From The Great War Diaries of
Brigadier General Alexander Johnston
Edited by Edwin Astill, Barnsley, 2007
Up at two o'clock by which time the day had begun to break and at 2.30 am the bombardment started and lasted till 4.15 am. We had something like 200 guns firing and the noise was deafening; I think we cannot fail to have knocked the Germans about a good deal. High explosive was turned on to the German 1st and 2nd line trenches, shrapnel over the communication trenches and ground behind, and the big 9.2 gun fired on Bellewaarde Farm and the various redoubts and strong points in the German 3rd line. At 4.15 am the 9th Inf Brigade assaulted the German line in Y Wood which they carried with little loss, and about 150 prisoners were taken. In the same rush the German 2nd line was carried and eventually the 1st Scots Fusiliers actually got within 30 yards of the lake and captured Bellewaarde Farm. Then followed the same old trouble which has so often occurred before, and which seems so terribly difficult to prevent; namely our men got heavily shelled by our own guns, our foremost people perhaps had gone too fast or too far? We got several messages back about it, and the guns were told to lengthen, which I think in most cases they did, but at the same time the Germans then turned their guns on to them also and they had a very bad time of it, some of them had to come back though till quite late in the day a few gallant men held on. Losses were heavy and the 7th Inf Brigade were ordered up to support. Our original front line trenches and the German trenches which we had captured along the edge of Y and Railway Woods were therefore now very crowded. The German shell fire increased and caused a lot of casualties in these trenches which were full of all sorts of regiments hopelessly mixed up who wanted sorting out a lot. We wanted our artillery to keep the German guns quiet but were told that we had shot away our allowance of ammunition for the day, and that ammunition was scarce. It's too sickening for words that numbers of brave men are losing their lives just because they cannot turn out enough ammunition for us.
On the right also the 1st Wilts carried a long length of trench near Hooge, but were eventually bombed out of it simply because they had not enough bombs to compete with the German bombing parties. All this time the shelling behind the line had also been pretty bad, and I was having anxious times with my lines which were continually getting cut, but we just managed to keep through all day, and actually dealt with as many as 750 messages, which I think was very satisfactory. The German prisoners who were brought in were a miserable looking crew, and were examined in the ramparts at our HQ, but we did not get much news of any interest out of them. Well, as some of our people were still holding out about Bellewaarde Farm, it was naturally decided to make another attack, and to employ the 7th Inf Brigade to do it; but of course time was required to organise it. Besides the fact that the guns wanted time to get ready for the show, everybody wanted sorting out in the trenches which were already fully crowded and which were being heavily shelled. Unfortunately Allenby arrived at our HQ, and as usual we were then incessantly interfered with. We were told that we had got to attack at once, and that he was sending up the whole of the 42nd Inf Brigade, a brigade of the New Army, to support. It was simply too wicked for words, and to my mind nothing short of murder.
The attack was to be preceded by an artillery bombardment from 3-3.30 pm: yet at five minutes past three, the orders were only just being written out, lots of the gunner communications were cut, and in any case it would take some time to tell all the batteries their objectives. It was impossible therefore for the guns to adequately pave the way for the attack. Moreover Gen Ballard had 3 times sent back word imploring that no more troops should be sent up to him… Suddenly having 2 fresh battalions crammed into the trenches merely made it impossible to reorganise, the communication trenches were blocked with dead and wounded who could not be evacuated; and passage along them, apart from the enemy's fire, was made impossible by all these extra men being pushed up. The result was that there was no elbow room anywhere, the men were like sardines in a box, and every enemy shell could not fail to hit somebody: one could only move outside the trenches, and then one was almost certain to get hit. When the attack did take place, the Regiment led the way but it was very difficult to get out of the trenches even, and the enemy's shell and machine gun fire had not been beaten down, so that our front line was simply mown down, and the attack failed; the Regiment lost 13 officers and over 250 men all told, though not all actually in this last attack. Given a fair chance I think the attack would have succeeded; as it was, it was a useless waste of life. It was wicked too shoving this brigade of the New Army in their initial fight into such a rotten situation. They are probably excellent troops, full of keenness, and would have done splendidly, if they had been given a chance. As it was, they realised that they were only in the way, lost a lot of lives, and probably have had their dash impaired.
Late in the afternoon when the pressure in my office had decreased a bit, and knowing that my fellows in front had been having a poor time of it, I went up to the 9th Inf Brigade HQ on the railway. I came in for the German counter attack, and had a distinctly unpleasant journey owing to the very heavy German shelling behind our line. Took a toss and got caught in some barbed wire at the level crossing, could not have chosen a worse place to do it as it was being steadily "whizz banged", but eventually got up to the 9th Brigade all right. Passed a certain number of wounded men who however seemed quite cheerful at having got into the German trenches, and which confirmed me all the more in my belief that the troops had it in them to capture Bellewaarde Farm and the 3rd line again, if given a fair chance... The German counter attack was a feeble effort and was easily repulsed. In the evening I was kept busy restoring various lines which had been cut about, and rearranging things generally. As far as communications went we had a most successful though anxious day. We had always been in touch with our brigades, and were actually in touch with the 1st line of German trenches till late in the afternoon when the heavy shelling, which had flattened most of the communication trenches, eventually cut all the forward lines.
The day’s losses in the 3rd Division came to over 4000, and if it had not been for the afternoon mix up, they would probably have only been half that amount.
By kind permission of Edwin Astill.