Chapter 14 – In Action near Albert.
In Reserve and Training the New Intake.
While in Army Reserve at Domvast, the Battalion spent the time resting, reorganising and training. Large drafts arrived to make good the wastage of the March fighting and, as many of the men were not physically fit for fighting, it was decided to form a fifth, or reserve, company: one platoon per company to include the youngest and least robust. The intention was to keep the reserve company out of the line, when the Battalion was in action, until the occasion was appropriate for its use.
Drill was reduced to a minimum and training in musketry, open order and wood fighting monopolised most of the Battalion’s time. On 30th April, the Division moved to Allonville and Cardonette. The London Irish embussed at 9am and proceeded via St Ricquier cross roads, (1500 yards north of Yzeux), Vignacourt, Flesselles, Villars Bocage, Molliens-au-Bois (cross roads half a mile north of St Gratien), to Cardonette.
After a couple of days at Cardonette, the Brigade moved by march route, via Montgny-s-I’Hallue. Behencourt and Baizieux, to Warloy-Baillon in Divisional Reserve, relieving troops of the 5th and 6th Australian Infantry Brigades.
In the Line.
The Battalion moved to the line in assembly positions on 9th May, under Lt-Col AC Thompson DSO, and the relief was deferred until 150 yards of the front line, which had been lost on the left of 142nd Brigade, had been recovered. The line was successfully restored and the relief of 23rd Battalion was completed during the night of 10th/11th May. The Battalion’s tour in the line passed without incident. There was the usual artillery activity on both sides and much work was carried out to improve the defences.
The 2nd/10th London Regiment relieved the Battalion on the night of 16th/17th May and the Battalion thereupon moved back into Corps Reserve in the wood east of Behencourt. After a few days’ rest, the Battalion moved up into the Support position in the left sub-section of the 18th Divisional front (south west of Albert), its role being to act as a counter attack Battalion.
The Front Line South East of Albert.
On 30th May/31st May, the Battalion, under Major WW Hughes DSO MC, proceeded to the front line and relieved 19th Battalion to the left sub-Section of the left sector (Lavieville Sector, astride the Amiens – Albert Road, south east of Albert). The front line was situated a considerable distance from the enemy line and patrols had great scope at night for searching the intervening country. Enemy patrols were less active but the garrison of Bush post was surprised on 6th June and the enemy succeeded in taking two prisoners.
There was an increase in enemy artillery activity and, on 2nd June, 2nd Lt Downes and two other ranks were killed; and, on 3rd June, 2nd Lt Curwen was killed and several other ranks were killed or wounded, There was also heavy shelling on 8th June and the bombardment with gas and HE raged with some intensity from dawn until 230pm. A few miles further south, the enemy carried out a heavy bombardment as a preliminary to the attack between Montdidier and Noyan.
During the tour, the Battalion carried out a considerable amount of work on Yarra, Pioneer and Dirty trenches – a bathing station being constructed in the latter.
Further Intakes for the Battalion.
On relief on 9th June by 24th Battalion, the London Irish moved back to bivouac in a camp on the Franvillers – Behencourt road. In comfortable conditions, the Battalion enjoyed its spell out of the line and was strengthened on 12th June by the arrival of a draft of 62 other ranks and the following officers: 2nd Lts AW Slowman, CE Fea, H Ruffit, TE Taylor, JDR Baxter and W Berry.
The Battalion moved into the line again on 13th June, taking over in the Lavieville Line from 20th London Regiment. An uneventful tour in the line concluded on 17th June, when 6th Battalion took over. On relief at 1130pm, the Battalion moved to Bois Rupert and, after an early breakfast, embussed at 4am for Picquingy, arriving there at 730am on 18th June.
A draft of 187 other ranks arrived on 18th June, together with four officers, Lt HVO Hoole, 2nd Lts E Hammon, AL Jones and GW Stevens. In addition to the foregoing, the officer strength of the Battalion during June was increased by the following: Capt McKenzie Smith, Lt VC Cannan and 2nd Lt GHR Stancourt. Capt GFH Wraight rejoined the Battalion on 24th June and 2nd Lt SR Rooney joined on the 26th. Lt FF Curling re-joined on the 29th, Lt GF Keane re-joined on the 30th and 2nd Lt LA Mann also joined on the same day.
Casualties for June were 2nd Lts B Downes and GS Curwen killed. Of the other ranks, three were killed, twenty three wounded and two missing.
Training, Exercises and Relaxation.
The Battalion remained at Picquingy until 11th July and took part in Brigade and Divisional exercises and carried out special training. The surroundings were very pleasant and the men enjoyed football and boxing matches and the Battalion concert party “The Shamrocks” gave many excellent performances. For the swimmers the river Somme provided good facilities for all forms of aquatic fun.
