WEEK 39: NO MAN ON EARTH CAN STAND SHELLING AFTER A CERTAIN POINT
Monday 22 to Sunday 28 March 1915
On 27 March, Pat Armstrong wrote a long letter to his mother, giving her a detailed account of the battle of Neuve Chapelle and considering its implications. He was not alone in doing so. The failure of the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 has far reaching consequences. Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, expressed the opinion that the attack had failed owing to a shortage of munitions. The publication of his views in national newspapers on 14 May 1915 resulted in the so-called shell scandal, which brought down Lord Asquith’s Liberal government on 25 May and ultimately caused French’s replacement as Commander in Chief by Sir Douglas Haig. On the home front however all eyes were on the Grand National. The Armstrongs decided to indulge in a little flutter with dramatic consequences. No less dramatic were riotous parties on both sides of the English Channel to ease the perpetual tension and uncertainty of war.
Monday 22 March
Went down to the club, & then went up to the station with Muz, Emmie & Ione. Then Emmie went by the three train, & then we went down to Mrs Harrison, & then down the town. Ione & Tom went home , & Muz & I went to see the Stubbses, & stayed for tea, they had two other people there too. We came back at about 5-30. Then I wrote letters, & wrote to Ned & Madame Mullender, to thank her for the photograph she sent me of the baby. Wrote again after dinner, & went to bed at about ten.
My dear wee Mus.
[…] About the photos. I sent home 7 rolls: that lot after Ypres that ought to have been 42 photos. Well you sent me only 36. So there must have been six failures. I’d like to see the negatives that are no good, so will you get them sent to me. In the lot you sent me yesterday you had missed out a couple. One of the round window in the cathedral at Ypres & one of a man looking through a periscope in the trenches. Will you send me one copy more of each of that last lot. The Ypres ones I mean. Will you always send me two copies of each photo. So as I can keep one for myself & give the other away. I have got a lot more rolls taken which I will send home to you to-morrow with Ted Miller. He is coming to stay here to-night on his way home. […] I wonder if you have heard that Mrs King is dead. Brock told me that yesterday. Dreadful isn’t it. It will about kill the Babe. I am going up round the Brigades with the General this morning. So must be off now. Did I tell you that Maurice is at home sick. Not much wrong I imagine. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Tuesday 23 March
Letter from Blanchie Somerset, Badminton, Gloucestershire, to Pat Armstrong
Thank you most awfully for that interesting letter. It did tell me such a lot & of course one hears nothing down here as the papers tell one so little. Maurice is here but I’m afraid goes back again tomorrow, much to our sorrow, but of course he must. Frankie still remains & is likely to I think for some time. We’ve just got in from an awfully good hunt this morning. Rather round & round but they went so fast that one could & had to jump beside all the gates as there was no time to stop & open them. Lovely fences where one could jump anywhere! Very depressing to think that the winter is so nearly over, goodness knows what we shall do with ourselves all through the summer, with no hunting & nothing to do. I wish you could see my race-horse that I told you about, didn’t I in my last letter – & better still that you could have a ride on her, Pat darling. She’s such a Topper. I wonder when I shall see you again, dear, I do want to so. Best love & take care of yourself.
Yr loving Blanchie
Wednesday 24 March
Went down to the club, & then went down the town with Muz & Tom. Mrs Housen came to see us, but went before tea. Then Mrs & Miss Thurburn & Ronald came for tea. Then Mrs & Kathleen Kirwan arrived. They motored down from Camberley, & are going to stay at the Burlington. Ronald & the Kirwans stayed for dinner, & then Ronald took a box, & we all went to the theatre, it was great fun. It was most awfully good […]
Letter from Pat Armstrong to Mrs Armstrong
My dear wee Mus.
[…] last night Babe MacFarlane 7th Hussars our signal officer motored out to Corps dined there. Had an awful cheery dinner & then went to a concert there. Awfully good show it was & the place was absolutely packed. We got there a bit late so had to stand in the wing. But we saw beautifully & thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. After the show we went back & had more bubbly. It then developed into a most awful rag you ever saw. Everybody shouting & fighting. Dermot McCalmont & I had a good fall. I’ve got rather a stiff back today in consequence & a bump on the head. But otherwise I feel awfully well. There is no news here at all […]
My dear wee Mus.
