The enemy opposite us were very quiet, and obviously knowing of the relief, were waiting to see what we should do. With the French there is no doubt that they had had a tacit understanding not to wage a vigorous war, though, while seeming inactive, they had all the time been undermining the French trenches. With us they were uncertain what to do, so for 24 hours did nothing except fire a few rifle shots, one of which came through the parapet and killed C.S.M. E. Thompson, of "B" Company. On the evening of the second day they went one step further, and threw a single grenade, received two in return, and remained quiet for the night. The next morning, the 11th, they threw six more, all short, and we replied with 10, five of which fell in their trench and apparently convinced them that we intended war; at any rate they made no more tentative efforts, but in the afternoon started more or less in earnest. At 4.45 p.m. they blew up a small mine opposite "A" Company, demolished a sap-head, and half buried the solitary occupant, who escaped with bruises only; after this they bombed, or tried to bomb us, until 8-0 p.m., while we replied at the rate of two to one. Unfortunately, the explosions caused a collapse in our parapet, about 10 yards of which fell down suddenly, and had to be re-built during the night.
The following night proved to be still more exciting. Soon after midnight a French sapper, narrowly escaping several sentries who thought he was a Boche, came running along the line excitedly waving his arms, and saying: "Mine, mine, faire sauter, demi-heure." No one knew what he meant, though we gathered a mine would probably go up somewhere in half-an-hour, whether ours or theirs we had not the least idea. Eventually he was led to Battalion Headquarters, where he explained that the French were going to blow a camouflet in half-an-hour. It was already nearly an hour since he first said this, and nothing had yet happened, so we hurriedly cleared a small portion of our front line and waited, while we sent for the Tunnelling Officer. He arrived, and the "blow" was arranged for 5-0 a.m., at which hour there was a terrific explosion, a forty-foot crater was formed, and another ten yards of our parapet fell down. Such an explosion must have been caused by a much bigger charge than we had laid, so we probably included in our "blow" a Boche mine laid ready for us. We easily bombed off a party of his which tried to rush the crater, and spent the day re-building our fallen parapet.
Rations, ammunition and R.E. material in this sector were brought to the "Talus des Zouaves" on mule-drawn trucks along a narrow-gauge Railway from Mont St. Eloi. Here, at a big Corps R.E. Dump, the trucks were loaded every evening, the mule teams hooked in, and the party set off, much harassed at times by bullets and shells, and seldom reaching home without losing one, and often two animals. The Dump in the "Talus" also got shelled; but the steep banks made the danger light and not much damage was done in this way, though the Boche kept up a prolonged bombardment at it with 5.9's on the evening of the 14th. Except for this, the rest of the tour passed quietly, and on the following night the 4th Lincolnshires relieved us, and we went back to rest in Camblain L'Abbe huts, where we stayed for six days.
Our second tour started on the 21st, and from this day onwards until we finally left the sector, we had a bad time. Our first trouble was the weather. Alternate frosts and thaws, rain and snow, soon filled our trenches with mud and slush, into which parapets and parados either crumbled gradually or collapsed wholesale. No sooner could we repair one length, than another would give way, and through it all many posts had to live with water over their ankles and no proper drying accommodation. There had to be three companies in the line, so 24-hour reliefs were impossible, and to increase our troubles our stay in a warm climate had made us less capable of standing the exposure to cold and wet, and there were many cases of trench fever, trench foot, and some pneumonia, while the health of all was considerably impaired. One of the most pitiful sights of the war was to see 20 of our men crawling on hands and knees to the Aid Post—their feet so bad that they could not walk.
Meanwhile the underground war was not as satisfactory as we should have liked, and the Boche undoubtedly had the upper hand in the mining. Our galleries were few and short, and in consequence useless for either offence or defence, while his were known to be near our trenches in several places. In one place between the right and centre companies the Lincolnshires had expected a "blow" at any moment, and evacuating their front line, had dug a new trench ten yards in rear of it. This seemed to have been sighted in such a haphazard sort of way that it was at once named the "Harry Tate" trench by some humorist, who pictured a Company Commander coming out and saying "What shall we do next? Let's dig a trench." And so they dug this one—quite useless, for it was bound to be engulfed by any mine which exploded under the front line. The Boche, however, thought more of the new trench than we did, and the day after it was built, bombarded it with heavy minenwerfer shells until it was unrecognisable.
In this state we found it when we came in for our second tour, "C" Company (Farmer) on the right and "A" Company (Ward Jackson) in the centre. Our first morning the Boche started just before midday, and for four hours rained heavy minenwerfer shells on these two Companies, and particularly on the new trench. Fortunately there was no one in this, and equally fortunately most of the shells fell between our front line and supports; there was a thick mist at the time, and it was almost impossible to judge their flight. Through it all Capt. Farmer walked calmly from post to post, cheering the garrison, and just before the end of the bombardment at 4-0 p.m., made his way down the small communication trench towards his support platoon. Thence he went to call on "B" Company, but was caught on the way back by a mortar, which he probably could not see coming in the mist (for no one was more accurate at judging their flight than he), and was killed instantly, being blown out of the trench and lost for several hours. Captain Farmer was perhaps the quietest, certainly the bravest, officer of his time, for he feared nothing, and nothing could shake his calm, while it was said of him that he was never angry and never despondent. When he was killed, "C" Company lost their leader, and every man his best friend, while the mess lost one who was the most cheerful comrade of every officer.
This bombardment left our front line in a terrible condition, and General Kemp decided to build a new main line of resistance 50 yards in rear, holding the front with odd posts only. Meanwhile the front parapet must be repaired, and the night was spent in doing this as far as we could—a hopeless task, for the following afternoon we were again hammered. This time "A" Company suffered most, and Corporal Williamson and one man were killed, Serjt. Staniforth and one other wounded, while the trench was blown in for several yards and a dug-out demolished. Dug-outs were few, and consisted only of little hutches formed by putting a sheet of iron over some slot. Even Company Headquarters of the centre Company had little more than this, though Battalion Headquarters and the other companies had a half-deep dug-out.
The bombardments now became daily, and all our efforts at retaliation either with artillery or trench mortars proved entirely ineffectual. There was nothing we could do except clear as many men as possible away from the danger area, and come back at dusk to rebuild our parapet. Towards the end of the tour the Boche started firing rifle grenades before each mortar, so that we should stoop to avoid the former and so miss seeing the flight of the latter. The tour ended with a four-inch fall of snow on the 26th, which melted almost at once and filled the trenches with water, which no amount of pumping would remedy. After relief we went to the "Talus des Zouaves" in Brigade support, except for "C" Company (Moore), which went to the Cabaret Rouge—now used as Brigade advanced Headquarters.
The East side of the valley, where the Support Battalion's dug-outs had been built, was immune from German shells owing to the steepness of the hill side, and here for six days we had comparative rest, except at nights, when we most of us went digging on the new line. The Battalion Grenadiers under Serjeant Goodman particularly enjoyed themselves, and their dug-out in the valley became a regular anarchists' arsenal. Fiendish missiles were made out of empty bottles stuffed with ammonal and other explosives, which they managed to obtain in large quantities from the French miners, while the strength of various poisons and gases was tested against the rats, against whose habitations they carried on an endless war. A catapult was erected for practice purposes, and our bombers became adepts in its use, knowing exactly how much fuse to attach to a T.N.T.-filled glass beer bottle to make it burst two seconds after landing in the Boche trench. The valley was a little dangerous during practice hours, but nobody minded this so long as the enemy suffered in the end.
At the same time another innovation was introduced in the shape of the Stokes light trench mortar—a stove-pipe-like gun firing a cylindrical shell some 400 yards at the rate of 8 in the air at once. It was simply necessary to drop the shell into the gun, at the bottom of which was a striker, and the rest was automatic and almost noiseless, the shock of discharge being rather like a polite cough. Brigade Trench Mortar Companies were formed, in our case 2nd Lieuts. A.N. Bloor and W.R. Ashwell, with several other ranks, went to join the first company.
On the 2nd March, having received a draft of three N.C.O.'s and 106 men, we went once more to the line and took over from the 4th Lincolnshires. This time we were able to have two Companies in front, one in Boisselet trench, part of the new work, and one in reserve, a far more satisfactory distribution. The trenches were still in a very bad state, and it was found in many places quite impossible to dig new lines, because the ground had been so shaken by continuous bombardment for more than a year, that the soil would no longer bind, and the sides of any new trench collapsed almost as soon as they were dug. The tour was fairly quiet, though Boche snipers and artillery were more active than before, and we reached Camblain L'Abbe at the end of it without having suffered any repetition of the trench mortar bombardments.
Our six days' rest included two big working parties, two inspections, and one demonstration, to say nothing of such minor details as church parades, conferences, baths, and the usual overhauling of boots and clothing. The work consisted of clearing dug-outs in the Bois des Alleux, and only lasted two days, after which we polished ourselves for General Kemp, who inspected us in a field near Camblain, and said that he was much pleased indeed with our turnout. General Montagu-Stuart-Wortley was equally complimentary at the second inspection, and congratulated all ranks on their appearance and smartness, which, considering the state of the trenches, was very creditable. The demonstration was particularly interesting, and proved the futility of the famous German flame projector. As many men as possible were placed in a trench, while the demonstrator, standing at 30 feet away with the machine, turned on the flame. The wind was behind him, and the flame, with a tremendous roar, leapt out about 30 yards. But the noise was the worst part, for the burning liquid, vapourising as it left the machine, became lighter than air, and in spite of all the efforts of the Demonstrator, could not be made to sink into the trench, whose occupants were untouched. The men were all rather amused at the whole performance and suggested that we should bring the machine into the line to warm them up on cold days.
