One of the books I received this Christmas was Shepard’s War, E.H.Shepard The Man Who Drew Winnie-The-Pooh compiled by Patrick Campbell, Shepard’s great grandson-in-law.
Shepard joined the Royal Artillary in December 1915, just four days after his thirty sixth birthday, and the book shows illustrations he made whilst on active service. As I was reading through, I saw an illustration of the devastated French village, Zillebeke, drawn in November 1917. I’d come across the name Zillebeke when I was researching for Between the Lines. On that occasion I had been reading an unpublished account by a soldier who had been part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in the summer of 1914. This soldier had been injured in 1915, repatriated and returned to barracks where he had written about his experiences, not expecting to see further action. Unfortunately this wasn’t to be and he died on the Somme in 1916.
I looked back to my research and re-read the following passsage:
“….. That night we were called away, another regiment took our place, and were told to go and reinforce the guards at Zillebeke, a little village to the right, we being at Zonnebeke. The Guards had been told to attack at daybreak. We marched most of that night to different positions, and when morning broke the Guards started attacking.
“Their attack lasted practically till noon, at which time we got the order to attack a position between the Guards Brigade and the Brigade on our right, our objective an old schoolhouse about a mile in front of us. We started, and directly they spotted us we had the heaviest shell fire rained at us since the start of the war. Nevertheless, I am proud to say that the regiment never wavered but swept on in a line till we were nearly within charging distance of the remains of the schoolhouse. There, on account of the machine gunfire from the houses, and also on account of our thinning numbers, we halted in a slight dip of the hill and waited for the reserves to come up.
“I looked round to see how Dick had fared and was more than glad to see him just behind me, although his face was drawn tense with emotion and excitement. He had lost his hat in the run across the open, but otherwise we were both alright. But we couldn’t see a sign of the other four belonging to our own section. The reserves came up, or to be more correct, what was left of them, and we were told to prepare to charge the schoolhouse about three hundred yards in front.
“Immediately we topped the rise they poured in a veritable rain of shells and machine guns, hundreds of them, going for all they were worth from every nook or hole in the schoolhouse. How any human being lived through it I don’t know. I cannot describe my feelings during that time. But I had my eyes on those guns pointing out of the schoolhouse, and I don’t believe that I knew anything of what was going on round about me. I gave myself up for lost, never expecting to come out of that inferno alive, and merely ran like the very devil in the hopes of getting to the schoolhouse alive and killing somebody before I was killed myself. Don’t think that I am trying to show how brave I was. I am not made of the hero quality but in an affair like that you seem gripped by a desire to get there at all costs.
“I suppose that knowledge that you are practically running to your death unhinges your mind and I believe to this day that had we had to do another attack next day I should have gone raving mad. It’s the nervous tension of it that saps your strength, and as I say, had we had another attack or anything with nervous strain attached to it I would now be in a lunatic asylum with an unhinged mind…..”