MY MEMORIES OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR & BATTLE OF THE SOMME: The Revd. ARTHUR HUBERT HIBBETT.
In the year 1914, my father, mother, three brothers, my only sister and I, were all together spending our summer holidays at Abergele, in North Wales. We little knew that we should never have a family gathering like that again, for on the 4th August Britain declared War on Germany.
The schools started their holidays towards the end of July and from our bedroom windows at Abergele we saw some South Staffordshire Regular soldiers in Camp in fields near our apartments; also some ‘lively’ Sea Cadets and Baden Powell Boy Scouts moving about among their bell tents. There was great excitement when the Regulars were mobilised (1). The holiday-makers crowded into the streets of that seaside resort to see them form up. Their band played the National Anthem and the people cheered and waved their hats and caps in the air.
Our home was in Walsall and the Headmaster of Queen Mary 1st Grammar School gave word to all the Old Boys that they could join up on their return from holiday and form a Company of Old Grammar School Boys.
My elder brother, Sydney, and I decided to enlist with the Territorials, 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, rather than wait to be conscripted into Kitchener’s Army. How well I remember that moustache & pointing finger ‘Your Country Needs You!
My eldest brother, Harold, had not been schooled at Queen Mary’s; he was to join the band later, but in the Inns of Court Company, so also my youngest brother, Basil, who joined the Manchester Regiment.
My fair-haired sister, Ida, was among many who, by doing her War Service at home, making hand grenades and later becoming a Red Cross Nurse and V.A.D., influenced Parliament to give women the franchise. She died not long after the war at the age of 32, from cancer contracted through exposure to phosphorous lead in the making of bombs.
On the morning of September 4th a column of young men, all in mufti and marching four abreast, passed the Town Hall in Walsall, on route for the station and training in Bedfordshire. The tallest boys, including my brother, Sydney, were in the front row. I was in the second row, behind my brother.
I shall never forget the Art Master going to each of the railway carriages in turn, giving the King’s Sovereign to all the Old Boys, their heads out of the windows; or forget how we waved to friends and relatives as the train left Walsall.
I remember writing to my mother that I was in the service, not of George V, but of the King of Kings. I had been brought up a confirmed Christian, and gave my name to the recruiting officer as C. of E. My faith was certainly tested when we were first billeted in Luton. I had to sleep on the floor with other soldiers and when I attempted to kneel to say my prayers a boot came flying over towards me. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced what might be termed persecution for one’s Christian way of life. I was 19 years old.
I remember we had a great deal of route marching. We bivouacked in Luton Hoo Park and were inspected by Lord Kitchener and King George. We marched so close to the King that I could have shaken hands with him.
Sir Stuart Wortley, our Divisional General, praised us as a ‘fine lot of men’.
I was attached to the 46th North Midland Division, which included the Lincolns and the Tigers i.e. the Leicesters. We moved from Luton to Bishop’s Stortford and from there to Saffron Waldon, where I loved to attend the fine Parish Church of St Mary.
How well I remember being on guard all night long at the Water Tower, until I heard the alarm clocks ring in people’s houses and the footsteps of early risers off to work over the cobble stones.
EMBARKATION TO FRANCE.
The 46th Division of the Territorials set sail on the Empress Queen from Southampton, 2nd March 1915, for Le Havre.
We arrived when the snow was falling and were all served with goat skins to camouflage ourselves.
SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES.
My first experience of being in the trenches was at Armentières, near Neuve Eglise. The trenches were water-logged and we had to walk on ‘duck boards’. We had no gum boots, as they were called, and I remember slipping off a wobbly board and getting my leg soaked.
Being a ‘tender foot’ I thought our first experience of trenches would be postponed because of the rain, but not so! – we bravely set forth and went into the dug-outs. I remember writing a letter home and a frog leapt over the lighted candle and put it out.
‘Any volunteer for Listening Post?’ cried the Platoon Sergeant and four of us Old QMS Boys, with another contemporary pupil called Cope* (2), volunteered to go out into No Man’s Land.
