Cecil Slack
An insight into life during The Great War

The Great War Diaries

On this page you will find entries from diaries written by Cecil Moorhouse Slack, and by Sub Lieutenant W.A. Cliffe (as sent to Cecil's father) during the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

Cecil's daughter-in-law, Lady Joan Slack, has put these archives into the public domain.

Diary Number 1. 2nd Lt. Cecil M Slack

Wilton House, Holderness Road, Hull. England.

April 19th, 1915

Left Newcastle 8.50am arriving at Folkestone about 8.00pm, after a good journey.

Crossed Channel with lights out, no smoking, or shouting, no leaning over ship's side, and guarded by warships, arriving at Boulogne about 9.45pm.

We then marched up hill for 3 or 4 miles till we came to a rest camp.

After dishing out blankets and sorting out tent parties, we turned in.

The tent did not keep out the moisture or the cold, and with only a blanket it was impossible to sleep.

April 20th

Set off at noon for a station, about 6 miles away.

Very hot and tiring, with overloaded packs.

pullquote panel top
...if they had got through us, the line would have been pierced, with grave results.
Cecil M Slack

Waited at the station for about an hour, and then took train to Cassel.

We were in 2nd. class carriages, the men in trucks suitable for 8 chevaux or 40 hommes.

Passed through Capais and St. Omer.

Waited some time at St. Omer, and able to get out of train for about 20 minutes, and get some hot water for tea.

We met a Hospital train here, with the patients looking very contented.

We wondered how long it would be before it was our turn.

It was dark when we arrived at Cassel.

The men slept in large warehouses, amongst the straw, whilst we billeted on some R.F.A. officers stationed there.

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April 21

Marched to Steenvoorde and the 4 miles beyond to some farm houses where we were eventually billeted.

A very tiring march of about 12 miles with very little water, and no food.

The sun was very hot, and we were heavily laden.

On the way General French passed in his car, and shortly afterwards Arthur Balfour went by.

April 22


Foot and rifle inspections.

Very comfortable billets for both officers and men.

I had a very soft feather bed.

Had a bath in a bucket.

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April 23

Route march of about 8 miles.

Everyone very fed up about it.

April 24

Bathing by platoons at Steenvoorde.

Bought some honey and fruit for our mess of 6.

Others also bought something.

General Smith-Dorrien's orders read by Major Theilmann, re discipline etc.

April 25


Lectured platoon for about twenty minutes.

Called up at 11.30pm.

No time to pack valise.

Left everything for my orderly.

Concentrated on battalion alarm post where we spent the rest of the night.

After trying to sleep for two hours I discovered some heaps of damp straw, where I got a little sleep.

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April 26

Got breakfast at the Colonel's billet, an estaminet.

After breakfast we moved off to the main road to wait for the motor buses to take us to the firing line.

Boarded buses about mid-day.

Passed through Poperinghe, and dismounted not far from Ypres.

Marched to a hut camp arriving about 6.00pm

Had a meal, and soon afterwards turned in, fully dressed, with equipment ready.

Called up at midnight.

Marched north by N.E. to Yser Canal getting there at about 2.00am

No more sleep.

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April 27

Shells came about 6.00am but did little harm - 3 men wounded.

We were joined by about 3000 French.

Moved off at 9.00am crossing the Canal under shell-fire.

Marched 4 or 5 miles across country, at first parallel to the Canal, and then turning North.

Came to remains of a village with a lot of dead horses lying about.

Shells coming rapidly.

One burst in the poplars over my platoon.

A few splinters fell on my cap.

Battalion opened out into a sort of echelon formation and doubled to a wood, where we halted for 15 minutes.

Marched out of the wood, and each company began to scratch cover with entrenching tools.

The shells contained some sort of gas which filled the eyes and nostrils.

Everyone's face had streams of tears running down.

It would have been impossible to see to shoot as it was difficult to keep one's eyes open.

At 4.30 we were ordered to take part in a counter-attack.

The Germans had gassed the French, who had been forced to flee, thereby letting the enemy get at the Canadians' flank.

The Canadians were practically wiped out.

We advanced under very heavy shell fire for ¼ mile, and then came under rifle fire.

Men began to drop.

As I was lying down a bullet kicked mud into my eyes.

