Battle of the Somme

The following text is the second part of Arthur Linfoot’s own typescript note entitled “Battle of the Somme”. It is derived from his own diary transcription of 1976 but is distinct from it, was also written in 1976 and covers the dates 16 June – 8 August 1916. Illustrations and footnotes have been added by this site’s curators and are not included in the original typescript.

ALL’s diaries: 1915 (closed), 1914 (open at 4 – 5 August: outbreak of War); 1918 (open at 8 – 11 November: Armistice); and (front) 1917 and 1916 (both closed.)
ALL’s diaries: 1915 (closed), 1914 (open at 4 – 5 August: outbreak of War); 1918 (open at 8 – 11 November: Armistice); and (front) 1917 and 1916 (both closed.)

Thursday, 6th July. Moved off at dawn to a village the infantry had just captured. Only red brick dust told us that buildings had once stood there. Several dead Germans around. The line quieter and we went to a German dugout aid post which had the usual heap of dead men near its entrance – men who had died before they reached the post. One man who had a piece of his skull cut clean out, was still alive so two bearers carried him down to the doctor and he was brought down the line. We were the last squad to leave and brought down the last of the wounded for the time being. We had to re-cross the open space between the old lines and a German field gun was shelling the only place where we could get across our old trench system. They were shelling frequently but quite regularly and each squad in turn crouched near the spot with the stretcher on their shoulders and as soon as the expected shell had burst and the splinters stopped buzzing, ran across the spot and up the other side. A few close shaves but we all got past. Quite exciting. Returned to Albert for a rest and back to the estaminet again with the red tiled floor. Heard that both the 57th and 59th Ambulances had suffered more casualties than the 58th.

Friday, 7th July. Hauled up at 7 a. m. and told we should be on parade. Grabbed quick breakfast of biscuits and tea and marched off to the ruined Chateau; a new place. Very heavy bombardment going on all the time. Marched from the dressing station up the line and our guide got lost as usual, and we were hopelessly mixed up. I carried a stretcher along with Paddy Graham and two regimental bearers. Had to cope with a man who was mad with shell shock. A man died as Paddy and I carried him: violent convulsions, vomiting and death. We carried him the few hundred yards to the next relay post and the sergeant there threw him over the parapet and swore at us for wasting time on a ‘stiff’. I learned later that this was the “Heligoland” trench and redoubt. It stood slightly above the old No Man’s Land and here and there where the parapet was blown in we got occasional glimpses of the country in the distance beyond Albert and could see the yellow corn fields and the red of poppy patches, against the sunset. A peep into another world as we trudged through the mire with our mutilated burdens. Just before dark we met Captain Johnson who directed us to a dugout and told us to rest there until daylight. Through most of the day many troops were moving up the trench and making stretcher bearing in the narrow congested space very difficult.

Saturday, 8th July. Moving again at dawn and helped a 59th Ambulance man to carry a stretcher to the dressing station. On the way back in Heligoland trench we met I met Capt. Johnson who told me to lie down and rest. Nowhere to lie as everything was covered with watery mud. Found some of our men in a dugout and we had biscuits, jam and tea. Got another case and carried it down with the usual struggle to get past carrying parties and reinforcements who were coming up; all weary and ill-tempered. More biscuits, jam and tea at about 5 o’clock. Everybody tired out. I felt faint with weariness but the sketchy meal revived me. Shoulders, back and feet aching with carrying heavy men. Bearers fell in after the tea and Capt. Johnson thanked us for the work done under appalling conditions. Then he asked for volunteers to bring in a few more before we went out to rest. We hadn’t got far across the old No Man’s Land in the dark when the Germans put up a heavy box barrage. A few men hit and the leading officer decided it was impossible to get through so we returned empty handed. I slept in a trench. Germans dropping big Jack Johnson shells in the nearby wood in an attempt to knock out a battery of heavies just behind it. When we were in the line I hurt my knee on some barbed wire and it was now swollen and painful. We moved back to Albert for a rest. Germans shelling the town again and we were taken back to Laviéville. All worn out so taken in our motor ambulances – about four kilometres. Good billets in a barn. Washed and shaved after a few days without either. Parcel from home and had meal of bully beef, biscuits tea and some real butter out of the home parcel. Slept well.

(Diary written up from memory when we were out resting. One incident omitted: we passed through a front line trench just before dawn where the 9th Welsh were waiting to go over the top. I spoke to two men who were trembling with fear or excitement. My general impression is that we are superior in the air and that our artillery is stronger than theirs.)

