An introduction by Roger Ashton:
The two men, photographed, are twins, Geoffrey and William Ashton. Geoffrey is my father! William wrote the article originally for the 'Darwen News'. My family ran a cotton weaving mill there. They were born at Soulton Hall on March 20th 1899, the eldest of seven children. The family bought Brook House in 1902 (Prees Green Road) where they were brought up in an almost utopian environment. They went to Wem Grammar School (pony and trap) and were also taught at home by their mother. She was a trained governess who could speak fluent French and German.
|Aged eleven they were sent to boarding school at Lee On The Solent (Edinburgh House). Why? Well it was healthy, on the coast, the headmaster had a very good reputation and two of the masters played cricket for the county of Hampshire! It was a Naval Preparatory School. On leaving school they went to experience working at Hope Mill Darwen before being conscripted into the 2nd Battalion, the East Lancs. for WW1 duty, travelling from Folkestone to Boulogne on March 29th. I asked Dad, “Why not the Navy?” He said, “My father thought it too dangerous to be on a Dreadnought Battleship!” In 1918, Dad went up to Ripon to start his commissioning course but the war ended before he could be sent back to France. After the War they both helped on the family farms (Brockhurst, bought 1919). Uncle Bill married and lived at the Brook House. Dad lived with his parents (William and Evelyn) and his siblings at Brockhurst. Because there were plenty of farm staff and Grandfather remained in charge until the day he died, they both indulged in winter and summer sports: skiing, skating, hockey. Dad played for the Shrewsbury All Blacks. Uncle Bill and his wife excelled at skating. In the summer it was cricket and tennis, Dad was a very good defensive batsman playing for Wem's 1st and 2nd Elevens. He was their President for many years. My father also hit the headlines by playing for Wem Hockey Club when he was in his seventies.|
I have written my narrative in the first person. To have written “we” would have been more correct, so far as it refers to many of the episodes recorded. My twin brother, Geoffrey, and I joined-up together at eighteen years of age; were sent out to France and returned to England together. Except during a few days, when separated during the German attack on May 27th, 1918, we were serving in the same Company all the time.
It was Good Friday, March 29th 1918 that I left England for active service overseas. Just at that time, the military situation was extremely critical owing, for one thing, to the fact that many divisions had been released from the Eastern front, and transferred to the West. The Russians had had let us down badly we know, and the transferring of troops to the Western Front helped to give the enemy superiority in numbers. Also, at the time I went, the Americans had not materialised and the Germans saw their chance to deliver a smashing blow and defeat the Allies before the States could come to their aid. And so it proved that the situation became extremely critical for us, for the Germans saw an opening, and, on March 21st, 1918 they delivered the first of a series of offensives, which will live in history as being some of the most ferocious battles fought on the Western Front. It was at the commencement of these offensives that we were rushed out, some of us without any draft leave whatever. I, being luckier than some, secured twenty-four hours, most of which was taken up travelling. Still, we considered ourselves lucky to get that much.|
It was at Passchendaele that this battle took place, the main feature being the shelling. “Beaucoup bombard” as the boys says. Little did I know then what a furious bombardment I was to experience soon after. And so it was that the same day I joined the battalion we moved up towards the line, and on April 18th relieved troops on the left or, I should say, east of the village of Villers Bretonneux, which is a fairly large place situate about ten miles from the city of Amiens. It had been a pretty quiet front for some weeks past, but it was now destined to become a battlefield. For four days we remained in the positions we had at first occupied but at the end of that period we shifted into small posts in front of the village. By small posts I mean small trenches from fifteen to twenty yards in length. There was an interval of about thirty to forty yards between these posts, and, as I shall explain later, it was these intervals that nearly caused me to be taken prisoner, together with some of my comrades. At any rate we had been about twenty-four hours in them when a warning came round that the Germans were about to attack with mustard gas. Mustard gas, I may say, was the kind mostly used by the Germans then, and burns rather than asphyxiates one. Sent over in shells, it is in the form of a liquid until, the shell explodes on contact. The gas thus liberated meets the fresh air and turns into its natural form or vapour and if the atmosphere is quiet it lies about the ground and in shellholes, being heavier than air, and so becomes exceedingly dangerous if anyone happens on it. At all events, we received the warning, but the next morning arrived and the Germans didn’t attack. We made up our minds to a certainty though that they would attack the following morning, so a boy named Ellis and myself conferred, and we decided to have a look round the village and see what we could find in the way of eatables, for we had made up our minds to make a day of it before Jerry opened his attack. It was risky to a certain extent, for the village was under shellfire and at odd intervals one would go smashing through the roof of a house. The first place we came upon was a deserted yard in which we discovered bully beef and biscuits by the ton. We seized about twenty tins of beef and as many biscuits, and then went off to see if there was anything to drink and so to make things complete and every man in our post agreeable. We knew that that the cellars ought to contain something, but we also knew that most of the cellars in the village were full of gas, any amount of gas shell having been sent over into the village. Anyway, we got into a typical looking house and reached the head of the cellar steps. Here we put on gas masks, for we were not chancing anything. The cellar luckily contained no gas, but it contained something else. That something Ellis immediately sampled and pronounced excellent. It was French wine, so we filled a petrol can to take back with us. Petrol tins, I may say, are used for carrying drinking water in France. After this we ascended the steps again, got together the viands, and made our way back to the post, where we were greeted pretty warmly and dubbed good fellows, especially after they had tasted the wine, and for once we really felt satisfied.
