Personal Account of Mons Trussler 4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment

Personal account of Mons Trussler  4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment

We were at Wattrelos, a small village on the French – Belgian border. Whilst we were there we carried out a raid against the Germans, as did all battalions in 8th Infantry Brigade. This was our first real taste of battle and we had a limited success: we killed several of them and they killed several of us. One day our section leader told us that men were being evacuated off the beaches at Dunkirk. At that time all sorts of rumours were going about and we just laughed it off. That evening we were ready to move off, I think departure time was 20.30; it was getting dusk and it seemed that everybody appeared on the road at the same time, as if by magic. We marched towards Roubaix, which was just down the road; on the way there were a few graves in the dirt paths containing a few chaps who had been killed in a bombing raid a few days before. The rendezvous was to be in a big factory in Roubaix and this is where the whole brigade was making for. They went through the gates in one great mass, it looked as if it was going to be utter chaos. Inside I heard the chaps calling out their regiment, platoon and company and within 5 minutes we were back on the road; we were withdrawn under a 2,000 yard arc of artillery fire.

We arrived at Pypegale (Belgium - NNW of Ypres) the next morning, there were quite a few people about, white sheets everywhere and people moving out. We were marched off to positions down where troops fought in 1914: the breastworks were still there and we took up our positions on these. The particular section I was in was ordered back to the farmhouse, which was on a small hill, to do sentry duty during the night. Things were rather quiet but towards 03.00 they started shelling and the officer asked me to tell him if any started falling very near. I had just been relieved when the shells started to fall very close and as ordered the officer was duly alerted.

For the rest of the night there was intense shelling and when morning came the farm was under rifle fire. Captain Rylands came up to the fore position and ordered a section in reserve to go down and strengthen the front. As we left the farmhouse they brought their mortars to belt us with really accurate fire; there were six of us and the bombs were actually falling in amongst us, we could only take about two paces at a time before we had to dive to the ground; they were terrifically accurate! This went on until we had run down the hill and reached the breastworks. One chap had his hand cut off, I think he made his way back to the farmhouse but I don't really know what happened to him.

We hadn't been there long when an enemy observation plane came over and dropped a smoke streamer down to mark our position. The mortars opened up again with such accuracy, that if the chap in the plane had been a little more accurate they would have dropped right on our heads. Not long afterwards, a stream of chaps came along from B Company – what was left of them – they were spotted by Lieutenant Partridge who asked them what was wrong. They said that the Germans had overrun one platoon and that there was nothing left to stop them coming through in mass formation. Lt Partridge went over to see Captain Rylands and told him that we would have to get back as the Germans had broken through on the right.
We started our journey back and came within sight of the enemy; they let go with everything – artillery, mortars, shrapnel, machine guns – with terrific power. We made our way to a group of houses by the roadside, we were going to cross the road but the way was barred with pig wire and nobody had any wire cutters, they had been thrown away to make our loads lighter. We decided to go along the road a few hundred yards, across the front garden of a house and go through to the rear. There were about 200 chaps all making for this house, it was the only way out. Just as we reached the gate-way down came the mortar bombs right in amongst them; I was well in the rear at the time and as I crept closer to the house they were still trying to get through the gate. There was smoke and flames everywhere, we were terrified. Then it seems that the last person had gone through and I was the only one left there.

I crawled along nearer the gate and there was a chap lying in the water; he had been injured in the back and I got him out of the water and laid him down on the side of the road. He didn't want me to leave him and he wouldn't let go, in the end I told him I would go and get help. One thing I was sure about was that I was not going to get myself captured. I crept along until I came opposite a wooden gate and I jumped across the road under what cover I could get. As I jumped across the road I looked down; it was a terrible mess, men had been killed ten times over. I went through the gate and into the garden and after going a short way, I came across this chap who had been terribly wounded round the waist area. There was not a patch of khaki on his trousers, they were completely red. I asked him if he knew the way which everyone had gone, he pointed the way and off I went.

Away on the hill I could see the barrage they were putting up and I guessed that was where our chaps would be and I made up my mind to head there. I could see lorries, like toys, going along the side of the road and I thought, 'They're making off' and I started to run. Though I was absolutely exhausted it seemed it was no effort at all, it seemed as if my legs did not belong to me. I reached the village of Pypegale and met up with two of my friends, Tom Calow and Johnny Kemble. In the barrage they were putting up there was no better place to go, it was absolutely pouring with mortars and terrible shrapnel shells; the bullets didn't amount to much really, nobody took much notice of them.

We made our way along the ditch to Pypegale Farm which was the Company HQ, and there it seems that what chaps were left had gathered there. We were then re-formed to make a counter-attack, there didn't seem much point in it but we went just the same. We made our way down into the valley until we came to a track sheltered by trees. My friend Tom had gone back with Lt Partridge up to the top of the hill. He came running back; he had got two bullets in the side and he was sweating quite a bit. He was a tough little kid and I told him the best thing he could do was to cast off all his equipment and get back as quick as he could before he became too weak. He took my advice; he pushed his way through a cornfield and that was the last I saw of him. He was killed during that day, whether he died from the wounds he already had, or not, I do not know. (the CWGC records reveal no fatalities for this regiment in the name of Calow or Callow so it is probable that he in fact survived)

