Chapter 12 – Flesquieres.
Relief from the Front Line and in III Army Reserve at Christmas.
After a weary journey from the line, the London Irish arrived at Bertincourt at 3am on 16th December and billeted in empty houses. The men were up again at 7am and, by 9am, the Battalion was moving across country to Velu where the Brigade en-trained at 1015am.
The train ran via Bapaume and Miraumont to Aveluy, a small town about one and a half miles north of Albert, arriving at 2pm. Through countryside covered with deep snow, the Battalion marched westward to their destination: a dreary and dilapidated hutted encampment near Bouzincourt known as Heavy Battery Camp.
Without regrets, the Battalion moved from Heavy Battery Camp on the afternoon of 18th December and took over more comfortable billets in Bouzincourt.
During this period, 47th Division was in III Army reserve and was allotted the role of counter attacking division in case of serious hostile attempts to capture the main Bapaume – Peronne Line. Intensive training for this duty was planned by Brigade and, until Christmas, the Battalion worked in a countryside almost knee deep in snow. Conditions were seasonable but uncomfortable.
On Christmas Eve, the temperature rose and the snow began to melt rapidly but, on Christmas Day, the thermometer fell below freezing point and the ice, which had formed on the road, was very treacherous for horse and men.
In preparation for Christmas festivities, the locality was scoured for extra fare and considerable success was achieved in this direction in spite of keen competition from other units. Christmas Day was spent as a holiday and, in the evening, the men enjoyed a real Christmas Dinner at which the senior NCOs acted as orderlies. The meal was taken in the men’s billets and the CO, Major Murphy, visited the billets during the meal and wished all ranks the customary greetings.
The NCOs had their dinner on Boxing Day with Capt Hobbs in the chair representing the Commanding Officer.
On Short Notice for a Move.
On 27th December, the Brigade was warned to be prepared to move at four hours’ notice to proceed to Aveluy by tactical train and, on the following day, the notice was reduced to three hours. The Brigade was not, however, called on to act.
After Christmas, further heavy falls of snow occurred, making training very difficult and, on account of the deep snow, the Battalion had a bad time, particularly on 29th December, when the whole Brigade was engaged in a tactical exercise in the vicinity of Englebelmer. Ploughing across country for hours in deep snow was far from being a joke but the men carried on with their customary cheerfulness.
On New Year’s Eve, the Battalion’s Concert Party gave a very successful show in the YMCA hut in Bouzincourt, and later merry parties paraded the village streets assisting, with vocal zest, the efforts of the Band to greet the New Year.
Training continued until 5th January when the Brigade Group moved by tactical train to Etricourt. On this day, the Battalion left Bouzincourt at 850am and marched to Aveluy and en-trained. The route ran through the old Somme battlefields via Albert, Leuze Wood, Le Tansloy and Rocquingy and the journey provided the men with many features of considerable interest. The troops de-trained at Etricourt and marched over very bad roads to billets in Bertincourt.
Return to the Front Line.
The 47th Division was under orders to take over the left Brigade front of the 19th Division, with 142nd Brigade, and the right front of 17th Division, with 141st Brigade.
The London Irish moved off at 230pm on 6th January and, after a twelve mile march via Metz-en-Couture, Trescault and east of Ruyaulcourt, relieved the 7th East Yorks near Flesquieres, occupying the centre sub-section, with 17th Battalion on the left and 19th Battalion on the right. During the tour in the line, conditions were fairly quiet but as abnormal enemy troop movements from Cambrai line wards had been observed, special precautions were taken to deal with any emergency.
Into Reserve in the Hindenburg Support Line.
A definite thaw set in on 11th January and, on this day, the Battalion, on being relieved by 19th Battalion, withdrew into reserve in the Hindenburg Support Line.
While in reserve, the Battalion was detailed to perform a multitude of jobs and, in addition to the daily working parties, 120 men were supplied nightly to 518 Field Company RE.
Relieving 19th Battalion and Bad Conditions.
From reserve, the Battalion moved up to the front line on January 15th at 430pm and relieved 19th Battalion in the centre sub-section. The relief was effected in a downpour of rain and to make matters worse, the 19th Battalion’s supper arrived while taking over. In consequence, there was some confusion and delay.