Shortly afterwards just as I was preparing for another rush from behind some manure heaps a string of small mines went off 15 - 20 yds. in front.

We eventually drove the Germans back about 1½ miles, and had fixed bayonets preparatory to the final charge, when we received orders to go no further.

We were ordered back to the wood whence we started, leaving other troops to hold the position regained.

There had been no one behind us, and if they had got through us, the line would have been pierced, with grave results.

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Diary 2. Capt. C.M.Slack.

Official P.O.W. Stamp. Rastatt.

March 21. [1918]

Bn. moved from Guillancourt about 7.00pm by rail, to Brie, thence by march route to Bernes, arriving about 5.00am

Took up a position in the Green Line at about 2.00pm

Front line troops retired through us, enemy followed up.

4th. Yorks on our left flank left a two company front gap during the night.

C.O. and Adjt. of 4th Yorks killed.

Our patrols secured five prisoners.

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March 22

Bn. withdrew under orders, just before dawn to Vraignes, about 3 miles in rear, taking up positions at once, with orders to hold line at all costs.

Enemy continued his advance before we were properly in position.

4th. Yorks on our right and 5th. Yorks on our left withdrew.

Bn. began to fall back but sent forward again by C.O. when an orderly arrived with a message that there was to be a general withdrawal across the Somme.

The message was four hours late in reaching us.

C.O. about turned the Bn. and moved off across country at about 9.00am

I went back to Vraignes to bring out a few men still hanging on to warn machine gunners of the retirement.

Got there at the same time as the Bosche; the Bn. now being over 1000 yds away there was nothing for it but to be taken or to run.

Ran for it under M.G. and rifle fire.

Had to go 400 yds before reaching dead ground.

Had to go across ploughed land and was wearing my British-warm.

Bullets all round.

Caught up to the Bn. at Mons en Chausee.

At about midday the Bn. fought a rearguard action whilst all other troops crossed the Somme.

Eventually received orders to retire ¾ hr. later.

Retired with heavy casualties.

Brie Bridges blown up after we crossed.

Took up a position in support about 1000 yds W. of Canal.

I found a Q.M. store of bacon, bread, bully, tea and blankets etc. in a deserted Chinese labour camp nearby, and we were able to give everyone a good feed.

The C.O. and I occupied an officers hut in the labour camp.

During the night orders arrived to move back to Boyelles, about 3 miles.

Moved off at 11.00pm arriving about 1.300am

Had a good meal and turned in for 6 hours.

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March 23

Had a shave and wash and a good breakfast.

Orders soon arrived to move south, as the enemy was across the canal in front of Ablaincourt.

Moved off about noon.

C.O. and I had horses.

After a tiring march arrived at Peshain about 9.00pm and eventually turned in at a deserted C.C.S. but got no sleep, but found a few tins of Machonocie.

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March 24

Moved off at 3.00am to take up a position at Licourt just west of the canal, with orders to counter-attack at 8.00am and drive the enemy back over the canal.

Zero hour was continually postponed, and the enemy eventually broke through our right.

The left held, and was also reinforced with myself and about 40 men but eventually withdrew together with Bn. H.Q. and the troops in it's immediate vicinity - a heavily shelled cutting.

A new line was formed in trenches about a mile in rear.

The new position was maintained until the enemy appeared to be round on our right flank when another retirement was made with the intention of forming up again at Ablaincourt and getting connection with the flank.

The troops moved out in small numbers, later forming into columns of route, but in about an hour's time were fired on by the enemy's scouts and advanced troops.

A new line was hurriedly formed along the line of the Rly; eventually retiring some 300 yds. behind hedges and other cover from view.

The enemy continued to advance, but halted at dusk.

At 8.30pm. our line withdrew under orders to trenches at Ablaincourt.

Rations arrived during the night.

We found a little dugout for Bn. H.Q. which Thompson and I cleared out and filled with long dry grasses.

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March 25

Remained in position until about 2.00pm when the line withdrew under orders to a position just east of RosiPres.

C. Coy. were badly hit in the rearguard action owing to the 2nd Worcester moving off before their time.

Positions were dug in front of RosiPres, we were about 400 yds in rear of front line, in support.

C.O. wounded.

Rations arrived during the night.

Position maintained during the night and following day.