Lt Col Neely takes Command.
Capt Totten MC rejoined on 2nd July and Lt Col GH Neely formally took over command of the Battalion from the temporary CO, Lt-Col E Thompson.
In the Line near Albert.
On 10th July, the CO and Adjutant and the four company commanders reconnoitred the right sub-Section, left sector, III Corps front opposite Albert and, on 11th July, the Battalion embussed from Picquigny at 1120am and reached Warloy at 345pm. After a meal and a rest, the Battalion set off at 9pm to relieve the Royal West Kents, 18th Division in the support position. The Battalion took over Warrago, Murray Strong Point, Wallaby Trench and Casson Copse.
In the Line with American Allies.
The Battalion moved up to the right section of the front line on 15th July and took over from 19th Battalion. The relief, except for the front line, took place in daylight.
The Battalion had the pleasure of welcoming into the line two officers and four platoons of 131st Regiment, 33rd American Division. The four American platoons replaced a platoon from each of the Battalion’s four companies. The troops found it amusing to listen to the American roll call as it seemed that the greater part of the names were pure German! Apparently, the American Sergeant Major was responsible for a lot of clerical work for when that worthy arrived he was accompanied by a Sergeant, clerks, batmen and a typewriter.
In the line, the usual routine was followed and, in addition, parties went out nightly cutting crops of corn in front of the firing line. Large patrols scoured no-man’s land after dark and visited buildings between the lines. Other patrols went out in daylight, between 6 and 8pm, to reconnoitre the enemy lines from the Stables, in no-man’s land.
On 22nd July, a night patrol of 22 men under Lt CRC Vincent MC and Lt Schmidt of 2nd Battalion, 131st American Regiment, set out at night for the enemy lines with a view to capturing a prisoner for identification purposes. The patrol split up into two groups and proceeded by different routes across no-man’s land. The southern part engaged the enemy at 1255am, who replied by illuminating no-man’s-land with Very lights and opening fire from two points. The northern party quietly crossed no-man’s land and, at 140am, attempted to rush the enemy. By this time, however the enemy was fully alert and rapid fire and machine guns opened on the party.
Three men were wounded and the patrols returned at 230am. Two of the wounded were brought back and the other was missing. On the following night 2nd Lt Fea and 2nd Lt Michael and a patrol searched no-man’s land for the missing man (Rfn Hawkins), who was found 160 yards from the German lines suffering from a fractured shin. The wounded man, who had spent the day in a shell hole, 35 yards from the enemy line, was placed on a stretcher in the glare of a bright moon and the patrol was observed by the enemy, who opened fire. The wounded man was, with difficulty, taken back by a stretcher party and the patrol proceeded to the German posts. The enemy was in greater strength than usual and met the patrol with heavy fire and showers of bombs. The patrol saw no chance of surprising the enemy and returned safely.
Sgt Acting Quartermaster Sergeant Warren was killed by a shell on the road when returning with the ration limbers on 23rd July and Lt HVJ Hoole was slightly wounded on 24th July during the relief.
Further Front Line Duties.
The 22nd Battalion took over on 24th July and, on relief, the Battalion moved by platoons to billets in Warloy. After a few days in rather uncomfortable quarters, the Battalion moved up to support position and took over 20th Battalion’s line, Court Support, Jacques Support and Cavalry Trench. The position was very wet after the rain and some casualties were sustained from shelling by HE and Gas.
The Battalion moved into the front line on 30th July, relieving 17th Battalion in the right sub-Section of the left sector.
“A” Company sent out a fighting patrol during the night of 31st July/1st August and made contact with the enemy in the Quarries, losing one man killed and two others wounded.
A German Retirement Expected.
The 3rd Battalion, 131st American Regiment relieved the Battalion in the line on 1st August – Lt Col Neely, accompanied by Lt Vincent MC, remaining in the line with the Americans to supervise patrols as it was thought that the enemy was contemplating a retirement. On relief, the Battalion marched to Warloy, thence to Contay, where the last company arrived at 730am on 3rd August.
Examination of German prisoners revealed the enemy’s intention to withdraw to a line east of the Ancre at 2pm on 2nd August and, on this day, reports from the front line battalions indicated that patrols had penetrated beyond the enemy’s front line without serious opposition. Orders were issued forthwith for a new front line to be reconnoitred and for posts to be established in the valley of the Ancre. A line of posts was successfully consolidated along the western exits of Albert and the railway running northward from it. Patrols encountered considerable opposition in the western part of Albert, which was held in strength. North of Albert, the enemy had crossed the Ancre, leaving a line of posts covering the crossings.
