The actual Christmas festivities had to be held on Christmas Eve, as we were due to go into trenches on the morning of Boxing Day. Everything combined to make the day a great success. Plum puddings arrived from England, large pigs, which Major Burnett had been leading about on a string for some days, were turned into the most delicious pork, and there was plenty of beer. The Serjeants' Mess also had a very lively dinner in the evening, though one Company Quarter Master Serjeant spent much of his time dragging the Beuvry river for his Company Serjeant Major whom he had lost. This Warrant Officer was eventually discovered asleep in an old sentry box, with his false teeth clenched in his hand. The Germans, in spite of their boast, dropped in a message from an aeroplane, "to eat their Christmas dinners in Bethune," caused no disturbance, and did not show the slightest sign of being offensive. Christmas, 1917, was unique in one respect. We produced a Battalion Christmas Card for the first and last time during the war. It contained a picture, drawn by 2nd Lieut. Shilton, of a big-footed Englishman standing on a slag-heap, from which a Hun was flying as though kicked. It was very popular.
Boxing Day, for us "Relief Day," was bitterly cold, and an occasional blizzard made getting into trenches all the more difficult. The ground was covered with snow, and each night there was a bright moon, so that the snipers of both sides were on the watch day and night for the slightest movement. Our snipers claimed to hit several of the enemy during the tour, but we, too, had our losses. First, F. Eastwood, M.M., of "C" Company, a soldier who had scarcely missed a day since the beginning, was shot through the head and killed outside "C" Company Headquarters in Northampton trench. A few nights later, on the 30th December, Lieut. P. Measures, commanding "B" Company, was sniped while fixing a sniper's post in the front line, and also killed instantly. He had not been with us very long, but both he and Lieut. Watherston had proved themselves very keen subaltern officers, and both had been praised by the General for their work on patrol. Lieut. T.H. Ball temporarily took command of "B" Company.
Whenever work was possible—it was often too light even at night—we worked at two new trenches, "Cardiff" and "Currin," connecting Bart's Alley with Savile tunnel, as an alternative to Savile Row. These had been dug by the Monmouthshires, and now had to be wired, and here, also, we suffered at the hands of a German sniper. Serjeant W.E. Cave, a very fine N.C.O. of "A" Company, was killed with a wiring party, and one or two others had narrow escapes. The New Year, 1918, was ushered in with several bursts of machine gun fire at midnight, but nothing of importance occurred.
Our stay at Annequin was once again disturbed, this time more disastrously than before. A curious accident occurred on the 6th of January, when three of our aeroplanes collided and fell near the village. The enemy as usual opened fire at once with one or two batteries, and an unlucky shell fell amongst our Headquarter runners as they were leaving their billet. The two Corporals escaped, Collins with a slight wound and Hubbard untouched, but W. Raven, M.M., was killed outright, and A. Grogan, D.C.M., F. Smith, H. Eady, and H. Kirby, so badly wounded that they died soon afterwards. It is impossible to estimate the amount of work that these runners had done for the Battalion, not only as message carriers, but some of them as personal orderlies to the C.O. and other Headquarter Officers. In Lens they had proved themselves not only capable of wonderful endurance, but to be possessed of the greatest courage, fearing neither the enemy himself nor his barrages. To lose so many at one blow was indeed a severe loss for the Battalion. After this, there followed two comparatively quiet tours in trenches with the usual six days at Beuvry in between them. The enemy's snipers were mastered, and we suffered no more casualties at their hands, but our bad luck still pursued us, and on the 10th and 11th January the left of the Reserve Line was badly battered by trench mortars. The left half Battalion cook-house was blown in, and Serjeant Growdridge of "D" Company was killed, while several others were wounded. In Serjeant Growdridge, "D" Company lost a most capable platoon Serjeant, the leader of many a daring and successful patrol, and of the highest courage in battle. On the 20th of January we were relieved by the 11th Division, and, after spending one night in Beuvry, marched through Bethune to Busnettes, between Chocques and Lillers, for a long rest.
We stayed at Busnettes for three weeks, training and playing games, and doing our best to recover from the ill effects of tunnels and wet trenches. Our training was carried out on various areas round Chocques and Allouagne, and near the latter was a good rifle range, over which we practised for the Associated Rifle Association (A.R.A.) Competition. This competition was for a platoon, and included rifle and Lewis gun shooting and bayonet fighting, fire discipline and control, and the general principles of the advance. The platoon had to fire at various ranges, advancing from one to the other, and bayoneting sacks on the way. There were Battalion, Brigade, and Divisional Competitions, and to the Divisional winners the A.R.A. were to present silver medals. In the Battalion competition, No. 1 Platoon of "A" Company, under 2nd Lieut. Roberts and Serjeant H. Beardsmore, was victorious, but the other competitions could not be held until February, after our next move. Finally, this same platoon, beating the other Battalions in the Brigade, beat also the Staffordshires' and Sherwood Foresters' best platoons, and carried off the silver medals.
At this time there were several important changes in the Battalion. First, we were very glad indeed to see Captains Tomson and Petch back again with us, the former to command "B," the latter to "A" Company. At the same time, Capt. Barrowcliffe returned to the Royal Engineers. Lieuts. C.S. Allen and R.W. Edge went to England for six months, and 2nd Lieut. Todd became Transport Officer. We also received a large draft from the 2nd/5th Battalion. Finding that it was impossible to obtain sufficient recruits to supply all the Battalions formed at the beginning of the war, each Brigade was now reduced to three Battalions, and we lost from our Brigade the 4th Lincolnshires. In the 59th Division, the 2nd/5th Leicestershires were broken up and divided into drafts for the 4th Battalion and ourselves. Capts. J.A. Ball and W.H. Oliver, Lieuts. S.G.H. Steel and A.D. Pierrepont, 2nd Lieuts. A.B. Bedford, H. Coxell, K. Ashdowne, and, later, A.E. Hawley and Everett came to us, bringing with them 200 N.C.O.'s and men. Amongst the latter were several Serjeants, one of them, Serjeant T. Marston, M.M., destined to add further laurels to the honours he had already won with the 2nd/5th. There were also several "old hands" who returned to us, amongst them, Privates Garfield and Law of "D" Company, both original members of the 1914 Battalion. These reinforcements enabled us to form again four platoons per Company, and we became once more a full Battalion.
Another batch of reinforcements, which arrived at Busnettes, contained several drummers of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. We already had a few, and L/Cpl. Perry was given the rank of Serjeant Drummer and formed a Corps of Drums. With Drummer Price, an expert of many years' service with the side drum, and L/Cpl. Tyers, an old bandsman, to help him, he soon produced an excellent Corps, and all of them worked hard and keenly to make a good show. Within a week they played us on route marches and appeared at guard-mounting. Within two months they played at Mess, and the Fifes gave several very good concerts.
While in the Busnettes area, we were in Reserve for the 1st Army, and in case of attack were liable to be sent to support the Portuguese on the Neuve Chapelle-La Bassee front. In case of this, the C.O. and Adjutant spent a day reconnoitering the Locon, le Hamel, le Touret area and its keeps and strong points, many of which we afterwards occupied when the Portuguese had been driven out.
On the 8th of February, we moved to Fiefs through Lillers, and the following day marched to Reclinghem in the Bomy training area. The march took the form of a tactical field day, and we ended by taking up an outpost position on the river Lys at Reclinghem, where "B" and "D" Companies and Headquarters were billeted. The other two Companies were at Vincly, a little more than a mile further South. A fortnight later, to the great regret of all ranks, Colonel Currin had to leave us, after being only three months in command. During this time we had become very fond of him, and there is no doubt that his never-failing cheerfulness, his reckless courage, and the atmosphere of "the fighting spirit" which always accompanied him, did more than anything else could have done to raise our "fighting spirit" to a high pitch. His successor, Lieut. Col. G.B.G. Wood, D.S.O., of the Lancashire Fusiliers, had commanded the 2nd/5th Battalion until he was wounded, and now, returning to France, was sent to us as his Battalion had been broken up.
Towards the end of February, the Staff became more than ever convinced that the enemy intended making a big spring offensive, and our training was devoted almost entirely to counter-attack practice and the re-taking a line of trenches which had been temporarily lost. We had several large field days near Bomy, with this as the general idea, and would have had several more had not the Division been suddenly recalled to the line. On the 1st March, in a snow storm, we marched to Ligny-les-Aire, and the next day moved on again to Ecquedecques, where we stayed three days. Our billets were fairly comfortable, but there were very few for the officers; this, however, was soon righted after the first night, when we discovered many officers' billets occupied by Serjeants of an A.S.C. Company who were permanent "garrison" of the village.
On the 5th of March we marched through Lillers and Bethune again to Beuvry and, after staying one night there, moved the following day to Annequin and Sailly Labourse, where we were responsible for the defence of the Annequin locality. The 1st Corps scheme of defence was a series of fortified localities, Philosophe, Cambrin, Annequin, Noyelles, and many others further West as far as Vaudricourt. Each locality had its trenches, dug-outs, stores of ammunition and rations, and was ready for defence at any moment. The German offensive was expected to start any day, and the "wind" was terribly "up." This, however, did not prevent the Infantry from amusing themselves whenever possible, and though the higher authorities may have been sleeping in their boots, we managed to get some football. General Rowley gave a cup for a Brigade Company Competition, and, while at Sailly, our "A" Company beat Brigade Headquarters in the "final," after which "Tinker" Evans, the captain of the team, received the cup from the Brigadier.
