WEEK 47: THE CITY OF THE DEAD
Monday 17 to Sunday 23 May 1915
The third week of May was a tumult of highs and lows for the Armstrongs and their friends. As more details of the casualties among the 10th Hussars emerged, increasing pressure was put on Pat Armstrong to re-join his regiment. Anxious to fulfil his regimental duty but reluctant to let down General de Lisle, he was caught in an awkward dilemma uncertain how to proceed. As the Second Battle of Ypres began to wind down, Pat ventured into the battered city where he witnessed perturbing scenes of carnage and dereliction. In England, Jess and Mrs Armstrong travelled to London to visit Gordon Elton who had been sent home to recover from his injuries. After nine months of false hope and uncertainty, news of Roger Wakefield’s fate finally reached his parents. No such reprieve was in store for Ned Penrose’s mother and father, who continued their futile search for information about their only son.
Monday 17 May
Went down the town, then at three Noel took Ione & I over to the 6th Fusilier’s sports. The Stubbses came over too, & chaperoned us. We walked about all day with them, Button, Mr Taylor, Mr Nicholson, Ronald, Mr Mellor & Mr Cooper. It was awfully cold. I took some photographs. After the sports, we all went down the town & bought some goldfish. Then Ione & I, Ronald, Button, Mr Taylor & Mr Nicholson & Noel dined at the Burlington, Noel put on a wedding ring! We were to go to the Torch light parade afterwards, & we got up there & it was pelting, so we didn’t get out. We got back at about 10-30. They had a zeppelin over Dover early this morning, & our house shook when they were firing at it.1
My dear wee Mus.
I have only had time to scribble you a few lines these last couple of days as I seem to have been on the go all day long. On Saturday the Gen got back about 10 o’c. Then I rode over to Sercus & saw those of the Regt who had been left behind & tried to find out any of their news. They were all a bit depressed & knew no more than I did. So in the afternoon I motored up to Vlamertinge where the Regt are in huts. They were all very tired but extraordinarily cheerful under the circumstances. They had got Clem’s body back & had buried him that morning. Poor old Clem. He is a dreadful loss. A. Sqdn will never be the same again without him. He was shot through the head so must have died absolutely instantaneously. They buried little Maurice in the grounds of Potizje Chateau where he was killed. He was hit by a shell. Stewart hasn’t been found yet but Thomas saw him go down & says he is sure he is dead. The other casualties were: Charlie Crichton had his leg shattered & broken. He is to be recommended for the V. C. He was wonderful that morning rallying the Life Guards under a dreadful fire then when he was wounded he lay on the ground & directed the Regt as Shaver had been knocked out. Shaver is dangerously wounded in fact I’m afraid he is dead. They got him out & Brock told me he had gone to Hazebrouck but I went there on Saturday night & went round every hospital but could get absolutely no trace of him. Gibbs is wounded in the face. Not bad I think. Alexander wounded in the back. Rather bad I’m afraid. The others are Wardell & Chesham. We had 140 men wounded 26 of which were killed out of 220 who went up & 15 officers. The Royals suffered just as heavily they had 11 officers hit & about 140 men. Dreadful isn’t it.
I’m awfully upset about poor little Maurice. I was frightfully fond of him. I’m so sorry for those poor little sisters of his they will feel it dreadfully. I wrote to Frankie but haven’t written to the others yet. I am going to write to the Duchess & B. to-day. Poor child I don’t know what to say to her but must write something. Yesterday (Sunday) we packed up at Le Nieppe & moved up here. I left with the General at 8.30. Then we went & saw all the Regts in the Division. They are all in huts quite close to Vlamertinghe. They have all suffered pretty heavily but all look very well & cheery. Tommy Pitman looks awfully fit. He asked after you & told me to tell you that he never wrote to you as he was too busy. He is a topper. Everybody loves him. We hung about up there till about 3 o’c. We lunched with the IV Div. Poor big Archie is in bed with flue. I just saw him for a minute. Then we came back here. This is a most delightful old house. It is a real old Chateau with a moat round it & dates from 1606. It is an enormous house about the same size as Badminton. We are all awfully comfy here. Mouse & I are sharing quite a nice room. I am afraid he will have to go back to his Regt. They have suffered dreadfully & want him to lead a Squadron. I will be sorry if he goes. I am awfully fond of Mouse. I went out for a ride this morning & am now going to have a good letter writing morning & try & get through all my letters. Nice of G to wire to you wasn’t it. I’m glad he isn’t bad. In fact I’m glad he’s wounded & out of it. Everybody seems to be getting killed now he has just got the right sort of wound that will keep him away for 2 or 3 months. I think the next two months will be very hard work. I got a letter from the Boss the other day. I will answer it & enclose it in this. […] Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
Letter from Pat Armstrong, Hd Qrs I Cav Div, to Captain Marcus Beresford Armstrong
My dear Sir.