March 26

Heavy shelling all the time but lucky as regards casualties.

Bn. H.Q. was in great danger the whole time from the short fire of our own guns, two shelters near it being blown in.

March 27

Withdrew under orders about 2.300am about a mile to the rear, to the outskirts of RosiPres, in reserve.

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March 28

General retirement began about 9.00am which later developed into a route.

Bn. reformed N.W. of Caix and tried to form a line, but no other troops joined in.

About 2.00pm orders received to march back through Moreuil to Louvrechy to billets - a 10 mile march.

Road had been shelled and dead men lying about.

Stopped at dusk for half an hour, this side of Moreuil, where Division had tea and rations waiting.

The rain began and lasted for about 4 hours.

Moreuil blocked with transport and troops retiring.

Arrived at Louvrechy at midnight, found barns with plenty of straw for the men, and turned in.

March 29

Orders arrived at 6.00am to move at once to take up a position in the front line in a wood between Domart and Caix, - a 10 mile march.

Dished out bully beef and biscuits from a deserted dump.

4th. East Yks. ration tender arrived as we were moving off.

Tenders had been travelling all night but had to follow.

Arrived at destination at midday, and took up a position.

Met Pollock with about 80 "details", standing by for a counter-attack which he eventually had to make, losing heavily.

Bn. ordered about 6.00pm to make a counter-attack but Brigade on our right withdrew, and the whole line retired about ¼ mile and dug in on an open plain for the night.

Col. Thompson, O.C. Bn. went down, bruised in the calf, by shrapnel.

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March 30

General retirement just before dawn, for about ½ mile, taking up positions just to the S.E. of stream at Domart.

At about 10.00am Bn. moved forward ¾ mile and occupied, without opposition a wood.

Enemy counter-attacked about 3.00pm driving us out, flanks again having given way.

Just before dusk we counter-attacked, cavalry working on our right flank.

Retook the wood and trenches 150 yds beyond, taking about 50 prisoners and 6 or 8 machine-guns.

I led counter-attack and was first in the German trench.

Got some excellent shooting at 50 yds range.

A French Bn. operated with us, the whole under Pollock.

Maintained our position throughout the night.

March 31

Enemy bombardment commenced early, and 16 hostile planes flew low over us, firing.

Enemy counter-attack commenced about 9.300am and both flanks went but we held on for an hour until almost surrounded.

Had to retire with what was left i.e. Ruthven and 10 men, and Bn. H.Q.

5th. Yorks and 4th. Yks. had already retired.

Pollock was firing with a German machine and I with a rifle into the backs of the enemy who were 300 yds to our right rear.

Had to run for it then, Pollock having outed the machine gun.

I was about 40 yds in front of Pollock, and when I looked back he was talking to his servant who was in a shell hole, wounded.

I did not see him again.

Bullets were raining from both sides and the rear, but I got across the valley and up the other side, about 500 yds. in all, untouched.

Over the hill I met Ruthven and Elvin and 3 H.Q. men.

There was a general mix up of troops, and we fought small rear guard actions whilst retiring to the other side of Domart.

Collected a few of our men on the way, and met Wood of the 5th.

Yorks with about 60 men.

Decided to march to Boves, where Div. H.Q. were.

Stopped by a Staff colonel and told to occupy a line of trenches about ½ mile to the N.W. of Domart.

Remnants of the Div. were collected in this trench and then moved about ¼ mile forward to dig in.

Div. sent up rations and tea during the night.

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April 1

Position unchanged.

Orders received about 6.00pm to march back to Longeau near Amien, a 6 mile march.

Arrived about 9.00pm.

I was o/c the remnants of our Brigade, 8 officers and 108 men.

Officers and men billetted in deserted houses.

April 2

Rations issued.

About 10.00am marched to [Saleux], about 7 miles to entrain.

Train moved off at about 10.300pm, arriving at Rue about 6.00am.

April 3

Set off by Bus for Div. rest area, about 10 miles away.

Picked up by Dromy in lorry and G.S. wagon, arriving at EstrJes-le-CrJcy at 1.00pm.

Spent the afternoon eating and getting affairs in order as far as possible.

At 6.00pm warning order to move next day arrived, followed by an order for transport to move at once.

April 4

Moved off at 8.300am to embus.

