WEEK 36: HOWITZER SHELLS OUGHT TO MAKE NICE FLOWER POTS
Monday 1 to Sunday 7 March 1915
Pat Armstrong’s ten-day stint in the trenches near Ypres passed uneventfully. The only incident of note was a failed attempt to counter-mine the German trenches on 4 March. Two storming parties were formed for the purpose: an English one to attack from the right and a French one to attack from the left five minutes later. The English party, consisting of a squadron of 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen’s Bays) under Captain Sloane, successfully exploded their mine and stormed the crater. Unfortunately, the French failed to follow suit and, seizing the opportunity, the Germans bombed the Bays out of the trench they had gained. As the week wore on, rumours of imminent action by the British to seize control over the Dardanelles began to intensify. Pat spent his free time recording the sights and scenes which assaulted him on the streets of the devastated town. He also went to pay his respects at the graves of three of his fellow officers who had fallen in the First Battle of Ypres.
Monday 1 March
Went down the town in the morning. We saw some of the new soldiers arriving in the afternoon. After lunch I washed my hair. Muz & Ione went to the bandaging class. Markie came in at about seven, & wanted us to go to the theatre with him. He, Ione & I went, & it was a very good show. He went back to Hythe straight afterwards, as his leave is up today. We went to bed at about 11-30. Muz was awake when we got back.
Ypres. Glorious bright night. Breakfast 7 o’c moved to day Hd Qrs about 7.45. Left at 9 o’c & rode along Menin road then turned across right handed Zillebeke was being shelled. Left our horses on the edge of wood behind French Reserve. Went to 18 Hussars Hd Qrs. Then went round 9th Lancers & 4 D.G’s trenches. Some sniping & a little shelling. Got back about 12.30. Went & saw Pic’s grave & put some flowers on it as it was very uncared for.
Letter from Pat Armstrong to Mrs Armstrong
My dear wee Mus.
A long letter from you this morning of the 26th. Enclosing one from Pokes. I do hope you see something of him. I have had quite an interesting time since I came up here. I rode up yesterday morning getting here about lunch time. It takes nearly 4 hrs to get here. The roads are awfully bad. All paved in the middle & the sides are like a bog. I took a good many photos yesterday afternoon. This is a wonderful place. Most of the houses are dreadfully knocked about but there are a good many whole ones left. The town is absolutely crowded with people. Quite a lot of shops open who are doing a roaring trade. Some of them have been open all the time I believe. The Cathedral & Cloth Hall are absolutely ruined. No roofs & most of the walls battered down. It is a wonderful place really. The town absolutely knocked to bits & still things going on in it as if nothing had happened. They put a few shells in in every now & again but nobody worries about them in the least.
We have got quite a comfortable place here we sit in in the day time. The General likes stoking up the stove till the room is like an oven but otherwise it is very comfortable. Then we go to another house at night about ½ mile from this. There is no room in this. We have it all filled up with offices & telephones & such like. We stay here till about 7 o’c then go back & are really awfully comfy. We feed the best. I’m getting horribly fat. One does such a lot of sitting about. But I expect that it will all come off again in the summer. We have breakfast at 7 o’c & then come back here about 7.30. It was a glorious morning this morning but now it has clouded over & is dreadfully dark. Rain or snow I’d be afraid. We had a very interesting morning this morning. We left here about 9 o’c & went all round the trenches. They are very good as trenches go but of course are awfully wet. We went round practically the whole line. I didn’t see the place where the 16th were mined1 but will probably go there to-morrow. The German trenches are from about 50 to 250 yds off. Their snipers were all pretty busy but otherwise nothing much was happening. We rode out a bit of the way & left our horses in a wood near the French dug outs. They have got a battalion there as a sort of 2nd line. Then we walked forward to the 18th Hussars Hd Qrs. Talked to them for a bit & then went round the 9th Lancers & 4th D.G’s trenches & eventually landed up at Bde Hd Qrs. It is an absolute maze in the middle of a wood. Or rather what once was a wood. There is hardly a whole tree left standing. Those that haven’t been knocked down have had the tops taken off them from rifle & shell fire. I saw the German trenches through a periscope & also saw a lot of dead Germans lying out in front of the trenches. Poor devils. Neither side can get at them to bury them. Awful isn’t it. I saw where a sniper was hiding & could see his rifle moving about but couldn’t see him. Then men all seem very cheerful & fairly comfortable. Wonderful how cheery they were. We got back here about 12.30 rather wet & very muddy. We have just got back from [—]. I am by way of going up there again with Wilfred but he hasn’t turned up yet. I must post this now as Price-Davies is here & will take it. Best love.