We are just having a day’s rest after the most strenuous & unpleasant week we have ever spent. We were called out last Sunday & had to go up to Ypres where we have been fighting hard ever since. We had a dreadful day on Thursday, they pounded the trenches from dawn till about 9 o’c & knocked them all in & buried most of the men that weren’t either killed or wounded. My Rgt had to make a counter attack in the afternoon & had dreadful casualties. They came up here about 220 strong & 15 officers & had 140 casualties & 10 officers. Shearman our Colonel is dangerously wounded & I’m afraid is dead. Clem Mitford, Stewart & de Tuyll were killed. Crichton, Gibbs, Humbert, Chesham, Wardell & Thomson were wounded. That Division is so badly knocked about that it has got to have a few more days to rest & refit but we are going back there again to-night. We are at present resting in a most delightful old Chateau built in 1606. It is an enormous great place with a moat round it, perfectly delightful. I am not looking forward to leaving it to-night & go & live in a dug out on the other side of Ypres. I have never seen anything like Ypres. The whole town is a mass of debris & dead horses & stinks like nothing on earth.
[…] I haven’t heard any more from Tony about the horses. I think it is a good way of investing my next quarter’s allowance. I hear that untrained four year olds are cheap now but that all trained horses are very dear. It will be awfully hard to buy horses at all after the war. I feel that if I buy a couple of real good four year olds now they will be ready for me to start straight away on if I get through this show. In any case I oughtn’t to loose on them. Everybody who gets home after this show will be looking out for nice horses & there ought to be a tremendous demand for them. It is raining hard here to-day, but quite nice & warm. I must be off now as I have an awful lot to do before we go off to-night. Best of good luck.
Your loving Maurice.
Wednesday 19 May
Muz & I came up to London by the eleven train, & travelled up with Madame de Marotte & Laure. Then we went & looked at hats, & Muz got a best one, & I got an everyday one & a shady one. We waited about in the Hotel (Portland) trying to get a telephone message from Gordon, as he has just come up from Netley, but we are to go & see him at twelve tomorrow. […] Poppie’s birthday. Poppy is down at the Lake,3 so we sent his presents there.
Letter from Blanchie Somerset, Badminton, Gloucestershire, to Pat Armstrong
Pat, my darling
It was good getting your letter when one was feeling so utterly miserable. All the world seems black & dreary. He was such an absolute darling. Mother would love above all things a little photo of his grave if you could possibly get one. She is wonderful, Pat, the bravest thing I have ever seen. Thank goodness one knows he died like a brave man, fighting & suffered no pain, but that doesn’t make up for the awful loss – you know Frankie went out yesterday with a lot more from Tidworth. It was hard letting him go. Pat, dearest, take care of yourself for my sake. I do so worry about you always but I’m afraid worrying won’t help you I only wish it could. Write to me soon, darling, with lots of love from
your ever loving Blanchie.
Tib Curzon sends her very best love
My dear Jessie,
We see a full statement in today’s Times of Roger Wakefield’s death on Aug 28, & close to Le Cateau.4 Can you tell us how this definite news was received or discovered. His poor parents, after these weary months of hoping against hope! just as we have to do now. We have no more news & I don’t believe we can expect anymore, as no one of those who were with Ned on the 25th seem to know how they lost him. As far as we can see, he was wounded just before a slight retirement & they simply left him, & when they went back to look for him, 3 nights running, no trace could be found, & a Seaforth man who was also wounded said an officer of the R.I.F. had been carried away by the Germans, when they left him the sergeant tho’ they had been taken by them together. This gives a chance, if this man was right that it was an R.I.F. he saw carried off, because no other R.I.F. officer is unaccounted for. I do hope your mother is better. Please let me have Ned’s Diary back & the story some time soon.
