It was in early springtime on a cold and frosty Sunday morning that I joined a small group of my school friends at the railway station together with the main body of the town HG to take part in another exercise. We were to attack a position at the summit of a hill a mile or so south of the station and defended by part of the town HG. Two of my closest friends, Eric and Alan were in the group as was Fred the Pikeman, still displaying his LDV armband and carrying his pike. Our Captain (MW) was not with us, he had elected to command the defending force at the summit leaving his Sergeant to lead and organise the attack.
We lined up in threes and marched up the road going south across the level crossing and as we marched along one of the HG men started humming the WW1 song ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile’, so we all joined in. Both of my friends and I were ‘bucked up’ by this as it had been a bitterly cold night and we had only light clothing on.
About a mile up the road we arrived at our target area near the bottom of the hill and under cover from the enemy we gathered around the Sgt. for briefing. The attack up the hill would be in three separate groups, one frontal and two from the sides. Once we left the cover of the woods there was a largely bare area of ground for about 100 yards to the summit and we were to move as quickly as possible across it.
Eric turned to me and whispered ‘If there was a machine gunner at the top we would be sitting ducks.’ I replied grimly ‘My dad would have described us as gun fodder.’
Furthermore, we were given short staffs as dummy rifles and told to hold them with two hands across our chests as we advanced. Fred the Pike was relieved of his pike and handed a staff as the Sgt. thought he was in danger of impaling himself on it during the attack. Signalling the advance, the Sgt. led the three groups across the small plateau to the lower slopes of the hill.
At this point I must explain the state of the terrain, the early morning sun was beginning to affect the surface of the frozen ground so it had become very slippery, particularly as most of us were wearing ordinary shoes. However, we managed to traverse the lower slopes with some difficulty but, as the slope increased, it became almost impossible to keep upright on our feet and most of us resorted to scrambling up the hill on our hands and knees discarding our staffs(rifles) in the process. Some of the HG men, including Fred the Pikeman , started to slide backwards lying on their stomachs, their slow descent only being halted by small areas of vegetation to which they clung desperately.
The attack had degenerated into a complete shambles much to the amusement of the defending force and we could see them revelling in our plight at the summit. The final ‘nail in our coffin’ was when MW appeared at the summit and barked ‘Come on you men what are you playing at, pull yourselves together’ His remonstrations were of no avail and we were forced to retreat in disarray back down the hill where we awaited MW and the defending force for the ‘wash up’. This respite gave the Sgt. a breathing space to gather our views in preparation for his confrontation with MW. On MW’s appearance the sergeant explained our difficulties with the terrain as described but was met with a cold disbelieving look from MW who said ‘Don’t be stupid man, you should have attacked from the back of the hill, where there was more cover’. Accepting his position in the scheme of things the Sgt. replied rather lamely ‘I was hoping for a successful and quick frontal attack’.
Tired and somewhat dispirited we formed up for the march back to the station yard and during a whispered conversation between MW and the Sgt., we heard the name of the song ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’ mentioned by the Sgt. and rejected by MW as improper and unsuitable, so we all sang ‘ It’s a long way to Tipperary’ which was morale boosting and cheering.
Whilst writing this story my thoughts recalled the battles of the Somme in 1916 where nearly one million soldiers were killed or injured from July to November. This prompted me to select the phrase ‘Up the Hill Lads’ as the title of the story, evoking the memory of those lost men as they rose from their trenches to confront the enemy and their likely death or severe injury.
I dedicate this story to my father Albert House (RE) who served on the Somme in Sept/Nov 1916. A German gas attack in 1918 damaged his heart and lungs and was the main cause of his early death in 1934 at the age of 48.
Read more of Arthur’s reminiscences on the Sources blog next week.