Sunday, 11 March 2012

"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye,
  Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go."

Eric Gardiner was fighting in what was loosely called 'The Ypres Sector'. The actually city of Ypres was a few miles to the north of Locre, where Eric was still billeted, but its towers and spires could be seen on a clear day over the flat fields.. In early 1915, there was still much of the medieval city still standing. Photos taken four years later would show hardly one stone left standing on another. The British lines to the east of Ypres were in the form of a salient - that is, an oval 'bite' in to the German lines. The result was that soldiers actually in the Salient had the unique experience of being fired on from the shallow ridges to the north, the east, and the south.
The ground where Eric served his time in the front lines was flat. In peace time, it had been kept drained by a complex mesh of drains and dykes which would have been reminiscent of the Fens around Wisbech. Months of shelling had destroyed the drainage system, and it only took a few shovelfuls of digging down to get to the water table. Consequently the trenches were muddy, treacherous and insanitary.

On 15/2/15, Eric wrote in his diary:
"The day opened miserably with rain and mud. Very early (7 o'clock) one of our big guns started shelling the trenches in front of us. Our nerves were tried by the explosions of the big shells. They were so close that we could see the shells hurtling through the air, and felt that if one were to drop short we would be in a sorry plight. Later on, the Germans shelled the supports behind us ….they were mostly 'Whizzbangs' but some shrapnel was fired, and one near K2 killed 2 and wounded 18. We ate what we could, but none of us was very cheerful and could not eat much. The trench we were in was divided in two by a gate known as Hell's Gate, because when the Gordons attacked the wood in front, a German machine gun was trained on this gate, and as they went through, shot them down. They lost 62 men through this. Unfortunately, some of them still lie in front of this trench and can be seen. It was on this night that Kenneth Powell* was hit while on a fatigue in K2. He has since died of wounds."

*This was Private 1832 Kenneth Powell, of the HAC. Aged 29, son of James and Mary S. Powell of Aldersyde, Reigate, Surrey. He is buried in Loker (Locre) Churchyard. (pictured below)

Soldiers down the ages make do with what they are given. Even today, scarcely a news bulletin goes by without some new story of squaddies having 'the wrong kit', or having to be supported by parcels from home. Sadly there is nothing new under the sun. Kipling summed up the ambiguous relationship that civilians and politicians have with their soldiers:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

Despite the cold, the wet, the squalid sanitation and the ever-present danger from shelling, there were clearly moments when the men were out of the line, had time on their hands, and the sun occasionally shone. Memoir after memoir from The Great War reveal that there was one common thread which kept most of the men sane, and able to go about their frightful business with some degree of equanimity. It wasn't patriotism, it wasn't any kind of support for whatever political cause had landed them in the position they were in, it wasn't some vague sense of duty. No, it was a rock-solid conviction that they didn't want to let their mates down. Some of this camaraderie is almost tangible in personal photographs which have survived. In the photo below, Eric is hunched in a cold trench with some of his brothers in arms. Note that they are wearing soft caps. The iconic 'tin hat' which most people associate with Tommies did not come into general service until 1916.

March 1915 came and went with Eric still billeted in Locre. he was in and out of the line, usually at 'the sharp end'. Sometimes his diary entries are unintentionally comic, even reminiscent of Mr Pooter, because they are so formal and understated. Here, he describes a narrow escape while carrying rations back to his unit.
13/3/15 "…and on one occasion a bullet passed through a sack of cheese and bread I was just hoisting onto my shoulder, and took the corner off my water bottle - a close shave. Unfortunately I was carrying the Section rum in my bottle, and had therefore to undergo severe criticism."

In early April, Eric's unit was moved to a hamlet called Elzenwalle, which was dominated by a semi ruined chateau. He was to be part of the fighting at St Eloi, a crossroads village where there had been extensive mining and counter-mining over the winter. While in this sector, Eric bumped into some acquaintances from home-who were serving with the Cambridgeshire Regiment-notably Captain Phillip Muirhead Clayton, who went on to command his regiment, and Jack Ollard, who was invalided home, but went on to be a Wisbech solicitor and Town Clerk.
On April 14th, 1915, Eric wrote:
"We who had not fixed bayonets did so, and just waited for them to come, meaning to give them a hot time, but they came not, and the fire died down. We then came back to the farm. Billy and I went to the Chateau for rations, and after some difficulty owing to people being asleep, got what we wanted and returned to much needed rest."

These were the last words Eric wrote.