Alfred Mills 

10th Battalion Royal Fusiliers
(City of London Regiment) the 'Stockbrokers'
 and The Royal Engineers

Great War Diary 1914-1918


 

Monday 9 August Armentiers
Armentiers looked grey, even in the late morning sunshine and my feet were starting to become a bit sore. Marching 9 miles or so from Bailleul this morning on rough cobbled roads was beginning to take its toll.

Skinny was really labouring alongside me and despite all the training and route marches; he still seemed as fat as the day we met in the Bell tent nearly a year ago. "It's my fate in life" and "God wanted me this way" were constant mantras, but he was a good sort and always up for a laugh. Skinny was from Swansea and a devout Chapel goer.

We marched passed the Town Hall and turned into Rue de Lille before turning into a dark side street and halting outside a factory.

The factory had been a used for weaving and looked pretty grubby. "Right, dump your packs and find a cosy place to spread your blankets. This is your new home, there's running water and privies, and ?ot baths around the corner" yelled Sgt Clapp. "Get smartened up and assemble out 'ere in 15 minutes so we can go and get inspected outside the Town Hall" he intoned. This was the only time we actually prepared for an inspection at the end of a march.

A colonel I didn't know, inspected us and he sat very still and resplendent on his charger as we marched past and then we stood in line along with some fellas from the Yorkshire Regiment.

The colonel informed us that we all had an important job to do and this sector was very critical to the campaign. I immediately tensed with excitement. This was what we had been waiting for. A chance to have a go at the Hun. I was to hear those same words many times over in the next few years, by which time; I had grown a little weary of them. But, standing in that square, I felt proud and set to do my best.

That night, about 9:00pm, we marched out following a railway line to a place called Houplines, where an assembled mound of picks and shovels awaited us. We worked all night digging trenches. Our efforts were sparked by a constant stream of machine gun fire from somewhere to the east of us, but in the gloom all we saw were flashes but it induced us to dig deeper and faster. The sub-soil was wet and heavy and marching back to our billet in the morning just as dawn was breaking, we all looked a right bunch of ragamuffins. We used the baths around the corner from our billet in an old brewery. Some vats had been converted for bathing.

By the time I had cleaned my kit it was gone 10 and I just collapsed onto my blanket and fell sound asleep.

Tuesday 10 August Armentiers
I awoke about 4:00pm feeling a bit stiff and hungry. I reached into my pack for a couple of ration biscuits before rising and seeing to my ablutions. Shaving in cold water freshened me up and I set about tidying my kit up before seeking out the canteen to have a brew and a bite.

Mail arrived with letters from Ma, Winnie, and Dot (Winnie's sister).

I and Skinny had a look around the town but were cautious as we had been warned not to speak to the locals, not that we could as they spoke French and we spoke English. All we saw were old women with huge wicker baskets and loads of fellas from other Regiments.

We popped into something called an estaminet but didn't fancy a drink, so left.

That night, it was back to Houplines for more trench digging. Jerry had us taped. This time they had searchlights and strafed us along the railway line we had to follow outside Houplines, causing us to duck and weave before we jumped into the trench we had dug the night before.

By the morning, the parapet was up and various communication trenches had been created and we felt like hardened veterans, even though not one of us had fired a shot at the enemy yet.

The morning was a repeat of the previous one. Get cleaned up and collapse on my blanket.

Wednesday 11 August Armentiers
Got up in the afternoon, wrote to Ma, had a walk, got some food and went trench digging.

Thursday 12 August Armentiers
Getting into a routine now and I'm starting to think I'll be digging bleeding trenches for the rest of the war.

Mail arrived in the afternoon with letters and cigarettes from Dot and Emily (Amy Emily). We called her Emily as we had an Aunt Amy, so as not to confuse. Also I had cigarettes and baccy from Dad.

Night time and running the gauntlet along the railway line was becoming second nature. There was more chance of being struck by all the picks and shovels flying around as we hit the deck than the machine gun bullets that came whistling over our heads.

Friday 13 August Armentiers

Same old routine of trench digging, getting filthy and cleaning up afterwards. Wrote to Dad, Emily and Dot.

Saturday 14 August Armentiers

Same old routine of trench digging, getting filthy and cleaning up afterwards. Wrote to Winnie.

Sunday 15 August Armentiers
Same old routine of trench digging, getting filthy and cleaning up afterwards

Monday 16 August Armentiers
Same old routine of trench digging, getting filthy and cleaning up afterwards

Tuesday 17 August Armentiers
Moved billet today to a disused warehouse on the western side of the town centre. 

Jerry started to shell the town causing some damage but not a lot and the locals seem to just get on with it.

The rest of the battalion joined us today which cheered us all up.

No trench digging tonight. Hooray!!