So out we went, only to find that all our fellows in the other posts had retired. Well, we carried on until we saw a party of about thirty under the lee of the village. They looked like British and waved to us to join them. It was lucky for us that we didn’t though, for as we neared them they treacherously opened a deadly fire on us. Germans they were of course. We were down on the ground in an instant and the bullets went whizzing over us. Then we got up and ran for it, and this time the fog aided us, otherwise I cannot see how any one of us could have hoped to escape. After this we made off down the main street of Villers, but were pretty nearly stopped by shells. They were coming through the roofs of houses and sent bricks and mortar flying all over the place, so that we stood as much chance of being hit by small stones and bricks as by shrapnel. We risked meeting any more Germans but luckily didn’t. I expect they were too busy with the “Vins Blanc” in the cellars and anything else they could get hold of.
Well we reached the crossroads in the centre of the village, and Ellis, who was leading, took about two steps into the street but no further, for a sniper, ensconced at the head of the street, let loose a bullet, which came singing down the alley, missing Ellis’ head by inches. After this we made off down a bye-way, and eventually got out of the village. But we were still under shellfire. I was wondering if my gas mask was going to fail, for I had worn it most part of the bombardment as nearly every other shell they sent over was a gas shell, and the village and district reeked of the stuff.After all they had promised us that it would be tanks and mustard gas two days beforehand. I saw one or two of the tanks. They are larger than ours and travel faster, but they are poorly armoured, very, and now our whippets are all over them. One incident was amusing. A German tank caught a party of our fellows and robbed them of all the cigarettes they had and then told them to slip away while they had the chance, which they promptly did. It was apparently all the Germans wanted. Another tank might have shot the lot.
|Tanks had been used by both sides before April 1918 but never directly against each other. The Germans were using A7Vs, which were causing a lot of damage to both British and Australian positions on April 24 1918. These were very large tanks weighing nearly 40 tons and carrying a crew of 18 men. One of these A7Vs was attacked by three British tanks: two 'females', only armed with machine guns and one 'male', armed with 6-pounder cannon. The two 'females' attacked the A7V but their weapons were ineffective against the A7V, which was heavily armoured. These two British tanks withdrew. However this attack had allowed the British 'male' tank to approach the German tank without being seen. An engagement followed and the German tank withdrew.
Monument to the first tank battle,
Well, after we had cleared the village, we came across a wounded man. A shell splinter had severed the shinbone completely, leaving him with a broken leg. He had walked some distance in this condition, fixed by two entrenching tools, one on either side of his leg. He was a big and heavy man and we had a rare job with him. Rifles were the only means we had of carrying him. We could only make slow progress though. The enemy was close on us, and I was afraid of them catching a glimpse of such a fine target, as a small group of men would naturally present. So we had to harden our hearts against the groans of the wounded man and get him along regardless of his pain. Fortunately we came across a truck lying at the side of the road, and upon this we placed him and got him safely away. The same night a small party of us came across an officer of the Worcesters and we asked him if he had seen any of our battalion knocking round. He said he hadn’t. So he sent us down the railway cutting, which ran close by. The railway runs through Villers Bretonneaux. What a mess it was in! Absolutely wrecked for several miles by shellfire. There were some old dugouts cut into the bank just where we were in the cutting and in these we placed our guns and ammunition. We had orders to stop any Germans coming down the line. We each took it in turns to do sentry at the door of the dugout, a jolly risky job it was, for the shells kept coming down into the cutting until the metals were all twisted and broken and the sleepers unrecognisable. Down in the dugout we had a man wounded in the leg and head. Four stretcher bearers from the nearest aid post came down to take him away. They reached the dugout in safety and placed him on the stretcher, but they hadn’t walked ten yards when a shell came down and killed all four stretcher bearers and sent the wounded man flying off the stretcher. He hadn’t been touched by the shell, but the concussion had moved him. Well, despite his leg, he got up and ran like the wind. The shock had driven him quite mad, poor fellow.