On the 12th we marched once more to the line and relieved the 4th Lincolnshires, this time for a four-day tour. We found on arrival that the Boche a few hours previously had blown a large mine in the left sector, to be occupied by "D" Company (Shields), so that in addition to the work on the new trench, we had to supply many men for repairing this new damage—no light task, for many yards of our front trench had disappeared. To make work more difficult the Boche was continually throwing bombs and rifle grenades to try and catch our working parties, and it was only after two days' vigorous retaliation that we taught him that it was wiser to keep quiet. The leading spirit in this retaliation was Captain Shields himself, who would sit in his dug-out listening for a German bomb. If he heard one he would rush out, coat off and sleeves rolled up, and throw back as many Mills' bombs as he could lay hands on, a formidable attack, for he could throw a tremendous distance. 2nd Lieut. A.E. Brodribb was also a keen bomber who would stand at a post and send back bomb for bomb until he had the Boche beaten. Meanwhile the Battalion anarchists, though they had bad luck with the "West" spring gun, which got buried in the bombardment, were very successful in other ways. Serjeant Goodman, with his catapult, flinging home-made infernal machines, first from one post, then from another, must have been very annoying to the German sentries, while Cpl. Archer, firing salvoes of rifle grenades, eight at a time, always had a quietening effect on any Boche bomber who ventured to try his luck in this way. So far as bombs were concerned we had the upper hand, but the Boche could always start heavy shelling or mortaring, and against this we seemed to have no effective retaliation. He did particularly heavy damage with these one morning in this tour, a few hours after we had been visited by General Byng, the Corps Commander, who went round the front line. On this occasion we had two killed and six wounded by a direct hit on the trench, while the F.O.O., who was observing at the time, was also badly wounded.
Towards the end of the tour the situation became quieter and we went once more into the Talus to wait for relief by the 25th Division, whose advance parties had already visited the line, and who were expected in a few days. The Boyau d'Ersatz, re-named Ersatz Alley for the sake of simplicity, had lately been heavily shelled, and it was therefore decided to open up Boyau 1, 2, 3, as an alternative route to trenches, calling it "Wortley Avenue," in honour of the Major General. Parties from all companies worked day and night at this, soon making it passable, though it would always be dangerously exposed to view. Unfortunately "A" Company were shelled one day while at work, and we lost 2nd Lieut. Pickworth, who had to be sent to Hospital, and eventually to England, with a bad wound in the lungs.
Meanwhile offensive mining operations were being undertaken by both sides with increased activity. The British Tunnellers, who had relieved the French mining companies, found that in several places, unless they themselves blew big mines at once, the Boche would blow them instead, so blew big craters without delay. To this the Boche retaliated, and for the past week there had been an average of two mines a night on the Divisional front, most of them in the sector on our right. But on the night of the 20th our Brigade was also involved, and the 4th Lincolnshires lost most of their centre company in an explosion which demolished nearly 100 yards of their front line. The shock was terrific, and could be felt so violently even in our valley behind, that Captain Barton went to see what had happened. Some half-hour later, when the Lincolnshire C.O. went to the scene of the disaster, he found the "Doc" there by himself, digging out an injured man in the middle of the gap. No British troops had yet arrived, and his nearest neighbours were the Boche lobbing bombs from the other side of the new crater.
This latest blow shattered our front line so badly that it was quite unfit to hand over to a new Division, taking over this part of the line for the first time, and, as the Lincolnshires had not enough men to repair it themselves, we had to help them. On the 21st, therefore, when the rest of the Battalion was relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers and went back for the night to Camblain L'Abbe, "D" Company stayed behind in the Talus till dusk and then went up to work, spending the night under R.E. supervision, digging in the gap. A screen of bombers lay out on the crater lip, while the rest worked, through mud, water and pouring rain to try and produce some kind of fighting trench. As fast as they dug, their new work collapsed, but at last a cut was made, and by morning there was at least communication across the gap, though the trench was terribly shallow and gave no real protection. The following day, "D" Company on lorries, the rest of the Battalion by march route, we moved through Cambligneul and Aubigny to Penin-Doffine, where we were to billet for a rest. "B" and "C" Companies were with Brigade Headquarters and the Lincolnshires in Penin. The Headquarters and "D" Company had a large farm, and "A" Company billets in the hamlet of Doffine.
Here we stayed for a week. A Staff ride under the Brigadier formed the chief incident in our training, while our recreation was enlivened by an excellent Battalion Sports Meeting. Great keenness was shown in every event, and there were consequently some well-contested races:—"A" and "C" Companies divided the prizes between them. "A" Company won the long-distance bomb-throwing, tug-of-war, relay and stretcher-bearer races, "C" the accurate bomb-throwing, 1/4-mile, sack and three-legged races. Brigade Headquarters came to watch, bringing their band with them, and the General gave away the prizes at the end of the day. The weather was good and we all spent a very pleasant afternoon.
The 27th April brought us orders to return again to the line, this time to work with the Tunnellers, French and English, in the neighbourhood of Neuville St. Vaast. The following day the C.O. and most of the Company Officers went to Mont St. Eloi to reconnoitre, returning in the evening. While getting into a car in St. Eloi Colonel Jones was slightly wounded in the left hand by a six-inch shell, which burst alongside the car. He was sent to Hospital, but returned to us ten days later. On the 29th we moved into Neuville St. Vaast, living in tunnels and dug-outs, and provided large working parties in the mines. Tactically we were at the disposal of the 25th Division, to whom we lent one or two Lewis Gun teams. The work consisted almost entirely of clearing sandbags from the mine-shafts and distributing them along our trenches, as far as possible out of sight. It was hard and dangerous work, as was proved by an accident which happened on the 7th May, the night before we were relieved. The enemy blew a counter-mine close to one of the saps where "D" Company were working, burying the French miners, and completely destroying the whole sap. Two of the four men at work were never seen again; the other two, bruised and shaken, managed to crawl half-naked out of the wreckage.
On the 9th May, after spending a night in tents at Mont St. Eloi, we went by motor-'bus through Avesnes-le-comte, Liencourt, Grand Rullecourt, to Lucheux, where we went into billets. We left at Vimy a party of 25 men under Lieut. A.M. Barrowcliffe, working with the R.E. (Tunnellers). Most of them gradually became sappers, and we saw very few of them ever again. During these two last months there had been only one important change in the personnel. R.Q.M.S. Stimson, who had been at the Stores since the beginning of the war, and whose knowledge of French had been as invaluable to Captain Worley as his energy and skill with "mobilisation store stables," returned to England. C.S.M. Gorse became R.Q.M.S., and in his place J. Hill became C.S.M. of "A" Company.
10th May, 1916. 3rd July, 1916.
The next ten days, spent in Lucheux, were as pleasant as any in the war. After the mud, cold and damp of Vimy, we could well appreciate the spring weather, the good billets and the excellent country in which we now found ourselves. Lucheux, a very old French village with its castle and gateway, stands on the edge of a still older forest a few miles North of Doullens, and the majority of the inhabitants, under the guidance of a very energetic Mayor, did all they could to make us comfortable. Work was not too hard, and our chief labour was making wattle revetments in the forest—a good task for a hot day—and practising musketry on a home-made rifle range outside the village. The mounted officers were particularly fortunate, for the forest was full of tracks and rides, and each morning soon after dawn the more energetic could be seen cantering under the dripping trees in the early morning May mists—bare headed and in shirt sleeves.
Meanwhile the arrival of some new officers filled the gaps in the Mess caused by Vimy. First Colonel Jones returned, with the piece of shrapnel still in his hand, but otherwise very fit. Soon afterwards two new officers, 2nd Lieutenants H.A. Lowe and G.E. Banwell, joined us, and at the same time Capt. R.C. L. Mould and Lieut. D.B. Fetch returned from England. Several large drafts of N.C.O.'s and men arrived, many of them old hands, who had been wounded, some of them more than once, although as we know well there were many soldiers in England who had never yet seen a day's fighting.
Just at this time another important change was made in our training. For many months now we had been taught the bomb to the exclusion of almost every other weapon, now at last the bayonet was returning to its former position of importance. The great exponent of the art of bayonet fighting was a Major Campbell, of the Army Gymnastic Staff, whose lectures were already well known at the Army Schools, and who was now sent round the country to talk to all Battalions. He had devised an entirely new scheme of bayonet instruction on very simple yet practical lines, doing away with many of the old drill-book "points and parries," and training arm and rifle to act with the eye, not on a word of command. His powers as a lecturer were as great as his keenness for his subject, and for two hours he held the attention of a hall full of all ranks, speaking so vividly that not one of us but came away feeling that we were good enough to fight six Boche, given a bayonet. He was particularly insistent on not driving the bayonet home too far, and we shall always remember his "throat two inches is enough, kidneys only four inches, just in and out." His system has now been adopted throughout the British Army, and all 1917 recruits were trained in it, but to us it came none too soon, for we were fast forgetting that we ever had such a weapon as a bayonet.
On the 20th May our work in the forest came to an end and, as the Brigade was wanted for fatigues nearer the line, we moved by Pommera and Pas to Souastre, a village about three miles from the front trenches. The Sherwood Foresters were at present holding the Divisional front, and our chief task in the new area was digging cable trenches from back Headquarter positions to forward batteries and observation posts, building and stocking ammunition and bomb stores, and assisting in the construction of numerous gun pits. In fact, we were once more preparing as fast as possible for a "big push," though at the moment it was not quite certain who was going to do the pushing; rumour allotted this task to the 46th Division. The work was very hard, for digging a deep narrow trench, or loading flints at Warlincourt quarries are no light tasks, and the weather made conditions even more difficult than they might otherwise have been. One day it was so hot as to make continuous work for more than a few hours impossible, while the next, there would be three or four torrential rain storms, filling all the trenches, and turning the cross-country tracks to avenues of mud.