Wednesday 18 August Armentiers
Mail from Ma, Dad and Emily.

On fire fighting duty putting out the fires the shelling is causing.
The 10th Battalion, who had only been in France some eighteen days, were attached to the 8th for instruction in the trenches.

Thursday 19 August Armentiers
Town being shelled all day. Quite a few houses without roofs and tile shards and bricks falling in the streets.

Late evening, went into the trenches we had dug and thanked God we had done good job. Fired a few rounds off but not knowing if they hit anybody. Did make me feel better though, as now I was fighting back. At least there was no danger of being hit by a flying shovel as we negotiated the railway line to get up to the front line.

This routine went on for quite a few nights and was my first taste of real action. After a while, it became second nature for us all to assume our positions on the fire step and pick out targets in the gloom. Snipers were particularly worrisome and although none of us were seriously wounded, or killed, a few picked up some nasty scratches, or 'glory wounds' as we called them. No one wants to get shipped back to Blighty with a debilitating injury. The enemy trenches were about 100 yards away, close enough to occasionally see helmets bobbing about in the moonlight. The machine guns were a nuisance and many a plan was hatched on how to deal with them, from mass rifle fire (which we did a couple of times), to building a Trebuchet to throw a bucket of bombs at them (which of course, we never did).

On our flanks we had various regiments, 1/4th Battalion Alexandra, Prince of Wales's Own Yorkshire Regiment and the 4th Territorial Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers amongst them.

Armentiers was becoming quite a centre for troops and attracted even more from the Plugstreet sector looking for entertainment and it was becoming quite hard to find any estaminet with space to stand up let alone sit at a table with a drink and have a game of cards.

Jerry still shelling the town but not consistently.

Sunday 22 August Armentiers

Went to Church with Skinny and Andy. Reinforced my faith which I thought would put me in good stead with Him upstairs.

Tuesday 24 August Armentiers

Enlisted a year ago today. Parcel from Ma, letter from Dad, and newspapers from Winnie, all of which were very welcome.

Warned that we would be leaving Armentiers tomorrow.

Wednesday 25 August Bailleul
Marched 8 miles to Bailleul. Roads quite busy with horse drawn transports, Lorries and even a Crossley staff car with RFC markings with the hood down but no one in the back, raced passed. Probably going to pick up some brass I thought. I had heard about aeroplanes, but have yet to see one flying over here. I was reminded of Emily's last letter in which she said that she had met a young man at a Tea Dance in Ealing. Ian was his name and he was in the RFC and very nice. She had underlined the 'very nice'. Billeted overnight in a barn.

Thursday 26 August Bailleul
Left Bailleul at 10:30am and marched 7 miles to a station at Hazebrouck to entrain to Doullens at 2:00pm.

Friday 27 August Doullens

Train was slow, dirty, cramped and stopped so many times that when we arrived in Doullens at 9:00am, it was only the sound of our beloved sergeant bellowing "Let's be 'aving you. Look smart. Line up" that we realised this was it.

Doullens doesn't appear very interesting to us as it seems full of brass and staff. We marched through and out up a rather long and to us, steep hill. The area around Armentiers had been flattish and soon my legs were aching, mainly from being cramped up on the train but the road soon levelled out and I was marching along quite happily. Someone started a song but soon fizzled out as we concentrated on our new landscape. Rolling hills and woods and lush green grass. This was nice I mused.

Marched about 7 miles, reaching Pas where we billeted in a barn for the next 6 nights. Nothing to do apart from getting our kit cleaned and spruced up. Mail arrived and I had letters from Dot and Dad, and a parcel from Ma. Country living was a real refreshing change from the dank Armentiers.

Monday 30 August Pas
We were inspected by General commanding 3rd Army Corp, Sir W.P.Pulteney.

Tuesday 31 August Pas

Wrote to Ma.

Wednesday 1 September Pas
Received newspapers in the mail from Winnie.

Warned we would be leaving tomorrow.

Thursday 2 September St Amand

Left Pas at 11:00am and marched to St. Amand, arriving at 2:00pm. Lot of activity here. Loads of Bell tents and we soon had ours allocated.

Friday 3 September Foncquevillers
We left St. Amand at 11:00pm and marched 4 miles easterly to a communication trench in a place called Foncquevillers, arriving at about 12:30am in the morning. There we sat, lounged, and stood waiting to be called forward. The trench was muddy but it wasn't too bad, except that the mud was far more glutinous than we had up north, and our boots seem to stick to it.

Saturday 4 September Foncquevillers
Moved up to the front line just before dawn. Shells were whistling overhead and the now familiar machine gun bullets whined above us. I found a comfy fire step and poked my rifle through a small hole in the parapet, a bit too far, for suddenly a hail of machine gun bullets descended on the parapet kicking up clods of earth. I retracted it hastily as everyone ducked down even further into the trench. Using a bit more caution, we found suitable key holes to use unobtrusively and under orders, fired at a large wood over in front of us and slightly to the right. This I was told was Gommecourt Wood.

