LT. COLONEL E. R. PRATT, O.B.E, M.C. (Late Royal Artillery)
"A First World War Episode" written in 1965.
In a busy life, it is a waste of time to contemplate past events that have no bearing in the future. But when one has passed one's eightieth birthday, there is an inevitable desire to remind one's grandchildren that their rather decrepit grandparent once led a very active and perhaps important life.
Perhaps this accounts for many autobiographies. Anyhow, it has tempted me to write an account of my personal activities, successes, and failures in the first year of the First World War.
In June 1914, I returned home after finishing the Sinai Survey and after a month at the War Office editing it, was posted to Plymouth defences for practice mobilisation.
The practice mobilisation eventually became the real thing, and when war was declared I spent my time (mainly nights) guarding the harbour entrance and watching the might of the navy as ship after ship completed its mobilisation, received its full complement of reservists, and slipped out to sea to an unknown destination.
My first more active role was caused by an urgent demand from Sir John French for heavy guns. Two years before, I had served with one of our six inch howitzer siege batteries, mobilised it with its complement of heavy draft horses, and taken it on manoeuvres in Cambridgeshire. Now I was told to repeat this. I went to the Central Remount Depot, Woolwich, and collected two hundred heavy horses and entrained them for Plymouth. In the middle of the night some got their feet through the floor of the cattle trucks, but no serious damage was done. At Plymouth, I was met by two hundred officers and men who had landed the day before from Bermuda Defences. None had ever served with a horsed unit. They were ordered to embark the guns and horses in forty-eight hours.
Some of the men had worked on farms with horses, but had never seen breast harness. I spent at least forty of those forty-eight hours forming teams, selecting likely drivers, and teaching all how to fit breast harness.
The Major commanding pleaded with London on the phone to let me join his command, pointing out that he had nobody with any knowledge of either the guns or heavy horse draft, but in vain. I was glad to hear later that on arriving in France they were given fourteen days to settle down and train before going to the front.
About this time I was offered a post on the Staff in Cairo, but was able to decline it. Turkey had not yet come into the war, and as one of the few army Arabic interpreters I felt I might spend the war censoring Arabic newspapers or something similar. Soon after this I was posted to Woolwich, where a heavy battery was being formed for each division of Kitchener's Army.
I found myself Captain of the battery for the Ninth Division, the first division of Kitchener's Army. The battery commander was Major Castens, taken from his job as Ordnance College Lecturer. There were three subalterns, not very young, from various parts of the world. Our varied experiences and difficulties made us a happy combination, and even the trials of being under canvas in deep mud in Charlton Park did not disturb our equilibrium.
After two months, we were billeted in Odiham and joined the rest of our Scottish Division. We had acquired very fine Argentine Percherons, which helped us through the winter mud. In April, we sailed with the division for France and took up a position north of Armentieres.
About this time, a disaster occurred which made a great impression on me and no doubt inspired my future actions. A battalion of the Rifle Brigade attacked German trenches at Festubert. They met uncut barbed wire entanglements, and from accounts were practically wiped out by machine-guns.
I had many friends in the unit. I had been an honorary member of their mess in Cairo only a year or so before. Francis Prittie had been my collaborator in the Sinai Survey the previous autumn. Rifleman Harper had been my only white assistant two years before in the survey of the Western Desert, the area now famous for the victories of Sidi barani and Alamein.
Very many friends had already been killed, but the picture of this very fine unit being finished in this way, obsessed me. It seemed that such disasters must be preventable.
The authorities must have given much thought to destroying wire entanglements, and had fixed on shrapnel as the best method. In these days, the Press refers to all shell splinters as shrapnel, but this is ignorance. Shrapnel in 1914 was the commonest ammunition of artillery in the field. A shrapnel shell had a bursting charge in its base, which was fired by a time fuse and shot out a cone of heavy bullets. These bullets might cut barbed wire but were very unsatisfactory for the purpose. When enemy trenches were near, it was hard not to hit our men. On the night before the attack on Bellevarde, a man crawled to me and seeing I was a gunner, said, "Sir, can't this barrage be lifted? It has just killed my sergeant and he was such a good chap." I was there to cover the morning advance with smoke shell. I could only reply, "We must cut the wire for you at all costs."
