Surviving the Battle of Pozières, 29 July – 6 August 1916

After his special leave in England granted for the successful trench raid in Armentieres, Reg returned to the 28th Battalion on 30 June 1916 and was soon to experience the full horrors of the Western Front in the Battle of Poizieres of July/August 1916.

The next of Reg’s letters that remain was written to his brother Theo on 11 September 1916 and recounts his experiences:

1916.09.11 first page

“The Pater doesn’t look a day older and Mum is very well.

            Somewhere in Belgium

                                    11-9-16

Dearest Old Chap

I got your letter which the Pater forwarded on from Lurgashall the other day and was delighted to hear you are getting better from your attack of jaundice and fever. By Jove I would have liked to have been with you up in Darjeeling, do you remember our trip up there, leaving Manjhaul for Begusairas [1]  and the train journey to the station, losing your boy and the heat and then that wonderful trip up the hills in the little railway and how bally cold it was when we got there, 51º if I remember correctly.

If only those days could come once more, life is a very uncertain factor here old man, we have been having some terrific fighting since I last wrote you, on the Somme, the Australians made their name at Poziers which we took, also the Heights of Poziers, where desperate fighting took place, it doesn’t matter much telling you all this now as it is all over & is public property. In one charge (taking the Heights) we lost 19 Officers (14 killed & 5 wounded) and 670 men in about one hour.[2] 

Personally I was knocked down three times by the blast of shells and once buried and yet came out untouched, talk about luck or providence, our battalion came out with 67 rifles only. The trouble is when a position is captured, trying to hold on to it while the work of consolidation. trenches are absolutely obliterated and it is a hard job to find where they have been, one can only tell by a sense of position or direction and the bodies more or less [distutaled?] I pray you may never encounter a modern bombardment, it is simply hell let lose. The sights one sees are too dreadful to talk about, no chance of burial for the dead, they slowly rot on the ground, mangled and remangled by shells and the flies come in swarms, imagine trying to eat food under those conditions, also up to the knees in mud and water for 4 and 5 days at a time, I pray to God it will soon be over & this madness of slaughter come to an end. We have left the South of France now and are resting preparatory to going into the trenches at Ypres, another miserable hole, they are working the Australians for all they are worth just now, we have been fighting constantly since April 5thI don’t know how we are going to stand the winter here as our fellows are not used to the cold. I had hoped they would send us to Mesopotamia for the winter. I am now in charge of “C” Company and have been for more than a month, it is up to them to give me my Captaincy soon, as we are doing Captains work and taking responsibility for Lieutenants pay. It isn’t a  fair deal, but the military don’t care a damn as long as they can get the work done, however I suppose it will come in good time.[3] 

Did Finch take the Bulgy Snoukes up to Darjeeling or was the railway fare for one beastie too much for the pocket? I hear Simon is married! Congratulate him for me. It would be awfully nice for you to have seen all those nice people again, the Macs were awfully nice, and and the Finch tribe.[4] I would love to see them all again, besides I suppose Mac is very cocky these days as by now he ought to be a fairly decent billiard player, although he never will be a good snipe shot, tell him we’ve got good “sniping” over here. I had a splendid time at home.

I hope you don’t have to go back to Mesopotamia again, it seems such a hopeless business,[5] why not go to Australia and join up you would get a commission at
once and be sent to England to train and then we could meet again. Good bye dear old man take care of yourself, I am trying hard to do so.

                   Ever yours.

                                                Reg.”

 

[1] Manjhaul, Bihar Province, India  – where GT Gill (Theo) was working at an indigo factory in 1914. Reggie visited India for six months from 1914 to 1915 and stayed with Theo. Begusarai is nearby to Manjhaul in Bihar Province.

[2] In the first unsuccessful attack on the German trench called OG1 at The Windmill on the night of 28/29th July, the 28th BN were caught on the uncut wire and lost over 470 men. 8 of its officers were killed, including 3 of the 4 company commanders (Maj. Welch, Capt N.F. Macrae and Capt C.T. Gibbins). The fourth company commander (Capt A.S. Isaac) lost an arm and the Battalion commander (Colonel Collett) was also wounded.

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Presumably this is when Reg took over as company commander of C Coy. See the Official History, Vol III, Chap 18 for a detailed account of the action.

The second attack on 4th August was successful in taking the German trenches OG1 and OG2 but the 28th had to hold on in the face of fierce counterattacks for two more days.  This attack may have been successful in capturing its objectives, but the bombardment was so heavy that nothing of the tenches remained and the losses to the 28th Battalion and the rest of 7th Brigade were enormous.

The old ‘O.G. 1’ line [Old German 1 line] at Pozieres, France, looking north towards the Windmill from a point about 200 to 400 yards north of the junction with Pozieres trench. The photograph illustrates how completely the trench was filled up, so that only the muzzles of buried rifles are showing. This section of the trench had evidently been rebuilt at one time, as the sandbags seen in the foreground are on the German side.

The battlefield near Pozieres village, in France, showing how completely the trenches dug by Australians on 23 and 24 July, just south of the Bapaume Road, had been obliterated by shellfire.

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A number of messages written by Reg during the night of 4/5th August in the file of 7th Brigade:

RHG message - 04 08 16 
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[3] Actually, Reg had just been promoted to Lieutenant on 28 August, and in less than a month after writing this letter, to Captain on 1 October 1916.

[4] ‘Finch’? E.J. Finch perhaps?