We were stood down at 11:00pm and moved back to a Reserve Trench before going back into Foncquevillers where we billeted in the cellars of the ruined (by shell-fire) houses. These we called dug-outs and were quite comfortable considering the front line was only 500 yards away, and the constant shelling and gunfire by both sides.

Sunday 5 September Foncquevillers
Stood in reserve but weren't called.

Monday 6 September Foncquevillers
Back in the trenches at 7:30pm on digging duty repairing collapsed walls and clearing blockages until 1:30am. Bill Bradley was killed today. He was the first in our Battalion to be killed. I didn't know him very well but used to see him at Church service. His father is a Reverend. We all felt his death deeply. Wrote to Dot when I got back.

Tuesday 7 September Foncquevillers

Trench digging and repairing all night. Wrote to Winnie when I got back.

Wednesday 8 September Foncquevillers
Trench digging and repairing all night. Letter from Ma and newspapers from Winnie.

Thursday 9 September Foncquevillers
Trench digging and repairing all night. Parcel from Ma and letter from Emily in which she says Ian is now in France and they are 'sooo' much enthralled with each other.

Friday 10 September Foncquevillers
In Front line trench all night on sentry duty. Feeling pretty tired and try to find ways of staying awake as I don't want to be on a charge being caught napping.  Had a letter from Dot and sent a field service post card to Ma as I had run out of envelopes.

Saturday 11 September Foncquevillers

In Front line trench all night, this time shooting at anything and everything. Felt better after releasing all my frustration and the incessant gunfire from our trench must have put the wind up Jerry as he threw everything he had at us for a time.

Went back to the village in the morning and found the quartermaster to get some supplies and most important, envelopes.

Sunday 12 September Foncquevillers
In Front line trench during day and out at night repairing and replacing wire in no-man's land. Fortunately, the night was as black as anything due to heavy cloud but I did have to stop a few times and listen. I'm sure I heard Jerry doing the same thing but could hardly see my hand in front of my face let alone the enemy. We repeated this for the next two days and nights by which time I was feeling pretty mentally and physically exhausted, dirty and generally miserable.

Wednesday 15 September Foncquevillers
We came out of the trenches and marched back to St Amand. Didn't complete the march and fell out, sick. Andy propped me up and we staggered the last mile into St Amand where I was taken to the doctor. Vomiting in front of him (unintentionally) led him to remark that it must be a tummy bug which will soon wash out of my system and he handed me a couple of pills.

I was confined to my bed for the next two days only leaving it to run to the latrines which happily were not that far away. Wrote to Ma, Emily, Dot and Winnie.

Wednesday 22 September St Amand
Brigade HQ burned down during the night and we were called to help man the pumps. The odd shell was still whistling overhead and Jerry would know we would try and put it out and we're expecting a shower from him at any time, so heart in mouth time.

Thursday 23 September St Amand

Warned that we would be leaving in 30 minutes. Rushing around packing kit. Marched to la Couchie a couple of miles away.

Friday 24 September la Couchie
Lying in reserve here to the French Tenth Army. This is the big combined British/French which was going roll up the enemy, according to the sergeant  Apparently, the British are at Loos and Froggies are south of Lens. Received newspaper from Ma.

Saturday 25 September la Couchie
Under orders to move up at any moment to reinforce our attack at Loos. Some of our battalion are there. Quite a few Lorries are parked up waiting to take us. Received letter from Winnie and wrote to Ma.

Sunday 26 September la Couchie
Played football and cards, after Church service. Good news from the front. The French advanced and then fell back, so we're not needed. I think it's a bit of a wash-out, though according to rumour, our lads gained ground at Loos, but with a great cost of life, but we haven't any casualty numbers. They were like us, some of Kitchener's new army divisions and new to trench warfare. We are lucky to be south behind the French and not a few divisions north on the Loos front.

Monday 27 September la Couchie
Left here and marched back to Foncquevillers straight into a Reserve trench, which is quite muddy and wet. Fortunately, we stopped at St Amand for tea as there's no chance of getting a bite here until breakfast in the morning.

Tuesday 28 September Foncquevillers

Still in Reserve trench. Letter from Ma.

Wednesday 29 September Foncquevillers
Still in Reserve trench. Received parcel from Ma and newspapers from Winnie.

Thursday 30 September Foncquevillers

Came out of Reserve trench and found a cosy dug-out to billet. The village looks even more battered. Wrote to Ma.

A post card of Armentiers, bought by Alfred in 1915

A rough sketch of the trench position at Houplines drawn by Alfred