Donald Berwick’s account

Dorothy Spence lived in Milton Keynes for many years before retiring to Cumbria. Donald Berwick was a family friend. Dorothy has lost touch with Donald’s family, but trusts that they will not mind this account being published here.

Donald’s text has been left as he typed it.


Arrived with other recruits at Ypres early November 1916. Occupied trenches covering the area between St. Jean and the Menin Road. The remnants of the battalion we were reinforcing greeted us with descriptions of the losses they had suffered at Guillemont on the Somme in September – only one-third of them survived.

The trench system was a front line, support line and reserve line joined together with communication trenches, all zigzagged at right angles to minimise the effect of explosives bursting in the trench. In this area the trenches were shallow and had to be built up with sandbags because of the slimy green clay which became a quagmire in wet weather. The drainage system had been destroyed with constant shelling. One soon became acquainted with enemy greetings. Explosives called Whizbangs, Minnenwerfers, Flying Pigs, Jack Johnsons, were a few. These came over to disturb us at frequent intervals. During sudden and heavy bombardments from the enemy we took what meagre cover was available and hoped for survival. Bombing raids were made into the enemy trenches at night. An advance party would creep out and cut a way through the enemy wire, followed by a raiding party who made a sudden swoop into the enemy’s front line trenches, throwing Mills Bombs to clear the way and hoping to get some prisoners and information to bring back. The Germans made similar raids on us. I was very impressed with the efficient way the Germans built their trenches.

Wiring parties regularly went over the top under cover of darkness, erecting new and repairing damaged wire. Out in No Man’s Land the slightest noise or movement aroused suspicion on both sides then up would go the flare lights and down you dropped to remain still, hoping you hadn’t been seen. Sometimes Jerry and ourselves would be working simultaneously, both sides sneaking away quickly when finished, before the machine guns opened fire again.

Even during quiet periods sentry duty in the font line was an ordeal. The winter of 1916-17 was very severe and on sentry duty your feet became frozen in the stiff clay of Flanders. You stood there alone in the wintry dark, nothing between you and the enemy but No Man’s Land – now and again the stillness broken with the rat-tat of machine gun fire, the distant rumble of transport bringing both sides supplies and rations. The Ypres salient was uncanny. Flare lights, machine gun fire and shell fire, came from all sides. The first cold light of dawn was greeted with relief. It would not be long before you were relieved, those stiff legs thawed out, a drink of hot tea and with luck some Rum in it, followed by a few hours rest. Although not an habitual drinker I enjoyed my Rum ration. On one occasion our corporal had managed to pinch a jordy of Rum, swapping a jordy of Lime Fruit Juice. A generous helping out of this Rum Jordy put me out of gear for nearly two days. They hid me in a dugout and covered me with sandbags till I came round. The wet and sticky clay of Flanders was a frequent cause of trench feet among the troops and our feet were massaged with Whale Oil.

Food in the front line was mostly tinned. When possible hot soup was carried on the back from the reserve line in metal containers. On one occasion I was detailed for duty to carry one of these up. Unfortunately shrapnel from a bursting shell struck my container and caused it to leak. By the time I reached my hungry mates, half the soup had dribbled down my back. I got no sympathy, only curses about short rations. To make things worse the fat solidified on my tunic so my chance of a snooze in a dugout was ruined because of the rats scampering all over me, licking up the fat off of tunic.

Rats – millions of them occupied the battlefields along with the troops – all shapes, all colours and sizes. I have seen thousands of them at night crossing the Menin Road at Hell Fire Corner like vast armies on the march. Also in this area hundreds of frogs could be heard, croaking away in the mud and ditches beside the roads. In your dugout with the aid of a candle it was interesting to observe the rats peering at one from behind the wire netting of the supporting frames. If you put out the candle they would soon be scampering all over you, hoping for something edible. Corns on bare feet came not amiss to them. Candles and food had to be put in sealed tins – even shaving soap was eaten. I must confess that never once was I bitten or attacked by these rodents.

Lice (called chats) were disagreeable pests, secreting themselves in the seams of your clothes and underclothing, biting and itching as soon as you got warm and wanted to sleep. A method of destroying them was to run a lighted candle along the seam. This damaged your clothing and to ask for replacement was to run the risk of C.B. for damaging army property.