The following morning we went once more to the line, back into the familiar Cambrin right sector. Unfortunately there was now a change. The Engineers, in an endeavour to make Headquarters less elegant and more shell-proof, had thrown up so much white chalk, that they had attracted the attention of the German artillery, who had promptly shelled the place out of existence. The Headquarters now lived in the old left Headquarters under Railway Alley. We had only two Companies in the line, one in support, and one in Reserve near the Factory; we were thus organized "in depth" to meet the coming offensive.
The enemy's artillery had certainly become more active during our two months' absence, and he was now using far more gas shells than before. These were of three sorts: "Green Cross," the most deadly, was filled with phosgene; "Blue Cross," the least harmful, with arsenic; both these were very light gases and soon blew away. Far more dangerous were the "Yellow Cross," mustard shells, which now made their appearance in ever increasing numbers. The mustard hung round the shell holes and was not blown away; in cold weather it had no effect, but as soon as the sun came out it became exceedingly powerful. A mustard shell falling on frozen snow might have no effect until the thaw came several weeks later, when it would be just as powerful as if it had only just been fired. A very little of this gas was sufficient to cause temporary blindness and loss of voice, burns and bad blisters. Much of it was fatal. During this tour, however, we did not suffer any casualties, and nothing of any importance occurred until our last morning before relief, the 16th of March.
At about 1-0 a.m. on this morning, Privates Culpeck and Johnson were sentries together at one of "D" Company's Lewis gun posts. Hearing a noise in the wire, one of them challenged, and, receiving no answer, fired his Lewis gun. Two minutes later, two Boche, one an unwounded warrant officer, the other a wounded soldier, were being escorted down Railway Alley to Headquarters. Neither of the two prisoners would say much, but what they did say still further confirmed the opinion of the Staff that the attack was soon coming.
"Brigade Support" now consisted of the Headquarters and two Companies in Sailly Labourse, the remainder at Windy Corner near Factory Dug-outs. To this last area went Major Griffiths and the Right Half Battalion. They had an unpleasant time and were more than once heavily shelled, on one occasion having a narrow escape. The officers were sitting in a dug-out when an armour piercing field gun shell passed through the roof and out of the door, hurting no one. Major Griffiths and 2nd Lieut. Dunlop received slight scratches, as also did Adams, one of the batmen, but no serious damage was done. After four days of this, the 5th Lincolnshires relieved us, and we marched to Beuvry to be in Divisional Reserve. While here, the new Battalion distinguishing marks arrived from England, and were taken into use—a half-inch yellow ring, two inches in diameter—worn just under the shoulder on the sleeve. They were rather bright at first, and earned us the name (amongst other ruder epithets) of the "Corn-plasters."
On arrival at Beuvry we were told that the Major General would inspect us at Fouquieres two days later, the 22nd of March. This was considerably more alarming than the prospect of the German offensive, and we at once started training, cleaning equipment, and revising our platoon organisation. Meanwhile, the offensive did begin in the South, and the Boche on the morning of the 22nd actually launched a big raid against the Divisional front. However, the Inspection was not postponed, as we had hoped, and for several hours we performed at Fouquieres. Our ceremonial was by no means bad, considering we had done none for months it was very good, but what most pleased General Thwaites was our organization. In vain he tried to find mistakes. Soldier after soldier was asked "Who is your Section Commander?" "Who takes charge if he is killed?" "When will it be your turn to take charge?" etc. etc., and soldier after soldier answered promptly and correctly. The result was a good word for all of us, and we went back to billets much relieved and feeling quite elated.
Meanwhile, the morning's raid had left a prisoner in our hands, and he had now caused about as much sensation as one man could, by stating quite definitely that the Boche would attack from the la Bassee Canal to "Hill 70" on the 25th of March with three Divisions. We went into the Cambrin sector again on the 24th, this time with three Companies in the line. News of the disaster to the 5th Army in the South had reached us, and what with Generals coming round to pay farewell visits, and conferences every few hours, everything was as depressing as possible. Curiously enough we were not depressed, and, though most of us regarded the attack as a certainty, the private soldiers were particularly more cheerful than usual. Late at night we were ordered to withdraw all except the tunnel sentries from the front line, so as to minimise the casualties during the enemy's preliminary bombardment, and to concentrate everything on the defence of the Reserve Line, which must be held at all costs. Some of the N.C.O.'s and men grumbled a little at what they called giving up the front line, more especially as patrols reported that the enemy was busy strengthening his wire, which did not seem the prelude to an attack. Finally, by 2-0 a.m. on the 25th all was ready. The Staff at Corps Headquarters, ten miles back, slept in their boots, all support and reserve Battalions moved to "battle" positions and stood to, we in the line behaved very much as usual. All waited for dawn.
Dawn came at last—the quietest since war began, not a shot was fired. Morning followed and high noon, still no movement; the Staff breathed a sigh of relief, the Infantry groused, and we occupied our front line, preparing to pass a normal night. However, this was not to be. We had scarcely posted our night sentries when at 8-30 p.m. came another message to say that the prisoner who had originally caused the alarm had remembered that the attack was for the 26th, not the 25th. All precautions were to be taken as for the previous night. With this arrived a long epistle from the Intelligence department, showing that various new dumps and camouflaged screens had been seen in the German lines, motor transport had been increased, etc. etc. etc.—all tending to confirm their wretched prisoner's statement. Once more we evacuated our front line, once more we waited and once more we were disappointed. The 26th was as quiet as the 25th, and, except for a humorous telephone message from "C" Company, which caused much laughter as far back as Divisional Headquarters, there was nothing to disturb the morning's peace.
The following evening the 11th Division took over our sector, and we marched out—the Headquarters and Left Half Battalion to Sailly, Right Half to Labourse. It was a cold and rather miserable night, for, owing to a sudden move of our Q.M. Stores to Noeux les Mines, we had no blankets. Meanwhile, all schools and classes were closed, and those students who had not been taken to stop the German advance on Amiens returned to us. The situation was serious, and another blow was expected at any moment in the neighbourhood of Vimy. The Canadian Corps was chosen to oppose this, and we were consequently ordered to relieve any units of that Corps still left on "Hill 70." But on the 28th March before relief had started the expected attack came—at Oppy. It was a miserable failure, we lost a few front line trenches, but our line stood firm; however, the Canadians were wanted in a hurry and we were sent up to relieve them at once. The other Battalions went into the front line, we relieved the 46th Canadians in support round Loos Crassier and Railway Alley. Relief was complete by 10-35 p.m., an almost incredible performance, considering that there had been no time for reconnaissance and practically no arrangements made for guides.
It had rained hard throughout the relief, but our first two days in the line were dry and warm, and we managed to dry our clothing and make ourselves fairly comfortable. The enemy after the failure at Oppy was very quiet on our front, though his documents captured in that battle showed that, had he succeeded in his first day's attempt, the second day was to include an attack on the Hulluch front. So the "state of readiness" in the Cambrin sector had not been entirely without justification. On the 31st the weather broke again, but this did not prevent the Padre holding his Easter services at each of the Company Headquarters. The following evening we relieved the 5th Lincolnshires in the "Hill 70" right sub-sector.
Our new sector was very much the same as the "Hill 70 left," which we had held in November. The reserve line was the main line of defence, and was in fairly good condition; the front line was shallow, wet, and dangerous. Opposite our right and centre was Cite St. Auguste, strongly held by the enemy; opposite the left, Bois "Dixhuit" and a broken down farm. There was one tunnel, "Hythe," leading from the reserve line to a railway cutting in the front line, but except in cases of extreme emergency this was not intended to be used by the Infantry. Battalion Headquarters occupied a small and evil smelling German dug-out on the reverse slope of the hill. Our tour lasted eight days, and almost every hour was eventful.
We started the tour with a gas bombardment soon after relief on "C" Company's support platoon, who occupied an old "pill-box" near Cite St. Pierre dynamite magazine. The gas appliances were defective at the dug-out entrance, and several men were slightly gassed. At 8-0 a.m. the following morning, the 11th Division on our left carried out a very successful raid. This did not in itself affect us very much, but a bomb-dropping aeronaut during the raid observed large bodies of troops massing near Meurchin, a large town behind Hulluch. Immediately the old alarm about a coming attack was renewed, and we once more were ordered to be in readiness. However, by evening as nothing had happened, we resumed normal conditions.
This same evening we were given an entirely new scheme of defence, consequent upon the failure of our trench system to stop the enemy's advance in the South. The front line was to be held by isolated observation posts only, and there was to be no garrison within effective trench mortar range of the enemy. We were to consider the Reserve or "Red" Line the line of defence, and this must be rebuilt if necessary, to ensure that it was everywhere out of reach of the enemy's minenwerfer. Our chief difficulty was to find accommodation for the front line troops as they were withdrawn; however, we cleared out old dug-outs, and, after a few days of terribly hard work, were able to comply with the order.
Meanwhile, the enemy's artillery became very active, and in addition to frequent gas bombardments of Loos and the Crassier, he harassed our transport very badly as they came along the main road. Some of this gas blew back over our lines, and for several hours we lived in an atmosphere of gas, scarcely noticeable, but none the less dangerous.