‘Bulgy Snoukes’ may be a dog or a horse – GTG’s photo album has many photos of named dogs and horses. One dog is ‘Bully also known as Boolgy’

‘The Macs’? perhaps Mr and Mrs E.G. Macpherson

‘The Mauhns’ or Munns – perhaps Ferrers and Margaret Munns?

 

[5] see GTG in Mesopatamia with the 2/6th Gurkha Rifles

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2/6th Gurkha Rifles in Mesopotamia 1916

In March 1916 GTG arrived by ship  in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) serving with the 2/6th Gurkha Rifles. 2/6GR joined the 15th Indian Division which was formed in Mesopotamia in 1916 as part of the MEF – Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. A brief explanation of the Mesopotamia campaign can be found here: Mesopotamia campaign – The National Archives

The Battalion War Diary for 2/6GR in the first few months in Mesopotamia (transcription: War Diary 2-6GR March 1916 – May 1916) records their marching from camp to camp up the Euphrates river from Basra to Nasiriyah, constantly working on maintaining the flood defences in this low-lying waterlogged area. It seems disease was a constant threat and they record an outbreak of cholera.

GTG took a number of photographs during this campaign. He records some of the key preoccupations from the War Diary – the endless bund construction and maintenance work (‘bund’ is the Anglo-Indian name for a river embankment or flood defenses, like ‘levee’) and the hospitals! It is not known if he made use of these but it seems many did. GTG also seems to have been very interested in the various ships and boats he saw, carefully noting their names and the companies that owned them, probably because of his initial career with P&O.

GTG arrived on the SS.Coconada. The Battalion War Diary records him arriving a bit later than the main battalion, on with 3 other B.O.s (British Officers – Captain Harte, Lieut. Barton and Lieut. Marley) and 208 other ranks from Suez. Lieut. Barton is recorded elsewhere (see below) as serving with 1/6 GR form 9.9.15 who I believe were still in Gallipoli but moved to Suez to assist guarding the canal in December 1915. If GTG was with Barton, on board in the Persian Gulf and then on arrival from Suez in Basra in March 1916, I assume GTG must have also served with 1/6GR at Gallipoli from September to December 1915.

This photo shows a Sikh regiment on board the SS Coconada in the Persian Gulf.  The horses and mules are in boxes on the port side of the ship and the men are collecting food on the starboard.

Major R. Maurice Searle Barton, T.D., “born in Frampton, Gloucestershire 4.8.1892; Second Lieutenant Indian Army Reserve of Officers, 18.12.1914; attached 1st Battalion 6th Gurkha Rifles, 9.9.1915; Lieutenant 18.12.1915; served in Egypt and Mesopotamia during the Great War; commanded “C” Company 2nd Battalion 6th Gurkha Rifles at Ramadi, September 1917; Captain 18.12.1918; served with 1st Battalion 5th Gurkha Rifles, 1918-1919; attached 2nd Battalion 11th Gurkha Rifles 1920; retired 20.11.1922; Assistant Commandant, Mewar Bhil Corps and Assistant Political Superintendent, Hilly Tracts, Mewar, 6.7.1926; re-engaged as Staff Captain Royal Artillery (T.A.) for the Second War, 16.6.1939; posted to Mountain Artillery Training Centre, Amballa, India; retired Honorary Major, 2.11.1947″ (taken from http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=6459279443&searchurl=an%3Dgurkhas)

GTG records two ships in the Shatt-al-Arab, the famous waterway where the Euphrates and Tigris converge – the SS Edavanha owned by B.I. (stands for British India Steam Navigation Company, a well known shipping line at the time, actually owned by P&O)  and the H.S. Sicilia (HS stands for Hospital Ship) owned by P&O (Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company) – GTG’s former employer.

The photos also shows sunken vessels in the waterway – scuttled by the Turks in an attempt to prevent shipping:

There are photos of the General Hospital at ‘Busra’ and a hospital ship aboard a ‘steernwheeler’ at Nasiriyeh

GTG also took photos of the smaller, local river craft, ‘bellums’ and ‘mahailas’ which are mentioned in the Battalion War Diary as used for carrying men and stores.

There are photos too of Ashar Creek and Margil in ‘Busra’, where the battalion had disembarked on 14 March 1916.

And the Military Governor’s House at Qurna.

There is also a rather morbid photo of the gallows at Nasiriyeh:

Finally there are photos of the troops, engaged in building the defensive ‘bund’ against the flooding. The spring flooding of the rivers was particularly severe in April / May 1916.

“The Supercilious Oont” !  – ‘oont’ was an Anglo-Indian word for a camel.  It seems transportation was a problem and the carts had difficulties in the water-logged terrain. Camels were used as well as reliance on local water vessels such as the bellums and mahailas pictured above.

The above photo claims these are the 7th Gurkha Rifles but I’m not sure this is correct. 2/7GR were part of the forces besieged at Kut-al-Amra in early 1916 and then captured and imprisoned upon the surrender of Kut. I understand that 2/7GR was reformed in Mesopotamia in 1916 and this may be the reformed battalion.  Or it may be a photo of 1/7GR back in India taken earlier before GTG left for Mesopotamia. Or it may be another Gurkha regiment, perhaps 5th Gurkha Rifles who were part of the same brigade as 2/6GR  – the 42nd Indian Infantry Brigade in the 15th Indian Division.

It is not known how long GTG served in Mesopotamia but he is recorded as ‘Granted temporary rank of  Captain whilst holding appointment as Platoon Commander at School of Instruction for Officers – 31st October 1917’