Thursday, 20 November 2014

Welcome to Plug Street

The period after the battle at St Yves at the end of October until late November was a relatively quiet one for the 1st Bn Somerset Light Infantry, the 1st Battle of Ypres had was drawing to a close and the battalion spent a lot of time digging in and improving defences in a part of the front that was quiet. This was vital work as at the time they were rudimentary. In his diary Pt George Coward described the trenches themselves as a series of unconnected ditches, which made going the aid of a platoon in trouble particularly hazardous. The defences in front of the line were equally poor - consisting of lines of old tins on a wire that would make a noise and alert the defenders in the event of an enemy attack, little wonder that early in November all four companies can be found on trench digging duty and beginning a second line of defences. Some of the everyday inconveniences of trench life also start to emerge, the mud is 3 feet deep in places and makes movement difficult, the war diary decides that frost is by some margin better than rain for the men in the line.

The Somersets were by this time in Ploegsteert Wood, known to the men as Plug Street and soon to witness the Christmas Truce, the area was reasonably peaceful for much of the war, the link below takes you a map produced by Capt Emdean of the Accrington Pals in 1918, but the trench lines haven't changed much over the years and the place names were those given by the soldiers based there in 1914 - note Somerset House (if you know the area well this is opposite Ploegsteert Wood Cemetery) Mud Corner - now a CWCG cemetery is also named, it is just along from Prowse Point, the front line in 1914 and in the middle of the map. Mud Corner doesn't sound a nice place to be posted but may have a marginally nicer option than Dead Horse Corner, which also features on the map.

The image below is from the Times Illustrated History and is from the section dealing with Winter 1914. It may well be fanciful but there are elements that do match the record - the wood was still full of trees, the shattered stumps of no-mans land come later and there are images in the IWM archive that are dated early 1915 and show trenches in this area surrounded by trees. This may reflect the fact that Ploegsteert was heavily wooded and so many would survive, but shelling had died down at this time. Anyone who saw the recent War of Words on war poets would have noted however that when the shells did start flying the splinters caused by the trees being hit could cause some terrible injuries.

From the Times Illustrated History

The naming of trenches and pathways after real places is also a nice touch, there are some on display in the IWM and on the map above there are a few - The Strand can be seen below the word Ploegsteert many of the place names have a London connection, possibly because the London Rifle Brigade were close by but also due to familiarity. The grave near a dug-out is a bit chilling if it  is accurate and may explain why so many of the men killed at this time have no known grave and are recorded on the Ploegsteert Memorial.

Although the Somersets suffer few casualties they are never taken out of the line at this time, there are not enough men left to do that, it means no rest and also no new training to prepare them for attempting to take a German trench. Which would be their aim in December

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