The opening battles of the Great War by an eyewitness of the ‘Royal Irish’
All first-hand accounts have merit for the military historian since they can provide insights into campaigns, battles and smaller engagements as well as the activities of regiments. Within a particularly well written account the reader may learn rewarding information about the author and his comrades and find a sense of time and place. This book, written by the son of renowned military artist Lady Elizabeth Butler, is particularly interesting on all these counts. An officer in the Royal Irish Regiment, Butler describes his time as an aide-de-camp to Major-General Sir Thompson Capper (who was killed at the Battle of Loos in late 1915) during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 when the army fought itself to the brink of annihilation during efforts to stem the tide of the initial German offensive. After recovering from a wound received at First Ypres, Butler returned to the front, once again as a regimental officer, where he fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Spring of 1915. This battle became notable as the first occasion on which poison gas was employed as a battlefield weapon. Service in the trench warfare of Armentieres and on the Somme followed before the conclusion of the book where Butler and his men embarked for Salonika. This Leonaur edition of Butler’s essential work contains illustrations and maps which were not present in the original edition.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
In the afternoon the general wished to witness the progress of our counter-attack from close quarters, and he took N—— and me with him. We had a Belgian motorcyclist attached to our Headquarters, and him the general ordered to accompany us as well. We rode off, with the cyclist puffing along behind us, until just beyond Gheluvelt the general suddenly wheeled his horse, put him straight at a big ditch, and started to canter off across country towards Kruiseik. N—— and I followed him without difficulty, but the poor cyclist was naturally nonplussed, and must have been somewhat dismayed at the turn which things had taken, especially as he had been instructed not to let us out of his sight! We saw no more of him that day.
After witnessing part of the counter-attack and remaining for about two hours in some farm buildings where swarms of bullets from rifle and machine-gun fire went over us, we rode on to where we could interview General Byng and the Cavalry Staff. The cavalry were well in front of the Zandvoorde ridge now; but I don’t know what sort of support was behind them. I think it was on the next day, the 30th, that the ridge was taken by the enemy.
We were on our way back to Headquarters when the general dismounted and said he must go back to see for himself what the new line our forces had taken up was like, and whether there were any gaps. We handed our horses over to the grooms, who were instructed to await our return, and we then followed the general back to the trenches. It was now dark, and it had started to rain hard. We walked across country through mud that almost drew the boots off one’s feet. The general went along the whole of that long, straggling line, noting down in his notebook the composition of the forces that held it.
As we were going along one road—I think it led to Kruiseik—we heard pitiful groans proceeding from the ditch on one side of it. A poor wounded soldier lay there, dying. It was pitch dark now, and there were no ambulances or stretcher-bearers anywhere about. My general told me to stand by the poor fellow until he could send help from the trenches. I got down beside him in the cold, wet ditch. It was terrible to hear his groans, and quite impossible to think of anything to say to comfort him. He knew me for an officer, and it was pathetic to hear him say “Sir” to me—remembering to be polite even when his life was leaving him. I asked him where he was wounded, and something told me, even before he did, that it was in the stomach. He belonged to the Yorkshire Regiment.
All the while I sat there the cruel shells continued to scream overhead, and every now and again they hurled themselves into the wet clay, near where we were, as if still vindictively searching for the poor lad who was dying.
After what seemed an age an N.C.O. and three men appeared. They had no stretcher, but talked of taking the boy away on their rifles. But when I told them where he was hit, they said it would be better not to move him. I had to rejoin my general then. A young officer whom I stumbled across in the trenches said he would give the poor wounded fellow a morphia injection, which seemed the best thing to do.
I caught my general up, and for the next two hours he and N—— and I trudged along through mud and slush trying to locate other trenches, and to complete our survey of the line. I was several times able to put him in the right direction, for my ears would catch the noise of pick and shovel, whereby we were guided. Many times, the general would have taken a wrong direction but for me, and it was plain to see that the prolonged strain was telling on his nerves.
After a very fatiguing time we fell in with some men who were going back to Brigade Headquarters for rations. We followed them until we got to the little building that sheltered the Headquarters. I think it was the 20th Brigade, but am not sure that the 21st were not there, too. A wounded officer of the South Staffords was sitting on one chair, with one leg propped upon another. He had been hit in the shin. I stayed in the outer room while my general conferred with the brigade commanders in an inner one, and after a long time we set out for the spot where we had left the horses. On our way there we met many horsed-ambulances lumbering along the unmetalled road, coming to fetch their freight of wounded. One could dimly hear the same rumbling going on on the other side of the ridge where the Germans were, quite close. It really seemed as though there was a mutual tacit agreement not to fire on these painful vehicles of mercy.
We got to the horses after a long walk. What a cold and weary vigil they had had, waiting for us all those hours! Luckily the general’s motor was there, too, and he went on in it; while N—— and I and the grooms trotted the horses home to Hooge.
Even that night I had the greatest difficulty in getting the general to eat anything, but when the other officers had given up expecting him, and the fragrant stew of bully beef which my cook had prepared had got cold, he came in to my great relief and asked for some of it. I produced, too, some of the excellent Burgundy that Vincent had brought with him when we left the other château. The general, who had deprecated our drinking any wine or spirits during the campaign, was very glad of this Burgundy. It amused me, though, when after drinking good part of a bottle he suddenly said to me, “I hope this isn’t looted!”