In the meantime, the badly wounded chap I had met earlier had caught up with us, or should I say we caught up with him. The officer said that as we had been caught in crossfire, the best thing we could do was to try and get out of it; the only way out of it was to carry on up the track crawling in the ditch that ran alongside of it. The wounded chap said "What about me, Sir?" to which the officer replied, "We shall have to come back for you I'm afraid. The wounded soldier retorted "You lying b-----d, you're not going to come back, you are going to leave me here!" It was true of course, there was nothing else that the officer could do. The officer asked two chaps without rifles to fall in and take him back. Two older chaps, I should think they were regulars, picked him up. The rest of us began to make our way across the first gate opening; it looked as if it was going to be easy when suddenly a machine gun opened up and cut the gate to ribbons as chaps were running across. I stayed where I was and when it quietened down a bit, I made my way across this gateway and there they all were, a heap of them dead. I went into the ditch and started crawling in behind the others, the ditch was only shallow and the enemy were taking shots at us all the way, the least raising of a head brought a shot. We had to crawl over the bodies of chaps that had been killed which made us expose ourselves even more to the enemy.

There were about six gateways and the ditch beside the roadway into the field was filled. We had to get up and jump into the ditch on the other side of the road and as we jumped, a gun was trained upon the gateway and opened fire. And that was it, if you were lucky, you made it, if you weren't you got killed or wounded. When it came to my turn, I made a terrific leap into the air and then another leap, not to jump into the ditch where it started but to give it a few yards because you very often found a chap in there, dead and if you landed on top of him you were an immediate target. At one point as I was crawling along, I came upon somebody's liver which was just lying there still steaming, I eased myself over that! I suppose the journey must have taken us about three hours and when we got to the last gateway, I did my usual leap and run and just as I was leaping into the air a machine gun caught me; I had been shot in the leg and cursed as I landed. It wasn't the pain so much, it was the fact that I thought he had broken my leg but I could move my foot so I knew I was alright.

When we got back to Pypegale Farm, Lt Partridge led us up to where the lorries were, which was further back. The enemy shell-fire was not so intense because it was dusk and the valley was filled with smoke from the barrage. The CO was just making his way up to the transport when he was mortally wounded. Captain Easton was also killed that day; he was standing in a doorway of a house when a mortar bomb came in through the windows, I should think he was killed instantaneously.
Those of us who were left got into lorries and set off into the night. We passed a lot of places, people were begging us to stop and pick up wounded but there was no stopping at all; nobody was interested in wounded men, it was fit men they wanted.
We eventually reached Furnes (Veurne – is the Flemish name) and we hadn't been there long before an officer crawled into the lorry wanting to know how many men were there with rifles. Nobody answered him. He asked us if there were any senior NCO's amongst us. Still no answer, so he told the officer with him to go and get a torch and having got it, he shone it straight onto a Sergeant. Honestly, it wasn't through cowardice that they did not answer, they knew what he wanted, it wasn't cowardice, it was just the fact that as human beings they had taken as much as they could take. When you are hungry, exhausted, shell-shocked, you just can't take any more. Anyway, they made their last stand at Furnes and that is where I left them. I went down to La Panne, to a hotel with a huge red cross flag on which was the first aid station on the beach. I hadn't really believed what I had been told about Dunkirk but when I saw the sea, the truth began to dawn on me.

The next morning, we left with a Corporal who was a walking wounded case. There were about four ambulances filled with stretcher cases and walking wounded and we set off towards Dunkirk. We had just crossed the border into France, on our way to a big chateau, when we were forced to wait for two hours, because German patrols had been sighted in the district. At one point we passed the seafront, you could see from all the debris that an army had been there. There was not a soul on the beach, not that I had expected to see any because we didn't know what was going on anyway. It was the 31st of May. I suppose what really stuck in my mind about Dunkirk was the sight of mail bags on the side of the road with all the mail ripped out and open letters strewn for miles down the road.

We came into Dunkirk itself and that was as far as the ambulances were going to go. I didn't have any boots on and the streets were full of broken glass but I wasn't worried about that. The chap in the ambulance said, "You can't walk like that. Come on, get in and I'll drive you to the docks." He drove us down and told us to wait there. We waited about two hours and then they started to shell the town, the debris coming down on top of the ambulance and another chap said "come on". As we walked onto the pier, we saw a French destroyer laid on its side and a lot of ships which had been wrecked. Right along the end of the pier we could see the boats; overhead, the RAF were in force within range of the big circle. It seemed to take an age to reach the end of the pier and when I did, I found a group of high ranking staff officers there.

I hopped onto a Southern Railway boat and asked what time he left. He told me not to worry and reassured me that his ship was the luckiest boat afloat. He showed me to a bunk and I fell fast asleep. The next thing I knew was when they woke me up to say they could see the White Cliffs of Dover and about half an hour later we landed at Folkestone. Everybody scrambled off and a chap from the Civil Defence carried me ashore on his back, he had to scramble over about half a dozen boats to reach the quayside. We were given a bar of chocolate and a packet of Woodbines which was very nice. We were then taken to Folkestone hospital where some dear old ladies came in with large plates of bread and butter, cut very thin, which we devoured like wolves – the ladies looked on in amazement! I know I had a good cry and so did some of the others. Someone got a paper and I saw the headlines: 'That Blazing Hell, Dunkirk' and I thought, 'My God, you didn't know what happened inland!'

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