This is such an account being the substance of a long letter written by Henry John Roe to his wife, in 1917.

   THE  BATTLE  OF  OPPY  WOOD

(A Dispatch from the Front.)

" When the Great War broke out, I was already a war Veteran, - having served as a "Rough Rider" with the 20th Batalion Imperial Yeomanry in the South African War a few years earlier.  In the Spring of the year 1917 I was in France, a member of the 17th Royal Fusiliers which, with the the 24th Fusiliers, the Ox. and Bucks. Light Infantry and the Highland Light Infantry, comprised 5th Brigade.  We were about to attack the German forces in the vicinity of a town called, Oppy.

On the morning of 27th. April, 1917, in accordance with instructions, I proceeded with four of the pigeons which were under my care to my Brigade's Advanced Headquarters, and reported to the Senior Officer of the Ox. and Bucks. Battalion.  I was to spend the night in the H.Q., which was situated in a deep, long tunnel which had formerly been a German dug-out.  I was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs to the dug-out, eating my supper, when there was a "crump:", and a shell landed almost in the doorway.  As soon as we could get outside we began to bring in the wounded.  A company of the Ox. and Bucks. had been passing, and seventeen men were badly injured. We did what we could to make them comfortable, and then two of us went outside again with electric lamps to count the dead.   What a ghastly sight we saw!  Heads had been severed from bodies; hands and limbs were lying about in all directions, and one man's leg had been thrown into the "dixie" which held the water for our breakfast tea.  We could reckon the number of casualties only by literally counting heads.  There were seven!

 Disturbed by the moans of the wounded, we spent a sleepless night.  At 2.30am. a party of us, including a number of snipers and an officer who knew the way, left the dug-out to find the roughly constructed "jumping-off trench" - a trench dug as close to the Germans' barbed-wire as possible on the eve of an attack:  The men had to wait there until their own artillery barrage lifted, then, on a signal given by their officer, clamber out and begin the advance.

We walked for an hour or so. On the way the shell-bursts did no harm to us, but our route was pitted with shell holes and in the darkness we kept falling into these. When we found the battalion we were seeking, I reported to the C.O, - Captain Barnes, - who instructed me to remain with his H.Q. staff, and I slipped into the trench.

The fellow next to me was soon talking freely.  He said that neither the Captain or the Sergeant had been "over the top" before, but this fact was of little significance.  When once attack was launched commands were inaudible owing to the resounding din, - the continual rumble of the big guns in the distance; the bursting of shells; the rattle of machine-gun fire and the crack of the rifles: the "whisping" of our own shells as they passed overhead.

Then Captain Barnes' call came, - "Over the top you go, lads and the best of luck to everybody:" - we set off at a steady walk.  When we came to the barbed-wire I got hung up for a few moments, and extricated myself only by making a large tear in my breeches.  The other fellows all carried rifles with fixed bayonets and two "bombs" each.   Each officer was armed with a revolver and a couple of bombs.  I, - encumbered as I was with a basket of pigeons in each hand, - had discarded my rifle in favour of a revolver which was loaded in six chambers with one spare round in my pocket.

We entered the first German line, killing any of the enemy who offered resistance, and taking some prisoners, and moved on, advancing in short rushes and dropping into intervening shell-holes to rest.   I, hampered by my pigeon baskets, at a disadvantage, but I managed to keep the H.Q. party in sight.  When at last they huddled together in a larger shell-hole it was obvious that there was not room in this for me and my birds also, and I dropped into a small whizz-bang" hole close by.  I soon realised that my head and my feet were exposed and, hearing the "ping", "ping" , of a sniper's bullets, had an anxious time. 

There were several machine-guns playing across us:  It seemed that there must be a strong enemy post over the rise on our left.  I thought to myself, "Well boy, it's only a question of minutes before they get you!", and, as I had no intention of being shot like a rat poking his nose out of a hole, I asked the Captain if we were going to rush the position.  He replied that he could not spare the men for such a sortie. and that - in any case - it was not in  our area.

I appealed to him to let me go with a couple of men; he repeated that he could not spare any men for his staff but added reluctantly that if I insisted on going myself he would not forbid it.   I was away before he had finished speaking. - flourishing my revolver in true cinema style and running a zig zag course towards the rise in the ground.

Avoiding, by good luck, the erratic shots of an enemy sniper, I jumped over a dead German, rushed up a little bank and found myself on the rim of a small crater.  A sniper returning to the dug-out built at the bottome of the hole was sliding down from the opposite edge of the crater.  He could thank his lucky stars that he was not carrying a rifle.  Four of his companions were in the stairway entrance of the dugout: Two were sitting on the step and two standing lower down.  

In a deperate attempt at self-preservation, I leapt down the bank yelling, - as if to a regiment following on my heels, - "Come on lads, We've got 'em",  still brandishing my revolver.  The men within sight shed their weapons and equipment and began to file up the steps with their hands held above their heads.  As other followed I continued to keep a careful watch for bombs, still expecting every moment to be my last.

