A Gunner’s Great War: An Artilleryman’s Experience from the Somme to the Subcontinent – Ian Ronayne

As Ian Ronayne writes in his introduction, the motives behind Channel Islander Clarence Ahier’s meticulously written journal are unclear. Did he write so that others would learn about the terrifying experiences of ‘modern’ war, or so that long after the war had ended it would help him remember all that he had endured?

Whatever his reasons for maintaining such a journal, it is well-written and, as would be expected of an account from the Western Front, it is highly graphic in its content. One such example amongst the many is that which occurred at dawn on Thursday, 9 August 1917. The Germans dropped a succession of what Ahier called aerial torpedoes on the artillery camp. Ahier’s tent was not hit but, as he wrote, the air was full of cries and he dreaded going out of his tent to see what had happened: “When we did get out we saw a pitiful sight. Chaps crawling about with blood streaming from wounds, a couple running about screaming from wounds, a couple running about screaming like madmen (victims of shell shock) but the worse sight of all was what remained of the occupants of the tent next to us. Where the tent was there remained just a huge hole. On going to examine the place, we found what was nothing less than a shambles, pieces of torn blood-sodden blankets wound round pieces of limb, and, well, I simply can’t describe the sight. I unrolled the head of one chap, Thomas Scott, from a piece of blanket, but there was no body attached. Shortly afterwards our attention was drawn to a form lying about 100 yards away. On going to investigate, we found the remainder of poor young Tommy.”

The son of Thomas and Alice E. Scott, of 119 Leville Mount, Rotherham Rd., Hemsworth, Wakefield, 23-year-old Driver 44690 Thomas Scott, ‘C’ Battery, 103rd Brigade Royal Field Artillery, was subsequently buried in Dickebusch New Military Cemetery Extension near Ypres.

The degree of personal detail in this account can be found throughout the journal maintained by Ahier. Earlier, during the early days of the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed practically under Ahier’s feet. He was thrown into the air but suffered no serious injury. His friend had been stood twelve feet away, and therefore further away from the blast, but it was this man who was severely wounded. As Ahier rushed to find cover in an old German dugout, he collided with the man. “Be careful,” the man said, “I think I’m hit”. Sure enough, Ahier found that his own clothes were covered in the blood of his friend. He helped him down the steps of the dugout with difficulty, as the man was weakening rapidly: “At the bottom I lay him down with his head on my knee, and the medical officer was soon busy dressing all the wounded … we soon noticed that his right leg was in a terrible state, and on cutting away the trouser leg, we found that half his thigh had been blown away, leaving the bone exposed from hip to knee. I drew the MO’s attention to his arm, which appeared to be twisted in an unnatural position, and, cutting his sleeve away, we saw that nothing but a shred of skin was holding the arm on. All this happened in a few minutes, at the end of which time poor young Enoch Hoyland died in my arms.” 

After this Ahier was shaking so badly he was ordered back to the wagon lines for a few days to recover. Wheeler 56086 Enoch Edgar Hoyland was just 19-years-old at the time of his death on 30 July 1916. From Market Drayton, he was buried in Peake Wood Cemetery near Fricourt.

What will be particularly appreciated by the reader or researcher is that these disturbing events which Ahier describes are carefully dated. This means that the actions he refers to can be placed alongside other contemporaneous incidents, giving them a context that other, less precise, memoirs fail to do.

The care that Clarence Ahier took in compiling his journal, and the way he describes situations so carefully, leads one to conclude that his intention was that one day his journal would be published, or at least read by others. Nevertheless, the journal had lain forgotten for many years and only resurfaced recently amongst a box of odds and ends donated to the Sociéte Jersiaise. Now it has been published and with this maybe Ahier’s wishes have finally been fulfilled.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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