I can see now, silhouetted against the night sky, two German soldiers coming towards us. I lay alongside a field of ripe corn and pulled the wire, attached to the hand of someone in our trenches, to get them to come to our aid. I was nearly killed another time, when I was one of two volunteers sent out to bring in a dead officer from No Man’s Land. We had to stay perfectly still when an enemy very light went up.
When I was in the trenches opposite Messines I remember firing with our rifles at early enemy biplanes.
From the famous Ypres Canal Railway Dugouts I saw the beautiful edifice of Ypres Cloth Hall shelled to pieces; and at one time I was marched off along the Ypres Road to Poperinge for a bath.
TUNNEL & CRATER WARFARE
I shall never forget my experience at Neuville St Vaast, Easter 1916, for it was there that I went with a party underground to listen for the enemy tapping their way in underground passages towards our Front Line. It happened one dark night which made it all the more ‘exciting’.
Whose mine would go up first, theirs or ours? Our feelings were indeed tense. “Pass the word down for Bomber Ford”, came the command from the officer in front of our column, as we lined up to throw hand grenades over the parapet. “Pass the word back I aint,” retorted Bomber Ford from the rear. The German mine went up first–and we tried to occupy the crater before the enemy advanced to take possession of it. It is strange to think that I might have thrown one of my sister’s hand grenades at Neuville St Vaast. (How extraordinary things happen in life for later in my career I became Vicar of Saint Vedast’s Church, Tathwell near Louth, and my second daughter was born on St Vedast’s Day – Saint Vedast is another form of Saint Vaast or Foster).
I spent my first Christmas of the War in hospital in Merville, near Armentiers. There I met a priest of The Community of The Resurrection, Mirfield, who gave me a small crucifix; strange to say I met Fr. J.C. Fitzgerald again, when I was being trained as an ordinand for the Sacred Ministry.
The Men of the North Midland Division of Territorials did not turn their backs on the enemy. On a large board, posted against a wall of the ruined Church at Fonquevillers, was printed in large letters:
‘TO BERLIN – UP TRAFFIC ONLY’.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, 1ST JULY 1916.
The climax of my war experience came on the first of July, 1916, when the Battle of The Somme began in earnest. We learnt later that the whole of the British Army was to advance that day. The ‘Mad Staffords’ of the 46th Division went forward to capture Gommecourt.
We had been waiting in our trenches at Fonquevillers, facing the Germans, for many weeks before the charge. During that time I was detailed off to do an official drawing of the German Front Line, showing Gommecourt Village and Wood with the Sunken Road beyond the German enfilade trench and with all the trees as exact as I could (3).
This was my small contribution in preparation for the ‘Big Push’. I had the use of a periscope, and was disguised as a sandbag, in case I had to look over the top of the trench to see the formation of the trees and the trenches more clearly.
It was while I was making this sketch that I was amazed to see some very old German soldiers, with long white beards, using mechanical excavators in their front line, and making great loads of earth fly up in the air. I also spotted a dead cow’s head, which I presumed was used as a German sniper’s post. I feel pretty sure that it was from there that our parapet was peppered with German bullets whenever I attempted to put up my periscope. “Keep away from Hibbett and his periscope !” was the general cry.
The first of July 1916 was a bright, sunny day. We had been allowed to buy biscuits in Fonquevillers village at the back of the lines. I bought some, called ‘Petit Beurre‘, and they came in useful. Whenever we buy them now they always remind me of the time I was waiting to go ‘Over the Top’.
What terrified me more than the enemy shells and bullets was the sight of our men allowed to drink over much. It was a mistake to have given our men leave to drink alcohol before the Big Push. Some of them, delirious with too much to drink, were throwing mud at each other and I was afraid that they would throw mud at me. It was sights such as these that have made me keep off beer ever since.
I got wounded on that day. I was going forward in the trenches towards the front lines. A Leicester runner, hastening to deliver an urgent message, his voice competing with the noise of gun-fire, came shouting from the rear: “Bend your backs, me lads! Bend your backs! The Tiger’s face doesn’t turn away from the enemy!”
We all bent our backs in the trench and the runner, I can see him now, ran along our backs, head and shoulders above the trench, exposing himself to the enemy, while shells kept bursting on either side of him. The Germans trained their machine-gun fire into our trench.