I now had ten men lined up and when, after a time, a party of Canadians arrived, the number had swelled to fourteen.   I asked the  Corporal for a couple of his men with fixed bayonets to accompany me and my prisoners back to Capt. Barnes. The necessary escort was provided and, still flourishing my revolver menacingly up and down the line, I marched them back and paraded them three-quarters of the way round the rim of the shell-hole for the Captain's inspection.

The prisoners were questioned and when it was found that none of them spoke English they were sent off in charge of two of the H.C. "Runners, to be handed over to the Prisoners' Guard, and I returned to the whizz-bang hole which I had left about half-an-hour earlier.

Our next objective was a sunken road which ran from the village of Arleux to the town of Oppy. We reached it at the cost of several casualties.  The enemy had machine-guns trained on the road from some of the buildings in the town on our right. and from trees in the wood, which was immediately in front of the town.  As we dug ourselves into the banks on the side of the road, two of our men were killed, - shot through the head.

I now sent off the first message by pigeons.  (I learnt later that this was the first authentic message of the attack received at 5th Brigade Head-Quarter.)  Captain Barnes was worried about our failure to establish contact with the battalion on our right, so I offered to work away to the right on my own, to find out what had happened to them.  He warned me of the dangers of such a course, but I had long ago been initiated in the technique of scouting, and I said, "If it's possible to get through, I'll do it!"

I set off again on the run, working my way down the sunken road and dropping into a shell-hole every thirty or forty yards, until I came into the valley.  Here the road formed an embankment which offered two or three feet of cover.  A sniper had me in range, but I confused him by concealing myself whenever his bullet had gone wide, and running on when there had been a near miss.  Soon I came upon a partly-constructed German communications trench which terminated in four gun-pits (to accommodate trench-mortars.)  It was obvious that the pits had been hastily evacuated:  the guns were still there, though one of them had been wrecked.

Each pit opened out into a cleverly constructed dug-out and covered trench.  As I dashed from one to the other, I ran into three men who belonged to the Battalion I was seeking: they were absolutely lost and had only a very vague idea as to where their officers were.  I now discovered that we were surrounded on three sides by Germans, so I gave the men directions as to how to find my C.O. and told them to clear out before they were captured.  Then I had to cut and run for it, and I reached Captain Barnes without further mishap.

During most of that day, our lines were under observation by a couple of the enemy's aeroplanes.  Whenever they swooped down on us we lay low, - fearing that they would spot us and give away our positions to their artillery.  A battery of whizz-bange tried to wipe us out; they got us in line, but could not elevate their gun to get sufficient projectry to drop in the sunken road, so their shells fell short or just cleared the opposite bank and did no damage.  A battery of heavy guns away to our left front, dropped 5.9's, sending up each time a cloud of dust and earth as big as St Paul's and gouging out a hole in the ground deep enough to bury a load of hay in - cart and all.  Every five minutes or so we were bombarded by a shower of scrap-iron which fell two hundred yards or more from the explosion, and from time to time there was an occasional burst fromt he machine guns.

The worst was yet to come however.  Just after dark each side put up an intense barrrage of fire on the other's front line and support trenches, with apparently (judging from the star-lights which the Germans put up), not more than 300 yards between the combatants.  They were probably expecting another push from us, as we were certainly expecting a counter-attack from them, after seeing so many of the enemy massing during the afternoon.  During the half-hour when it was at its height, I abandoned all hope of ever coming out of it alive.

A battery of trench-mortars now opened upon us, playing on our sunken road.  The ground shook all around us and when a direct hit was scored on the hard road it made the sparks and granite fly.  I kept thinking, "Will it never end?  It must end sometime: They can't keep this straff up for ever.  The gunners must be exhausted."

When at last the noise did die down, the Captain gave us time to pull ourselves together and tend the slightly wounded; Then he ordered us to dig proper trenches and link up with the Canadians on our left flank, and with the Highland Light Infantry on the right rear.  These latter were now occupying the second German trench, and had received very strong resistance all through the day from the wood in front of Oppy and from the town itself, so that they had not managed to push forward as far as ourselves and the Canadians.  In the chill of early morning I was glad to find warmth in the digging.  About an hour before dawn the H.Q. staff received orders to fall back to the second German line, where I thankfully wrapped myself in a deceased German's overcoat and lay down in the bottom of the trench to sleep.

After the barrage of daybreak, we began to dig fresh funk-holes in our new position.  On the opposite side of the trench there were former German quarters, so I went on the scrounge.  I found a couple of brand new shirts and a pair of pants, and promptly discarded my own lousy underwear in favour of my new kit.  I then felt much more comfortable, - but not for long.I was cooking my breakfast rasher of bacon and boiling the water to make tea when a 5.9 shell dropped about twenty yards from me - knocking down part of my funk-hole roof onto my breakfast and covering me with loose clay.

All that day and the two days following, the shells fell.  The shrapnel thudded down and the sides of the trench collapsed at intervals.  There was no chance of getting the wounded out during daylight, and many died for want of attention.  One poor fellow said to me, "I could pull through if only they (the stretcher bearers), would get me out!"  By mid-day he was dead.