Yours affectionately A Penrose.
Thursday 20 May
We went to see Gordon at twelve, at 10 Carlton House terrace, & stayed till one. He has had the middle finger off, & the first one is very bad. He had got a bit of shell in his right shoulder. Then we shopped & went back to see Gordon from 3-30 till 5. Mrs Elton came to see him too. Then we went off to look at wallpapers, & chose mine, Muz’s, the morning room, & had several others sent. We stayed there till after eight, then we had dinner at Flemmings, & went to bed at about eleven.
My dear wee Mus.
I got your letter of the 16 last night. It is dreadful about the Regt isn’t it. I [am] awfully sorry for them all at Badminton. I wrote to the Duchess & Blanchie but it’s so hard to know what to say & I really don’t know if it does any good or not writing. I think I told you that they got Shearman out & buried him at Vlamertinghe with Clem. Maurice is buried up at Potizje. Poor little Maurice, I will miss him awfully. It is absolutely impossible to replace any of those four [sic]. I talked to the General about going back to the Regt & he said that he didn’t see any real need for it but that if I wanted to he wouldn’t stop me, but he didn’t see that just because the Regt had suffered heavily that his staff should be broken up. He was awfully nice about it. Then I went & saw Brock who was in command at the time & asked him about it he said “if things get very much worse you ought to come back”. I don’t want to go a bit but if I was wanted of course I’d have to go. It is senior officers they want & even if I did go back now I wouldn’t be commanding a squadron. I don’t see the point of going back as a troop leader. They can easily get lots of people who could do that quite as well as I should. Anyhow at present I have no intention of going back. I haven’t heard yet what Pedlar & Kearsey are going to do. I expect Kearsey will go back as he will be commanding the Regt. Did I tell you that Charlie Crichton is going to be recommended for the V.C.2 for great gallantry on the morning of the 13th when exposed to very heavy shell fire rallying the men of the Life Guards who had been shelled out of their trenches & sending them back again. And the same afternoon in the counter-attack he was wounded in the leg causing a compound fracture. He lay on the ground exposed to a very heavy shell fire quite regardless of himself & took command of the Regt & kept on issuing his orders. I do hope he gets it I think that is awfully brave.
[…] [On 18 May] I went back through Ypres about 11 o’c & no words I can write will describe the scene I saw. I went down to Menin road & all the red brick houses that were there in March are now only a pile of bricks. The road where once 3 cars could go abreast is now a narrow path between stacks of bricks. We then went over the bridge over the moat & on down a narrow street into the square. The whole place is a scene of absolute desolation. There is hardly a roof to be seen anywhere & most of the house are only a pile of bricks. In some of the houses one sees half a roof & the whole side blown away & inside amidst a pile of debris is perhaps a photograph standing on a table, or a picture hanging on the wall. One wonders what has happened to all the owners. Wandering about homeless in Belgium I suppose. But the fallen walls & scenes of destruction are by no means the worst thing one sees. The whole place is strewn with dead horses, which are simply dreadful. There is an upturned supply cart in the middle of the square surrounded by a pile of loose bricks. A shell evidently struck it & it has been left there to its fate. Then on going through the square & leaving the ruined cloth hall & cathedral on the right you again go down between two piles of debris which once were prosperous shops. Here a shell has broken in a cellar or subterranean passage & one sees a hole about 30 feet wide & a passage leading away into darkness. A tottering house stands over this & looks as if at any moment it might topple forward & fill up the crater below it.