I had to carry what was called a chev de frieze (sic) (4). My hands got scratched with the barbed wire contraption getting caught in the sides of the nam trench (5). The situation got hopeless. We were advanced beyond Gommecourt Wood and it was no use carrying the chev de frieze (sic) any further.
I got lost in the confusion of the bombing. I got to where I believe was the point our Front Line faced the German enfilade trench I had sketched in the days before. There to my amazement I saw British soldiers lying close on the floor of the trench, like sardines in a tin; some dead and some dying with groans. A sergeant called out to me from a dugout: “Come in here or you will soon be like those lying there.” To my lasting remorse I was forced to tread on the bodies of those poor men.
My right wrist was bleeding badly from a shrapnel wound and a chum called Venables* (6) tied an emergency field dressing on it. I learned later that he was killed and I pray he may be rewarded in heaven.
My experiences before and during the Battle were terrible to me, but curious enough I felt serene until I was told to make for the First Field Dressing Station. I made my way in haste to get out of the trenches, full of our dead, all with tarpaulins and ground sheets over them.
I stood waiting in the mouth of the trench near to Fonquevillers Church and the Dressing Station in the Crypt, and there I was interviewed by Padre T.Howard (whom I was to meet again, after the War, at Lichfield Theological College).
I received treatment against tetanus, then it was a great relief, despite the cobbles that shook my wounds, to leave the Battle behind and be sent by Ambulance to an open field to await the train which was to take us to Hospital.
I shall never forget seeing the wounded lying in the sunshine in that wide field. It was just as if so many washer-women had laid out their ‘whites’ on the ground to dry – men with wounded arms, legs and heads all bandaged up. There on his horse sat the Colonel (7), staring at the sorry sight. Then I saw, lying on the field, Alan Machin*, an old Grammar School Boy of QMS, Walsall (8).
It took us one and a half days to reach Le Treport where I was put on a bed in a tent. The next morning I awoke to see, in my bed, a basin of blood from my wounded wrist. I was transferred from the tent to a Hotel-turned-Hospital on the cliffs of Le Treport. I was in the bed next to another wounded soldier being treated by a doctor; he was trying to get a bullet out of his patient with forceps, but the forceps kept slipping. The sound of it got on my nerves. I went out of the room, but it was like ‘going from frying pan into the fire’, for on the landing four orderlies were trying to keep a soldier down on his bed; he was raving with pain. I was glad to get back into my room again.
It was not long before I was labelled ‘Serious’, for I was wounded not only in my right wrist but had an extra ‘Blighty’: wounds to my neck and my left wrist as well. The wound in my neck came when I was running out of the trench at Fonquevillers. I was ordered home.
The voyage across the Channel was memorable indeed for, while I was eating a late dinner on board, I heard that my brother, Sydney, had been seen dead in No Man’s Land. On his breast there had been a small piece of paper on which he had written, ‘Pour a drop of water between my lips, thank you’.
Now every Good Friday I am reminded of how the dying do thirst, when we sing ‘His are the thousand sparkling rills … and yet he saith ‘ I thirst’ (9).
On hearing the news of my brother I could eat no more, but went straight to my cabin bunk. ‘Two shall be in the field of Battle, one shall be taken and the other left’ (10).
HOME TO BLIGHTY.
‘As sorrowful yet alway rejoicing!’ (11) – how we rejoiced to see Southampton – and from the railway carriages, what a sight it was to see all the men, women and children; all waving Union Jacks from their back gardens for miles along the line to Birmingham. When we neared our home town of Walsall we Staffordshire boys thought we would be detrained at Birmingham station, but no, we remained in locked carriages and a rope, stretching all along the platform, kept people away. Nevertheless people threw packets of fags and boxes of chocolates, and other articles of food, towards those soldiers who could get to the windows.
THE CENACLE, RED CROSS HOSPITAL, NEW BRIGHTON.
We eventually arrived at Birkenhead, where lots of private cars were waiting to take us to the different hospitals. I was taken in a car with another soldier who was also wounded in his right wrist. I heard later that the poor man died. And so I was left.
