Happy Valley

Today we conclude the blog written by volunteer Chris Prince containing the powerful words of soldier 2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Callan McArdle who was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme.

 

The concluding part of the journal of Kenneth McArdle.

6th July 1916 continued…

As there was no available dug-out in ‘B’ company’s side (the East) of the village Humphreys, who took over when Vaudrey was killed, had his H.Q. in a shell-hole.

We instructed our men to dig holes for themselves under the parapet of Nord Alley which was about eight feet wide, but first. They had to make fire-steps. The trench soon had many dead and wounded, they called for water but there was none. Those badly wounded called pitiably for stretchers, but eight stretcher bearers had been killed and three of our four stretchers smashed. The M.O. was overwhelmed with work. It was impossible to spare a sound man to help along a broken one as we were standing-to for a counter-attack. It came; was repulsed and came again; and the regiment was crumbling away.

All day and all night the hail of shells continued. In the narrow streets the shriek, the all-powerful thud, and rending crash went on ceaselessly. We got tired of the shock of their explosions which made us reel, and feel dizzy and numbed. We got sick of the reek of high explosive, synonymous with dead and broken men. Our feeling of triumph faded, and when the first night and day were gone and the second night began we were silent and grim, and – yes – a little afraid. At least we had got to longing for a relief, to hating the endless shattering of shells, to receiving new[s] of fresh causalities among our dwindling force with a weary shrug,

Of course we knew Montauban was safe; we would keep Montauban. But every time a pallid runner came down the trench or over the top and handed me a note I wondered was it to say ‘Lt. Humphreys is killed, you are in command of the Company.’ ‘The enemy are in Montauban.’

Of course I would not mind taking over the Company if old Humph were just out of action with a cushy wound; I would not mind the Bosch being in Montauban, not if we could get up and hurl him out again. But as I surveyed a very crumply Company and a very big line to hold I realised I was very tired and done. At 3 a.m. on the second night after our capture of the village we were relieved in a hurricane of shells.

We trailed out wearily and crossed the battlefield down, trenches choked with dead, our own and our enemy, stiff, yellow, stinking; the agony of a violent death in their twisted fingers and drawn faces. There were arms and things on the parapets and in trees; shell-holes with three or four dead lying heaped in them.

The dawn came as we reached again the assembly trenches in Cambridge copse; from there we looked back on Montauban, the scene of our triumph, where we, the 17th Kitchener Battalion, temporary soldiers and temporary officers every one that went in, had added another name to the honours on the colours of an old fighting regiment of the line: not the least of the honours on it. A molten sun slid up over a plum coloured wood, on a mauve hill shading down to grey. In a vivid flaming sky topaz clouds with golden edges floated, the tips of shell-stricken bare trees stood out over a sea of billowing white mist; the morning light was golden.

somme
Site of Montauban, July 1916 – Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum*

We trudged wearily up the hill. I was not unhappy. All this world was for ever dead to Vaudrey and Kenworthy, to Clesham, Sproat and Ford and to so many of the other ranks – we did not know the number. Vaudrey used to enjoy early morning parades; Clesham had loved to hunt buck in Africa when the veldt was shimmering with the birth of a day.

On Peron Road we met McGregor Whitton of the R.S.F. He had been wounded in the hand early in the attack but had carried on. I asked after Godfrey. Young Victor was killed, his problem of marriage to a woman six years his senior finally settled. Towers Clark too was dead, and Captain Law of County Down, and others I did not know so well.

In Bellon wood on our way to our rendezvous at Boufray Farm we got water from the gunners, who had moved heavy guns up there. There were already 18 pounders in Montauban.

At Happy Valley a bivouac was arranged for us and breakfast. We ate enormously, washed the worst of the grime away, and slept for hours.

Our reception was enthusiastic. The Brigadier had wired General Shay, the Divisional Commander; ‘90th Bridge has taken Montauban in drill formation.’ The highest possible praise. We were welcomed and praised and warmly shaken by the hand: and the sun kissed away the ravages of our ordeal.

That was on the 3rd, today is the 6th and we are still in Happy Valley in bivouac. The Valley is soaked with rain and sloppy with mud. We are on short Rations and have neither bath nor bed.

General Shay has wired, ‘Well done 90th Brigade, you will attack again soon.’

We are about four hundred strong today, we who went in eight hundred.’

kenneth
Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-McArdle died on 9th July 1916, his body was never found – **courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

I feel these powerful entries touch upon a pivot shift in the world, not only felt and described by McArdle on a personal level as to what he and other soldiers endured and felt as they entered the chaos of war, but also an entire world and way of life slipping away into darkness and despair. The first entry, on the 30th, is full of hope, excitement and ambition of a young man eager to impress his commanders and honoured to be a part of one of, but a few, glorious battled. As was the view of the time towards warfare, a carryover of late 18th century warfare.

This is then brought crashing down in the following entry on the 6th. The coarse scene he portrays strikes a shocking blow to the senses of McArdle, his soldier’s kin and even the enemy, as well as the reader. The glory and ambition expressed in the previous entry gives way to hellish images of madness, suffering and loss, a far cry from the world McArdle believed in not a week before, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the past, as they knew it, flashed away. The suffering and violence he portrays is vivid, the image of the death as ‘stiff, yellow, stinking; the agony of a violent death in their twisted fingers and drawn faces’ conjures an image of despair that surrounded the battlefield. The madness and insanity inflicted by the artillery on the Germans creates a chilling image and reminds us that all were victims in the war. The volumes of the lives lost are almost given personalities as the wants and concerns of his friends and comrades fade as they themselves fell on the battlefield.

 

*Site of Montauban, July 1916 – Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum – catalogue number Q4003 – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205236499

** Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-McArdle died on 9th July 1916, his body was never found – Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum  – catalogue number – HU117311 – www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205384877

 

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