In February 2011, I spent several days visiting a number of cemeteries near Arras as part of my research. Although the weather was cold and dry with a heavy frost on the ground, conditions were actually quite good for visiting the battlefields. At Écoivres Military Cemetery I came across a row of men from the 1/2nd (Lowland) Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, all of whom were killed on the same day, the 27th May 1918. Once back in England, I consulted the unit’s war diary at the National Archives where I found an account of the incident. I had plenty of other material to get through that day, but I suspect that like many researchers, I just couldn’t help leafing through the papers in front of me, and I’m glad I did; they make very interesting reading.
War diaries are nearly always written up with a fair degree of objectivity, and deliberately so. Whilst some are fairly sparse, others can be incredibly detailed. However, it’s extremely rare to find them full of personal expression and comment. It seems that Major W.A. Burns, the man writing the unit’s diary at the time, was not a man to hold back his feelings. At times, it felt more like a ‘blog’ than a war diary.
In early May 1918 his unit was based at Aux Rietz, a system of dug-outs and caves near La Targette that also served as a main dressing station. By the 7th May it had taken over two advanced dressing stations from Canadian units, one at La Chaudière, the other in the village of Vimy. Each advanced dressing station was served by two motor ambulance cars, and six were allocated to the main dressing station. From there, casualties were normally evacuated to clearing stations situated around Aubigny-en-Artois, though in special cases they could also be taken to medical facilities elsewhere.
Although at that time the Arras sector was not under any immediate pressure, daily attrition and sickness provided a steady stream of casualties for Major Burns and his teams to deal with. The unit’s war diary, written up by him each day, starts by commenting on the shortage of supplies, and particularly the length of time between ordering them and their eventual arrival. Along with the thorny problem of leave, he also expresses his concerns over the state of the advanced dressing station in Vimy. The caves at Aux Rietz offered very good protection from enemy shelling, but the facilities at Vimy, which were situated in ruined buildings, were not particularly safe and were subject to frequent enemy bombardments.
He goes on to state that he has received numerous letters with regard to leave from relatives of his staff, or rather the apparent lack of it. In his view, the leave periods were not long enough, and the frequency with which they were being granted was also insufficient. His entries leave little room for doubt about his growing sense of frustration.
His complaints continue; the order for methylated spirits still hasn’t arrived, even stationary is scarce, and at one point he openly expresses doubts as to whether the authorities are capable of supplying anything at all, remarking caustically that this had never been a problem in Egypt. Given that these entries were destined to be read at brigade and divisional level, his revelations are remarkably frank. In modern parlance, what he needed was a little support from his line manager, but he appears to have been barking in the wilderness, and his sense of frustration is very palpable.
On the 15th May he records that he has written to the ADMS (Assistant Director of Medical Services) regarding the question of leave for his staff, and the following day, he notes that he has written to him again suggesting the matter be referred to the Corps commander.
Things reach almost farcical levels when, on the 19th May, he again writes to the ADMS about one of his men, who until then had been employed as the unit’s tailor. No doubt this individual’s role was to ‘mend and make do’ with regard to linen and clothing, etc. and at a time when supplies appear to have been in short supply, his services would have been even more crucial to the unit’s efficiency. However, without a word of explanation, Burns discovers that the man has been taken away to work as a costumier to the divisional concert troupe! When I read this, my thoughts immediately recalled the episode in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ in which General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett decides that the army’s interests would be best served by holding a concert party. My heart also went out to the long suffering Major Burns.
To cap a really bad day, Burns also notes that he has had to send the ADMS a copy of his unit’s war diary for the entire month of December 1917, (wait for it!) because the original had been lost at sea. The following day, the 20th May, he writes to the ADMS asking for a telephone link to Brigade HQ in order to facilitate early evacuation from casualty collection posts in his area. The reply comes back that this can’t be done, along with the not-too-helpful suggestion that he should make use of the telephone at the advanced signal office.
Meanwhile, his advanced dressing station at Vimy is becoming ever more vulnerable to shelling, not least because the Germans have very good observation over it. On the 25th May he notes that his unit has been relieved at Aux Rietz by the 3rd (Lowland) Field Ambulance and is now moving to a new main dressing station at St-Éloi. His men move into huts there, but at 4 a.m. on the 27th tragedy strikes when one of the huts receives a direct hit from an enemy shell causing carnage. This is the incident to which I refer in ‘Arras North’.
Having dealt with all that, Burns writes to the ADMS requesting an urgent interview with the DDMS (Deputy Director of Medical Services) XVIII Corps. The reason for this request is also laid bare by him when he notes that its purpose is to discuss an adverse report by the ADMS with regard to his application for a command, which has recently been turned down. The sense of grievance, both personal and professional, is very clear, and with fears mounting over even his substantive rank, it is hard not to sympathize with a man who was clearly trying to do his utmost in very difficult circumstances. This is a man who is quite obviously under tremendous strain and whose morale is close to rock bottom.
In fairness to the system he was up against, it’s very important for us to remember that almost everything had to be brought over to the Western Front, from pencils and paper to bullets and other ordnance, and there were theatres of operation too. The logistical challenges were simply enormous. What this diary does so well is that it serves to remind us of those challenges, highlighting the everyday struggles that took place within the British Army just to keep ‘the show on the road’.
Whilst on the subject of war diaries, this is maybe a good place to pay tribute to those battalions and other units which believed in modern technology and invested in a typewriter, or failing that, those ‘diarists’ who at least took the trouble to sharpen their pencils while working. Deciphering handwriting is often bad enough, but handwriting in soft, blunt pencil a hundred years down the line is always something of a nightmare for researchers. For me, the man with a typewriter, who also knew how to change the ribbon, will always be one of the many unsung heroes of the war.