At the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, Patrick MacGill, who originated from Glenties in Co Donegal, enlisted with 2/18th Battalion, London Regiment (2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles) before being transferred to the Regiment’s 1st Battalion.
Patrick MacGill was already a well regarded author and poet when he joined up and would record his time with the London Irish Rifles from the early days of training in England, the units embarkation to France in March 1915, the early experiences of trench warfare ad finally the time of the battalion’s attack at the Battle of Loos in September 1915. During the battle period at Loos, Rifleman MacGill, who was a stretcher bearer, was seriously wounded.
Patrick MacGill would write a trilogy of books about his time with the London Irish and we shall be adding here some excerpts of these books over the next few months.
The first excerpt below comes from “the Amateur Army” when the 1/18th Battalion arrives at Le Havre on the morning of 10th March 1915.
Arriving in France, 10th/11th March 1915.
The Rest Camp, a city of innumerable bell tents, stood on the summit of a hill overlooking the town and the sea beyond. We marched up from the quay in the early morning, following the winding road, paved with treacherous cobbles that glory in tripping unwary feet, and sweated to the summit of the hill. Here, a new world opened to our eyes; a canvas city, the mushroom growth of our warring times lay before us; tent after tent, large and small, bell tent and marquee in accurate alignment.
It took us two hours to march to our places; we grounded arms at the word of command and sank on our packs wearily happy. True, a few had fallen out; they came in as we rested and awkwardly fell into position. They were men who had been sea sick the night before. We were too excited to rest for long; like dogs in a new locality, we were presently nosing around looking for food. Two hours march in full marching order makes men hungry and hungry men are ardent explorers. The dry and wet canteens faced one another and each was capable of accommodating a hundred men. Never were canteens crowded so quickly, never have hundreds of the hungry and droughty clamoured so eagerly for admission as on that day. But time worked marvels; at the end of an hour, we fell in again outside a vast amount of victuals and the sea sickness of the previous night and the strain of the morning’s march were things over which now we could be humorously reminiscent.
That night we slept in bell tents, fourteen men in each, packed tight as herrings in a barrel, our feet festooning the base of the central pole, our heads against the lower rim of the canvas covering. Movement was almost an impossibility; a leg drawn tight in a cramp disturbed the whole fabric of slumbering humanity; the man who turned round came in for a shower of maledictions. In short fourteen men lying down in a bell tent cannot agree for very long and a bell tent is not a paradise of sympathy and mutual agreement.
We rose early, washed and shaved and found our way to the canteen, a big marquee under the command of the Expeditionary Force, where bread and butter, bacon and tea were served out for breakfast. Soldiers recovering from wounds worked as waiters and told, when they had time to spare, of hair breadth adventures in the trenches. They found us willing listeners; they lived for long in the locality for which we were bound and the whole raw regiment had a personal interest in the narratives of the wounded men. Bayonet charges were discussed.
“I’ve been in front of ‘em,” remarked a quiet inoffensive looking youth, who was sweeping the floor of the room. “They were a bit ‘ot, but nothin’ much to write ‘ome about. Not like a picture in the papers, none of them wasn’t. Not much stickin’ of men. You just ops out of your trench and rush and roar, like ‘ell. The Germans fire and then run off and it’s all over.”
After breakfast, feet were inspected by the medical officer. We sat down on our packs in the parade ground, took off our boots and shivered with cold. The day was raw, the wind sharp and penetrating; we forgot that our sheepskins smelt vilely and snuggled into them, glad of their warmth.
At noon, we were again ready to set out on our journey. A tin of bully beef and six biscuits, hard as rocks, were given to each man prior to departure. Sheepskins were rolled into shape and fastened on the top of our packs and with this additional burden on the shoulder, we set out from the rest camp and took our course down the hill. On the way, we met another regiment coming up to fill our place, to sleep in our bell tents, pick from the socks, which we had left behind and to meet for once, the first and last time perhaps, a quartermaster, who is really kind in the discharge of his professional duties. We marched and sang our way into the town and station. Our trucks were already waiting, an endless number they seemed lined up in the siding with an engine in front and rear, and the notice ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux, 20’ in white letters on every door.
