Wounded & Shell-Shocked, Death of Sharp & Others
1915 April 21st, Wednesday
The Germans made the first gas attack at Ypres and made a wide gap between the Canadians and French holding our line in front of Ypres. There were heavy casualties and troops were falling back. It was imperative to close this gap so every available man was sent forward to close the gap. We did not know this when we arrived in France and thought we would be doing the usual month behind the front to get used to things before going to the trenches. We entrained at Pont des Bricques and spent Wednesday night Bavinchove, near Cassell.
1915 April 22nd, Thursday
Marched through Cassell (up the hill and down the hill!) to Oudezele where we spent the night.
1915 April 23rd Friday
Moved off early to what we thought were going to be our “permanent” quarters for the next 4 weeks. We reached Winnezele and then halted. We waited 3 hours. Up to now there had been no sign of anything wrong. Peasants working in fields etc., etc. Then rumours came that there was heavy fighting around Ypres. (This was the start of the 2nd battle of Ypres, started by the gas attack).
We then started to march. We had 70lbs on our backs, full marching order, and column of fours. We marched 16 miles and about 8pm arrived at Brandhoek a village about 2/3 miles east of Poperinghe. Sounds of heavy shelling, peasants fleeing, men women and children and nuns. A good deal of rifle firing to hear. In reserve trenches here for the night.
1915 April 24th Saturday (ed:-dictated 64 years later to the day, 24th April 1979)
It was on this day that we left the trenches we were in just outside Poperinghe and marched through Poperinghe to Ypres. We were in full marching columns of fours and were carrying 70lbs. We were five miles from Ypres and as we approached we came under fire. It was just here that I saw my first corpse – it was that of a peasant spread-eagled out in the middle of the roadway – he looked as if he was asleep. We had left at 6.00 pm. and reached Ypres just as it was getting twilight. Ypres was under very heavy shell fire and we stopped for about five minutes in the middle of the square in which the medieval Cloth Hall and the Cathedral were a mass of flames. It was an awesome sight. Although shells were causing casualties in the battalion my particular Company received none. We were so “green” about war that we took all this shelling, fire and wounds for granted and we marched through Ypres and up towards what had been the firing line – or what was left of it after the gas had been put over. It started to rain very heavily and I remember some hours later turning off into a field near a village called Wieltze and we lay down in this field, very wet and getting wetter still. The shelling became very heavy and at some time one blew me up, and by this I mean it was so near it raised me off the ground and bumped me down again. I was, of course badly shocked but I remember that I found I could not speak and gesticulated to my sergeant, who was called Currie that I was not able to speak. I remember moving out of the field with the Company but little more, and I found myself later on in an ambulance on the way to the casualty clearing station.
Taken to hospital
It was dark outside and I was taken to a very large covered-in area which was bright with lights, and all around were men in different stages of being operated on and different conditions of pain and distress. I can recall vividly the varying cries and moans. I only mention this as an experience which again must have been deeply embedded in my subconscious. As soon as a doctor came to me and realised I had not been physically wounded I was taken back to an ambulance and driven to St Omer where there was a large hospital. I stayed there two nights and was then driven to Le Treport, which was a seaside resort on the northern coast of France, not far I think from Boulogne.
The hospital there had been a large chateau right on top of the cliff. After two days I was taken on a stretcher together with a large number of other casualties and laid on the lawn ready for transport by hospital ship for England. As I lay in the sunshine a nurse came near me and adjusted the blanket that was covering me and suddenly she said, “Oh dear, what are all those spots?” A doctor was called and I was taken on my stretcher to a tent in the grounds. I had got German measles! It transpired later that an epidemic of these had taken place in our brigade. I was completely isolated in this tent, and of course, as it turned out it was the best thing that could have happened to me to help me recover from the effects of shell-shock. There was a marvellous doctor there who used to come and see me every day as regular as clockwork, no matter how exhausted he may have been by a constant stream of casualties that kept coming to the hospital. I forget his name but I shall never forget his action. There was one other officer in isolation and he and I used to do a lot of walking after I got out of bed, and it was at this time that I started the use of a notebook in which I wrote down the answers to questions, and this was the way I carried on a conversation with whomever I was talking to. I still have this notebook (see above right) and it is interesting to read it now after all these years and, of course it tells its own story.
At the end of May I was taken back to England and went first of all to, of all places, the lying-in hospital for women in London, which had been hastily cleared to receive us and until they got things straight we were deprived of all our clothes and spent time in our pyjamas to prevent us breaking out I suppose. I was by this time physically fit, but still unable to speak.
When I was allowed out of this hospital I stayed a short time with my mother and then with my father at Addlestone. I then went up North. First I went to Corchester, arriving off the night train at about 8 o’clock in the morning, and then went on to Riding Mill.