Embussed about 11.00am debussing at 8.300pm near Bethune about 50 miles north.

Very dark and raining.

A map was given me, I was shown approximately where I was, and where I was to go to, Essars, and that guides might be out.

Guides were not out and we arrived at Essars at about 11.300pm where there was a good meal waiting for men and officers.

Turned in after the meal and having seen the men in.

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April 5

Telegram arrived about 6.00am to send an officer to a plan about 6 miles away to bring a draft.

Had to meet the Brigadier at 12 noon in reserve trenches which we should occupy in case of attack.

Set off at 10.00am with Ruthven and Barr, reconnoitred ground, and met the General.

Got back at 3.00pm and ate a good dinner of beefsteak pie the Padre had had made for us.

Had to send to the General a disposition scheme in case we had to move to the recently reconnoitred trenches.

Looked up regulations as to Honours Awards and sent in Recommendations.

Received telegram at midnight to send an officer to fetch another draft.

April 6

Got warning order of another move about 10 miles north.

The guns etc. arrived.

April 7

Major Jackson turned up in the afternoon, also a funny thing from Etables, one Col. Pike whom we fed and billeted.

Major Jackson took over command to my immense relief.

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April 8

Moved off about 8.00am to entraining point about 4 miles distant, eventually arriving at our new village, Doulieu, at about 5.00pm where meals were ready for officers and men.

Had an excellent billet next room to the mess.

Order came in the evening for C.O. and 5 other officers to visit Portuguese line next day with a view to relief.

I was in bed and Major Jackson made arrangements.

April 9

About 7.00am Orders came to be under 1 hour's notice to move.

There had been a heavy bombardment during the night.

About 8.30am. orders to move at once arrived.

Managed to get breakfast, and moved forward with Lewis guns, limbers and water carts, taking a position in a field about 3 miles away, shortly moving again to wired positions on the west bank of the Lys, the enemy already being on the other side in small numbers.

Our orders were to hold on at all costs.

Bn. H.Q. established in a big shell hole.

Rations arrived during night.

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April 10

Enemy attacked about 8.00am

We held on but both flanks gradually went, and at about 4.00pm everything went plant, and Bn. H.Q. consisting of the C.O. myself, Thompson, the R.S.M. and Cpl. Nelson, found itself surrounded, the enemy being only 50 yds. away in large numbers.

Thompson fired a few shots, but there was no possible chance of escape, and we had to give ourselves up.

We were sent to the enemy's rear, the enemy's officers being very polite.

We were nearly shot on the way by one of the men whom Thompson had hit.

After a long march we were commanded to repair a part of the road, eventually coming to rest for a couple of hours at some village, and later moving on to a hurriedly made prison camp, where the officers slept together in a small room and the men out in the open, arriving about midnight hungry and thirsty, but got nothing.

April 11 and 12

We spent 2 nights here and got bread biscuits and very thin coffee substitute.

April 13

Marched about noon to Lille, 10 miles away.

April 14

At Lille, bread, jam, and horse-flesh and barley soup.

April 15

Entrained with 2 loaves apiece and marmalade, at about 3.00pm

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April 16

Still in train.

Given a lunch of fish substitute cakes, and spinach at Metz station, with a small piece of bread, and coffee.

Could buy cigatettes, cigars and matches.

About 9.00pm got out of train again and given a meal of bread, sausage, and coffee, for which we paid 2.50 each, and allowed to buy tobacco at a small canteen.

April 17

Arrived at Rastatt camp about 2.0 am.

Given soup.

Dished out with token counterpane, sheet, and two thin blankets and small towel.

Good huts with palliases for sleeping.

Bathed in the afternoon.

Allowed to write letter card.

(The entries for April 18 and 19 are blank.)

April 20

Vegetable stews and abominably hungry

(The entries for April 21 - 23 are blank.)

April 24

Paid 26 marks.

April 25

Stews and hungry.

(The entry for April 26 is blank.)

April 27

Slight improvement in amount of food.

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Copy of extract from Diary of Sub Lieut W.A. Cliffe

Monday April 8th 1918

We made a move today to a village with scattered farms and got comfortably settled down.

I got a billet in a very cosy farm and have a nice little bed to sleep in.

I don't know officially, but we think we may stay here for a while to train up again.