The night before I had slept in a bell tent, where a man’s head pointed to each seam in the canvas, tonight it seemed as if I should sleep, if that were possible, in a still more crowded place, where we had now barely standing room and where it was difficult to move about. But a much desired relief came before the train started, spare wagons were shunted on and a number of men were taken from each compartment and given room elsewhere. In fact, when we moved off, we had only twenty two soldiers in our place, quite enough when our equipment, pack, rifle, bayonet, haversack, overcoat and sheepskin tunic were taken into account.
A bale of hay bound with wire was given to us for bedding and bully beef, slightly flavoured and biscuits were doled out for rations. Some of us brought oranges, which were very dear and paid three halfpence apiece for them; chocolate was also obtained and one or two adventurous spirits stole out to the street, contrary to orders and brought café au lait and pain et beurre, drank the first in the estaminet and came back to their trucks munching the latter.
We started on the journey to the trenches, a gay party that found expression for its young vitality in song. The sliding doors and the windows were open, those of us, who were not looking out of the one were looking out of the other. To most, it was a new country, a place far away in peace and a favourite resort of the wealthy; but now a country that called for any man, no matter how poor, if he were strong in person and willing to give his life away when called upon to do so. In fact, the poor man was having his first holiday on the Continent – and alas! – perhaps his last and like cattle new to the pasture fields in Spring, we were surging full of life and animal gaiety.
We were out on a great adventure, full of thrills and excitement; the curtain, which surrounded our private life was being lifted; we stood on the threshold of momentous events. The cottagers, who laboured by their humble homes stood for a moment and watched our train go by; now and again a woman shouted out a blessing on our mission and ancient men seated by their doorsteps pointed in the direction our train was going and drew, lean, skinny hands across their throats and yelled advice and imprecations in hoarse voices. We understood. The ancient warriors ordered us to cut the Kaiser’s throat and envied us the job.
The day wore on, the evening fell dark and stormy. A cold wind from somewhere swept in through chinks in windows and door and chilled the compartment. The favourite song, Uncle Joe, with its catching chorus dying away in a melancholy whimper.
Sometimes one of the men would rise, open the window and look out at a passing hamlet, where lights glimmered in the houses and heavy wagons lumbered along the uneven streets, whistle an air into the darkness and close the window again. My mate had an electric torch – by its light – we opened the biscuit box handed in when we left the station and biscuits and bully beef served to make a rather comfortless supper. At 10 o’clock, when the torch refused to burn and when we found ourselves short of matches, we undid the bale, spread out the hay on the floor of the truck and lay down, wearing our sheepskin tunics and placing our overcoats over our legs.
We must have been asleep for some time. We were awakened by the stopping of the train and the sound of many voices outside. The door was opened and we looked out. An officer was hurrying by, shouting loudly, calling on us to come out. On a level space, bordering the line a dozen or more fires were blazing merrily and dixies with some boiling liquid were being carried backwards and forwards. A sergeant with a lantern, one of our men, came to our truck and clambered inside.
“Every man, get his mess tin,” he shouted. “Hurry up, the train’s not stopping for long and there’s coffee and rum for us all.”
“I wish they’d let us sleep,“ someone who was fumbling in his pack remarked in a sleepy voice. “I’m not wantin’ no rum and cawfee. Last night almost choked in the bell tent, the night before sea sick and now wakened up for rum and coffee. Blast it, I say!”
We lined up two deep on the six foot way, shivering in the bitter cold, our mess tins in our hands. the fires by the railway threw a dim light on the scene, officers paraded up and down issuing orders, everyone seemed very excited and nearly all were grumbling at being awakened from their beds in the horse trucks. Many of our mates were now coming back with mess tins steaming hot and some would come to a halt for a moment and sip from their rum and coffee. Chilled to the bone, we drew nearer to the coffee dixies. What a warm drink it would be! I counted the men in front – there were no more than twelve or thirteen before me. Ah! How cold! and hot coffee – suddenly a whistle was blown, then another.