The 5th of April was particularly noisy. At 3-0 a.m. we discharged a large number of gas projectors on to Bois "Dixhuit" and Cite St. Auguste, to which the enemy replied by shelling our reserve line, fortunately doing no damage. In the evening, however, he replied in earnest, and, just after "C" Company had relieved "B" in the front line, he put down a "box barrage" round their posts. Coloured lights were fired in all directions, the noise was terrific, and Captain Moore, expecting a raid, sent the "S.O.S." This was promptly answered, and within a few minutes the gunners were hammering away vigorously at the enemy's lines, until he stopped shooting. Our front line was damaged in many places, but by extraordinary good fortune we escaped without a casualty. During the day, however, "A" Company lost another very good N.C.O. in Serjeant Putt, who was wounded and had to go to Hospital.
Throughout the 6th the shelling of Loos continued, and the following morning, in retaliation to a heavy gas projection on our part, the enemy turned his attention again to our front line. This time we were less fortunate, and a Lewis gun post of "D" Company was wiped out by a direct hit: two of the gunners, C.H. Payne and T.P. Hardy, were killed. In the evening, in spite of a slight West wind, the enemy poured blue cross gas shells into Loos, and much of the gas again drifted back across the lines. During the night, Lieut. Banwell, exploring the enemy's lines, single-handed ran into three of the enemy, who were almost on top of him before he could use his weapons. However, he managed to make his way out, and returned to our lines, having lost nothing worse than a little breath.
On the 8th of April, the enemy's artillery was never silent. Mustard gas was fired into the plain East of Vermelles and Philosophe almost without intermission, while Mazingarbe and Les brebis were similarly bombarded, only with larger shells. 2nd Lieut. Todd and Serjeant Yeabsley were both gassed with the transport, the latter so badly that he was several weeks in Hospital. The following morning in a thick mist the enemy attacked the Portuguese and drove them from their trenches, pushing his advance Westwards towards Estaires and Locon. The mustard gas bombardment of the plain still continued, but the front lines were comparatively quiet. That night we were relieved by the 4th Battalion, and went once more into Brigade support. After relief, Capt. A.G. Moore, M.C., and forty-three other ranks were sent to Hospital with gas poisoning. This was not due to any one bombardment, but to the fact that for the past week "Hill 70" had hardly ever been entirely free from gas, and though never in very large quantities this had gradually taken effect. Capt. Moore was sent to England, where for some months he was seriously ill with gas poisoning, and never returned. He and Capt. Shields commanded Companies longer than any other officers in the Battalion. No amount of tedious trench warfare could shake their enthusiasm or damp their spirits, "soft jobs" and six months' rest were not for them; they simply stayed with their Companies until wounds took them to England—a really magnificent record.
For three days we remained in support, and the whole time the plain behind us was full of gas. The Artillery suffered most heavily, for they could not always wear their masks, and after the first 24 hours there was a continuous stream of blinded gunners helping each other back along the road to Philosophe—a terrible sight. We too had several casualties, for the platoons, on their way to bath at Les brebis, had to pass across the plain. At Philosophe we lost two mules, through a direct hit with a heavy shell, and the driver, H. Gamble, was very lucky to escape with nothing more than a bad wound. It was a miracle he was not killed. On the 12th the battle became quieter, and that night, relieved by the Canadians, who arrived very late owing to a railway accident, we marched out to Bracquemont. Before we went the Germans to the North had advanced so far that we could see their lights in our left rear. Bethune, too, was in flames, so we were not sorry to be leaving the sector. Most thankful of all were the transport drivers, for there are not many worse places than the Loos road, and few more desolate spots than Philosophe coal mine on a dark wet night, when the wind is making the loose sheets of iron rattle, and the horses have "got the wind up."
GORRE AND ESSARS AT PEACE.
12th April, 1918. 10th Aug., 1918.
Bracquemont was sadly changed. Instead of the gay, almost fashionable suburb of Noeux les Mines, with numbers of people in the streets, it was now a wilderness of empty houses; the only sign of life, the piteous little groups of women and children waiting by the roadside for some French car to come and take them to a place of safety. The miners alone remained. Inspired by Clemenceau, who had visited the place a day or two before, they were working day and night, regardless of bombardments and nightly bombing raids. The furnaces at the Noeux Mines could be seen for miles round, and were a constant mark for every German gun and aeroplane, but still the plucky miners carried on their work, knowing that on them alone depended the coal supply of France. We were billeted in the Convent formerly occupied by the Casualty Clearing Station. The following morning the Drums gave a short concert in the Bandstand, and after dinner we were taken by lorries to Hersin Coupigny.
Hersin Coupigny was still fairly thickly populated, but the news from the Merville and Kemmel area where the enemy seemed to be making good progress, together with the arrival each evening of a few high-velocity shells, were fast driving the inhabitants to seek safety further West. We remained here until the 24th of April, the first few days in huts, the remainder in the Tile Factory. It was not an enjoyable rest—in fact it was no rest at all. All ranks were ready to move at short notice, and one expected almost hourly to be sent forward to fill some new gap in the line.
Pamphlets poured in—"How to fortify farmhouses for defence"—"Notes on recent German offensives"—Plans of rear defences. Generals made speeches telling the troops to be brave, artillery officers reconnoitred new gun positions miles behind the lines, and the entire Labour Corps seemed to be digging "last ditches." It was all very depressing, and many men were heard to remark that they wished the Boche would attack, so that there might be an end of words, and a chance for a few deeds. No one doubted that the Division was perfectly capable of looking after itself and dealing with any German attack.
Then came Influenza, and with it the end of all chance of immediate action for the Battalion. Officers and men were attacked alike, and in a few days more than 250 were sent to Hospital. Fortunately a temporary place was fitted up at Bruay, and the majority of cases were dealt with there and not sent down the line, where they would have been irretrievably lost. The cause of the complaint will be for ever a mystery; its symptoms were temperature—weakness, fainting and loss of voice. Some blamed the gas, others the huts, and others the Bracquemont hospital buildings. The Medical Officer, wise man, would give no opinion. The weather was damp and raw and at times very cold. Consequently no one was very sorry when, on the 24th, the Brigade marched to Bruay. The Battalion and a 9" high velocity German shell arrived in Bruay about the same time and found the place deserted. Several houses had been hit, and the inhabitants had wisely decided to take no risks, so, with the exception of the colliers, had all gone. This made billeting very difficult. Buildings were all locked up and no one had the key. Eventually everybody was squashed into the Girls' School—the officers occupied one of the dormitories, and, though uncomfortable, all had at least shelter from the rain which fell in torrents. At intervals a tremendous roar followed by a crash announced the arrival of what became known as "another toute suiter"; fortunately no one was hurt. The following day the Brigade moved into Fouquieres; the 4th Battalion occupied the old Hospital huts, and we shared the remainder of the village with the 5th Lincolnshire Regiment. Battalion Headquarters were in the Chateau, still occupied by the two ladies, now the only civilians left in the village. With the most wonderfully cheerful courage did these two remain, though their servants had gone, though food was almost unobtainable, and though there was seldom an hour without a shell falling in some part of the village or its surroundings. The Battalion was exceedingly lucky and escaped with practically no casualties; not so the 4th Battalion, which lost several men in the huts. Most of the influenza cases now returned, and we were once more strong enough to take the field. On the 26th we lost Captain and Quartermaster A.A. Worley who went to England never to return. For some time his health had been bad, but though unfit for duty he had refused to leave the Battalion until he had seen the stores properly organized for battle. Except for a short stay in England in 1917, he had been with us since the beginning. His one thought was always for the welfare of the Battalion, and no one ever gave more devoted service than he did. His place was taken in June by Captain and Quartermaster W.A. Nicholson, of the Essex Regiment. During the interval the duties were very ably carried out by R.Q.M.S. Gorse.
On the 24th of April the Sherwood Foresters and Staffords had taken over the line from Route "A" Keep to the Canal just South of Locon. Four days later we were ordered to relieve the Sherwood Foresters in the right half of the left sector. Various reconnoitering parties went up beforehand, and at dusk we moved off by platoons through Bethune and Essars. The former town had already suffered very badly. All roads through the centre were completely blocked, and troops had to find their way round its Western edge and past the Prison. Civilians had all been evacuated and the only permanent occupants were the Tunnelling Company assisted by some French colliers. The route to trenches was the main road through Essars, and parts of this were constantly "harassed" by the enemy's artillery. The Battalion was particularly unfortunate on this first relief. Headquarter Officers were riding, and, in passing the column, had just come level with the head of "C" Company, when the enemy suddenly opened fire on the road with a field battery. Captain Banwell was thrown from his horse which was hit, and the remainder of the chargers immediately bolted across a field. The plunging animals and the shells (about 50 of which were fired in two minutes) threw the leading platoon of "C" Company into confusion, and, as the ditch at the side of the road gave no cover, the casualties were high; but for the coolness of the Platoon Commander, 2nd Lieut. H. Coxell, they would have been higher still. The rear platoon of "B" Company also suffered heavily. The shells were gas, and those men who were hit had small or no chance of putting on their masks. Captain Jack, the Medical Officer, was as usual wonderfully calm, and quite regardless of his own personal safety, succeeded in getting several men under the wall of a house, where he was able to dress their wounds. The remainder of the relief was carried out without molestation.