The line taken over consisted of a series of isolated posts, many of which were in a deplorable condition. On one company front, three posts were impossible to man on account of mud and water, which came up to the men’s waists. Constant patrolling of the line and no-man’s land occurred every night and various derelict gun pits in no-man’s-land were visited and shots exchanged with enemy parties similarly engaged. About this period, the enemy adopted a practice of concentrating on the posts a hurricane fire of high explosive shells followed by gas. These bursts of fire came without warning and lasted about fifteen minutes and often great damage was done.
Flesquieres too came in for a sustained bombardment nearly every night and enemy guns put in some excellent shooting. A thaw, which followed several severe frosts occasioned considerable disintegration of trenches and the Battalion’s working parties were kept very busy on repair work in consequence.
Relief to Divisional Reserve.
The London Irish were relieved on the night of 18th January by 22nd Battalion and, just prior to the relief, the enemy opened a hurricane bombardment on the Battalion’s left position. This was followed by shrapnel and gas shelling of considerable severity. The enemy appeared to be nervous and coloured rockets were fired from several points in the enemy line.
After relief, the Battalion moved rearwards through Flesquieres, Ribecourt-la-Tour and Trescault. Some hot soup, obtained from the Brigade soup kitchen at Trescault, was much enjoyed, after which the men had a very long wait before en-training on the light railway for Bertincourt.
During the few days in Divisional reserve, companies were reorganised and a good deal of cleaning up performed in readiness for an inspection by the Divisional Commander. Major General Gorringe inspected the Battalion on 22nd January and, after paying tribute to the Battalion’s work at Bourlon Wood, made some observations on the general situation and emphasised the necessity for “sticking it” as the Allies were engaged in what was likely to be a long war. Needless to say, the subsequent comment on the General’s remarks did not lack point.
In the Line and Return to Brigade Reserve.
The Battalion moved up to the line on 24th January and, at 8pm, relieved 8th Battalion in the centre section – Flesquieres right sub-sector. Gumboots were picked up at the Brigade dump on the Marcoing road since the trenches to be taken over were very wet.
Conditions in the line were quiet and the weather fine generally. A good deal of morning mist made artillery observation impossible and the infantry enjoyed some respite from shelling. Special vigilance was observed on 27th January, the Kaiser’s Birthday, but no untoward incident occurred. At night, patrols carried out frequent inspections of no-man’s land and visited many old gun pits and dug out.
The 17th Battalion took over the line on the evening of 28th January and, after a relief much enlivened by a gas bombardment, the Battalion moved back into Brigade reserve in Ribecourt-la-Tour cellars and was responsible for providing large working parties.
Casualties in January for the 18th Battalion.
Casualties in the Battalion for the month of January were slight: two men killed, 18 wounded and 1 missing.
Reorganisation of the Brigades from Four to Three Infantry Regiments.
Towards the end of January, instructions were received for the reorganisation of the Division by which the number of battalions was to be reduced from twelve to nine. After completion of the new scheme, the Infantry Brigade were composed as follows:
140th Brigade under Brig Gen HBPL Kenny DSO.
15th Battalion – Civil Service Rifles.
17th Battalion – Poplar and Stepney Rifles.
21st Battalion – 1st Surrey Rifles.
141st Brigade under Brig Gen WF Mildren CMG DSO.
18th Battalion – London Irish Rifles.
19th Battalion – St Pancras Rifles.
20th Battalion – Blackheath and Woolwich Rifles.
142nd Brigade under Brig Gen VT Bailey DSO.
22nd Battalion – The Queens.
23rd Battalion – London Regiment.
24th Battalion – The Queens.
As a result of the reorganisation, the Battalion was glad to welcome, on 30th January, a draft of 3 officers and 140 men from 6th Battalion and further detachments reached the Battalion from time to time.
Into the Line at the Beginning of February.
The Battalion moved into the line on 1st February and took over the right sub-Sector Flesquieres right from the 20th Battalion. During the spell in the line, the Battalion experienced very cold nights but, on the whole, bright sunny weather during the day. There was little activity on the part of the enemy other than some light shelling during the day time but at night bombing planes were very busy and the gun harassed communications. No-man’s-land was constantly patrolled during the night and, at times, a good deal of material was salved from dumps in the evacuated portion of Premy Salient.