I am DUMB
A great number of officers and men of the 4th Battalion who had been wounded had, of course, been back since the end of April and I saw a large number of them. It was only now that Mrs Bagnall, mother of Jack Bagnall agreed that her daughter Fay and I could be officially engaged, so I may have been the only man who got engaged when he was dumb. I used to go about with my notebook and pencil in my pocket and a large luggage label tied to lapel of my jacket which read “I am dumb but can hear”. I still have that label with the notebook. I went down to Guildford for a medical board. This board gave me three months sick leave and I went straight to Briery Close, near Windermere where Fay Bagnall was working as a governess. At the end of my three months I was declared fit and reported to the base of the Battalion, which was at Hexham. This would be September 1915. All those officers who had been wounded in April were there and it was now I became a firm friend of Clive Joicey who later on was killed.
Sometime in November I was instructed to take a draft of some 50 or 60 men out to France to Le Havre, from which base they would eventually go back to the battalion. This was quite an experience. We left Hexham by train at night, the men having had too much to drink, and got to Newcastle. In order to make sure the men were under control the carriages were put in a siding and the doors locked to wait for the mainline train to take us to London. We arrived at Euston and you never saw more bedraggled–looking set of men with the “next morning” look on their faces. We managed to crawl by road to Waterloo and got down to Southampton, where we marched from the Dock station up High Street and Bargate to transit camp on the common. We had one night there and the men were allowed out the next day with strict instructions that they must be back by a certain time in the evening as we were going over to France that night. Any man who failed to turn up would be put under arrest. All my men turned up except one, who was so drunk he couldn’t get there in time, so he was arrested and left behind. I duly handed over my draft to the big transit camp at Harfleur on the cliff above Le Havre and returned to Hexham.
Returning to France
Early in December I received orders to return to France and report to my battalion, so I went first of all to the transit camp at Le Havre before joining them. (ed:- He stayed at Harfleur until 11th January 1916 according to the chronology). Whilst I was there I saw a terrifying sight. The parade ground at Harfleur stands high above Le Havre and there was a powder factory near to Le Havre. One morning we were on parade and suddenly there was an enormous explosion which literally threw us on the ground. Then an enormous black cloud arose from Le Havre and this cloud then burst into one huge flame and this was the powder factory blowing up. The scenes in the neighbourhood of the factory were described as dreadful and people in Le Havre were running about with large pieces of plate glass sticking in them.
I joined my battalion at Hill 60 in the Ypres salient (Jan 16th 1916). I was posted to “D” Company with David Turner in command. This was the brother of Maitland Turner and he became a very firm friend of mine. He survived in the front trenches until 1918, when he was killed. Another firm friend I made was Wilfie Robinson who came from Hexham. He was killed in the Somme 1916.
From January 15th to June 1st 1916 I was with the Battalion in the Ypres salient. For those who still remember here are some of the places that were known by everyone who ever went to the salient: Dickebusch, Canada Huts, Zonnebeke, Sanctuary Wood, Meteren, Kemmel, Siege Farm, Bailleul, Locre.
February 1916. Losing the toss with Sharp.
Before one went up to a new line of trenches on the front line an officer from each company was sent up some days before so that he could become familiar with the trenches that his Company was going to occupy, because of course one changed over at night time and it was essential that someone knew their way about. This duty was, of course, not looked on with pleasure, and when the order came to our Company to send an officer up the line for this purpose, one usually tossed a coin and the loser went up the line. On this occasion there was an officer called Sharp who came from Riding Mill and he and I were billeted in a much shelled farmhouse in reserve. I lost the toss about going up to the front line to reconnoitre and be in a position to guide my Company to its position when they went up the line in two night’s time. I said to Sharp “You’d better have my sleeping place because it’s situated more comfortably and has more protection than where you were going to sleep”, so he took over where I had
been going to sleep that night, and off I went. I did my job and then came back in the afternoon of the following day, and I was told that a shell had come over and exploded right over the place where Sharp was sleeping, and he had been badly wounded. The next day I went down, as soon as I could get away, to the casualty clearing station in the hope of finding him before he was moved to the hospital, only to find that he had died of his wounds: so that, if I had not lost the toss presumably I would have been hit by that shell and not in a position to dictate these memoirs.
The mention of Sharp reminds me of an extract from my 1916 diary:
Tuesday February 1st, Roberts killed, Wade died.
Wednesday February 2nd, Stephenson wounded.
Thursday February 3rd, Watts killed.
Saturday February 5th, Sharp wounded.
Sunday February 6th, Sharp died.
