East Chinnock and World War 1
by Jeremy Churchill
December 1914 - January 1915
By early 1915 the War had settled into two principal areas of fighting – what would become known as the Western Front in Belgium and France, 460 miles from the North Sea coast to the Swiss border, and the Eastern Front, a much larger area stretching from Lithuania, south through Poland and into Slovakia, Romania and on to the Black Sea coast.
With both sides on the Western Front being temporarily exhausted by the fighting of the previous October and November, military operations largely consisted of the completion of the front line of trenches. Although these trenches weren’t as elaborate or as sophisticated as they became later, both sides dug deeper, installed more barbed wire and built shelters and support trenches. Major attacks stopped, but smaller assaults were made to improve the position of one side or the other, such as the attack on the “Birdcage” carried out by the British 11th Brigade on the 19th December. The “Birdcage”, a German fortified strongpoint, so called because of the amount of barbed wire placed around it, lay just to the east of Ploegsteert Wood (“Plug Street” Wood to the British soldiers), in Belgium. An attack by 11th Brigade – 1st Battalion Somerset Light Infantry, including Arthur Russ (413 New Buildings) and Alfred Baker of East Chinnock, 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment and 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, including Walter Pike (of 441, Weston Street) – failed with heavy casualties, many of which were caused by British artillery firing short of its target; the Somerset Light Infantry suffered 32 killed, 53 wounded and 30 “missing” – a total of 85 casualties for little result except to clear the Wood of Germans
The 11th Brigade took part in one of the famous “Christmas Truces”. A ceasefire was mutually arranged between the British and German soldiers (several of the opposing trenches being within earshot of each other, allowing singing from both sides). British and German officers met in No-Man’s-Land and arranged a more formal truce to enable the recovery of the bodies of the dead from the attack on the 19th. Soldiers from both sides took the opportunity to wander around No-Man’s-Land, chatting to each other, shaking hands and some exchanging gifts. This lasted for most of the day, until both sides finally returned to their own trenches.
Further south, where Walter Russ
(brother of Arthur) in the 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards, (1st (Guards) Brigade, 1st Division) and William Taylor
(of The Rookery), with the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards (4th (Guards) Brigade, 2nd Division, there seems to have been no truce; perhaps the Guards felt it was not in keeping with their reputation to fraternise with the enemy!
With Christmas over, both sides returned to the dreary round of trench warfare – continual cold, wet and muddy living quarters, the constant danger of death or wounding from artillery and snipers and the sheer boredom of being cooped up in a trench all day, in some cases in this early part of the War, for weeks at a time. In low-lying areas (such as most of Flanders and Belgium) the trenches were nearly always flooded; the winter of 1914-15 being one of the wettest and coldest on record. The troops were kept busy digging drains and repairing collapsed trenches, and all concerned became familiar with “trench foot”, a condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions.
Back home in England, Charles Andrews
, Cyril Andrews
, Gerald Dane
, Percy Dane
, and Arthur Shire
, of the 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry (61st Brigade, 20th (Light) Division of Kitchener’s first New Army) were better off than many that winter, living in hutted accommodation near Woking. Training consisted of a dull round of route marches and fatigues (working parties), without uniforms, with obsolete weapons and equipment, in a particularly cold and wet winter. Patriotic enthusiasm wasn’t the only motive making them look forward to their chance to “do their bit” in France!