Our new sector was very different from anything we had previously seen. The front line—practically the outpost line—marked the limit of the German offensive in April; on the right was Route "A" Keep, one of the old 1915 strong points with two concrete machine-gun emplacements. It was now a mere heap of shattered trees, shattered trenches and the usual remains of many fights, for in 20 days it changed hands nine times. The Staffords captured it for the last time on the 29th of April, and from then onwards it remained British. The line then ran between Loisne Chateau and Raux Farm—our old Brigade Headquarters of 1915, now a German machine gun and trench mortar nest—to the S.W. outskirts of Le Touret and on to the canal at Mesplaux. Except for the old keeps at intervals, it consisted entirely of a few small holes dug more or less at random, with little or no wire in front. Behind this, along the whole Divisional front ran the Liverpool Line or Reserve Line, slightly deeper and better sighted than the frontline, and defended by the "Beuvry river," a small stream running between steep banks and reputed to be uncrossable by tanks. Gorre and Le Hamel villages came behind this line, and provided Battalion Headquarters with cellar accommodation, and the Support Battalions with billets of a sort.
Farms in the front line were not too plentiful, and Company Headquarters usually consisted of a hole 4ft. by 2ft. by 2ft. into which the Company Commander could just squeeze himself, and curl up his feet to avoid having them kicked and trodden on by the men passing along the ditch outside. Rations came to Gorre and Essars by rail and limber, and were carried forward by hand over the top to the front line. Except for occasional bursts of fire on certain roads and villages, particularly Essars and Gorre, the enemy was on the whole quiet. These were small gas bombardments, and one or two really bad days, but for the most part it was a quiet sector, except round Route A.
Behind the villages came the La Bassee Canal with all the bridges mined and demolition parties ready to blow them up in the event of a hostile attack. The idea of course was that they should be blown after the last Englishman N. of the Canal had either been killed or had crossed it. That the bridges would get demolished all right, none of us ever doubted for a moment; we were equally certain that this would take place on the first alarm of any attack, and those of us who happened to be on the North bank would thus be compelled to fight to the end or swim. Fortunately these warriors were never called on to perform.
Vaudricourt Park was the rest area. At first, bell tents and a few bivouacs were all the available cover, but in time, as corrugated iron could be sent down from old horse lines in the forward area, messhuts, cook-houses and canteens were built. There were no long spells of wet weather and when it was fine the Camp in the Park was delightful. It was never shelled and never bombed, and it is hard to imagine a better place. Verquin and Vaudricourt provided the necessary estaminets and the soldiers could obtain as much vin blanc (or "Jimmy Blink" as it was more popularly called) as they desired; while one Bertha made large sums of money by inserting a slip of lemon peel into a glass as cheap champagne and selling it to officers at an exorbitant price as a "champagne cocktail." The country round provided good ground for a sports meeting, in which "A" Company were victorious, while "D" Company managed to finish a close second in most events. Lieutenants Everitt and Quint and Private R.O. Start were the chief runners, but large numbers took part and tremendous keenness was displayed by all. There was cricket almost every day in the Park, and great enthusiasm was shown in the Battalion Championship, won by Headquarters.
From the beginning of May to the middle of August the Brigade never left these two sectors, Gorre and Essars, and during this time there was no change in the front line. It was seldom that anything happened of sufficient importance to find its way into the day's communique, but every tour was full of interesting incidents, all of which show how the warfare was rapidly changing.
Our first relief was remarkable for the fact that we took over at Battalion Headquarters two cows (and with them a daily supply of fresh milk), for whom L/Cpl. "Pat" Collins was self-appointed cowman—while the left Company found a plentiful supply of eggs. A stray mule was found wandering round the outposts on the "wrong" side of the Beuvry river, while in the farm actually in the front line we discovered still alive after 21 days without food—a cow and calf, two bullocks, an old white horse and a pig; they were in a terrible condition of starvation and had to be killed by the Intelligence Officer, 2nd Lieut. Hewson, who found it a most unpleasant task. There were of course many dogs—one, at a cottage in no man's land, being particularly unpleasant for patrolling. In addition to Lance-Corporal Collins' cows, two others and a goat were led out by Private Muggleton. The goat came to an untimely end, being done to death in Vaudricourt Park by its Company Commander, outside whose tent it was noisily bewailing its captivity.
In front of us, there was little or no wire, and our first encounter with the enemy was on the 6th of May when a Corporal and three men of "D" Company went out to wire their post and marched straight on to a patrol of about 15 enemy waiting for them. The enemy opened fire at close range and the wiring party threw down their wire and replied. Two of the party were hit in the first few seconds and a third—Private Smith—who had come to us from the 2nd/5th in January—was attacked by two Germans and carried off struggling. The Corporal fired at the enemy who then made off, leaving one dead man behind them. The Platoon Commander (2nd Lieut. W.M. Cole) came up and, after assisting the wounded back, set off to look for Smith. Except, however, for the dead man, nothing could be found of the enemy, and by dawn the search was given up as hopeless. The following night Smith returned. It appears that the enemy meeting more opposition than they expected, made off as soon as they had got their prisoner, and, as there were plenty of bullets about, the remainder of the patrol, leaving prisoner and escort to follow as best they could, hurried back to their lines. Smith watched his chance; suddenly stooping, he kicked one man amidships, seized his rifle, gave the other a jab with the bayonet, and ran for his life. He got away, but had to lie up until the next evening to get back. For this he was awarded the Military Medal.
The following tour, in the Gorre right sector, was very successful until the last two days when Battalion Headquarters received the just punishment for tempting fortune too far. Both 4th and 5th Battalions had their Headquarters in the cellar of Gorre Chateau—cramped and stuffy at any time, and in the hot weather unendurable. Our Headquarters, therefore, cleared out a room on the first floor for a mess—it had a carpet and other luxuries, and its only blemish was a shell-hole in the corner of the window. With great pride we invited Brigadiers and others to our new mess, until on the 17th of May the crash came. The enemy had fired several salvoes towards the Chateau during the afternoon, and at 8-15 p.m. he started in earnest. The wood, the Chateau and the corner by the Church were shelled unceasingly—first with 77 and 105 m.m. shells—later on with 5.9's. The mess was knocked in, the wood was filled with gas, the kitchen and signal office both had direct hits. The Transport had a terrible time on the road, and it was only the devoted work of the Transport Officer, 2nd Lieut. W.R. Todd, with his drivers, particularly Hill and Randall and the Provost Serjeant Bennett, which enabled rations to be taken up. An advance party of Stafford Officers got to the cellar and couldn't leave it for two hours, until finally Colonel Wood took them up the line himself, returning alone through the wood.
The Companies were comparatively immune except near the "Tuning Fork." General Thwaites was visiting the line at the time and had a narrow escape himself, while his A.D.C. was badly wounded. Towards morning the shelling somewhat subsided, but one very unlucky shot hit the cellar ventilator and filled it with gas. Then came the sun and with it the mustard; not very many mustard shells had been fired, but, as the day advanced, the heat kept drawing the gas out of the ground and the Chateau became a death trap. We all cleared out early and went into the fields, but even so it was too late; many men's clothes were tainted, and by 6-0 p.m. all the servants and more than half the other Headquarter details were blind and had to go. Serjeant Bent, of the Regimental Aid Post, and Allbright, the Orderly Room Clerk, were amongst those who went down. Our Medical Officer (Captain W.B. Jack), Intelligence Officer (2nd Lieut. J.A. Hewson) and Lieut. K. Ashdowne all went to Hospital, while the 4th Battalion lost all their Headquarter Officers. By night the Commanding Officer was unable to speak, the Adjutant half blind, and the Padre was doing everybody's job with his wonderful energy. It was a very sorrowful Battalion Headquarters that handed over to the Staffordshires and found its way slowly back to Vaudricourt.
Soon after that—on the 29th of May—"C" Company had another gas misfortune while in support in Gorre village. Their house was heavily shelled with mustard, and though all men were taken out as soon as possible 40% of the Company, together with 2nd Lieuts. H. Coxell and O. Darlington had to be evacuated. There was so much gas at this time that special compartments were set apart for gassed men and gassed clothing on the Fouquieres-Le Quesnoy-Kantara Dump light railway.
Towards the end of the month the crops began to get very high, and by the first week in June hardly a day passed without some daylight patrol taking advantage of them. Captain Banwell first made the experiment. Accompanied by his runner, Smiles, he visited the "crashed" aeroplane just N. of the Rue du Bois and found a most elaborate German night post in a tree, with wires to machine gun posts. His example was followed on the 9th of June by 2nd Lieut. Cole, who went out one morning with Lance-Corporal Thurman and a party from "D" Company. They crawled through some wire and found themselves close to a German shell-hole post. 2nd Lieut. Cole himself reconnoitred this post, and finding the sentry dozing called up his Corporal. The latter hit the sentry on the head with his rifle "to attract his attention" (so read the patrol report), and leaning over the hole whispered "Ici yer ——er." The Boche, however, was too frightened to "ici" and looked like giving the alarm, so 2nd Lieut. Cole jumped down and fired his revolver to hurry him along. This caused a considerable disturbance. Two German Machine Gun posts only a few yards away joined in the fight and for a moment things looked bad for the patrol. The latter, finding they could not get a prisoner, made a note of his Regiment, shot him, and made off under a heavy fire from the machine gun posts. They all got away safely. The Corps Commander described 2nd Lieut. Cole's work as "a very fine piece of patrol work, and called for courage, initiative and cunning of a high degree." Ten days later—on the 10th of June—the enemy suddenly shelled the "Tuning Fork Switch" trench, and this very gallant young officer was badly wounded in the arm. He was taken down to the Casualty Clearing Station at once, but in spite of all the Doctors' efforts, blood poisoning set in, and on the 29th Lieut. Maurice Cole died. The same evening he was awarded the Military Cross for his patrol fight. He lies now in Pernes cemetery. No officer was ever more loved by his men, and justly so, for he was not only their leader in danger, but their first friend in difficulty. In the Mess "Bill" Cole was as popular as in the field. Patrolling was not confined to these two Companies, and many officers and men spent quite a large proportion of their time crawling through the corn. Chief among these were 2nd Lieuts. Asher, Argyle, Boarland, Christy, Davies, Serjeants T. Marston, M.M., Haines, Foster, M.S.M., P. Bowler, T. Tunks, T. Needham, Clamp and others.
