My grandfather, Edgar Wignall, was born in Wigston, Leicestershire, in 1878. He was a medical orderly in the St John Ambulance in the Boer War, joined the Territorial Army, and was called up immediately on the outbreak of war in 1914.
When he died at the age of 92, my mother found his war diaries: three old exercise books, one from the Boer War and two from the Great War. The entries in the latter relate only to two periods in 1918.
By the beginning of that year, the British, French and German armies had become exhausted by the war of attrition. The defensive strength of the trench systems meant that only negligible amounts of territory were won or lost at a huge cost of life and limb.
My cousin’s husband, Dr Clive Harrison, transcribed and edited the diaries. Keeping a diary was against regulations so the entries begin in the style of a Boys’ Own story: “Sergt Alf Frost was well pleased with himself as he walked across the open space from the football pitch to the Nissen hut that served as the Sergts’ Mess for the Umptieth Field Ambulance.
“He had quite recently been transferred from what he called (with pardonable pride) my own unit. For he had, whilst in Blighty, received the lads straight from field and factory and when their training was complete had come to France with them.
“Now after a fortnight up the line working amongst new chums with whom he had already made good, he had been recalled to Headquarters for the purpose of proceeding on leave, after 13 months’ unbroken service in the field.”
The German Spring Offensive began before dawn on March 21. Its aim was to defeat the Allies before the US Army arrived in strength. The object was to capture the Channel ports, which would cripple the British war effort. This was impractical until the lowlands of Flanders had dried out so the main attack was near Saint Quentin, where the British and French sectors joined.
Early on March 21, ‘Alf’ was disturbed by a clattering on the iron roof of his hut: “Sergt Frost awakened to the fact that this was no ordinary morning bate and that his chances of getting on the leave train to Blighty that day were every moment becoming more remote. Whilst reflecting on his hard luck a shell crashed into the Q.M. Stores and another into the horse lines, instantly killing two horses and badly injuring a third.”
He was ordered to take 16 men from his section, get rations from the Stores, and proceed to the Advanced Dressing Station, or ADS:
“There were six kilometres to cover in the direction of the enemy and with shells falling all round them ... until they had advanced a good distance on their journey, where they were able to march in comparative safety from the long range shelling.
"Luckily the Sergt was able to report without mishap and was eagerly welcomed by the Capt and his men who were already very busy with the first batch of wounded. As the day wore on the casualties came in ever increasing numbers and every one was working at top pressure without thought of rest. Day passed into night and still the battle raged. Next morning, March 22, found the Capt and his men weary and sleepy, but fighting gamely to reduce the number of wounded warriors still awaiting attention.
“On through the day without respite until the darkening shadows brought further reinforcements led by the C.O. Sergt Frost and his men were now able enjoy a brief respite, although sleep was out of the question....
“Sergt Frost, as a nursing orderly, had, years before, tended fever-stricken warriors in the field in South Africa, and had long been inured to the sights and sounds of bruised and battered humanity, now experienced a tightness of the throat, along with a peculiar feeling of elation....
"To see, to hear and to help the British soldier fighting man when beset by overwhelming odds is an inspiration and a revelation.”
The division on their left was being driven onto their flank by sheer weight of numbers, and the order came to fall back (amended to “clear out as quickly as possible”).
“The serious cases having been sent down by ambulance cars, the remaining walking cases were ordered to fall in under the charge of Crpl Corkey Martin who had orders to dispose of them on any passing vehicle going in the right direction and then to report himself back to the QM back at Headquarters.
“All patients having been disposed of, the equipment was soon packed and the unit started on their backward journey, which proved to be of several days duration.”
They marched towards their HQ with shells dropping all round them. The shelling was concentrated on a nearby wood so they were diverted to a ruined village.
After a hasty meal, “orders were again received to continue the backward march, so rapidly was the enemy advancing. Back across the devastated area of the Somme battlefield, which had already cost so much in lives and money, until they reached a nearly deserted hospital close to the main road. (‘Le Transloy’, a village between Arras and Saint Quentin, inserted in pencil).
“Here was a continuous stream of traffic. Lorries loaded with ammunition going up to feed the guns, and ambulance cars coming down to feed the hospitals.... The O.C. made a rapid tour of inspection and finding the hospital had been evacuated decided to open out at once.
"Medical and Surgical Panniers were off-loaded and work began again in earnest. Cars belonging to the unit were retained for the purpose of clearing and the remainder were sent back again. Sergt Frost and his comrades were again in their true element, with bandages, splint and hypodermic needle.
“Early next morning a shell burst on the huge red-cross ground sign again warned them of the proximity of the enemy. Again came the dread command to retire and amid much cursing, the equipment was again packed on to the transport wagons and the moving off soon became merged into the stream of downward traffic.
"Again striking across the open country to keep clear of the road traffic, Sergt Alf and his comrades once more resumed their journey, here and there passing through thin lines of infantry in extended order, some moving slowly forward and others digging in.
"Good natured banter was often indulged in at the expense of the Poultice Wallopers and their only apparent anxiety revealed by the request ‘Give us a fag, Chum’.
“Late afternoon saw them taking up temporary quarters at another field hospital... the arrival coinciding with that of another Field amb. The outcome of which was that by arrangement a number of each unit were able to snatch a few hours much needed sleep.
"Alf was one of this number and finding his way to the Sergts’ Quarters, quickly divested himself of boots and tunic and selecting a comfortable bed was soon fast asleep."
To be continued.
(Above image by Rosser 1954, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Licence).