Monday July 10th. Up at seven. Spent the morning scraping mud off my clothes and puttees with my jack knife. Paraded at 3 o’clock when our C.O. read a letter from Divisional Headquarters thanking us and saying the troops appreciated our work. Walked to next village and visited Y.M.C.A. canteen. Peaceful this side of Albert. Received letters and newspapers from home. Sat on side of trench wet to the waist and with puttees down on boot tops like wet dishclouts reading letter from home. In it mother expressed fear that when we washed our pants and vests they may not get properly dried and aired. The letter had been written before the Somme Battle commenced. Rather cold at night.

Tuesday, 11th July. Up again at 7 o’clock. Physical drill at eleven. Cleaned clothes and buttons. In the afternoon cleaned waggons and rubbed grease on the waggon wheels. Got some grease on my tunic and belt when cleaning waggons. Read account of North Sea battle in a “News Chronicle” received from home this morning. (Battle of Jutland) Lovely summer evening and I sat outside the billet cleaning grease off my tunic and belt. Later had a short walk with Lee before turning in.

Wednesday, 12th July. Up at 7 o’clock and Church of England parade at 11. Some good hymns and thanks for survival. Red a few verses from the Bible and an article by Claudius Clear in the “British Weekly” sent from home. Went into the village shop and the old woman gave me a 2 franc piece I had dropped there some time ago. She remembered me and said it had been on the window ledge, and she found it after we left her shop. Went to an open air concert outside the Town Major’s house in the village. Our C.O. and another officer took part in a sketch. Washed pants and socks and wrote letters.

Thursday, 13th July. Slept badly and hunted in my pants and shirt and found six big lice. Usual morning parade. Physical drill and waggon cleaning. No parade in the afternoon so I lay down. After tea went to Ribemont with Duggins and Leaky. Had eggs and chips in a café and bought some chocolate. Several thousands of cavalry passed through our village during the evening. Everybody excited and talked of a break through the German trench system and a cavalry charge in the morning. Horses were two abreast with an occasional horse carrying only a machine gun. Took ages for them to pass through.

Friday 14th July. No bread ration and a wretched dinner of boiled bully beef. Physical drill at 11 o’clock. Got hair cut. Rained in the morning but fine in the afternoon. Issued with new cap to replace one lost up the line – two sizes too small for me. On guard from 6 until 10 p.m. Found some blankets and slept on a bed in the hospital barn. Very comfortable.

Saturday, 15th July. On guard from 6 to 8 a.m. Had breakfast and wrote letters. On guard again 10 until 2 o’clock. Just commencing dinner when we were ordered to return to our billet and to pack our kits ready to move. Paraded twenty minutes later at the A.S.C. park (transport park.) Waited there all the afternoon then had tea and were sent back to our billets to wait. Beautiful summer evening. Wrote letter to Ernie and turned in about ten.

Sunday, 16th July. Reveille at seven. Still standing by and no church parade. Rumours of Germans retiring all along the line. Wrote to Willie Whittaker. Fine morning. Church parade in a field in the afternoon. It rained and the service ended without the sermon. Went to bed early but lay awake at first with toothache. Slept well later.

Monday, 17th July. Dull damp morning, and rumour that four men of the 104 Field Ambulance which relieved us at the Chateau had been killed by one shell. Told we were no longer standing by. Walked to Ribemont with Walsh and Lee and had eggs and chips in a café. Got wet going and turned in about nine, but kept awake until about eleven by a noisy argument between Forrest and his pals about football. Watched rats playing in the rafters of the barn – they played about all day.

Tuesday, 18th July. Orders to stand by again. Letters and another parcel from home. Lay in the barn all day watching the rats and walked to the village after tea.

Wednesday, 19th July. Up at seven as usual. Physical drill in the morning. Replied to a letter from George Crawford. Washed my feet in horse bucket. Lay about all afternoon. Fell in at 7.30 and marched off about 8. Long slow march with many halts and waits. Eventually reached our destination about 4 a.m. Passed close by the rear of batteries in action and interested to see that the rim of the breech lit up with flame each time the guns fired in the inky darkness.

Thursday, 20th July. No idea of our whereabouts but probably near the line as there is artillery all around. Put in new stretcher squad with Bascombe, Hall and Houghton. Tossed up for who should sleep on the stretcher and I won. Got a blanket and slept well on the stretcher from about 4 o’clock until 7. Had breakfast at nine and washed and shaved. Near to a big noisy gun – probably a 6” naval gun. Watched masses of infantry, endless field guns and 8 or 9 heavy guns drawn by tractors, go past us towards the line. Aeroplanes busy overhead and I once counted twenty-one up at the same time. Saw one shot down. Saw a German field gun being brought back. Received orders to move but these were immediately cancelled and we stayed all night. Found out we were not far from the Chateau – rather to the right of it. Slept on the ground.

