Sgt. Thomas William Chisholm (POW),
Lager 3A, Barrack 126,
Lamsdorf O/Sch., Germany.
The Sgt wrote:
Somewhere in the vicinity of the 5th May 1918, I with many others was chosen to go in advance as assistants to our G.Q.M.S. (Company Quarter Master Sergeant). We were supplied with service bicycles which are the most unwieldy article in the service, together with F.M.O and rifles, and extra rations to last us about two days, with orders to meet and entrain at a certain point namely Aire.
We completed this movement under great difficulty owing to being hampered with so much kit, but the formidable Northumbrian spirit kept us on the alert for what was going to happen next.
When we did meet up with the train we discovered that there was no carriages to travel in so just had to make the best of it on the open trucks underneath our own transport wagon which had been put aboard at Whitby camp prior to our leaving.
We scrambled aboard, about eight men to a truck and eventually rumbled away to god knows where. We travelled for about two days and nights in this fashion, our food consisted of cold pork and beans, bread, bully beef, and whenever the train happened to come to a standstill, we all made a wild dash for the engine for a supply of hot water with which to make some tea, but having used our supply on the second day we broke into the iron rations, which eventually caused some trouble when our destination was reached.
Towards the evening of the second day we came to a standstill just outside Paris, but had to be content with a view of the railway sidings and the suburbs of the city, because we were never sure when this old train with square wheels would start again. We rode throughout the night with the bitterly cold winds blowing between the spokes of the wheels of the wagons, huddled together with great coats and ground sheets wrapped round to try and keep as much warmth as possible, but it was no good we shivered like aspen leaves.
Arriving at our destination Fere-en-Tardenois we heaved a sigh of relief and commenced the tramp to take over the part of the line we were to occupy from the French troops. Arriving at the village of Pontavert during the heat of the day, we handed in our bicycles, and formally took over a series of hutments, and occupied the same until the next morning (approx 9th May?) when we were early astir and having partaken of a good breakfast, moved off towards the general reserve line situated in the village of Concevreux. We did not linger very long here as it was only necessary to have the various billets pointed out, so moving further afield we came to more or less rather open country, and being the height of summer everything seemed to be at its very best. The trees were beautiful, and fresh with their coats of green and the grass reminded one of the beautiful downs in the south of England.
This road appeared to the main artery between Fismes and Reims running parallel with the River Aisne for a considerable distance, but between Concevreux and what was to be our next camp as it was called was a beaten track across country between the river and the main road. Whilst crossing this track we could see good distance to the right towards the line, about two hundred yards in front was low lying ground (untouched by the ravaging gunfire and smothered with green grass and poppies) also forming a natural basin, where in wet weather must by appearances, be subject to flooding, as a tressle bridge ran from river to road which in such weather would enable anyone to move across country by a very short route.
Looking further ahead we could see a wrecked village just beyond a small wood, behind this wood was a small cemetery containing something like three hundred graves. At the entrance of this was a large crucifix which was discernible from practically any point within a three mile radius.
Continuing along the main road towards the Bois de Butte which turned out to be a real nest of French 75’s, and anti tank guns, on our extreme left was the California Plateau towering high above everything with its flat top. However we were not destined to touch that piece of land until a later date, so we continued towards the Bois de Butte. Upon our arrival we were received by two very smart French Officers, who looked as if they had just stepped out of a band box, they were so very clean and spruce. Not being able to speak or understand any of their language I had to be content with just following them around this natural fort, glancing occasionally at the map in the officer’s possession and picking out the lay of the land that lay in front.
All in all I think there were about eighteen to twenty 75lb guns on and around this small hill with its innocent wooded slopes, the guns being cleverly camouflaged and the living quarters for the man were the essence of comfort. However having duly looked over this piece of ground we looked to our front and support lines. This part of the country being of a chalky nature the trenches were easily picked out. Straight in front was a village very much knocked about, but one could see working parties moving in and out amongst its ruins in daylight which very much amused our party, because on any other part of the front one dare not show so much as a finger.
Of course the more we were seeing of this the more we were liking it, as it looked what it was meant to be for us, a proper rest camp, but little did we know our pleasure was to be so short lived..
So after reviewing all of this and taking in all the main landmarks including two wrecked French tanks half left of this position it was time to get back to our billets for the night because we had about six miles to go back to them. It was beginning to get dark and through all this time we had not heard a shot fired, so with pleasant thought of a good supper and a bottle of good champagne (at two francs a bottle by the way) we turned in for the night in readiness for next morning, when our last day of the advanced party ended and the Battalion would arrive.
Reveille was at five am next morning so we hurriedly dressed, breakfasted and putting on just a bandolier containing fifty rounds of ammunition, rifle, steel helmet and box respirator, marched off about 06:45 for the support and front lines. We traversed the same ground as the previous day, but continued on past the Bois de Butte and on into the village and then branched off to the left and entered a communications trench dug out of chalk.
