36 days in 1915
The War diary of George Oliver Lunn started on the day of his embarkation ended the day he was shot through the mouth in the front line trenches near Ypres. He survived to tell the tale. The diary was originally placed on a long-defunct geocities-website. These excerpts could be retrieved thanks to the Internet Archive.
(Monday April 19th)
After nearly eight months training at Ravensworth Park, Gateshead and the immediate neighbourhood we were informed by our Officer that we were to move shortly to some place abroad. On April 19th 1915 we left our billet in Nunsham, Gateshead and marched to the Central Station. We had a magnificent send off and perhaps I never felt before so proud and happy as I took a last look at the Quay side and the Living Bridge before embarking on the greatest venture of my short life. The enthusiasm displayed from Newcastle to Folkestone was remarkable. We arrived at Folkestone at 9.30pm and immediately embarked. All lights were extinguished and we were soon moving swiftly across the Channel. The moon was out and cast a silvery column across the water. I spent most of my time on deck it being a beautiful calm night. A destroyer passed us at a great speed and on our right we saw a red light evidently from some other war vessel which was in communication with the destroyer. We were soon across the Channel and disembarked at Boulogne. After a trying 3 mile march which lead up a steep hill we were put up at a Rest Camp.
(Wednesday April 21st - Thursday April 22nd)
In the morning I was told it was possible to obtain a wash nearby, so getting my towel I sauntered down to the main street of the little French village, admiring the neat cottages with their pretty gardens before them. Suddenly an old lady appeared at a door and uttered the one word "wash". I followed her through her house into the back garden where she supplied me with an abundance of clean water to my great delight. The woman was kind and had quite a number of our men in for breakfast in her kitchen. She said "I am good to the English" and evidently she told the truth. Rain now commenced to fall and we set off down country.
As we march let me introduce you to a few of my comrades. By my side is a big healthy young man who has left the Law Courts, a good practise and a widowed mother to do his "bit". His name is Blair-Allen but we always call him Blair. Next to him walks a young lad named Newby who has a great interest in abstract philosophy and who used to annoy his friends by his puzzling questions. My other friends were Green & Wilson. The five of us were much together and many were the happy hours spent together. As we march we take note of the countryside and compare it with that of England. Some of the most striking things were the absence of hedges, the old fashioned windmills and the tall hop poles, but I suppose this latter would not have appeared so strange if I had been born in Kent.
After marching up a hill, perhaps a mile long we found we had lost our way and had to turn back. Eventually however we arrived at our destination at about noon. The Battalion was left to rest by the roadside while the Officers found us quarters in the neighbouring farms. We were marched away in Companies to our respective billets. The farm on which my company was billeted was a well built commodious concern. Our sleeping quarters was the barn where an abundance of straw was kept. It ran at right angles to the farmhouse and the enclosed space made an excellent farmyard where two or three pigs rummaged about looking for anything they could devour. The countryside excited my admiration, the tall trees; the growing corn only just appearing; the old fashioned windmill going slowly round and round; all these made me realise that I was in a beautiful place. We had during our short stay at this farm, days of continuous sunshine with a blue sky and the heat was not overpowering it being yet spring.
After a meal Blair & myself went for a walk into the village and we both agreed it was just like a first walk on one's holidays. We were in excellent spirits and light hearted, never realising for a moment what perilous work lay before us. We learnt we were near to a village which went by the name of Ryveld, that we were 4 miles from the Belgium frontier, 25 miles from Ypres and 20 miles from Lille. The Officers did not waste any time in drawing up a series of parades but on the whole we had a quiet restful time. One night as we were settling down in the barn, a man dressed as a farm labourer walked in and made a leisurely survey of us all. At first we did not see any harm in his presence, but our suspicions being aroused, a Corporal marched him off to the Captain. He might have been a spy and certainly had no business where he was.
(Friday April 23rd)
After a stay of two days at this village we were hurriedly moved up to the firing line. I well remember the morning. The Company had been trying their rifles by shooting over a road into a disused quarry and I was told off to stand some distance up the road and warn all passers by and conduct them at intervals past the zone of danger. A few officers passed and then two horsemen came galloping by and when I stopped them showed great impatience at their delay and said "We have an important despatch" and then our Colonel came up and told us to hurry back to our billets as we were to move immediately. With what excitement did we rush back and get everything straight, meanwhile discussing with great animation the probability of the rumour that we were going straight into the trenches. After a big rush we assembled as a Battalion and had a wait of two hours. However after lunch we got under way.
