JOHN T. DICKENS
Gunner | Royal Field Artillery
In the fields, the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
--Iommi, Osborne, Butler, Ward
Few men would know that the summer of 1914 was the beginning of a dreadful campaign that would not end until thousands of bodies had been ground into the ravished landscape for years to follow. Ceaseless artillery blasted away the sanity of a generation and gave rise to the most horrific conditions man had ever witnessed. But in late August 1914, Boulogne was serene scene when John Dickens arrived with the British Expeditionary Force.
He was an experienced soldier with service spanning time in the militia during his youth, a three-year regular enlistment in 1905 with the Royal Field Artillery, followed by a period in the reserves. When the Expeditionary Force was formed, Dickens was immediately mobilized and posted to one of the artillery brigades of the 2d Division. Nearing thirty, slight in build but with a hardiness emphasized by ‘indistinct tattooing’ wrapping around his left arm, John was a valuable soldier to join the lot that would become the ‘Old Contemptibles.’ In what seemed like a few brief moments he departed Derby, leaving his wife and eight-month-old child, not expecting that when he eventually returned home more than three years would have passed.
Along with an influx of men, the 71st Battery that Dickens joined also required a draft of horses. The animals supplied from Rimount Depot were found to be inferior to their needs and in poor shape. After inspection, the 2d Division commander and brigadier of the Royal Artillery demanded they be replaced. With healthy horses and guns, the battery paraded out and sailed overnight to the continent where they spent the day disembarking. After a day of rest, the battery began moving rapidly into France. They moved by train first, a lengthy 39-hour ride toward Amiens, and then marched toward battle where they received orders to harness up. It was a long day of waiting from before dawn until late afternoon when they finally moved to a crossroads five miles south of Mons.
The retreat was in progress ahead of them in the vicinity of Mons. With the French Army folding, the British were forced to retire against masses of invading Germans. The advancing armies began to encroach on the artillery brigade as infantry retreated through the city under a hot summer sun. Every gun of the 2d Division fired to cover their retreat, and the German guns pummeled the British forces with a five-hour bombardment during the early morning hours of August 24th.
The next afternoon marked the second day of the long retreat. The batteries of XXXVI Brigade halted along the streets of Landrecies, picketing the horses to wagon wheels and preparing to stay the night. The tired gunners and drivers gave little notice to Captain Cree, the battery commander seemingly always riding gallantly on horseback, when he galloped among the guns to report a patrol of Uhlans (mounted German lancers) crossing the stone bridge near the village. The artillerymen retired in a barn for the night, thinking nothing of the Uhlans and looking forward a night of sleep. Their expectations were crushed near ten when sharp orders to grab rifles and bandoliers came from barking sergeants.
Each battery retained the No. 1 and No. 2 guns to fire for the rearguard action, setting their fuses to ‘naught’ while the remaining four guns attempted to retreat. With the Germans stabbing into their shrinking perimeter, the artillerymen were yards away from firing their last round and fighting with rifles. It seemed unlikely they would return to England. Within a hundred yards to their front, the Guards fought hand to hand parrying bayonets until three in the morning, allowing the 71st Battery to move out from their suspenseful positions. When they rejoined XXXVI Brigade the next morning, the Colonel admitted that the battery was essentially left for dead to defend the remainder of the guns – fortunately a sacrifice they did not have to make.
The retreat from Mons ended in the first week of September. The Battery arrived 15 miles from Paris near the city of Meaux only to begin an advance again across the Marne toward the Aisne River. On the eleventh, 71st Battery was the first to enter the town Boitron about an hour after German cavalry had fled the town, leaving the homes in disarray and the people pitiful. Their furniture and belongings were strewn throughout the streets and their cottages riddled with bullet holes. Worse were the stories of what the occupying Huns had done to the young female population during their week-long stay. Understandably, the inhabitants wished death upon the invading forces and sliding a finger against their throats instructing the British artillerymen to take no prisoners: “Non prisonniers, à mort!”