With the hot weather the La Bassee Canal became a very useful asset, and not only were there constant bathing parties, but it was actually possible at the end of July to hold a swimming gala in the "Brewery Reach." There were several well contested races and diving competitions, uninterrupted by hostile aircraft, and a very pleasant afternoon (considering the Boche were less than a mile away) was spent in this way. The chief race was won by Signaller Stanton.
Towards the end of July, as there was no sign of the long expected German attack, preparations were made for the coming winter. Houses were reinforced, and had concrete houses built inside them, and some very comfortable Headquarters were built in this way. Perhaps the best of these was the Battalion Headquarters of the Route A sector—a cottage on the banks of the canal and screened from any observation by the woods. It had its own bathing place (where Serjt. Wilbur nearly got drowned) and its own private approach by the tow path—incidentally, of course, its own mosquitoes, but one got used to them in time.
On the 13th of July we lost Captain Banwell, who went into hospital for a few weeks with his fifth wound—an aeroplane bullet in the stomach. It was not at all a slight wound, but he managed to persuade the Pernes Doctors that it was, and so contrived not to be evacuated beyond the C.C.S. He eventually returned in August, and after a few days as A.D.C. to General Rowley, who was then Commanding the Division, went off on a month's leave to get fit.
On the 6th of August the Staff had reason to believe that the Boche might be contemplating a withdrawal that morning, and we were asked to make sure that we could still get in touch with the enemy. Accordingly, Lieut. Pearson, Lance-Corporal "Anty" Carr and Pte. Ferrin, all of "A" Company, crawled out at dawn towards the ruined houses and battery positions opposite Route A Keep. It was the anniversary of Carr's 1916 experience and before they went several of his friends jestingly warned him not to be captured this time. The patrol crawled via several dykes and got close to the house without disturbing anyone, until, to get a better view Lieut. Pearson knelt up to use glasses. A machine gun then opened fire on them at close range, so they returned. On the way back they were suddenly fired at by a post in their path—the occupants must have been asleep on the way out. Pte. Ferrin was hit and died almost at once, but the others tried to bomb the enemy out, and, finding they could not, decided to lie still until evening. However, the enemy proved more resolute than usual and soon surrounded and captured the whole party. The fight was seen by several of the front line posts and also by a patrol of "D" Company under 2nd Lieut. Christy. This latter was quite unable to give any help as it was itself having very great difficulty in getting away from two large Boche patrols who were trying to cut it off. A few days later, while we were in support at Le Quesnoy, the enemy started his withdrawal, and the Gorre-Essars front once more became a battle sector.
GORRE AND ESSARS AT WAR.
10th Aug., 1918. 12th Sept., 1918.
The enemy started his withdrawal North of the Lawe Canal, and it was not until the latter half of August that the Gorre sector was affected. However, all preparations for more open warfare were made, and the supply of rations and ammunition was reorganised in such a way that either limbers or pack animals could be used at short notice. During our tour in the Right Sector from the 14th to 18th of August all rations for "Route A" were taken up to forward Company Headquarters on mules and ponies; the latter, under the skilful handling of their drivers, showed a most admirable fortitude in the face of machine-gun fire. Each night a little column of heavily laden ponies under Corporal Archer or Lance-Corporal Foster could be seen moving slowly along the Tuning Fork Road, first with rations then with water; towards midnight they returned ("drivers up") at a much brisker pace.
On the 18th we left trenches and came into support for three days at Le Quesnoy. Colonel Wood was away Commanding the Brigade for a short time and Major Griffiths was in Command. All available men were set to work cutting the corn, which was now ripe and would soon spoil if not cut and carried in. Bayonets took the place of scythes as the latter were almost unobtainable, and it was surprising to find what progress was made with these weapons. In a few days several train loads were sent down on the light railway to Fouquieres. All this time the news from the South was most encouraging. The great attack of the 8th had freed Amiens and each day brought us news of further successes. On the 20th the Staffordshires on the left found some of the enemy's advanced posts unoccupied, and the same day prisoners taken on the Lawe Canal spoke of an impending retreat to the Le Touret-Lacouture line. On the 21st the Commanding Officer returned, and the same day the Brigade moved into and occupied the old German front line near Cense du Raux Farm. That night we relieved the 4th Battalion in the old Right Sector and occupied the Liverpool Line as Support Battalion to the other two, both of whom were in and forward of the old front line. On the 22nd General Rowley decided to have one outpost Battalion for the whole frontage, and the following day we took over the line from the junction with the 55th Division (in the old front line E. of "Route A Keep") to the junction with the Sherwood Foresters N.E. of Le Touret village.
On the extreme right we had pushed forward across the road where they were opposed in the centre by Epinette East Post, and on the left by some houses in the Rue itself, to both of which the Boche was still clinging tenaciously. On the left the line was continued by "D" Company (Lieut. T.H. Ball in the absence of Captain Brooke) who held positions astride the Rue du Bois. The extreme left platoon was about 200 yards up the Rue de Cailloux and occupied one of the old keeps in the Sailly—Tuning Fork—Vielle Chapelle Line. Here, and on the Rue de L'Epinette, the enemy was active with snipers and trench mortars—in the centre thing's were very quiet. "C" Company (Hawley) and "B" Company (Tomson) were in Support in the old front line; Battalion Headquarters lived in Loisne Chateau, now "Railhead" for the light railway. There was no front line in the old sense—it was simply "outposts" as laid down in Field Service Regulations. Very few of the Company Officers had had any previous experience of this work, but Colonel Wood soon put us straight, and organized things himself. He was absolutely indefatigable and day and night was up in the line sighting good positions and studying the enemy. The latter were distinctly alert as they showed by their behaviour on the 24th and 25th when we not only made no progress, but had several casualties. First, on the extreme right, an "A" Company patrol tried to reconnoitre the Epinette East Post by night. They were seen and fired at heavily and had to come back leaving one of their number dead behind them. Soon afterwards, in an attempt to recover his body, Lance-Serjeant Clamp was himself hit and died a few hours later. "A" Company could ill afford to lose this N.C.O., who had shown himself as gallant a leader in battle, as he was an efficient instructor on the Parade ground. The following morning, accompanied by his runner, Lance-Corporal Collins, and the Adjutant, the Commanding Officer started on a tour round the outpost line. He visited "A" Company's posts and passed on to "D" Company. On reaching the Rue du Bois he got on to the road, and, as it was misty, started to walk Westward along it. Whether the little party was seen or not will never be known; what happened would seem to show that they were. They had not gone seventy yards before a "whizz-bang" burst a few yards North of the road hitting a Stretcher Bearer. Another followed, this time the burst was only a few yards behind the party. The others escaped, but Colonel Wood was hit in the back of the head and was thrown stunned on to the road. More shells followed, and the three lay in a ditch till it was over, and then made their way back to Battalion Headquarters. The Colonel refused to be carried and walked all the way to the Aid Post, where the Doctor found that a shell splinter had grazed the back of his skull, and had only been prevented by the steel helmet from doing more damage. The Colonel wished to remain with the Battalion, but the Medical Officer was obdurate, and he was finally evacuated, and a week later sent to England. He had been in Command only a short time, but we had learnt in that time what a very gallant soldier he was, and how his one care was to make us the first Battalion in the Division. His place was taken by Major J.L. Griffiths who had been Second in Command since 1916, while Captain John Burnett took over the latter's duties.
The same afternoon we had further bad luck. On the extreme left No. 13 Platoon (Christy) had been very actively sniping the enemy on the Cailloux Road, and soon after midday, came the retaliation in the form of heavy shelling which lasted about an hour. There was little cover, and one post was wiped out, including a promising young soldier, Lance-Corporal Harries, whose name had been recommended for a Commission. 2nd Lieut. Christy managed, in spite of the difficulty of moving men in daylight, to get the majority of his Platoon out of the Keep, and took up positions on either flank; this action undoubtedly saved many casualties. Corporal Hamill, one of the old soldiers of the Battalion and a well-known long distance runner, was killed at the same time. The Platoon was naturally rather shaken, and its place was therefore taken by a Platoon of "C" Company. The following night we were relieved by the Sherwood Foresters and went back to Vaudricourt. The Relief was carried out without interference from the enemy except for Battalion Headquarter Officers, who had to leave Loisne Chateau at the gallop. Salvoes of whizz-bangs were arriving at frequent intervals, and there was just time to mount and gallop 300 yards down the road between the bursts.
The next six days at Vaudricourt were delightful; we all needed a rest, and the weather for once was excellent. At this time Major General W. Thwaites, C.B., who had Commanded the Division since 1916, was appointed Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, and his place was taken by Major General G.F. Boyd, C.M.G., D.S.O., D.C.M. It is impossible even now to estimate all that General Thwaites did for the Division, and it was very bad luck for him that he had to leave just at the time when the Division was to reap the fruits of his training. He took us over after the Gommecourt battle, and we were tired and weak, as is to be expected after heavy casualties; if he had stayed another month he would have seen us doing as no Division had done before. There are many of us who would cheerfully have been "crumped" to escape a "G.O.C.'s Inspection," but we have lived to be thankful even for these; they made our Platoon and Company organisation perfect.
