Charles Hudson, the son of officer in the Sherwood Foresters, was born in Newent, Gloucestershire, on 29th May 1892. His father inherited a considerable income from family land in Derbyshire in 1899. This allowed him to purchase a large estate in East Meon, Hampshire.
In 1900 Charles Hudson was sent to Fonthill Lodge Preparatory School in East Grinstead. Five years later he moved to Sherborne School. He was not an academic student and he decided he was "too stupid to qualify for a learned profession". In 1910 he was turned down for the Royal Navy because he was "of too nervous a disposition".
Hudson then attended Royal Military College at Sandhurst where he became friendly with Harold Alexander. He later wrote: "Sandhurst was a tonic in many respects. Self-discipline and a sense of duty were firmly inculcated, and for the first time I came in contact with authority as exercised by men who were not themselves brought up in public schools and universities, noncommissioned officers, a new and refreshing experience." However, he failed his first year exams and found a job with a tea-planting establishment in Ceylon.
On the outbreak of the First World War Hudson returned to England and joined the 11th Sherwood Foresters. As a result of his private education he placed in command of a platoon of thirty men. The battalion moved to Aldershot but caught mumps. Soon afterwards he developed cerebral spinal meningitis. Hudson eventually recovered and in September 1915 he was sent to Ypres on the Western Front.
On 1st July, 1916, Hudson and the 11th Sherwood Foresters took part in the battle of the Somme. As Hudson pointed out in his journal: "Out of a battalion strength of 710 men, including the transport men and 10 per cent who had been left out of the battle, we had lost 508 men. Out of twenty-seven officers, twenty-one were killed or wounded. Only one other officer who entered the battle, besides myself and Bartlett, survived unwounded." During the battle Hudson was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Military Cross. According to his son, Miles Hudson (Soldier, Poet, Rebel): "The ostensible reason for this was the taking of 26th Avenue and it amused him to think that his total and active disregard of orders had resulted in him receiving this award."
Hudson was now promoted to the rank of captain. In the winter of 1916, General Herbert Plumer, began making plans for a major offensive at Messines. His main objective was to take the Messines Ridge, a strategic position just south-east of Ypres, that had been held by the German Army since December, 1914.
In January 1917, Plumer gave orders for 20 mines to be placed under German lines at Messines. Over the next five months more than 8,000 metres of tunnel were dug and 600 tons of explosive were placed in position. Employing 2,300 guns and 300 heavy mortars, Plumer began a massive bombardment of German lines on 21st May. Simultaneous explosion of the mines took place at 3.10 on 7th June. The blast killed an estimated 10,000 soldiers and was so loud it was heard in London.
Under a creeping barrage, General Herbert Plumer sent forward nine divisions of the British Second Army and they took all their preliminary objectives in the first three hours of the battle. This included Hudson and the 11th Sherwood Foresters. As a result of his actions Hudson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
General Sir Hubert Gough and the British Fifth Army also took advantage of the situation to make significant territorial gains from the Germans. The German Army counter-attacked but by 14th June, the Messines Ridge had been completely occupied by British forces. The battle for Messines Ridge was the first on the Western Front since 1914 in which defensive casualties (25,000) exceeded attacking losses (17,000).
Hudson also took part in the third major battle of Ypres, also known as the battle of Passchendaele. General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief in France, was encouraged by the gains made at the offensive at Messines in June 1917. Haig was convinced that the German Army was now close to collapse and once again made plans for a major offensive to obtain the necessary breakthrough.
The opening attack at Passchendaele was carried out by General Hubert Gough and the British Fifth Army with General Herbert Plumer and the Second Army joining in on the right and General Francois Anthoine and the French First Army on the left. After a 10 day preliminary bombardment, with 3,000 guns firing 4.25 million shells, the British offensive started at Ypres a 3.50 am on 31st July.
The German Fourth Army held off the main British advance and restricted the British to small gains on the left of the line. Allied attacks on the German front-line continued despite very heavy rain that turned the Ypres lowlands into a swamp. The situation was made worse by the fact that the British heavy bombardment had destroyed the drainage system in the area. This heavy mud created terrible problems for the infantry and the use of tanks became impossible. Eventually Sir Douglas Haig called off the attacks and did not resume the offensive until late September.
Attacks on 26th September and 4th October enabled the British forces to take possession of the ridge east of Ypres. Despite the return of heavy rain, Haig ordered further attacks towards the Passchendaele Ridge. Attacks on the 9th and 12th October were unsuccessful. As well as the heavy mud, the advancing British soldiers had to endure mustard gas attacks.
Three more attacks took place in October and on the 6th November the village of Passchendaele was finally taken by British and Canadian infantry. The offensive cost the British Expeditionary Force about 310,000 casualties. Sir Douglas Haig was severely criticised for continuing with the attacks long after the operation had lost any real strategic value.
Following the battle of Passchendaele Hudson was sent to Italy to help in the fight against the Austro-Hungarian Army. In February 1918, Hudson's battalion took over from an Italian regiment on the Asiago plateau in the mountains of northern Italy near Granezza.