The Battalion stood by in Contay at an hour’s notice to leave and, at 8pm, after a concert by “The Shamrocks” in the Haymarket Theatre, orders were received to move forward. The Battalion moved out of Contay with the Band playing as far as Warloy and proceeded to trenches previously occupied, Casson, Wallaby, Murray and Warrego – relief being complete by 215am on 4th August. Command of the Battalion devolved on Capt EM Ellis MC as Col Neely was still with the American troops and Major Hughes temporarily in charge of 20th Battalion.
Replacing the Americans in the Line.
On 5th August, in pitch darkness and pouring rain, the Battalion relieved 3rd Battalion, 131st American Regiment and occupied the old German front line, right sector. Two patrols of one officer and fifteen other ranks and one Lewis Gun went into Albert and penetrated as far as the Ancre, meeting and exchanging shots with the enemy on the further bank. The patrols returned safely at 215am on 6th August and intensive patrolling of Albert commenced.
At midday, Lt-Col Neely MC, 2nd Lt Mackenzie and a patrol of twelve other ranks proceeded into Albert and were photographed in front of the ruined Cathedral by a GHQ photographer. These photographs are now on exhibition in the Imperial War Museum.
The patrol encountered the enemy in a fortified house and in the fight which ensued, the London Irish lost one man killed and two wounded. “D” Company was detailed to attack the enemy post and any others which might be located and the company left our lines at 945pm. Two platoons moved up the Millencourt–Albert road and two platoons advanced along the Bouzincourt–Albert road.
One platoon, under Lt Keane, proceeded across the river and up the road to the objective – followed at a 100 yard interval by 2nd Lt Hall and one platoon, which was accompanied by Lt Col Neely and Capt Ellis MC. An enemy party cut in between the two platoons and attacked 2nd Lt Hall’s men. The Germans were scattered by Lewis Gun and rifle fire but Capt Ellis was killed and 2nd Lt Hall wounded by a bomb and several men were wounded by rifle fire. Lt Keane’s party met with severe opposition from houses, 100 yards south of the Cathedral and had to withdraw as the enemy prevented 2nd Lt Hall’s men from moving in support.
All casualties were carried back. 2nd Lt Michael’s platoon encountered no enemy. The platoon led by 2nd Lt Baxter approached a strong enemy post in a fortified house and was met with machine gun fire from the windows and bomb and rifle fire from the ruins around. 2nd Lt Baxter was wounded and, after a brisk exchange of fire, the patrol withdrew. Efforts were made by Lt Keane’s party to capture the enemy wounded, who were heard crying out in the ruins but their comrades defended them stoutly and the attempts were frustrated. Although no prisoners were taken by the patrols, many casualties were inflicted on the enemy and much valuable information obtained as to the enemy strength and disposition. The loss of Capt Ellis was keenly felt as he was much liked and respected throughout the Battalion.
On 8th August at 8pm, Albert was heavily bombarded with HE, smoke and gas shell and numerous fire started. At 850pm, when the bombardment ceased, a London Irish patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks proceeded into Albert and, at 940pm, searched the area of the Cathedral. A thick cloud of smoke from the fires covered the district and no trace of the enemy could be found. Small parties were left to cover the road and corner, while the patrol penetrated further into the town. They were fired on from a fortified house and took up a position from which the enemy position could be covered. At this moment, our guns began to shell the immediate vicinity and the patrol withdrew at 1205am on 9th August.
Further patrolling in Albert was undertaken at night on 9th August and a few Germans were seen. These made off on the approach of the patrol. Three were, however, captured and brought in.
The Battalion was relieved in the line on 10th August by 6th Battalion Northants, 18th Division and moved back to billets in Warloy. On the following morning, the Battalion paraded at 1145am and moved by march route to Bois de Mail, bivouacking on arrival.
Discussing the Military Situation and the Future Offensive.
On 12th August, the morning was spent reorganising the Battalion for the line – the battle surplus personnel being dispatched to the Battalion Training ground. The CO discussed the military situation and probable future developments with officers and NCOs and, after the lectures, all ranks went to see “The Shamrocks”. The concert was excellent and 2,000 soldiers attended.
On 13th August, the Battalion, in company with other units of the Brigade, moved by march route to the new area south of Heilly via Querrieu and Lahoussoye. Arriving at 530pm, the accommodation was poor and the men bivouacked in tents and on ground sheets.
During the night, a giant enemy bomber crashed about 1,000 yards from Battalion Headquarters at Bonnay. Of the crew of four, three were killed outright and one was unharmed.
After a few days training in the summer heat, the Battalion moved forward on 20th August and relieved 17th Battalion in the support area west of Tailles Wood in readiness for the forthcoming offensive.