“Back to your place!” the order came and never did a more unwilling party go back to bed. We did not learn the reason for the order; in the army, few explanations are made. We shivered and slumbered till dawn and rose to greet a cheerless day that offered us biscuits and bully beef for breakfast and bully beef and biscuits for dinner. At half past four in the afternoon, we came to a village and formed into a column of route outside the railway station. Two hours march lay before us, we learned, but we did not know where we were bound. As we waited, ready to move off, a sound, ominous and threatening, rumbled in from the distance and quivered by our ears.
We were hearing the sound of guns!
From “Rifleman MacGill’s War, The London Irish Trilogy.”
Over the Top – 25th September 1915.
A brazier glowed on the floor of the trench and I saw fantastic figures in the red blaze; the interior of a vast church lit up with a myriad candles and dark figures kneeling in prayer in front of their plaster saints. The edifice was an enchanted Fairyland, a poem of striking contrasts in light and shade. I peered over the top. The air blazed with star shells and Loos in front stood out like a splendid dawn. A row of impassive faces, sleep heavy they looked, lined our parapet; bayonets, silver spired stood up over the sandbags; the dark bays, the recessed dug outs with their khaki clad occutrousers dimly defined in the light of little candles took on fantastic shapes. From the North Sea to the Alps stretched a line of men who could, if they so desired, clasp one another hands all the way along. A joke which makes men laugh at Ypres at dawn may be told on sentry go at Souchez at dusk and the laugh, which accompanies it ripples through the long deep trenches of Cuinchy, the breastworks of Richebourg and the chalk alleys of Vermelles until it breaks itself like a summer wave against the traverse where England ends and France begins.
Many of our men were asleep and maybe dreaming. What were their dreams? …..I could hear faint indescribable rustlings as the winds loitered across the levels in front; a light shrapnel shell burst, and its smoke quivered in the radiant light of the star shells. Showers and sparks fell from high up and died away as they fell. Like lives of men, I thought and again that feeling of proximity to the enemy surged through me.
A boy came along the trench carrying a football under his arm “What are you going to with that?” I asked.
“It some idea, this,” he said with a laugh.
“We’re going to kick it across into the German trench.”
“It is some idea,” I said. ”What are our chances of victory in the game?”
“The playing will tell,” he answered enigmatically.”It’s about four o’clock.“ he added, paused and became thoughtful. The mention of the hour suggested something to him..…
I could now hear the scattered crackling of guns as they called to another, saying “It’s time to be up and doing!” The brazen monsters of many a secret emplacement were registering their range, rivalry in their voices. For a little, the cock crowing of artillery went on, then suddenly a thousand roosts came alive and voluble, each losing its own particular sound as all united in one grand concert of fury. The orchestra of war swelled in an incessant fanfare of dizzy harmony. Floating, stuttering, whistling, screaming and thundering, the clamorous voice belched into a rich gamut of passion, which shook the grey heavens. The sharp zigzagging sounds of high velocity shells cut through the pandemonium like forked lightning, and far away, as it seemed, sounding like a distant breakwater, the big missiles from caterpillar howitzers lumbered through the higher deeps of the sky. The brazen lips of death cajoled, threatened, whispered, whistled, laughed and sung: here were the sinister and sullen voices of destruction, the sublime and stupendous paean of power intermixed in sonorous clamour and magnificent vibration.
Felan came into the trench. He had been asleep in his dug out. “I can’t make tea now,” he said, mumbling with his mess tin. “We’ll soon have to get over the top. Murdagh, Nobby Byrne and Corporal Clancy are here,” he remarked.
“They are in hospital,” I said.
“They were,” said Felan, “but the hospitals have been cleared out to make room for men wounded in the charge. The three boys were ordered to go further back to be out of the way, but they now asked to be allowed to join in the charge, and they are here.”
He paused for a moment, “Good luck to you, Pat,” he said with a strange catch in his voice. “I hope you get through all right.”
