August 1916

Movement Orders and Marches.

Orders were received for the Brigade group to proceed to the area around Neuville-au-Cornet and, on 30th July at 7am, the Battalion left Divion by march route for Maisnil St Pol. To avoid the worst of the heat, arrangements were made for the journey to be made in three stages. The Battalion marched until 11am and then turned into a field to rest for three hours. At 2pm, the journey was resumed and the Battalion later rested for one and a half hours before completing the journey: Maisnil St Pol being reached about 730pm. The men were somewhat tired after the 14 mile march owing to the length of time spent on the road and terrific heat but fatigue did not prevent a wild rush for refreshment when the Battalion was dismissed. Maismil St Pol’s estaminet keepers proved to be well acquainted with the commercial law that dictates that price is influenced by demand and it remains a bitter reflection that beer cost twice the normal price. In consequence, Maismil St Pol was rated low in the estimation of the troops.

Speculation and Further Moves.

The British offensive on the Somme, which was launched on 1st July 1916, was proceeding and it was clear that, whether a rapid advanced was achieved or whether piecemeal progress was made, the Division would soon be attracted to the scene as inevitably as steel to a magnet.

Rumours of the part to be played by the 47th Division had been circulating for a considerable time and the Division’s movement to the rear helped to remove any doubt left in the minds of the men. There was a marked improvement in the quantity and quality of the rations and this circumstance, more than any other event, was regarded by the veterans of the Battalion as an infallible sign of future trouble.

Brigade issued orders on 31st July detailing the move to be made on 1st August to the Forte-en-Artois–Bonnieres–Beauvoir area. The starting point was given as the road junction at the south east corner of Bois St Flayer and the time of departure was 825am. After a 430am reveille, the Battalion paraded at 615am on 1st August and moved out of Maisnil St Pol to the rendezvous point, in accordance with orders.

The Brigade was led by an advance guard of two platoon of 19th Battalion, followed by Brigade HQ, 19th Battalion, 20th Battalion, London Irish Rifles, 1st/4th Field Coy RE, 5th London Field Ambulance, Echelon “B” 1st Line Transport, No 3 Coy 47 Divisional Train and 141st TMB. One platoon of the London Irish Rifles acted as rearguard. The march, which continued all the morning, was interrupted by many irritating halts and the blustering heat and dust caused considerable discomfort. While climbing the hill outside Frevent, the heavily laden and exhausted troops felt the strain severely and, across the Brigade, there were many cases of men falling out in fainting condition.

The Battalion arrived at Fortel, tired and dusty, in the early afternoon and turned into an orchard to rest and await the rations. Eventually, it was decided that the Battalion should bivouac in the orchard for the night.

On the following day, the troops paraded for physical drill at 10am after a late breakfast (8am). Little work was done and the men enjoyed a really restful day.

The district was rather sparsely populated and villages appeared to be few and far between but the appearance of the countryside, under the blazing sun of high summer, was delightful. There were orchards of apple and cheery, wide sweeps of yellowing corn be-spattered with scarlet poppies and field after field covered with the cool green foliage of ripening root crops.

The ultimate destination and future activities of the Division were the chief topics of conversation and the wildest and most speculative opinions were assured of a flattering degree of attention. Strategists, over their estaminet beer and in a thick haze of smoke and conjecture, explained the reasons for he Somme offensive and, with profound conviction, indicated its precise importance to the mosaic of the Allied battle line. Tacticians explained a system of smashing attacks on narrow fronts with limited objectives and showed how local thrusts into the enemy’s line could be exploited by forcing withdrawals on the flanks, thus enlarging small bites of territorial gains into ones of some magnitude. Any complete failure to achieve results, quite as a matter of accepted fact, would be ascribed to British staff imperfections and to the enemy’s superior knowledge of the ground.

Fourth of August, the second anniversary of Britain’s entry into the war, was devoted to moving further south. Following a 3am reveille, the troops packed up by candle light and stumbled in the darkness through the orchard to the place of ablutions for a wash and a shave.

The Battalion paraded at 4am and set out from Fortel by march route, continuing the journey via Auxi-le-Chateau and Acquet to Neully-le-Dien, arriving at 950am. The route followed very pretty undulating and well wooded country and the fields everywhere, by the perfection of the crops, gave plentiful evidence of a fruitful soil. Vast expanses of ripening corn, rippling in the gentle summer breeze, flashed golden yellow in the bright sunshine and the nine mile march was enjoyed from beginning to end.