However, in spite of our work, we managed to have some football, and the Divisional Commander once more presented a cup. We started well, beating the 5th Lincolnshires in the second round, but then found ourselves opposed to our old rivals, the 4th Battalion, for the Brigade finals. The game caused the keenest excitement, and with the score at two goals all, the enthusiasm through the second half was immense. Unfortunately, there is a fate against our defeating the 4th Battalion, and, just before the end, our opponents managed to score the winning goal.
On the 24th May the heavy rain had made the trenches so wet that the garrison was unable to keep them clear, and in consequence we had to send a large working party up the line to help the Sherwood Foresters. The line, which we now saw for the first time, ran from about half a mile North of Hebuterne, just East of Foncquevillers, and northwards towards Monchy-au-bois, held by the enemy. Foncquevillers was the centre of the position, and opposite it lay Gommecourt, a small village and Chateau, with a wood on one flank and the Chateau park on the other—a strong position strongly held. Further North, Pigeon Wood and a little salient of trenches called the "Z" were opposite the left of our Divisional front, while in the middle of No Man's Land, which averaged about 400 yards wide, stood the ruins of Gommecourt Sucrerie, twenty yards from the main Foncquevillers-Gommecourt Road.
Our trenches were in a somewhat curious condition. During the winter the Division occupying this sector had found that they were too weak to hold the whole trench, so had selected certain positions which they had strongly fortified and wired, and then filled the remainder of the trench with loose wire. The bad weather soon caused the disused sections of the trench to collapse, fixing the loose wire very firmly on either side. From a purely defensive point of view there was no harm in this, but any attacking force would need the whole trench for assembly purposes and to "jump off," and the work of clearing the long wired-up sections was very hard indeed. The posts themselves were well dug and well sighted, there were one or two good communication trenches, and Foncquevillers, still well preserved in spite of its proximity to the Boche, provided excellent homes for Battalion Headquarters, support Companies, and even baths and canteen. The enemy, except for some "rum jars" and heavy trench mortars from Gommecourt, was fairly quiet on the whole front, and, except when trousers had to be discarded to allow of wading in the front line, the trenches were by no means uncomfortable.
For the rest of May we stayed at Souastre, occasionally visiting the line with working parties, or on tours of inspection, but for the most part working in the Foncquevillers plain, where battery positions without number were being built. By the end of the month we learnt the meaning of all these preparations. Gommecourt was to be attacked in the near future in conjunction with other greater attacks further South. The Staffords and the Sherwood Foresters were going to do the attack with their right on the Sucrerie, their left on the "Z," while the 56th Division on our right would attack the village from the S.E. The Park, most of the village, and the Chateau would thus not be directly attacked, but it was hoped that the two Divisions would meet on the East side, and so cut off large numbers of Germans in the isolated area. Our Brigade was to be in reserve. Meanwhile, a large full-sized model of the German lines was dug near Lucheux forest, where the attacking Brigades started practising at once. Incidentally the model took many acres of arable land, and, though it was very well paid for, the French grumbled loudly, and the 46th Division was known in Lucheux as "les autres Boches."
On the evening of the 4th June we moved up through Foncquevillers, and relieved the 5th Sherwood Foresters in the right sector, opposite Gommecourt Park. A road and bank, running parallel with the front line, and about 100 yards behind it, provided Battalion Headquarters. Behind this again, the "Bluff," a steep bank, gave the support Company a good home. Here we remained until the 21st, with a two-days' holiday at Humbercamps in the middle, a holiday spent in digging cable trenches and carrying trench mortars and ammunition. It was a long time to remain in the line, but one Company lived always in a large house in Foncquevillers, where they were very comfortable, and could get baths and other luxuries.
The enemy was not very active, and our most important task was now to prevent him from guessing our intentions. This soon became impossible, for, in addition to the ever increasing Artillery, the new cable trenches, and the Lucheux model, we started to dig a new line of trenches some 100 yards in front of our front line, along the attack sector. We, being opposite the Park, did not have to do this, but the Division on our right and the rest of our Brigade on the left were both out digging every night. After the first night it became exceedingly dangerous, for the Boche, knowing exactly where we were working, kept up a steady bombardment on the right with trench mortars, and, on the left, swept the ground continuously with accurate machine gun fire. We were ordered to keep all hostile patrols out of No Man's Land, and consequently our parties were out most of the night. The Boche, however, showed no inclination to do the same, and, even though we fixed up an insulting notice board in front of his wire, never put in an appearance. Incidentally the back of the board was covered with luminous paint, and a Lewis gun was trained on it, so that any interference would have been promptly dealt with.
Before we left the sector we were reinforced by a draft of eight subaltern officers—2nd Lieuts. A. Emmerson, F.W.A. Salmon, W.H. Reynolds, A.S. Heffill, A.W.C. Zelley, M.J.S. Dyson, W.K. Callard, and S.G.H. Street, while at the same time we lost 2nd Lieut. Brittain, who went to Hospital and thence to England.
After practising their attack several times, the Staffordshires found that they had more tasks to fulfill than they could accomplish. Accordingly they asked for help, and were allotted one Battalion from our Brigade, for which duty we, having suffered least at Hohenzollern, were chosen. We were to advance as a ninth wave behind the attackers, carrying stores and ammunition; while one Company was to dig a trench joining the Sucrerie to the German front line—a communication trench for use after the fight. As soon as we left trenches and reached a hut camp at Warlincourt we, too, started practising for the battle, which, we were told, would take place at dawn on the 29th June.
Any account of our doings during this month would be incomplete without a reference to our one relaxation. The Divisional Concert Party, started in 1915, had more or less ceased to exist, but in Souastre in a large barn, the 56th Divisional troupe, the "Bow Bells," performed nightly to crowded houses. Many of us found time to go more than once, and will always remember with pleasure the songs, dances, and sketches, the drummer-ballet-dancer, and the catching melodies of "O Roger Rum" and other nonsense.
Meanwhile, feverish preparations were being made for the coming battle, while the weather was as bad as possible. There never was a wetter June, and the new assembly trenches, the recently cleared or newly dug communication trenches, Derby Dyke, Nottingham, Stafford, Lincoln and Leicester Lanes, Roberts Avenue and "Crawl Boys Lane," and the cable trenches were always full of water. Work on the gun pits was seriously delayed, and many batteries had to move in before their pits were complete. Fortunately the enemy's artillery was not too active, and Foncquevillers was almost left alone, though he did one day bombard the Church. No damage was done, except that afterwards the one remaining face of the clock stated the time as 2-15 instead of 11-45, as for the past many months. The village was full of stores and explosives, and almost every cellar held a bomb or ammunition reserve, while the Church crypt was filled with Mills and Stokes mortars under the care of Serjeant Goodman.
On the 24th June our Artillery registration started, and, with early morning bombardments and sudden harassing shoots at night, we made a considerable noise—"the sullen puffs of high explosives bursting in battalions," as Beach Thomas wrote in the "Daily Mail"—and clearly showed the Boche that we meant business. This apparently was the intention of the Staff, for, as the main attack was to be South of us, it was the object of the IIIrd. Army to attract as many enemy as possible on this the extreme flank of the attack. So successful were we, that we did actually frighten the enemy into reinforcing the Gommecourt area with an extra Division—unfortunate for us who were to attack the place, but doubtless of value to the 4th Army, who would thus have one Division less against them, Gommecourt was naturally strong, and this addition to the garrison made it doubly so, while the Artillery found it very difficult to destroy the wire which was thick along the whole front. The trees in the wood were all wired, and there were strong belts in front of every trench, so that our field guns and trench mortars were kept hard at work almost all day every day in their efforts to cut sufficient gaps for us. The enemy's guns replied by registering our communication trenches, and then remained silent.
The camp at Warlincourt was uncomfortable, and had no officers' mess, a luxury which we much needed. However, Colour-Serjeant Collins displayed his usual skill, and, while Major Toller fixed up a home-made marquee of wagon sheets and odd tarpaulins, he managed to carry on the cooking almost in the open. In spite of the rain which came through the roof and under the sides we had some excellent evenings, and managed to enjoy ourselves. Our work was mostly training, which now included rapid wiring. In this we held a competition, finally won by "B" Company, who put out a "double apron" French wire fence 20 yards long in just over four minutes—a good performance, though the other Companies declared that this fence would not have stopped a rabbit, to say nothing of a Boche. Meanwhile, Major Toller suddenly received orders to report to the 51st Division to command a battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and, much to his disgust, had to leave us just before the fight. In any case he would have been out of the fight, for the authorities had at last realized the madness of sending a whole Battalion into action, and to avoid a repetition of the post-Hohenzollern difficulties, every Battalion was ordered to leave behind, at Souastre, the 2nd in Command and a proportion of officers, N.C.O.'s and specialists. These, known as the "Battle Details," were subsequently increased in number, and later a G.H.Q. publication fixed exactly who would and who would not accompany a battalion into battle. As Major Beasley had left us at Vimy and not returned, Capt. Shields became 2nd in Command and had to stay behind, a cruel blow to him, for he was essentially a fighting man. His Company, "D," was taken by Lieut. J.W. Tomson of "A" Company. Capt. Ward Jackson had "A," Capt. Knighton "B," and Capt. Moore "C." R.S.M. R.E. Small was accidentally wounded during revolver practice, and during the few weeks that he was away his place was taken by C.S.M. J. Weir.