On the 30th we all went and listened to a lecture on Co-operation with Tanks, given by an Officer who had taken part in the recent fighting down South. It was a bloodthirsty and blood-curdling recital, and at the end of it we all felt ready for an enormous battle, provided we could have a tank or two to help. The following day, being the Brigade Boxing Tournament Finals, some of the N.C.O.'s and men got an opportunity of slaking their battle lust. This they did very successfully, as at the end of the day we were equal with the 5th Lincolns, who had previously always been winners. Serjeants Wardle, Ptes. "Mat" Moore and Martin, all won their weights, and in addition Serjeant Wardle won the open catch weight championship. This N.C.O. then challenged any one of the 5th Lincolns' side to fight a "one round" deciding bout, and, beating his opponent, won the day for the Battalion. The Brigadier gave away the prizes and also the Sports Cup which we had won. There was a very gratifying predominance of "yellow rings" throughout this part of the proceedings.
The following day—the 1st of September—we returned to trenches, and went into support with Battalion Headquarters in Le Quesnoy and the Companies in and around Gorre village. As the new Divisional Commander had not yet arrived Brigadier General Rowley was still in command of the Division and Lieut.-Colonel Foster, of the 4th Battalion, commanded the Brigade. The Germans were withdrawing very slowly, and by the 3rd the Staff decided that as soon as the 5th Lincolnshires had gained "Rum Corner" on the Rue du Bois, where the Boche had a strong pill box, we should go forward with a barrage with Princes' Road as our objective. Orders did not arrive until after midday and then Rum Corner had not fallen; it was, however, expected to fall by 4-0 p.m., and our attack was ordered for 8-0 p.m. the same evening. There was no time for reconnaissance and little for getting out orders, but we managed to arrange for an assembly position and a barrage, which was to advance in jumps of 100yds. every 4 minutes. Everybody had a hurried tea and set out between 5-0 p.m. and 6-0 p.m. for the line. It was not very satisfactory and we were all glad when, owing to the stout resistance of Rum Corner the advance was postponed until 5-15 the following morning—the 4th of September. It was a warm night and the Companies remained in the trenches round Loisne and were able to have a good meal before starting. Late that night the 5th Lincolnshires reported the taking of the "Corner," so that all was now ready for the battle. We did not expect much resistance. Shortly before midnight fresh orders arrived making our objective the old breastwork through Tube Station and Factory Post (the support line in 1915). If possible we were to push patrols on to the old British front line in front of Fme. Cour D'Avoue and Fme. du Bois.
Soon after 4-0 a.m. we were all in our assembly positions—the three attacking Companies along a line running N. and S. about 300 yards E. of Epinette Road, with our left just North of Rue du Bois; the Support Company 100 yards behind them. "D" Company (Brooke) was on the right with orders to protect that flank, if necessary facing right to do so as they advanced, "A" Company (Petch) was in the centre, and "B" Company (Pierrepont) left, astride the Rue du Bois, "C" Company (Hawley) was in support. Battalion Headquarters were in Epinette East Post with an Orderly Room and rear Headquarters in Loisne. About an hour before we were due to start a curious thing happened: It was suddenly discovered that a considerable number of the 5th Lincolnshires were now some distance E. of our "jumping off line," and consequently beyond where the barrage was due to start. The Brigadier tried to get the barrage advanced, but it was found impossible to tell the Artillery in time, and in the end the Lincolnshires, much to their disgust, had to be withdrawn. As their leading men had gone as far as Princes' Road, it did not look as though we should have much opposition that far at all events.
Promptly at 5-15 a.m. the barrage came down and the advance began. Princes' Road was reached and crossed, the breastwork was found empty, and, after a short pause in the latter, the right centre Companies went on to the old front line. The left Company had slightly more difficult ground, and arrived half-an-hour later; nowhere had a German been met, though one or two had been seen making for the Aubers Ridge. It was a bloodless victory, and by 7-0 a.m. the Battalion was occupying the identical sector that it occupied in 1915. The barrage had not been needed, but it was none the less very useful, for we all learnt how close we could keep and how to judge the "lifts." Consolidation was not a difficult matter except on the right flank, where we could not until evening get touch with the 55th Division. It was consequently necessary for "D" Company to swing back their right through Tube Station and Dead Cow Post and face South. On the left Colonel Currin with his Sherwood Foresters was in touch with us at the Factory Keep. Battalion Headquarters moved up just before midday to a small shelter 200 yards west of Princes' Road. In most of the captured dug-outs the following notice was found:—
You are welcome to all we are leaving, when we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won't appreciate. FRITZ.
It was neatly printed in English block capitals and caused much amusement. The whole day was in a way one great joke—the un-needed barrage, the empty trenches, these farewell notices, all combined to make us very happy.
At first we thought we were going to be let off without any retaliation at all, but the following morning at "stand to" a fairly heavy barrage came down for half-an-hour on the breastwork support line—presumably to break up any intended attack. "B" Company Headquarters most unluckily received a direct hit causing six casualties. Two Serjeants who could ill be spared, A. Cross and E. Bottomley were both badly wounded, the latter mortally; two servants, C. Payne and L. Brotheridge, were wounded not very seriously, and the two runners, G.S. Bott and G. Dewsbury were hit, Bott so badly that he died in Hospital. These two runners, inseparable friends, had long been associated with "B" Company Headquarters, and had always done yeoman service, for there was probably never a better pair. In the afternoon orders came that we should be relieved at dusk by the 19th Division, but that we must be certain that we were in touch with the enemy when handing over. Accordingly orders were sent up to Captain Petch to try and locate the exact position of the enemy. At first the patrol sent out was unable to draw fire, so, taking C.S.M. Passmore, Serjt. Bowler and others with him, Captain Petch went out himself, and the two waved their arms and shouted to imaginary platoons to make the enemy think an attack was coming. The ruse was successful, a machine gun opened fire from close quarters. The two dropped into a shell hole and started to crawl their way back; there was plenty of cover, and if they had been patient all would have been well. Unfortunately C.S.M. Passmore thinking it was sufficiently dark, got up and walked towards our lines. He was hit and killed outright. This warrant officer joined us at Gommecourt in 1917; his energy and fearlessness at once brought him to the front, and he soon rose from Serjeant to be Company-Serjeant-Major. His place in "A" Company was taken by Serjeant Wardle, of "C" Company. As soon as they were relieved Companies marched to Loisne Chateau, where they were to entrain. Trains were not ready, but after a long wait, the well-nigh frantic efforts of Captain Schiller produced them, much to everybody's delight, and somewhere about midnight we marched back to Vaudricourt Park.
Two days later the new Major-General was introduced to us, and at once won his way to our hearts by his wonderful charm of manner. He must have been surprised to see outside the mess a long line of horses and mules all waiting saddled up. We had arranged an officers' paper chase and every officer attended; those who couldn't find chargers had perforce to ride mules. The hares (Captain Burnett on "Mrs. Wilson" and 2/Lieut. Todd on the frisky black) were given ten minutes' grace and then, led by "Sunloch" (Lieut.-Colonel Griffiths "up") the rest of us swung out of the Park and off towards Labuissiere. The pace was very hot and most of us soon dropped behind, though the mules, keeping as usual all together and led by Padre Buck, managed to stay the whole course. Four riders, finding they were getting left behind, started to make a short cut through Hesdigneul and there on the village green met the hares on the way home. It was a dramatic moment witnessed by large crowds of gunners, and Lieut. Brodribb on the Colonel's pony, and Lieut. Hawley on the faithful and well-intentioned "Charlie," dashed after the hares. The effect, however, was somewhat spoilt by "Lady Sybil," unused no doubt to audiences, throwing the Adjutant over her head on to the middle of the green. The hares were finally caught after a 9-mile run within a few hundred yards of home. It was a great performance.
Our stay at Vaudricourt was not a long one, and we soon moved to Bethune, preparatory to entrainment for the South, for it was now no longer a secret that we were going down to fight a real battle at last. The new General introduced a "Blob" formation, which was both easy and effective, and we practised this once or twice outside the town. Our first line transport was also reorganised in such a way that each Company had its own two limbers with Lewis Guns and ammunition, bombs and all necessaries. On one small Field Day the Signallers with their flags turned out as Tanks, and we practised everything as realistically as possible. We were all very keen, and better still, very fit; in fact, the Battalion never looked in better form than on one of these training days when we marched past the Brigadier.
From the 9th to the 11th of September we remained in Bethune, a depressing town now, to those of us who had known it in its days of prosperity. We managed to have one very good concert in the Barracks and it was surprising how much really good talent we found, conjuror, humourists and sentimental singer were all ready to amuse us. At midnight 11/12th we fell in on the Parade Ground and marched to Chocques—the irrepressible Drums giving us one or two tunes on the way. It rained hard at the Station and there was a terrible shortage of accommodation. At length, with much shoving, swearing and puddle-splashing we got on board, and at 4-0 a.m. left the Bethune Area. We had been on the Lens-La Bassee Sector for seventeen months: we never saw it again.
14th Sept., 1918. 25th Sept., 1918.
