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The note from Colonel Harrison

Blunden's War - Part 18: Messages from the heart of the battlefield


Rumours of being sent to Lens or Egypt proved groundless.

The battalion were in St Martins Lane, a blasted out trench on the way up to the recently conquered Schwaben Redoubt and Stuff Trench. 'Men of the next battalion were found in mud up to their armpits and their fate was not spoken of: those who found them could not get them out.'

This was around 30th October. If you seek proof beyond Blunden's writing, you can see the Battalion War Diary. In that, not only are the daily positions and activities recorded; there are also pages and pages of handwritten names and numbers of casualties - with large gaps where there is no knowledge of the men's fate. Colonel Harrison has written a number of messages which have survived. These messages are quite likely to have been seen by Blunden; they testify, along with the casualty lists and the typewritten battle orders, to the daily force of combat and the desperate struggle to survive.

Harrison's notes are the equivalent of emails today, but delivered by runners who risked their lives to pass on the message. Most messages were short, but this one gives a live commentary as darkness falls:

"To OC A Coy: 30/10/16
I know you have had a real hard time of it, and the men too. Very sorry to hear of your casualties especially Shirley. You need not send down to me tonight unless you have anything to report. Have sent up to you rations for tomorrow and shall not send up more at present as they only get wasted and spoilt. I shall try to put a light outside HQ tonight to aid runners so warn them. Do not forget listening posts they are essential if you can manage it. Are you in touch with VMQs if not you should get in touch and co-operate. I sent up a gun and team from B Coy to relieve the Herts gun and in place of the team you had knocked out. Be sure you get your Lewis guns safe and bring them away with you. Also we must not leave any wounded in the line so notify me if you are in trouble in this respect. What SAA have you in the line if urgently required I can send you up.
CO, 4.30pm."

Harrison's headquarters were at the Thiepval end of St Martin's Lane, a deep dugout decorated with German drawings; it was suspected of being used as HQ and German shells 'fell nightly with sudden terrifying smash on the roof and in the trench at the exits'.

The General (Hornby) would appear, commenting on the bracing air of Thiepval. He was perfectly serious about this, and other remarks were equally unfortunate. Harrison habitually kept his letter of resignation on him.

"'No, Harrison,' piped the now amazed General, 'no, I shall not look at it. I shall put it in my breeches pocket.' Harrison's point was well made."

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