Passchendaele: The third week

Continuing the transcript of the diary kept by Gunner Ferguson Hamilton during the battle of Third Ypres.

Tues 14 Aug. We had a quieter night last night in our billets, but in the battery area matters were more lively, and other three are in hospital this morning. The enemy is paying decidedly more attention to battery positions and back areas than he did, with the result tha, in times of ordinary operations, R.G.A casualties are fairly heavy. Yesterday I saw a photo of our battery position taken from overhead. To the uninitiated there seemed to be little given away but close examination revealed defects, e.g. a light railway running to a hedge, and stopping there, suggests a gun position; such a railway should be carried further: tracks leading to and stopping dead at a hedge suggests the same. Tracks where camouflaging is indulged in to conceal guns (and that is universal) must be carefully attended to: you may conceal as carefully as possible, but a single blind track is evidence against your position. Still tendency to thunder and showers. I was looking at our balloons and counted twenty up. Then I noticed what I took to be a German plane in the distance making our way somewhat concealed by clouds. Soon there was some stir. Three observers sought safety by parachute: a couple of balloons were hauled down, and the German had one balloon to his credit. Little firing done today.

Wed 15 Aug. large counter-battery programme today in preparation for an attack. Plane observation impossible and it was carried out “blind”, except for a few ground observations.

Thurs 16 Aug. An attack was made this morning at dawn. We were engaged on hostile batteries. The attack seemed to be mainly on our left. As I lay in my dugout this morning listening to our artillery I calculated that the heavy artillery round here was firing at the rate of a shot per second, while the fire of our field artillery was like the sound of side drums. : it was a very intense bombardment this morning. I suppose this is what the Germans style drum-fire. When we are attacking, the German artillery seems to be too busily occupied to pay attention to our artillery, for which we are truly thankful. Our guns get on with their work undisturbed. It must be awful to have to “stick to one’s guns” during a barrage, if hostile artillery is paying one attention. So far, then, our casualties at the time of an operation, have been in the preparatory stage. Since 6.45 this morning our battery has not been in action. We have the impression that today’s offensive on our left is the biggest we have yet undertaken, and are eagerly awaiting news. German planes have been active today, and in great numbers too. Tonight some of them are still over our lines and our searchlights are trying to pick them up. the German planes are dropping bombs.

Fri 17 Aug. A very quiet day. We had only one neutralisation target last night: 18 rounds during my 24 hours of duty. Fine weather today, so we may expect continuation of activity soon.

Sat 18 Aug. Weather fine, but another quiet day. This morning I was present at presentation of decorations to officers and men of the X Corps R.G.A. for gallantry in the field during recent operations. In all 50 were decorated. Officers received D.S.O and M.C.. Men got D.C.M. and M.M. Our Mr Watson was awarded a Military Cross for work done as signalling officer during advance on 7 June at Mount Sorrell. Gnr Beacall got a Military Medal for services rendered the same day, keeping up communications and also for bravery in assisting an officer to bomb a party of Germans. Beacall is our second Military Medallist in 228 S. Batter, Bdr Crisp having gained that distinction at the Vimy Ridge attack on 9 April.

Sunday 19 AugVery fine weather. More gas shells last night: bombs were dropped further back than we are. today again inactive. Not so the Germans who further depleted our ranks: in all, three casualties, two being wounded.

Mon 20 Aug. Last night Watson (Eden’s postman) and I wandered as far as the former German front line at St Eloi. Shell holes abound everywhere. The opposing front lines were not more than 100 yards apart: the Germans, however, were in the commanding position and situated to give a view well behind our lines. Behind our lines a dugout was pointed out capable of holding two thousand men. I saw an entrance, but did not go below: it was about thirty feet underground. The German trenches were battered to pieces: the strong cement dugouts, with walls three feet thick were badly knocked about. Immediately behind the German lines was a crater – the result of a mine explosion. I am not a good judge of distance, but I believe it would measure sixty yards across and very deep. It looked like a quarry. There were sights there to impress on one the awfulness of war. it is still a blood-stained battlefield after two & a half months. Beside a dugout there is the skeleton of a German even today.
There was a renewal of our attack on our left, early this morning again. it was suggested some time ago that we were not going to limit ourselves to certain well-defined objectives, but would push on as far as possible. That plan does not seem feasible, and we have adopted the idea of frequent attacks with certain limited objectives. The day has not yet come for a continuous unlimited push along the whole front: it may never come.

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