In September 1917, my grandfather, a rifleman in the 11th Battalion of the King's Royal Rifles (KRR), went over the top in the Third Battle of Ypres.
On September 20th, the British were attacking German lines east of the Belgian town of Ypres. A history of the KRR describes the attack by the 11th as follows:
Eagle Trench, 20th September. The 10th and 11th Battalions took part in an attack north-east of Langemarck. The first objective was taken and held; fighting was severe and somewhat confused. Casualties were heavy, and though further progress was made in places, at dusk most of the small parties left out withdrew. Losses of the two battalions. - Officers: killed 10, wounded 6; other ranks 351.
I've added parts of this description as section headings for Muse's account.
A quick note about a couple of the soldiers mentioned below.
Horace England and Muse joined the KRR at the same time, and became friends. They were about the same age with similar interests. Muse visited England's home and family on leave.
Butler was a battalion veteran. He claimed to have been a pickpocket before joining the army. Apparently he was a cut-up and a character. He'd apparently served at least one winter on the western front, and was depressed about the prospect of another.
Here's his story:
The 10th and 11th Battalions took part in an attack north-east of Langemarck.
Of course I remember September the twentieth; that was the day we went over the top. We had premonitions when we went out of the Line a few days before. There was an ominous atmosphere about the rest camp; routine drilling was dispensed with; food was at the maximum, including plum duff, and a generous ration of cigarettes was issued; there was an unusual spirit of comradeship among all ranks. But all went around with solemn faces: nobody made jokes or laughed. Officers met in quiet huddles; one of them was overheard to say: "The C.O. calls it only a fifty-fifty chance of coming back." That spread through the battalion.
Our platoon commander gave us a little lecture while we sat on the grass. We were to advance from Brombeck to the front-line trench and go over the top at Zero Hour. We were to take Eagle Trench and go on to something called Chinese House. He showed us these places on a big map. The Eleventh K.R.R.'s had a particularly difficult assignment in the coming attack; it was an honor to be chosen for this; there were risks involved, but of course we were used to danger, and we would be proud to have been in this "show."
Horace England was drinking in every word. He probably understood the battle plan better than any of the rest of us. But I suspected that he would be the first to lose his way when the attack began; he was not a very practical soldier. I had been neglecting Horace lately for comrades who knew how to light cigarettes in the rain and who joked about wounds and death. Now I suddenly wanted to be near him. I found my way to a seat next to his at the lecture and we went for a walk afterwards. Neither of us shed any tears; we scarcely spoke of the impending crisis. We talked about his home and family, where I had visited, and we talked in a desultory way about many things - mostly pleasant things - that had happened since we were initiated together into the King's Royal Rifle Corps.
A chaplain arrived to hold a religious service. Horace and I went early to the little canteen chapel. There Albert Harvey joined us, and we began scattering hymn books around on the benches. Strangely grave and silent Tommies filled the place to overflowing. For once the padre had no trouble in drawing a crowd. I followed little of the service, but I never worshipped more earnestly. I was little interested in any remarks the chaplain had for the occasion; but when a prayer began, I knelt and shut my eyes tightly; a hymn had been announced before I opened my eyes again. I joined in the singing at the top of my voice. I wanted frantically to make sure that God understood I was fighting on His side.
We fell in at dusk for inspection. We rode a few miles in motor lorries. Then we got out and waited for something an interminably long time, while darkness settled. Standing still made the suspense harder to bear. We had been issued chewing gum - no smoking was allowed now. Someone let his rifle go off by mistake; it was more frightening than a shell burst. The fellow was fiercely reprimanded, for this was delicate business. We began marching and reached the front-line trench at about midnight.
We were told that Zero Hour was 5:40 AM. We had instructions and a little practice in getting over the parapet. Told off in pairs, Number 1 was to help Number 2 over the top, then Number 2 would pull Number 1 over after him. That was all there was to do for the next five hours, except wait; nobody thought of trying to sleep. But the night passed swiftly. It seemed almost to have been deleted from the round of time. My watch startled me every time I looked at it; an hour or two had jumped by. Gray light broke quickly through the morning mist. In a frenzy the whole earth burst forth crackling, sputtering, roaring.