Friday, 21st July. Up at 8 o’clock. Glorious morning. Had breakfast, shave and wash. Read the ‘Passing Show’, two chapters of Corinthians and watched aeroplanes darting about in the sky above. Orders to move came about noon. Hunted for lice and found about twenty in my shirt. Moved off at about one o’clock. Fell out at an open space at the roadside near a battery of 60 pounders and were given picks and shovels. L/Cpl. Piggy Wood in charge. Commenced digging into the bank on the roadside to make a dugout for an aid post. Worked until nearly dark and then laid down on the ground and told we must be up at 5 a.m. Got little rest owing to the constant firing of the guns near to us – 60 pounders, a big naval gun somewhere just behind and a battery of 8” howitzers a few hundred yards in front of us. Bothered too with lice and German shells which were falling on the road not far from where we lay. Aeroplanes very busy all day. A perfect summer day, and evening.

Saturday, 22nd July. Up at 5 o’clock and marched up the line. Felt very jaded for want of sleep when we set out. Walked up by the side of Mametz wood and on to Bazentin Wood. Harry Bascombe and I left in at the East Lancs. Aid post in an ex-German trench just behind the wood. The position of our dugout marked by the leg of a dead German soldier sticking out of the side of the trench near the dugout entrance. Had breakfast of iron rations and Hall and Houghton joined us. I acted as runner most of the day and we also brought down a number of wounded men from the wood. I carried a wounded man on my back until machine gun bullets overhead got too close to him. Very heavy shelling of the wood and our trench in the open ground behind it. After dark I met a Jock with a big flesh wound in his thigh and helped him. The trench was packed with men and I couldn’t get him along it so we kept on top until a big shell nearly blinded us with fumes and dirt. Lost my bearings in the dark and got him to the King’s Own aid post by mistake which was a few hundred yards further along the trench. Spoke a few words to a subaltern in the trench chock full of his men, then got out on top again and made my way back to our post. Returned to the wood and tried to get some rest in a trench among the blasted trees. The German batteries were searching the wood and systematically shelling it from end to end. About one o’clock a shell blew in the parapet a few yards from us and buried Loue Hughes and Fred Denham. Harry and I dug them out with our hands by the light of an electric torch and we took them over to the aid post in the wood; a dugout with the roof at one end down almost to the floor owing to a direct hit by one of our big shells. Spent a few hours there but glad to get out as the roof could have fallen in any time.

Sunday 23rd July. Hughes and Denham resumed carrying after a few hours rest and were given military crosses for their night’s work. Daybreak in the wood pretty grim. A shell had disinterred an old German stiff and plastered him around on tree stumps and the ground quite horribly. An English sergeant lay unconscious on a stretcher, too far gone for the doctor to bother with. Bascombe and I carried down a stretcher to Capt. Newton’s aid post and got a drink of tea and some biscuit there. Paddy Graham and Paddy Gibson sent up to relieve us and we carried two cases down between us. Reached the open air camp about ten at night and got down to sleep under a waggon. Mat Lavere near me. Ordered to move again and marched back to headquarters near the Chateau where we had been on Friday. Paired off with Lavere and shared a blanket with him. Slept well but very wet with the heavy dew.

Monday 24th July. Had breakfast about ten. Shaved and washed and hunted for lice. Parcel from home. Enjoyed the rest and better food. Lavere and I made a shelter against the dew with some old filled sandbags for a low 15” or so wall and our groundsheets fastened together as a roof. Disturbed by that big naval gun and by lice, so didn’t sleep well.

Tuesday 25th July. Up at 6 o’clock and marched off with Capt. Johnson to the advanced dressing station and had breakfast there. Off again at 7.30 to the trenches. Our squad again at the dugout with the German leg sticking out of the side of the trench behind Bazentin Wood. Quieter than last time up and only a few slight wounds and two shell shocks to deal with. Late evening – possibly about nine – gunfire increased and the wounded piled in; and ugly shoulder and chest wound, a skull smashed in, a badly damaged knee and several smaller wounds. No doctor near. Carried the worst cases to an aid post about a mile away on the side of the road near what had been a lime quarry or chalk quarry. The ground was badly churned up with shells – like sands trampled on by giants – and ended with a steep bank down to the road and aid post. I carried with Bascombe and it was heavy going in the dark – the only light Very lights and shell burst flashes. Returned in the dark, felt for the German leg in the side of the trench and knew we were near our aid post. Sgt. Fraser now joined us and he and Hall took down the walking wounded and ran into a barrage of gas shells which the Germans had now started to use. I lay down in the dugout at about half past one and slept until about seven. Had a good night in spite of the gas shells.

continued on page 3