Our journey Southwards was uncomfortable and uneventful. The only remarkable feature was the acrobatic skill displayed by the mess staff, transferring meals from the kitchen-cattle-truck to the officers mess-cattle-truck. Even at the usual speed of a French troop train, it is no easy task to drop off the train with a pile of plates in one hand, a dish of potatoes in the other, walk fast enough to catch up the carriage in front, and finally, in spite of signal wires, sleepers and other pitfalls, deliver all safely at the "Mess." Yet this was done not once but often. We spent the whole day in the train passing St. Pol, Amiens, and Corbie, and finally towards evening reached Ribemont, where we found our billeting party waiting for us. Billets consisted of some distant dug-outs across a swampy moor, and the recent rains had made what few tracks there were too slippery for the horses. It was all very unpleasant, and we spent a cold and cheerless night. "A" Company, which had remained at Chocques doing loading duties, did not arrive until midnight—very wet and tired.
The next day was bright and warm, and we soon discovered that the two villages, Treux and Buire would hold Headquarters and half the Battalion, so moved into them without delay and evacuated all except the more sumptuous and easily approached dug-outs. We were now fairly comfortable, and our only grouse was the absence of any canteen or even French civilians for miles and miles, and the consequent lack of tobacco, beer and other little luxuries.
Our move had brought us into General Rawlinson's Fourth Army, and, as we were apparently not needed at once for a battle, we started vigorous training. Route marches, and even "field-firing" practices were carried out, and there was one big Divisional Field day, which ended triumphantly with the Brigade and Battalion Staffs picking mushrooms on the final objective. Meanwhile the Second in Command's Department under Major Burnett fixed up baths and other comforts for us and, by the 18th of September, we were really very comfortable. This same day we were ordered to move at short notice.
Motor lorries took us on to the main Amiens road at Corbie, and turning East along it we jolted and bumped and splashed our way through Brie-sur-Somme to Tertry. The country—what we could see of it in the dark—seemed to consist of a barren waste of shell holes with here and there a shattered tree or the remains of some burnt-out Tank standing forlornly near some dark and stagnant swamp. Villages were practically non-existent, and Tertry was no exception, but we soon settled down under waterproof sheets, corrugated iron and a few old bricks. The transport under Major Burnett and Serjt. Yeabsley came all the way by road, and arrived some hours later; but much of our stores had to be left behind with two storemen in Buire. Many efforts were made during the following months to retrieve these stores, but it was not until after the armistice that we were finally successful.
We were now IXth. Corps, and found our neighbours were old friends from the Bethune area—the 1st and 6th Divisions. The Transport lines and "battle details" of the 1st and 11th Battalions of the Regiment were quite close to us, and we paid several calls. On the 20th, Captains Tomson and Banwell returned from leave, much to the delight of their Companies, for the following day we went into trenches, relieving the 14th and 45th Australians in the Hindenburg Outpost line, that they had so brilliantly captured a few days before. We were in Brigade support along Ascension Ridge, called after a farm of that name, and the other two Battalions held the line in front of us.
In their attack, the Australians had pushed forward further than anyone else, while the English troops on their right, after some very hard fighting, had been held up by the village of Pontruet. Consequently there was a sharp bend in the line, and the Australian right flank, though on high ground, was somewhat exposed. The line ran roughly as follows:—
The enemy still held posts on the ridge close to the Australian front line, and were known to have several posts in Forgan's trench, which was the Southward continuation of our front line across the valley. Pontruet was overlooked from everywhere, and constantly bombarded by our Artillery, so it did not seem likely that it held many Boche. The Sherwood Foresters held the right of the Divisional line and joined with the 1st Division on the high ground South of the village. There was no sign of any intended operation, and it certainly looked as if we could not move until the troops on our right had advanced. Accordingly on the 22nd the Adjutant rode back to Brie to go on leave. Capt. Banwell, really a "battle detail," went up to assist the Headquarters, while the other "details"—Major Burnett, Captain Petch, Lieut. Pierrepont, 2nd Lieuts. Edwardes, Griffiths, Taylor, C.S.M.'s Cooper and Martin—remained with the Q.M. Stores.
No sooner had the Adjutant gone, than orders came for a battle. At dawn on the 24th the Division on our right was going to advance, and the 46th Division, by way of assisting them, was to capture Pontruet and hold Forgan's trench as a final objective. The 138th Brigade were chosen for this fight, and General Rowley decided to use one Battalion only—ourselves. We were to attack the village from the rear, by advancing into the valley from the North and then turning West, while one Company turning East would capture and hold Forgan's. There was little time for preparation, so Colonel Griffiths called a Company Commanders' meeting, reconnoitred the village from above, and decided on his plan of attack. At the same time a runner was sent after the Adjutant, and found him just boarding the leave train. It was a near thing, but not for anything would he have missed the next few weeks.
The Colonel's plan was as follows:—To assemble the Battalion in lines of platoons in fours facing South, just behind the right of our front line. "A" would be on the right, "D" on the left. At Zero all would move forward with a barrage, keeping about 50 yards distance and interval between platoons. All would cross the Bellenglise road and finally, when the leading platoons were level with the farther, i.e., South, edge of Pontruet, "A" and "B" would turn to the right, sweep through and reform on the West side of it. "D" would turn left and capture Forgan's trench, having a platoon of "C" Company to help them. The rest of "C" would assist which ever party seemed to be in difficulties. The Headquarters would move to the high ground, whence the fight would be visible, and there was every hope of opening signal communication with the attacking Companies. Artillery arrangements were made accordingly, and bombardments ordered for the supposed posts in Forgan's. Unfortunately, much against our wishes, and in opposition to the Brigadier's scheme, a heavy smoke barrage was to be placed on the Western edge of the village. A West wind would make this a thick blanket and seriously hinder our advance, and West winds are very common; however, we could not alter this part of the scheme. The Sherwood Foresters were ordered to assist by pushing up to the village after we had captured it. Zero would be 5-0 a.m. on the 24th of September.
As soon as it was dark on the 23rd, Captain Banwell taped out a "jumping off" line for the leading platoons. There was some unpleasant shelling at the time, but he completed his task successfully, and also taped out the route to this assembly position. At midnight, relieved by the 6th South Staffordshires (Lister), we marched off after an issue of hot tea and rum to the assembly ground, leaving great coats behind and wearing fighting order. On arrival we found that the Lincolnshires had been raided in their North end of Forgan's trench a short time before, and, as there might still be some of the enemy near the trench, "D" Company were ordered to form up in it, instead of on the top. It was not a dark night, and had we been seen assembling all would have been lost. There was some scattered shelling, and Lieut. Brodribb, commanding "A" Company, was wounded in the leg. He had it dressed at the R.A.P., and, finding he could still walk, rejoined his Company before the advance began. In absolute silence we lay in shell holes waiting for Zero. A mist had started to blow up from the valley, and the Battalion was almost invisible. Here and there a few heads, the muzzle of a Lewis gun, the end of a stretcher might be seen just above the ground, and occasionally one could see the tall figure of Capt. Tomson, imperturbable as ever, walking quietly round his Company with a word of encouragement for all. As the time went on, the mist became thicker and thicker, and by 4-50 a.m. platoons and Companies were unable to see each other. The shelling had ceased, it was very quiet.
Punctually at 5-0 a.m. the barrage opened, and the advance started. The timing of the Artillery was perfect and, with the road to guide them, "A" Company on the right swept across the Bellenglise road, keeping close to the barrage. By 5-14 a.m. No. 1 Platoon (Quint), which was leading, was ready for the right turn. The rest of this Company followed, and, though No. 4 Platoon (Dennis) slightly lost direction for a time, they soon regained their place, so that the whole Company was ready to turn together. It was still half dark, and, as we had feared, the smoke barrage blew across and shrouded us in a thick blanket of fog. During their advance, "A" Company had found the machine gun and rifle fire very hot from their left flank, apparently from Forgan's trench, and had already lost Serjt. P. Bowler, who was killed outright. They had met no enemy outside the village, and could not see more than a few yards through the smoke. The other Companies were out of sight.
Turning into Pontruet, "A" Company found it full of the enemy. Odd lengths of trenches here and there, cellars in every direction were filled with bombers and machine gun teams, some facing West, others, who had realised our intentions, facing East. Led by Lieut. Brodribb and their platoon commanders, "A" Company dashed in with the bayonet. Here and there a bomb was thrown down a cellar, or a Lewis gun turned against some party which resisted, but for the most part the bayonet was the weapon of the day. The enemy were scattered, a few tried to fight, but large numbers were killed trying to escape, while 120 were captured, and 50 more driven into the Sherwood Foresters' lines. The work on the North side was the easiest. Here, small parties led by 2nd Lieut. Dennis, who was slightly wounded, C.S.M. Wardle, Serjt. Toon, and others carried all before them, cleared the lower road and the cemetery, and formed up outside the N.W. corner, where they were joined by their Company Commander.
In the centre there was more fighting, and while L/Cpls. Downs and Starbuck and Pte. Meakin led their parties through with tremendous dash, one Lewis Gun section under Dakin, a "No. 1" Lewis Gunner, found itself held up by a strong German post. The "No. 2" was killed, and Dakin himself was shot through both thighs almost at once, so that there was no one left to work the gun. However, Hyden, an untrained soldier, came forward and fired the gun, while Dakin, bleeding freely and with both thighs broken, lay beside him and corrected stoppages, until he succumbed to his injuries.