During the last two days before the battle the weather became worse, and the rain fell in torrents. Ours was a comparatively dry sector of the line, and yet our trenches were full of water, so that the country in the neighbourhood of the Somme valley became impossible. So bad was it that at the last moment the whole offensive was postponed until 48 hours later—the 1st July. The attacking Brigades had already occupied their front line and assembly positions before the new cancelling order arrived, and the Staff had now to decide whether to leave them for 48 hours in these hopelessly wet trenches, or take them back to rest—the latter course would necessitate two marches, in and out, in two days. The matter was settled by the Corps Commander, who wished to see another practice attack over the Lucheux trenches, so the 4th Leicestershires and 4th Lincolnshires held the line while Staffords and Sherwood Foresters marched back. It was a long way, nearly eleven miles, from Foncquevillers to Lucheux, and by the time they returned to trenches on the 30th they were all very tired. However, every man knew exactly what to do, where to go and when; the most minute details had been worked out, and even individuals as well as sections and platoons had been given definite tasks, so there was every prospect of a successful fight the next day. It was true the wire was in several places uncut, but still there were plenty of gaps, and this should be no obstacle.
Soon after midnight 30th June/1st July all the attacking troops were in position, and we moved up to Midland Trench, an assembly trench running North and South about 700 yards West of Foncquevillers Church. "A" Company (Ward Jackson) and "D" Company (Tomson) were in cellars and dug-outs in the village, since they would be wanted first. There were many communication trenches along the front, up which we should advance, for at the last moment all were made "up" trenches until after the attack; originally some were "up" and some "down." This eleventh hour alteration caused considerable confusion later. Meanwhile, throughout the night our gunners fired continuously on the Boche trenches, villages, and particularly roads and railways, for we wished, if possible, to stop all rations and ammunition from the Gommecourt garrison.
Dawn came at last—a fine day. At 6-24 our barrage started, far more intense than anything we had used during the previous days, so that the Boche may have guessed what was going to happen. Smoke shells were mixed with the H.E., and at 7-30 a smoke trench mortar screen was put down, and the Infantry advanced. Four waves crossed No Man's Land, and then the smoke blew away and the whole of our attack was revealed. On the right the Staffords, passing the Sucrerie, found the German wire still strong, and had to struggle through where they could, only to find many enemy with their machine guns undamaged by our bombardment. On the left the 5th and 7th Sherwood Foresters entered the Wood and pressed on, leaving the first enemy lines to the rear waves. But the smoke had gone and these rear waves had no protection. As the fifth line left our trenches it was met with machine gun fire from the North, from the "Z" and from the front line, over which the Sherwood Foresters had passed. None the less the wave struggled on, until artillery was added to machine guns, field guns from Monchy enfiladed No Man's Land, every German battery sent its shells into the carrying parties, and the attack was stopped. The two leading Staffordshire Battalions, except for a few who reached the enemy's lines, were held up on his wire or near the Sucrerie, where many fell. The two leading Sherwood Foresters had crossed No Man's Land almost unscathed, had entered the German lines complete, and were never seen again. Commanding Officers, Battalion Headquarters and their Companies were lost. The other four Battalions, after losing their leading wave, remained in our front trenches and sent back messages for more smoke, while here and there gallant efforts were made by platoons and sections to take help into the wood.
Meanwhile, Capt. Ward Jackson with his Company Serjeant Major—J.R. Hill—and two platoons (Hepworth and Salmon) went forward with the leading parties to dig their trench from the Sucrerie. In spite of the heavy fire, and the losses of the attacking Brigades, they started work and actually marked out their trench. But their task was impossible. Capt. Ward Jackson, hit in the back and shoulder and very badly wounded, was only saved by Serjt. Major Hill, who pluckily carried him out of the fight; and, seeing that the attack had failed, 2nd Lieut. Hepworth ordered the party back to our lines, where they found the rest of the Battalion in the support line and communication trenches, waiting for the Staffordshires to move forward.
The situation was now critical. So far as we knew, the attack of the 56th Division on our right had been successful, yet, if we did not meet them by 2 p.m. on the far side of Gommecourt, not only would the operation be a failure, but there was every probability of their being cut off by the Germans in Gommecourt Park. An attempt was therefore made to re-organize at once for another attack, but this was found impossible. Our lines, hopelessly sticky from the bad weather, were now congested with dead and wounded; the communication trenches were jammed with stretcher cases and parties coming in, the "up" and "down" rules were not observed, and, above all, the enemy's artillery enfiladed the front line from the North, the communications from the East. The Division on our left did nothing by way of counter battery work, and we were left to face their opposing artillery as well as our own. There was also another serious difficulty to re-organization. The men were too well trained in their particular duties. A private soldier who has been told every day for a month that his one duty will be to carry a box of bombs to point Q, cannot readily forget that, and take an efficient part in an ordinary unrehearsed attack. This, the Staff soon discovered, and, to give time for all arrangements to be made, a new attack was ordered for 3-30 p.m. with artillery and, if possible, a smoke screen.
Meanwhile, the enemy's artillery was still active, and we suffered. 2nd Lieut. Callard, a most promising junior officer, was killed, and with him C.S.M. F. Johnson of "C" Company. 2nd Lieuts. Russell and Creed were both wounded, and six men killed and several wounded at the same time, nearly all by shells in the communication trenches.
At 3-30 p.m. our Artillery opened once more and our Companies started forward, only to find that the Staffordshires made no move. It was not surprising. Many of them had not yet heard the time for the new attack, many were too tired to be much use, no one was really ready though some few tried to leave our lines. Such an assault was bound to fail, and fortunately Col. Jones, who was on the spot and just about to start with Capt. Allen, received the order to cancel the attack. It would have been a useless waste of lives, for no good could have come of such a half-hearted effort. Half-an-hour later the Staffordshires were ordered to withdraw and the 5th Leicestershires to take over the front line, while the 5th Lincolnshires came in on our left and relieved the Sherwood Foresters.
All hope of trying to help the Division on our right had to be abandoned. They had reached the enemy's third line and captured several prisoners in the morning; some of them actually reached the meeting place, but they, too, had to face two sectors of opposing artillery, for the attack on Serre on their right had failed, and their carrying parties and all supports for the leading units were hopelessly enfiladed from the South. Their losses were very heavy, and in the evening, when it became obvious that we could never help them, they left the enemy's lines and returned to their own trenches. But there was still hope of saving some of the missing Sherwood Foresters. They were known to have reached the wood, for their lights had been seen by our contact patrol aeroplane. Unfortunately at mid-day this aeroplane ran into the cable of the kite balloon, and both were out of action for some hours—a most unlucky accident. In case some of these Sherwood Foresters might be still alive, the 5th Lincolnshires made another advance at midnight—only a few minutes after arriving in the line—but found the enemy present in strength, and lost heavily before they could regain our lines.
The rest of the night and all the following day were spent in collecting the wounded and dead from our lines, from the newly dug and now water-logged assembly trench in front, and from No Man's Land. Once more Capt. Barton displayed the most wonderful courage, rescuing three men from a shell hole, in broad daylight, less than 200 yards from the German lines, and spending the whole day wandering about from one part to another, quite regardless of the danger so long as he could find a wounded man to help. The next day was spent in the same way, and by the evening the trenches had been considerably tidied up, when, at 9 p.m. we were relieved by the London Regt. (Rangers), and marched back to Bienvillers au Bois, leaving some guides behind to help the newcomers. These last two days cost us several casualties, amongst them Serjt. R.E. Foster, who was badly wounded by a shell.
After the battle, General Snow, the Corps Commander, sent round the following message:—"The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate the troops of the 46th Division for the manner in which they fought and endured during the fighting on the 1st July. Many gallant acts, both by units and individuals, are to hand. Although Gommecourt has not fallen into our hands, the purpose of the attack, which was mainly to contain and kill Germans, was accomplished." To this was added: "The Major General Commanding wishes all ranks to understand thoroughly that our recent attack on the Gommecourt salient in concert with the 50th Division embraced two purposes: (a) The capture of the position; (b) The retaining of considerable numbers of German troops in our immediate front in order to prevent them taking part in resisting the advance of our troops in the South. Although the first purpose was not achieved, the second was fulfilled, and there is no doubt that our action on the first materially assisted our troops in the 4th Army and contributed to their success. The above to be read to all troops on parade."
In spite of this somewhat comforting message, our action on the 1st was a failure. This cannot be denied. The retaining enemy's troops on our front was done by our Artillery and other preparation, and the extra German Division was lured into the line opposite us at least three days before the battle. Our assault made not the slightest difference to this. Our object on the 1st was to capture Gommecourt, and this we failed to do. It is comparatively easy to criticise after the event and find mistakes, but there were one or two obvious reasons for the failure which were apparent to all. The rapid dispersal of the smoke barrage, the terrible enfilade bombardment from the left consequent on the inactivity of the Division on our left, the failure of our Artillery to smash up German posts, and in some cases German wire, and, perhaps the fact that our preparations were so obvious that the Boche was waiting for us. But in the face of all this, fresh troops in ideal conditions might have succeeded. Ours were tired after their journey to Lucheux and back, had had to live several nights in hopelessly foul and water-logged trenches, and, so far from fresh, were almost worn before they started to attack.
MONCHY AU BOIS.
3rd July, 1916. 29th Oct., 1916.
North of Gommecourt the enemy's line, after passing Pigeon wood, ran a few yards West of Essarts village along the high ground to within a short distance of Monchy au Bois, then, turning West, made a small salient round this village, which lay in a cup-like hollow. Between Essarts and Monchy, and on higher ground still, stood Le Quesnoy Farm, which, with some long tall hedges in the neighbourhood, provided the Boche with excellent and well concealed observation posts and battery positions. Behind Monchy itself, and again on high ground, was Adinfer wood, and near it Douchy village, both full of well concealed batteries, while the trees in Monchy itself gave the enemy plenty of cover for machine guns and trench mortars. Opposite this our line was almost entirely in the open. From Foncquevillers it ran due North to the Hannescamps-Monchy road, more than 1,000 yards from the enemy opposite Essarts and Le Quesnoy; then, crossing the ridge, dropped steeply to the Monchy cup, where, at the Bienvillers road, the lines were only 200 yards apart. The only buildings near the line were the two Monchy mills, North and South, both about 80 yards from the front line and both little more than a heap of bricks with an O.P. concealed in the middle. Just South of the Bienvillers road a small salient, some 180 yards across ran out towards the enemy's lines, overlooked from two sides, and always being battered out of recognition by trench mortars and bombs.
