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4th May 1915

No pictures unfortunately as I never had a chance to seek out the rear areas as much as I would have liked on my travels.


In this episode we try to explore the idea of having a day off, or several days off, in the First World War.


Behind the lines is a new and richly diverting world for us. Still in range of the guns, it is an anxious place where soldiers struggle to process their residual guilt and anger while allegedly having time off. Everyone is shaken up to a greater or lesser degree. From an enclosed world watching the shelling shake the dirt from the dugout wall, this is an open air world of collisions with a thousand other lives bent on letting off some steam.


SUBALTERN ON THE SOMME by Max Plowman has some interesting insights. He says you become born again when you come out of the trenches, because previously every moment was uncertain. You can now say “in an hour’s time” without tempting fate. You instinctively feel they should be able to go home, because Death had its chance. Also you realise the “if” of the trenches - how much life hangs on hope.


He loves the “good music” of a threshing machine - he could sit and watch the “golden corn falling into the hopper for half a day”.  For his description of an orchard, he quotes John of Gaunt in Richard II: “All places that the eye of heaven visits, Are to a wise man ports and happy havens.”  And after the trenches, Doullens, a small provincial town, seems like a city. Men wander, idly clouting shells stuck in the branches of trees.


Everyone has a different definition of rest and rest areas, so much so I have divised a way of writing about it which we try to stick to in the TOMMIES' office.


I tend to think of the trench facing the enemy, and the trenches just behind it, as the Front Line. It’s an area, rather than a line of trenches per se. As the war went on, soldiers would serve in this area for about five days at a time, sometimes in that front trench (often called the fire trench for obvious reasons), and sometimes in those trenches just behind it.


The other days (could be as few as five or possibly more) would be spent in Support a mile or two behind the Front Line - which would be probably not be in trenches, more likely village barns and dugouts. They were at a state of some readiness.


If they were out for any longer than a short rest the time might actually be spent in ‘rest areas’ which were normally more than about six miles behind the Line which meant they were not of interest to most German guns, but never completely.


At any point in their days out of the Line they could be called into it to do the hated fatigues, which generally meant digging drains, ditches, and so on. This could be far more dangerous than digging in the Front Line, because any new digging and large groups of soldiers always encouraged German shells, and they were inclined to be working out in the open rather than doing the more specialised digging of a Front Line purpose-built trench.


So the three ideas are Front Line, Support and At Rest. One further set of places which will concern us little are the Rear Areas: Boulogne, Calais, the depots at Abbeville etc which were rarely seen by the soldiers but through which the vast supply chains ran, as well as hospitals and administration.


4th May was a long day: our signallers would have come out of the line with the Sirhind Brigade signallers and we can see them arriving at Meteren at 0100 in the Bde HQ WD. It would then be their job to get back to their parent Ferozepore brigade, and by hopping a few lucky lorries they’d probably get to Paradis ten miles away (50°35'58.17"N  2°39'11.89"E) by about 0300. The other Ferozepore signallers have been there for 24 hours or so - the basic maintenance would have been undertaken and the 4th May might well look more like a day off.  


Paradis is in the middle of what is known as the Divisional Area, behind and including the line usually held by a Division. Although this was true up and down the line, it was particularly true of the Indians, who served in this sector throughout their time in France, apart from postings off to Ypres to plug gaps like last week. The Sirhinds for example are at Calonne, and the Lahore Div Sigs are based at Estaires. These are just a couple of miles apart.


The Generals know, and sharp officers would also work out, that the Lahore Div is only being rested in support for a few days before they are thrown into the attack on Aubers Ridge, scheduled for the 8th, then the 9th May. Indeed, if you remember, this attack (along with the Meerut Div) was on the cards before they were snatched away to plug the gap at Ypres. As soon as they are in any shape that postponed attack will go in.


The signallers will have all the regular checking of kit to do - the diaries show how they must always get into comms with Div and next door brigades - but the smaller scale stuff would be done without noting in the diary.


We hear Mickey go off to Bethune to meet with Captain Paddon at 2 Div Signals HQ in Rue Louis Blanc.


It is important to note how the various battalions are also in the divisional area. These would be friends and acquaintances from downtime and combat. Perhaps they think you’ve done a good job. Perhaps they don’t.


I would draw your attention to the Bhopalis who had a mixed bag of replacements join the battalion a few days ago. Their HISTORY notes after a very varied list of names from differing caste, tribal and religious groupings that “this gives some idea of the difficulties with which the battalion had to contend in absorbing the reinforcements sent them. While fighting was in progress, it was a very difficult problem to mould these drafts into a fighting machine and to get officers, Indian officers, NCO’s and men acquainted with each other”. They are also on notice to go into the line today, cancelled later. In fact the whole idea of operations being off and on again puts me in mind of a story told me by Norman Abernethy, my uncle. He was a Wellington navigator in the last lot. Just seeing their names on the list of possible crew for the nights operation sent the crew scampering for the toilet.    


129 Baluchis have a similar task in hand – absorbing new arrivals, that is - and it is worth noting that even after this process their HISTORY notes they have only 5 British Officers, 8 Indian officers, and 226 other ranks. So many of these are core support and HQ people they only have 176 men to man the trenches. Compare this to their normal figure, more than 650.


57 Wilde’s Rifles are also so reinforced by oddments they have to reorganise their companies to absorb the new races. The Connaughts Rangers are actually in Paradis with the Ferozepore Sigs section, as are 1/4 Londons.


The 15 Lancers are at Carvin (not the modern one), with a detachment up at Neuve Chapelle. 20 Coy Sappers and Miners are at Bout de Ville, whereas 21 Coy S&M Diary page is lost as is 34 Sikh Pioneers - although they’ll most likely be at Les Huit Maisons. 41 Bde RFA are most likely at Richebourg.


The signallers need kit. For some of it, their depot is 60 miles away at Abbeville, and that's where the Spiridon goes.


An unexpected aspect to this rear area community is that men will travel all over on their days off in search of relatives and friends in other battalions. It was my great-uncle galloping on a stolen horse up the line to see his brother (my grandfather) for the last time before he went over the top that started me on TOMMIES back in 2009, although he had met him several times during the period leading up to that.


Getting a parcel or a letter from home is a big psychological moment for a soldier. Letters can be just another chapter in a parallel world moving at its own pace of life and dysfunction: I heard the story of a man who wasn’t getting a reply from his dad, and was naturally worried. The YMCA asked in his hometown and discovered the father had died of cancer and the man’s brother had sold the house and disappeared. So in a flash the man had no family and nowhere to live. At a lecture about the YMCA I heard about a man who’d arrived in the line still with his house keys, worried if his wife would be able to get in.


The sorting office in Regent’s Park was the largest wooden building in the world. Working class men got home-made food. One signal’s officer wrote home to thank his mother for choosing the items so lovingly from the hamper catalogue. Food in the estaminet normally served the purpose of not being bully beef rather than a gourmet meal. (Bully beef was so ubiquitous that a recipe for fish paste began “Take two tins sardines. Mash with four tins of bully...”).  The canteens did a good trade in curry powder for the Indian troops specifically, and those who had acquired the taste while serving with the Army there.