The Company's heaviest losses were on the Southern or upper side of the village. For, in the S.W. corner, the Germans had two lengths of well defended trench, supported by a block house, and against these 2nd. Lieuts. Aster and Quint and Corporal Tyers led their men. The two officers were killed almost together at the second trench, but the Corporal broke clean through, only to be shot through the head when almost outside the village. Seven others of this same gallant party were killed at this corner, and the remainder, unable to deal with the blockhouse, fought their way through to the main part of the Company.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Battalion had been far less fortunate, and, with no road to guide them, had been baffled by the fog. 2nd Lieut. Lewin and Serjt. Harrison with a small party of "B" Company crossed the valley and, turning right, followed No. 1 Platoon into the Southern half of the village. They were too small a body to clear the blockhouse corner, and first Serjt. Harrison, then 2nd Lieut. Levin were killed as they gallantly tried to get forward. Two others of their men were hit, and the rest were scattered.
One platoon of "B" Company remained intact. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove, finding he could not keep direction and advance at the required pace, dropped behind. Stopping every few yards to take a compass bearing, this officer finally brought his platoon to its allotted turning point and entered the village. Following the lower road, the platoon split into two halves and "mopped up" anything left by "A" Company, making sure that the whole of this side of the village was absolutely clear of the enemy. 2nd Lieut. Cosgrove with his two sections joined Lieut. Brodribb outside the village. Corporal Barber with his Lewis gun section took up a position inside near the Cemetery.
The rest of "B" Company and the left half Battalion fared badly. Forgan's trench, supposed to be held by a few odd posts, was strongly manned from end to end. It was wired in front and lateral belts had been placed at frequent intervals across it. It would have been a stiff task for a Company to take it with a direct frontal attack; to "work up" it was impossible. None the less, "D" Company (Brooke) did their utmost. Led by their Company Commander in person, the Company left the trench at Zero and started to work along it. There was wire everywhere, and the going was very bad on top, so that many men of the rear platoons dropped back into the trench and made their way along it—a fatal mistake. On nearing the Bellenglise road this Company was met with a perfect hurricane of machine gun bullets from three guns in a nest near the road. Captain Brooke was hit but continued to lead his men, and, ably backed by Serjt. Darby, made a gallant attempt to rush the position. The men still in the trench could give no assistance, and though two prisoners were taken the rush failed, and the German machine guns remained unharmed. Captain Brooke was twice hit again and with 2nd Lieuts. Sloper and Buckley, who were both wounded, had to leave the fight. Serjt. Darby and L/Cpl. Smith had been killed close to the enemy's guns, Serjeant Sullivan was wounded, and for the moment the Company was leaderless. Lieut. Corah came up to take command, but by the time he reached the head of the Company it was too late to act, and Forgan's trench remained full of the enemy.
The occupants of Forgan's, mostly machine gunners, appear to have realised almost at once the direction of our attack, and opened a hot fire on our left flank as we crossed the Bellenglise road and set off across the valley. "A" Company felt this severely, but far more severe were the losses of "C" Company and those platoons of "B" which did not make their turn into the village. These were nearer to Forgan's trench, and both lost heavily. The mist and smoke were very thick, connecting files were useless, and the various officers, collecting what men they could find, made their way as far as possible in the right direction. Lieut. Hawley with the bulk of "C" Company found a few of the enemy still in the Eastern end of Pontruet, turned them out, and occupied a trench along the edge of the village, facing East. Further South along this same trench another party of "C" under Lieut. Steel made use of a small road bridge, and took up a position facing the same way. The rest of the Company followed Lieut. Barrett and Serjt. Spencer and reached the far side of the valley, being joined on the way by some of "B" Company. A few yards up the bank on the Southern side, Lieut. Barrett found to his surprise a trench across his route. The fog was still thick, and this puzzled him—it had been newly dug during the night—but, as it was full of Germans, he rushed it, got inside, and turned towards Forgan's. He was hit doing so. Reaching Forgan's, this party, in which Serjeant Spencer was conspicuous, quickly disposed of three German machine gun posts and their teams, but were then themselves fired at and bombed from several directions. Undeterred, Lieut. Barrett, though again wounded, drew his revolver and with it held up one bombing party, while Serjeant Spencer dealt with another. A bomb burst close to Lieut. Barrett's pistol arm and put it out of action, and by this time he was becoming exhausted. Calling his N.C.O.'s together, he explained what had happened and gave them careful directions as to how to get out, himself quite calm the whole time. Acting on his instructions, those of the party who were left cut their way out; Lieut. Barrett, refusing help, started to crawl through the wire, and was again wounded. He eventually reached the R.A.P. literally covered with wounds. Contrary to the Doctor's expectations, however, he not only lived to receive his Victoria Cross, but soon made a complete recovery.
At the same time, Captain Tomson, finding his Company now consisted only of his signallers, runners, and batmen, and unable to find out where the rest had gone, determined to try and rush the machine guns which were keeping up such a steady fire close to his left flank. His little party forced their way through some wire and found themselves opposed by three guns. With a shout of "Come along Tigers, show them what you can do," Captain Tomson led them straight at the enemy. Two of the gun teams were overcome, but the third could not be reached, and fired at them point blank. L/Cpl. Signaller J. Smith was wounded and fell, Captain Tomson, bending down to tie him up, was shot through the head. Only two men got away, leaving their leader, now dead, in a small shelter outside the trench. Smith, mortally wounded, refused to be taken away, saying "Leave me with Captain Tomson, I shall be all right"—and there he died next to his Company Commander. So perished the kindest hearted and bravest gentleman that ever commanded a Company in the Regiment. Calm, cheerful, with a friendly word for all, Captain Tomson was the father of his men, and a warm friend to his brother officers and N.C.O.'s.
By 6-30 a.m. it was daylight, but the fog and smoke still lay like a thick blanket along the valley, hiding the village and all that was going on there. It was not until 7-45 a.m. that the wind blew this away, and we were at last able to see how we had fared. The village, with the exception of the blockhouse corner, was in our hands. "C" Company were holding more than half its Eastern side, while "A" and part of "B" had reformed after the attack and were dug in just outside the N.W. corner. The only troops actually in Pontruet were those with Corpl. Barber at the Cemetery. The road leading West from the village was thronged with prisoners and stretcher bearers making their way towards the large crater on the main road, used as a Company Headquarters by the Sherwood Foresters. Captain Jack had established his Aid Post at the bottom of the little valley running down to the road, and here, helped by the never-tiring Padre Buck, was busily employed with our wounded.
In Forgan's trench there was a deadlock. Across the valley and on the Southern slopes it was still full of the enemy, who had many machine guns. Daylight made an attack over the open by "D" Company impossible, for as soon as anyone was seen to leave our lines he was at once fired upon. Every effort was made with bombs and rifle grenades to dislodge the German machine gunners from their posts on the main road, but, though Serjts. Marston and Haynes and L/Cpl. Thurman did their utmost, no progress could be made. Here, therefore, "D" Company had to stay throughout the day, almost powerless to help, except by harassing the enemy with stokes mortars from the high ground. With daylight, the enemy also had complete command of the Eastern edge of Pontruet, and Lieuts. Hawley and Steel had to lie very quiet; the slightest movement attracted the attention of the snipers in Forgan's.
At 8-0 a.m. the battle was practically at a standstill, and the C.O. sent the Adjutant forward to see what could be done to improve our position. The enemy's artillery was now fairly quiet, and, except for the one machine gun post near the blockhouse, there seemed to be no Germans in Pontruet. "A" and "B" Companies had exhausted all their grenades and Lewis gun ammunition in their efforts to capture this one post, but had failed, and our only hope was now that a 1st Divisional Tank would do it for us. This Tank was seen coming up from the West, and, to attract its attention, we waved our helmets on our rifles. It turned towards us, but suddenly broke down, and soon afterwards was put completely out of action.
At the same time, efforts were made to signal to Battalion Headquarters for ammunition, but the signal apparatus had all been destroyed in the fight. The only flag available was one of the "red, white and black" Regimental flags, which the Adjutant happened to have in his pocket, and though this was vigorously waved, it could not be seen. A runner had to be sent instead.
Meanwhile, though we had practically cleared the village of the enemy, we were not, as far as we knew at the Western end of it, holding it very strongly. The only post known to "A" Company was Corporal Barber's at the Cemetery. "C" Company were supposed to be "somewhere at the other end," but no one quite knew where. However, with Corporal Barber was a "C" Company soldier—Coles—who undertook to find his way back to his Company. Our idea was to form a line through the village at once, and, when ammunition arrived, push the line through to the far side. Coles found "C" Company, but so hot was the sniping from Forgan's, that any idea of moving men in that direction had to be abandoned, at any rate until darkness. Coles himself was unable to return, so that the exact position of "C" Company was never known at Headquarters.
On the return of the Adjutant, Battalion Headquarters moved up to the valley next the R.A.P. At the same time a large supply of ammunition and bombs was brought up as far as the crater. Colonel Griffiths himself set off to visit "A" Company, but he had not gone many yards along the road before he was heavily sniped by the enemy machine gunners. The latter had established several posts on the high ground S.E. of Pontruet, and were now making the road impassable. For a long time the Colonel, making use of shell holes, tried to make his way to the village, but every time he was "spotted" and finally he had to return. Ammunition carrying parties lost very heavily and never got near our companies; the village seemed to be completely cut off from us. To add to our discomfort the enemy's artillery was again active and gas shells were fired wherever movement was seen. The Headquarters and the R.A.P. were frequently bombarded. At the same time the enemy's infantry started to dribble back by Forgan's and the new trench, into the S.W. corner of the village, probably to counter-attack. Observers saw this movement from the Tumulus Ridge, and, as soon as Corpl. Barber's post could be withdrawn, the suspected area was heavily shelled by our gunners, and no attack developed.