The rest of our front line system was more or less ordinary—deep trenches with, at intervals, a ruined dug-out for Company Headquarters. Owing to the appalling weather all trenches were very wet, including the communication trenches, of which there were several—Chiswick Avenue opposite Essarts, Lulu Lane alongside the Hannescamps road, with Collingbourne Avenue branching off it, and, on the Monchy side, Shell Street in the middle, and Stoneygate Street alongside the Bienvillers road. The last had been so named by the Leicestershire "New Army" Brigade, who had originally built the trench. Hannescamps, a minute village, lay 1,000 yards from the line, partly hidden by a hollow, and, with an excellent bank full of dug-outs, was a home for Battalion Headquarters and one Company. Another Headquarters was in Shell Street, and the Support Battalion, with many batteries and others, lived in Bienvillers au Bois, about 11/2 behind the line. Pommier, la Cauchie, and occasionally Humbercamps were rest billets still further back. Beyond them a large farm, la Bazeque, was the home of all the Brigade transport and Q.M. Stores. Such was the sector into which the Division went after Gommecourt to rest and gradually recuperate. Our Brigade had the Monchy front and the stretch with the wide No Man's Land opposite Essarts; we, as a Battalion, were sometimes North, sometimes South of the Hannescamps Road, the other Brigades were further North, in the Ransart, Bailleulval and Berles area. Here we stayed, with one rest later on, for eight months.
Soon after our arrival in Bienvillers, we were much surprised to see Colonel Toller again return to us. We thought that he really had got a permanent Command when he went to the Highlanders, but apparently a former Colonel returned a few days after he arrived there, and he was consequently sent back. However, there were now many vacancies in our Division, and Col. Toller was at once sent to command the 7th Sherwood Foresters, the Robin Hoods—an appointment which proved to be permanent, and which he held for the next two years. At the same time, Lieut. N.C. Marriott, wounded at Hohenzollern, returned to us, and soon afterwards 2nd Lieut. J.C. Barrett joined us from England, while we lost 2nd Lieut. G.E. Banwell, who was slightly wounded at Gommecourt, and, after several efforts to remain with his unit, had to go to Hospital with a badly poisoned foot. We also lost our Divisional Commander, Major General the Hon. E.J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., M.V.O., who went to England. Before he went, the following notice appeared in orders:—"On relinquishing the Command of the Division, General Stuart-Wortley wishes to thank all ranks, especially those who have been with the Division since mobilization, for their loyalty to him and unfailing spirit of devotion to duty. He trusts the friendship formed may be lasting, and wishes the Division good luck and God speed." To quote the Battalion War Diary—"The Major General has commanded the Division since 1914; universal regret is openly expressed at his departure."
The new Divisional Commander, Major General W. Thwaites, R.A., arrived soon afterwards, and soon made himself known to all units, introducing himself with a ceremonial inspection. Ours was at Bailleulmont, where we were billeted for a few days, and on the afternoon of the 13th we formed up 650 strong to receive him. After inspecting each man very carefully, the General addressed the Battalion, calling Col. Jones "Col. Holland," and us the 5th Leicesters, two mistakes which were never forgotten, though soon forgiven.
He congratulated us on our appearance, and said that he read determination in our faces, promising to know us better by seeing us in the trenches. We then marched past him and went home.
Our first few tours in this new sector might well be described as a nightmare of H squaredO and H squaredS. It rained very hard, and all the trenches at once became full of water—in some places so full that the garrison, as the weather was warm, discarded trousers and walked about with shirts tucked into sandbag bathing drawers. Some of the communication trenches were in a particularly bad condition, and worst of all was the very deep Berlin Trench running alongside the road from Bienvillers to Hannescamps. A sort of "Southend-pier" gridded walk had been built into one side of this about four feet from the floor of the trench, and in some places even this was covered, so that the water in the trench itself was nearly six feet deep. Pumps proved almost useless, and it was obvious that something drastic would have to be done if we were to remain in this part of the world for the winter.
The H squaredS was in cylinders. For some unknown reason the Special Brigade R.E., or "gas merchants" as they were more popularly called, considered the Monchy hollow a particularly suitable place for their poison attacks. The result was that we spent all our rest periods carrying very heavy cylinders into the line or out again, terribly clumsy, awkward and dangerous things to carry, while our trenches, already ruined by the weather, were still further damaged, under-cut and generally turned upside down to make room for these cylinders. Then again, the actual gas projection caused a most appalling amount of trouble. The wind had to be exactly West, for a touch of North or South would carry the poison over our miserable little salient, but at times the wind was due East, and on one occasion it remained obstinately in the wrong quarter for three weeks, while we lived in daily terror of some chance Boche shell hitting one of the cylinders. On several occasions we had to assist with smoke candles and smoke bombs, and this, too, caused us much worry. Perhaps at dusk the wind would be favourable, and orders would arrive that gas would be discharged at 11-34. At 11-34 we, having heard nothing to the contrary, would light our smoke machines, and find no gas turned on. At 12-55 we should get another message by some orderly to say "discharge postponed until 12-55"—then, of course, no time to warn anybody, and no smoke left.
The reason for this delay in the communication of orders was that our telephones were in a state of transition. We had discovered that the Boche with his listening sets could overhear all conversations carried on by the ordinary field telephone, and consequently it was absolutely forbidden to use this instrument, except in emergency, within 2,000 yards of the front line. A new instrument, the "Fullerphone," was being introduced which could not be overheard, but one could not use it for talking; all messages had to be "buzzed." Incidentally the "buzzing" process produced a continuous whining noise, and this, in a small Company Headquarter dug-out, was almost enough to drive the unhappy Company Commander off his head. The Fullerphone, too, was very scarce at first, so that almost all messages had to be sent by orderly, or runner as he now began to be called. This caused so much trouble that the next stage was the introduction of codes and code names. At first these were very simple, we were "John" after Col. Jones, the 5th Lincolnshires "Sand," from Sandall, etc., while "gas" became the innocent "Gertie," and to attack was "to tickle." One very famous message was sent when an expected gas attack had to be suddenly postponed—"John can sleep quiet to-night, Gertie will not tickle." Later we became "Sceptre," when all units in the Division were called after race-horses, and still later, when Brigade Headquarters became "Girl," we each had a lady's name; we were "Gertrude." It sounded somewhat curious to hear a Staff Captain who had lost his Brigadier ringing up a Battalion Headquarters to ask "have you seen a 'Girl' about anywhere?" The "Bab" code was also introduced, a three-figure code with innumerable permutations and combinations. The whole thing was very secret, and added much to the worries of the Company Commander, who not only had to be careful not to lose the code book, but had to remember, without writing it down, the Corps code letter and number for the week.
In the same way the Artillery had all manner of codes for every conceivable occasion. Various messages were devised and entered in the Defence Scheme for retaliation, S.O.S., raid purposes, etc., and woe betide the luckless F.O.O. or Infantryman who sent the wrong message. There were "concentrates" and "Test concentrates," and "attacks" and "Test attacks," and "S.O.S." and many others. If anything serious really happened, the lines were always broken at once, and there remained only the rockets and coloured lights. The S.O.S. signal was almost sacred, not to be used for a hostile raid, or when retaliation was needed, but only in the event of the enemy massing for a general attack. However, it was once used—in a rather curious little battle fought on the 4th August, 1916.
Our trench strength at the time was very weak, because two days later we were to raid the enemy's lines opposite Monchy salient, and the raiding party had been left out of the line at Pommier to practice. At 3-30 a.m. on the 4th the Boche, either annoyed at our wire-cutting, or to celebrate his favourite anniversary, the declaration of war, opened a heavy fire with guns, mortars, rifle grenades, coloured lights and everything else imaginable. The noise was terrific, and the C.O. and Adjutant rushed to the Defence Scheme to find what was the correct message to send; most of the noise was at trench 86. They decided to tell the Gunners "assist L," but, between F.O.O. and signals, this reached the Artillery as "assist 86," which was meaningless, so they did nothing. Meanwhile, our Lewis Guns could be heard, so Col. Jones, unable to telephone to Companies whose lines were all cut, finally sent the S.O.S. The reply was prompt and terrific. There was plenty of ammunition, and all the gunners, wakened by the bombardment, were only too anxious to shoot, so that within a few minutes every weapon, from an 18 pounder to a 12" gun on railway mounting, was raining shells into Monchy and its surroundings. It was very effective, but none the less there had to be an enquiry into "who had dared to use the S.O.S.," and, when the facts were all brought to light, the F.O.O., Lieut. Cave, partly responsible for the initial mistake, earned the name of "S.O.S. Cave," which stuck to him till he left the Division.
The raid was not a great success. For several days "C" Company, who were chosen for the task, carried out continuous practices at Pommier, first under Capt. Mould, and later, when he had to go to Hospital with septic tonsilitis, under Capt. Shields. Capt. Moore was at the Army School at the time. The Infantry arrangements were made satisfactorily, but there was little or no opportunity for the Gunners to observe the result of their wire-cutting, with the result that, when the party went over on the evening of the 5th, they found no gaps. The raiding party advanced in four groups, each group with bombers, bayonet men, and sappers for demolition work, and each under an officer—2nd Lieuts. Steel, Barrett, Heffill and Morris. The party removed all marks of identification, but wore their collars turned up, and a small patch of white on the back of their collars for mutual recognition.