SOS tests comprising the use of a mixture of coloured rockets (white and green) were carried out at 10pm on 4th February to ascertain the time taken by the artillery to respond. The tests were a dismal failure as neither the artillery nor the machine guns replied.
Mr Tyson and Rfn Turpin were wounded during the night of 4th/5th February in a brush between patrols in no-man’s-land when the enemy patrol brought a machine gun into action.
On 5th February, enemy planes displayed unusual activity, a fleet of nine flying backward and forward at great speed, swooping down very low to engage the infantry in the trenches with machine guns. Heavy shelling also occurred and as an enemy raid was expected all ranks were very much on the alert.
Report by 2nd Lt Stone of an all-day Patrol No-Man’s Land.
2nd Lt HR Stone took a patrol out into no-man’s-land at 6am on 6th February and remained in the deserted trenches all day.
On return, 2nd Lt Stone reported as follows:
“At 6am, we left our line at L 21c 45-90 and worked up along the Sunken Road. The last 200 yards to Premy trench is camouflaged with wire netting and sods of earth, dirt etc. Once we entered the camouflage, it became necessary to crawl the whole way. We carried on until we reached a point within 40 yards of Premy trench where we found the trench blocked with wire and debris. From this point, our view was most limited. The right bank of the Sunken Road is lower than the left, hence observation to the left was nil. To the right, we saw two mounds of fresh earth, with a trench running back from them to Premy. We lay doggo at the block for a while and listened and heard a party of men digging somewhere to our right. Not being able to gain any more information at this point, I decided to return down Sunken Road as far as the Switch at L 21 60-44 and work up Dago trench. This we did and got within 30 yards of Premy trench when three snipers jumped up from their position, which was at the mound of freshly turned earth and ran back to Premy trench as fast as they could. One was seen to walk back to own line and the other two walked a little way towards us and then turned about and disappeared.
Meanwhile, we heard a party working in the trench from the junction of Dago trench with Premy trench to the Sunken Road. We lay doggo watching Premy trench when a Bosch officer with another man was seen. They would stand and look over the parapet towards our lines, then got down and moved away only to reappear in another position. He was wearing a stiff hat of blueish grey colour and a well fitting new grey tunic. The badge in his hat was made of white metal and showed up distinctly. When this officer reached a point 40 yards from us, one shot was fired at him, he was seen through field glasses to fall backwards clutching his throat. We continued to lay quiet for about an hour, when one of the enemy was seen cautiously to raise his head above the parapet and look over. We did not however fire and the Bosch gaining confidence, got further up and stood. with from his waist up, exposed. The range in his case was not more than 40 yards, one shot again was fired and he was seen to fall back, the bullet penetrating about 4” below the throat.
After this, we shifted back our position about 20 yards and continued to lay quiet. At about 130pm, the men whom we had seen leave their post and return to Premy trench made as if to return to their position. If they had done so, they would have seriously handicapped us and would have had an advantage over us, since we were in the rear of their position. However, we let them get on the parapet when two shots were fired at them. The estimated range was 50 yards. Through field glasses, two were seen to fall back into the trench, the third jumped back. All the enemy seen were wearing soft hats with a dark blue band. The party in Premy trench continued on with their work and an attempt was made at retaliation. We again shifted our position and although we lay quiet for the rest of the afternoon no further signs of the enemy were observed. The position of the sniper’s post is L 21a 90.71.
Along the top of Premy trench is distributed the remains of a tank and under cover of some of the iron work, a machine gun was observed to fire. Position of the machine gun L 21a 90.78. The field of fire from the sniper’s post is an extensive one. It commands the ridge running through L 27, L 32, right across to L 20 central. A great deal of individual and collective movement was observed in the rear of individual and collective movement was observed in rear of the enemy front line, in front of Marcoing. Parties of Bsoch could be observed coming along from the direction of the Chapel of the Virgin, up to the line an strong points and carrying on with work. Digging was observed to be carried on with, at strong points L 21s 75.35 and the junction of Premy trench and Dago trench commands all the ground in front of Marcoing and in rear of the enemy front line also the ground to the south of Marcoing. About 40 yards in front of the sniper’s post and running diagonally from the junction of the Switch trench at L 21a 75.35 to within 30 yards of the junction of the Sunken Road with Premy trench in a single belt of wire. There is a gap of about 15 yards at the junction of the Switch and Dago trench. The patrol returned via Sunken Road at 545pm entering our lines at L 21c 45.90. Our casualties were nil.”