During April, our battery remained dug in at Armentieres, but nothing was happening there. We collected cement from the town and made excellent gun emplacements. Castens had made a magnificent observation post at the top of the tallest factory chimney within reach. But it was not war. If we were asked to destroy an enemy observation post we were more likely to kill Belgian farmers than Germans, and no other target existed.
Under these circumstances, an army circular came round asking for volunteers for a course on Trench Mortars, and I saw a chance of learning what front-line fighting was like. Castens realised my feeling and let me send my name forward, and so, a fortnight later, I was told to report to Berthen.
|A few months before, the Germans had produced a few bomb throwers
and caused some heavy casualties. Our infantry units asked for something
with which to retaliate. The War Office enquired from Vickers and others
and eventually sent out two kinds. The one that figures in this episode was
the Two-Inch. It was a wrought iron tube with a two-inch bore. Its ammunition
was a sixty-pound bomb, the size of a football. It had a solid tail, the
only part which was muzzle-loaded into the mortar. It had three cordite charges,
full, half, and quarter, and a pendulum sight graded for whichever charge
was used. It had a fine aluminium time fuse originally designed for Naval
star shell, but obsolescent. There can be no doubt that the War Office looked
on these as a help to infantry morale during trench warfare, but having no
To teach the Infantry how to fire these toys, the Second Army had set up a little school in the village of Berthen. It consisted of:
A commandant, Sir J. Keane, a retired Artillery Captain,
A Quartermaster Adjutant, Lt. Mitchell,
And two sergeant instructors.
To this school came small detachments of newly disembarked Infantry, young second lieutenants and other ranks. After a fortnight's course, they were distributed to the Divisions. I arrived unannounced at this school. Sir John Keane made very welcome, but was obviously puzzled, under the circumstances above, at the arrival of a Woolwich trained Gunner Captain of sixteen years' service. However, after two days to study the new weapons, I was posted to the division holding the front from the Hooge crater to Bellward Wood where two officers and four mortars had already been sent.
The situation I found appalled me. The two keen young subalterns had mounted their guns in the front line trench and had tried to destroy the enemy trenches, at this point only fifty yards away, but most of their bombs were duds. A few days before my arrival, the Germans had hung out a blackboard on which was written: "If you lend us one of your mortars, we shall be pleased to return your ammunition." This was bad enough, but if one of our bombs did explode, the enemy retaliated and as our mortars were in the front line trench where our own infantry was thickest, the mortars were most unpopular with them. Under these circumstances morale was as low as it could be. After a few days to get to know the infantry and the general position, I realised that there must be a good reason for the failure of our bombs to explode.
One of our duds was clearly visible against the enemy wire and I decided I must try and reclaim it. On a dark night, after warning all the covering infantry, and with my face blackened with mud, I crawled out. I was extremely lucky. I met no German prowler. No Very Light lit me up, although owing to the closeness of the trenches both sides were using them all the time.
Best of all, and most unexpectedly, I was able to unscrew the fuse. If I had failed I had planned to drag the whole bomb back to our trenches. It would almost certainly have exploded on the way.
Once back in my dug-out, the whole trouble of the duds was soon solved. Because the trenches were so near, the mortars had only used a quarter charge. The shock of discharge with this was insufficient to start the time fuse, so the fuses seldom functioned.
|Early next morning, I sent off a runner to Berthen with the vital
cap and striker wrapped in cotton wool in a Bryant and May match box. The
striker needle was still embedded in the copper cap which it had failed to
penetrate, but which might explode under any vibration. With it I wrote a
rather peremptory letter to Sir John Keane. I asked:
1. That all trench mortar batteries be warned not to use the lowest charge,
2. Therefore not to mount mortars near the enemy and certainly not in the front trench,
3. That it should be an important object to draw enemy fire away from trenches occupied by our infantry.
In conformance with this, we mounted all our mortars in disused trenches and then opened fire. There were no more duds.
The new position I chose for our guns was in reserve trenches thirty yards behind the lines. They had been recently constructed and had very substantial wire entanglements in front. When, in return for our activities, the enemy responded, I had at last a chance to study the effect of their various missiles on those entanglements. Their ordinary field-gun shell did not damage the wire or us in our good trenches, but a round plum pudding mortar bomb, which had no point and made no crater, swept a large area of the entanglement.
