Chapter 4 – The Move South to the Vimy Area:
A Short Rest and a Move to Loos.
The Battalion, somewhat jaded after its experiences in the line at Christmas, rested at Labourse, until 2nd January, when it moved up to Verquin. On the following day, officers of the 141st Brigade proceeded to the line to reconnoitre and the Battalion later marched to Les Brebis, arriving at 1pm (3rd January). The 141st Brigade relieving the 18th French Division at Loos on 4th January.
The London Irish took over the Loos centre sub-Section between 6pm and 10pm, relieving units of the 36th French Brigade. The position was situated on the left of the Loos slag heap. This line was held by the Battalion until 8th January when it was relieved by the 17th Battalion and moved back, with two Companies in Loos and two Companies in North Maroc. The period in the line was not pleasant but was infinitely less uncomfortable than the Battalion’s sojourn in the position further north. Three officers were wounded during this period: Lt K de Ferrars and Lt PG Bateman being hit on 5th January and 2nd Lt RG Munro on 6th January. Other casualties were slight.
From the Support position, the Battalion marched to the front line on 10th January, relieving the 20th Battalion in the right sub-Section, which was situated in and round the Copse on the right of the Loos slap heap. The enemy fired lachrymatory shells during the progress of the relief but the damage was limited to one other rank wounded.
The 140th Brigade took over the line on 12th January, the London Irish being relieved by the 8th Battalion. On relief, the Battalion went into billets at Les Brebis but was temporarily placed at the disposal of the 140th Brigade. While in Reserve, the usual routine was observed, but “C” Company organised a little festivity in the form of a dinner on 15th January. The Company, consisting of 99 men, assembled in an estaminet and enjoyed a sumptuous meal with the Sergeants acting as waiters for the occasion.
In the Line for four days.
With a trench strength of 16 officers and 381 men and with two platoons of the Divisional Cyclists attached, the Battalion relieved the 21st Battalion in the Maroc centre sub-Section between 430pm and 830pm on 16th January.
The Battalion held the line at the foot of the Double Crassier and also occupied a trench which ran along the top of the North Crassier for about two thirds of the Crassier’s length. A further section of trench, running for about one third of the length of the South Crassier was also included in the Battalion’s line.
The trenches on the top of the slag heaps ran parallel, and were approximately at bombing range for the whole length. There was magnificent observation of the enemy lines from the slag heaps and all movement for some distance back could be watched. On one occasion, our observers witnessed a German officer inspecting the rifles of his men in the trenches below. From the Double Crassier, snipers on both sides found many opportunities of exercising their skill and signs were not lacking that the enemy was mining actively on the front.
The Germans shelled this line freely and a number of casualties were inflicted on the Battalion. The advanced bombing post on the Battalion’s right flank was situated in some semi-derelict trenches forty yards from the enemy’s front line and immediately below the South Crassier. As the post was under direct observation from the German post on the Crasser, 30 to 40 feet above, the Bombers had to keep under cover during the daytime, only emerging at night for air and exercise.
The 20th Battalion took over the line on 20th January and, on relief, the London Irish moved back in support and occupied cellars in Maroc and dug outs in the old reserve position.
Maroc was heavily shelled from 9pm onwards on 21st January and the bombardment caused a good deal of damage to the houses but the Battalion had only five casualties, two men being killed and three wounded.
Warning of Enemy Mining Activity and a State of Readiness.
The Battalion, consisting of 15 officers and 373 men, took over the front line in the Maroc left sub-Section from the 19th Battalion on 23rd January. At this time, the Division issued, through Brigade, a warning to the effect that there was little doubt that mining operations, on a large scale, had been in progress on the front taken over by the Division and there was a possibility that offensive operations might be undertaken by the enemy on, or about, 27th January: the Kaiser’s birthday. All ranks were enjoined to exercise particular vigilance and Battalion Commanders were required to give careful attention to:
- Positions of machine guns for enfilade fire.
- Positions of local reserves for counter attack purposes and ensuring that such reserves were thoroughly acquainted with the ground and the trench system.
- Duplication of telephone communication and provision of runners.
- Communication between infantry and supporting artillery.
- Control of traffic in trenches.
- Sufficiency of RE and emergency stores.
- Perfection of anti-gas appliances and arrangements.