Tunnelling under the front line was another activity in the trenches. Working parties would be detailed to fill sandbags with the excavated earth. These would be carried in relays along the tortuous passages to the entrance of the sap. The bags were used to fill in the gaps in the sides of the trenches damaged be enemy shelling. The drainage water was pumped away in rubber pipes attached to a petrol engine. These made a doleful sound as you passed the entrance to a sap. Sometimes work was suspended owing to poison damp gas and the sap was sealed off. Often when Zero hour was near for detonating the explosive, the enemy Sappers could be heard underground preparing for their Zero hour, then it would be a race and gamble as to which side blew their fuse first. After the explosion the trenches above were destroyed, killing and burying their occupants. A large crater was left, which vas hurriedly manned with infantry in the hope of having a forward stronghold. We were issued with gum boots for these operations but they often proved useless, the sticky wet clay dragging them off your feet into the ground.

Poison gas was another hazard on the Ypres sector. The first gas mask was a flannel hood, soaked in anti-gas mixture. This was tucked well under your tunic, was very uncomfortable, and you looked like a bogy man. Very soon we had the square box mask – better than the hood, but it became steamed inside affecting the vision. Gas came over in shells and large canisters, which dropped with a thud, discharging their contents so fast it was touch and go getting your mask on in time. Gas carried by the wind was not much used. There were many types of gas used. I have witnessed some dreadful sights, seeing many of my comrades die a terrible death, turning yellow or grey and frothing at the mouth and nose. Fortunately I had always been able to adjust my mask in time.

Brass Hats

Staff personnel billeted in safe areas well behind the firing line were a species rarely seen in the firing line. Word speedily reached the trenches of any intended visit by these V.I.P’s, and by arrangement with the front line Corps the artillery would send over a sudden display of artillery fire to liven things up, causing the enemy to retaliate. The Brass Hats made their visit brief.

Parcels from Blighty

These arrived at infrequent intervals and were the most desirable events of the soldier’s life at the front. It was wonderful to get parcels of food and cigs from relatives and friends. It was a rule for parcels to be stitched in canvas or cloth. I was a non-smoker so traded my cigs and tobacco for food, especially cake. It soon got around that I didn’t smoke, even officers have asked me if I had a cig to spare. Often we were cut off from supplies due to enemy action, so the odd cig produced at those times made somebody’s day. Trumpeters and Arf-a-Mo were issued officially, but I gather were not very popular.

Round about Ypres

Poperinge vas a well-known village to the soldiers of World War One. The railway passing through Poperinge was used during darkness as far as half a mile from Ypres. The train halted near a huge water-filed crater, and from here the shattered outline of the Cloth Hall and other ruined buildings, bursting shells and Very Lights, made an eerie sight. This was always a dangerous spot. Many a train has been blown up with long-distance shell fire. We never lingered here, but it was like going from one hell hole to another going into Ypres. At night hundreds of wagons pulled by mules rumbled along the road from Poperinge through Elverdinghe and Vlamertinghe carrying rations and supplies to the Ypres front. This was done in feverish haste to coincide with an unofficial understanding with the enemy to enable both sides to complete their deliveries before shelling was renewed. In spite of this, before daylight the slaughter of transport and mules was terrible. The ditches alongside the road were littered with wreckage of lorries and mutilated corpses of man and beast. At one time I was billeted in the magazine near Vlamertinghe, this vas always heavily shelled by the enemy because we had two heavy guns hidden nearby. The canal bank and ramparts on each side of the Menin Gate Ypres were riddled with dugouts, and when the Menin Gate was shelled the whole place rocked. The Menin Gate was a death trap at all times. It was constantly being shelled, and all traffic had to take a chance and dash to get through. The smell of burning wood was everywhere in Ypres, and to this day smoke from a wood fire reminds me of that shattered town.

Incredibly among all the devastation, natural life persisted. Walking along the Menin Road towards Hell Fire Corner one passed a ruined cemetery. Among the broken monuments and gravestones of this forlorn place I saw wallflowers and forget-me-nots making a colourful show. A few finches were hopping about and above was a skylark filling the air with song.

