Major Toke, the Welsh Regiment and the Ypres Salient (1915)

Collections - Posted 15-10-2019

Earlier this year the Library was successful at auction in buying the 1915 war diaries of Major Roundel Tristram Toke, o/c A Company, 1st Battalion, The Welsh Regiment. After a brief description of the battalion leaving Agra in India, convoy to England and transport to France, one diary covers the whole of 1915. The other is a slightly re-written version, ending in August with Toke’s transfer as o/c 6th Bn Bedfordshire Reg., but with added explanatory notes, maps etc. The highlight of the diaries are Toke’s vivid description of the battalion’s posting on the Ypres Salient, including the Second Battle of Ypres, April-May.

At the beginning of February 1915, the battalion took over French support trenches at Zillebeke, on the southern flank of the salient. Thankfully the weather was cold:

5th February. … The trenches were full of dead French soldiers, many of them only partially buried. One mans hand stuck out of the side of the communication trench. Our men used to shake the hand each time they went in and out of the trench. In one dug-out there was a dead Frenchman lying at the back partially frozen. At least he appeared quite fresh, although he must have been dead for some time. …

On 18 February “[a]t about 8.a.m. I discovered that I was being fired at by a sniper who could evidently see right down my trench. He was a deadly shot, and the casualties increased rapidly, the men mostly being hit in the head and killed outright.” After one officer and 12 men had been killed and 13 wounded, including receiving two bullets himself through his cap and one in the shoulder – “extremely painful” – Toke abandoned 50 yards of trench and turned all hands to building a traverse across the trench, during which another four were killed. Later the same day:

During the afternoon a R.E. [Royal Engineers] officer came down to know why I had withdrawn from a portion of my trench. I explained the situation to him and he said he was going to look at my traverse – he was extremely rude – I warned him not to look over the top – in three minutes I was told he was dead having stood up and looked over the top contrary to my instructions. …

This was far from Toke’s only experience of a sniper. In April the 1st Welsh moved to trenches at the outermost edge of the salient. This was an active sector and although the Second Battle of Ypres officially started on 22 April 1915, with a gas attack on French and Algerian positions in the north of the salient, Toke writes that the battle “roughly began about the 17th April”, coinciding with the 1st Welsh’s arrival:

16th April. Went up to Zonnebeke to see the new trenches. They are situated right in the apex of the salient. A very dangerous spot, as one can be fired on from three sides.

17th April. Marched up to the trenches. The Germans were shelling Ypres very heavily as we came through and all the roads leading through and round it. The big attack on hill 60 began at 7.p.m. just as we were clear of Ypres. We opened a terrific bombardment from every available gun to which the Germans quickly replied, sending over some very heavy stuff. We got very badly shelled on the road between Ypres and Potije [Potijze] one shell bursting right in the middle of the Battalion inflicting numerous casualties. …

18th April. Made a combined attack at dawn on the Birdcage, the name given to the house I was fired at from last night owing to its being covered over with wire netting as a protection against bombs [grenades]. The bombers of my Co’y under 2/Lieut Bryan and Lt Newington advanced from our trench while Torkington and Warren Davis with their bombers advanced from their trenches on the right. The Germans were in a very strong position in an old cellar and the attack was a ghastly failure, nearly the whole of our parties being killed or wounded. …

19th April. The Germans started blowing my trenches to pieces with a Minenwerfer or big trench mortar, throwing a bomb about 4 feet in length filled with H.E. The concussion was terrific and several dug-outs fell in. My communication trench was completely demolished and a large portion of the trench right in the apex completely blown in, sandbags and bricks from ruined houses being blown sky high. …

20th April. … Captain Playfair killed in my trench. He was an artillery officer and came down to observe. His O.P. [observation post] was a loophole in the parapet through which the Germans were continually sending bullets as they had spotted it. Consequently I blocked it up and posted a sentry there. I told Playfair not to remove the sandbags under any pretext. Within five minutes of leaving him he was dead. He removed the sandbags and was shot through the head at once. …

Evidently nobody had told Playfair that snipers don’t play fair. The same day the Brigade Major, the first staff officer Toke had seen in the trenches, was killed by a sniper in a neighbouring company’s trench after looking over the top. And so on and so on, day after day.

The diary also describes the effects of gas (25 April), Toke taking command of the battalion (14 May), the Battle of Bellewaarde (24-25 May), which effectively concluded the Second Battle of Ypres, Toke taking temporary command of the 84th Brigade (10 June), and being granted the temporary rank of Lt-Col (14 June). On 23 August, Major (temp. Lt-Col) Toke took command of the 6th (Service) Bn Bedfordshire Regiment, which was stationed on the front at Bienville, southwest of Arras, about 45 miles south of Ypres. The diary continues to record the daily grind on this also ‘active’ sector until the end of the year.

Toke survived the war. According to the index of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales, he married in 1922, registered the birth of a son in 1924 and a daughter in 1927, and died in 1957. Toke was a professional soldier, and had previously served in British contingents in the Boxer Rebellion, 1900, and the Russo-Japanese War, 1905-1907; his diaries and photographs from this period are at Duke University, USA. The 1st Bn Welsh Regiment war diary for 1915 is at PRO: WO 95/2277/4. It may be the battalion’s official record of service, but is likely to be bloodless in comparison.

Stephen Benham

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