Sgt Bernard Joseph Brookes
Queen's Westminster Rifles
On Tuesday 15th June we were told to be in readiness for an attack which we were to make up on a line of the German trenches near Hooge, and as this was our first attack we were rather excited, and we had a swim to cool down.
We were to be in the second line, and half of the Battalion were to move into the trench as soon as the line was taken.
The battalion moved up at 8.30 pm, but as I was detailed to wait until relieved by a Brigade signaller, I went forward at 10.30 pm with the Colonel and Adjutant.
It was a terribly dark night, and we made a away over a number of fields containing many shell holes, and we occasionally came to earth. The Germs star shells however, helped us considerably to see our way, and after traversing about three miles of fields we arrived on the left of the village of Hooge at midnight.
With another signaller, I had to open a new station about a hundred yards away from headquarters in case the battalion got cut off, so that as soon as I arrived I had to lay a wire and get connected up. This work was completed in about half an hour, and it consisted of a great deal of travelling on the stomach as the Germs were firing rather heavily, and the line was made above the trenches. After completing we managed each to get an hour's sleep before operations commenced.
At 2.30 am on Wednesday 16th June, our artillery sent out "feelers", and at 2.45 am, the bombardment commenced in deadly earnest. The daylight had hardly appeared, but the bursting of the shells lit up very vividly the lines of trenches. The Germs replied at once by shelling our trenches with high explosives of a heavy calibre, and the noise of the guns and the bursting shells, was terrific.
Within an hour, three times our telephone line was broken, and I had to go out over the top to mend it. Unfortunately there was a farm in front of the line and the Germs shelled it heavily in case ammunition was stored there. Our wires ran at the side of the farm, and consequently ware so often broken.
After a bombardment of an hour and a half, the front line charged and, as we were told later, altogether four lines of trenches were taken on a front of about a thousand yards.
For 4 hours this ceaseless bombardment continued, and at 6.40 am we received the following message:-
" All goes well aaa We have captured the enemies first line".
Just before receiving this message we were wondering how things were progressing in front, and were rather worried about having no news, when we saw a batch of German prisoners under our guard coming appalling the Menin road. This informed us that we had at least been successful in breaking through.
For some reason or other the Germs fired on their prisoners coming along the road, and the prisoners and our guard had to scatter and lie down for a time, but none tried to escape, but hurried to a place of safety where they parading together and marched off under the guard.
It is possible that the Germs fired on their own men on the principle that "dead men tell no tales", but whether this is the case or not, they did it intentionally for they could distinguish the Germs from the British and could have held their fire from the spot where they were.
The bombardment continued fiercely until about 1.00 pm and on our men reaching the second line, the Germs counter attacked with great severity, but were repulsed, and our casualties mounted high.
We received the following message about midday:-
"Each Third Division reports situation rather obscure aaa After reaching the enemies of second line of trenches on a line running up from a point J.13 A 4.5 in a S. S. E. direction through BELLEWAARD FARM to about J 12 D 1.2 the Germs shell them very heavily and our line had to retire in places aaa The Germs commenced a counter attack against centre of line aaa this counter-attack appears to have been driven back by the observation of the F. O. O. (Forward Observation Officer) who could see enemy retiring and losing heavily from our rifle and gunfire aaa about a hundred prisoners belonging to the 27 reserve division and 15th Corps have been taken."
The approximate times of taking the trenches were:-
First line - 4.15 am
Second line - 6.00 am
Third line - 8.15 am
Fourth line - later in the morning.
Only a small party penetrated the fourth line, and they had to retire as the Germs counter attacked before more men could be got up. For safety's sake our men also retired from the third line as the trenches were so badly smashed that they afforded practically no protection.
During the afternoon the Germs sent over a few gas shells, but the winds being rather strong it was very little use to them, and we did not even put on our respirators.
The afternoon was somewhat quieter, but the battle commenced again at six o'clock when the Germs subjected us to a very severe bombardment for an hour, which they followed up with a strong attack, and our men had to retire. We now held only one line.
For some purpose-the reason of which I cannot say-during this counter-attack our guns were practically silent.
The Germs were bombarding us terribly, and a our men were falling over like ninepins, but not one of a our guns as far as we could tell, belched forth their death dealing missiles until the Germs were about to attack, when they opened up with shrapnel practically making a curtain of fire. This procedure may be the best if the signalling wires are not broken and the S. O. S. message (the call sent when the enemy is seen to leave the trench to attack) can be got through to the Batteries Artillery, but if the lines are broken, which invariably is the case, it has to be left to the infantry to repel the attack after they have been subjected to a severe bombardment.
I do not think that at this time it was a case of shortage of shells for we saw tremendous stocks of ammunition in certain places before the attack, and some artillerymen to whom we were speaking said that it had been brought up for attack, and that we had more handy.
The same procedure was carried out at Hooge on the 9th August (about which more later) when the papers said that it was the first engagement when we could say that we had enough shells, and it seems to me that it has rather a demoralising effect, and I shell certainly say that all our men would have felt happier if only a few of our guns had been firing on the German trenches.
As evening fell the firing became a more normal and the night passed without any further attack, we holding one line on a ridge on the left of the village of Hooge.
Twice during the night the Germs broke our wire, and I had to go out and mend it, but although it is more difficult to trace the break, it is not such a bad job as when it had to be mended in daylight under observation of the Bosches.
The importance of keeping up communications cannot be exaggerated, for if the line is broken messages have to be taken by hand, and apart from the length of time this method takes, it is very dangerous for the signaller who may not get through.
Kind permission of Bob Brookes Read 'The Diary of Sgt Bernard J Brookes'