Your loving Pat.
Tuesday 2 March
Went out with Muz & Heppie & we went & looked at things in a house, to be auctioned this afternoon. We had lunch early, & Heppie & Muz went off, & I went down the town, & then round to the Walters for a little while. Then Mr Harvie came for tea, & afterwards we three went up to the Go-Go Tea, & then sat in the “monkey-house”2 & talked [to] Zirgette [?] & Miss Castberg. We were waiting for Mary, but she didn’t come. Mr Harvie brought us back. Muz got back at about 7-30, & was very tired. After dinner Helen sent round for me, & I went round, & helped her to pack, & saw all her clothes for India, they go tomorrow. […]
My dear wee Mus.
What a nice letter that was from Pokes. I hope you see something. The General Gough who was killed was Johnny Gough chief of Douglas Haig’s staff. He is the brother to the one who commands the 2nd Cav Div. He was standing about 200 yds behind the trenches somewhere near Estaires & was hit in the tummy by a stray bullet. It went in & then turned up & they couldn’t get it out. Or at least he died soon after they had got it out. News from Russia seems better from all accounts. There wasn’t much in Sunday’s paper but everybody seems very optimistic about it. Which is good I think. They seem to be getting a bit of a move on now. I hope they will be able to give the old Germans a good knock. […] I have got to go round the trenches again this morning. I hope it’s sunny so as I can get some photos. I have got 4 rolls to send to you now. I left two at Nieppe so will send them when I go back. I’ll take the roll I have got in my camera & will then send them to you. I hope they come out well. I want awfully to get one of the inside of the trenches but they are awfully hard to take. It is really awfully interesting in there. It is very nice & safe one can’t get shelled. One gets very wet & in an awful mess but otherwise it is very nice. The General has made them do a lot of work on them & has improved them a lot. He is a great man. I don’t think Gen Byng ever went near them & I know that his Div did absolutely nothing to them. The French take over from us at the end of the week. They are relieved on Friday night so we will go back to our little home on Saturday. I like this in some ways it’s a change but it’s hard to get enough exercise.
I went out yesterday afternoon & saw our lads’ Graves.3 Willie, Pic, Peto. Bob Drake & Mr King our Regimental Sgt Major are all buried there. Most of the Graves are pretty good. Pic’s was rather tramped & so I went off & got hold of a couple of pots of some sort of green shrub which I found in the garden of a broken Chateau about a mile down the Menin road & with the aid of a friendly tommy4 I brought them back & put them on his grave. It made it look much better. Then we put pieces of wood down each side just to show people that they weren’t to walk there. There is a path, through the wire just beside it so it is rather apt to get knocked about. When the sun comes out I’ll go & take a photo of it. It’s trying to break through but it’s only just after 8 o’c so there is plenty of time yet. It was a funny day yesterday. Snowed a bit in the afternoon after an absolutely glorious morning. It was do dark when I was writing to you that I could hardly see. Well wee Mus I have no more news. I must just write a line to Bee & then I want to get out for a bit. The fug in here is dreadful. The General will stoke up the fire till it’s like an oven. I do hate a fuggy room. Nice of Bee sending me chocolates & a cake wasn’t it. Best love wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Wednesday 3 March
Went out with Muz & Heppie, & went to the house where the auction was, & settled about the things. We couldn’t take them away, as it was too wet. After lunch we went round to the Grimston Gardens house, then had tea early, & we went down to the Red Cross Lecture. Ione went & dined at the Grand, with Mr Bald, his sister & cousin. Markie is going to the theatre with them. Ione went down to the Stubbses this morning, before lunch. They came back last night, & are in the new flats.
My dear wee Mus.