From that time my mind was concentrated on how to make our own bombs burst like this without penetrating the ground. I tried experiments and nearly finished myself off using a fuse out of a German dud which blew our bomb to pieces at the muzzle, but luckily without detonating its contents. The gun crew, whom I had placed behind a traverse, came out with very white faces, being convinced that I must be dead.
Some time before, the Second Army had set up workshops in Hazebrouck to make grenades, for which the demand far exceeded supply. The director was a Captain Newton. I do not know if he was the inventor or designer of these grenades but the result was brilliantly successful. His grenades were very cheap to produce and were turned out in large quantities. The design consisted of a metal clip containing a sharp striker which fitted over an ordinary 303 cartridge case. This, with a delay action and detonator, was screwed into a cheap pear-shaped cast iron bomb. I decided to try something similar. I gave myself three days leave to visit my old battery at Armentieres, taking a few of Newton's grenade clips. There, with the battery artificer, in an abandoned factory in the town, we made six fuses out of old chair legs. It was very simple. The wood was bored out to take the 303 cartridges; the bottoms were shaped to fit our bombs and the top to take Newton's hand grenade clips.
Armed with six of these, I took the first opportunity to go to Berthen and asked Keane to allow me to fire six rounds on his training field. I had the gravest doubts as to whether this amateur contraption would explode our bombs at all, but the result exceeded my highest hopes.
The first bomb not only exploded, but the important lateral blast was such that a Canadian officer beside me at the gun was wounded in the throat by splinter, though the burst was 350 yards away. All six fuses functioned. One bomb was fired into a small barbed wire entanglement put up for practice by one of the courses. This was half swept away, making no crater and leaving clean ground. Keane was impressed and undertook to report to his Headquarters. I returned to my division.
We were preparing a subsidiary attack at this time to coincide with the main attack at Loos. The Division had asked me some time before to try removing some of the enemy's heaviest entanglements. It was easy to blow holes in the wire, but with our time fuses, the main results were deep craters which filled with water and mud in a night and made a worse obstruction than the wire which they replaced.
Before dawn, on the day of the attack, my job was to conceal the attack by firing big phosphorus smoke bombs in front of the infantry. I could not see the results but in the staff report on the attack afterwards, it was stated that the infantry lost cohesion in the darkness, and that the attack had been timed a quarter of an hour too early. To me, it seemed clear that the extra darkness was due to dense smoke from my phosphorus bombs.
A few days after this action, I received an invitation through Keane to stay a week with Sir John Headlam, commanding Second Army Artillery, at his headquarters in Cassel.
I was astonished at this exceptional honour, as the battle at Loos had not yet petered out, but we had had two days of fighting and my brother had been killed at Loos and I thought it a friendly but unusual gesture. When I arrived there, the Staff Captain said, " There will be no need for you to talk to the General about your fuse. He knows all about it."
Actually, I had no chance to do so. Sir John was sharing his headquarters with the Army Chief Engineer, and I felt very small fry. However, next day the Staff Captain took me to Hazebrouck and we spent an afternoon discussing every detail of the fuse with Newton. The final design would, of course, not be in wood, but in cast iron, and would have a rifle grenade clip instead of the hand grenade one. I spent the rest of the week dealing with all the latest air photographs of the enemy trenches for future action.
A fortnight later, I had a call from Keane. It said, "Newton has made twenty fuses as you discussed with him and the Army has ordered a complete trial here. As it is your pigeon, I think you should conduct the shoot. As your battery are in the front line, I will bring in a battery which is resting to fire the guns."
So, on the morning in question, I rode into Berthen. From the number of French Generals if nothing else, I realised that a lot was expected of me, but in case my fuse was a fiasco, twenty of our normal fuses and ammunition were to be fired first.
The Sappers had made splendid preparations. There were fifty yards of well-designed trench with a concrete machine gun post. In front was a twenty-foot-wide ditch filled with the latest type of barbed wire entanglement, and on a rise near the guns was a prepared control post for me to control the guns by megaphone.
The spectators (about two hundred Generals and staff) were placed on a hill to the right of my target and about three hundred yards clear.
I saw only one drawback. The field was undulating with hollows both in front of and behind the target, so that bombs falling very short or over would not be visible from my control post. As I guessed the range to be near four hundred and fifty yards, this seemed to present no major problem. I was wrong.