This happened to be a bad week for officer casualties but here you can see that I had lost four men who had become close friends during the time we had been in the battalion and in France. This rate of casualty did not of course, happen continuously but there was never a tour in the trenches without us losing , either killed or wounded, some officers or some other ranks. Although we did not show it at the time I am quite sure that this loss that kept occurring of one’s close friends and those in the ranks whom one had got to know well must have had an effect on us which was tucked away in our subconscious but which has affected our outlook on life ever since. I have very few contemporaries of mine who were at school or up to 19 who survived the war, and this does set one apart from those who can still when they are in their sixties and seventies have around them those men and women with whom they were at school during their early life and adolescence.
March 7-13th 1916 I went on a bombing course at Tendringhau and while there Kitchener, the Minister of War, visited us, the only time I saw him in the flesh. On my return I was going up to the front line trench on March 14th when I was knocked down with considerable pain in the left thigh. I had been hit by a piece of “whizz bang”, a small 18 pounder shell which the Germans were always putting over. I was saved from losing my leg because the shell hit a large jack- knife which I kept in a poacher’s pocket inside my tunic. This large knife was shattered into small pieces many of which penetrated my skin. I still have the cheque book and note case with franc notes which were in the same pockets, and torn into pieces by the impact. A very lucky escape, after seeing the doctor I reported back to the company, stiff but very glad to be alive.
L.C.P. Scaife wounded a third time at Kemmel Front 1st June 1916.
When we were at rest we used to get to the nearest town, which was Bailleul, and had many happy times there before going back to the trenches. Bailleul then was well behind the line, but in 1918 we the Germans made their advance in that section it was flattened. We gradually moved south of the salient and held trenches in front of Meteren and Locre and Kemmel. It was in these trenches that we spent the month of May 1916, and it really was a glorious time in spite of the desolation around us, and when we were in reserve it was almost idyllic. The trenches we were in here were not continuously connected so that during the daytime it was impossible to go right along the trenches – one was confined to one’s own small sector. It was here on the last day of May that we had a particularly unpleasant strafing by trench mortars from the Germans. These mortars were thin canisters packed with explosive and they made a terrific noise, but unless they landed near you were not particularly dangerous. What the Germans did was at first light (and at that time of the year first light was usually misty) sent off a mortar from their right hand towards our right hand and then a mortar from their left hand towards our left hand, and then a mortar from their centre towards our centre; so although you could hear and if conditions were right could see these things, with
three of them up in the air the only thing to do was to stand still and hope for the best. On this morning I was standing outside a dugout and next to me was a young subaltern who had only reported to the battalion the night before. He was I suppose about 18½ years old. There were four others in the dugout, which means that it was after stand-down and I was on duty in the trench with this young officer. I heard these mortars being fired and heard them when they exploded. The only thing I remember is a terrible rushing sound and then no more. What had happened was that one of these mortars had landed on the top of the dugout. I was picked up two traverses away which means that I had been lifted into the air and sent a considerable distance. There was no trace of the young officer who was by my side, and the four men inside the dugout were killed. I remember coming to in a dugout and Jack Bagnall saying to me “Now, just rest, just rest, lie quiet.” And this really was all I felt like doing. To cut a long story short, the Colonel came up and told me that I must report to the doctor and be sent down the line for treatment. So, once again I had shellshock and was taken to the casualty clearing station and then to a hospital and finally to a hospital train and found myself at a general hospital in Etaples on the north coast of France.
Here I stayed for a short time and had a fascinating experience in that the officer in the bed next to me and who had travelled by the train in the bunk next to mine was a fellow called Faber, and after a few days when we felt like talking it turned out that he was an actor and had been in New York. So I asked him if he had ever come across my sister Gillian Scaife on the stage, and he said “Oh yes indeed. I proposed to her and was accepted by her every night that we acted together”, and he had been her leading man in the play in New York!
Well, we were transferred from that hospital by hospital boat to England, and I was sent to a hospital in Lincoln, where I arrived in the early hours of June 7th 1916. I was about ten days in this hospital when I received a medical board which granted me three months sick leave.
Jack Bagnall killed on the Somme September 1916.
It was before I returned to duty in September that the second phase of the Battle of the Somme took place. The first phase had taken place on the 1st of July and the casualties had been appalling – some 80,000 with high proportion killed. In the middle of September a second attack was made and our battalion was involved in this and we suffered very heavy casualties. Jack was killed, his body was never found and it was assumed he had been hit by a shell. We had many officer casualties and all of them, of course, were my friends and some of them my very firm friends. The death of Jack was a terrible blow to Mrs. Bagnall. He had been the baby of the family about six or seven years younger than Fay, and she had set great store by him and his death she never got over. (Ed: In 2014 L.C.P.Scaife’s daughter, who is also a niece of Jack, learnt that John Angus Bagnall, known as Jack, has a gravestone in Adanac Military Cemetery, Miraumont).