Hudson and his battalion was sent to hold the front line on the San Sisto ridge. On 15th June 1918 he was involved in action that led to him being awarded the Victoria Cross. According to The London Gazette: "The shelling had been very heavy on the right, the trench destroyed, and considerable casualties had occurred, and all the officers on the spot had been killed or wounded. This enabled the enemy to penetrate our front line. The enemy pushed their advance as far as the support line which was the key to our right flank. The situation demanded immediate action. Lieutenant Colonel Hudson recognising its gravity at once collected various headquarter details, such as orderlies, servants, runners, etc., and together with some Allies, personally led them up the hill. Driving the enemy down the hill towards our front line, he again led a party of about five up the trench, where there were about 200 enemy, in order to attack them from the flank. He then with two men got out of the tranch and rushed the position, shouting to the enemy to surrender, some of whom did. He was then severely wounded by a bomb which exploded on his foot. Although in great pain, he gave directions for the counter-attack to be continued and this was done successfully, about 100 prisoners and six machine guns being taken."
Hudson was taken to Genoa Hospital. He was told by a doctor that he would probably die if he did not agree to the amputation of his leg. He refused and eventually transferred to a hospital in London. He was nursed by Gladys Lee, of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. While in hospital Hudson was visited by Vera Brittain who wanted to ask him about her brother, Edward Brittain, who had been found shot in the head. Previous to this Hudson had warned Brittain that he was being investigated for being involved in homosexual activity with men in his company.
Charles Hudson was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 18th September 1918. Two days later he arrived back in France. On 4th October he led his men across the Hindenburg Line.
After the end of the First World War Hudson fought under General William Ironside in a multinational army against the Bolsheviks. The Red Army gradually got the upper-hand in the Civil War and in the autumn of 1919 they were forced the abandon the White Army to their fate.
On his return to England he married Gladys Lee, his VAD nurse in the London Hospital. She gave birth to two children in 1922 and 1925. Hudson remained in the British Army and served in Northern Ireland and Singapore before being appointed in 1933 as Chief Instructor at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Hudson was part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by General John Gort that went to France. Hudson was placed in command of the 2nd Brigade. The German offensive through the Ardennes during the invasion of France in May, 1940, left 10 divisions of the BEF caught and gradually squeezed onto the beaches of Dunkirk.
On his return a dispute with a senior officer resulted in him losing his command of GOC 46th Division in May 1941. He was sent to Northern Ireland and later served in the Middle East before being appointed Aide-de-camp to the King George V in 1944.
Charles Hudson died on 4th April, 1959, while on holiday in the Scilly Islands.
During the Boer War... small flagged pins stuck into the large maps in my father's study fascinated me then, as they did later during the Russo-Japanese war, but as far as I can remember my father never explained their significance and I never had any hankering after a military career. Life in the army seemed to me excessively dull, for it never occurred to me that there was the remotest likelihood of there ever being another war, and an army without a war seemed to me quite pointless and rather ludicrous.
My father was a magistrate and as such he was asked to ride in the first "horseless carriage" to appear in our neighbourhood. We children were taken to see this by our nurse and the nursemaid. The passengers sat facing each other. A number of speeches were made. A man carrying a red flag stood ready to mount a bicycle as the law required that all mechanically propelled vehicles should be preceded on the public highway by a red flag and he was deputed to carry it. I was in the charge of the nursemaid, and I was much annoyed at being dragged away from the car so that she could ogle the man on the bicycle whose name I learned was Joe. As the motor was set in motion after a few false starts, amidst the cheers of the crowd, a cloud of smoke and an all pervading stink, the nursemaid told me that it might be a wonderful invention but however fast the car might go it would never catch up with Joe. Later I got to know Joe as a superman who wore a shiny striped black and white wristlet watch which fascinated me. His feats of strength were phenomenal. He was the blacksmith's assistant and wielded a heavy hammer all day long. In his spare time, moreover, he was the best quoits player in the village.
Sandhurst was a tonic in many respects. Self-discipline and a sense of duty were firmly inculcated, and for the first time I came in contact with authority as exercised by men who were not themselves brought up in public schools and universities, noncommissioned officers, a new and refreshing experience.
The boys, too, were far more diverse in character and attainments than at Sherborne, coming as they did from many different schools and home environments.
Sherborne had taught me very little of the impact of competitive life on various kinds of individuals, and the effect of ambition on many. Sandhurst began to open my eyes to this new aspect of life in the community. By nature retiring, I made no effort to push myself forward, but in fact had I done so I would not have risen above average in any respect. I did occasionally represent Sandhurst at hockey and tennis, but did not become a regular member of their teams, which in any case were not regarded as being of much importance at the time.
I was sitting in my company headquarters, a corrugated-iron topped shelter cut into the sandbagged parapet, when heavy shelling was concentrated on the remains of a derelict building incorporated in our company sector. One of my platoon commanders, a lad of about 19, was with me. Odd shells were bursting in our vicinity, and the platoon commander, obviously hoping I would advise against it, said, "I suppose I ought to go to my platoon."
This was the first time of many that I had to face the unpleasant responsibility of telling a subordinate to expose himself to a very obvious odds-on chance of being killed. I told him he ought to join his platoon. He had no sooner gone than I heard that haunting long drawn-out cry "stretcher-bearers", to which the men in the trenches were so addicted.
I followed him out, glad of the spur to action. It is so easy to find sound reasons for keeping undercover in unpleasant circumstances. Three company stretcher-bearers were hurrying down the trench. Stretcher-bearers were wonderful people. Ours had been the bandsmen of earlier training days. They were always called to the most dangerous places, where casualties had already taken place, yet there were always men ready to volunteer for the job, at any rate in the early days of the war. The men were not bloodthirsty. Stretcher-bearers were unarmed and though they were not required to do manual labour or sentry-go, this I am sure was not the over-riding reason for their readiness to volunteer.
