Up pretty well all night. A machine gun sweeping round outside the dugout. Relieved unexpectedly in the morning by the 59 Field Ambulance about 5 o’clock. Marched down to P & O trench1 with wheeled stretchers. Had breakfast there. Marched on to La Clyte with an officer called Captain Marsh. Marched from there to Berthen with only one officer and two men fainted on the way. Packs carried supplies. My heel gave me some trouble through my socks being worn out. Everybody mad with Captain Marsh for his foolishness. After dinner the Bailleul party ordered to return and we went back in the motor ambulance. Had a bath and a walk round the town at night. Slept in the old billet at night.
Up at 6 o’clock. Marched off about 6.30. Relieved men at first relay post. Saw an aeroplane go down in flames. Proved to be ours. Had a pretty hot time and the dugout was once filled with smoke from a shell. Not much to do and I only helped with two stretcher cases and one walking case. Shelled just to our left as * and I took down a walking case. Lee spent most of the day telling us his usual silly yarns.
Arthur * in place of Harry Bascombe.
A shell just missed us again about 6 o’clock in the morning. Were relieved at 7 o’clock. Harry Bascombe ordered down to La Clyte and Arthur Lyne to take his place. Turned in to kip1 and slept exhausted after dinner until about 6 o’clock. Had tea and shaved and washed. Received word from Franchie Inwood to say that she is in hospital and to go through an operation to have a growth removed from †her finger† this summer. Also received a letter from home. Went to bed about 9 o’clock.
“Kip”(if correct), meaning “sleep”: a word which ALL occasionally used in speech in later life, but apparently too colloquial for the diary until now. ↩
Up about 4 o’clock. Had breakfast and marched off at 5 o’clock. Arrived at Stafford wood, and stayed with our squad in a German concrete dugout. Did nothing all day. Sergeant MacDonell moved us out at night about 9 o’clock. Just missed by a big shell as we came down. Heavy counter-attack at night and Germans shelled terribly. Blew our front line in and inflicted pretty heavy casualties upon our men. We were carrying all night from about 2 o’clock until 6 o’clock.
Started work at about midnight and carried 3 or 4 cases from the Blue Line to P & O trench1. Absolutely tired out in the morning. Relieved about 8 o’clock. Went down to brasserie. Slept until about 1 o’clock, when we were turned out and called up to P & O trench. Turned in there and slept till tea time in the sun. We were told we were not to go up until 4 o’clock in the morning. Turned in and slept well.
Saw one of our aeroplanes shot down by German anti-aircraft guns.
Lay in the dugout until about 2.30. Went back to the relay post. Up to the Blue Line1 twice. The front man very heavy and almost crocked us up. Went down to the brasserie, had breakfast and then got down to it2. Slept very little. Up to the relay post again at 5 o’clock. Felt a bit groggy at first but it wore off after a while. Lay in the advanced post on our original front line until about midnight. The Germans counter-attacked and our artillery barrage was terribly heavy.
[Written above date:] Messines – Wytschaete1
Awake at 3.15 am with the mines going up2 and shaking the ground. The barrage commenced then and continued until 9 o’clock. Most intense bombardment in the world’s history. A man on the battery behind got his heart smashed with the recoil of the gun and we brought him round to the aid post. Bascombe, Driver, Lee and I in number 8 squad from 2 parade. Went up the line about 9 o’clock. Brought our first case from the Red Line3 post. German trenches absolutely knocked out of existence. A fair number of Germans dead, but not many injured. A good number of German prisoners, who carried down wounded as they came. Worked from the relay post (our old front line) to the P & O4 line most of the afternoon. The first party went down at about 9 o’clock. We stayed on for the night. Called out before midnight to go to the blue line. A long walk and we were shelled most of the way down. Had to go round to P & O trench and were shelled very heavily at the new dugout.
“The mines going up”: This was the beginning of the Battle of Messsines Ridge, which started at 3:10 am with the detonation of 19 large mines under German army lines, still said to be collectively one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time; see note on 22 May. It is interesting that by the time ALL wrote up this date in his diary – which would necessarily have been a few days later – it was already known (or at least being said) that this had been (in ALL’s own words) the “most intense bombardment in the world’s history.” The mines are well known to have been heard as far away as London. ↩
The Red Line, Blue Line etc were targets set for the British advance on specified days of the attack. ↩
P&O is the correct reading. Other contemporary records speak of a P&O line or trench, but none appears to offer any clue about the derivation of the name. See contemporary map (with “P&O trench” clearly visible) and associated discussion at this page on the Great War Forum. This P&O trench is said to be to the South-West of Sint Elooi (a.k.a. St. Eloi; C on the map), which would put it somewhere to the North of Wytschaete. ↩
Up at usual time. Grand day. Received orders quite suddenly to go back to headquarters. Went into town and bought a towel, a soap box and some other things. Charlie’s birthday.
Returned from town and found that I had to pack at once. Hurried to La Clytte in a car. Everything ready for the push. Big guns in the valley firing. Marquees† up and all ready. Fritz1 shelled La Clytte regularly for the last few nights. Had a bit rest and then marched up the line with our stretchers and everything. I picked a wheeled stretcher. No shelling as we came up but signs of recent shelling and dead horses. Arrived at Ridge Wood and the brasserie about 11 o’clock. Got down2 in the brasserie but had to go out again into the little R E signals dugout.
Up at 6.45. Very busy first thing. Kept pretty well at it all day. Saw some new triplanes up for the first time. Did a bit French. Harvey and Ross called. I walked through the town with them to see about Billy Truman’s watch. Billy and Ross lance-corporals1. Fine day. Saw 112th stretcher bearers go up in battle order2.
Billy and Ross had presumably been promoted to Lance-Corporal from Private.
ALL himself had been promoted to Lance-Corporal on 7 September 1915. He had, probably mistakenly, reverted to Private on deployment to France on 31 May 1916 and claimed in a 1976 interview to have been “the only man in France who went through the war Lance Corporal acting Private with Lance Corporal’s pay.” He regarded this as a rather comic reversal of a situation, common probably in 1914-18 and certainly since then, in which men were temporarily given the responsibility of a higher rank without being paid for it: “acting unpaid” Lance-Corporal, Corporal or Sergeant. ↩
Up at 6.30. Busy in the morning. 4 patients in for me. My turn in at night. Managed very well. Glorious weather. A lot of guns going up1. Received letter from home telling more [sic] that Mr Mullens2 had died on Sunday on his way to preach at Shiney Row3.
Mr Mullens: James Mullens, a lay minister from the South Durham Street United Methodist Free Church in Sunderland, where ALL had been a member prior to joining the RAMC. ALL had also recorded Mr Mullens’ death in his diary a few days earlier on Sunday, 20th May, the day it happened. It is probable that this earlier diary note was added later, some time after the news reached ALL on the 24th. Mr Mullens was 73 years old at the date of his death. See also all diary entries tagged “Mullens”. ↩
Shiney Row: mining village between Penshaw and Houghton-le-Spring, 5 miles SW. of Sunderland. ↩