January to March 1917

Into the Line in the New Year and an Artillery Duel.

The 17th Battalion was relieved by the London Irish in the Ravine left sub-Sector, without incident, on 2nd January 1917 and the men soon settled down to the usual routine in the familiar trenches.

During the night of 3rd/4th January – a very wet one – a patrol of the London Irish, consisting of Lt REA Mallet and two Riflemen, went out to explore no-man’s land but ventured too close to the enemy’s line and were observed. The Germans opened fire and hurled bombs at the patrol and the three men promptly scattered. At 530am, one man came in, but Lt Mallet and the other man failed to reach the front line. Sentries were especially alert to watch for the missing officer and man but, when dawn broke, they were still unaccounted for, and some concern was felt for their safety. By this time, it was impossible to send out a search party. A daylight survey of the ground in front of the Battalion’s area, made with the use of periscopes, failed to locate the missing men and arrangements were made for a thorough search of no-man’s land, to be undertaken as soon as darkness fell. At dusk, however, Lt Mallet and the other man came in.

They had spent the day in water filled shell holes. The officer narrowly escaped death when coming in as he was, due to exposure, too hoarse to make an audible response to the sentry’s challenge. Seeing a figure crawling towards him in the gloom and getting no reply to his challenge, the sentry promptly hurled a bomb but, in his excitement, failed first to remove the safety pin.

On 5th January, in very heavy rain, the British artillery demonstrated against the enemy line with guns of all calibres and did a great deal of damage to the German defences. The German artillery was not slow in replying and many sections of the Battalion’s line were wrecked and some casualties sustained. 7th January was a beautifully fine day and, in the morning, British and German planes were very active and the men had the opportunity of witnessing many fights.

About midday, an enemy plane attacked a slow artillery observation plane and was saved by the approach of a fast fighting plane. The German flew off at top speed and easily escaped from its pursuer. On his way back, the German came across another slow British plane and promptly attacked and the British plane crashed in flames south of the Canal.  Throughout the afternoon, fighting in the air continued and, on many occasions, the infantry stopped to admire the skill and courage of the pilots of both sides.

In Support and then Return to the Front.

The 17th Battalion came up on the evening of 7th January and, on relief, the London Irish moved back into support with Headquarters and one Company at Woodcote House; one Company in Bluff Tunnels; one Company in Ravine Wood and the other Company on duty in a strong post. A more actively offensive attitude towards the enemy was under consideration by Brigade and preliminary arrangements for raiding the German line were discussed.

As a result, a London Irish party left the Battalion on 8th January for “Special Raid” training at Transport Farm but this particular proposal was subsequently abandoned. After a short period in support, the Battalion paraded at 430pm on 12th January, in distinctly cheerless weather, and moved up to the line. Much snow fell and, while the relief of the 17th Battalion was in progress, the men were chilled by a deluge of cold rain, which continued during most of the night. At dawn the following morning, the London Irish “stood to” in the firing line in a blinding snow storm, while on the left, on the 23rd Division front, a very violent strafe took place – although the Battalion’s front remained quiet.

Colonel B MacM Mahon is Invalided Out and is replaced by Major Parry.

On 15th January, Lt-Col B MacM Mahon, the Battalion’s tried and trusted Commanding Officer, fell sick and was admitted to Hospital. In 1915, Colonel Mahon had little difficulty in passing the medical test and, although not considered to be physically strong enough for active service, had, in the field, performed his onerous duties with conspicuous ability and had won the admiration and devotion of all ranks.

Major DB Parry assumed command of the London Irish on the departure of Colonel Mahon.

An Artillery Barrage.

In connection with a demonstration by Corps artillery, on 16th January, the front line was evacuated except for isolated groups of Bombers. At 715am promptly, the whole of the Corps artillery opened fire. All along the line, the Germans fired distress rockets and the enemy artillery responded immediately. After five minutes, the Corps artillery eased off and remained silent until 930am – when a deliberate bombardment of the enemy defences commenced. The shelling continued until 4pm, during which time the enemy maintained a steady return fire.

When troops resumed their normal dispositions, it was obvious, from the state of the line, that many lives were saved by the temporary evacuation. Although the Bombers continuously patrolled the front line during the bombardment, they enjoyed extraordinary luck and sustained no casualties. The Germans evidently thought that the artillery’s activities presaged a raid as, at dusk, a very heavy barrage was put down on the Battalion’s front line and it was noticed that enemy star shells were fired from the Support Line.

