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Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale

31st March 1918

Walter: Reg Tallis just told me it’s Easter. He must be the only man in the army who cares a jot at the moment. We’re still in retreat, counting up our dead, wounded and missing as we go. The Germans have half a million extra troops from the Eastern Front now that Russia’s out of the picture, and we have less and less by the day. The Americans are arriving in large numbers but they’re still in training, so we can’t count on them yet. In the meantime, even our men from the Transport are being brought up to the line to try and fill the gaps -

Lily: This is terrifying. There’s nothing of the sort in the papers. They just say the enemy are ‘behind schedule’ and being fought back –

Rose: I spent my Easter Sunday fast asleep after working for 24 hours non-stop at a station near Amiens. We’re still trying to get the wounded out and away on the railway but trains are few and far between. We can hear the shelling moving closer so no doubt we’ll have to move again soon.

To see the battalion’s war diary for March, visit https://goo.gl/LK5KY9

28th March 1918

Walter: Shelling so heavy I can hardly stand the vibrations in my head. Freezing winds and icy rain. And we know the Germans are advancing on us but we don’t know where from. Any man in this battalion (or what’s left of it) who tells you he’s not frightened is either a liar or mad.

 Fred: Me and Mabel have been following the battle in the papers. Not sure they’re telling us the whole truth –

26th March 1918

Walter: Just slept for the first time in nearly three days. It’s been awful. We’re at Gommecourt now, far back from where we started. The night I wrote, the enemy bombarded us for hours in the middle of the night, then attacked when we were in disarray from the shelling. We held them at first but they got around our flank and three of our companies dropped back, leaving my company stranded with the enemy all around us. We were forced to retreat, totally exposed as we ran. I tried to gather the company together, with men dropping and screaming all around me, but we’d lost about half of our number. Even two of our most experienced company commanders and a captain who’d been in the battalion from the very start were hit. Still, we managed to regroup with the few of us that were left and threw ourselves into a counter attack. And it was working. We fought tooth and nail back to our previous line and HELD it, but then, out of nowhere, came the order to retreat! I didn’t know I knew the words that came out of my mouth when I heard that. As we started back I stumbled over Alec, one of my sergeants – he’d gone down with a hit to the throat. And for what? Absolutely bloody nothing. Seems we’re in full retreat all the way down the line.

Mary: My god, how awful. Lily and I are very relieved to hear you’re alright though. Have you heard from Ed? Or Rose? I know she was at a CCS close to the fighting.

Rose: Don’t worry, Ma. I’m alright. We’re in retreat too though. We were told to evacuate as the Germans had got within three miles of us but we said we wouldn’t leave without the patients – 1000 of them. We got them onto trains and lorries wherever we could and I managed to bring away supplies of morphia and hypodermics for the journey. Goodness knows how we’re going to manage without the rest of our equipment. Hope Ed’s alright.

23rd March 1918

Walter: Trying to hold off the Germans but our chances are looking slimmer by the hour. We arrived at Beugnâtre and dug in straight away, trying to hold the road to Vaulx-Vraicourt to stop the enemy passing through. Got worried when we realised there seemed to be no Allied troops ahead of us. Sure enough, the only thing that stood between us and the Germans was two belts of old wire and a few barricades. They attacked at 8am. Somehow kept them back behind the wire with rifles and artillery but they tried it again at 11am. Kept them back again. The third time we weren’t so lucky – they got two of their machine guns through the wire and have set them up behind mounds close to our main positions. But now they seem to have fallen quiet for the evening. We’re still holding our positions. Not sure what to make of it.

Lily: Oh this is horrid. Please stay safe. Do you really think they’ll break through? What will happen if they reach Calais?

Walter: There’s no way of staying safe AND stopping them reaching Calais, Lily. You know that. Just know that I love you, eh? Got to go. Heard something.