My job seemed easy. I had only to get the range of the trench and destroy it with my twenty standard time fuses, then reduce the range ten yards and sweep up the wire entanglement with my new fuses.
The disaster that followed can only be explained by the fact that the gun crew produced by Keane for No. 4 gun had never fired a mortar before. When ordered to fire, they fired with a full charge but using the sights for a quarter charge. The result was that their bomb soared to an immense height and aided by a gale force wind went a long way beyond the target.
When all was apparently ready, I fired a volley from the four guns. I could see that all bombs were beyond the target, but only one burst was visible. It seemed incredibly far beyond. I was very puzzled and assumed that the gale force wind was responsible and reduced the range to 350. I fired a second volley. No bursts were visible, but it was easy to see from the dust that three bursts were very short, but one still well beyond the target. Still puzzled I repeated this. Only then did I realise that No. 4 gun was behaving too erratically to continue. I ordered No. 4 gun to cease-fire. Remainder 420 yards.
From that time everything was perfect, but out of twenty timed fuses I had wasted eleven and the Generals and staff must have felt me completely addled.
When these bombs are falling, their long two inch tail waves slightly and this constantly gives the impression that it is coming directly at you. No doubt many of the spectators thought at moments that half the guiding lights of both armies were about to be liquidated. However, the remaining eight rounds completely eliminated the trench and buried the concrete machine gun post.
I then reduced the range to 410 yards and fired the twenty rounds with the new fuse. When I had finished, the spectators who had in fact, only come to see the barbed wire destroyed, were enthusiastic, walking all over the wired area and studying the lumps of compressed wire which alone showed where the entanglement had been.
My satisfaction was shattered, however, by Sir John Headlams scowl and I realised that in his eyes I had made a hash of the demonstration. I cannot blame him. He did not know that I had no contact with the gun crews and no doubt assumed the crews of No. 4 were my own battery. He had not seen my Command Post to see how much of the range was invisible from it. Because he was out in the open, he had followed the peculiar trajectory of No. 4's rounds and perhaps guessed what was happening after the first volley, while I under a roof and with my binoculars glued to the target, only grasped it after three volleys. Only one staff officer was interested in my troubles. Lord Stanhope on the Corps Headquarters visited my Command Post to study the failure of visibility.
One event finished an eventful day. When all the officers were at supper, a telegram from Army Headquarters was brought to me as Keane was dining out. I read it out.
"To Commandant, Trench Mortar School.
Congratulations. DSO and Military Cross."
Someone asked who was involved. I said it could only refer to the Staff of the School, Keane and Mitchell. One subaltern cried out "but it's your fuse." I was not disturbed. If the Army Commander had received such enthusiastic reports as to send out decorations wholesale within six hours of the demonstration, I was amply rewarded, and I felt that those three rounds from No. 4 gun had blotted my copybook.
The G.H.Q enthusiasm was perhaps misplaced. Decorations in wartime are often a mistake. In this case it went all round the trench mortar batteries that all officers at the base had been decorated before a single mention was awarded to the front line troops.
It may seem from this sentence that I grudged Sir John Keane his immediate DSO. But this is not so. I was angry with him for providing the incompetent No. 4 Gun Crew. But in any case I owe him a great deal. He had taken great responsibility in allowing me to fire live shells on his range with home-made wooden fuses, and if the Canadian officer wounded by my first fuse had been killed, he might have been seriously censured. His report led to my visit to Cassel and all that followed.
My awards came very soon after this.
|In the fighting on the Ypres-Comines Canal I stupidly let an enemy
plane see me enter my dug-out, so I spent the next four months in hospital.
This, however, may have saved my life as my successor was shot down in air
reconnaissance three days later. I was in a London hospital when the Battle
of the Somme was fought.
When the wounded officers began to arrive I sought out the first well enough to talk. After enquiring after his injuries, I asked, "Were you badly held up by wire entanglements?" He replied quite casually, "Not a bit, the trench mortars cleared all that away."
I was silent, and he never realised that he had given me perhaps the finest personal news of my life.
Photo: a mound of 2" mortar shells at a dump in readiness for the Somme batttles, 1916. Each shell is fastened to a wood block to prevent it from rolling around in transit.
Copyright © Michael Pratt, May, 1998
Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section