I had not yet learned that a few casualties always seemed to magnify themselves to at least three times the number they really are and I was filled with horror when I reached the derelict house. A shelter had received a direct hit. I found the subaltern unhurt and frantically engaged in trying to dig out the occupants. The shells were bursting all round the area as I approached, and men cowering undercover were shouting at me to join them. Dust from the shattered brickwork and torn sandbags was flying and this, and the unpleasant evil-smelling fumes from the shells made it difficult to realise what was going on. A man close by me was hit and I began to tend him as a stretcher bearer came to help me. More shells burst almost on top of us. I noticed how white the men were, and I wondered if I was as white as they were.
Their evident fear strengthened my own nerves. We had been lectured on trench warfare, and it suddenly and forcibly struck me that this bombardment might well be a preliminary to a trench raid. At any moment the shelling might lift and almost simultaneously we might find enemy infantry on top of us. I shouted for the subaltern.
"Were any sentries on the lookout" I demanded. I stormed at the men and drove the sentries back on to the parapet. The reserve ammunition had been hit and I cursed the subaltern for not having done anything about replenishment. After this outburst. and in a calmer state of mind, I went from post to post warning the men to be on the lookout. Gradually the shellfire slackened and finally ceased.
That night I found myself physically and mentally exhausted. I determined at least not to try and overcome tears with whisky. I wondered too whether the soldiers, when they had recovered, would regard me as having been "windy". The word was much used by those who had been at the front some time and, like all soldiers' slang, it caught on very quickly with the newcomers.
Once damned with "windiness", an officer lost much of the respect of the men and with it his power of control. Had I in fact been unnecessarily windy? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had, though I found out later that my behaviour had not given that impression. It is comparatively easy for an officer to control himself because he has more to occupy his mind than the men. I resolved in future to think more and talk (or shout) less in an emergency.
It is devilish cold at 3.30 a.m. in the trenches. I am on duty from 2 to 5 this morning and am supposed to be patrolling the trenches, but have taken an interval to write in the officers' mess. A temporary affair, 3 sides sandbags and canvas, top corrugated iron and sandbags.
Yesterday we had a bad shock. Poor old Russell, I don't think you know much of him, was killed. He was an awfully good fellow was Russ, real stolid stuff. I don't mean he was a rough diamond, for he was a gentleman by birth as well as by nature. I had been showing him where I had patrolled the night before in front. Then I went to my dugout and he went to fetch some field glasses - he was using them over the parapet foolishly. He had hardly been up 10 seconds before a bullet went straight through the glasses, knocking the back of his head out. He was dead when I got to him and in fact never spolce, poor boy. It makes mv heart ache to think of his poor mother. I know he ivas so fond of her and, except for her, a woman hater by nature.
I have to take over the Company, it is a great responsibility. There I am with 200 men immediately under me. Times are bound to come where one feels incapable of facing it and would like to consult an older head or simply obey. One will feel, I know, `Have I done everything to safeguard accidents if an attack comes' etc. etc. All that part is the gloomy side, it remains that I have a Company and with the responsibility goes the opportunity. I am the youngest Company Commander by 7 or 8 years!
Today we go into a Rest Camp some miles from here. It will be a pleasant change, although I should like a few more nights here as I have a job to finish. Last night I and a Sergeant (an exMetropolitan Police Force man) went out to the German lines. We crawled out slowly, listening, and got right up to the German parapet and reconnoitred their wire. Apparently they are starting a most elaborate system of wire defence. The part we were opposite was completed and I was dying to go tonight and find out details and especially how far the new system went and if they were working on it now.
I would have gone last night, only a damned ass of a Sergeant has apparently gone off his head and went wandering out this morning without leave. When he came in I blew him up and in the afternoon he calmly sent a message to his platoon officer to say he was going and went at about 3 p.m. and hasn't been seen since. it is now 4.30 a.m. I couldn't very well go out when he was about as I don't want to get shot by m\, own man by mistake and he would probably shoot at sight.
He was a lusty raw-boned lad, unlikely one would think to suffer from nerves, or a mental breakdown. He had been quiet of late, but I had not realised that his nerves were unusually affected. We were very short of officers, and in any case to send an officer from another platoon was unfair and might do irreparable damage to his own prestige in the company. I reasoned with him and persuaded him to go. He was killed. The men said he had refused to lie down when machine gun fire swept across no man's land, as the rest of the party had quite rightly done. Fire at night was un-aimed and of no particular danger or significance. The men thought him foolhardy. I wondered if he had been paralysed by his own fear, or so afraid of being afraid that he had refused to allow himself to take cover.
We spend a lot of our time in bomb-proofs when the enemy are expected to shell, where we are now. They don't seem to have much in the way of munitions now; we did a 30 mins intense this morning just before dawn. It was a wonderful sight, the great flashes of the guns lit up the sky for miles. I stood with my back to the parapet and could see beautifully - most awe inspiring. They were bursting the German wire and parapet on either side of us and the shells went whiz - louder and louder then bang until the earth shook. Poor Germans! They have to take it lying down now apparently. One battery tried to fight back but our guns for miles turned streams of shell onto them. I could hear them go out towards it like angry bees, fierce as anything, until the battery stopped, which it did pretty quick. They are getting a few more in now but it is absolutely safe unless they get a direct hit - a small risk for war.
It's a marvellous thing, this modern war, and makes one feel pretty small. I wouldn't have missed it for anything, although at times one would give one's soul for it to stop.