A heavy rifle fire was opened by the Germans and the bullets snapped viciously at our sandbags. Such little things bullets seemed in the midst of all the pandemonium! But bigger stuff was coming. Twenty yards away, a shell dropped on a dug out and sandbags and occutrousers whirled up in mid air. The call for stretcher bearers came to my bay and I rushed round the traverse towards the spot where help was required accompanied by two others. A shrapnel shell burst overhead and the man in front of me fell. I bent to lift him, but he stumbled to his feet. The concussion had knocked him down: he was little the worse for the accident, but he felt a bit shaken. The other stretcher bearer was bleeding at the cheek and temple and I took him back to a sound dug out and dressed his wound. He was in great pain, but very brave, and when another stricken boy came in, he set about dressing him. I went outside into the trench. A perfect hurricane of shells was coming across, concussion shells that whirled the sandbags broadcast and shrapnel that burst high in air and shot their freight to earth with restless precipitancy; bombs whirled in the air and burst when they found earth with an ear splitting clatter. “Out in the open!” I muttered and tried not to think too clearly, of what would happen when we got out there.
It was now a grey day, hazy and moist and the thick clouds of pale yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from the scene of war. The war was passed along. “London Irish lead on to the assembly trench.” The assembly trench was in front and, there, the scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death, as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands and at a little distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard. The company were soon out in the open marching forward. The enemy’s guns were busy and the rifle and maxim bullets ripped the sandbags. The infantry fire was wild but of slight intensity. The enemy could not see the attacking party. But judging by the row, it was hard to think that men could weather the leaden storm in the open.
The big guns were not so vehement now, our artillery had no doubt played havoc with the hostile batteries….I went to the foot of a ladder and got hold of a rung. A soldier in front was clambering across. Suddenly, he dropped backwards and bore me to the ground; the bullet caught him in the forehead. I got to my feet to find a stranger in grey uniform coming down the ladder. He reached the floor of the trench, put up his hands when I looked at him and cried in a weak, imploring voice, “Kamerad! Kamerad!”
“A German!” I said to my mate.
“H’m! h’m!” he answered.
I flung my stretcher over the parapet and followed by my comrade stretcher bearer. I clambered up the ladder and went over the top.
The moment had come when it was unwise to think. The country round Loos was like a sponge; the gods of war had stood with his foot on it and thousands of men, armed, ready to kill, were squirted out on to the level, barren fields of fire. To dwell for a moment on the novel position of being standing where a thousand deaths swept by, missing you by a mere hair’s breadth would be sheer folly. There, on the open field of death, my life was out of my keeping, but the sensation of fear never entered my being. There was so much simplicity and so little effort in doing what I had done, in doing what eight hundred comrades had done, that I felt I could through the work before me with as much credit as my code of self respect required.
The maxims went crackle like dry brushwood under the feet of a marching host. A bullet passed very close to my face like a sharp sudden breath; a second hit the ground in front, flicked up a little sharp shower of dust, and ricocheted to the left, hitting the ground many times before it found a resting place. The air was vicious, with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead, the clouds of smoke, sluggish low lying fog and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receding towards the German trenches and formed a striking background for the soldiers, who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy’s parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental precision, and twice on the way across, the Irish boys halted for a moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there was some confusion, a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench.
Raising the stretcher, my mate and I went forward. For the next few minutes, I was conscious of many things. A slight rain was falling, the smoke and fumes I saw had drifted back, exposing a dark streak on the field of green, the enemy’s trench. A little distance away from me, three men hurried forward and two of them carried a box of rifle ammunition. One of the bearers fell flat to the earth, his two mates halted for a moment, looked at the stricken boy and seemed to puzzle at something. Then, they caught hold of the box hangers and rushed forward. The man on the ground raised himself on his elbow and looked after his mates; then sank down again to the wet ground. Another soldier came crawling towards us on his belly, looking for all the world like a gigantic lobster, which had escaped from its basket. His lower lip was cut clean to the chin and hanging apart; blood welled through the muddy khaki trousers where they covered the hips.
I recognised the fellow.
“Much hurt, matey?” I asked.
I’ll manage to get in,” he said.
“Shall I put a dressing on?” I inquired.
“I’ll manage to get into our own trench,” he stammered, spitting the blood from his lips – There are others out at the wires. S….has caught it bad. Try and get him in, Pat.”
“Right, old man,” I said and crawled off. “Good luck.”