The roads were inches deep in dust, which together with the heat made marching an irksome task. After a tramp of several miles we arrived at Steenvoorde and rested an hour. As we waited, motor lorry after motor lorry filled with French Algerian troops passed on their way to the trenches. Very soon a rumour gained currency that a great move was on and that we were being rushed up to take part in it. Again we were on the move and this time the road unlike our roads in England lay on a straight line and stretched straight ahead for miles. On each side of the road a single row of tall poplars added greatly to its beauty and in the fields here and there, stood a solitary white washed cottage with a thatched roof and a beautiful garden filled with flowers. The marching might have been quite enjoyable if there had been no motor lorries which cast up into our eyes and nostrils a cloud of dust. My friend Blair had been recently appointed to the position of range finder for the Company and consequently did not carry a rifle, so he very kindly relieved me of mine at intervals.
The memory of that night's march will live with me for ever. Everything seemed strange. The sound of the passing motor lorries still rumble in my ears. After a long march we were allowed to rest by the wayside and as we waited a motor transport came to a stand still and we enquired of the driver who was a Canadian if there was any news. "Yes" he replied "the Germans last night used gas against our men and took some trenches: the French Algerian troops who also received the gas turned tail and fled leaving the Canadian flank exposed." Continuing he said "We could have held the trenches if the French Colonials had held on." Just then the cause of his stoppage being removed he swung up into his seat and with a cheery "Good luck boys" moved off. I was much impressed at that time and my future experience only increased the impression of the fine feeling of comradeship which is shown by one Tommy to another.
And so our hopes of taking part in the great push were shattered - it was the Germans who were pushing. Again we were on the march and passed through a series of small villages. By and by we came to a town, which I learnt later was known by the name of Poperinge. It was a fine place with its white buildings and its spacious market place. Immediately I entered the market square I recognised it as the meeting of King George and King Albert as shown on a cinema picture. At this time the town was inhabited as only a few shells had been dropped in the vicinity but when I passed through again some weeks later I found a deserted and war shattered ruin.
We were soon through the town and continued the march at a rapid rate. It is an Army Regulation that troops when marching should have a rest of ten minutes in every hour and when the second hour got past and no halt was given the men began to complain and it was not surprising when it is remembered what we were carrying. A rifle, 150 rounds of ammunition & an infantryman's equipment including a heavy coat and a change of underclothing, is by no means a light load. A message was sent up the lines that one of the men was bordering on a state of collapse and what should he do. The answer came back "Keep on."
The moon was bright and lit up everything around us. On the skyline we saw for the first time the star shells sent up from the trenches and miles away in front of us we could see the glow from the burning town of Ypres. A Staff Officer passed us in his motor car and standing up in his seat surveyed the scene. Would we never stop? and the murmuring grew more pronounced. In the morning however when we were told the reason we realised how much wiser were our Officers. It appeared that the Division had been seen moving by the enemies aircraft and calculating the time of our arrival at Poperinge had shelled the town. The Staff had anticipated such a procedure and so we were rushed on by means of a forced march and the only casualties were six Staff Officers belonging to the Division who had the misfortune to be passing through the town at the time.
At last we arrived at a small hamlet and after waiting for half an hour in an icy cold wind were admitted to a huge three floored warehouse: each floor being connected with a not too strong column of steps. No lights were allowed at first and so we trooped into this dark massive building feeling our way and annoyed with everyone and everything in general. I went up to the top storey and fortunately found a quantity of large sacks with which we made our bed. The whole building was dirty: the sacks were no better and we had no food for many hours, but even these conditions did not prevent us from enjoying a sound sleep.
(Tuesday May 11th)
We remained in this wood about three days when we marched off at about 5.45pm in the direction of Ypres. Our feelings were far from being light as we perceived the direction in which we were going. As we turned down the road which lead to the above named town we were surprised to see a huge cloud of smoke rolling down south. At first we could not imagine what might be the cause but presently we learnt that it was the smoke from the ill fated town which was now burning furiously.
Just before reaching Ypres we turned to the right and shortly afterwards halted for a rest. Standing at the corner of the road were a number of Royal Garrison Artillery Men who very kindly sought refreshment for us - bringing water from a pump nearby. We had just come from a rest camp and having a plenteous supply of cigarettes we gave away as many as we could spare. I should like to say at this point that I have a great admiration for our regular soldiers, not only as to their fighting qualities, but as men. I have invariably found them to be kindly courteous gentlemen and taking them as a class, I do not think I am exaggerating when I say I imagine them to be the finest specimen of manhood I have ever met.
An artillery corporal told me we were holding our own and that the Germans would never pass Ypres, also that the French had driven the enemy several miles back (which however was untrue.) He also stated that he had come from India the previous December and was having a better time in France than he had had in England where he was billeted in tents over Christmas. He would be quite content he said if they kept him there until next January. Just then word was sent down to these artillery men that they were wanted at the guns and away they went - a more contented set of men I never met. During my stay in France I never saw a gun except on the roads of communication with one exception and that was on the first morning I was out. Our little talk with these regulars did us all good.