Continuing through this veritable maze we eventually arrived at a small wood in a hollow, splendid to gaze upon. There were various sandbag erections with elephant iron roofs very carefully camouflaged, (and just outside of these were roughly made tables and forms made from branches of trees and all of this nicely placed so as to be away from aircraft observations) under the welcome shade of overhanging branches of huge trees which sheltered the tables from the glare of the hot sun.
Then commenced the proper job of taking over, whilst the officers commanding the British went about with the French men we juniors with the company of the French sergeants dived down into the funk holes, or deep dugouts. About thirty feet down earthen stairs well built up at the sides to stop the earth from falling in, arrived at the bottom to come into the dugout proper with its long passage and cubby holes running into the sides containing properly made wooden bunks light by electric light. When this failed the French had not been idle, as hanging from the sides of their bunks were small lamps made from their own egg bombs resting in wire sockets. There was also a good supply of rubber boots to be used in wet weather. Altogether things seemed to look very bright for us in the future.
On coming to ground level again by our officer and he pointed out just where the dynamo house and Company Head Quarters were. That completed, we were preparing to go back again when a sergeant of the French troops, who could speak fairly good English, asked if we would care to stay for dinner. Naturally it was accepted on the spot, so we wiled away the time looking over the ground in the vicinity. On getting away from the huts into the wood we found lilies of the valley growing in great numbers and the scent was just splendid, however, in the distance we heard a call and returned to fin dinner richly spread on the tables already mentioned under the trees.
We started off with soup, then, fish caught in the river, followed by very small potatoes boiled nicely in fat, cabbage, and a dish containing what looked like shrimps beautifully cooked and brown, to which we tool a liberal helping and thoroughly enjoyed the same.
Nothing was said until it was all over, we were partaking of wine and champagne, when our host turned to us with a broad grin on his face, and asked us if we had realized what we had just eaten. Of course I said shrimps, our C.Q.M.S said winkles, and that made them all laugh out loud. “No” he said “you have just eaten a plate of snails.” Well to say the least we were all petrified, however we were obliged to admit that it was one of the most palatable dishes we had had for some time, so we sat talking and drinking until the sun began to cool, so we decided it was time to get back to our billets in Concevreux. However that was easier said than done, for it was quite evident that we had dined too well. I will not describe the journey back as it can better be imagined. Let it suffice that I and my pal Fred arrived very tired and foot sore somewhere about 6am, and all being quiet we sneaked into bed and no one was any the wiser as to what time we got in.
The Battalion duly arrived, and there were greetings of ‘What’s it like here?’’Is the line very far?’ ‘Does he shell very much?’ and when everything had been fully explained, the boys were more or less contented. Then started the work of issuing blankets etc, and the hundred and one things that are required. One of the chief things being a supply of ammunition because there was hardly any in this district excepting French stuff and that was no good to use in our rifles.
With everything done, guards posted, pickets detailed, alarm post chosen, the boys as usual went out on the scrounge for feeds such as egg and chips, steak and chips, the usual beers shops, but I’m afraid the beer shops did very little trade when it was discovered that champagne could be bought for two francs a bottle. However there was so much consumed that the locals soon jumped the price and within a few days it was fifteen francs a bottle.
The boys still thought it was home from home, and all went pretty well during our tour in the support and front lines until we were relieved by the 6th Battalion on or about the 18th May 1018. We took our four days rest back in Concevreux, but on the afternoon of the Sunday 26th an all present parade was called, extra ammunition supplies were issued and we were told that an attack was expected to take place at 1am Monday 27th.. We were told where they settled the alarm post was to be and that no one was allowed out of the billets. This done the company was dismissed and they settled down to talk of what and how it was going to happen.
Things were exceedingly quiet, like the lull before the storm, until somewhere about 09:00 – 09:30pm our batteries opened fire on their points of concentration and approaches, but no one replied to this fire, and our guns kept up the harassing fire until midnight when they quietened down a little bit. By this time the whole Battalion were on alarm post waiting for what was going to happen next. Officers rushed about giving final instructions to senior N.C.O’s as to what formation to adopt and the route to be taken, and positions to be taken up. Transport wagons had taken some of the surplus equipment away, but a good deal was still left behind including my chest, containing about four pairs of good home made socks, towel, great coat and some rather valuable papers which I used on a course of instruction at the 8th Corps. School. Well we had all stood changing from one foot to the other and talking with hushed voices and waiting patiently for the next move, and it came suddenly, for almost dead on the minute we heard the whiz and plop of two gas shells just in front of the form we had vacated, and almost immediately it seemed that the whole German artillery opened fire and the air was filled with shrieking, and groaning, shells and the crash and crump of the explosions were terrifying. However we still stood our ground awaiting orders, which eventually came and it was to don gas masks, and move into the open, as the main street in any village was always a mark for a gunner. This bombardment went on all night as we waited for further orders.