A day or so after this we came across what a left of our battalion and joined them. A fine mess we were all in. Some of them showed me their rifles with the stocks blown off. Three days later we got relieved by the Australians, and we were pretty glad to get away. Most of us hadn’t had a wash for about a week for one thing, and our feet were in a bad state as well. And so ended my first experience of active service in grim reality.|
I must now say a word or two about the conditions we have to live under in France, for although we were out of the line we were by no means comfortable. One never is in France. Now the main trouble amongst the troops is the presence of lice in the underclothing, and also in the seams of the trousers and tunic. These frightful insects, or vermin rather, do more to annoy and make us uncomfortable than anything else. As long as you are on the move they’re not so bad, but immediately you stop to rest or sleep these insects start on you, and many a time I have been unable to sleep at all because of them. The main cause of such vermin being present in our clothes was because a clean change was unprocurable for several weeks sometimes, and there you are in a begrimed state and these insects feeding on you and making you itch terribly. Naturally you scratch and that makes things worse, for you then become subject to awful rashes. These are the conditions the troops live under in France, and I’ve no doubt, in other places as well, and this is the main reason why no soldier wishes to go out a second time once he has seen and felt for himself. It isn’t the fighting we mind. That is what we went out for. But we hadn’t reckoned with these confounded vermin. I may add here that here that when you so get a clean change it looks clean, but examine it, and it’s lousey throughout. It is part of the day’s business in France, fighting the lice. It is the commonest thing to see troops take off their clothing and examine it. Tiresome and rotten job it is too. When one is in action, or during a big battle, and especially during a retreat, of which I have had some experience, the conditions are awful. A wash is a luxury. Sometimes I have been only too pleased to get a swill from a puddle in the middle of the road. And at times like these the food is very uncertain. A word here on the food will not be out of place.
After we had got rested a bit and made ourselves as clean as possible we entrained and made a thirty-six hours’ journey to the south of France. Our division – the 8th, had orders to take over a part of the line from the French in the Rheims-Soissons sector, and, having got up there, we ensconced ourselves in some French billets – some of the best billets I’ve occupied in France. One evening the OC. Coy. sent for the N.C.O.s. He kept us up some time too, explaining and describing what part of the line we were going to take over. We were then situated about eight miles from the line s we had a bit of a march to get there. So on the appointed night we went up and took up our positions. The trenches here were old ones and absolutely infested with rats. The dugouts were the best part. They had been wonderfully well made, some of them a good twenty feet underground. In front there was barbed wire by the ton, and the position we occupied was on a crest, which commanded a fine view. A better position could scarcely have been found, and yet, because this part was quiet they took away most of the artillery and just left a few posts in the line.
A Night Raid
And so ended my first, and I hope it will be the last bombing raid. On thinking about it afterwards it seemed to me that if the Germans had known that there were as many and twenty-eight of us altogether instead of a small patrol they would have put up a machine-gun barrage, and not one of would have ever got back, but thank Providence it turned out otherwise.
The Retreat on the Aisne
At last we reached out transports, and the gas lessened a good deal. Very soon after an officer who had been with us as the Lewis Gun school was ordered up along with a party of about forty of us, myself included, and we had not proceeded for more than about a quarter of an hour’s walk when we got right into the battle, and from that moment our officer made two or three costly mistakes. Just at the time we were on the main road in full sight of the enemy observation balloons. There was any amount of transport dashing up on the retreat together with civilians retreating before the advancing Germans. Well, the Jerries had the road marked, for they landed shell after shell on or near it. One or two would occasionally land right on a transport wagon. The result was only too obvious. The horses went quite mad; their eyes almost coming out of their heads with fear. They caught a great deal of shrapnel also.
The most heart rending sight, though. Was the wretched French peasantry, struggling along with what they had time to rescue from their property. I can’t describe it. I have no wish to. But just imagine shells falling among little kiddies clinging on to their mothers and half-dead with fright. It had taken some time to put it all down, but I took it all in a few moments as I stood on that shell-stricken road. It was at this juncture that a shell landed about ten yards from us, so we got down in a bit of a ditch by the roadside and as luck would have it, the next shell landed and burst right in amongst us. It killed two instantly and wounded several, myself included. I could have got away with my hurt, but I thought I would stick it as best I could. It was in the right shoulder that I was hit. I managed to work the shrapnel out all right, but I didn’t half suffer for about a week with it. The brace of my equipment kept jarring on it, beside which I was fighting and on the go all the time.
