A First Hand Account from The Battle of The Somme

10 November 2016

Member Doug Hine has provided the following extract from the diaries of his great uncle.

Sergeant William Lionel “Leo” Hine of the 21st Australian Infantry Battalion served at the First Battle of the Somme. Excerpts from his diary are reproduced in “The Red and Black Diamond”, by Neil Smith (Citadel Press, Melbourne, 1997). He records the situation at Pozieres below.

How many people can realise the horrors that men pass through during their occupation of the trenches in this great advance. Imagine a great field without a vestige of grass torn up on all sides as far as one can see by great shells, not a square yard untouched, each shell-hole touching the next. Running, in an uneven line, through this field is what was once a trench, now battered out of shape, in some places levelled.

In this trench, men crouch with their backs to the wall or lie fiat in the bottom. The first day, these men walked through the trenches, the next, they ducked and dodged; the third day, they crawled on hands and knees; and this, their fourth day, they simply sit or lie in the trench shaking like palsied old men, just waiting for their turn to be smashed out of all recognition, or, perhaps, to be lucky enough to get a slight wound, which will be sufficient to release them from their torment.

What is it that produces this terrible change in strong men? Not shrapnel, or ‘whiz-bang’, or machine gun, which are so deadly in the open. It is the high explosive shell from 6.9 (pounds) upwards. There is the charge, the trench taken, action, and excitement; then the trench has to be held, not by rifle-fire, but simply by occupation. Then there is a sound familiar to us all now, a rushing whine coming nearer and nearer then the earth fairly leaps. There is a deafening crash, a smother of smoke, dirt and flying metal, then they call for ‘stretcher bearers’.

And that is how it goes on all day long and all night. There is no sleep and little movement except for the endless procession of wounded. The dead lie in the trench in various attitudes. Here is one (and I saw him myself) sitting with his back in a niche in the wall, a book on his knees. There is no wound. He was killed by concussion a week ago and still he sits there rotting away under our eyes. Again, here are the remains of a man with his head torn off) another with his entrails hanging out. Half-buried in the wall of the trench (what was once the parapet) are the mangled bodies of men, both Australian and German, and every shell that drops unearths some fresh horror and blows to atoms the bodies of men a week dead. The stench is something awful.

All the time there is the drawn out whine and nerve shattering crash of the shells. Sometimes they come singly along the trench, and sometimes they come in a perfect tornado. To the man sitting in the trench, it is Hell. He sees this one blown to pieces, that one buried, another shockingly mutilated.

One of the most pitiable of sights is that of a man suffering from shell shock, his nerves shattered, and, in some cases, his reason destroyed. He crouches on the ground shaking like a leaf and, at the sound of an approaching shell, he whimpers like a frightened child. I saw one man driven mad by the sight of his two mates blown to pieces, and deprived of his speech by the one shell.

And so it goes on, day in and day out; the hellish din, the choking gas shells, the stench of the dead, and the expectation of death by the next shell. Strong men who went in, come out nervous and physical wrecks. The sound of a gun sets them trembling. And our boys endured four days and four nights of it; not a wink of sleep, not an hour’s respite from the shells, and, above all, not a chance to hit back.

That is our side of the game, what of the Germans? For every shell they fire, our artillery fires half a dozen. Prisoners brought in say that they have not had anything to eat for days; our fire is so intense that nothing can be brought up into the line.

Such is the position before Pozieres. Behind the village, or rather what was once the village, the road is continually under fire, and is strewn with dead men rotting in the Sun. The village is just a heap of broken bricks and timber and gaping holes, dead men everywhere, some on stretchers with the stretcher bearers lying dead beside them. 

The Wood is merely a patch of tree trunks, shivered and split, and this, again, is full of dead. It is on this spot that the shells fall without ceasing, as everything that goes to the firing line has to pass here. The food for the men in the trenches is often taken in at the cost of several lives at this point. All these things have I seen with my own eyes and much more. Things that I shall not forget for many a year.

Leo Hine did not live for many a year.  Some weeks after writing these lines Leo Hine was caught in a shell burst himself, and died of his wounds several days later, on 24th August 1916.  He had married his sweetheart Myrtle just before enlisting, ensuring she could receive his pension, and they only had a short time together before he sailed for Europe.  He never met their daughter Vola who was born in early 1916.

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