take much. However I hopeit will stop any others coming. I’m to have a second dope in 5 days if this doesn’t worry me & in 10 days if it does. I have had it in me now over 12 hours and it has had no effect as yet.
A lot has happened in the last couple of days. But I wanted to tell you about myself first. Well the night before last my General got a wire giving him the 30th Div. and he went off yesterday morning to take command of it. It was a sad day but I’m delighted for his sake that he has got it. He says he will get me there as his G.S.O25 if he can. That would be a great affair. It is awful luck we have a grand fellow in his place. Jelf by name. Wilfred’s brother. I have known him for years so it’s very jolly. He is a real good fellow. He was at Pindi when we were there then I met him again hunting with the Meynells6 & again several times out here. There is a photo of him with Wilfred at Nieppe in my book. He is a delightful fellow so I’m really lucky. It is so nice to have somebody like that who knows all about hunting and horses and all the people one knows. He is a good man on a horse too. Tommy Pitman is at Pas in a lovely Chateau. We went over and dined with him last night. He is in the same house as Gen Snow was in this time last year. He is awfully comfy & very happy. I have done little or nothing since I came here. I can’t walk much & I can’t ride so life is rather dull. The weather is simply gorgeous & one hates not being able to poke about on a horse. However I hope to be able to soon. The Bde moved to another billet to-day.7 I am going to catch them this afternoon in a car. I like that book on Robertson8 awfully. I don’t call it well written but it’s very interesting. His speech at the Staff College is the best thing in it. But it is interesting knowing all about him. What a wonderful man he is.
Yes that was an unpleasant week right enough. I don’t want another like it. I don’t think I told you that Percy has come to this Bde to command his own Battn. A great affair isn’t it. He is awfully pleased about it. It is splendid having him. He will do it awfully well. The General made rather a nice remark to me yesterday morning before he went away. No it was the afternoon before. He said Pat! I’m very ashamed of myself, you’ve now been with me 10 months and I’ve never recommended you for anything not even a Military Cross.” then he hurried to Gen Jelf & said Now remember that won’t you. It really was very nice wasn’t it. He said he wanted [to] write to you. He will make a most wonderfully good divisional General. He will be one of the best in France. I am sending you a lot of Rene’s letters in another envelope. I do wish she would make a push to go & stay with you. Perhaps she may when you go back to Folkestone. We will wait & see. I will really be angry then if she doesn’t. I’m not writing to her so often these times which I think is a good thing. I don’t average now more than about twice a week. I think it’s a mistake to write too often. I feel that the less I write the less I’ll be worried to put anything in the paper. Well wee Mus I think I have told you all the news. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Wednesday 2 May
During April 19, 343 German prisoners were captured, including 393 officers, 257 guns & howitzers, 227 trench mortars, & 470 machine guns. Muz, Tom & I went by the 9-30 train to Malvern, & Nitter met us there with a car, & we drove to St James’s,9 & saw Alice, & showed Tom the house. Then we had lunch in the new Sanitorium [sic], then walked about the Garden. Then motored to Evendine Court & saw it, & Georgie, then went to tea with cousin Emmie at her house, then motored back to the station for the 5-30 train & had to wait at Hartlebury & got in at about nine. Fentril met us with the carriage. It was an awfully hot day. After dinner Bayliss sent in to say that a nightingale was singing in the Dingle, so we went down, I heard it for a second, but we didn’t hear it again, but we sat there for a bit, listening to the bats. Then talked to Janet for a bit, & went to bed at about twelve.
GOUY. Glorious day. Sent our kits off about 12 noon. Walked round Battns in the morning. Leg very sore. Sat out in the garden most of the afternoon. Had tea with the [—]. They were very kind. Bde Marched off at 7 pm. The Gen saw two battns past and then rode off. I waited till the column was clear & then came on in an ambulance. Arrived about 11 PM.
Thursday 3 May
Our own & the enemy’s artillery were active during the night at a number of points along our front, between St Quentin & Lens. The King has issued a Proclamation saying to be more sparing on the use of wheaten flour. The tax on dogs is to be raised, & they are not to be done away with. I settled not to go to Evendine. Muz wrote letters, I mended & then wrote letters, & cut papers. Tom wrote letters & read. Did more papers after lunch & had tea early, & Muz, Tom & I went to look for plover’s eggs, in the near field & found four, I came back to see if they were good, & three were. Then we walked into the town, & went to see the Welches. After dinner Muz sat out on the lawn. It has been very hot all day.