Well, after this the officer thought it about time to shift, and so we cleared out and away from the road. It was just then that I noticed one of our party lying at the side of the road. I thought he was wounded, but when I questioned him he only moaned. He was not wounded at all but absolutely frightened to death. He shivered just like a leaf and I could not get him to come with me for ever such a time. I almost had to drag him along before he would come, but at length I managed to persuade him. I never saw a fellow in such a pitiful state before. I afterwards found out that it was his first time in action and the shells had totally unnerved him poor chap. I took him along with me and joined the rest of our party about half-a-mile away. Our orders were to join the Worcesters if we could find them, which was an impossible job. It was just then that an artilleryman came running up. He seemed to have totally lost himself. Then, in a few words, he told how the rest of his battery and himself had fired point blank into the Germans not twenty minutes beforehand, and how they had been forced to blow up every gun they had in order to prevent the Germans capturing them intact. We gave him a drink, and told him to go back to the rear. After this we got into an old trench on the side of a rise, which overlooked the plain in front of Bouvancourt, and across this plain we could see the Germans advancing, scores and scores of them. We turned our two Lewis guns on to them but it didn’t make much difference. There were so many. And all this time I didn’t see one of our shells burst among them in five minutes. And there we were. Four British divisions against about twenty German divisions and with practically no artillery to back us up. A pretty situation surely! On our right from the trench where we were situated there was a large wood and just in front of this we could see our fellows surrendering and being marched off behind German lines. The Jerries soon discovered our little party and began sending over trench mortars to try and oust us out. But our officer was as stubborn as the ground under him and he wouldn’t budge. At last when one or two fell right in the trench he did clear out, but only to get into a fresh mess. Enemy aeroplanes sighted us and came swooping down on us like hawks. They flew to within a few feet of the ground and opened a deadly fire on us with their machine gins. It was about the most harassing experience I have ever been through. The only thing we could do was run. Two or three of our chaps lay down on the ground, but they got absolutely riddled with bullets. How it was most of us were not hit I don’t know. For one thing we scattered, and I was relieved when at last I reached the shelter of a tree. Several got wounded and the officer had the end of his forefinger taken off by a bullet. It was a case of each man for himself now, I made off at the double down a steep incline carrying one of the Lewis Guns. I didn’t think it worthwhile to stop and be taken prisoner. At the foot of the incline I came across a deserted French store, as far as the original owners were concerned, but two of three Tommies were trying to get the door open. I saw what was wanted and so I got hold of a spade close by and with this implement smashed the lock to bits. We were frightfully hungry and thirsty and you can imagine our delight and surprise on entering. There were tinned stuffs and provisions of all kinds and also three barrels of red wine. We got as much of the provisions as we could carry and then had a drink of the red wine. I’m pretty sure we drank a good quart each. At ant rate, I did, and I’m supposed to be a teetotaller. But by Jove! When we got outside most of us were all over the place directly. I managed to control myself, but anyone could see that I was a bit merry. “Come on chaps”, I yelled, “unless you want Jerry to get you”. Whereupon they tumbled after me and a jolly funny sight we must have looked, I know.
It was not long after this that I found a few of our own battalion. I asked them for news and they told me. It appears that the Germans had got them totally by surprise, for they took our battalion headquarters, the colonel, second-in-command, and nearly two companies prisoners. I asked them if they had seen anything of Geoffrey, but they couldn’t enlighten me. On we went together with transport of all kinds retreating. Oh! It was indescribable. The hot sun burned down on us, the aeroplanes harassed us with bombs and machine guns and what not. Night setting in, we dug ourselves in, the while keeping a sharp lookout. Then it was that the lice started on us. Some of the chaps pretty near went mad with them, and I suffered a good deal. The clothing we then wore we had had for about three weeks past and it has got infested with lice. We were perspiring, too, which made them worse. We hadn’t been dug in long when the alarm was raised and we had to retire again, and so it went on all next day and the day after. Digging in, retiring a bit, and digging in again until we were so fatigued that we hardly knew what to do with ourselves.
With the French
The Germans now received a proper check for fresh artillery and troops had been brought up and we were at last able to stop them. But for a week after that we were still in the line. Our condition was fearful, as you could image. At last, though, we did get relieved. How glad we were to get out after all we had gone through. After we had got out our numbers were very small. We had commenced with a full division of ten thousand men, and now, after the action we couldn’t make up a single battalion. After this we moved down and joined our transport, and two or three days later our divisional commander came along and spoke to us in his usual manner.
A draft of seven hundred joined our battalion, thus making us up to full strength again. The rest of the division was likewise made up in a surprisingly short time, and about two weeks later we got down to the seacoast where we began our training again. It was at this place that Geoff and I decided to push forward with our commissions and so we did, with the consequent result that about three weeks later they came through, and on Tuesday, the 22nd July we sailed for England. And so ends a narrative which my father wished me to relate, and which I have done at his request; but, for my own part, I am sure I wish to forget all I’ve been through on the Western Front.
[These articles were printed in 'The Darwen News' on March 15th, 22nd and 29th, 1919.]