We continued our march keeping on the right of the town for some little time when we were halted. A field some 50 yards wide lay between us and the town which was burning furiously. I had never seen and may I never see again such a volume of flame. I calculated there was at least 100 yards of it. - It roared and spitted and leapt up almost to the stars and still burnt hour after hour. It was a glorious and awe inspiring sight. We lay there all night. It was bitterly cold and I kept marching up and down to keep the circulation up.
(Wednesday May 12th)
About an hour before dawn we fell in and each man having received a beam of wood for making wire entanglements, we again continued our journey. Slowly we went forward weighed down with our burdens. And now we came to a footpath across a field which was very slippery. Carefully we went forward expecting every minute to loose our balance. Some telegraph wire, laid along the ground became entangled with some of our feet. It was quickly becoming light and a white mist lay all around. We all felt as if we wanted to run across this field to the cover which we expected would be on the other side but our burdens weighed us down. A shell came screeching across which added to our discomfort. We passed a squad of Engineers putting up wire entanglements and eventually came to a short steep hillock covered with trees along the top of which ran a road. Nearby stood a number of houses while on the further side of the road was a huge lake or reservoir. We were relieved of our burdens at this point and continued up the road. A sentry placed here stopped us until we had convinced him that we were not of the enemy.
Further on we came to a row of dugouts and we were told to get into these and to get some sleep. It is quite a weird experience to crawl into a hole made in an embankment and feel your way to see if it is inhabitable. Whenever we were told to go into dugouts the five of us Wilson, Blair, Green, Newby and myself always contrived to get into the same abode. The "five" were always fortunate in their choice and in this instance especially so. The dug out we chose was long and narrow, with an entrance at both ends. It was 4 foot square and about 30 feet in length. It was excavated out of an embankment and roofed with thick beams of wood covered with turf and soil to about a foot in depth. The floor was lined with dry straw. We had to crawl in and of course could not stand upright in it. Taking it all round it was an excellent dwelling and it was not long before we were fast asleep.
A few hours later I heard our Lieut. McCree by name asking if everyone was asleep. As I did not feel properly refreshed I deigned not to answer and he went away and I never saw him again. That morning a fragment of shell entered his body near to the heart and he died in hospital a few hours later. He was a fine officer and although we had only been under him for a short while we had learnt to admire him. He was a barrister and came from London. As he was lying dying he said "Tell the boys I am sorry I cannot see them through." In his pocket they found a diary and the last entry written only a few hours previous ran thus "This is my first experience of War and I am feeling very lonely."
(Friday May 14th)
The next day was wet and we were made to realise how fortunate we had been in our choice of a dug out. Many of them were by no means waterproof and the rain came pouring through the roof but ours kept us dry all day except for a few drops which found a weak place in our roof.
At dusk we paraded although it was raining heavily. The fields were very slippery and carefully we picked our steps as we made our way to the rendezvous of our Battalion; a rifle slung on one shoulder and a belt of cartridges on the other. Some of our men wore mufflers around their heads and some wore their sleeping helmets - and I remember Blair wore a Mack which he had taken off a dead German.
Arriving at headquarters the rain continuing we were told to take shelter and I got into a dug out with two men of our Company. I well remember the conversation which passed between us. We were discussing the probable duration of the war and one man said he believed it would only end by means of Divine intervention. Men who are living continually face to face with death do not seem to be able to keep out of their minds thoughts of God which is in strange contrast with the materialism which was seen before they went abroad.
At length we heard the unwelcome command to fall in and down the road we went towards the firing line. It was a nasty, dark, windy night - the rain came in gusts and I felt very weak after my sickness. At length after walking a few hundred yards we arrived at our destination. Our work was to dig a communication trench which ran along the side of a hedge. We had no spades only our entrenching tool which is part of an infantryman's equipment. An entrenching tool is a spade and pick combined and about 1½ feet in length. An implement of this description is of little use even under the best of conditions, but when you have a sodden clay soil to work and a number of tree roots to negotiate it is almost useless. It was most disheartening work - the trench did not seem to grow any deeper and the clay stuck to our tools so that it was almost hopeless. All this time stray bullets were passing over our heads. We heard one coming and then a man began a low whining moan. It was the most unnerving experience I had had up to that time. As each bullet came over you wondered if it was going to find a billet in yourself. You could hear them coming and hear them pass over. This no doubt was due to the fact that they had come a considerable distance - in some cases as far as a mile - and were dropping to earth as they passed over. After toiling about 2 hours we were marched back to our dug outs.
- This diary was originally placed at this geocities-website. These fragments could be retrieved thanks to the Internet Archive.