To read more about the German Spring Offensive, visit https://goo.gl/MDjGsb

21st March 1918

Ed: Woke 5am with shells crashing all around us. Tried to get a candle lit in the dark but the shell blasts kept blowing it out. Could hear the whine of gas shells amongst the others. No hope of getting to our guns. An officer shouted to us to run to the deep sap around the corner, which meant running across dangerous open ground but we’d be safer once we were there. My pal Saunders froze. Said he wouldn’t go. I tried to shout at him over the noise of the shells but he wouldn’t have it. I tried to lift him – would have carried him all the way to that bloody sap – but he threw me off and disappeared back into the dugout. I went to go after him, yelling all the while, but the officer grabbed me and shoved me out towards the sap, so I set off running. Slid down into it just as the ground shook harder, like the biggest earthquake you ever felt. Hauled myself up and looked back – the dugout I’d come from had taken a huge direct hit. Blown to bits. Saunders wouldn’t have stood a chance. Nor the officer.

Next thing I remember is someone forcing me to get my gas mask on and the order to retreat. The enemy fire had cut our telephone wires but a runner got word to us that they were marching up in columns of fours. We retreated way back to a railway cutting, after we worked out the German shells were precisely timed so we could run between them. That’s where we are now. I’ve got the shakes. The shells have quietened but we have no idea how close the German infantry is. Don’t know if we’ll have to drop further back still. As it is, we’ve had to leave four of our guns behind.

Walter: This really does sound bad, Ed. Hope you can hold tight in the railway cutting. We’re on a train heading for Albert and just heard the news about the offensive beginning. Got an uneasy feeling for once that this really could go either way. Ah, just heard that our destination has changed because of how far back into our lines the German shelling is reaching. That’s not a good sign. And I’m so sorry about Saunders. Losing mates is the hardest part of the job.

Mary: Oh Edward, I’m praying you can keep safe. Please write when you can.

Rose: Glad you got your mask on – we’re starting to take the first gassed men into the CCS and it’s horrid.

19th March 1918

Walter: Training on the ranges every other day now. Preparing for the enemy offensive. Gas drills too, so we have to keep our masks on for at least an hour, up to two. It’s horrible. You feel like you’re suffocating, even without gas, and it’s an effort of will to keep it on for more than ten minutes. Some lads have been known to take the masks off when there’s an actual attack going on, because they’d rather take their chances with the gas.

Ed: I’d brace yourself, Walt. We’ve had a few shells fall close to us – them registering their guns, no doubt. And a German plane flew over, dropping propaganda leaflets. My mate Saunders said not to touch them in case they’ve been deliberately covered in ‘disease germs’.

To see troops in 1918 donning gas masks, visit https://goo.gl/BZWTU1

16th March 1918

Rose: So much for all our preparation here in Belgium – I’m being moved to France at short notice! Wonder if they’ve had some new intelligence about the offensive. I’ll be sad to leave ‘Mendinghem’. I’ve been here a good long while now. Still, wherever they need me, there must I go…

Jamie: Good luck, Rosie. Do write to me with your new address.

Walter: Hope the move goes well, Rosie. Everyone seems to be coming and going along the Western Front at the moment…

14th March 1918

Lily: Finally able to get a proper lunch and dinner when I’m working in town, without having to sit down in a restaurant or eat fish and chips or jellied eels day in, day out. The ‘National Food Kitchen’ has opened in the West End so I can buy a good meal that isn’t too pricey and take it back to work with me. They give you little pots with a handle to carry it in. Seems a good idea to me.

Mabel: This makes me miss going out to work. And it’ll allow women to get more independent, won’t it? Being able to get good, affordable meals outside the house.

Walter: Food on the go! Like out here, in a way. No wonder you can’t get home for a meal, Lil, what with hurrying around couriering and doing your bit with the ambulance crew too.

To read more about the National Kitchens, visit https://goo.gl/fmuU9j

13th March 1918

Mary: Did you know about this, Margaret? The government has set up a whole Belgian town for refugees, somewhere in England. They’re in purpose-built homes next to the new munition factories where they’ll be working. It’s had a mixed reaction but, I was thinking, if the tables were turned and we had to seek sanctuary in Belgium, it would be a comfort to be able to have a little piece of home over there, wouldn’t it? To see some of our own language again and be able to buy familiar food in the shops.

