We may be gearing up for the beginning of summer but 99 years ago Arthur Greg had just survived the Second Battle Of Ypres, and had been recovering from a facial wound inflicted by a German sniper. Arthur spent much of his recovery with his fiancée Marian Allen, and with her help he recorded his experience of Ypres, leaving us with an invaluable insight into trench warfare in the First World War. (Please be aware that some of the excerpts below are graphic and distressing).
Arthur’s account begins with his typical dry wit:
“Eighteen days in the trench with heavy engagements only a few hundred yards to our right and more critical fighting a mile or so on our left was not calculated to act as a nerve tonic.”
At this point Arthur was twenty-one years old and a Second Lieutenant with the Cheshire Regiment. After being stationed in the trenches for three weeks, Arthur and his fellow soldiers were sent to the ramparts of ruined Ypres. When dawn broke after their first night, Arthur and his second in command decided to explore the town, so recently devastated by the First Battle of Ypres.
“We knew that we were the first body of men to visit Ypres after the precipitate retreat of the majority of the inhabitants. The town was however never entirely deserted. We went into various houses whose chimneys were showing signs of life and in most we found several aged Belgians with long beards & curious little peaked caps. They were generally sitting in a more or less dazed condition in front of their stoves. The windows were generally smashed and often the doors – But they preferred to stay in their old homes rather than flee to the unknown.”
Arthur and his regiment did not have long to attempt to get comfy in the casements of Ypres before they were called up to the Front on May 5th 1915.
“It was after coming in from a particularly hard night’s digging just behind the firing line that we were suddenly roused with the alarming news that the Germans had made a gas attack on Hill 60 and had broken through. B & C companies had to go up immediately to support the D-shire regiment.
We only had a few minutes to get ready. We had no time to divide the rations which we had drawn in bulk the night before. We were to go up light so we left out coats and heavy things in the casements. It was not long before the C.O. [Commanding Officer] appeared. B Coy [company] had to go first with ten minutes interval between each platoon. My platoon was the first to go.”
After arriving at the Front, it was only a short while before Arthur was charged with leading his platoon to help with a counter-attack further down the line in the most horrific conditions.
“We had to keep very low as shots came from behind from the flank & from the front. It was an unhealthy sport and I didn’t like the carpet of Bavarian bodies; their limbs were so horribly arranged and their shoulders didn’t make a firm footing.”
They eventually reached their destination and immediately began hurling grenades, there was only a brief lull in the attack when the Germans renewed the fighting with vigour:
“About 8.30 the whole hill was brilliantly lit up by thousands of star shells that were all starting from one point and their sort of Crystal Palace show was accompanied by a most extraordinary crackle. Seldom have I seen such fireworks. Our rifle fire or shell fire must have set light to a large store of German star shells. The effect was wonderful and weirdly strange considering the surroundings. During the whole of that memorable night there were not many moments of complete darkness.”
The Allied forces were soon ready to counter-attack, and Arthur’s platoon was joined by a Scottish Company who were to be sent over the top at 10pm.
“At the allotted time they climbed over the parapet. The order was to go half right. They were met with a storm of rifle & machine gun fire from the hill – Our artillery had not yet stopped & soon theirs started. The poor Scots were simply blown back with lead. They started again & went half left. The wounded were pouring in to my trench. The sounds were terrible – men shrieking, the fierce crackle of machine gun fire, and the cruel shriek of the shrapnel. This was battle.“
The hours that followed were confused as the wounded poured in and the artillery fire carried on.
“It was as anxious night and everybody prayed for dawn as they had never prayed before. In daylight we could at least see what was coming and there is something very comforting about daylight after the strange artificial lights of the night.”
When morning arrived and the fighting subsided, Arthur and his men set about clearing the trenches of the dead. It was whilst superintending the removal of bodies that:
“I was conscious of a terrific blow. I went down like a log & was next aware of a horrid loose and disconnected feeling about the lower part of my face. I was bleeding like a fountain and my mouth seemed full of obstacles. I tried to spit them out. They were teeth.”
Arthur had been shot straight through the jaw by a German sniper.
“I remember distinctly some fellow saying in an agonized whisper – He’s had his false teeth knocked out. This annoyed me horribly as I had always been rather proud of my teeth. My servant then more kind heartedly than wisely poured the remains of his water bottle into my mouth. The water it afterwards transpired had been drawn from the moat round Ypres…
…My servant then applied all the bandages & field dressings he could find. I watched his horrified face with interest. I noticed that everybody that saw me looked strangely at me. I stumbled then down the trench. I heard the shout everywhere, ‘Make way it’s an officer’…
I was at this time in my shirt sleeves with no hat & covered in blood. Some of the Jocks recognized me and said it’s that Cheshire officer that’s got hit. I heard everything; I noticed everything, especially the looks on people’s faces.”
Arthur’s servant managed to get him to the dressing station in the largest dug out.
“Even the doctor looked horrified when he took off the bandages. He quickly bandaged me up again and gave me some morphia…
At last I began to feel easier and happy. At one time I thought I should not live as I was bleeding so profusely. I thought it a pity that one more so young should have to go. I then thought that if I did recover I would be so disfigured that no lady would ever look at me again. This depressed me horribly…“
Arthur was sent to the closest hospital, but first he had to walk a mile, supported by two other soldiers to a farmhouse where he could be collected by an ambulance, which would transport him to the hospital. It was there that he was visited by his elder sister Madge, who was serving as VAD nurse at a dressing station in Abbeville. Madge recorded Arthur’s injury in her scrapbook:
“Arthur is wounded & at No. 7 St. HP…got BOULOGNE 4p.m. & was with Arthur from 4:45 to 5:30p.m. He could not speak being hit in jaw but wrote, he has had a bad time on Hill 60 & no sleep the last 3 weeks.”
Shortly after, Arthur was sent home to England where he was given leave for three months to recover. He spent much of his time with Marian and her family in North Wales. He had had a narrow escape, but his face was permanently disfigured; the bullet had travelled straight through one side of his jaw and out of the other. Arthur spent the rest of his time in the Army as a training officer at Bidston Camp in Birkenhead.
You can read Arthur’s full account at our exhibition Heroes of Adventure, which is open until Sunday 16 November. I’ll also be sharing more stories from the exhibition here on the blog.