On the evening before the attack, company commanders were called to HO for a final briefing. After the colonel had outlined the plan, the senior company commander, an ex-regular, a horsy type, tall, slim, good-looking and stupid, rose to speak. He pointed out that in accordance with previous orders he had sent out patrols to see if the bombardment had succeeded in cutting the enemy wire. The wire, he said, had not been cut and the other company commanders, including myself, confirmed this. The colonel pointed out that as we would not be asked to advance unless the enemy withdrew, too much importance need not be placed on this. This remark was the occasion for an hysterical outburst from the senior company commander. We were being asked, he said, to sacrifice ourselves against uncut wire. The order amounted to murder, he for one would absolutely refuse to let his men advance against uncut wire. The colonel repeated that our orders were dependent on the success of the main attack and the withdrawal of the enemy, but the Major had completely lost control of himself. In a wild welter of words, he inveighed against our commanders and staffs and their whole attitude towards the fighting troops. How were the staff to know whether or not the enemy opposite our sector had withdrawn? We would be ordered to advance just the same whether they had or not. At this, the colonel broke up the meeting and the Major, I am glad to say, was ordered to hand over his company.
The conditions in the winter in Ypres salient were appalling. The water was too close to the surface to allow of deep trenches being dug, and this difficulty had been overcome to sonic extent by the building of ramparts of sandbags above ground level. The cold was intense but frost at least had the advantage of preventing one sinking as deeply into the mud at the bottom of the trench, as was normally the case. As time went slowly on, conditions improved with the increased production of trench boards and the issue of rubber thigh boots. Short rubber boots were a menace as they were always soaking wet. Amenities began to appear in the form of hot food containers, braziers and leather jerkins but only the young and strong could stand up to the conditions for long. Curiously enough my malaria had entirely left me and in spite of being cold and wet for days and nights on end I never had a day's sickness necessitating my being off duty throughout the rest of the war.
I am sure now that I did not appreciate the physical strain on men older than myself, nor did I allow for, or really sufficiently appreciate, the strain and anxiety of the married men. A sergeant in a confidential moment in a long night watch, once said to me, "It's all very well for you, you are unmarried and haven't a wife and children to worry about, but if I am killed what, I wonder, will happen to my family", My wife is not the managing sort, she has always depended entirely on me, and she has never been strong. Her people are dead and my mother is an invalid herself. After this I always tried surreptitiously to avoid sending married men on the more dangerous duties, but a high proportion of men, and nearly all the NCOs, were married.
Domestic anxiety was particularly acute amongst a considerable section of men who did not or could not trust their wives. As is well known now to everyone, but was not so well known to me then, relations or friends always get some obscure kick out of warning absent husbands that their wives are "carrying on". This type of thing was not by any means confined to the ranks. I had the greatest admiration for a certain RAMC colonel. Few of his rank visited companies in the front line, but he came round frequently, talked to the men, and really knew the conditions under which they lived. He was the commander of the Field Ambulance which normally dealt with our casualties and his visits were very much appreciated. I had been told that he had an appalling temper and treated his own officers very harshly, but he could not have been more charming to me. One day we read in the papers that he had been arrested for murder. When on leave he had shot his wife's lover whom he had found "in flagrante delicto". There was much talk in the company of a petition to be sent home from them on his behalf, but nothing came of this as, in fact, he was found to be mad and sent to Broadmoor. Later a lance corporal in my company, whom I knew from the censoring of his letters home had an unfaithful wife, was due for home leave. I had a talk with him, but the only result was that he refused to go home at all. The days of organised welfare had not yet begun.
Records that I still have show that we went out to France with twenty-eight officers and that in ten months twenty-six new officers had been posted to us. Many of the newly joined officers became casualties. The colonel, adjutant and second in command remained and about one officer per company. Not all the officers who had gone had been wounded or killed, many had gone sick, others were just too old or too nervous to stand up to the strain of the trenches. At 24 I found myself well up to, if not above, the average age of the officers.
No man's land in the salient varied from a few yards, incredible as this sounds, to about a hundred yards. Shelling was not as common in the front line itself as further back owing to the proximity of the enemy. Trench mortar fire and rifle grenades were our bugbears in the front line. I preferred, of the two, shelling. A shell came quickly, a trench mortar rose high into the air and then on reaching the apex of its flight came down, turning over and over like an old boot, landing with a thud before it burst. From the apex downwards it always appeared to be making straight for you if you watched it, much as the eyes of a portrait seem to follow the viewer round a room. I learned not to look.
We are now 150yd from Fritz and the moon is bright, so we bend and walk quietly onto the road running diagonally across the front into the Bosche line. There is a stream the far side of this - boards have been put across it at intervals but must have fallen in - about 20yd down we can cross. We stop and listen - swish - and down we plop (for a flare lights everything up) it goes out with a hiss and over the board we trundle on hands and knees. Still.
Apparently no one has seen so we proceed to crawl through a line of "French" wire. Now for 100yd dead flat weed-land with here and there a shell hole or old webbing equipment lying in little heaps! These we avoid. This means a slow, slow crawl head down, propelling ourselves by toes and forearm, body and legs flat on the ground, like it snake.
A working party of Huns are in their lair. We can just see dark shadows and hear the Sergeant, who is sitting down. He's got a bad cold! We must wait a bit, the moon's getting low but it's too bright now 5 a.m. They will stop soon and if we go on we may meet a covering party lying low. 5.10. 5.15. 5.25. 5.30. And the moon's gone.
"Cot the bombs, Sergeant?"
"'No. Sir, I forgot them!"
"Huns" and the last crawl starts.