After a night spent in bivouacs in an orchard, the men rose before dawn and prepared for the next move. By 5am, the Battalion was on the march and journeyed to Gapennes via Noyelles-en-Chaussee, arriving about 9am. Again, the march was greatly enjoyed and the men revelled in the clean air, cloudless skies and feasted their eyes on wide vistas of golden corn relieved, here and there, by orchards, occasional woods and fields of fresh green sugar beet. While billets were being found, a roadside foot inspection was ordered and, later, the Battalion moved into its allotted accommodation.

Training but Time for Relaxation.

Until 20th August, the Battalion remained at Capennes. During this time, there was intensive training for open warfare and training in wood fighting was particularly practised. Brigade schemes of a complicated nature were carried through at dawn, and repeated at dusk, with meticulous attention to detail. Some of the training took place in Crecy Wood and, mindful of British history, the men recalled that, in this vicinity, an early English expeditionary force, led by Edward III and the Black Prince, won a glorious victory in August 1346. Crecy was, of course, one of the earliest battles in which cannon was used, but the London Irish, accustomed to the dominating influence of the artillery in modern warfare, found it difficult to conceive any fighting unaccompanied by gun fire and a barrage of shells.

In the attractive surroundings of Gapennes, time passed pleasantly and, remote from the perils of war, the men revelled in all phases of their work and tackled the training with healthy vigour. There were good facilities for amusement and sport and many keenly contested cricket matches were played. The Companies and specialist sections held dinner parties and, for the benefit of posterity, photographers registered groups of officers and men. The band of the London Irish was a popular turn and played to appreciative audiences of troop and villagers almost nightly. The villagers were particularly attracted by the Band’s Irish war pipes and distinctive attire.

The deserted chateau of Gapennes was the object of much interest to the troops. It had an evil reputation and was said to be haunted by the ghost of a victim of foul murder.  The chateau had clearly not been occupied for a very long time and was in a state of mouldering decay. It was only natural that visits of investigation should be undertaken and the Bombers, who occupied a cottage in the immediate vicinity, lost no time in exploring the chateau from attics to cellars. Nothing of a sensational nature was revealed but it was found that, for many years, bees had secreted their honey under the bedroom floors. The removal of a few floor boards permitted the extraction of a large quantity of honey and the unexpected addition to the rations made a welcome change.

Later, it became evident that the chateau was regarded locally as a pearl of great price – judging by the size of the bill for dilapidations sent in by the local authorities. The Bombing Officer, Lt Bartlett, who was the recipient of the account, had a rather worrying time until appropriate action, in regard to the bill, was taken.

On the Move.

On 20th August the Brigade began a four day march. Preceded by a practice rear guard action, during the first phase of the move, the Brigade journeyed to the Gorenflos area. On arrival, two Companies of the London Irish were billeted in Gorenflos and the two other Companies, Headquarters and specialists remained in Ergnies.

The Flesselles – Montonvillers – Havernas area was the Brigade’s destination on 21st August and, on arrival, the Battalion billeted in Flesselles. Setting out on 23rd August, the Brigade moved by march route to Molliens-au-Bois and all units billeted in the vicinity of the village.

The final stage of the march took place on 24th August when the Brigade marched to Bresle, the four Battalions being quartered there on arrival.

Intensive Training for the Battles to Come.

Serious training began at once and, on the same night, the Battalion participated in a practice night attack. During the remaining days of August, musketry, bayonet training, wood fighting, bombing, extended order, trench digging and gas training were practised assiduously. Days were devoted to Divisional and Brigade operations, sometimes with aeroplane co-operation and, as at Gapennes, schemes carried out at dawn were repeated at dusk.

Heavy rain interfered with training during the last few days of August but it was obvious that in health, enthusiasm and military efficiency, great strides were made. The men knew the purpose for which they were being trained and that the hour of trial was not far distant and, on 1st September, the 140th and 141st Brigades advanced over a flagged course, which represented the actual ground to be assaulted in earnest later.

Rumours were persistent of the existence of a new military weapon, which was expected to aid materially in the work of pushing the enemy back to the Rhine and there were men, who had actually seen the new device at special secret demonstrations. Gradually, brief detail of the wonderful new engine circulated and high hopes were entertained of unprecedented success with its aid. The troops felt that the “tank”, as the new weapon was styled, would “earn its keep” if it merely made sure that the enemy’s wire was passable, apart from its alleged machine gun eating proclivities.

In company with the remainder of the Brigade, on Sunday 10th September, the Battalion carried out a little light training, followed by a Church Parade. Brigade then issued a warning order for a move on the morrow and, during the afternoon, the men rested. All ranks were conscious of the fact that, within the next few days, they would be engaged in the Somme battles, the most deadly strife in history but with experience and adequate training and preparation as backing, hopes of success ran high and, with steady confidence, the men faced the future.

Chapter 7 – High Wood.