"All right," an officer said.
The first objective was taken and held; fighting was severe and somewhat confused. Casualties were heavy, and though further progress was made in places...
I climbed over the parapet first; my mate came close behind me, with little help from me. I caught a glimpse of a long line of men stepping forward, then the view was clouded by smoke and flying debris. Although it was drizzling now, we had been blessed with a week of sunshine, so there was dry earth instead of mud. I picked my way around yawning shell craters. I saw a level stretch of ground and ran forward to keep from falling behind the rest. I distinguished Harvey, Butler and a little fellow whom we called "Freddy" in the wave of men, all struggling forward, pressed for time.
"Down!" someone shouted.
I flopped down, exhausted. It was plain, open field, but we were going too fast; we had to wait a few minutes for the barrage to lift. I felt my rifle uncomfortably under my chest, and it occurred to me that now was the time to bring it into play. I fired all the rounds in the magazine into the smoke where the enemy was supposed to be. Then I started loading again.
I saw fellows getting up on my left. Freddy was not far away on my right. "Come on, Freddy!" I shouted, and scrambled to my feet again. We jogged along close together now. Twice I heard the cry! "Stretcher-bearers!" There was romance and glory in this, I thought - if I could only keep on going. Indeed, if I could only keep on going. Weighted down with rifle, bombs, entrenching tools, ammunition and still other impedimenta, climbing over shell craters was hard work. I had considered myself a moderately tough physical specimen, but I didn't see how I could keep going much longer. Heroes must be pretty strong, I reflected, along with their other qualities. I wondered how heroes managed to keep on going if they were as tired and out-of-breath as I was.
Freddy had a technique all his own. He was singing, singing at the top of his voice. When there was a moment's break in the general roar, he seemed to be screaming. It was as if he imagined that his singing was a charm - that a bullet or a piece of shrapnel would get him if he stopped singing. His song was not an appropriate one for a battle:
She's a lassie from Lancashire, Lancashire!
I was caught in the smoke and debris again. I could only catch glimpses of Freddy now and hear a faint "Lancashire!"
Somewhere away up front I stumbled over the rim of a big crater. Freddy turned up at about the same time. Three others were already in there. Albert Harvey was sitting on his rifle, trying to catch his breath. From a figure peering recklessly over the rim came a familiar voice: "Hello, Yank. Ain't this lovely?" Lieutenant Slade, of our platoon, was telling Butler to get down and not be a damned fool.
There we were - Albert, Butler, Freddy and I and this Lieutenant Slade. Being marooned with an officer was a piece of more than ordinary good luck. After we got our breath, we looked confidently at Slade to tell us something of what had happened thus far, and what was due to happen next. A big, stolid, conscientious young man, Slade sat in the bottom of the shell hole and pored over his maps and airplane photographs.
"We didn't make it, boys," he said after a few minutes. "And I'm afraid we're damned well annihilated! The C.O. is in a shell hole back there," he went on, pointing in the direction from which we had just come, "about twenty yards. We'll have to get a message to him and consolidate." He turned to Freddy, who was a company runner. "Here," he said, "I'll give you a message."
He scribbled something hurriedly on a page torn from his notebook,while Freddy blushed, speechless but unfaltering.
"Run like hell, old chap!" Slade said when he had finished.
Without a word, Freddy grabbed the note and darted over the top. We all peered over the rim to see what would happen to Freddy. The smoke had cleared away. I realized that three or four English dead lay around our crater. Casting my eye around hurriedly, I actually saw Germans - for the first time. They held a clear elevation in front of us on the right and were sweeping the field with machine-gun fire. Breathlessly, we watched Freddy's dash to the rear.
"Good old Freddy!" we could not help crying.
He all but cleared the little space.
"Good old Freddy!"
But he lost the race by a yard. A bullet caught him just as he reached his goal, and he fell headlong into the C.O.'s shell crater. We would have thought that he had stumbled, but for his leg; Freddy's leg remained sticking up over the top, motionless and awful.