I have just got back & got your letter of the 21st. I wrote you a hurried scribble this morning & then went out with the General at 10 o’c. We went down to Loker & saw some of the gunners of the Meerut Division1 & talked to them about the Neuve Chapelle fight.2 They said that they absolutely flattened the wire entanglements. Each gun fired for 10 minutes & was allowed 50 rounds. The idea was to make paths through it, but in places the whole thing was laid absolutely flat. He talked a good bit but mostly technical stuff that wouldn’t interest you. He told us one good story. The Leinsters were very fed up with the Germans who had played some dirty white flag trick on them & they decided not to take any prisoners. Well when they were going through Neuve Chapelle one of them looked into the window of a house & saw some Germans. He shouted out to them. “How many of you are in there” & one of them shouted back “Four”. Then he threw a bomb through the window & said “There you — share that among you”.
[…] March 25. The rain cleared off yesterday & the Gen & I rode down & had tea with Gen Kav’s. He is about 3 miles from here. We got back about 6 o’c. Then Hardress & I went for a walk till 7 o’c. The Gen, Percy & Col Home went to the concert. The President is going home on Sunday I’ll get him to bring you home those assegais that I have got. You could either meet him or I’ll get him to leave them in the parcel office at the harbour. […] What about the National. Let us have a bet or something. At present I don’t know what I fancy. I have a great liking for Silver Top.3 Have you. Will you put a sovereign on something for me. Just whatever you fancy. I’d like to have a bet this year. I wonder if Wrack has won the Lincolnshire. I fancied him. We’ll hear to-day.4 Well I think I have told you all the news so I’ll go & have a bit of a ride. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Thursday 25 March
Went down to the club, then Mrs Kirwan & Kathleen came round, & we all went down the town, & chose a hat for Mrs K. They didn’t stay for lunch, but we went round there afterwards, & took Kathleen up to the Grand, Mrs K. came round to Muz. We sat up there, & watched the people & talked, & then came back here for tea. Mrs Stubbs & Florence came in for a little while. The Kirwans stayed late, & then Muz & I dressed in ten minutes! Ronald called for us, & we went up to the Grand to dine with Countess de Marotte. 14 people. I sat between Mr Bald & a Belgian boy. Nine of us went to the theatre afterwards, then came back to the Grand & danced & sang. We went to bed at about one. Ronald, a French girl, Laure & John, two Belgian boys, Mr Holman, Mr Hardy, Mr Phillips & a Mr Malou & we three dined with her, it was great fun.
Friday 26 March
Went down to the club. Mrs Kirwan took Muz for a run in the car, in to Dover. They came for lunch, & then Kathleen went back to lie down. I went down with a telegram, to put money on “Ally Sloper” for the National. Then we all went up to the Grand, & had tea with the Kirwans at the Tango tea. Mr Bald, Mr Murray-Smith , & Countess de Marotte came too. I danced with Mr Smith some of the time, Kathleen danced all the time too. It was great fun, we didn’t come back till about 7-30. Then we left the Kirwans back at the Burlington. “Ally Sloper5” won! 14 to 1. Went to bed at about 10-30. Kathleen was tired so they didn’t come & dine with us.
Saturday 27 March
My dear wee Mus.
Now for a long letter to you. […] I rode over & saw Wilfred & had lunch with him. He is at La Motte au Bois in one of the farms where the Rgt was before the moved to Sercus. He is now commanding D Battery in J. V’s Bde. He seems very pleased with things. He is really very lucky as he is very young to be commanding a horse battery. He has got some awfully good horses. He took me round & showed them to me, they are quite the best I have seen. He has got a lot of nice fellows with him too. We miss him awfully in the mess he is such a topper. He hated going but of course he has done awfully well for himself. Well! We had a great lunch & I stayed till about 3 o’c & then rode back. It is some way about 15 miles. On the way home I saw Teddy Brooks who is out with the Leicestershire Yeomanry. He was very busy jumping some horses. The Life Guards have got a jumping competition to-morrow afternoon. I jumped my new little horse over a couple of fences & he jumped awfully well especially as he is only a baby. I am awfully pleased with him. He is about the same stamp as “Domino” the mare I had at the school. I think he will probably turn out a better animal. His only scab is that he is a bad walker.