The Bosch is moving and we crawl quickly on to the wire - past two huge shell holes to the first row. A potent row of standards are the first with a nut at the top and strand upon strand of barbed wire. The nut holds the two iron pieces at the top and the ends are driven into the ground 3ft apart. Evidently this line is made behind the parapet and brought out, the legs of the standard falling together. All the joins where the strands cross are neatly done with a separate piece of plain wire. Out comes the wire cutter. I hold the strands to prevent them jumping apart when cut and Stafford cuts. Twenty-five strands are cut and the standard pulled out. Two or three tins are cut off as we go. (These tins are hung on to give warning and one must beware of them.) Next a space 4ft then low wire entanglements as we cut on through to a line of iron spikes and thick, heavy barbed wire.
The standard has three furls to hold the wire up and strive as we can, it won't come out. "By love, it's a corkscrew, twist it round" and then, wonder of wonders, up it goes and out it comes! It is getting light, a long streak has already appeared and so we just make a line of "knife rests" (wire on wooden X-X) against the German parapet and proceed to return. I take the corkscrew and Stafford the iron double standard. My corkscrew keeps on catching and Stafford has to extract me twice from the wire, his standard is smooth and only 3ft so he travels lighter. He leads back down a bit of ditch. Suddenly a sentry fires 2 shots which spit on the ground a few yards in front. We lie absolutely flat, scarcely daring to breathe - has he seen? Then we go on with our trophies, the ditch gets a little deeper, giving cover! My heart is beating nineteen to the dozen - will it mean a machine gun, Stafford is gaining and leads by 10yd. "My God," I think, "it is a listening post ahead and this the ditch to it. I must stop him." I whisper, "Stafford, Stafford" and feel I am shouting. He stops, thinking I have got it. "Do you think it's a listening post?" There! By the mound - listen."
"Perhaps we had better cut across to the left Sir."
"Very well." This time I lead. Thank God, the ditch and road over the ditch, and we run like hell-bent double. Suddenly I go a fearful cropper and a machine gun is rattling in the distance and the streak is getting bigger every minute.
"Are you all right Sir," from Stafford.
I laugh, "Forgot that damned wire." (Our own wire outside our listening post). The LP occupants have gone in. Soon we are behind the friendly parapet and it is day. We are ourselves again, but there's a subtle cord between us, stronger than barbed wire, that will take a lot of cutting. Twenty to seven, 2 hrs 10 minutes of life - war at its best. But shelling, no, that's death at its worst. And I can't go again, it's a vice. Immediately after I swear I'll never do it again, the next night I find myself aching after "No Man's Land".
Elaborate and very detailed orders for the coming battle came out, and were altered and revised again and again. Inspections and addresses followed each other in rapid succession whenever we came out of the line. The country, miles ahead of our starting trench, was studied on maps and models. Mouquet Farm, the objective of my company on the first day, will always stand out in my memory as a name, though I was never to see it.
Our battalion was to be the last of the four battalions of our Brigade to go 'over the top'. We were to carry immense loads of stores needed by the leading battalion, when the forward enemy trench system was overrun, and dump our loads before we advanced on Mouquet Farm. In the opening phase therefore, we were reduced to the status of pack mules. We flattered ourselves however that we had been specially selected to carry out the more highly skilled and onerous role of open warfare fighting, when the trench system had been overcome.
Never in history, we were told, had so many guns been concentrated on any front. Our batteries had the greatest difficulty in finding gun positions, and millions of shells were dumped at the gun sites. Had all the guns, we were told, been placed on one continuous line, their wheels would have interlocked. Nothing, we were assured, could live to resist our onslaught.
The first unpleasant hitch in the arrangements occurred when the attack was put off for twenty-four hours. It was later postponed another twenty-four hours. The explanation given was that the French were not ready. Our own non-stop night and day bombardment continued. We were in the front line, with the assaulting battalions behind us in reserve trenches. Apart from the strain of waiting, we found our own shelling exhausting, and received a fair amount counter-shelling and mortaring in reply. We remained in the front line from 27 June until the night of 30 June, when we were withdrawn to allow the assaulting units to take up their positions. As a result of the forty-eight hour postponement the men were not as fresh for the attack as we had hoped, and there was a feeling abroad that a lot of ammunition had been expended which might be badly missed later.
That night, 30 June, we spent in dugouts cut into the side of a high bank. Behind us lay the shell-shattered remains of Authuile Wood, and further back the town of Albert. That night I was asked to attend a party given by the officers of another company. Reluctantly I went. Though no one in the smoke-filled dugout when I arrived was drunk, they were far from being sober and obviously strung up. Their efforts to produce a cheerful atmosphere depressed me. Feeling a wet blanket, I slipped away as soon as I decently could. As I walked back, the gaunt misshapen shell-shattered trees looked like grim tortured El Greco-like figures in the moonlight. I tried to shake off emotion, and though feeling impelled to pray, I deliberately refused myself the outlet, for to do so now, merely because I was frightened, seemed both unfair and unreasonable. Fortunately I could always sleep when the opportunity arose, and I slept normally well that night.
Though my company was not due to move up the communication trench until some time after zero hour, breakfasts were over and the men were all standing by before it was light. At dawn the huge, unbelievably huge, crescendo of the opening barrage began. Thousands and thousands of small calibre shells seemed to be whistling close above our heads to burst on the enemy front line. Larger calibre shells whined their way to seek out targets farther back, and shells from the heavies, like rumbling railway trains, could be heard almost rambling along high above us, to land with mighty detonations way back amongst the enemy strong-points and battery areas behind.
