Gunner Hamilton’s diary – the month before Passchendaele

It’s quite a while since I posted any extracts from the diary of Ferguson Hamilton (grandfather of a friend of mine) but the 90th anniversary of Passchendaele has sent me back to look at his descriptions how the battle of Third Ypres appeared to a Scottish gunner who had been a schoolmaster before he was conscripted. Over the next weeks I shall post more instalments , but here is what he wrote during the month before the battle.

Sun 1 July. Walked to Bailleul with Ross. First view from Mont Noir district: not so clear as before. Exhibition of captured guns, trench mortars & machine guns in the market place. Visited church. Town about the size of Poperinghe & full of British troops, many Australians & N.Zealanders. Walked all way back. Noted flax being cultivated in a field near roadside. Rackham & I saw a plant the other day, a yellow crucifer in cultivation.New to both of us.

Mon 2 July. Shells fell around our camp this morning; one landed in the camp without doing any damage. Improved weather conditions shifted our quarters back to the old camp close by the village in the field of the elm trees.

Tues 3 July. Hostile planes active. Appeared about 4.30 in morning: bombs dropped in district. Fine weather continues. Considerable unrest among troops at idea of another winter campaign. Russians are doing nothing. French spring offensive a comparative failure and they are awaiting American assistance. The Belgians have reputation of doing less than nothing. It is even reported that they have buried ammunition on the pretence that it had been used against the enemy.

Wed 4 July. This morning we went to the Aberle-Peninghelst road about a mile north of Wistoutre and saw King George pass in a motor to the latter place. The Prince of Wales in the car following. About ten minutes before the King came along, the Germans shelled two small ammunition dumps somewhere in the direction in which he was going. Ross and i went botanising to Mont Rouge. We were there last night also and though it was hazy we could make out quite a number of places – Loire in the hollow close at hand. Poperinghe, Vlamertinghe, Ypres and a place far beyond on the horizon, part of the Messines battlefield. Armentieres, Bailleul, etc.

Thurs 5 July. The left half of the battery left camp this morning to proceed to a new position. Went to Mont Rouge.

Friday 6 July. At Mont Rouge again. Exceedingly warm. Joined the left half at night. We are near Voormezeele, I understand.

Saturday 7 July. A great amount of artillery fire from our side last night. Very warm day. Ross and I spent day working out displacements and concentrations for new gun positions. German aircraft are exceedingly busy and very daring in this quarter: our superiority is not at all marked as far as we can see. Our position is a very advanced one.

Sun 8 July. Artillery fire seemed continuous during the night. Clearing obstructions in way of seeing the A.P. Rainy and dull. Our dug-out is in Middlesex Trench (No 1 the Willows). Sketch sent to Ian. [his son]

Mon 9 July. Germans sent over many shells in this part last night and throughout the night. Today for some time we were troubled with splinters from shells dropping in front of us. Arranging about nigh A.P. &c. Much activity on part of our field artillery this evening. Heavy artillery did not take part.

Tues 10 July. Tree-felling: fairly big tree removed from A.P.line. Bees’ bink [?] in hollow in the tree. Germans sending over many shells in our area: there is no apparent shortage of shells. Visited “Moated Grange” farm which is just a few hundred yards away from Middlesex Lane. There are various Observation Posts & Machine Gun emplacements to be seen. One is an iron cage just at the top of a wall of a building; another was up a chimney. The best O.P. however is an iron tree (hollow): the tree it displaced was close at hand, but was cut down. To give the iron tree a touch of reality the limbs of trees were laid on the ground close by as if they had been shattered from the iron one. The latter deceived one at a distance of 30 yds for the outer part was wrinkled like the bark of a tree, and some green material easily mistaken for ivy seemed to be growing upon it. A little ladder leads up to the peepholes and a seat was comfortably placed for the observer.
I heard a good ghost story today. There is a ruined house near our position. In it there was a machine gun emplacement. Immediately beneath a cellar which one or two of our fellows occupied. Tired, they fell sound asleep, but early in the morning the two awoke and they say that in their sober senses they heard the “phut’ phut’ phut'” of a machine gun. The ghost of a machine gunner was working the ghost of a machine gun.

Wed 11 July. In B.C. first making preparations to start operations once more. A great many of our men are going into hospital with “trench fever”.

Thurs 12 July. I took angles from the four guns to “Night Aiming Point” and “Fog Aiming Point”. Much aerial activity today. Special aircraft sentries have been posted: they were able to report two German machines brought down. No doubt we have a distorted view of what happens and are inclined to belittle the work of our own side. There was considerable scrapping in the air last night and also tonight. The Germans have squadrons known as “red devils” names no doubt from the ruddy appearance of the machine. These machines are particularly good good: fast, quick to manoeuvre. Our air sentries tell me our machines are quite as good. Today we had the most unusual experience of a shell from our own artillery, behind us, dropping a shell just in front of our battery. It seemed to be of large calibre and made an immense hole.