Slade was mortified at the thought of having sacrificed Freddy. He would send no more messengers. He decided, however, to go himself. Cautiously surveying the space between the rear shell hole and ours, he evolved a careful plan of action. There was a mound three or four yards wide just back of us, and beyond this was a partly hidden stretch of sunken ground through which, with luck, perhaps, one might crawl without being spotted by the enemy. Slade set to work methodically and dug a shallow trench through the mound. Then we watched him crawl slowly through, and start down the incline beyond. But a German bullet, or something, caught him midway; every time we peeped over the rear rim during the rest of the day, Slade was still out there.
It was Albert who reminded us of our obvious duty now.
"I think we ought to fire a few rounds at Fritz," he said virtuously to Butler and me. We squirmed into lying positions on the front rim of the shell hole, pointing our rifles just over the top and exposing our heads as little as possible. We began slowly to fire and reload, and fire and reload again.
The handful of Germans on the knoll in front of us were still firing away with their machine gun. There seemed to be something arrogant about those pot-helmeted figures who stood head-and-shoulders above the parapet, with an air of complete assurance that none of us could hit them. What made it the more maddening, the assurance seemed justified for I never saw one of them fall. As far as we could see no one was replying to the German fire except we three; evidently it was a waste of time.
I heard a faint rustle beside me, and a man stood up in full view and walked toward the German line. Out in that bullet-swept field, where no human being could live, he seemed like a man walking on water; he paced slowly forward. I fancied that I had seen a man like that before. There was something familiar about those sloping shoulders, that loosely fitting coat and those funny trousers caught at th knees like a badly tied bundle. He looked like "John Q. Public" in the cartoons. That big helmet wobbled on the back of his head like...like...Butler's!"
"Butler!" I screamed. "What are you doing?"
He never turned his head. I wondered what his face looked like as I stared at the back of his wobbling helmet.
"Butler! Butler!" I was furious that he should do such a preposterous thing. "Butler!"
He took six paces in what seemed six hours. He carried his rifle limply in his hand, like a fishing rod. Butler - the unmilitary eccentric, the platoon entertainer, the pick-pocket - what a ludicrous figure to walk across No Man's Land!
"Butler!" I cried once more. "Come back! Come back!"
He had led a lonely life. Few outside the battalion would miss him. And gentlemen's watches would be safer at the Derby.
Butler came slowly to a halt. He seemed to be tired, looking for a place to lie down and rest. In a rain of bullets he wobbled for what seemed a long time. He leaned over twice until he all but fell, and straightened up again. Suddenly he lurched forward and fell on his face.
Albert and I crawled to the bottom of our shell hole again. It was not good soldiering to keep up a piddling fire from our miserable position and possibly attract enemy attention. Before settling down, however, we collected all our bombs and piled them in a row near the top of the front rim. There we could seize them quickly and hurl them at the Germans whenever they should come out to finish us off. Our consciences were vaguely satisfied that we had done all that we could for the present to avenge Belgium and to Make the World Safe for Democracy.
Albert took out his little pocket Testament, which included the Book of Psalms, and started to read. After watching him for a while in a kind of stupor, I asked him what he was reading about. he handed me the Testament, opened at the passage: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me."
"How about some grub?" It took me an hour or more to come around to this reviving thought. We had the rations of five men; Albert and I now attacked them with surprising enthusiasm. We came to the crowning feature, a whole tin of strawberry jam; I had a weakness for jam, and, of course, there was no jam like strawberry. I pondered that jam in relation to the shadow of death. To be killed and leave strawberry jam uneaten in the bottom of a shell hole would be an awful waste, and if we got out alive, what would a little stomachache matter? After Albert had eaten the little which he thought was enough, I finished the entire tin. Albert gasped. "I don't give a damn," I said.