I saw Charles Rankin on the way home too. He was in the 7th Hussars & has been out with the 9th Lancers & has now been given command of the 4th Hussars. I asked him about “the Babe” & he told me that it was awfully pathetic as the Babe came in one day & was just saying that he had been married just a year & all the time Howell who was the Colonel of the Rgt had a wire in his pocket saying that his wife was dead. Poor Babe it’s dreadful for him isn’t it. He has now got a job as instructor in the machine gun at Sandhurst. It is awfully sad. I suppose he wanted to be home with his wife & got that job. I believe she had a baby but don’t know any more. One of his Rgt told me to-day that the child was alright which is a great thing.
[…] Later. I have just had dinner & read the paper so will continue for a bit. Good news about U29 isn’t it.6 I do wish this show would end but don’t see any chance of it just yet. I forget if I told you that Geoff wanted some of those photos of the trenches & of Ypres. Will you get them done for me. […] I wish the Stubbs’s knew more of Pokes’s girl. She must be nice. He has got very good taste & as a matter of fact has never cared a bit for anybody before. He rather liked Evelyn but nothing serious. She is a d—d lucky girl to have got him. I wonder when he will be married. Not till this show is over I’d say. Caryl Annesley is Pic’s brother & is with the Royals. He went to them at the beginning of this show. […] Basil told me that his mother was going to live at Ballyshannon. […] I am afraid his home isn’t very happy poor lad. I do hope he marries somebody nice with money. He’ll make some girl a good husband.
[…] Emmy got hold of rather the wrong end of the stick about Neuve Chapelle she got a muddled story of that & St Eloi. What happened was the IV Corps under Rawlinson consisting of the 7th & 8th Divs under Generals Capper & Davies & the India Corps consisting of the Meerut & Lahore Divisions were ordered to attack Neuve Chapelle. It started off with the devil of fusillade from all the guns. The [—] guns were brought up to close range & made gaps in the wire & the field guns & heavy howitzers plastered the trenches. The moment the guns stopped the men rushed forward & were on top of the Germans before they knew what was happening. They had been made quite silly from the effect of the shells. No man on earth can stand shelling after a certain point, no matter how brave he is. It absolutely breaks the nervous system. When people go home & say it’s nerves it’s not nerves as one ordinarily understands the term but a shock to the whole nervous system. Well they got the whole front line of German trenches & having got them went on. The Indians got into the Bois de Buis & did a lot of good work. The whole line was then pushing on. But one Bde of the 8th Div rather lost its bearings & overlapped the 7th Div. Then the 8th Div waited to make good the ground it had gained. Very sound really but it stopped the advance if the others had gone on they would then have had their flanks in the air.
Then some orders that were sent to a Bde in reserve miscarried & never arrived & the Bde didn’t move forward as it was ordered to do. Then the Germans brought up rounds of maxim guns & filled the trenches with them. The next morning they made several desperate counter attacks which were all repulsed & had brought up the II Bavarian Div from Roubaix in the night. The morning was foggy which hampered our aeroplanes from observing. When our men tried to advance they were held up by machine guns & it was then that we suffered such dreadful casualties. The idea was that the Infantry should make a gap & that the Cavalry should dash through & take the Aubers ridge. In fact the 5th Bde were given orders that they were to take the Aubers ridge at all costs. They were brought up quite close behind the Infantry but Gen Capper sent them back saying that if the infantry couldn’t crawl forward how could the cavalry gallop forward. In that country they would have had to stick to the roads. It is all deep plough intersected with wide ditches & wire. Well! That briefly is what happened. I expect you have seen “eye witness’s” account of it in the Times which was pretty good. It is awfully hard to get hold of all the points but that is a rough outline of what happened.