We have been badly mauled on the Somme after heavy fighting, and yesterday got a big draft of youngsters from England - their first time out - to bring our strength up again.

Tuesday April 9th. 1918

I awoke at 7.00am to hear a terrific bombardment on in the line.

My servant tells me it woke him up at 4 o'clock and has been on ever since, but as usual it never woke me.

However, I got my breakfast without hearing any further news except noticing that several of the villagers were moving about, and looking as though they were packing up rather hastily, but I didn't take any particular notice of it, and thought it must be a case of “wind up”.

After breakfast F----- told me we were to go up into the line immediately and gave orders to pack up at once and be ready at a moment's notice; so off I went to give the necessary orders and see all was ready.

Portuguese troops are now dribbling back wounded, and say the Bosche has got through.

S----- has just passed through on a bike, and asked me if I had seen one of his Coys which had set off and he couldn't find.

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In half an hour the Bn. are ready to move.

The Col. has sent for me and given me instructions to go forward in charge of an advanced guard to the Batt., so off I go.

What a sight, - men and women are hurrying down the road past me, and say their homes are being smashed up by shell-fire.

They all have small bundles which contain their valuables I suppose and a few odd things they have managed to scrape up before leaving.

At an appointed place I halt and the Bn. come up.

Shells are flying over in shoals and we shelter in ditches.

Presently we are ordered to our different positions, and off F----- and I set with our Coy.

He and I are the only officers with the Coy, - the rest went West on the Somme.

We move forward through a deluge of shells in small parties, - how we safely got through Heaven only knows.

Houses are on fire all over from the shells, and a big ammunition dump has got on fire which we are passing by.

Explosions from it are occurring every second, and stuff is flying about all over.

We get to the river - our position -, and F----- and I go forward to reconnoitre for a defensive position, which we decide upon, and the men commence to dig in as fast as they can.

I go along the river bank to see if all the bridges in our front have been blown up, and come across an officer's charger stood in the river trying to get out.

I tried to help the poor animal out, but suddenly a machine gun opens out on me from somewhere on the opposite bank, and I have to make a bolt into cover and leave the beast, which will get shot I expect.

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Evidently the Bosche has got as far now as the river bank, and is there held up, but is sweeping our positions with machine gun-fire.

After getting back to our positions S----- comes along, and I have a chat with him.

He is on my immediate right and we discuss the position together, and arrange to keep in touch with each other.

The night passes without much of interest except the place is lit up with the conflagration from buildings the Bosche has set on fire, and he is shelling us much more than we deserve, but all are dug in fairly well, so nobody cares much

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Wednesday April 10, 1918

A Bosche plane is paying us much attention, and flies very low over our line.

We opened fire on him with our rifles for some time, but nothing happened for a while, and then he wobbled and a black object fell out and came tumbling to earth all arms and legs, - it must be the observer because the machine continues flying and goes back to his own roost.

What shouts from our boys as the chap tumbles out - someone's lucky shot.

I looked and found a big delve right across the side, where a bullet had
struck it (helmet).

About 8 o'clock am. the shell fire is very intense, and our line on the left falls back so we have to go back too.

One feels the responsibility very much, and we get the men into another position, and started digging in once again.

We get well established and settle down for the night, which is pitch dark.

The Bosche are gradually creeping towards us, but we must be inflicting heavy casualties on him, for our M.Gs. are sweeping the front all night long, but he keeps throwing up lights to show his own folk how far he has got.

Of course he's pretty wary, because he doesn't know exactly where we are.

After seeing everybody is all right and alert, I get into my "cubby hole" which my servant had dug for me about 11 pm. to await any further message from the H.Q.

A message comes along that F----- has been shot through the stomach, and I am left in command of the Coy now.

I made another tour of the line and stepped into a deserted farm-house near, to see if there was anything to eat.

The inhabitants had gone - poor things - and everything was left just as if they still occupied it, a heartrending sight.

I found some bread and went back to my place in the line to rest - I got no sleep last night.

Presently I think I see a black object against the hedge close to my hole and I look again - it moves and then a voice comes and as far as I can make out says “Companee”.

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I clutch at my revolver and jumping out of my hole fired, and again at another figure behind him, which I saw when I got up.

They both groaned and rolled down the bank at the hedge side into a beck.