At 11-0 p.m. the party left our trenches and lay out in front of our wire, waiting for our bombardment, which 15 minutes later opened on the enemy's front line. The shooting was excellent, but the backward burst from our 6 inch Howitzers caused several casualties; amongst others 2nd Lieut. Steel was badly wounded in the leg. At Zero, 11-25 p.m., we advanced, but found no means of getting through the wire, while the Boche sent numbers of bombs and rifle grenades along the whole front. The party acted very coolly and searched carefully for gaps, but, finding none, threw their bombs and returned, guided to our lines by rockets and lanterns. Six men were missing. A curious thing happened when our search party, under L/Cpl. Archer, went out to look for them. A German machine gun, hearing the movement, opened fire, and, at the same moment, our "Flying Pig"—240 mm. trench mortar—which had jammed during the barrage, suddenly went off and dropped its shell exactly on the gun team. The following night Cobley's body, one of the raiders, was found in a shell-hole, and soon afterwards two others, Worth and Sommers, returned to our lines, having been lost the previous night. Barkby was found dead a day later, and Duckett's body was buried by a patrol which found it during the following tour. The sixth was Private "Arty" Carr, who returned unhurt at 11-0 p.m. on the 8th, after three days. During the raid he had left his party, and, while they worked to the left, looking for a gap, had gone to the right, where, outside the raid area, he found the wire thin. He had entered the German lines, had some exciting times with a post which he bombed, and then tried to get out, only to find that he had moved away from his original gap, and was now confronted by some very strong wire. He did not get through until dawn on the 6th, so then lay in a shell hole until dark, when he started to return. Tired and somewhat exhausted, he lost his way in the waste of shell holes and mortar craters round the Monchy Salient, and did not finally find our lines until the 8th.
Our total casualties were three killed and one officer and 15 wounded. To these must be added Captain Barton, who had a most unfortunate accident. Always wanting to be "up and doing," he watched the raid and helped the wounded, standing on our front line parapet, but, turning to re-enter the trench, slipped and bayonetted himself in the thigh. It was not a very serious wound, but would not heal, and he had to be sent to England. With him we lost another valuable officer, 2nd Lieut. Williams, who, while acting as bomb instructor at Brigade Headquarters, met with an accident, and was wounded in the head. Not long afterwards, Serjt. Goodman, our chief N.C.O. Instructor, who was wounded, and lost one of his legs and part of an arm as the result of a bombing accident at the Divisional School. During this first month our casualties, "holding the line," were very slight, though we lost three good N.C.O.'s through shell fire. Serjt. Shreeves, of "C" Company, died of wounds, Cpl. Ambrose, of "B" Company, was killed outright near Hannescamps, and later Serjt. W. Gartshore, of "C" Company.
Between raids and gas attacks we were kept hard at work repairing our trenches. General Kemp was a sapper before he became an Infantry Brigadier, and we were soon instructed in the mysteries of sump-holes, "berms" and "batters," interlocking trench floor boards, and the correct angles for the sloping sides of a trench, while anyone who dared to undercut a parapet for any purpose had better not be present the next time that the General appeared. As far as possible all the carpentry work was done by the Sappers out of trenches and sump-frames were sent up ready made, also small dug-outs in numbered parts, easily put together; all we had to do was to dig the necessary holes. At the same time some genius invented the "A" frame, a really wonderful labour saving device. Hitherto floorboards had been supported on piles and crossbars, while further and longer stakes were driven in to carry the rivetment. The new frame shaped like a flat-topped letter "A," was put in the floor of the trench upside down. The legs held the revetment against the sides, the floorboards rested on the cross-piece, and the space between the cross-piece and the flat top formed a good drain. These were first used in communication trenches only, where the Monmouthshires were at work for us; later we used them in all trenches wherever possible.
Meanwhile, when not in trenches, we rested, first at Bienvillers and later at Pommier. Bienvillers had many good billets, but was too full of our heavy artillery to be pleasant, for the noise was often very disturbing. The enemy, too, used to shell the place, and 2nd Lieut. Shipston had a most remarkable escape one day when standing in front of a first floor window, shaving. A whizz-bang hit the window sill and carried itself, sill and many bricks, between his legs into the room; he himself was untouched. Another early morning bombardment found the Doctor in his bath. He left it hurriedly and hastened, dripping and unclothed, to the cellar, which he found already contained several officers and the ladies of his billet. But this stay in Bienvillers is most remembered on account of a slight fracas which occurred between Col. Jones and a visiting Army Sanitation Officer. A full account is given in two entries in the War Diary. The first, dated the 23rd July, says simply—"Major T——, Sanitation Officer, IIIrd. Army, came to look at billets. We received him coldly, and in consequence got a bad report, see later." The second entry, a week later, is dated 30th July. "The Sanitary report referred to came and we replied. The report detailed many ways in which we, as a Regiment, were living in dirt, and making no attempt to follow common-sense rules, or to improve our state. It stated that we had been in the village three days, and thus implied that there could be no excuse. Our reply asserted that the inaccuracy of the report made it worthless. That, though the Regiment had been there three days, the Army, which the gallant Major T. represented and worked for, had been in the village some months. That Major T.'s party had done nothing to put or keep the billets in order, to put up incinerators, or in any way to make suitable billets for soldiers resting from trench duty. It suggested that Major T. had neglected his duty, and thus was not in a position to judge a Regiment."
Pommier was much pleasanter, and was very seldom shelled. Brigade Headquarters lived there, and, with the aid of an energetic Mayor and our invaluable interpreter, M. Bonassieux, had done much to improve the billets. There were plenty of civilians who were good to us, though, to quote the War Diary again, 26th August, "A complaint was made by the Maire that certain of our officers were bathing in the open, and that this was not counted amongst the indecencies the French permitted." At about the same time, during one of our rest periods, we were inspected by General Thwaites—a full ceremonial inspection, the first of many of these much dreaded ordeals. Again it is impossible to improve on the account given by the War Diary. "At 2-30 we were drawn up in close column in Ceremonial—Companies sized. We received the new G.O.C. with several salutes, the last was probably the worst. The Battalion was then closely inspected, and a few names taken for unsteadiness, dirty buttons, badly fitted packs, and the like. A slight confusion between the terms packs and equipment led us to take off equipment, and we then formed up as a Battalion in Brigade. We saluted again, this time we had no bayonets, and then marched past by Companies and back in close column several times. Then, by a questionable, though not questioned, manoeuvre, we came back again and advanced in review order. The Brigade Band was in attendance and played the Brigade March in place of the Regimental March, because it did not know the latter. While still in Ceremonial order, we finished by doing Battalion drill, under the general idea 'keep moving.' We kept moving for two hours in all, and it was universally conceded that the men moved very well. One or two of the newly arrived officers were unequal to the occasion. It was a good day in the country, and, in the senior officers, stirred up pleasant memories of old peace time annual inspections." The exceeding fierceness of the General on this Inspection had an amusing sequel when, a week later, two of our soldiers were repairing a road outside the Brigade office. One regarded the other's work for a few minutes critically, and then exclaimed fiercely, "Very ragged, very ragged, do it again!" It is only fair to add, that, terrible as was the ordeal of a Divisional Inspection, the General kept his original promise, and spent many hours in the foremost trenches, "that he might know us well."
The evening of this same inspection was one of the few occasions on which Pommier was bombarded. A sudden two minutes' "hate" of about 40 shells, 4.2 and 5.9, wounded three men and killed both the C.O.'s horses, "Silvertail" and "Baby"; both came out with the Battalion. We still, however, had some good animals left, as was obvious at the Brigade Sports and Race meeting held on the 11th September at la Bazeque Farm. This was a most successful show, and the only pity was that we were in trenches at the time, and so could only send a limited number of all ranks to take part. The great event of the day was the steeplechase. The Staff Captain, Major J.E. Viccars, on "Solomon," led all the way, but was beaten in the last twenty yards by Major Newton, R.F.A. Lieut. L.H. Pearson was third on "Sunlock II.," the transport Serjeant's horse. It was a remarkable performance, for he only decided to ride at the last moment, and neither he nor horse had trained at all. The Battalion did well in other events, winning 1st and 2nd places in both obstacle and mule races, and providing the best cooker and best pack pony; the two last were a great credit to the Transport Section. One of the features of the day was the Bookies' G.S. wagon, where two officers disguised with top hats, yellow waistcoats and pyjamas, carried on a successful business as "turf accountants." At a VIIth. Corps meeting, held a fortnight later on the same course, we secured two places for the Battalion: Capt. Burnett came home 2nd in an open steeplechase, and Capt. Moore 3rd in one for Infantry officers only.
During September our Mess, already up to strength, was considerably increased by a large draft of Officers. First we were glad to see Major Griffiths back as Second in Command, though sorry for Captain John Burnett, who had to go back to Transport for the time. With Major Griffiths came 2nd Lieuts. J.R. Brooke, S. Corah, and W.I. Nelson, while within the same month, or shortly afterwards, 2nd. Lieuts. L.A. Nelson, J.H. Ball, P. Measures, T.L. Boynton, W.C. Walley, W. Lambert, M.F. Poynor, and J.A. Wortley all arrived. In October also Serjeant Beardmore, M.M., of "C" Company, who had latterly being doing exceptionally good work with the Battalion Scouts, was given his Commission in the Field, and reposted as a platoon Commander to the old Company. Capt. Barton's place as M.O. was taken by Captain T.D. Morgan, of the 2nd Field Ambulance. At the same time a stroke of bad luck robbed us of 2nd Lieut. Coles, who was badly wounded. During a raid of the 4th Lincolnshires in October it was our duty to cause a diversion by blowing up some tubes of ammonal in the Boche wire. The party, led by 2nd Lieut. Coles, was about to leave our trenches when a rifle grenade or "pine apple" bomb dropped in their midst and exploded one of the tubes, doing much damage.