On the following morning, 17th January, the artillery programme was continued and, after a very severe bombardment of the enemy defences from 745am to 750am, the guns were lifted onto the enemy’s roads and communications. A blizzard raged during the morning, and the thoroughly wet trenches, the snow storm and the enemy’s artillery and minenwerfer retaliation all combined to make life in the front line extremely uncomfortable. Two men were killed and seven wounded and the stretcher bearers had some difficulty in getting the wounded away.

Late at night, when passing along the front line to say farewell to his friends, prior to leaving for England to take up a commission, Sgt Frank Cooper was shot through the head and killed. The youthful Sergeant was a very popular figure and his death was much regretted throughout the Battalion.

To Divisional Reserve.

At 10pm on 18th January, the London Irish were relieved by 21st London Regiment and proceeded to Ypres where, after a wait of about two hours, they en-trained and eventually arrived in the Divisional Reserve area at Scottish Lines at 4pm on 19th January. While in the line, the Battalion had experienced very bad weather, which included intense cold, rain, snow, frost and thaw. Digging and maintenance works were made practically impossible by the weather and enemy bombardments and, in consequence, the state of the trenches degenerated considerably.

Routine work occupied the Battalion’s attention while in Divisional Reserve and, apart from an inspection by the Army Commander on 25th January, nothing of note occurred. The hard weather, accompanied by bitter east winds, continued and the very low temperatures at night and morning kept everything frozen stiff. Fortunately, the men’s quarters were comfortable and, as frost converted the usual camp quagmire into firm ground, there was no difficulty in keeping clean. The frozen puddles and ponds provided good sliding and, further afield, the 55th Divisional Cinema at Poperinghe supplied excellent entertainment. Every evening, the estaminets of Ouderdom were thronged with cheerful troops, who enjoyed their liquid and solid refreshment in the pleasant warmth thrown off by glowing stoves.

On 26th January, the Battalion moved up into Brigade Reserve at Halifax Camp, taking over from the 15th London Regiment. Physical drill in the clear frosty air was exhilarating but, on a bathing parade on 29th January, a very long wait while the water was being thawed, rather chilled the spirits of the men.

Periodic Returns to the Front Line.

The Battalion was due in the front line on 30th January and, on that afternoon, paraded on the snow covered ground and moved off at about 330pm along the Ouderdom-Vlamertinghe road. Passing Den Groenen Jager Cabaret, the Battalion proceeded to Café Belge, then marched up the railway track past Chateau Segard, turned to the left, crossed the Yser Canal and thence up to Shrapnel Corner. Guides were picked up at Transport Farm and the Battalion was then led into the left position at Hill 60 where the 17th Battalion was relieved at 630pm.

The familiar trenches were frozen stiff and thick ice covered the large pool of water in Allen Crater. In the quietude of the night, the Bombers were able to enjoy a slide across the full width of the crater. The Battersea Farm, Glasgow and Berry Post garrisons found that the snow covered ground made every movement conspicuous and, to reduce the risk of being seen, were supplied with white smocks.

While in the line, the normal routine was followed and very many rumours were current regarding enemy intentions. It was reported that the Germans had installed gas cylinders in their line and that their artillery had been strengthened. Three raids were made on the Corps front and the possibility of a further one being made against the Battalion was thought highly probable. However, nothing of note occurred and, on 4th February, the Battalion was relieved by 17th London Regiment at 7pm. Battalion Headquarters and two Companies took over Railway Dugouts and the remainder of the Battalion occupied Belgian Chateau.

The London Irish returned to the line again on 8th February and relieved the 17th Battalion in the left sub-Sector of Hill 60. Hard weather continued and greatly hampered the trench repair work. Enemy shelling was severe at intervals and, in a heavy strafe on 10th February, one man was killed and three wounded. In preparation for a raid, the Corps heavies, assisted by 47th and 41st Divisional artillery, carried out destructive bombardments.

The 24th Battalion relieved the London Irish on 11th February and the Battalion proceeded to Ottawa Camp in Divisional Reserve and, on this occasion, the Battalion’s arrival was delayed by heavy shelling of Ypres – through which the Battalion had to pass. The weather broke on 14th February and the Arctic conditions abated somewhat. With the thaw, mud and slush returned but conditions gradually improved.