ARRAS Rue de Gambetta. Zero 3.45 am. 1st 3rd & 5th Armies attacked but with little success. 87th Bde were sent to Tilloy. We were at 1 hours notice. A glorious warm day. Hung about doing nothing. Went round to Div in the afternoon to try & get news but nothing much had come in. A heavy shoot in the evening about 8 pm. Bosch retook Cavalry farm. Our line has not advanced atall.
Letter from Vaughan ‘Pokes’ Stokes to Pat Armstrong
Dear old Lad.
I’ve been ages since you’ve written to me and I’m feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t answered you before. But I’ve been quite fairly busy these days. I’ve just got a squadron and it takes a certain amount of refitting and making up after the show. We had quite a rocky time while it lasted and had fairly heavy casualties amongst the men while the horses took it in the neck. One troop of C10 came back with only 3 horses. By the way that’s the squadron I’ve got as Squeaker was hit. Poor George Damer and old Mush died of wounds. All our other officer casualties got on very well and are home now, and are coming on well. Poor little Charlie Winn lost an eye, the Colonel hit in both legs, and rather badly smashed. Chatty slight. Sea lad and Squeaker nothing much. Squeaker nothing but flesh but heavens above he made enough fuss about it. And last but not least old Joe got a real cushy one. They’ve filled us up with remounts now which we are busy working at. They aren’t a bad lot to look at but we are now beginning to find out what’s the matter with them. Not one has got a mouth better than a rino [sic] and quite a lot make a noise like a young train. But still they have got four legs and can carry some one. It was a badish time on the whole and wasn’t a fair chance. Never looked like being so, however we were for it and had to make the best of it. It’s luck we didn’t try to go further, as we should have been left stranded nicely. I’d like to meet you most awfully to tell you all about it. One can’t possibly put it all in a letter.
It’s done a wonderful lot of good to the regiment though as I always knew it would. Though now the trouble is to get good section leaders out of these new people which come out. S.S.M. Langdon was killed and poor old Ginger Rawson was hit twice rather badly. I expect that place is smelling a bit by now. I keep on hearing of your young woman from Bunty. She’s going strong. My family are in great form and the infant11 according to Bunty is just too wonderful. I very nearly got leave for Paris and had fixed up to get her over when they stopped it at the Corps. Rotten bad luck I call it, however I haven’t given up all hope of it coming off yet. Well old Lad I must stop now as there’s lots to be done.
Best of luck
Friday 4 May
The Canadians have taken Fresnoy. Heavy fighting is taking place all along the front from the Hindenburg line south of the Sensée River to the Asheville-Vimy road. Tom & Heppie went to pick daffodils, & I made a cap to send to Ione, & Muz wrote letters. After lunch Janet went on her round, to collect money for the War Loan, & she was to meet us, & have a picnic, so we started at about 3-30, & met Janet on the way, & went to near the Fosters, on this side of the river. We had tea in a field, near a wee wood, it was lovely. I dug up a lot of bulbs, ferns etc, & then took Dus: down to the river, & she went in, & loved it. We started home at about 7-30, & got back just before nine. Janet had to do more collecting on the way back, so we walked on, & she came on on her bicycle. Muz told us a story, while we were walking there, & some of the way back. We went to bed at about eleven. It was a lovely day, & awfully hot.
ARRAS. Leg still sore. Glorious warm day. Gen went round to M. G. Coy.12 Walked round Battns. Miller came in about 11 AM. Bde put at 3 hrs notice. G O.C 13 came in & had a conference at 3 P.M. afterwards walked round the Royal Fus. Billets. A dump went up in the town in the morning. Boy & Evans came to dinner. Went to bed early. Leg rather troublesome.
Letter from Irene Wills, 15 Sussex Mansions, Sussex Place, S.W.7., to Jess Armstrong
Many thanks to you and the Motherbird14 for your letters. I do hope that beastly gas hasn’t left any bad effects, I also hope they’ll be able to rest for a bit. What fun you must have had at Malvern, and Evendine. I wonder what you have decided about going there? I should think it must be great fun, especially in the summer. It’s getting awfully hot at Thurby [?] Place, but someone had a brainwave, and now there is a table of drinks in the hall. One can put one’s penny in a money box and mix one’s own lime juice or lemon squash, and there is a great earthenware jar with a cover full of water with a huge lump of ice sitting in it. One is asked to wash and dry one’s own glass afterwards, isn’t it a splendid idea?
I’m sketching again this afternoon, yesterday I started one in Battersea Park, it’s a bend in the road with two pink almond trees in blossom, against some big trees just coming out faint green, rather difficult to do but quite attractive. It’s so hot now I simply can’t ride in my winter coat so am getting one made at Busvines.15 It’s light grey, very thin stuff and is going to be awfully nice I think. I had the first fitting yesterday. Very likely by the time it’s ready the weather will have changed again and it will be [—]! My summer plans aren’t quite settled yet but I’ll be away from town for July and August. A month with Auntie and a month writing, of course I’m coming to you if you’ll have me. I’m waiting for Auntie to make her plans before I can decide absolutely about my plans. Much love to you all, Jess dearest.