But neither death nor indigestion knocked at my door during the rest of that long day. The shelling subsided in our sector, and nothing else seemed to be happening - excepting one strange incident away over on our left front. There a little stretch of German trench seemed to have been evacuated during our attack, leaving only a few men behind, some of them apparently wounded, who couldn't get away. These seemed to be climbing over the parados, the stronger helping the weaker over. It was a slow and clumsy operation, and some were caught by English rifle fire before they were over and on their feet again. One of them, a tall, bearded man, climbed over the parapet and staggered in our direction. I watched him as he moved feebly along, stopping every three or four steps to rest. He had discarded his rifle, but he did not raise his hands in token of surrender. A bullet struck him and he crumpled and fell.
...at dusk most of the small parties left out withdrew.
Night fell and the darkness made movement possible. Nobody was firing rockets, or anything else. Half a dozen Germans came over to give themselves up; Harvey and I were on the point of hurling bombs, but they shouted "Kamerad!" in the nick of time. Could they be those demons who had played their machine gun on us this morning? Now they were weary, frightened suppliants. Things hadn't gone as well for the Germans as we had imagined. Maybe they were annihilated too.
We all climbed out of our shell craters now and gathered in the rear around our one remaining officer. We congratulated one another and looked about for special chums. Here and there a fellow who had found a pal was hugging him and dancing a sort of jig.
I learned that Horace England had been killed.
Who won the battle? No one asked the question, or thought about it. All we knew was that we were going to withdraw. There was no inspection or falling-in. We were simply told to get away quickly before the enemy spotted us. A sergeant led the way and a lieutenant came along near our rear.
What happened to our badly wounded I never knew. No one who could not walk unaided came away with us. One wounded man was lying in the mud somewhere near our path. We were moving in single file over a marshy stretch of terrain in pitch darkness, and we had to step carefully to keep on the narrow duckboard. If we stopped to labor with a wounded man, the lieutenant told us there might be a dozen casualties instead of one. A Verey light (illumination rocket) might expose us to German machine gun fire. We must "get out of here quick."
That wounded fellow kept calling out of the darkness as we hurried past. "Matey!" he pleaded. "Matey, for God's sake! You won't leave me here, Matey, will you? You're not going to leave me? Matey, for God's sake!"
The sound of his voice faded away, as the last of us passed him by.
We plodded on until late into the second night since we had slept. Nervous and sick, we felt the weariness of two month's in the Line. We spoke only to curse. We cursed the Germans, the War, the Army and the King - and we cursed our one remaining officer. We cursed the lieutenant most of all.
The latter coaxed and pleaded. "Never mind, lads, never mind!" he kept saying. "It's all over now. We're going out now. We're going to get some sleep in just a bit. We're going out of the Line in the morning - going away to rest! Just a little longer, lads!"
We stopped in a narrow, half-finished trench where we expected to get some sleep. We had to occupy a full battalion length; as there was only a remnant of us left, we were obliged to stretch out until sometimes only one man was left to a transept. One's nearest neighbor might be out of sight around a corner.
But we were not to sleep that night. A few shells began to fall tentatively, as if feeling for our trench. Suddenly they found us and the guns burst forth in a heavy bombardment. Crouched in the trench, I felt like an ant hiding from a stalking monster who made the earth tremble with his stride. Again and again I shook off the dirt after a shell burst almost upon me. I thought of my comrades, and suspected that they were mostly pulverized by now, but I was no longer capable of worrying much about pulverized comrades.
Daylight began to appear when a shell-burst buried me up to my neck in soft earth. As I climbed out I felt something wet on my eyebrow; I wiped it off with my finger. It was a tiny piece of white flesh. Looking closely in the dirt I found more fragments of body and uniform.
Somebody was yelling "File out to the right! Double!"
I got up to run and discovered that the trench had disappeared. A great new shell hole yawned where the trench had been. The barrel of a rifle was sticking up forlornly out of a pile of fresh dirt, and lying intact just in front of me was a British soldier's pay book. I snatched it up and read the name: "Rifleman 36937, Albert Harvey."
The enemy artillery was evidently bent on obliterating that Line; it did not follow us as we trudged away to the rear. We had only a little farther to march now before some motor lorries took us away from it all, to a farm far, far back of the Line.