I found they were Bosche scouts who were pushing out in the darkness to find where we were, and coming across a line of holes weren't sure evidently whether we were friend or foe because his folks were all over the place.

They soon found out and failed to return to their lines.

Nothing further of interest happened during the night, - the usual shelling of course.

About an hour before dawn I get instructions to move my men further over to the right and go along getting them into their new position.

I got a nasty jar - I saw one chap in the dark who I thought was asleep and knocked him to tell him to get a move on, when a chap near by said “He's dead Sir, - he was shot an hour ago carrying rations”.

Ugh what a shudder.

When dawn breaks the rattle commences.

The Bosche has worked some M.Gs. up close to us, and he is firing on to our line from a house and wood in front about 50 yards away.

An aeroplane of his comes over and is shooting at us with his M.G. - an uncanny sensation to see him overhead diving down at us as we are laid down on the ground and peppering us with bullets, and we daren't move.

He is firing tracer bullets which leave a white streak of phosphorus and thus show the flight of the bullet.

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The Bosche begin to come on in numbers now, and we are having a fine time with our M.Gs. rolling him over as fast as he comes along, but after a while I see our left flank falling back - no message came through that they were doing so, and I felt a bit uneasy for fear I should be enfiladed.

A quarter of an hour went and still no information as to why I had seen folks going back, so I decided to find out myself.

I couldn't go along the line to enquire it was too exposed, and would have meant certain death, so I decided to crawl myself and not send anyone else down a road that ran past my "cubby hole" to behind a farm at our backs, and work my way round to the flank.

I made a dive out of the hole and into the road, - phew how the bullets flew.

They had spotted me all right and the zip zip of the bullets as they hit the ground all round was rather embarrassing.

I tried to shelter under the hedge bank as I crawled along, but this wasn't good enough, and I was evidently well in sight and things got hotter, so I jumped into the ditch and got the rest of the way above my knees in water -

Thank God I got through untouched, but I found my left flank was open and the Bosche was actually working round me and beginning to fire at us from nearly behind, so I told my lads to get back - according to orders - and we rushed across the open to some position in the rear.

What a hail of bullets - the poor lads (only just from home) began to fall all along, and when we got back I could only scrape up a few.

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The 29th. were supporting us just behind, and we formed again on their line.

I heard one gallant Sergeant of the 29th. when the line looked like wavering, shout out “Now then boys, remember, the 29th have never flinched yet” and they didn't.

During the retirement I got an awful bang on my steel helmet, which made me stagger a second - what was it - I looked and found a big delve right across the side, where a bullet had struck it.

Luckily for me the knock was only on the side so the hat turned it.

If it had been a direct hit it would have gone clean through.

These hats will stop shrapnel and glancing bullet shots, but not a “square” hit with a bullet.

The rest of the day we were fighting all the time trying to stem the Bosche advance - its open warfare.

We are laid in a line right across the open fields firing all the day to try and hold the Bosche M.Gs. in check, which are gradually creeping up again and fairly “washing” us with bullets.

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Word comes along that we are relieved by another Brigade, and that I am to collect what men I can and go behind.

We had to get away very carefully.

At last I got on to a road, and we set off ’.

During the day I had been sick once or twice, and felt a bit ’, and was glad of the thought of an hour or two's rest after three days continuous fighting - but this was not to be -

Bullets commenced flying round us again from somewhere, and shells bored large holes in the road in front of us - what had happened?

The C.O. met me and said the Bosche was working round in the direction I was going.

A church burst into flames on my left, and then I saw Bosche figures coming out of a wood a mile off on my left.

I turned off the road according to the C.O's. instructions, and got what few men I had lined across a field digging some head cover for themselves.

We had to stop him coming at all costs so we did what we could.

Shells banged all round again, and then I felt an awful burning and choking sensation and commenced vomiting.

I got back a bit in shelter but got no better, and eventually collapsed.

I was taken to a Field Ambulance near by, by my servant and sent down the line “gassed”.

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Robert Slack - "I am very happy for (the letters) to be used by others. If teachers ever wanted to see the original letters for teaching purposes etc, I would be very happy to loan them, or send good copies of the originals."

To contact Robert, or to comment on this site, please e-mail Chris.A.Brown@eastriding.gov.uk

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