[…] The trenches are really rather fun. I went all round the 18th Hussar section yesterday afternoon. You get in an awful muck getting there. The country leading up to them is in a filthy state all shell holes full of water & slush. But the trenches themselves are excellent. The ground there is quite sandy so they are beautifully dry & the fine trees give them a little shelter not much as all the tops are shot away. They are the most comfortable trenches by far which I have seen. But they are a little too wide to be very healthy if they were shelled but they are so close to the German trenches that they can’t be shelled. The snipers were pretty busy & bullets came flicking over the whole time. The 18th H. had one man killed & one wounded yesterday. They get callous these fellows won’t keep down & expose themselves. It is an extraordinary sort of maze trenches in all directions. Like a rabbit warren. They are making a mine in one part of the trench. They have got special miners to do it. I went down in it. I went down a ladder about 12 feet & then went along under ground in this little tunnel about 3 ft by 2 for about 20 yards. The air was beastly a candle wouldn’t burn in it & it was fearfully dark. But it was rather fascinating crawling about in it. In another place they were busy sapping5 forward like this [sketch]. They cut forward & then across & so gradually gain ground to the front. They were all working very hard when I was up there putting up sand bags on the parapet. I think we have put in something like 15 thousand sand bags since we have been up here. I don’t think that either of the other divisions did much work. The earth that is taken out from the saps & mines is put into sand bags & used in the parapets. It really is most awfully interesting. Particularly when one hasn’t to stay there permanently. […] They put a few shells in here yesterday & smashed up the museum but otherwise did little or no damage. The French relieve us on Friday night so we will go back home on Saturday. The Div is going to be moved back then where I don’t know. They are going to give us a week’s notice before shifting us. They want to put Infantry into our present billets. It will be rather nicer having all of them near us.
The General is stoking up this room again. We have got a sack nailed across a bit of the window where it was broken. So I have torn a bit of it away. It was firmly nailed on. So now I get quite a lot of air. I hate these fuggy houses. I went round the Cathedral yesterday morning. Fearfully battered it is. I took a lot of photos of it which I hope will come out. I got a piece of old glass & a little bit of carved wood of the 15th Century. Ames is packing them up this morning so I will send them off to-morrow. I am also sending you 5 rolls of films. I have got two more rolls at Nieppe which I will send along as soon as I get back. I had a good day yesterday really. I took three rolls of films. I got some nice ones in the trenches. I am awfully anxious to see how they come out. Will you send me three of any of the ones of the trenches that are good. As I promised the men that I would let them have any good ones that there were. The General says I can go & lunch with G. Good work isn’t it. On my way back from the trenches in the afternoon I got you all sorts of rubbish. I had you & the house in my mind all yesterday. I got two cans of 4.5 howitzer shells, which ought to make nice flower pots or something like that. I’m sure you will find something to do with them. I am getting Ames to clean them up & will send them off in a few days. Then I got 3 German fuses off their shells. I have got a lot of shrapnel bullets & some pieces of shell which I’ll send along sometime. I know where there is a whole shell which I’ll get sometime but these things are so heavy to carry & particularly in this heavy ground. I got a couple of odd things the day before. Two African assegais. I found an old man walking about with them & gave him a couple of francs for them. They will be rather nice to put up somewhere. I’ll send them along sometime too but at present it’s rather hard to get things off from here. […] Will you send me 2 pairs of those woolly soles for my boots. Size 9 to fit a 10 boot. The ones I have in these boots are practically done in. These Cording’s boots are wonderful. I waded about in the water in the trenches the other day & in the evening my socks were as dry as a bone & my feet perfectly warm. It is such a relief to have warm feet. […] Best love to you all dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Thursday 4 March
Went out with Muz & Heppie, & took the things away, & brought them to the Grimston Gdns house. After lunch I steeped Muz’s feet. Ione went up to the Grand & then brought Miss Bald & the cousin back for tea. Muz went to tea with Mrs Dobbs. I went round to the house, to Heppie, & helped her with the furniture. Ione dined with Miss Bald & the cousin at the house, & afterwards went to the theatre with Markie & Mr Babington. […]
Ypres. Cloudy morning but nice & warm. Left for the trenches about 9 AM. Zillebeke was being well shelled, also the ridge to the left of it & Hooge. Went to Bde Hd Qrs. Heard of Howard’s reconnaissance. 4th D.G’s trenches shelled 4 men killed. G came in in the afternoon to get bombs, left about 5 o’c. Great excitement about the mine. Ours went off about 7.30. The French one went off at 8 pm. The sqdrn of the Bays got into the German trench. About 50 shells on the edge of the town in the morning.