There is not a living soul to be seen as one goes along. It might be the city of the dead. I doubt if in the whole town you could find one habitable room. I have been through most of it & haven’t seen one. One extraordinary thing is that a church in the south eastern quarter of the town still stands intact. Its spire pointing upwards untouched the one object which catches the eye as one looks at this scene of destruction. One can never realise without seeing to what a state of absolute decay a town can be reduced in a few months. Then I went back & got one of the armoured cars & came out in it. They give one a great feeling of security as they are absolutely bullet & splinter proof. We hung about all that afternoon & everything was remarkably quiet. In the evening Hardress came up to relieve me & I came back here with Percy & Mouse. The contrast of this place is too wonderful. One leaves a country absolutely pock marked with shell holes covered with dirt & debris & comes back here to a glorious old chateau surrounded with a moat & a nice little wood beside it, with birds & flowers. One can almost imagine that you are back in England. […]
Your loving Pat.
Saturday 22 May
Unpacked & tidied, & then settled the flowers. After lunch I wrote & thanked for the subscriptions that came while I was away; & then went round to the house with Muz. Ione played tennis, with Madame de Marotte, Noel, Mr Nicholson, Mr Murray-Smith , & Ronald. Miss Thurburn came in later, & then Ione & Noel came back for tea at about 6-30, but the men didn’t come back. Then I copied out Ned’s story. […] There was a large collision on the line between Stirling & Carlisle it was a troop train 5
Sunday 23 May
My dear wee Mus.
I wrote you a hurried scribe yesterday before I left. The Gen & the Colonel went off about 8 o’c & left me to get the mess lorry off & see things settled. Well when I had done that I went off down to Sercus to see the Regt.Stanley is at present in command & says that he wants me to go back. He says that they are awfully short of officers which is only too true & wants me to go back to do 2nd in command to A Sqd. […] Well I went & had a long talk to Bill Stanley yesterday & I told him that I would like to do whatever was best, and he said that the Rgt wanted me badly & that I ought to come back & do 2d in command of A. I told him that I didn’t think the General would let me go & he said that he must. Now I’m in an awful dilemma. I talked to the General about it yesterday & he said that he wouldn’t let me go. He said he would let me go to lead a Sqd but not as second in command or troop leader. Well there it is I don’t know what to do. I suppose if I really insist he would have to let me go but after all he has done for me I can’t very well do that. Then if I don’t go back there will be an awful outcry in the Regt, they will say he is this d—d fellow who won’t come back when he is wanted etc etc. In fact there is soon to be a lot of talk either way. You see all my best friends are either dead or away. Clem & Maurice are both gone. Basil is on the staff & Pokes is at home sick. Of course there is Brock but he’s quite impossible now fights with everybody I hear. Well there it is. It is simply this that if I don’t go back there will be an awful outcry. What I want to do is to be where I’m most useful, & at present I really don’t see how I can leave the General. There are a good many officers at home who they can get. Cave who was here in the winter & had to go home as they had too many officers will come out again as a second in command. Most of the others are only boys I’m afraid. Of course they can get people alright but the question is what sort of people & now they are crying out to get all old officers possible back. I don’t know what to do. I am going to talk to Percy & see what he thinks about it. Well there it is. I get into trouble whatever I do […] Best love dear wee Mus.
Your loving Pat.
- On 17 May 1915, Zeppelin airship LZ38 carried out air raids over Ramsgate and Dover.⇑
- The Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces for valour ⇑
- The Armstrongs had a small holiday cottage in Dromineer, County Tipperary, on the shores of Lough Derg ⇑
- The statement in The Times of 19 May 1915 reads as follows: “Lieutenant Roger Owen Birbeck Wakefield, Royal Irish Fusiliers, was the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Wakefield, of Farnagh Moate, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, and was 22 years old. He was reported wounded and missing in October last, but his parents have only recently learnt that he died on August 28 at Caudry, France, of wounds received in action on August 26. He was educated at Moorland House and at Repton School, and passed into Sandhurst in February, 1911. In March of the following year he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers at Shorncliffe. He was promoted Lieutenant in June last.”⇑
- The Quintinshill rail disaster occurred on 22 May in Scotland near Gretna Green. It involved five trains and killed a probable 226 and injured 246, mainly Territorial soldiers from the 1/7th (Leith) Battalion, the Royal Scots heading for Gallipoli.⇑