Exploding a Defensive Mine.
At 2am on 23rd January, the 173 Tunnelling Company exploded a defensive mine to the left of the Battalion’s line in front of the Copse and an artillery bombardment was timed to coincide with the explosion of the mine. The enemy retaliated vigorously and, as well as light velocity shelling, over 100 heavy shells crashed into the Battalion’s area. A good deal of damage was done to the trenches but few casualties were sustained: only two men being killed.
Relief and Working Parties.
On the following day, 24th January, the 142nd Brigade was relieved in the Maroc Section by 140th Brigade and the Battalion’s line taken over by the 6th Battalion. On relief, the Battalion marched to Braquement and then to Noeux les Mines, arriving there at 1015pm.
While at Noeux les Mines, large working parties for the line were furnished and preparations made for a rapid move to the line in the event of an emergency. On 27th January (the German Emperor’s birthday), as the result of an attack by the enemy on the 15th Division (on the left of the 47th Division), the 141st Brigade “stood to” at 630pm but, an hour later, the situation was reported quiet and the Brigade resumed its normal state of readiness.
Expectation of an Attack in the Loos Salient.
On 28th January, the Battalion paraded at 330pm and marched through Mazingarbe, Les Brebis and Maroc, en route for Loos. The enemy observed the movement and shelled the Battalion, using a good deal of gas shell. The artillery fire caused some damage to transport but the Battalion escaped. There was a little confusion in the communication trenches before the Battalion reached the front line but matters soon rectified and, on arrival, the Battalion relieved the 22nd Battalion in the Loos left sub-Section.
Colonel Tredennick could not accompany the Battalion due to illness and Captain B MacM Mahon took over command. The 22nd Battalion was glad to be relieved as they had been severely shelled and an enemy attack had been expected. Fears of an enemy attack were revived when the acting CO, Captain Mahon, was roused – after a late tour of the line by Lt Blake Concanon, the Adjutant – with a message from the Brigadier, saying that nine enemy troop trains had arrived at Lens before 7am. To give emphasis to the warning, the enemy shelled the Battalion’s entire area very severely and the bombardment later extended over the whole of the Loos Salient trench system. While the bombardment continued, additional messages were received, announcing the arrival of more and more troop trains and, by night time, it was reported that at least twenty seven trains had arrived.
Brigade ordered preparations to be made to meet the danger and gave instructions that all positions were to be held at all costs. At the height of the bombardment, Captain Mahon made a tour of the front line and saw that the trenches had been badly battered and direct hits had blown breaches in the parapet in many places. The CO and his orderly scrambled past such places, knee deep in debris, and, throughout the tour, the trench floor was covered with a velvety carpet of loose earth scattered about by bursting shells. The front line garrison, spaced out in groups of three or four, owing to numerical weakness, were all keyed up and in good heart to give the enemy a hot reception. Casualties had been very slight, owing largely to the thin manning of the line.
On return to Headquarters, Captain Mahon found a report, transmitted from the 15th Division, saying that large numbers of German troops had been heard marching towards Hill 70, singing lustily. All night long, preparations were carried on and everybody was convinced that an important attack would be launched. The whole affair eventually fizzled out and, subsequently, it was thought that the Loos Salient demonstration was arranged by the Germans to divert attention from large scale operations that were about to be attempted in the Verdun area.
Minenwerfers, Trench Repairs and Anti Gas Soup.
Normal routine was resumed for the remainder of the Battalion’s tour in the line. The nights were very cold and made unpleasant by the enemy’s habit of firing rifle grenades and minenwerfers. The men had no particular apprehension so far as the rifle grenades were concerned, but when minenwerfers were being fired, they were treated with respect and alert eyes watched for a glimpse of the faint trail of sparks, which served to indicate the position and direction of the huge canisters of high explosive as they somersaulted lazily through the air. “Minnies” were definitely unpopular as apart from their death dealing propensities, the explosives always made a good deal of repair work necessary. Casualties were light, one man being killed and eight wounded.
The Battalion remained in the line until 5th February when they were relieved by the 6th Battalion and, on relief, the Battalion marched by back to Les Brebis. The hot soup, which awaited the Battalion in their return to billets gave little satisfaction to the men and the cooks were not congratulated as, in the making, anti-gas solution had been used instead of the usual water.