Disbandment of the Bombing Platoon.

Orders were received on 15th February for the Bombing Platoon to be disbanded and a section of Bombers was detailed to join each Company. A suspected case of measles (Rfn Sherwood) caused the actual disbandment to be deferred temporarily but the Bombing Platoon which, since its inception, had built up a wonderful reputation, soon ceased to exist as a separate entity – greatly to the regret of the personnel.

In Reserve, but supporting a 6th Battalion Raid.

The Battalion moved up to Dikkebus on 19th February and took over from the 6th London Regiment in Brigade Reserve in the Canal sub-sector and the 6th Battalion proceeded to the line to carry out a very spirited and successful raid – when they succeeded in penetrating he enemy defences, capturing one officer and 119 other ranks of the Wurtembergers.

Valuable assistance was given by a party of the London Irish, who put down a smoke barrage to screen the raiders and the services of this party were acknowledged by Brigadier General Viscount Hampden, GOC 140th Brigade, in a letter dated 21st February to the GOC 141st Brigade.

“The party from 18th Battalion, detailed for firing the smoke grenades, had no easy task and were heavily shelled; nevertheless, the duty was most efficiently performed and the ranks of the attacking troops thereby well protected. 2nd Lt Carter, 17th Battalion, was in charge of this party and I consider that his arrangements were very satisfactory.”

The 6th London Regiment was relieved in the Left sub-Sector Canal Sector on the evening of 24th February and two men of the London Irish were wounded during the relief. During the early part of the tour in the line, the enemy was very quiet but revived his aggressive tactics later. In trench mortar battery and artillery action, one man was killed and seven others wounded.

In Support.

The Battalion moved back into support during the evening of 28th February, with Battalion Headquarters and one Company in Swan Chateau, one Company in Chateau Segard, one Company in Canal Dugouts and one Company in Strong Points 7 and 8. Almost immediately, after the Battalion was clear of the line, a very heavy artillery action commenced and the SOS signal was put up by both sides. The Battalion was not, however, involved.

Leisure and two Front Line Duties in March.

The month of March was uneventful. Apart from the usual working parties, the Battalion had two spells in the front line, the first being from 4th to 7th March, when 17th Battalion was relieved; the second period was from 15th to 20th March, when the 20th Battalion was relieved. On these occasions, the customary routine was followed and no incidents of special note occurred.

The weather alternated between lovely spring like conditions and bitter cold. Very heavy snow storms occurred on 5th, 9th and 20th March and heavy rain fell towards the end of the month.

Casualties for the period were light: only a few men being killed and injured. One officer, 2 Lt CR Vincent was wounded on 7th March. Swan Chateau, in which vicinity the Battalion was positioned, was heavily bombarded on 1st March and over 5,000 enemy shells exploded there. The Battalion was fortunate in suffering only one man killed and five others wounded. Other units, particularly the artillery, were not so fortunate.

The second anniversary of the Battalion’s arrival in France was celebrated quietly in Scottish Lines. Two days later, on 11th March, the survivors of the original Battalion, enjoyed a special concert and sing-song, which continued until the early hours of the next morning.

Football was played whenever possible and the following matches took place:

11th March – 18th Bttn v 17th Bttn: 4-4
11th March -18th Bttn Officers v 17th Bttn Officers:18th Bttn lost 8-1.
25th March-18th Bttn v Royal Sussex:18th Bttn won 4-0.
28th March – 18th Bttn v 15th Bttn Transport:18th Bttn lost 3-2.

Boxing matches were contested in the Transport line at Ouderdom on 31st March: Cpl J Garrett beat Cpl Nicholls in the 1st Round. The fight between Rfn Abrahart and Cpl Holman was an exciting six round affair, in which Abrahart succeeded in beating Holman.

A Forthcoming Raid is Rumoured.

Rumours of a raid, to be undertaken by the Battalion, came to a head on 22nd March when Colonel Parry lectured the Battalion on the task, which Brigade had set for the London Irish. For some time, the proposed raid had been the topic of conversation in the estaminets of Ouderdom, Poperinghe and Reningelst and all units, except the London Irish Rifles, appeared to be well acquainted with the project.

A flagged and taped course, representing the area to be raided, was marked out near Halifax Camp and the Battalion practised there daily.

Chapter 9 – Ypres: the Raid.