April/May 1916

Relief and Trench Work.

The 7th London Regiment relieved the Battalion at 11pm on 2nd April and the London Irish, after running the gauntlet of heavy enemy shelling on roads, billeted in cellars at Carency and in empty houses at Villers-au-Bois.

The Battalion was occupied in the forward area on the nights from 3rd to 6th April. For the working parties on these nights, every available man was pressed into service with enormous quantities of bombs, sandbags, trench boards, re-vetting and engineering material being taken forward to the line via Cabaret Rouge or Souchez.

A good deal of repair work was done to trenches and long lengths of new trench dug. The enemy harassed the working parties as they approached the line with shrapnel shells of large calibre. These shells burst with a terrific roar, which reverberated through Zouave Valle and scattered bullets and smoking shell fragments over a large area. Digging was a noisome duty as it was impossible to perform a task without cutting through corpses as the whole area was a vast cemetery.

A Problem with Charcoal Braziers.

At this time, “B” Company was quartered in some old French dug outs in a sunken road near a battery position in front of Villers-au-Bois. The weather was fine, but cold.

An energetic batman had thought to please his officers on their return from a working party with the sight of no less than three glowing charcoal braziers in their dug out. Tired and weary, they returned, warmed themselves before the cheerful sight, closed the door of the dugout and slept the sleep of the just. But the efficient batman had not studied the ventilation.

When he entered the dugout at stand-to in the morning, he found that the air had been poisoned with the fumes of the charcoal and his two officers (Captain Rich and 2nd Lt Hone) unconscious. They were dragged out into the nippy morning air, where they gradually came to and spent the next twenty four hours vomiting and suffering from atrocious headaches – such as no vin rouge had ever produced for them.

Divisional Reserve and Defensive Work.

The London Irish moved back to Verdrel, in Divisional reserve, on relief by the 15th Battalion at noon on 7th April and resumed work on the Gouy reserve defences, The Brigadier General addressed the men after Church Parade on Sunday 9th April and stressed the urgency of the tasks set for working parties and passed critical remarks on the amount of work done, the necessity for working parties getting to the site of their tasks early and for working hard and long.

The trench strength of the Battalion during this period was 23 officers and 407 men, the lowest in the Brigade – but it is doubtful whether this fact was borne in mind when setting tasks. No complaint was made against the London Irish and, on many occasions, the Battalion had earned commendation for the manner in which it had performed difficult and dangerous tasks in the forward trenches.

Measles !

While the Battalion was at Verdrel, an attack of measles occurred and, on 11th April, “D” Company, comprising 3 officers, 7 sergeants and 67 other ranks was sent to an Isolation Camp in Bouvigny Woods.

On 14th April, the Battalion, less “D” Company, moved up in support at Gouy Servins, leaving at 815am and arriving at midday. Additional cases of measles occurred and the whole of “C” Company followed “D” Company into isolation on 17th April – followed on the 18th by HQ Signallers and 19 other ranks of “A” Company.

While at Gouy, the Battalion was engaged in digging defensive works during the daytime – occasionally in heavy rain. With the prospect of plenty of work in the line, the Bombers, under Lt Staples, carried out intensive training and practised firing Mills bombs from short rifles, which were equipped with a special cup attachment.

Boxing Exhibitions.

On the evening of 15th April, the Bombers gave a boxing exhibition to the Battalion. Every man amongst the Bombers was engaged in the display and all bouts, which were of three rounds each, were keenly contested. Some of the fights were brilliantly scientific, others merely slogging contests. At sick parade on the following morning, a high proportion of Bombers needed patching and the Medical Officer ordered the corporal of the Bombers – who paraded the sick – to attach himself for treatment because that individual was afflicted by a split lip and two prize black eyes.

Other boxing matches occurred about this time and it is remembered that, at a Battalion Boxing show, Sgt “Buster” Brown of “C” Company fought two opponents both of whom he promptly knocked out. However, a further opponent, a corporal, was of a different calibre and Sgt Brown was severely pummelled by a more skilful and younger adversary. When Sgt Brown had sustained two black eyes, a nose battered and twisted out of shape, a split lip and injured hands, the Brigadier thought it time to stop the fight. The prostrate Buster, who had put up a very game fight against terrible odds, was carried out and, when he recovered somewhat, he was feeling so sorry for himself that he thought his days were numbered – and, in all seriousness, asked the MO whether there was any chance of surviving. The brutal answer was that not only would he recover, but his King and Country wanted him up the line.

For his plucky display, Sgt Brown was presented with a special prize of fifty francs and a watch. With the recollection of the battering which his face had suffered, Buster felt that he must get his own back and promptly took it out on the watch by smashing the face and knocking the hands off! Incidentally it must be said of Sgt Brown that there was no more steady and reliable NCO in the Battalion and, in the most difficult circumstances, Sgt Brown’s imperturbable demeanour and cool courage set an example beyond praise.

In the Line on Vimy Ridge, more Measles and a visit by the Navy.

The Battalion, less the isolated companies, were ordered to take over a section of the line on Vimy Ridge on 20th April and, after relief by the 7th Battalion, the London Irish moved up to Villers-au-Bois. On arrival, two men were found to be suffering from measles – and it was thought likely that the remainder of the Battalion would have to be isolated. However, the orders for the line were adhered to and, at 6pm, the Battalion, composed of “A” and “B” Companies with Bombers, Lewis Gunners and one Company of 20th Battalion attached, set out for the line via Carency.

En route, the Battalion witnessed two mines put up by the Germans, on the front of the right Brigade. The explosion of the mines caused violent earth tremors and vast sheets of flame lit up the sky for miles around. Thunderous roars followed, while Very lights and distress rockets of red and green soared aloft. Immediately, the answering guns added their clangour to the turmoil. The rattle of machine-guns and the crackle of rifle fire was heard and, before long, the whole line of the Ridge was ablaze. The engagement died down as suddenly as it flared up.

Meanwhile, the Battalion, with a trench strength of 122 officers and 257 men, proceeded on its way to Cabaret Rouge and, after a very slow and slippery journey, the 21st Battalion was relieved in the Carency A sub-Section, relief being reported complete at 230pm on 21st April. The line taken over was in a very wet condition, which two days of incessant rain had aggravated. The right Company’s line was flooded in many places and pumping operations were undertaken.

A party of men from the Navy ships, Shannon, Caroline etc visited the line on 21st April and were shown around the Battalion front. As might be expected, there was a plentiful flow of cheerful badinage and, for a long time afterwards, the answer to the challenge: “Who goes there?” was “Naval officer with 15 inch gun”.

Anticipating Mine Explosions.

The enemy was quiet until 24th April when he commenced to bombard our line with heavy mortars and rifle grenades, causing ten casualties. The Bombers countered vigorously with rifle grenades and the artillery retaliated by shelling the enemy opposite the right Company front.

At 330am and again at 335am on 25th April, the Germans put up mines beyond the right of the Battalion’s left boundary. The London Irish manned the fire steps and opened rapid fire to assist in checking the enemy infantry, while our artillery responded quickly to the enemy barrage on the advanced lines and supports.

The Tunnelling Officer reported the probability of further mines being exploded and Brigade ordered the necessary tactical adjustments in readiness.

Relief and Working Parties.

The Battalion was relieved by the 7th London Regiment on the night of 26th/27th April and moved back to Maisnil Bouche, arriving at 430am and with 141st Brigade in reserve, to the Carency section. With its two Companies returned from Isolation Camp, the Battalion remained at Maisnil Bouche until 2nd May, when it moved forward to Bouvigny Huts in support. Working parties were supplied for labours on the Bajolle line and the Lorette defences until 7th May when the Battalion moved forward to Villers-au-Bois, taking over from the 22nd Battalion, in readiness for a further tour in the front line.

On 8th May, the London Irish relieved the 24th Battalion in Carency “B” (centre) sub-Section. 20th Battalion held “A” sub-Section and the 17th Battalion manned “C” sub-Section. At this time, the ruling topic of conversation in the Brigade was mining. Already the Ridge was pockmarked with mine craters and, from the feverish activity which both side were displaying, it was painfully evident that further trouble from mines was to be expected.

For the information of all units, on 5th May, Brigade issued a communication in which it was mentioned that, although the enemy appeared to be taking our mining explosions lying down, this attitude was most unusual and might mean that a bigger effort was in the course of preparation. It was thought possible that he might explode a mine, known to exist immediately south of New Cut Crater and, under cover of the explosion, attack some or all of our craters. With this contingency in mind, the artillery was required to barrage all craters should the enemy spring a mine. The Battalion’s line was a difficult stretch as, in addition to saps, there were three large craters in the sub-Section. The craters were Broadbridge in the north, Mildren in the centre and New Cut in the south.
Enemy Units.

Identification of enemy units revealed the fact that the 1st Bavarian Corps, opposite 25th Division on the right, was in the course of being relieved by a new German formation, known as Guard Reserve Corps, which consisted of 4th Guards Division and 1st Guards Division. The 1st Bavarian Division had already been relieved by 4th Guards Division and, on the front of 47th Division, the relief of 2nd Bavarian Division by 1st Guard Division was suspected to be in progress by 8th/9th May.

An Enemy Mine Explodes.

Apart from unusual trench mortar activity on the right front, 9th May was normal and the Battalion was preparing for the work of the night when, at 745pm, the enemy exploded a mine on the Battalion’s front. The position of the new mine was 80 yards to the right of New Cut Crater and thirty yards in front of the front line and 70 yards north of Gabriel Trench. The explosion damaged the London Irish trenches and new crater in front of the line was formed.

With the mine explosion, the enemy artillery opened up a heavy fire on our defences and there was a good deal of hostile machine gun and trench mortar fire. A London Irish Bombing party immediately endeavoured to reach the crater but the forward lip of the new crater was swept by machine gun fire in enfilade from the enemy lip of New Cut Crater and from enemy craters to the south and progress was impossible.

However, the enemy was held in check by artillery fire and trench mortars. Simultaneously with the explosion of the new mine, subsequently called Irish Crater, the enemy launched a bombing attack on Broadbridge Crater. The Germans put down a tremendous barrage on the front and support lines, using 5.9s, “coal boxes”, “black Berthas”, minenwerfers and a veritable spate of “whizz bangs.” The violence of the enemy’s fire ripped up wire, cut telephone lines to ribbons and blocked trenches with direct hits.

The Divisional artillery, augmented by the Corps artillery, responded promptly to the SOS signal and blasted the enemy positions opposite. Meanwhile, the enemy bombers advanced stealthily, from shell hole to shell hole, and developed their attack by hurling salvos of stick bombs.

The London Irish Bombers, superbly led by Sgt Peake, under the direction of the Bombing Officer, Lt Staples, met the attack with cool competence. For maximum results, the London Irish bombing technique demanded shrapnel effect from their grenades. The object was attained with the Mills bomb by allowing the safety lever to fly off, holding the ignited bomb for two seconds and throwing on the third second. Two seconds later and before the bomb touched earth, the explosion occurred giving a wide range of effect.

The enemy attack was resolutely pressed home but, with equal determination, the bombers resisted. At the height of the bombing duel, the supply of grenades began to fail and the situation became critical. A runner, one of a band of great hearted men, safely passed through the enemy barrage and reached Battalion Headquarters.

Soon, supplies of bombs from the Battalion bomb store, and from 17th Battalion on the left, were pushed up. Sgt Bert Warren and his platoon did especially good work in this connection. No single German succeeded in getting into the London Irish lines and the attack was successfully beaten off.

“C” Company’s line, and particularly the support line, suffered from the sustained and accurate enemy fire but, under Captain Mahon and his officers, the men stood to arms, ready for any emergency. Stretcher bearers had a very busy time and performed their task of aiding the wounded under exceptionally trying circumstances.

Repairing and Reinforcing after the Enemy Attack.

When the enemy fire slackened, the work of repairing the trenches was put in hand forthwith. The merciless pounding of the line, by the enemy’s artillery, had caused enormous damage to the trenches and only after a night of ceaseless labour was any semblance of order received. During the bombing attack, Captain Rich and 2nd Lt CP Watson were wounded, two other ranks were killed and fifteen men wounded.

In the early morning of 10th May, the Brigadier General, accompanied by Major Birch of the RE, made a personal reconnaissance of the line. Irish Crater was seen to be pear shaped, with the forward lip thirty yards east of Sap B 5 and with the narrow end culminating in the German front line. The new crater was echeloned eastwards of New Cut Crater in such a way that its western lip was not only enfiladed from the rear of New Cut Crater but was actually overlooked from that position. To reach any portion of the crater involved passing over open ground and, as it as considered out of the question at this point to dig a communication trench, either by day or by night, the only feasible method of approach was by sapping from our position in New Cut Crater.

Although overnight the Germans had joined up the eastern lip of the northern systems of craters to include the western lip of Irish Crater, daylight showed the position to be not unsatisfactory as the mound formed on the western lip of the crater did not overlook our trenches. The defensive organisation facing the new crater comprised Sap 5, blocked and loop holed, and Thirliet and New Cut trenches, fire stepped, traversed and manned. Lewis guns commanded the craters and intervening spaces. There was also a certain amount of wire in position.

Brigade ordered the 19th Battalion to reinforce the London Irish with 100 men and two sections of bombers in case of attack. In normal conditions, the reinforcements were to work in the vicinity of the craters.

The Enemy Attack is Beaten Off.

On the following evening, 11th May, the enemy artillery blazed into action, following the discharge in the enemy lines of one white and sixteen red rockets. An extremely hot fire was directed on to the Tallandier and Rubineau trenches and a barrage fire of devastating intensity fell on Soutien and 130 Alley. A good deal of shelling was enfiladed from the direction of Lieven.

At 730pm, the Germans opened a bombing attack on the right post of New Cut Crater after drenching that post with shrapnel and trench mortar fire. Under cover of the bombing, the enemy endeavoured to push up snipers on the east side of New Cut Crater, while enemy bombers also engaged our grenadiers in Mildren Crater.

The attacks were countered with steady and well directed bombing and, for an hour, the bombing duel continued, while our artillery poured a torrent of shells onto the enemy line and our trench mortar battery pitched their projectiles into Irish Crater and then enemy defences in the immediate vicinity. The determined defence by the London Irish bombers completely frustrated the enemy’s efforts and, after a frenzied hour and a half, the enemy’s fire slackened.

Casualties sustained by the Battalion in the action amounted to 51. Captain Mahon and 2nd Lt RG Topham were wounded (the former remaining in duty) and of the other ranks, 7 were killed and 42 wounded.

As soon as normal conditions were resumed, the wounded were evacuated and working parties applied themselves to the duty of making good the damage occasioned by shelling.

Defending the Craters.

On the following morning, 12th May, the Battalion received a communication from Brigade to the effect that the Major General desired the forward lip and the interior of Irish Crater to be kept under continuous trench mortar fire to prevent the enemy establishing himself there. It was also required that a post be constructed near the south end of New Cut Crater to prevent the enemy working forward round the southern end of the crater.

Later, the Major General directed that an observation post be established at night, on our lip of Mildren Crater, in such a position as to command the interior of the crater by daylight. It was intimated that this work was of the utmost importance in view of the reports of the enemy’s suspected mining operations between New Cut and Mildren Craters and the possibility of the shaft being driven down from Mildren Crater. The GOC also ordered the construction of a spa leading to Irish Crater. Working parties were detailed for the tasks set by the Major General and, at night, the post on Mildren Crater was duly completed.

Captain Mahon spent a good deal of time reconnoitring Mildren Crater and, as a result, the Commanding Officer was able to report to Brigade that it was certain that the enemy was not using Mildren as was thought. A further observation post was established on New Cut Crater and a substantial length of the sap to Irish Crater was completed.

Further casualties, amounting to one man killed and ten others wounded, were sustained before the Battalion was relieved on the night of 14th/15th May.

Relief to Divisional Reserve.

On relief by the 24th Battalion, the London Irish marched back to Mesnil Bouche.

While the Battalion was at Mesnil Bouche, the 141st Brigade was in Divisional reserve and the usual routine was observed, The Battalion was inspected by the Brigadier on 17th May and a new draft arrived on 18th May. Working parties were supplied for labours on the rear defences and, on 19th May, the Battalion found a working party of 200 men for work on the Maistre line. This working party enjoyed the luxury of being taken back to their task by motor lorry and returned in similar style.

The 141st Brigade relieved the 140th Brigade in support to the Carency section on 19th May, the London Irish taking over in reserve with two Companies at Villiers-au-Bois and two Companies in cellars at Carency.

Chapter 5 – Action on Vimy Ridge.