A poem written by Private John Scott, of the Durham Pals, shortly after he had survived the horror of July 1, 1916. 

Part One

’Twas easy enough at Gezaincourt (1) – thirty kilometres from the line – To bray the enemy from the Somme and drive him back to the Rhine.

For there with the line of our advance mapped out on the level ground, Day after day, “D” Company was reg’larly mucked around “Over there’s supposed to be Gommecourt (them trees with the feathery tops).

Yonder’s Serre Wood, and over here our objective-Pendant Copse!” (2)

And every day we signallers on Pendant Copse would stand, Signalling back to GHQ “Objectives gained as planned!”

But “D” Company knew they had something on – them and 16th West Yorks – When the big push started on the Somme to give old Fritz (3) the works.

Aye, every night, and all night long, while the regiment lay at Courcelles (4), Lorries in convoy came rolling through bringing up loads of shells
Through that dark village street with clanking of chains over the bumpy ground
Where in billets we’re snatching uneasy sleep, with the rats a-scuttling around!

The Northern Echo:
Members of the 6th DLI in a trench at Potijze, Belgium, on May 24, 1915. Picture courtesy of Durham County Record Office

Then a night or two before the attack (in Bus Woods then we stayed) Some of us met behind our shack and under the trees we prayed!

Back home they said ‘twas a righteous cause! That King and Country claimed; And we, who took it seriously, were scarcely to be blamed.

Don’t ask me what we prayed about; since then I’ve often prayed; “No, not for safety Lord, but help me not to be afraid!”

So we take the road for Colincamps one night as the sun goes down.

Scouting “Taubes” (5) fly overhead – the warning whistle’s blown!

Hedges afford scant cover, where we crouch with anxious eye, Convinced that not a move escapes that watcher in the sky!

Darkness! From earth and sandbags comes the now familiar stench, As we grope and stumble down the long communication trench.

Then it’s “Pass the word to mind the wire!” “Loose board here!” “Lift your feet!”

And it’s “Watch your step!” (on them coggly stones going down Sackville Street) (6) Now scrambling over awkward spots where the trench has been smashed in.

With a shudder, at what might come to ‘us’ before the day begin.

Part Two

Old Fritz must have suspicions, but as yet he gives no sign, All’s quiet as we take up our positions in the line.

But swift fly the hours of darkness on that too brief summer night, Till the roar of that pitiless cannonade that heralds dawn’s first light.

Dawn! While the screaming shells their relentless way pursue Dawn! With the blessed larks singing in heaven’s blue Dawn! With the startled enemy returning fire for fire!

Dawn! With the heavies streaming in to smash the enemies wire Shell after shell comes crashing in, and even we feel the shock Of the impact of that fierce barrage, making the very earth rock!

Can we stick it? Time drags slower now while we wait for Zero Hour; With the sound of that furious cannonade ever increasing in power!

With streams of bullets raking the trench, it’s time to chance an eye In the midst of Hell let loose, to spot where Pendant Copse does lie.

Comes another whine – and another burst – and – thank God – it’s another miss!

But we’re longing for a Blighty just to get us out of this!!! (7)

All Honour to the gallant lads who nobly played their part; Who flinched not from the task assigned, though doomed-doomed from the start The great attack, long heralded, was made, but made in vain; And many a brave “D” Company lad was numbered with the slain.

And we, who survived that ordeal, have each our memories – And I, too, have my memories – none more vivid than these – Back from the hail of machine guns and the shrapnel bursting high, Comes Ronnie Priestley, hobbling in, with a bullet through his thigh Grimly joking in spite of his wound, as into the trench he drops; “There’ll be no need for signallers today on Pendant Copse, ‘Tis plain the attack has failed, you chaps had best stay put”, he said “I saw young Birks go down – and many more lie yonder dead. (8)

The Northern Echo:
The 1st Lancashire Fusiliers fixing bayonets before going over the top on July 1, 1916, less than a mile from the Durham Pals

And when that shell dropped in our trench, there, not two yards away, A startled face, eyes fixed on mine! (It seems like yesterday) A startled face, o’er which a sudden crimson hue o’erspread; Next – deathly pale, as the lifeblood drained and he slumped on the fire step – dead.

Later I saw Joe Anderson – Joe with his arm in a sling – Clumping along the trench-boards, as happy as a King.

Joe with a nice little Blighty – going out of the line Nor would I be the only one wishing such luck were mine!

Then down at Euston Dump I met Ron Priestley once again.

Lying on a stretcher – in his eyes a look of pain.

Grimly asking – “Are we winning?” as I helped him to a smoke, And – if I got a chance to “Get a field card to his folks!” (9)

That night, when darkness fell, I sat and dozed on some dugout stairs, Heedless of strafing overhead, whether ‘twas ours or theirs.

Eighteen-pounders banging away in an all-night serenade While down there in the dugout was a dying soldier laid!

Lulled by the laboured breathing of our comrade dying there, Already gone beyond recall – beyond all pain – all care.

Growing fainter and fainter as his life ebbed swift away, I fell asleep on those dugout steps – Yes! Slept till break of day.

Dawn! What a glorious morning! All quiet again, thank God!

Save for that sniper’s bullet that spitefully bites the sod!

And a far, faint cry from the battlefield, where still some wounded lie And again the call comes “Carry on! Gallant 18th DLI!”


The 18th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry was known as the “Durham Pals”. These were volunteers who responded to Lord Kitchener’s “your country needs you” appeal in the earliest days of the war in 1914. Groups of friends, or pals, were urged to gang together to join up – D company was largely made up of pals from Hartlepool.

These included the poet, Private John Scott, who was born in Hartlepool in 1893. He was a printer, both before and after the war, and wrote several poems about his wartime experiences. It is believed he composed this poem while still a serving soldier.

In peacetime, he returned to Central Estate, Hartlepool, worked on the Headland. He died in 1982.

Our thanks to his grandson, Graham Broughton, who now lives in West Lothian, for his help.

(1) On June 20, 1916, “D” company was dropped back from the frontline trenches of northern France to the small town of Gezaincourt, about 10km north of Amiens. Here they joined up with the 16th West Yorkshire Regiment to whom they were to be attached for the July 1 attack. As they were to be lead attackers, they were given special training.

(2) The Pals’ target on July 1 was to be Pendant Copse, part of Serre Wood – Serre and Gommecourt were frontline villages. Once the Pals reached the copse, they were to signal their news back to headquarters.

(3) Fritz was short for Friedrich and so was the British Tommies (short for Thomas) nickname for their enemy soldiers.

(4) Courcelles, a village, was a couple of kilometres west of Gommecourt on the frontline, and very close to Colincamps. At Courcelles, the rest of the Durham Pals were stationed ahead of July 1, with the bombers practising their part in the push.

(5) The Taube was the Germans’ first military monoplane – here it is being used for reconnaissance purposes.

(6) Trenches were given familiar names – like London’s Piccadilly or Dublin’s Sackville Street – to help soldiers find their way around.

(7) A “Blighty” was a wound that was serious enough to force a soldier to be returned to Blighty – England – but not bad enough to endanger his life in the long term. To sustain a Blighty was a piece of good fortune as it got you away from the killing fields, as Joe Anderson discovers in the next verse.

(8) The 18th DLI lost two men called Birks on July 1 – Lance-Corporal Arthur Birks, 20, and Pte Harold Birks, 21. Both came from Stranton in Hartlepool and so are believed to be related.

(9) Field cards were postcards with printed phrases on them. A soldier could quickly delete the inappropriate phrases and send a message home that would not fall foul of the censor.