The artillery general of the 7th Div was “Stellenbosched”7 for not registering ranges behind the German lines or something of the sort. What I do know is that Birch who was chief of the staff at Cav Corps was sent to take his place & has himself been succeeded by Howell who commanded the 4th Hussars. There were all sorts of rumours about Davies being “stellenbosched” which were all nonsense. There is a great deal of talk going on about the G in gap & what would have happened if the cavalry had gone through. One could write scions on the subject but the popular opinion is that none of them would ever have got back. The odds against them being successful seem about a thousand to three. Of course if they had been entirely successful we might now hold Lille & dear knows what. But it would have been an enormous big undertaking.
Questions crop up as to when the psychological moment for them to dash forward comes. Who is to give the order. The man on the spot or the Corps Commander who has all the reports under his thumb. One man in one place would say “go” while another a few hundred yards away would say “No not yet.” Then there is the question of supplies. When one thinks that it takes a Cavalry Corps about 12 hrs to pass a point one realises that it is a big job. How would ammunition be brought up with the roads all blocked with troops & troops of cavalry waiting to dash through? How far were they to go? Who was to give the orders when they were through? How was communication to be kept? Then the gap they went through would have to be kept open. Those are the outline of the points that have to be taken into consideration. But as I said before one could write a folio on the subject all going under the heading of the G in gap. One thing I do feel certain of is that d—d few would have come back.
Well enough of that. No: there is one thing I forgot to tell you & that is that the I Corps consisting of the I & II Divs made a “holding attack”. Just a demonstration they weren’t wanted to go forward only to hold the Germans to their ground so as they couldn’t be withdrawn & sent to reinforce where the real pressure was coming. Well the II Div alone doing that lost 700 men & 25 officers killed & wounded. Here’s a conundrum. If it takes 12 thousand casualties to advance 2000 yds, how many will it take to reach Berlin? That makes me think that the end of the war will find us more or less in our present position. The Germans won’t give up their trenches & we won’t give up ours. People talk vaguely of the economic question. Well! I know nothing about it. But I do feel that the war will have to end somehow like that. Under present conditions it would take at least two years to drive them back to the Rhine & I don’t think that either side will want another winter campaign. Now the old question crops up which everybody asks everybody else. How & when will the war end? There’s a question I wish I could answer.
Now to go for a moment to the St Eloi show. The Germans having had a nasty buffet (as our friend of old would say) had to make a counter attack somewhere so they chose St Eloi & were jolly nearly successful. We have since heard (how authentic or how the information was got I don’t know) that they had planned to make a big push at St Eloi the day after that on which our attack in Neuve Chapelle took place. They were going to make it with 2 Divs but had to take away the II Bavarian Div to Neuve Chapelle. So that the attack on St Eloi when it did come was only made with one division. Well! they were so nearly successful with that that one dreads to think what would have happened with 2 Divs. I won’t vouch for the truth of that story but that is the “gup”8 that is going about at present.
Well! enough of the war. I think I shall do like Percy does when he writes home & says “Is the war still going on”? Comic of him that, isn’t it. […] G is going to live in a dug out near Hooge a much nicer spot that St E. That is about the most beastly place in the line. It is awfully late nearly 12 o’c & I’m so cold I must go to bed. Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
- The 7th (Meerut) Division, an infantry division of the British Indian Army, the principal army of India before independence in 1947.⇑
- The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 10-13 March 1915⇑
- A grey hunter owned by Mr A. Browne ⇑
- Wrack, owned by Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), finished fourth in the Lincolnshire Handicap. In the middle of the course, ‘he dropped out with strange suddenness’; his trainer ‘could give no explanation of the horse’s performance further than that he does not like to be in front all the way and would probably have done better had his jockey waited.’ The Times, Thursday 25 March 1915⇑
- A five-year-old thoroughbred owned by Lady Margaret Nelson, trained by Aubrey Hastings and ridden by Jack Anthony. Ally Sloper won the 1915 Grand National by two lengths and was the first Grand National winner to be owned by a woman.⇑
- German submarine U29 was sunk with all hands on 18 March 1915 in Pentland Firth after being rammed by HMS Dreadnought. She is the only submarine known to have been sunk by a battleship ⇑
- Military slang for being relieved of command and sent home or relegated to a position of minimal responsibility. The term is derived from the South African town of Stellenbosch which was used as a British military base during the Second Boer War. English officers who performed badly were sent to Stellenbosch to carry out menial tasks such as looking after horses⇑
- Gossip ⇑