During these long months of trench warfare a considerable advance was made in the work of the Intelligence department of the Infantry Battalion. A year ago one officer did duty for a whole Brigade, now each Battalion had its Intelligence officer, its scouts and observers, and its snipers, sometimes the last under a separate officer. The duties of the Intelligence section were many. They must see and report every little thing which happened in the enemy's lines, no small detail must be omitted. The number and colours of his signal lights on different occasions, the relative activity of his different batteries and their positions, the movement of his transport, the location of his mortars and machine guns, the trench reliefs, all these must be watched. The immediate purpose was of course retaliation, counter battery work, the making of our bombardments more effective by picking out the tender spots in his lines, and generally harassing the enemy; but there was a further purpose. It was particularly necessary that the higher commands should be kept informed of all the big movements of troops, the state of the enemy's discipline, etc., and often some little incident seen in the front line would give the clue to one of these. Lieut. L.H. Pearson was at this time Intelligence officer, helped by Serjt. Beardmore, M.M., the humorous side to their work, and many amusing things were seen, or said to be seen, through the observers' telescopes. The old white-haired Boche, digging near Monchy, who looked so benign that no one would shoot him, became quite a famous character, until one day his real nature was revealed, for he shook his fist at one of our low-flying aeroplanes, and obviously uttered a string of curses, so one of the snipers shot him. Then again there was the lady of Douchy, who could be seen each evening coming out to hang up the washing; she was popularly known as Mary, and figured in the reports nearly every day.
With the observers worked the snipers. After nearly two years, telescopic sights at last appeared, and we tried to train the once despised "Bisley shot." They were very keen, and had much success, of which they were duly proud, as their individual reports showed. "We watched for 3/4 of an hour until our viggillance was rewarded by seeing a Boche; he exposed half of himself above the parapet, I, Pte. ——, shot him," so said one report, the name has unfortunately been lost. Some snipers even kept a book of their "kills," with entries such as "June 1st, 9-30 a.m. Boche sentry looking over, shot in shoulder, had grey hair almost bald very red face and no hat." It was just the right spirit, and it had its results. Autumn, 1915, saw us hardly daring to look over the top for fear of being sniped; Autumn, 1916, saw us masters, doing just what we pleased, when we pleased.
29th Oct., 1916. 15th April, 1917.
Many Divisions were now taking part in the Somme battle for the second time, and as we suddenly left Pommier on the 29th October—our final destination unknown—we naturally thought it probable that we, too, should soon be once more in the thick of the fighting. However, our fears were groundless, and we moved due West, not South. Our first night we spent in Mondicourt, and then moved the next day in pouring rain to Halloy, where we stayed two days. On the 1st November we marched 14 miles through Doullens to Villers L'Hopital, on the Auxi le Chateau road, where we found our new Padre waiting for us, the Rev. C.B.W. Buck. The march was good, and no one fell out until the last half mile, a steep hill into billets, which was too much for six men; as we had done no real marching for several months, this was very satisfactory. There was only one incident of interest on the way, a small collision between the heavily laden mess cart and the level crossing gates at Doullens, due to the anxiety of the lady gate-keeper to close the gates and let the Paris express through, a feat which she accomplished, despite all the efforts of our Transport, which was consequently cut in half. The following day it rained again, and we marched to Conteville, stayed a night, and went on to Millencourt the next morning. Here we found good billets and, as we were told we were likely to remain a month, fixed up a Battalion Mess in the Farm Chateau.
We were soon informed that we had not come to Millencourt to rest, but to carry out "intensive training" to fit us for offensive action. This meant very hard work all the morning, many afternoons, and two or three nights a week as well. The idea was to devote the first week to Platoon and Company work, the next to Battalion drill and training, and to finish our course with some big Brigade and Divisional days. The weather was not very good, but we managed to do many hours work, the usual physical training, bayonet fighting, steady drill, and extended order work, night compass work and lectures. The most exciting event was one of the night trainings, when Col. Jones combined cross country running with keeping direction in the dark. The running was very successful, but the runners failed to keep direction, and ran for many miles, getting in many cases completely lost; far into the night the plaintive notes of the recall bugle could be heard in the various villages of the neighbourhood.
Soon after our arrival a Divisional Sports Committee drew up a programme for a meeting to be held at the end of our training, and to consist of football, boxing, and cross country running. Eliminating heats and events had to be decided beforehand, and, with Lieut. Heffill and Serjt. J. Wardle to look after the boxing, and Capt. Shields as "O.C. Football," we started training without delay. At the football we had our usual luck, for, after a good victory over the 4th Lincolnshires, we were once more beaten by our own 4th Battalion. The last game was very exciting, and feeling ran so high that the language on the touch line became terrible, and would have shocked even a Brigadier. The finals of the boxing and cross country running could not take place until later when we had left the area. On one or two of the spare afternoons we managed to get some Rugby football, and had some excellent games, during which we discovered that our Padre was a performer of considerable merit.
On the 22nd November we started back Eastwards, and, after a night at Prouville and two at Fortel, arrived in the pouring rain at Halloy, where we were told we should stay for about a week. We were put into the huts, which were unfinished and entirely unfit for habitation, while to make matters worse, the field in which they stood had become a sea of mud. After the good billets of Millencourt, this change for the worse produced the inevitable sickness, and, in addition to many N.C.O.'s and men who went away with fever and influenza, we lost for a short time Col. Jones, and several of the officers. Amongst them was 2nd Lieut. J.R. Brooke, who had long ago been warned against the danger of again getting nephritis, but in spite of this refused to stay away from the Battalion, and insisted on braving even the worst weather and the wettest trenches. About the same time, Captain Burnett went to England, going to Hospital from the Army School.
The week in these horrible surroundings was lengthened to a fortnight, and we were at last able to hold the finals of the cross country run. Many of the Battalion entered, and over two hundred came home in the time, a very good performance, though not good enough to win. The boxing tournament was held still later at St. Amand, and we sent two entries. In the heavy weights, Boobyer was beaten on points after a plucky fight, and in the feather weights, O'Shaugnessy knocked his opponent all over the place, and won in the second round.
On the 6th December we marched to the Souastre huts, where the Colonel returned to us, and we once more began to feel fit; the huts here were not palaces, but were far better than those we had left at Halloy. On the 11th we moved up through Bienvillers and went into our old trenches opposite Monchy. But the recent heavy rains had undone all the good that we had done in the early autumn, and they were now in a very bad state. On the right of the Hannescamps road they were particularly bad, and Liverpool Street, which ran from Lulu Lane to the front line, was almost impassable. There was the same terrible clinging mud, feet deep, that we had found at Richebourg a year before, and the old troubles of lost gum boots began again. Fortunately we were now prepared, and were able to combat the dangers of "trench foot." Each Company had its drying room—a dug-out occupied by the Stretcher bearers, and kept warm by an ever burning brazier. Here at least once in every 24 hours every man who could possibly have got wet feet, and every man wearing rubber boots, came, had his feet rubbed, and was given dry socks and boots, while at Headquarters and in Bienvillers were large drying rooms where the wet boots could be dealt with. In this way we were able to keep almost free from the complaint, and the few men whose feet did fail were all men who had had "trench feet" the previous winter, and were consequently always liable to it.
All this time it was not only wet, but cold, and after Christmas it became colder until the first week in January, when heavy snow fell. Thenceforward, until the middle of February, there was continuous frost with occasional heavy falls of snow, though generally the days and nights were fine and clear. For several feet down, the ground was frozen hard, and digging became absolutely impossible. There was now solid ice instead of water in the trenches, and the front line sentries found their task a particularly cold one. Fortunately by this time the trench cook-house was not only an established thing but had become a very successful affair, and four times a day hot meals were carried in tanks and food containers from Battalion Headquarters to the front line. For this purpose the rectangular tanks from the cooks' wagons were used, being carried by two men, on a wooden framework or stretcher. Along a road or up a well made communication trench this was a comparatively light task, but to carry a tank full of hot tea over slippery shell holes and through knee-deep mud was a difficult matter, and on more than one occasion a platoon lost its hot drink at night through the disappearance of the carriers into some shell hole. The wonderful thing was that both tea-less platoon and drenched carriers would laugh over it all.
Christmas Day was spent in trenches. We were relieved in the afternoon by the 4th Battalion, who had their festivities on Christmas eve, and went back to Souastre, where the following day we, too, had our dinner. Pigs had been bought and killed, and we all gorged ourselves on roast pork and plum pudding, washing them down with beer—a very satisfactory performance. There were also the usual games and Company dinners, and we all spent a very enjoyable few days. Later on we managed to arrange a Battalion concert which was a tremendous success, and voted by all a most excellent evening; the "star" turn was Colonel Jones, who gave a recitation.