My cap was blown off my head as if by a violent gust of wind and it dropped on the ground. I put it on again and at that moment a shell burst near at hand and a dozen splinters sung by my car. I walked forward with a steady step.
“What took my cap off?” I asked myself. “It went away just as if it was caught in a breeze. God! I muttered, in a burst of realisation, “it was that shell passing.” I breathed very deeply, my blood rushed down to my toes and an airy sensation filled my body. Then the stretcher dragged.
“Lift the damned thing up,” I called to my mate over my shoulder. There was no reply. I looked round to find him gone, either mixed up in a whooping rush of kilted Highlanders, who had lost their objectives and were now charging parallel to their own trench or perhaps he got killed…How strange that the Highlanders could not charge in silence, I thought and then recollected that most of my boyhood friends, Donegal lads, were in Scottish regiments……I placed my stretcher on my shoulder, walked forward towards a bank of smoke, which seemed to be standing stationary and came across our platoon sergeant and part of his company.
“Are we going wrong or are the Jocks wrong?” he asked his men, then shouted “Lie flat, boys for a moment until we see where we are. There’s a big crucifix in Loos churchyard and we’ve got to draw on that.”
The men threw themselves flat; the sergeant went down on one knee and leant forward on his rifle, his hands on the bayonet standard, the fingers pointing upwards and the palms pressed close to the sword, which was covered in rust….How hard it would be to draw it from a dead body! ….The sergeant seemed to be kneeling in prayer…In front, the cloud cleared away and the black crucifix standing over the graves of Loos became revealed.
“Advance boys”, said the sergeant. “Steady on to the foot of the Cross and rip the swine out of their trenches.”
The Irish went forward…
A boy sat on the ground bleeding on the shoulder and knee.
“You’ve got hit,” I said.
“In a few places,” he answered in a very matter of fact voice: “I want to get into a shellhole.”
“I’ll try and get you into one,” I said. “But I want someone to help me Hi! You there. Come and give me a hand.”
I spoke to a man, who sat on the rim of a crater near at hand. His eyes set close in a white, ghastly face, started tensely at me. He sat in a crouching position, his head thrust forward, his right hand gripping tightly at a mud stained rifle. Presumably he was a bit shaken and was afraid to advance further.
“Help me to get this fellow into a shell hole,” I called. “He can’t move.”
There was no answer.
“Come along,” I cried and then it was suddenly borne to me that the man was dead. I dragged the wounded man into the crater and dressed his wounds.
A shell struck the ground in front, burrowed and failed to explode.
“Thank heaven!” I muttered and hurried ahead. Men and pieces of men were lying all over the place. A leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed. A dummy leg in a tailor’s window could not be more graceful. It might be X; he was an artist in dress, a Beau Brummel in khaki. Fifty yards further along, I found the rest of X…
The harrowing sight was repellent, antagonistic to my mind. The tortured things lying at my feet were symbols of insecurity, ominous reminders of danger from which no discretion could save a man. My soul was barren of pity; fear went down into the innermost parts of me, fear for myself. The dead and dying lay all around me; I felt a vague obligation to the latter; they must be carried out. But why should I trouble! Everything was so far apart. I was too puny to start my labours in such a derelict world. The difficulty of accommodating myself to an old task under new conditions was enormous.
A figure in grey, a massive block of Bavarian bone and muscle, came running towards me, his arms in the air and Bill Teake following him with a long bayonet.
“A prisoner!” yelled the boy on seeing me. “’Kamerad! Kamerad! ‘e shouted when I came up. Blimey! I couldn’t stab ‘im, so I took ‘im prisoner. It’s not ‘arf a barney” ‘Ave you got a fag ter spare?”
The Cockney came to a halt, reached for a cigarette and lit it.
The German stood still, panting like a dog.
“Double! Fritz, double!” shouted the boy, sending a little puff of smoke through his nose. “Over to our trench you go! Grease along if yer don’t want a bayonet in your ….!”
They rushed off, the German with hands in the air and Bill behind with his bayonet perilously close to the prisoner. There was something amusing in the incident and I could not refrain from laughing…