(Signed) HR Stone, 2 Lt 1st/18th London Regiment, 6th February 1918.
Relief to Divisional and Corps Reserve.
Prior to relief by 24th London Regiment on 8th February, the enemy carried out a good deal of shelling and made quite good shooting against our trenches, particularly at the point where the front line crossed the Ribrecourt – Marcoing road. It was obvious too that the enemy was busy cutting the wire defences and battering the support line.
After relief, the Battalion returned to Bertincourt by the usual march and train route and arrived very late and tired at 3am on 9th February. While in Divisional reserve at Bertincourt, a large draft of men (ex London Rifle Brigade) joined and were posted to companies. Reorganisation and training occupied the Battalion’s attention by day and at night large parties proceeded to Havrincourt Wood and vicinity to improve the trenches and wire in and about the wood.
Relieving the 21st Battalion.
The Battalion, under Col Murphy, moved into the line on the 14th February and took over from 21st Battalion as reserve Battalion in Flesquieres, between Ribecourt and Flesquieres. “A” and “D” Companies occupied Bilhem Chapel Switch and “B” and “C” Companies were posted to Hindenburg Support. For the journey, the men paraded at Church Street at 5 pm and en-trained on the light railway at Bertincourt Station. The train journey was commenced after some delay but there were many halts and the half frozen troops were glad to de-train and march to their position in Screw Trench: the reserve line.
While in reserve, the Battalion was fully employed on various labours and, when not wiring, improving the trenches and cable burying, was employed on salvage work. There was a great deal of battle debris, both British and German, in the vicinity of Hindenburg Support and salvage parties had plenty to do. On 19th February, the Battalion’s working parties set out as usual at 530am and, after a full day’s work, returned in time to collect their belongings and parade again at 6pm ready to proceed to the front line.
The Catacombs under Flesquieres Church.
The Battalion moved up via Red Chateau to Flesquieres and relieved 19th Battalion. The support platoons, quartered in the Catacombs under the church, found themselves in very interesting and wonderful surroundings. The Catacombs comprised underground tunnels about 60 feet below the surface of the earth, carved out of the chalk with large chambers off the main galleries. The main galleries were reputed to link up with the surrounding villages and it is remembered that arrangements were made for a former Mayor of Flesquieres to attend and point out the exact run of certain tunnels, which were reputed to connect with the enemy’s territory. The Catacombs were lit by electricity throughout and all the chambers were equipped with wire bunks. The troops found their accommodation below ground very comfortable and there was no danger from air bombing nor the heaviest shelling.
Above ground, the forward area was no haven of rest. Enemy artillery was very active and frequent gas bombardments poisoned the atmosphere.
Transport and troops drawing rations at the Racing Stables had harrowing experiences. Obviously, the enemy knew of the nightly gatherings there and, after dark, the German gunners lashed the Stables every twenty minutes with high explosive, shrapnel and gas shells. Conditions on dark wet nights were ghastly in the extreme and stretcher bearers often had plenty to do.
On the evening of 23rd February, the Battalion was relieved by 2nd Royal Marine Light Infantry and moved back to Vallulart Camp in Corps Reserve.
Training for the Expected Enemy Offensive.
At this period, it was common knowledge that an enemy attack on a vast scale would soon be launched and, in the period at its disposal in Corps reserve, the Division prepared for the fray with its customary energy. Special attention was paid to 153 musketry and all ranks carried out firing practice on the range at Le Transloy. Field training and gas instruction were important items in the Battalion’s activities and, on 14th March, the whole Division was engaged in a counter attack exercise in the Mesnil-en-Arrouaise to Etricourt area.
The long spell of fine weather broke up on 19th March when rain set in.
On this day, the Battalion’s representatives, in a thunderstorm, reconnoitred the line about to be taken over on the morrow.