Ever yours Rene.
Saturday 5 May
General Williams has got a Division & Col Jelf has got the 86th Brigade, but we haven’t heard if Pat has moved or not. 900 prisoners were taken, in the fighting on Thursday. The French have taken Craonne. We have taken Malakoff Farm, which brings us to within two miles of Le Catelet. Tom & I went in to the town to shop, & brought out some hats. After lunch I lay down on my bed & read. Heppie brought me up my tea. Then I put Dus: to bed, & lay down again till dinner, & went to bed at about nine. Muz wrote letters, & Heppie put her to bed at about 11. It was quite hot all day, but very windy.
Sunday 6 May
Heard from Pat, he is still with the Brigade, & Gen. Williams has got the 30th Division! Muz & Tom went to church & I stayed & read. After lunch Muz wrote letters, & I read. After tea Muz & Tom went out for a bit, & I finished “Secret History” & later finished “My Lady of the Moor”.16 I went to bed at about nine, & Heppie put Muz to bed at about 11. It was quite a cold day, but the sun was out.
My dear wee Mus.
I’m sorry to hear that old Algie is on the rocks. What waste of a real good man. I have just written him the enclosed. It would be great value if he could come here & help us. Of course it’s not much of a job but it’s better than hunting about there doing nothing. Of course he is very senior so they mightn’t let him go but it’s worth trying. The General would apply for him like a shot & would be only too glad to have him. There is little or no news here atall. We are still in the town & likely to stay here for some time. We have a real good billet & are very comfy.17 I have just been enoculated [sic] again for these old boils or whatever they are. They did it in the arm this time. I don’t expect it will worry me a bit. I heard from Bonny18 yesterday she says she is going home on the 16th. I’ll be awfully glad when she is out of this country, it’s a bad atmosphere for her down there. The card Rene talks of was written on the 22nd not the 25th. I was too moldy [sic] that day to write any letters. I was half asleep when I wrote to you. I don’t think I have ever been so sleepy as I was that day. It was a real strenuous tour one long rush. Dashed in & fought a battle all in a rush. I wrote two message books of messages in the few days we were up. I wrote you a long letter the day after we came out which I expect I’ll hear to-morrow that you have got. I think G’s Div have gone south. They were in our corps but aren’t now. I don’t exactly know where he is now.
How awfully nice of Kitty wanting to send Jess to Georgie’s school. It will be awfully nice for her & will do her a world of good. It will be a great thing to get her away from all this work with soldiers for a bit. You all worked much too hard. You see Bonny will be back by the time you have to let Jess go. I hope you were able to get a carpet. You must get one for your room before the winter begins. It was horrid all last winter so cold for the toes. I’ll send you some letters from Rene to-morrow when I have answered them but am not going to write much more to-night. I have had quite a busy day trotting about. We had a great cleaning out of all the billets. Each Battn got about 50 cartloads of muck out of their billets the place was in an awful mess. But it is all beautifully clean now. Percy’s billets were absolutely spotless. Far the best in the Bde. The General was awfully pleased with them. The General is an absolute topper. You would love him. He is such an absolute sahib19 & a real good all round sportsman. Rather the type of Pic Annesley. Well wee Mus I have no more news for you. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
I hear that you are commanding a platoon or some such absurdity. Well I have a suggestion to make to you. Could you come along here and help us. We are supposed to have an understudy Bde Major and haven’t got one at present. I know it isn’t much to offer you to come and understudy me but still it might lead to something & might be better than hanging about as you seem to be at present. If you fancy the idea let me know and I’ll get my General to apply for you through the Division. Gen Sir de Lisle knows you which would help. It would be great value if we could fix it. Of course you are very senior but I’m sure if you came here you wouldn’t have to wait long before you got a job of a s[ort]. Could you get a[way] alright do you think. I know more or less where you are and will try to go over and see you someday soon. I have got a sort of poisoned leg at present and can’t ride but ought to be able to in a day or two. I’m so glad you & Kitty liked Irene. I’m afraid I never wrote to congratulate you. It is a grand affair. I’m in a big town south of you, starts with the same letter as where I was last summer when you dined with me. Excuse paper but it’s all I have handy. Best of luck.
Yrs ever Pat.
Dear old Pat.