It made me think, and ask why my brother was left on the field of Battle, reported wounded and missing, and why my companion in the car, with similar wound as me, had died while I lived on.
I spent seven months in The Cenacle, Red Cross Hospital in New Brighton. During that time I asked for my Latin and Greek Grammar books, but found it difficult to study.
My pal, Vernon Evans*, gave me an Autograph Book in which I collected autos of the patients, written on cigarettes, which I cut in half and pasted on the pages.
I spent my time doing drawings and sketches with my left hand.
I was glad to get home again after my War Service. I had been down for Home Leave before the Battle of the Somme, and my mother told me how she would look through the front window every day for weeks, to see if I was walking up the path to our house.
She told us of the time the Zeppelins flew slowly over Walsall and dropped bombs on the centre of the town.
She told of how she stood in the doorway of our house with my sister at night and saw the dark, cigar-shaped vessel sail ghost-like and sinister overhead.
My Mother said she felt a great calmness come over her, as if it was given her to comfort my sister, who had become nervous for my father’s safety. He was the Secretary of Walsall’s Education Committee and had a meeting in town. Fortunately he left the meeting a short time before the Zeppelin dropped its bombs and destroyed the huge plate-glass in the building where my father had been. It was the time the Mayoress of Walsall was killed when riding on top of an open-air bus. I recall that I was at that time in Bellancourt in Flanders, and heard the village women all chattering excitedly over the German bombing of England, and read in Le Matin of the Airship G2s raid over Staffordshire.
In 1918, I entered Lichfield Theological College to train for the Sacred Ministry and I was there when news came of the Armistice, signed at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month.
I shall never forget the excitement on the streets of Lichfield. Flags appeared at every window. I made a flag of St George to hang out of my bed-study.
We went into the Cathedral and sang the Psalms of the Day. I remember that one was Ps. 57, ‘My heart is fixed. O God, My heart is fixed. I will sing and give praise.’
Later I was to visit my old school, Queen Mary’s Walsall, to see my brother’s name on the School Memorial:
‘These in the glorious morning of their days for England’s sake lost all but England’s praise’ .
I compiled and edited these ‘Memories’ from several drafts & notes my father prepared for an Essay Competition organised by the Lindsey Association for the Elderly in 1967.
The first draft was begun ‘during the visit of my son, Sydney Martin and his wife Alice, February 18th. 1967’. (I found this draft to be the most detailed and spontaneous). The final draft was ‘finished at 12 Midnight on February 25th. 1967.’ The actual entry, now lost, was ‘Highly Commended’. Copyright e.f.w. 2016.
(1) The Staffordshire Regiment was on annual training at Abergele, North Wales, from where it was mobilised on 3rd August. 1914.
(2) Norman Cope*. (3) My father kept this drawing very carefully for 50 years until sadly it went missing following a Toc H exhibition in Skegness in 1960s. Reward to anyone who may know of its whereabouts. Please contact: < firstname.lastname@example.org > .
(4) Cheval de frise: barbed wire entanglement nicknamed ‘knife rest’;(medieval defence against cavaliers). Each soldier had to carry some heavy material: e.g. wire cutters/ shovels/ – or these iron stakes prepared behind the lines before a charge. <https:// WW1 revisited.com>
(5) ‘Nam’ trench: ? Maybe my father meant a ‘sap trench’: a shallow trench dug hastily at night before a charge to help men gain further ground in No Man’s Land without detection. (NB. Gommecourt from Fonquevillers is about a mile).
(6) Arthur Venables*: my father wrote a tribute ‘To Fallen Comrade’ in the Walsall Observer & S. Staffordshire Chronicle. 12th August 1916. (7) Lt Col Richmond Raymer. (8) Alan Machin*: wounded with a ‘Blighty’.
(9) Hymn : ‘His are the thousand sparkling rills’, based on John 19.28. Words: Mrs Cecil. F Alexander. 1875. (10) ‘Two shall be in the field, one shall be taken & the other left‘: Matthew 24.40-41.
(11) ‘As sorrowful yet alway rejoicing‘. 2 Corinthians 6.10 (King James’ version continues: ‘as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things’). St Paul. AD 50s.