It was not long before the electrifying news came down the line that our assault battalions had overrun the enemy front line and had been seen still going strong close up behind the barrage. The men cheered up. The march to Berlin had begun! I was standing on the top of the bank, and at that moment I felt genuinely sorry for the unfortunate German infantry. I could picture in my mind the agony they were undergoing, for I could see the solid line of bursting shells throwing great clouds of earth high into the air. I thought of the horror of being in the midst of that great belt of explosion. where nothing. I thought, could live. The belt was so thick and deep that the wounded would be hit again and again.
Still there was no reply from the enemy. It looked as if our guns had silenced their batteries before they had got a shot off. I climbed down the bank anxious for more news. When our time came to advance we had to file some way along and under the embankment before turning up the communication trench. A company of the support battalion was to precede us and their men were already on the move gaily cracking ribald jokes as they passed by.
They had not long been gone when the enemy guns opened. This in itself was rather startling. How. I wondered, could any guns have survived? Only a few odd shells fell near us but the shelling farther up seemed very heavy. We were not, then, going to have it all our own way. Impatient, I slipped on ahead of the company to the entrance of the communication trench up which we were to go.
Some wounded were already being carried out and I wondered whether the stretchers would delay our advance. As I neared the trench, I saw the Brigade trench mortar officer, and went to get the latest news from him. To my disgust I found he was not only very drunk but in a terrible state of nerves. With tears running down his face, and smelling powerfully of brandy, he begged me not to take my company forward. The whole attack he shouted was a terrible failure, the trench ahead was a shambles, it was murder up there, he was on his way to tell the Brigadier so...
We found the short length of trench packed tight with wounded. Some begged for help, some to be left alone to die. I told the company sergeant major (CSM) to set about clearing the trench of wounded while I went to tell platoon commanders the alteration in our plan. When I got back the CSM was bending over a severely wounded young officer. He was very heavy and when an attempt was made to move him the pain was so acute that the men making the attempt drew back aghast. The trench was very narrow and as he lay full-length along it we had to move him. As long as I live I shall not forget the horror of lifting that poor boy. He died, a twitching mass of tautened muscles in our arms as we were carrying him. Even my own men looked at me as if I had been the monster I felt myself to be in attempting to move him. Sick with horror, I drove them on, forcing them to throw the dead bodies out of the trench.
At last the way was clear, and I called up the first platoon to go over the narrow end of the trench, two at a time. I was to go first with my two orderlies, and Bartlett, the officer commanding the first platoon, was to follow. I told the CSM to wait and see the company over but he flatly declined, saying his place was with company HO and that he was coming with me. I hadn't the heart to refuse him.
As I ran, wisps of dust seemed to be spitting up all round me, and I found myself trying to skip over them. Then it suddenly dawned on me that we were under fire, and the dust was caused by bullets. I saw someone standing up behind the bank ahead waving wildly. He was shouting something. I threw myself down. It was the second-in-command of the support battalion, an ex-regular regimental sergeant major of the Guards and a huge man. He was shouting. "Keep away, for God's sake, keep away!"
I shouted back, "What's up?"
"We are under fire here," he yelled, "You'll only draw more fire."
I realised that the fire came not only from in front of us but from across the valley to our left and behind us. My plan was hopeless. The young orderly who had had hysterics was hit. He cried out and was almost immediately hit again. I crept close up against his dead body, wondering if a man's body gave any protection. Would that machine gunner never stop blazing at us? In an extremity of fear I pulled a derelict trench mortar barrel between me and the bullets. Suddenly the fire was switched off to some other target.
The CSM had been hit as he had been crawling towards me. I had shouted to him to keep down but he crawled on, his nose close to the ground, his immense behind clearly visible, and a tempting target! It is extraordinary how in action one can be one moment almost gibbering with fright, and the next, when released from immediate physical danger, almost gay. When the CSM let out a loud yell, I shouted: "Are you hit"
"Yes, Sir," he shouted back. "But not badly."
"That will teach you to keep your bottom down," I shouted back, upon which there was a ribald cheer from the men nearby. When I reached the CSM he was quite cheerful and wanted to carry on, but was soon persuaded to return and stop more men leaving the trench.
Bartlett had taken cover in a shell hole and I rolled in to join him as the firing swept over us again. Besides us, the hole was occupied by an elderly private of one of the leading battalions. He was unwounded, quite resigned, and entirely philosophic about the situation. He said no one but a fool would attempt to go forward, as it was obvious that the attack had failed. He pointed out that we were quite safe where we were, and all we had to do was to wait until dark to get back. I asked him what he was doing unwounded in a hole so far behind his battalion. He said he was a regular soldier who had been wounded early in the war, and that he was not going to be wounded again in the sort of fool attacks that the officers sitting in comfortable offices behind the lines planned! (I give of course a paraphrase of his actual discourse.) He said he certainly would not be alive now if he had not had the sense to take cover as soon as possible after going over the top, as he had done at Festubert. Loos, and a series of other battles in which he said he had been engaged. He reckoned that this was the only hope an infantryman had of surviving the war. When the High Command had learned how to conduct a battle which had a reasonable chance of success, he would willingly take part! I told him if he went on in this way, I would put him under arrest for cowardice.
It was a strange interlude in battle, and I realised that my own uncertainty as to what should be done gave rise to it. I was agitated, feeling that inactivity was unforgivable, particularly when the leading battalions must be fighting for their lives, and sorely needing reinforcements. It seemed Useless to attempt to get forward from where we were, even if we could collect enough men to make the attempt. In the end I forced myself to get out of the shell hole and walk along parallel with the enemy line and away from the valley on our left, calling on men of all battalions who were scattered about in shell holes, to be ready to advance when I blew mv whistle.
