Sunday, 29 April 2018

Richard William Laws: The war continues

More kindly written by Helen Butler.


Trench Foot occurred when feet were constantly wet and cold, and in these extreme conditions in the winter of 1916-17, it was a common sickness. Poor circulation made the feet numb, then red or blue, then white, worsening with swelling  and open sores easily infected. The soldier was a cripple and useless. Gangrene can develop and amputation sometimes resulted. But with good treatment,complete recovery is normal.

Dick was carried out to the casualty station and processed the same as if wounded. He was taken to hospital at Rouen 130 miles away, and then to Buchy to convalesce.  There are no surviving letters of this period to gauge his state of mind, but how depressing for the athlete when he could not even walk. It took a long time, but he did recover.

SECOND  PERIOD  with  the   NINTH   BATTALION –  12  weeks

In the 12 weeks Dick had been away, the Ninth had continued at the front. Dick had missed the big breakthrough of 6,000 German troops, which was turned back by 4.000 Allied troops, including the Ninth. He also missed the second battle of Bullecourt which was successful, and the battle of Messines. After this the Ninth had been taken out of the line to rest and regroup. Dick joined them on  7 July in Ribemont where the training continued for 2 more weeks.

Then they began their move north to Belgium. They marched, entrained, marched again, went by motor-omnibus,were billeted in villages for a while,finally moving to Vieux Berquin. Here they stayed 5 weeks, bringing their intensive 4 months training to a successful end, as proved by a series of inspections and tests. On 22 August the brigade sports were held and the Ninth won the Athletic Cup by one point. There was a march past where General Birdwood took the salute. Over a period of 6 days, a detailed inspection of the troops and their equipment was done unit by unit.

“The battalion was now at its peak in numbers, training and spirit.” In this period of high morale, the men felt very happy and proud to be part of their Ninth battalion “family”, and eager again to prove themselves.

They did not have to wait long. On 13 September they began moving up to the front line in short stages. Finally they were  in position to take part in the Third battle of Ypres, which had started 5 weeks before, but had been brought to a standstill by wet weather. This second stage of the battle is known as the battle of Menin Road. It was very well planned and it was successful.

 For 7 days before the attack, 4,000 British Artillery from 18 pounders upwards bombarded the enemy positions, with a gun placed every 5 yards. The front line at Westhoek Ridge was being held by British troops. On 16 September these were relieved by the Australian 3rd Brigade,consisting of Battalions 9, 10, 11, and 12. They rested until midnight on 19 September, when the advance began in the dark. As the  Ninth were passing through and out of Chateau Wood, it was unfortunate that German flares revealed their movement for German bombardments, which killed and wounded many, including many officers. However they reached the jumping off tapes just in time.

At zero hour 5.40 am,the barrage suddenly started from those thousands of guns, and the line of men began to move steadily forward behind the barrage. ( The battalion history records that almost every man lit a cigarette as he rose to start.)
This was the creeping barrage moving forward at a rate of 100 yards every 6 minutes, so this was also the rate of the troops advancing behind it. As there were three sections with an exact starting time for each, synchronization was doubly important. This plan of attack often did not work well, with so many things to possibly go wrong in co-ordinating 4,000 men and 4,000 guns, plus an enemy lurking ahead. But on this occasion, the Creeping Barrage  worked perfectly.

By 10 am, using the ploy of Leapfrogging, the Ninth and the Tenth had reached the final objective, the green line. They dug in here on the edge of Polygon Wood. That night they were relieved , and moved back. The Ninth were only 4 days in this tour of the line, and they were very successful. However casualties were 1 in 4. Private Dick Laws was lucky and lived to fight in the next tour, soon to happen.

The Ninth then had 9 days to recover behind the lines at Dickenbusch and Steenvoorde. They returned to the line on 30 September to relieve the 47th Battalion on Anzac Ridge. A large force of Australians joined with New Zealanders to capture Broodeseinde. In moving up , the ninth was very heavily shelled, but with few casualties.  While the Ninth was still behind the lines, Broodseinde was captured on 4 October with many German prisoners. After this the German Artillery were very quiet, but not for long. On 5 0ctober in continuous rain, the Ninth moved further up to the Supply Lines just behind the Front Line, and relieved the Eighth. That afternoon the German guns started up again firing at the Front Line. The next day these guns shelled further back at the Supply Lines, which were severely hit.

This is where Dick Laws was badly wounded with shrapnel in the head, officially recorded as “GSW head severe.”  The Ninth continued at the front 5 more days until 11 October, and on this tour suffered 150 casualties, about 1 in 6. Dick was unlucky to be one of these, but at least he was not one of the 40 dead.

Charles Bean's History of this battle describes the days of pouring rain and the greasy and collapsing “roads”, making it very slow and difficult to move up guns and supplies and to evacuate the wounded. Perhaps Dick was wounded before the conditions became extreme, but it was after the rains came. So it is notable that he was evacuated so promptly. His record shows he was carried to the casualty clearing station on the same day he was wounded, and he was in the 12th General Hospital at Rouen far away the next day. Within a week, he was in England at Exeter in the Devon Voluntary Aid Hospital.
Read more about the Hospital at
Exeter: Possibly what he would have been in.

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