Part 6 - THE GREAT THAW OF 1917
The early part of 1917 was very cold. The ground was frozen hard a great way down and the trenches were clean and comfortable. We were in the line in February opposite La Maisonnette just South of a canal and we had gone up in the throes of winter.
We had a few casualties and I remember trying to bury four of our men of the 1st/4th Gloucester. Corporal Organ was one and it was quite impossible to dig any semblance of a grave. Spades and picks were easily broken. Although it was not believed, the shells used to bounce off the hard ground. Duds would go bounding and along for a dreadful distance.
One night in February the thaw started. The floor of the trenches turned to water and the sides just fell in. The floor boards sunk into the mud. Movement of troops only made things worse and it was almost impossible to move about. The mud was up to our knees and it was necessary to drag our feet right out of the mud for each step. We were relieved by the Worcesters two days later and it took the Battalion twenty-four hours to do the 300 yards to the nearest road.
I remember Tubby Merrick and Piggy Welsby urging their fellows to do their best and to get out on to the top and walk along the top where there was more of a foothold. One man they had the greatest difficulty in getting out. He was dead beat. After frantic exertions they managed to pull him out but then he found that his tin hat was in the trench. He deliberately slid back into the trench to get it - and you should have heard the language of Tubby and the Pig.
I was very tired that night. I got a water cart up to the end of the communication trench and Slade had a water bottle full of whisky. There were some eight stragglers, whom I endeavoured to get out. It was mighty hard work, because they were absolutely dead beat and wanted to lie down in the mud and die. However I got two out by drawing their bayonet and sticking it into their buttocks after taking their mud soaked equipment off. One man was completely bald. The other six were never accounted for and I am sure they just sunk into the mud from sheer exhaustion and died there. I couldn't do any more because I couldn't.
Slade waited for me and gave me a good tot of whisky and muddy water and a biscuit. We tramped along to our rest dugouts and I have never been so dead beat in all my life. Poor Slade with his eyes starting out of his head would curse me for a slacker and then when he got behind I used to chip him for cursing me.
At dawn we were met by General Fanshawe and his A.D.C. - Muirhead. He stopped and saw we could not get along. He gave me some whisky and chocolate. I think he made a mental note of our condition. We met a Guide - Gardiner of the runners - who took us to H.Q. dugouts. We dropped down and there found our new C.O., Lt. Colonel Wilkinson, who had just come out to us. What his thoughts were I don't know. There was the Battalion struggling into Camp, muddy and dirty, unshaved, wet through, hungry and thirsty, whacked to the world, hollow-eyed, too tired even to have a meal or to get their boots off. Skinner got my boots off and I made a hearty breakfast of a York ham and some muddy tea. It was good. I went to sleep where I was. Next day we had 80 cases of Trench feet and they all had to be evacuated. I have never seen men dead beat in the true sense of the word., before, and I have never seen them like it since.
I had to explain to Division why we had so many cases of Trench feet. Slade wanted to send in "Mice" but I sent in my drawing "Alf! Have you changed your socks? If not - why not?" - depicting two men after Bairnsfather up to their necks in a watery trench. This was accepted.