THIS is the latest excerpt of Gunner George James’ Diary, written exactly 98 years ago on the Western Front, by a Durham miner.
George had grown up in the small pit village of Littletown, a couple of miles east of Durham City. He left school at 13, and after six years down the mine he volunteered to fight for king and country.
He joined the Royal Field Artilley, and arrived at the Western Front in November 1915. All of the previous excerpts from his eloquent diary, in which he tells of heart-rending events and appalling scenes, can be found on our superb First World War website, thenortheastatwar.co.uk Now, in the days leading up to his birthday, the fighting is hotting up.
George is in Belgium, a handful of miles south of Ypres. Here’s what was happening to him 98 years ago:
March 31, 1916
A good many things have happened here these last few days.
At Verdun the Germans lost heavily at every attempt to break through (1).
It has been quiet here except for occasional artillery duels. On the left of St Eloi, the N & R Fus exploded a mine causing considerable damage and advancing over the front of 600yds capturing the first and second lines of enemy trenches and about 200 German prisoners. There was some very heavy fighting (2).
Today has been very fine. For about two hours, I was lying under a stack of straw doing nothing but admiring the beautiful morning. The sun was shining grand. There were some birds twittering in the hedge, a couple of magpies were squeaking about and even a little lark went soaring up into the heavens singing joyfully, thinking no doubt that the war was ended because it was so warm and quiet.
It was sadly mistaken however, for a few minutes later the dream was broken, first by an aeroplane which came buzzing over the battery and began to mutter ominously. Then a few German shells came screaming over our heads and crashed into the village.
We retaliated. The German fire increased.
The 9.2 behind us banged over a few shells, and the Germans ceased firing for a while (3). In the meantime the aeroplanes were having a warm time.
There were long lines of little white clouds from the shells of the German aircraft. The lark was gone, the magpies were silent and subdued.
Just then I heard the Last Post sounded away back somewhere. Ned Pourt will have been married today.
YESTERDAY was a day to be forgotten by our battery. It was a beautiful morning. About 8.30am, a big German shell dropped behind the battery.
We thought little of that one. In our estimation our guns could not be found by the Germans.
A few minutes later the German guns began, they simply rained heavy “coal boxes” on behind, in front and each end of our positions (4). It was splendid, superb gunnery on the part of the Germans and it served its purpose well. The most wonderful thing was that no one was hurt. Everyone got clear at the right time. The gunners were scattered about the countryside, some in their shirt sleeves, some of them were disturbed while in the process of washing and shaving.
I believe everyone was a little demoralised for a while. Many dugouts were destroyed. We lost two guns.
When we returned to the battery, it was to get ready for more.
We moved last night minus two guns to take up position 1,000 yards nearer the Germans. That’s what happened on April 2. We were very fortunate to get off so lightly.
Today the Germans continued to shell our old positions. They cleared out the anti-aircraft section as well, one gunner being killed. So far we have had three pip-squeaks over our new positions. I think we might manage to stick here for a week.
April 4 My birthday, 21
(1) George was about 120miles north of Verdun where the longest battle of the First World War was taking place. It lasted from February 21 to December 18, 1916, as the Germans tried to inflict so many casualties on the French that they would surrender.
Nearly 2.5m men were involved in the battle, with about three-quarters of a million of them being injured.
The French had 156,000 deaths; the Germans 125,000. After 299 days of hellish carnage, the French had regained all their initial losses and had prevented a German breakthrough.
(2) George was less than ten miles south of the little village of St Eloi where, at 4.30am on March 27, the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the 4th Royal Fusiliers had been sent over the top, supported by mines and artillery, to capture German trenches.
(3) The 9.2 inch – that’s the size of the bore of the barrel – was a big howitzer gun that could fire 300lb shells more than 10,000 yards.
(4) A coal box was a German shell which produced thick black smoke.
In the last instalment of Gunner George’s diary (Memories 170), part of his entry for March 13 read: “It has been a grand fine day. Just been dreaming of Foot & Bridle & awoke to find myself staring at the ugly muddy gunpit.” George’s descendants – Isabel Field and Pat Boyes – tell us that “the Foot and Bridle” is the family name for a pretty countryside walk that was taken after chapel on a Sunday at Littletown.
Possibly it got its name because it followed footpaths and bridleways, although its route was something of a moveable feast.