We had tea and went to sleep and slept and slept. When we got up the next day, at whatever hour we wished, even if brass was not polished or shoes cleaned, there were bacon and bread and jam and tea and no harsh words from anyone. We found mail and a bonanza of cigarettes and chocolate and Dundee cake and biscuits from Huntley and Palmer's; the accumulated parcels addressed to the dead and wounded were distributed among those of us who came back. But we couldn't get interested in anything.
Officers and non-coms were incredibly gentle and considerate - excepting our senior company officer. The latter seemed tackless, to say the least. We had just one parade, lasting fifteen minutes. This captain, who had not been in the action himself, walked down the front of what was left of A company, asking each man in turn: "How far did you get?"
Some attempted glumly to give a landmark of the advance. Others confessed that they had no idea where they had gotten to. He didn't get to me. One angry fellow countered the Officer's question with: "How far did you get?"
A dozen of us heard this, the officer pretended that he didn't, but we were dismissed without further questioning. We had another meal, a bountiful beef stew, and went back to bed.
The next day we seemed to be awakening from a bad dream. Fellows began to talk, and there was occasional laughter. I wrote letters home and a long letter to the father of Horace England. The third day found us full of life again.
Excerpted from Tarheel Tommy Atkins, pages 47-58. As noted, I've added the current section headings to the account. As originally written, the text is two chapters, with a chapter break after Butler's suicide.
Muse later took part with the 11th battalion in the attack at Cambrai in November. Company A was on the outpost line, and was overrun by the Germans at the start of their counterattack. Muse spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. On his return in 1919, he described his experiences as a POW in The Memoirs of a Swine in the Land of Kultur, or, How it Felt to be a Prisoner of War .
A review of records at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) web site suggests that "Butler" was Lance Corporal Frederick William Butler, who died on September 20, 1917. The CWGC records show that Rifleman Horace England (R/36918), 19 years old, was killed on September 20, 1917. England was the son of Alfred Joseph and Clara Louise England, of The Hollies, 3, Sherbourne Rd., Acocks Green, Birmingham. I've been unable to find records for Lieutenant Slade or Freddie. Muse was Rifleman 36926.
Here's a mystery. The CWGC reports that Rifleman Albert Edward Harvey (Rifleman 36937), of the 16th KRR, died on May 20, 1917. This is the name and id number that Muse provides. However the battalion and date of death are different. Muse's account suggests that Harvey was killed by shellfire, early in the morning of September 21.
Muse visited Horace England's father when he was returned to the U.K., after the war. On December 22, 1918, he wrote to his Dad:
22 December 1918
I am writing this letter from Mr. England's home, after spending a very quiet, but delightful day here. After these months of trials and tribulations, it would be a supreme joy to spend a day of reunion at home; but the next best thing was to spend a day at Mr. England's charming home, among cultured and friendly people. We simply sat and talked and played the gramophone or listened to the girls playing the piano, all day long. In the morning, the first thing, Mr. England would talk to me alone about Horace. It touched me keenly to see how deeply the loss still weighed upon.
Afterward we talked a lot abut the war - its causes, its heroism, its horrors, and its blame. - A wretched topic to discuss now-a-days, but I believe that having aired my thoughts to a thoughtful man will help me to keep it off my mind in the future.
The England girls had changed lots even in my 18 months absence, for girls change rapidly in their teens. I thought of Hellen. I wonder if the little Hellen of 14 has entirely disappeared before the Miss Muse of 16 whom I shall see when I return!
I am going to spend Christmas with Mr. England, and I look forward to a most delightful time.
I hope you are all feeling fit for Christmas and I wish you a very merry one. Will Brother and Frank be there?
Write me soon, one and all,
L/Cpl. Benj. Muse,
in care of
Mr. A.J. England,
53 Bromley Rd.
Catford, S.E., 6
Revised May21, 2006 to include the text of the December 22 letter. Also, edits to paragraph about Albert Harvey. Minor edit July 30, 2007.