Dense fog prevented much artillery for most of the morning of September 14th, but as it cleared it was evident the German position was much better suited for delivering accurate shellfire. There was little cover in the open valley of the Aisne. Every move by 71st Battery was met with a shattering volley that crashed into the charming farmland around them. To their backs was a wall of the magnificent Soupir Château – they would be among the last individuals to see the grand 16th century castle standing before it was destroyed in 1917.
They moved inside the grounds of the Château and braced against German shelling for the next few days, bringing in cold autumn weather. Three days of rain made for thick, soggy soil that wagon wheels and artillery pieces churned through. The other two batteries of the Brigade left for more opportunistic positions at Moussy, leaving the 71st along to support the 4th Guards Brigade. An attempt to move a half mile down the road outside of the Château grounds was met with a fierce bombardment that claimed four men and four horses. They returned to the walled perimeter and exchanged fire with German batteries daily after morning mists cleared, often trying to nail them during their expected lunch hour.
As the gun layer, Dickens was the No. 3, arguably the most intimate with the 18-pounder and responsible for actually firing the piece. The No. 1, a sergeant, received orders from the officers which he relayed to the gunners. The No. 2 would adjust the range drum after which Dickens would fix on the aiming point, a post to their front about four feet high with a white square at the top, and adjust to the left or right depending on how many degrees the target deviated. Dickens laid the gun and fired it using a handle on the side. Then, the No. 2 operated the cam lever to eject the empty casing while No. 4 and 5 alternated loading and setting fuses with the help of No. 6. When No. 2 closed the breech again, he yelled ‘Set!’ Dickens replied ‘Ready!’ and the sergeant bellowed ‘Fire!’
Only a few hundred yards to their front, the infantry formed a trench line that passed through la Cour de Soupir. Two guns of the battery nestled into positions in the right leg of the trench and the other four remained at the Château grounds. Throughout the month that passed since their arrival, very little changed in their positions and methods of trench warfare became the norm. The fighting consisted mostly of artillery zeroing on German batteries, attempting to silence the harassing guns throughout the days and nights. The land around them, soft from chilly autumn rains, was pummeled with constant artillery. From the amount of shells the English were sending, they could only imagine the other side looked the same. In time, the entire countryside was pulverized into a desolate wasteland.
YPRES AND BEYOND
When action along the Aisne concluded, XXXVI Brigade departed the area of the Château and moved by train up along the French coast back into Belgium from where they marched to town outside of Ypres and went into action that night. Despite their rapid movement across France, it was clear that the period of open warfare was at an end and quickly devolving into trench fighting with grueling pushes to attempt to move the line and take territory. Within the first two months of the war, the tone of fighting was set for what would drag on for the next four years.
In a few months, Dickens had battled from Mons to the Marne, the Aisne, and Ypres – all names which would become staples of the Great War having multiple engagements following the “First Battle of…” The remainder of 1914 saw the 2d Division pulled from the line to rest and refit. The arduous war had only begun and Dickens remained in France to witness it in its entirety. Helmets soon replaced soft caps, the Army slowly became mechanized, weapon technology evolved, but the constant rotation of weary soldiers remained the same.
He stayed with 71st Battery as a gunner until August 1915 when he was given duties with the 2d Cavalry Division ammunition park. The administrative and laborious work without much change of scenery was broken only by a brief break in routine in January 1917 when he was posted to the 3d Cavalry Division pioneer battalion for two weeks. Only the scenery changed as the labor was much the same. At the beginning of January 1918, he transferred to the Royal Garrison Artillery’s 113 AA Section and later the 212 AA Section until the armistice. In late May he was able to take leave back to Derby to visit his family – his son who he left as an infant was over three, astonishingly older, mobile and talking. The month-long visit was fleeting and he was back in France until February 1919 when he was ultimately demobilized and returned to civilian life after a tiring stretch of time on the Western Front.
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Jackson, E W. “No Imagination Needed.” Nottingham Evening Post, 20 Apr. 1934.
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