About half and hour before sunset, I liberated my last pair of birds, so when it was dusk I returned to the brigade's rear HQ, arriving before the usual evening straff.  I was welcomed with joy by my pals. Poor "Tuffs" who had taken his birds to the Highland Light Infantry had been killed.  He had joined the 5th. Brigade Pigeon Service just after the Somme, and we were the best of chums.   Since I now had no one to relieve me I realised that I should have to do another forty-eight hours in the front line.   I managed, however, to get something hot to eat and drink a rear H.Q., and to take three hours much needed sleep.  Then I collected my fresh birds and returned to duty.

Tuff's replacement, Cottingham, joined me in the evening of that day:  we had to go to collect the next day's supply of birds, as I had released all mine.  We had a narrow escape from a sniper's bullets on the way, and we both began to sweat when the evening barrage opened up, but made a final dash through the debris thrown up by a shell, and reached rear H.Q. whole.  The troops who had come out of the line were now relieved by others who had spent the last forty-eight hours at headquarters, - transport workers, bandsmen, storemen and others.

The next two days dragged on as before, and soon at last it came time for me to leave.  There was one more duty for me to perform however.  As I had made the journey between rear H.Q. and the front line more often than any other man, the officer asked me to act as guide to a party of men who were bringing the incoming Brigade that night.  On the way I passed through a trench littered with the bodies of men of my own battalion, several of whom had been my friends.

I was now free to make my way back to our fresh billets, alone in the moonlight.   There were five miles to cover, and since the enemyh straffed the roads at night in the hope of catching transport and troops on the move, I set out to cut across country.  After my numerous narrow escapes I had developed a false sense of security, assuming that the shell was not made that could put me out of action.  I had tramped a mile or so when arrogan assump received a severe jolt: a sheell exploded right in front of me, - ten to twenty yards away.  My limbs seemed to fly from the trunk of my body and return to it like  a boomerangs just as if it was attached by elastic.   My steel helmet was hurled through the air, and I collapsed on the ground stunned.   When I could see, I scrambled into the nearest shell-hole and waited there, shivering and shaking all over.  A second shell, falling about a hundred and fifty yards in front of me, turned out to be the last of that salvo.

I don't know how long it took me to recover, but when I had at last collected myself I searched for my steel helmet, and found it.  There was a dent 21/2" long in the crown, - evidently caused by a piece of shell-casing from he blow-back of the explosion.  On closer inspection I saw a thin line of red paint round the dent, probably made by the hot paint from the shell as it passed overhead. I attributed my survival from this explosion to the fact that I was so close to the edge of the hole it made that the ground around protected me from flying pieces.

When I was fit to continue my journey I was still sweating like a mad bull, but this was the last of the shelling and about half-a-mile further on, I came across some artillery limbers returning to Rochincourt after delivering a load of shells to their battery, and joyfully I climbed aboard, to ride the rest of the way in comfort - I thought!

I sat next to a bombardier who told me that his drivers were the best in the British Army, and that theirs was the only battery which supplied shells to the gun by * limber;* the others took their ammunition by pack mule.   His drivers were certainly "some horsemen":  with seven horses attached to each limber they drove at full gallop over roads pock-marked with shell-holes and across small emergency bridges over trenches, (allowing only just about six inches of clearance each side of the wheels).  Until we were out of the shelling zone it was the very roughest ride that I had ever experienced, and it was certainly the most dangerous.  I hung on like grim death, half the time never touching the seat and the other half landing on the staple, which is provided for fixing the cushion used only in peace time.

I was thankful when the ride came to an end, though it probably did me good - taking my mind off the horrors I had recently gone through at Rochincourt, preventing shellshock.   We pulled up at the Divisional Soup Kitchen and partook of some very light refrishment. (thin bully soup), and I made my way to the dug-out where our singling new H.Q. were established."

*  A Limber is a specially fitted horse drawn cart for carrying ammunition. (See pic on "photos" page.)

A FEW DAYS LATER PTE ROE RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING COMMUNICATION:-

                                                       SECOND DIVISION                                          No. 13                                                      Name:   Pte. H.J. Roe,                                                      Regt:     17 Bn. Royal Fusiliers.               

                                 Your Commanding Officer  and Brigade Commander have informed me that you have distinguished yourself by conspicuous bravery in the field   on April 28th. – 29th., 1917.  I have read their reports and, although promotion and decorations cannot be given in every case I should like you  to know that your gallant action is recognised, and how greatly it is appreciated.    Major General   5th Brigade.                               

 AND HE IS PROUD TO SIGN HIMSELF:-      HENRY J. ROE DCM

           The following is from the ANDOVER ADVERTISER    Aug  1917:-

              OUR  HEROES' CORNER                               

(Pic of HARRY J> ROE. D.C.M.)

Pigeoneer attached to an Infantry Brigade Headquarters.

 

second son of Mr J. Roe, The Brewery, Whitchurch.

                                   In presenting Mr Roe with the medal, the Brigadier-General said he had hoped the recipient would have been awarded something more, as he  (the General), had personally applied for the VICTORIA CROSS.  He congratulated him on his most valiant and courageous deed, and added that if any man deserved the right to wear an honour it was Mr. Roe. 

 (In the photo which was above this paragraph, Harry is in the uniform of the Rough Riders, to which he formerly belonged.)