Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.

 

The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]

 

The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been
killed.

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]

 

This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.