Margaret: I don’t know. I think the worry is they might not want to go home again…

Mary: You should ask Mrs Maes at the next cooking group – I expect all she wants is to get home! I know I would.

To read more about England’s ‘Belgian town’, visit https://goo.gl/eEYtEC

9th March 1918

Lily: Horrid night. There wasn’t any moonlight so we thought we were safe from an air attack. Didn’t count on the fact the enemy would still be able to navigate due to the clear skies and stars. We had to evacuate ten children just from one house. Mostly basic first aid as the bomb fell in the yard not on the building, but the three little girls in the back room will have some nasty scarring. Poor mites. Then on to a row of houses across the river where a few different ambulance crews were working to get everybody out. I don’t think I’ll go into what I saw there. Walter, I’m beginning to understand why you find things like this hard to talk about.

Walter shares: Sorry to hear it, Lily – I hope you’re alright. I still don’t like you putting yourself in danger but I can’t deny I’m proud of you. And make sure you talk to your pals in the ambulance crew. It helps to have people around who’ve been through the same thing you have.

Fred: Please go careful with yourself, Lily. It’s not easy.

To read more about this raid, including the perspective of one of the bombers, visit https://goo.gl/xShkGs

7th March 1918

Rose: Plenty to do in the hospital. We’ve been told that increased enemy activity likely means the expected German offensive will take place in the next few days, so we’ve taken stock of everything and have indented for more chloroform, pyjamas, blankets, stretchers and stoves – I hope not too late. Oh, but I had a nice distraction this morning. Do you remember Edouard, the French orphan I treated early last year and wrote to a few weeks ago? I wasn’t sure if my letter would reach him but, sure enough, he must still be at the orphanage because he wrote back (I expect the ladies there helped him) and even sent a drawing. He tells me he’s 5 years old now!

Walter shares: We’ve had the warning about the German offensive too, Rosie. Lots of training going on here and keeping everything crossed that those in the know are right about where the enemy will try to break through. Glad you’ve heard from the little French lad though. Bit of light in the gloom.

To see a child’s view of the war, visit: https://goo.gl/THqAza

5th March 1918

Walter: Looking around me at our new billets in the ruins of an old factory. Everyone’s getting their uniforms sorted after the long journey but there’s little chance of them drying in this cold weather. It’s strange to hear French being spoken again. Reg’s ‘buona sera’ isn’t going to get him very far here, that’s for sure. We arrived near Sus-Saint-Léger earlier today and training will get underway tomorrow. There’s plenty to do. We’re out of practice at the type of trench warfare you get on the Western Front and some of the newer lads have no experience here at all.

Reg: It’s alright Sar Major, I’ve been brushing up on the bit of French I learnt last year. ‘Napoo’ means none left, ‘chevoos’ is horses, and you say ‘plonk’ instead of ‘key auntie’ for wine.

Walter: Remind me how you made it to sergeant, Reg?

Reg: I just didn’t die yet. Bullets have an uncanny knack of missing me by inches.

George Stone: For God’s sake, no one stand next to Reg…

To see Sus-Saint-Léger today, visit https://goo.gl/1Zxegk

1st March 1918

Walter: That came around quickly. We’ve boarded the train back to France. The expected German offensive is almost a sure thing now, so that’ll be why they want the division back on the Western Front. The weather seems to have got the message too – miserable, pouring rain. And the train is delayed. I don’t think it wants to go back either. Once we eventually get going, I’ll be making sure all the lads in my company are fed and watered at each station stop and keeping a sharp eye on the role call at morning muster parade for the ‘sick, lame and lazy’ (not to mention the odd shirker who might have gone under the wire during the night).

Lily: I hate that you have to go back. Still, I know you have a job to do. I’m so proud of you. Like you used to say to me, ‘chin up, sweetheart’.

To read more about transportation and logistics in the Great War, visit https://goo.gl/vZZhy9

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Now available as a Paperback and on Kindle
Walter Carter
WW1 Soldier's Tale