This effort, in which I was supported by Bartlett, was shortlived. Bullets were flying all round us both from front and flank. One hit my revolver out of my hand, another drove a hole through my water bottle, and more and more fire was being concentrated upon us. Ignominiously I threw myself down. We were no better off.
It was up to me to make a decision. Bartlett quietly but firmly refused to offer any suggestion. I took the only course that seemed open to me, other than giving in altogether as the defeatist private soldier had so phlegmatically advocated, and I so vehemently condemned. We returned to our own front line, crawling all the way and calling on any men we saw to follow us, though few in fact did.
There was no movement in no man's land, though one apparently cheerful man of my own company, a wag, was crawling forward on all fours, a belt of machine gun ammunition swinging under his stomach, shouting. Anyone know the way to Mouquet Farm?
A soldier I did not know was running back screaming at the top of his voice. He was entirely naked and had presumably gone mad, or perhaps he thought he was so clearly disarmed that he would not be shot at! Bartlett and I reached our trench without mishap and began working down it, trying to collect any men we could. The shelling on the front line trench had stopped. At one trench shelter I came on a sergeant who had once been in my company, and at my summons he lurched to the narrow entrance of the tiny shelter. I thought at first he was drunk.
"Come on, Sergeant," I said, "Get your men together and follow me down the trench."
"I'd like to come with you, Sir," he said, "But I can't with this lot."
I looked down and saw to my horror that the lower part of his left leg had been practically severed. He was standing on one leg, holding himself upright by gripping the frame of the entrance.
At the junction of the front line with a communication trench further down the line, I found the staff captain (not the one with the broken nerves). I told him I was collecting the remnants of our men, and asked him if he thought I ought to make another effort to advance. I knew in my heart that I only asked because I hoped he would authorise no further effort, but he said that the last message he had had from Brigade HO was that attempts to break through to the leading battalions must continue to be made at all costs. He told me our colonel and second-in-command had gone over the top to try and carry the men forward, and both had been wounded. I must judge for myself, he said, but there had been no orders to abandon the attack.
I discovered from the staff captain what had happened. The leading battalions had swept over the enemy trenches without opposition, but had not delayed to search the deep dugouts, as this was the job of the supporting battalion. As the supporting battalion had been held up by shellfire, the German machine gunners in the deep dugouts had had time to emerge from their cover and open fire. It seemed clear that, unpleasant as the prospect was, a further effort to advance must be made. There was a slight depression in no man's land further to the right, which would give a narrow column of men, crawling, cover from fire from both flanks and front. I determined to try this, and the staff captain wished me luck.
Bartlett had by now collected about forty men, and standing on the fire step, I told them what had happened. There could not be many enemy in the front line, I said. If we could once penetrate into the enemy trench it would not be difficult to bomb our way along it; then we could call forward many of our own men who were pinned to the ground in no man's land. I painted a very rosy picture. One more effort and victory was ours. Hundreds of battles had. I said, been lost for the lack of that one last effort.
We had got a good many men over the parapet when a machine gun opened up. I do not think the fire was actually directed at us but I was just giving a man a hand up when a bullet went straight through the lobe of his ear, splashing blood over both of us. The men in the trench below were very shaken, though not more than I was! The man hit wasted no time in diving into cover, but there was nothing I could do except stay where I was, as the men would never have come on if I were to disappear into the cover I was longing to take. Luckily the enemy machine gunner did not swing his gun back as I had feared.
When all the men were over the parapet, Bartlett and I started to crawl past them up to the top of the column. Not a shot was being fired at us and I told Bartlett to pass the men as they came up, down a line parallel to the enemy trench, while I crawled on a bit to see if the wire opposite us was destroyed. I heard a few enemy talking well away to our left, a machine gun opened up, but it was firing away from us. The wire seemed fairly well destroyed. I slipped back to Bartlett to find that only eight men had reached him, and that no one else seemed to be coming. Eight men were enough to surprise and capture the machine gun or never. I jumped up and feeling rather absurdly dramatic, I ran along our short line of men shouting "Charge!" Bartlett was at my heels and as I turned towards the enemy line some men rose to their feet.
I remember trying to jump some twisted wire, being tripped up and falling headlong into a deep shell hole right on top of a dead man and an astonished corporal. Soon a shower of hand bombs were bursting all round us and the corporal and myself pressed ourselves into the side of the shell hole. When I had recovered my breath I shouted for Bartlett and was relieved to hear a muffled reply from a nearby shell hole.
It was now about eleven o'clock on a very hot day. Bartlett and I managed to dig our way towards each other with bayonets, but we failed to get in touch with any of our men, who had apparently not come as far. The corporal turned out to be badly wounded and in spite of our efforts to help him his pain increased as the day wore on. Whenever we showed any sign of life the enemy lobbed a bomb at us and we soon learned to keep quiet.
That night, except for an occasional flare and a little desultory shelling, was absolutely quiet. In the light of a flare it seemed as if the whole of no man's land was one moving mass of men crawling and dragging themselves or their wounded comrades back to our trenches. Bartlett and I tried to carry the corporal but he was very heavy and in such pain that he begged me to be put down at frequent intervals. There were some stretcher bearers about and I sent Bartlett to find one but he lost his way and I did not see him again until next day.
In the end I crawled under the corporal and managed to get him onto my shoulders. He died in my arms soon after we reached our own front line.