Friday 13 July. Into action today. Registered No 3 &4 guns on Houthem Church. A great many of our men are in hospital with “trench fever.” Hardly a day passes without some more being sent off. Great quantities of material pass up here during the night. We are in a very advanced position 3500 yds from our front line, and there are batteries of heavy artillery even further forward. It looks as if, when a push comes, we are preparing to push the enemy further back than we have ever attempted before.

Sat 14 July. Extremely warm in the afternoon. No shooting today. Guns 1 & 2 are expected in position tonight.

Sun 15 July. Thunder and rain during the night. Germans seem to pay a great attention to our roads and ammunition columns at night. The result is that we who are near roads or railways for the sake of getting shells easily are frequently in the vicinity of fire during the night.

Mon 16 July. Registered Nos 1 & 2 guns. Fine weather: aerial activity – saw one of our planes brought down: fine evening. Germans firing shrapnel at balloons behind us: 1st shot high: 2nd shot also high: 3rd low: 4th to right: and balloonist thought it time to shift. Madge and Ian are at Boness & my thoughts are particularly with them on that account.

Tues 17 July. Aeroplane shot. Photograph shows that the area at Voorstratt which we were on had already been heavily shelled. Suddenly tonight our field guns began to bark. We mounted the parapet. It could not be an S.O.S. call as it was one which did not require the assistance of our heavy artillery. Perhaps we were making a raid. I like the weird sound of field artillery, the sharp crack omitted. it is something in the nature of a moan, or an exaggerated coughing wind. The ridge in front was outlined in flame.

Wed 18 July. Rain early morning: dull forenoon and again at night. Concentration. Aeroplane target found impossible under prevailing conditions.

Thurs 19 July. Some aeroplane counter-battery shoot found impossible. Attempt to do it by visual observation failed. Tonight while a few of us were amusing ourselves with card tricks suddenly a shell burst (Silent Percy I believe is the nickname given) seemingly quite close to us. Cpl Macdonald who had been with us, had moved away from us had moved away from us and was severely wounded. How sudden! How awful! Just a moment before Mac had been joking in his own usual style.

Friday 2o July. Poor visibility. Aeroplane shoot impossible: a great deal of clerical work in connection with S.O.S. Targets: a great many gas shells of new description with smell like garlic or mustard scattered over the whole area during the night. Slept in the Moated Grange last night, but returned to the trench dugout again: Middlesex Lane: No 1 The Willows.

Sat 21 July. Enemy artillery very active. Shells fall in our position, no doubt not originally intended for us.

Sunday 22 July. A great deal of artillery activity on both sides during the night. Often we cannot get sleep because of this. Again, we are often so tired and sleepy that we sleep through heavy bombardment. A greta many shells fell in and around our position today. Aeroplabne shoot successfully carried out today. Evidence is accumulating of a coming offensive.

Mon 23 July. Visibility poor and aeroplane shoot impossible. Enemy shelling roads in vicinity. Gas shells.

Tues 24 July. A quiet day from the enemy. Visibility not good enough for us to do good work.

Wed 25 July. Concentrations all day in rain on enemy batteries. Couter-battery shoot with aeroplane observation in evening. Shelling on and near our position at frequent intervals during the day. We lost two directors (instruments) by shell-fire. Ross & I had a short walk to where a dozen tanks are stationed. We had a fairly good look at them from the inside. There are male and female tanks: the former with six-pounder guns as well as machine guns and the latter with only machine guns. We saw where, in taking up a position, they had cleared shell-holes.

Thurs 26 July. Six concentrations on batteries: a programme which we went twice over.

Fri 27th July. We spent a most awful day today. We were heavily shelled all afternoon, and it became so severe that we had to clear out of the B.C. post. Shells were falling all around. One of our sergeants had a slight cut on the throat (Adam’s apple) while sheltering beside me in the B.C. post. There was heavy shelling between 8 p.m. and midnight. I went on duty at 6 p.m. tonight and did my first turn of duty as a B.C.A. acting alone.

Sat 28 July. Aeroplane shoot: counter-battery: my first target. Airmen informed us we had an O.K. on two of the gunpits on which we were firing. Today I had the honour of preparing the Barrage Target for our forthcoming offensive and to prepare the Barrage Map.

Sun 29th July. Barrage map completed. Wet day and uncomfortable. In the afternoon I was making my way over to No 1 The Willows, but I did not reach it on account of heavy shelling for quite a while. I was thankful to take refuge in the Moated Grange.

Mon 30th July. Concentrations on hostile batteries but not a heavy day’s work. Heavy shelling of our position with “big stuff” began at 6 o’c and lasted for about two hours (in the evening). The men returned too soon from under cover because of preparations for the morrow and brought about the saddest night we have had in the Battery. Would to God this business was over. Rather than risk being alone in case of gas shell attack I did not go to Middlesex Lane. 3 killed, 2 died of wounds, 3 wounded.

To be continued…

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