How sickening unless it sends you home, that you should get the horrid blood poisoning again & I hate that inoculation what did they put into you? & I’m sure you should stay quiet just when it’s done you begin your letter by telling he told to stay in bed all day & then off you go to the Brigade. In one way I’m not really sorry about Williams as I’ve always felt he’d never send your name up or do anything, I told you that!! & it’s evidently true from what he sent to you!! I wonder will Jelf send it up. Even now Williams should!! Was it a brother of your present man who I met at the boat & we took his wife back with us? or is it the same name, (brother I think it will be) I am glad he is someone you know & like, but I’d like General W. to have you as G.S.O 2 [—].
I wonder were you inoculated again yesterday or not & if it’s making you feel sick. Wish I knew, & I wish he’d had you done at Folkestone instead of out there, as it has had to be done at all but I hate putting germs in! I can’t make out where your Brigade & the division is now if still at Monchy or not. Leila can’t either & writes to ask me. De Lisle wrote to her on 30th saying well this is what she says to me, “I’m afraid they are in it again Beau wrote to me on the 30th just going up, so I suppose they were in yesterday’s attack”. That was written May 4th but yours of 1st doesn’t give me this idea at all. Yours sounds as if you were back a bit. Can’t make it out. I wonder where the 30th Div is. Try & tell me that sometime so that I’ll know where you are if you do go as G.S.O. 2. I wonder will he write to me he said he would once before & did it! I hope he does as it goes to my collection!! If he says anything I like!! Your enclosures are good & tell me a lot of news & the letter from 86 B. is it from their Colonel or who, don’t quite understand that unless it is that some billet he thought was impossible & so a hot rendez vous you got for them!
Reenie’s are very sweet little letters, & one gets to know her by them but I’d like to have her to stay without you some time & get to really know all about her & what she’s like. She loves her riding so much & getting really good. She tells Jess today that she is going out of town for July & August going to be a month with Mrs Curteis & a month paying visits, she doesn’t know which month Mrs Curteis wants her so can’t settle her plans till she does. I’ll enclose it. We seem to have had some fighting further down the line too. I wish we could get busy somewhere else as they seem too strong round your part! It seems desperate fighting now simply going on till one side is down as far as I gather from the papers or until it’s dark. We haven’t settled our plans for going to Clodagh yet but possibly will go end of this week. I’ll tell you of course as soon as we settle. God bless you darling old Pat I hate the blood poisoning unless it gets you home!
Your loving wee Muz.
- Evendine Court was a school of domestic science for ladies in Colwall, Malvern; its principal, Georgina Baird, was one of Katrine Baird’s sisters ⇑
- To Pat’s great regret, Major General Williams had been appointed as General Officer Commanding 30th Division and was replaced as Commander of the infantry division by General Rudolf Jelf ⇑
- Commanding Officers ⇑
- Also known as coconut shy, this was a popular fairground attraction, where one paid to throw balls at coconuts in the hope of knocking them off their pedestals to win a prize. The word “shy” in this context means to throw.⇑
- General Staff Officer (Grade 2)⇑
- The Meynell Hunt (now the Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt) is one of the oldest packs of hounds in Britain. Originally called the Sudbury Hunt, it was established by the Vernon family of Sudbury in 1793. The pack was taken over by the Meynell family in 1813 and renamed the Meynell Hunt in 1872⇑
- The 86th Brigade moved from Souastre to Gouy-en-Artois on this day ⇑
- Leask, G. A. Sir William Robertson. The Life Story of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1917. Robertson served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1916 to 1918 ⇑
- St James’s was an all girls’ boarding school founded by Mrs Armstrong’s cousins Alice and Katrine Baird in 1896; it was moved to the large mansion of Lady Howard de Walden in West Malvern in 1902. Ione Armstrong had been a pupil at St James’s.⇑
- Cavalry ⇑
- Bunty had given birth to the couple’s first child, Valerie Marion Stokes (1917-2000), on 21 February 1917⇑
- Machine Gun Company ⇑
- General Officer Commanding. ⇑
- Irene’s pet-name for Mrs Armstrong. ⇑
- Busvines Ltd., Tailors, Riding Habit Makers & Furriers at 4 Brook Street, Hanover Square, London W ⇑
- My Lady of the Moor (1916), a novel by John Oxenham, a pseudonym used by the author and journalist William Arthur Dunkerley (1852-1941)⇑
- The Brigade Headquarters were located at No. 8 Rue de Gambetta in Arras ⇑
- Pat Armstrong’s nickname for his sister Ione Armstrong ⇑
- (Urdu, Arabic) Sahib = sir, master; a term of respect formerly used among the native inhabitants of colonial India when addressing or referring to a European man of some standing; later extended to include any male as a sign of respect or formality ⇑