TEXT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY 2ND LIEUT. PATRICK ALPHONSUS (“ALPHIE”) HANRATTY
of COLLON, DROGHEDA, IRELAND (born 4th October 1895) on 14th June 1917 (© see footnote)
14th June ‘17
My Dearest Mother,
Hope you are all quite well. Thanks for your letter of 6th received. I think I wrote since then. I have been intending for days to write and give you some idea of our “big day” but really I feel that any attempt at realistic description would be absolutely futile. However I shall try to give you a little idea of my experience.
On the night of the 6th we left our camp a couple of miles behind the lines to take our places in the assembly trenches from which we were to attack in the morning and I have never seen the crowd in better spirits – everyone keen and resolved to “do or die.” Our march up was without event. We went quietly and there was a touch of solemnity in the silence. Our guns of course were hammering away – a slow but continuous fire – as they had been for a week, smashing up the enemy trenches, obstacles and defences. It was almost midnight when we got into position and then grenades and other necessaries were served out; a rest for little over an hour – then hot tea was brought up and served. Just before this, we were told we were to attack at 3.10 a.m. just about dawn. It was really wonderful how the secret was kept about day and time.
After tea when everything was squared up, we settled down in the trenches. It was then getting pretty near the time. I should have mentioned that I was arrayed as a full blown private except for the stars on the shoulders – strict orders that the officers were to dress the same as the men. We were in the second wave of the attack – the battalions in front of us (in our front line trench) were to attack at Zero hour 3.10 and go about half way up the ridge. We started 2 hours later and went through them to the furthest objective just over the ridge.
Well, to continue, we settled ourselves in the trenches and waited for the big moment. About 3.05a.m. the continuous bombardment died down somewhat and just before 3.10 a.m., there was a distinct lull. Right on the minute there was a succession of dull explosions accompanied by huge red flashes along the enemy’s line. The mines had gone up. The earth trembled and quaked and huge pillars of earth shot up seemingly hundreds of feet from the lines opposite. In that instant, hundreds of yards of the enemy’s front defence system had been obliterated and yawning craters now where once had been dug-outs, concrete machine gun emplacements, trenches and no one knows how many men.
Before one had time to think of any of these things, the artillery opened up with one huge crash – try to imagine it – the greatest concentration of artillery that has ever been employed on a front of nine miles opening like one gun. Just one constant terrific roar. We knew that the boys in front had gone over and waited as patiently as we could.
Our turn. Those two hours did seem ages, but we heard good reports from the fight and something told us we were going to have a successful day. The Bosche did send over a few shells, but nothing much – we didn’t have a casualty in the trenches.
At five minutes to five, we got out and formed up to move off in artillery formation. At 5.10 a.m., we started off keeping our formation just as though on manoeuvres and feeling much the same. We could see our fellows knocking about casually on the intermediate small ridges in front and knew that the day was going well.
The going wasn’t too bad till we got to what had been only a few hours before the German front line. The spectacle that met our eyes there was really awesome – the line had been battered beyond recognition and as far as one could see, the slope of the ridge was a great desert ploughed up by shells. Not a foot of ground was missed! Truly, the artillery had done its work thoroughly. The going over this ground was very heavy and our progress was much more slow. We plodded on over the shell blasted ground without mishap till we reached the line captured by the troops in front – where our job really started. Here, we had to wait a little as our artillery barrage was resting for a time just in front of the line. This of course was all according to programme and we knew exactly the minute it would move on and we could follow behind it safely.
The other crowd had very cheery news. They had kept up behind the barrage. Practically no opposition and had got a lot of prisoners – we had met scores going back as we came up. The less fortunate ones were lying about all over the place – rather a gruesome sight.
Perhaps I should try to describe what a barrage is like. There are two kinds – standing barrage and creeping barrage. The former is simply a heavy bombardment, chiefly by big guns of enemy points of resistance and defensive lines. These places are bombarded continuously until the attacking troops are getting near the place. Then the bombardment ceases. The creeping barrage is rather more complicated. It commences with a bombardment, chiefly by the field guns of the enemy’s front line. With a concentration such as we had, not a single inch of the nine miles of line would be missed – simply a continuous rain of shells right along the line, as hard as the guns can go – and they can manage a good few in a minute. Then, as the line of infantry moves forward, so does the line of shells, right along like clockwork. The infantry moves along close behind this wall of steel and is on top of any of the enemy who are left before they can get out of their funk-holes or dugouts. On important lines of enemy trenches, this barrage rests for several minutes so the infantry have to wait behind it until it lifts and moves on again.
Well, as I said, we waited at the last captured line till the barrage in front lifted, as it did to the minute, 7.30 a.m. When we saw it moving on, we started off keeping close up and meeting with no opposition and practically no shelling from the Bosche. We got right on and extended into line just behind a small ridge near the crest of the ridge itself. As we got on the crest of the small ridge a few machine guns opened on us from near our objective – we then got along cautiously taking what cover we could and flanking the spot from which the guns seemed to be firing.
We got some of our machine guns to fire on the spot and meantime a tank ambled up and had a pot at them with his guns. We were all the time getting closer, though we had a few casualties on the way. My best sergeant was knocked out here. Next, we dropped a few rifle grenades on them and as it was getting too hot for them, they hoisted a white flag. As we got up to go forward, one of the machine guns opened again, but we rushed in – the fellow who waved the white flag won’t wave anymore. Seeing the game was up, they all came out with hands up and “Mercy Kamerad !” They were all in dug outs round about and we captured all, 40 officers and a big crowd of men. We were then close to our objective which we carried without any further trouble and proceeded to dig in – dead beat as we were with the heavy going, but happy and proud in the knowledge that we were over the crest of the famous Messines ridge and that we had done our job anyway.
We arrived there about 9 a.m.- a pretty good mornings work. We had succeeded gloriously in what had been considered a big undertaking and our casualties had been extraordinarily light. I got my platoon (just over 40 strong) to the objective over the ridge a distance of about two miles with a total of 3 casualties – only one killed. We were very unfortunate in losing the man who was commanding the company, Lieut. McLaurin – one of the best. He was hit in the ear by a machine gun bullet, but persisted in carrying on and a few moments afterwards, was hit again in the abdomen and died in a few minutes. Two other officers were wounded. We dug ourselves in at the objective and prepared for anything in the nature of a counterattack, but none was forthcoming. I think Fritz was utterly disorganised.
About noon, fresh troops came through and pushed on far forward with very little resistance. Early next morning, we went back for a rest and how did we sleep ! Our trophies include a field gun and several machine guns, not to mention the numerous revolvers, (I have a small automatic) caps etc. that were picked up all over the place. Unfortunately I couldn’t get one of their fancy helmets – I think they don’t have them near the front now. The Ridge is now well behind and I don’t think there’s the slightest danger that Fritz will ever see it again. Our boys are all very bucked with their success and anxious to repeat the dose. The tanks were great, but they didn’t really get a chance to do anything. Well, I’m sure I shall never forget that Corpus Christi morning (I didn’t know till afterwards that it was the feast) and especially Zero minute, nor would I have missed the show for worlds. Must conclude now. I think I’ve rather surpassed myself although the description conveys very little of the actual thing. Thank you all for your prayers. I know that it is due to them I have come through it all unscathed. God bless all and good night. Very best love
Your affectionate son,
© The original copy of this letter is the property of Brian Hanratty, 75 Betaghstown Wood, Bettystown, Drogheda, Ireland (only son of 2nd Lieut P.A. Hanratty) from whom permission must be obtained from before any part of this letter is reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means – e.g. electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise.