Chapter 10 – Messines, Menin Road and Westhoek Ridge.
Moving Beyond the Range of the Guns.
On 11th April 1917, the Battalion moved to Steenvoorde, after having spent the previous two or three days at Halifax Camp. Prior to moving off at 9am, General Gorringe addressed the men and congratulated them on their performance in the Raid and, en route, the Battalion was inspected by General Sir Herbert Plumer.
Weather conditions during the march were atrocious, heavy rain falling for the greater part of the journey, while the later stages were concluded in a blizzard.
At 130pm, the Battalion reached Steenvoorde and the men were billeted in barns scattered over a wide area. Until 25th April, the Battalion remained at Steenvoorde and was actively occupied with field training. The weather was extremely variable during this period: beautiful sunny days followed by snow storms and north easterly winds. For the first time in six months, the Battalion found itself beyond the range of the guns and all ranks made the most of the time. It was obvious, however, that with improvements in the weather, active operations would soon be resumed and this view was supported by the steady stream line-wards of troops and stores.
At night, the roar of heavy cannonades in the Salient was borne on the breeze: an ominous reminder of stern tasks ahead.
Leisure hours were devoted to football, boxing and concerts. The Warrant Officers and Sergeants enjoyed a most successful dinner and concert, which took place on 21st April in the Maison d’Alimentation in the Rue de Cassel. Local photographers had a busy time taking shots of Company and Platoon groups.
In Reserve at the Salient.
The period of rest at Steenvoorde came to an end on 24th April, when the Battalion moved forward at 9am. The day was delightfully clear and sunny and, after a comfortable four hours march, the Battalion reached Ontario Camp at Reningelst. On arrival, half the Battalion were accommodated in huts and the other half were put under canvas. During the period of reserve at Reningelst, from 26th April to 11th May, with other units of the Brigade, the Battalion was employed on working parties under 23rd Division and CE X Corps. Large parties were sent out by day and night on the following tasks:
Railway work, construction of a reservoir, making wire bunks in Infantry Tunnels, repairing old dumps and constructing new ones, in the front line, Norfolk Lane, Estaminet Lane and Spoil Bank. Other work comprised clearing cellars in Norfolk House, carrying stores for RE and repairing trenches in Ecluse 8. In addition, the Battalion supplied one officer and 35 men to the Australian Tunnelling Company every night – and four parties of 18 other ranks, working in six hour shifts.
During the weather period, the weather was generally good, some days being beautifully fine. There was one rather cold and wet spell from the evening of 5th May to 8th May, but this was followed by blazing heat.
Leisure and Sporting Contests.
The newly formed Battalion Sports Committee functioned vigorously and four football matches and one cricket match were played. The football matches and results were as follows:
1st May. London Irish v Battalion Transport. Won 2-0.
3rd May. London Irish v Entrenching Battalion. Won 2-0.
6th May. London Irish v Royal Irish. Draw.
8th May. London Irish v Royal Engineers. Won 3-0.
For the match again the Entrenching Battalion, the Irish team journeyed to Kemmel but, on arrival, found that the ground was occupied by a battery of field artillery. One or two scouts were sent out and a new pitch was quickly found and a very strenuous game followed.
The Battalion Sports Committee organised a gala day for 6th May when the officers and men of the 18th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment were the guests of the London Irish. After a stimulating football math, which ended in a draw, the Royal Irish were invited to tea. Boxing contests were staged in the evening and each Battalion secured two decisions. A tug of war contest followed, the honours being carried off by the Royal Irish.
During the afternoon and evening, the Bands of the Royal Fusiliers and the 19th Londons provided excellent selections of music, while the pipe bands of the Royal Irish and London Irish played at intervals to appreciative audiences.
A scare occurred at 11pm on 2nd May when, as the result of some trouble on the 2nd Division’s front, the gas alarm signal ran along the line and through the back areas. Away in the distance, the Salient was ablaze with Very lights and the flashes of guns and exploding shells but the Battalion, which had turned out at once, was soon dismissed to billets.
The troops had scarcely settled down when the fire alarm rang out. Once again, the men tumbled out, this time to find the nearby hut, which the Durhams used as an orderly room, was blazing merrily. The men on the spot tackled the fire energetically and, once again, the London Irish returned to their slumbers.
Air and Ground Activity.
Regardless of weather conditions, aeroplanes patrolled the lines from morning to night engaged in photography, spotting for the guns and bombing. Observation balloons moved nearer the line and increased in numbers. At night, harassing fire was directed on the roads and tracks by the artillery of both sides and relays of bombing places slipped through the searchlight and AA barrages and carried out their duties efficiently.
Constant bombing and long range shelling made the condition of the civil population very hazardous and, by 9th May, numbers of the inhabitants of Ouderdom began to evacuate the village. Halifax Camp, situated on the Ouderdom – Vlamertinge road also became very dangerous.
At this period, the imminence of an offensive was quite apparent. Huge dumps of RE stores and shells dotted the landscape and most of them were screened from enemy observation by camouflage and ingenious colour devices. Gangs of men laboured on the roads along which horse and motor transport, guns and men streamed unceasingly.
Relieving the 7th Battalion at Spoil Bank.
On 11th May 1917, a swelteringly hot day, the Battalion moved up to the front line and, between 1030 and 1130pm, relieved the 7th Battalion in the Spoil Bank sub-Sector. The condition of the line necessitated the Battalion Works Officer keeping the men constantly employed on repairs. The front line, Drainage Trench, New Support, West Terrace, Norfolk Lane, Estaminet Land and Old Kent Road were in a very battered, wet and muddy state.
Enemy artillery was fairly active and shelled the trenches daily, while the British artillery was engaged in wire cutting and the destruction of the enemy strong points.
Aircraft of both sides were much in evidence and the Battalion saw an enemy plane hit on 12th May, the pilot falling out and somersaulting to destruction. On May 18th, an English plane was seen to attack two enemy balloons. One balloon caught fire and fell to earth, leaving a long trail of black smoke, while the other was hurriedly hauled down.
Return to Support at Swan Chateau.
The 17th Battalion took over the line during the evening of 20th May and, on relief, the London Irish moved into support at Swan Chateau, where they remained until 28th May. During this time, the men had no respite, and day and night working and carrying parties toiled in the line and back areas.
The enemy’s reply to our harassing fire on his communication was very severe and a considerable amount of gas shell was used. Traffic at times was completely disorganised, dumps were blown up and many casualties were sustained. The Sergeants’ dug out was hit, resulting in the death of Sergeants Todd and Mallinson. Sgt Anderson died of wounded and was buried at Bedford House.
Relieving 17th Battalion and Relief in Ouderdom.
The Battalion returned to Spoil Bank to relieve 17th Battalion on Whit Monday, 28th May, and was heavily shelled en route, During the spell in the line, the brisk shelling on both sides and conditions were rather trying, particularly during the afternoon of 3rd June, when the artillery demonstrated for fifteen minutes with an intense bombardment by heavy guns, followed by twenty minutes barrage including smoke.
In late evening on 3rd June, 2nd Lt TI Jones, accompanied by a sergeant and 19 men, carried out a small raid. The German line was entered but no enemy seen. The Battalion was relieved on 4th June by 8th Battalion and moved back to Dominion Camp, Ouderdom.
During May 1917, 2nd Lt WT Antill was wounded and four other ranks killed and twenty eight wounded.
The 2nd Army offensive for Messines Ridge was about to open and, in accordance with orders, the Battalion proceed to Dikkebus village on the night of 5th June, and after a quiet day, moved forward to a reserve in Ecluse Trench on the evening of 6th June.