As the months went by to July 31, the date fixed for the Passchendaele Offensive, the conditions in the Ypres Salient got worse. Increased activity on both sides, shelling and gas attacks, all made life uncomfortable. True we had a rest period in the Hazebrouck and St. Omar area and adjacent countryside. We did labouring jobs on farms, road mending and much else the army authorities thought fit to keep us busy. We added variety to our diet with the popular egg and chips bought from the local people and farmers. These were enjoyed sitting around the family’s living room stove, and drinking coffee. The stove stood about one-third inside the room, the flue pipe going back to the wall. This pipe was usually festooned with the family washing being dried. On the stove was an iron pan in which the coffee was boiled – more water was added as required.

PASSCHENDAELE July 31st, 1917

Towards the end of July guns were being moved into position after dark and camouflaged with green and brown netting. Instructions of all kinds were given to officers and men. Things came to a head on the evening of July 3O when we occupied prepared positions in trenches where we were crowded shoulder to shoulder. The weather was dull and misty; fortunately this deprived the enemy of decent observation. Just before dawn on July 31 our artillery opened up with what must have been the heaviest concentration of shell fire experienced hitherto. The ground rocked and the darkness was lit up with a continuous wall of fire and explosions above the German lines.

Dawn came as we stepped from our trenches into the unknown. It was misty with a slight drizzle as we stumbled with our heavy packs over the sodden earth and into deep shell holes. We passed a tank sinking in the quagmire. Machine gun fire from the enemy was beginning to take its toll. Our men were dropping dead and wounded on all sides. It was now a case of dashing from one shell hole to another for cover. As we moved forward small detachments of German soldiers came into sight – some put up their hands and surrendered, others didn’t and then bloody encounters ensued. Fortunately for myself I wasn’t actively engaged in the latter. The ground we were on was between St. Jean and Potyzee Road and was dominated by a number of fortified strongholds including Pill Boxes (concrete fortresses). Pommern Redoubt on our route was manned with machine guns which inflicted severe casualties on our men, and with great difficulty it was finally overrun and captured. These Pill Boxes were impregnable to shell fire. The day dragged on – we were weary and opportunities for a bite of food were scarce. Attention to the calls of nature were well-nigh impossible. By now it was obvious we were losing contact with other parties. Everything looked alike – a featureless desert of shell holes and mud. The ground rose gently in front, so we were overlooked with bullets and shells thinning our ranks all the time. It became imperative to take cover in shell holes. Many died shot in the head daring to peep over the rim of the shell hole. Anything that moved was shot at. Taking advantage of the cover given us by some low mist, two of us crawled back some hundred yards or so, by which time darkness had fallen. Then the rain came. It poured in torrents all night, almost filling the shell hole – the water level just leaving us space to be above this level and below the rim of the hole. It rained all the next day. It was dangerous to try and move in daylight. I was hungry and looking in my pack for something to eat when I heard a bump and my Pal fell dying from a bullet wound. I had shared friendship with him during most of my service overseas. Both he and his wife exchanged long letters. I knew he had a letter ready for dispatch in his sack, so I took it with me. Soon darkness fell – the night wore on – more rain falling. Desolation all round. Flare lights, machine gun fire, shells bursting, cold and damp. Withal I managed to get a few winks of sleep. Just before daybreak I decided I must get moving, and with more luck than sense of direction I reached one or our forward positions and was helped to the nearest First Aid Post.

After first aid attention for cramp I was able to go along with others in a similar plight to the base hospital for further treatment and rest. On route just behind the lines, we saw the most appalling scenes imaginable. Hundreds of corpses covered with blankets and sacks waiting for removal. Mules dead and dying lying everywhere, some up to their necks in slime. Nothing could be done to help them. Splintered tree trunks, shattered army wagons, battered petrol tins, stench, water, the thunder of bursting shells and the rain. It is impossible to describe the utter chaos of it all. It was as if hundreds of builders’ rubbish dumps had been tipped there.

This was the last I saw of the Ypres Salient.

The remainder of my time with the forces was in the Somme at Epehy during the Battle of Cambrai November – December 1917, then at Givenchy-Festubert La Basse Canal Front.

In April 1918 I was hit with machine gun fire when with a wiring party at Givenchy, invalided home and discharged disabled September 1918.

Private Donald T Berwick 201709
15 Platoon 1/4 Kings Own Royal Lancasters, 55th Division 1916-18

(His address is shown as being in Burnage, Manchester)