Letter from Ypres

Light of Dumbarton soldier’s life snuffed out like candle in the wind …

A wreath is laid on Bobbie Humble’s grave in Belgium by his niece, Noreen.

By Bill Heaney

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the centenary of the historic signing in Paris of the Armistice which ended the First World War.

Here in Dumbarton, to the great credit of our community, it’s not something we forget – or are prepared to forget.

People turn out in large numbers at cenotaphs from Rosneath to Renton to remember the fallen of all the wars and conflicts that have afflicted us during the past 100 years.

They wear their poppies with pride and donate generously to charities such as Erskine Hospital, where elderly and infirm Ex-Service personnel are so wonderfully looked after.

One local family, the Humbles, of Bellfield in West Bridgend, Dumbarton, and now of Calgary in Canada, will remember Bobbie Humble’s death at the Battle of Ypres in Belgium.

Roy Humble, a consultant anaesthetist who, with his elderly wife, Betty, is now living in retirement in Canada, has managed to track down through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission the place where Bobbie is buried.

He said: “I had always planned to visit and place a wreath on Bobbie Humble’s grave in 2015, the centenary year of his death in Belgium, but in the event my wife Betty’s health prevented this.

“However, the visit was made by our eldest daughter, Noreen, while attending a conference in Germany in late June, two months ahead of the exact 100 years.”

Like so many local soldiers, Bobbie Humble was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a fresh-faced young Second Lieutenant.

Roy was determined to ensure that Bobbie’s death was not forgotten and was delighted when Noreen said she and her husband, Keith, would on June 28, 2015, – the day of Roy’s 85th birthday – visit Brandhoek Military Cemetery in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, 6.5 km from the town centre of Ypres, to lay a wreath at the grave of Bobbie Humble.

Brandhoek was the location of field ambulances for most of the war. It was at a relatively safe distance from the range of German artillery and was also situated on the main road and the railway line from Ypres to Poperinge.

For this reason, it was a good position for medical units to receive wounded soldiers from the front lines, treat them where possible and send them by road or by rail to Poperinge.

From there they could be evacuated by rail to the base hospitals in France, such as Boulogne on the French coast.

At the cemetery itself, Noreen read an inscription noting that those buried there were 602 British, 63 Canadians, four Australians and two Germans.

All were said to have died in the Second and Third Battle of Ypres, but this is not entirely accurate.

The Second Battle at Ypres took place in April/May of 1915 and stands out as the first occasion on which the Germans used chlorine gas.

The Third Battle was two years later, but the front line remained around Ypres long after the second battle and Bobbie’s descriptions, contained in the letters referred to below, are a reminder that there was constant reconnaissance, hard labour, fighting and danger between the big pushes.

Roy Humble has Bobbie’s last letters home to his parents, six in total, the first dated 30 July, the last 5 September, just two days before he was killed. All are addressed to his father except the third, which is to his mother.

In all of the letters, Bobbie asks for certain things to be sent out from home, such as tinned fruits, chocolate, candles, tobacco, cigarettes and newspapers. These are to share with his fellow-soldiers.

He also asks for practical items such as boots, a compass with a luminous dial, and most poignantly in the last letter, a warm lining for his jacket to cope with the coming winter.

He sends his thanks for the letters and parcels he receives which arrive speedily and regularly and he sends home too news about other soldiers his family would have known.

On 30 July, 1915, Bobbie wrote: “I sent you a postcard on Tuesday saying that we were just leaving Rouen to join our battalion. Well tonight we arrived at our headquarters. Where that is, of course, I am not allowed to say. We had a very dreary journey coming up the line but it was quite interesting.

“The battalion is some way back from the first line but we can hear the big guns quite distinctly.”

On 5 August, 1915, Bobbie sent another letter: “For the last week we have been sending a party up in the direction of the firing line where they are laying a cable and today I was away with another officer and 50 men re-paving a road that had got rather cut up.

“We were digging drains to draw the water from the road properly and intend to level it up …

Humble - Roy and Noreen

Consultant anaesthetist Roy Humble and his daughter, Noreen, on a recent visit to Edinburgh and Dumbarton. Picture by Bill Heaney

“I had a new experience and was sent up with a fatigue party of about 30 men to do some digging at a place about two and a half miles from the firing line. We were digging about 400 or 500 yards in front of one of our 4.7ins batteries which was reminding the Germans of its presence now and again and of course the shells were going right over our heads.

“So for a time things were quite exciting for those of us who had never been so near to big guns before.

“However, we got quite used to it and got home here safely again in the evening.

“I mentioned at the beginning of my letter that we were moving tomorrow. We are going to a place ten miles further up the line and will probably be living in dug outs.

“It is rather more in the danger zone than we are here. We are to be what is called a pioneer battalion and will be employed mainly I suspect in building dugouts along the canal for winter quarters.

“It will be all night work and sleeping through the day. As I said there will be some danger but not a great deal …

“Tell mother that the bananas sent out were fairly well bashed when they got here …

“I have just been reading in Friday’s Herald which came in to-day a denial by the Secretary for War that the pink forms have anything to do at all with compulsory service.

“I quite agree with you in that I think compulsory service will not be brought in now. The Government have dilly dallied with it too long.

“I have just been reading a series of letters in which the writer who appears to be a regular officer says one or two very strong things about the slackers.

“The boys out here do not want men sent out now who have waited till they have been compelled to join and I believe that is quite a general feeling.

“I know I myself would have hated being sent out here instead of coming out of my own free will. I don’t in the least regret I did join and am now out among it.

“There are a lot of inconveniences to be put up with about which one cannot write but still I think there is an education in it all which those who don’t join will be sorry afterwards they missed.”

Bobbie added: “You were asking what opinion I had formed of the French people. Well on a whole I found them very nice though at one place where we had to spend a night after we left Rouen, we found them rather curt and distant and could hardly get a room to sleep in.

“However, with that exception we have found them all right. The Belgians are very nice though but there are a big number of spies among them.”

On 5 September, 1915 – two days before his death – Bobbie wrote: “I myself was up in the front line last week though, along with another officer. We were sent up for instruction purposes and were there for 48 hours.

“As we were there for instruction we just did what the other officers of the companies had to do. I was over the parapet and out in No Man’s Land on both the nights. I was there seeing to some wire entanglements and listening posts.

“One felt rather strange the first time one got over the parapet of the trenches and got out into the open and felt the bullets whizzing about but you soon got used to it all.

“In front of the line held by the company I was with, the German line was only about 40 yards away at one part and not more than 250 yards at any other.

“I made a small sketch of the position just for practice and for this I had to use a periscope pretty often. With it I could see the Germans moving about opposite – in fact the beggars tried to smash up the periscope two or three time.

“They gave us a pretty hot time both evenings with bombs, shells and so on (this sort of display of theirs is called by our men the Evening Hate).

“I was greatly struck with the cheery spirit of the men in spite of the conditions and the prospect of having to spend another winter out here. There were no slackers I can tell you.”

At this point Bobbie Humble told his parents: “I wouldn’t mind another tin of chocolate in the next parcel and don’t forget candles.”

He also asked his mother for a warm lining for his Burberry coat to see him through the winter.

But Bobbie Humble never saw that lining or that chocolate or those candles. The light of his life was cruelly extinguished by a German bullet before that parcel arrived from Dumbarton.



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