Friday 5 March
Muz & I went down the town, & went to Mrs Harrison, about having a dress altered. Then went to Ward, & ordered a dress for us both, Ione got hers about a fortnight ago. Ione went up to the Tango tea with the Balds, & Muz & I went down to the Harbour, to see if all the armoured cars were going back today, but they weren’t, but we saw some armoured bicycles going back. Then I left Muz at the curiosity shop with Heppie & Tom, & I came up to the Grand, it was all over, but I danced with Mr Smith. Harry came in. Then I helped Ione to dress, & she dined with Harry. Markie was up there too. Went to bed at about 10-30. Wrote to Ned about being mentioned in despatches.
Ypres. Breakfast 8 am. Walked round the ramparts with the General. Saw some men of Sloane’s Squadron6 & the Bays7 who told me of their night’s doings. Left about 11.30 & motored back with the Gen & Col Home . The street & road near big hospital was shelled soon after we left. Went for a ride with the Gen about 3 o’c. He went to Corps at 4.15. Went for a walk.
Saturday 6 March
Went down the town to do some shopping & met Florence, & went down with her, & then came back early. Went round to the house with Muz, Tom & Heppie. Muz signed it today, after lunch I went down the town with Ione, & then Heppie & I took Miss Aldridge to see the house, then at about 5-30 I went down to have my hair washed, & had tea when I came back, & then changed quickly for the dance. Markie came for dinner. Muz didn’t come to the dance. Harry came on to it, after the theatre. The Stubbses came late. They brought us back in their taxi afterwards.
My dear wee Mus.
[…] I saw Maurice today & he told me that Winston Churchill expects to get through the Dardanelles by the end of this month. That will be good won’t it. I do hope they do. It means such a lot. That Russian wheat can come out & arms go in. Italy & Roumania would probably come in then. That would hurry up things a lot. I hear that the 29th Div has gone to Constantinople. It has left England & hasn’t come here so I expect it is pretty true. I believe 2 French Divisions have gone there too. It would be a great thing if they got that. Would about do in the old Turks […] I sent Diana off to G this morning. Standen arrived back with his brute to-night. It is more like a cow than a horse & was absolutely done to a wire after going 18 miles. It fell down with poor Standen about 2 miles from this & put his shoulder out gave it a nasty wrench in any case & then just lay on him like a dead thing […]
To read the entire letter, click here.
Sunday 7 March
Muz, Tom, Ione & I went to church, & then went out on the Front afterwards. Markie came for lunch, Muz went down to help Mrs Ridley-Thompson at the Soldiers’ club, from 2 till 5. Markie, Ione & I went & met up at the Grand, & then Mr Bald came. We met there & talked, & then Mr Murray-Smith, & Mr Taylor came & sat with us, they are both in Markie’s battalion. Muz & Tom came up afterwards but talked to Mrs Howard. I came away early, & went to the club, & did the front office for the first time. Mr Bald came for dinner, & they all went up to the hotel to dance, & I followed them afterwards. The two French girls, Miss Castberg , Mr Murray-Smith, Mr Taylor, Mr Grand, Mr Dalrymple, & Markie were there, it was great fun, we got back at about eleven, went to bed at about 12. Harry was there, but I didn’t see him.
- The 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers had suffered heavy casualties when their trench near Ypres was mined and blown up by the German forces on 21 February 1915.⇑
- The conservatory attached to The Grand Hotel in Folkestone gained the sobriquet ‘Monkey House’ during the Edwardian times when the press of the day likened its frequenters – mostly heavily bearded gentlemen in dark suits – to monkeys at the zoo. ⇑
- At Ypres Town Cemetery ⇑
- Slang for British soldier.⇑
- Sap/ sapping: In trench warfare, the practice of digging small ‘sap’ trenches at roughly ninety degrees out from existing lines and then digging a new trench line at the front of the saps. A slow, but relatively safe, way of moving forward.⇑
- B Squadron of the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (The Welsh Cavalry) under the command of Captain Sloane.⇑
- 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen’s Bays).⇑