Your account of the Labour Reunion makes me furious. If I could ever make a good speech it would be on the subject of peace or war at this moment. It makes me sick to think of the swine who sit at home and, knowing nothing of any emotion, except those affecting their fat stomachs, talk of making overtures to the people who have for years laid themselves out to crush every instinct of a decent minded gentleman, and in the attempt have killed and maimed thousands of those fat bellied, grovelling swindlers' own kith and kin.
If they had seen a trench, as I have, so filled to the top with dead and dying, in their agonies, and the look of terror on brave men's faces and all the horrors of a war, they couldn't sit calmly in their seats and listen to proposals for climbing down to those who made such things possible. I haven't got time to write a speech but I wish to God people at home would try to realise for one moment what realities are before they start into talk. I would rather die a thousand times than let these poor boys suffer what so many have, for nothing.
It is difficult to see how Haig, as Commander-in-Chief living in the atmosphere he did, so divorced from the fighting troops, could fulfil the tremendous task that was laid upon him effectively. I did not believe then, and I do not believe now that the enormous casualties were justified. Throughout the war huge bombardments failed again and again yet we persisted in employing the same hopeless method of attack. Many other methods were possible, some were in fact used but only halfheartedly. Our sudden unheralded attack at Cambrai was not followed up: the German success on 21 March 1918 was said to be largely due to the fog and our lightly held front; an attack at night on a quiet sector would have produced similar conditions. Tunnelling under the enemy wire on a large scale would have got over the need for the destruction of the forward defences by a bombardment which made the ground impassable. Planned withdrawal, followed by a planned counter-attack, would have raised political difficulties and military risks. but how great were the possibilities. The politicians thought only in terms of strategy, of avoiding casualties by finding some distant way round the stalemate on the Western Front. Had either the French or ourselves been able to find a general of a calibre required. the stalemate could have been overcome tactically. The one hopeless tactic, the mass bombardment, which was repeatedly tried, was proved again and again to be fruitless.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when his battalion was holding the right front sector during an attack on the British front. The shelling had been very heavy on the right, the trench destroyed, and considerable casualties had occurred, and all the officers on the spot had been killed or wounded. This enabled the enemy to penetrate our front line. The enemy pushed their advance as far as the support line which was the key to our right flank. The situation demanded immediate action.
Lieutenant Colonel Hudson recognising its gravity at once collected various headquarter details, such as orderlies, servants, runners, etc., and together with some Allies, personally led them up the hill. Driving the enemy down the hill towards our front line, he again led a party of about five up the trench, where there were about 200 enemy, in order to attack them from the flank. He then with two men got out of the tranch and rushed the position, shouting to the enemy to surrender, some of whom did. He was then severely wounded by a bomb which exploded on his foot. Although in great pain, he gave directions for the counter-attack to be continued and this was done successfully, about 100 prisoners and six machine guns being taken.
Without doubt the high courage and determination displayed by Lieutenant Colonel Hudson saved a serious situation and had it not been for his quick determination in organising the counter-attack a large number of the enemy would have dribbled through, and a counter-attack on a larger scale would have been necessary to restore the situation.
He (Charles Hudson) was ambitious and intrepid, the son of a Regular Army officer who could not afford to equip him for a peacetime commission, the young man had found in the War the fulfilment of his baffled longing for military distinction. His VC... sitting on the pinnacle of his martial ambitions - a stiff young disciplinarian, impregnated with all the military virtues but limited in imagination and benevolence.
In 1930, my wife and I were travelling back from Singapore. At Colombo the Great War Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, his wife and daughter and a personal doctor, joined the ship. Lloyd George was recovering from an operation but was full of vigour, too full, his gentle wife seemed to think, for he would stamp around the decks, his short legs shooting out aggressively in spite of the weight which they seemed so inadequately designed to carry. He was writing his war memoirs and had reached the chapter in which the clash with Lord Haig was dealt with.
Enquiring one day about my war service, he asked if I had been at Paschendaele and what I, as a fighting soldier, thought of it. Few could resist his wonderful personal charm. I wanted to agree with him, and in many ways I did. No one in their senses could believe that a general, who really knew what the conditions at the front were, could have insisted on blundering on through that impossible morass. Some better way of achieving the object in view could surely have been found. I had long felt this, but an innate sense of loyalty made me hesitate to say so. L.G. was far too shrewd a judge of his fellow men to be deceived.
"The trouble with you soldiers," he said, "is always the same. Whatever the rights or wrongs of any question you will always back each other up. All the same," he added, "I have yet to meet anyone who actually fought at Paschendaele who did not believe the battle to have been a terrible mistake."
With that, he dismissed the subject. Personally, I know nothing of Lord Haig. I had never seen him but I believe him to have been a man of high moral quality though I had been told that he was quite unable to get down to the level of the men. There was the story of how his staff' had told him, before some inspection, that he must try to speak personally to a proportion of men on parade. Conscientiously trying to follow this advice, he said in a friendly tone to an obviously old soldier.
"Well, my man, where did you start the war?" To which the man, looking rather aggrieved, replied, "I didn't start the war."
After this the General passed on down the ranks without any attempt at conversation. And another story of how he visited some young officers doing a tactical course: he said he had little time to spare and could not go into the detail of the tactical scheme which they were studying, but would give them some general advice based on his own experience of war. He proceeded to enlarge on the theme that in war everything depended on being able to move faster than the enemy. As he left, he turned to the instructor and said: "By the way, what is the theme of the scheme you are studying?" To which the instructor, looking rather embarrassed, replied: "The withdrawal, Sir."