The weather made raids and active operations impossible, and though we made all preparations for a rifle grenade demonstration to assist a Staffordshire raid on New Year's night, this had to be cancelled on account of the snow. Patrols, however, still continued to tour No Man's Land in the hopes of finding a stray Boche, or encountering a Boche patrol. In front of Essarts the lines were so far apart that there was plenty of room for a small pitched battle, and night after night Lieuts. Pearson, Creed, Poynor, and others visited such familiar haunts as the "Osier Bed," "Thistle Patch," "Lonely Tree," and other well-known places. The first to meet the enemy was Lieut. Pearson, who came upon a small party in the "Thistle Patch," who made off rapidly back to their lines. Our patrol used their rifles, but, though they hit one of the enemy, failed to take a prisoner, and for a week or two the Boche did not show himself. Then on the 10th January, 2nd Lieut. Creed, with a mixed party of scouts from all Companies, while reconnoitering the "Osier Bed" suddenly found that a party of the enemy was in their right rear and close to our wire, where four of them could be seen. Our patrol turned at once and ran straight at the four as fast as they could, coming, as they ran, under a heavy fire from a Boche covering party lying some 50 yards out. Pte. A. Garner was killed outright, but the remainder, led by 2nd Lieut. Creed and Pte. Frank Eastwood of "C" Company, rushed on and wounded and captured one of the four, who was found to be the officer. The remainder of the enemy took the alarm in time and made off. The officer proved to be an English-speaking subaltern of the 55th Regt.—our old opponents of Hohenzollern in October, 1915. He was led down to the Aid Post to have his wound dressed, much to the disgust of Captain Terry, the M.O., who would have liked to have killed him outright, though Serjeant Bent, the medical orderly, took compassion on his shivering prisoner and fed him on hot tea, and actually gave him a foot warmer!
This little affair caused the Boche extreme annoyance, and the following day he spent the morning shooting at Berlin Trench, the Bienvillers road and Bienvillers itself, round the Church. As we were relieved during the morning we had to march out through it all, and found it particularly unpleasant, especially when a shell hit the R.E. Dump, exploded an ammunition store, and sent the house at the Church corner several hundred feet into the air.
At this time there were again several changes in the personnel. Capt. G.W. Allen went to Brigade Headquarters and thence to the Corps School as an Instructor; Capt. J.D. Hills, who took his place, fell down and injured his knee so badly that it took him to England for six months; Capt. Knighton was made Town Major at St. Amand, and Captain Mould went to England. Capt. Wollaston rejoined us, bringing with him 2nd Lieut. Banwell and a new subaltern, 2nd Lieut. D. Campbell. 2nd Lieut. C.H. Morris acted as Adjutant. 2nd Lieut. J.R. Brooke paid one of his periodical visits to the R.A.M.C., driven thither by the M.O., who was afraid he would die on his hands, but returned to us again soon afterwards.
During the last fortnight of January we had several Units of the 58th (London) Division attached to us for instruction. They were one of the first "second-line" Territorial Divisions to reach France, and were followed by our own second-line, the 59th, who went for their initiation to the most Southern end of the British front, and we consequently did not see them. Nothing of any note happened during their stay, except a heavy gas shell bombardment on "D" Company's (Capt. Shields') trenches. The men were all warned in time and put on helmets, so that we had no casualties. The shells were almost noiseless, so that when the gas blew over the crest into "B" Company (Capt. Wollaston), who were in support, it was thought to be cloud gas and the Strombos horns were sounded. The flank Units sounded theirs, too, and Bienvillers took it up, much to the annoyance of the batteries and staffs who were thus unnecessarily disturbed, since the Strombos should never be used for gas shells only. It was a very natural mistake, but we were severely "strafed" by the authorities; however, as we had no casualties, and there had been many in other Units, we ended by being congratulated.
On the 14th February came the beginnings of the thaw, and with it the first rumours of a German withdrawal. Three days later the enemy shelled Foncquevillers heavily, apparently with a view to a raid, or possibly to deceive us into thinking that he did not mean to retire. Our guns replied, and the Right Half Battalion under Major Griffiths, who was already quartered in the village, stood to, but nothing happened. The remainder of the Battalion with the Headquarters was now in Bienvillers in Brigade reserve. The weather once more became frosty, and there was a thick mist almost every day. On the 23rd we relieved the 4th Battalion, and occupied some 2,500 yards of front line opposite Gommecourt, where the Huns shelled us at intervals all the next day, but did no damage. At midnight 24th/25th the Brigadier had reason to believe the Boche was going to leave his lines, and a strong patrol under Major Griffiths went out to reconnoitre. They cut many gaps in the wire, but found the German front line still held. At dawn it was very foggy, and there was some shouting heard in Gommecourt, which sounded like "Bonsoir," but at 7-10 a.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment which lasted 31/2 hours. Shells of every kind were fired and our trenches hit in several places; one man was killed. The next night patrols were again out and, though it was found that the Boche had evacuated Gommecourt Park, he was still in the village, where the following morning dug-outs were seen to be on fire. Wire was cut and everything prepared for the advance.
However, the Boche still hung on to his line, and on the evening of the 26th and at dawn the following morning our patrols still found him there. 2nd Lieuts. Banwell and Beardmore and Serjt. Growdridge were constantly out, waiting for a chance to enter his lines, but the chance never came, and, on the 27th, we were relieved by the 4th Battalion, and returned to Souastre. That evening the Boche retired, and the 4th Battalion entered Gommecourt. At this point we lost Captain J.W. Tomson, who had been far from well for some time, and now went to England with fever. He had never missed a day's work for two years. Lieut. D.B. Petch took his place in command of "A" Company.
The German withdrawal was very slow, and we spent the next day having baths in Souastre. On the 1st March we moved into the new front line, round the East edge of Gommecourt, while the Boche was still holding Pigeon Wood. The enemy was very alert, as General H.M. Campbell, the C.R.A., discovered; he went into the wood, thinking it unoccupied, and was chased out by a fat Boche throwing "potato mashers." In the evening the Headquarters moved into a German dug-out, but the enemy still occupied the "Z." The front line between there and Gommecourt was filled with deep dug-outs, all connected underground, so the Boche occupied one end, while 2nd Lieuts. Banwell and Barrett sat in the other, of the same tunnel. There were many booby traps, such as loose boards exploding a bomb when trodden on; trip wires at the bottom of dug-out steps bringing down the roof, and other such infernal machines. We were warned of these, and had no casualties.
On the 2nd March we continued to press the enemy, having as our objective a circle 900 yards round Gommecourt Church. 2nd Lieut. Corah was slightly wounded by a sniper, and one or two men were hit with splinters of bomb, but there were no serious casualties. Our bombing parties were very vigorous, and in one case consumed the hot coffee and onions left by a party disturbed at breakfast. In this bombing work, Serjeants A. Passmore, Cave and Meakin, Cpl. Marshall, and L/Cpls. Dawes and A. Carr all distinguished themselves. Gommecourt wood was soon cleared, and by the evening we had gained the whole of the circular objective. The next morning early the 8th Sherwood Foresters came up to relieve us, but, though the other Companies were relieved, "A" Company (Petch) refused to be. They were busy chasing the Boche, and were quite annoyed when told that they must come away. Relieved, we marched back to Souastre.
We stayed at Souastre until the 11th March, and then moved up once more to the line, taking over 2,600 yards of frontage from the la Brayelle Road to the Hannescamps-Monchy Road. Our time in reserve had been spent almost entirely in lectures on the attack, and on lessons drawn from the enemy's recent withdrawal from Gommecourt, and we had more than once been congratulated on our patrol work, which was excellent throughout this time. Between Essarts and Monchy the Boche was still holding his original line, and though expected to retire at any time, he made no movement during the three days we stayed in the line. On the 13th we were ordered, during the afternoon, to make certain that the enemy were still present, so 2nd Lieut. T.H. Ball marched up the Essarts Road with two platoons, until fire was opened on them from more than one direction, and the strength of the enemy was apparent. That evening we were relieved by the Lothian and Border Horse, and marched on relief to Foncquevillers. The same night, just before midnight, the Staffordshires made an attack on Bucquoy Graben, a strong Boche trench, and the outskirts of Bucquoy village. It was very wet and dark, and the operation altogether most difficult, so that the Staffordshires, though they made a very gallant attack, lost heavily and gained little ground.
At dawn the following morning, 14th March, we were ordered to be ready to go and support the Staffordshires, but, after considerable uncertainty and waiting, this order was cancelled. Instead, a flagged plan of the Bucquoy trenches was made on the plain N.W. of our village, and here we practised the attack. The weather was bad, but we managed to make all the necessary arrangements and do some attack drill. In the village we had a singular stroke of ill luck. One solitary German Howitzer shell dropped amongst a party of "D" Company, killing Pte. J.T. Allen, who had done good work in the bombing at Gommecourt, and wounding six others, one of whom, W. Clarke, died of wounds afterwards. The practised attack, which should have taken place from Biez Wood on the 16th, never came off, for it was made unnecessary by the rapidity of the German retirement.
After this the weather improved, and it was bright and warm when, on the 17th, we moved during the afternoon into Gommecourt and came temporarily under orders of the 139th Brigade. The following day we moved again, this time to dug-outs and fields 500 yards North of Essarts, country which the enemy had now entirely evacuated. The villages and farms had all been very badly battered by our Artillery, and the Boche had found time to destroy almost everything before he went, except at Douchy, where there was some good dug-out timber. Needless to say, the famous Mary of that village was not to be found. The French were immensely pleased at regaining part of their lost territory, though it was a pathetic sight to see some of the old people coming to look at the piles of bricks which had once been their homes. Two ladies came to Gommecourt with a key, little thinking that so far from finding a lock they would find not even a door or door-way—there was not even a brick wall more than two feet high. Those officers who could get horses rode round to look at the country which for nine months we had been watching through telescopes, and the concrete emplacements of Monchy and Le Quesnoy Farm were all explored, while No Man's Land, the only place free from wire and shell holes, provided an excellent canter. The Companies were largely employed in road mending, filling up German mine craters, and making tracks across the trenches for our Artillery. The enemy seemed to be really on the move at last, and we were all looking forward to seeing some new country, but on the 20th the weather broke, there was another fall of snow, and we were not sorry to be ordered back to Souastre, where we went into the huts for two nights.