Tuesday, 25 September 2012

John Maryon autobiography (4)

The Political Conversion of John Maryon – Part 4.  On the Western Front

By John Maryon, at the request of his sister.  [Copied with the permission of his son, Tim Maryon.]

And the next week I went to France on my nineteenth birthday, hardly recovered from my crippling illness, to suffer the rigours of the cold winter of 1916-7, in and out of the trenches.  This we spent on the Somme battlefield, about 6 miles wide, which we traversed backward and forward to the advanced trench system.  The following year – June – we were rehearsing for the infamous 3rd Battle of Ypres, culminating in November in the capture of an area of mud and pounded rubble known afterwards as Paschendaele, from the name of the village on the Paschendaele ridge.  Of the two years I spent in Flanders, this battle in which I was in 3 infantry attacks, was my worst experience.  The area depended for its excellent fertility on careful drainage.  This had been completely smashed up by the intense bombardments for 3 weeks prior to the first attack, on July 31st 1917.  Three thousand, one hundred guns were used, firing 4.5 million shells, and the weather, which had been fine, broke into rain on the afternoon of our attack.  It continued, if not by day, then by night, until we left the front in October 1917, and with continued artillery pounding, the conditions became almost indescribable.  Come October, after a rest behind the lines, and some trench-holding stints, we were back for two more attacks on Oct 8th and 12th.  To reach the attacking point, timed for early morning, we had to move up, over a sea of shell-holes in pouring rain, on the night of the 8th, waiting wet-through on arrival till it was time to attack.  The attack was not quite so waterlogged as the rest.  There was a gain of about 800 yds of swamp at the end of the attack.  Relief came to us at night-time, but after 2 days’ rest, we moved up again on the night of the 11th to take the line forward between Poelcappele and Houthulst forest.  I remember seeing trees and earth going up the same day, from the bombardment of our artillery and heavy stuff being used.  Relief came at night, and when we reached the rest camp around 4am, and I had carried a trench mortar barrel from the front line for 3 miles, weighing 56lbs, my leave for England had come through.  I had been out in France just over 12 months.  (The best description of this battle that I know, though words can only dimly describe the reality, is as follows: “Paschendaele sums up the Great War in itself, because Paschendaele is courage and sacrifice beyond understanding.  Paschendaele is the ultimate in acceptance of discipline.  Paschendaele is mud, sleet, lice, mud, noise, jagged steel, horror piled on reeking horror, men and animals torn to pieces, mud seeded with brains and blood and heaving with putrefying fathers, sons and lovers.  Paschendaele is appalling muddle to terrify the soul.”  A German general described it as “Worse than Verdun, the greatest martyrdom of the Great War”.)

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