Chapter 6 – The Angres and Lorette Action:
In Corps Reserve.
From 26th May to 11th June 1916, the Battalion remained in Corps reserve at Marest. During this period, the Battalion re-fitted and was much occupied by physical drill and training on the heights beyond Bours. Separate drafts of 75 and 31 other ranks, which arrived on 5th and 6th of June respectively, were welcomed and posted to Companies.
The whole Brigade turned out on the morning of 6th June and assembled in the Dieval road for a very close inspection by Brigadier General Thwaites and, immediately after the conclusion of the ceremonial parade, medal ribbons of recently awarded decorations were presented.
While at Marest, a good deal of recreation was enjoyed and many men found the proximity of the Divisional cinema at Pernes a relief from training and from the contemplation of past and future events. The one outstanding sporting event of the period occurred on 3rd June when L-Cpl Holman fought Rfn Abrahart. The fight was an excellent contest and, after six hard fought rounds which delighted the spectators, Rfn Abrahart was declared the winner.
At this time, Lt Hone, the Adjutant, went sick with trench fever and was succeeded as Adjutant by Lt Strachan.
Brigade orders for 10th June stated that the 141st Brigade would relieve 68th Brigade in reserve on the morrow. Accordingly, the Battalion paraded in full marching order at 915am on 11th June and marched off at 1015am. Pernes-Camblain was quickly reached and, accompanied by the 20th Battalion, the London Irish en-trained for Barlin. A short journey via Bruay brought the Battalion to its destination and, immediately after de-training, they moved off under leaden skies and in a deluge of rain to Hersin-Coupigny, where huts were available as billets.
Into the Line at Angres Section.
In the meantime, orders for the trenches had been received and, at 1130am on 12th June, the Battalion marched to the line via Bully to relieve the 2nd Northamptons (24th Division) in “A” sub-Section, Angres Section. Guides, picked up at Corons d’Aix, conducted the Battalion through long communication trenches and, by 4pm, the Battalion was in occupation of the front line. Battalion Headquarters and two Companies of the RMLI (Royal Naval Division) remained in the trenches with the London Irish for the purposes of instruction.
The new sector, which was situated south of Bully Grenay and north of Souchez, comprised the usual intricate arrangement of trenches, saps and “T” pieces. The front line was a fairly good trench and was served by a number of communication trenches running from a support line called Pyrenees. The support line was also generally in good order although waterlogged in some parts. There were many derelict trenches in the sub-Section and it was the Battalion’s task, while in the line, to make most of these serviceable.
The Brigade front was served by a tramway, which ran from a point east of Brigade Headquarters to Mechanic’s Trench. The tramway, which was manned by 17th Battalion personnel, gloried in a rolling stock consisting of eight trucks. It was most valuable innovation and saved the infantry a tremendous amount of labour. Two journeys nightly were made on the tramway; the forward trip was performed to take up rations and RE stores and the return journey was almost monopolised by Tunnelling Company material. A return trip on the tramway usually took about one and a quarter hours.
An Expected Enemy Mine is not Blown.
In the line, the enemy was somewhat aggressive and harried the Battalion’s area with rifle grenades, trench mortars and aerial torpedoes. Normal routine was disturbed by information, which was received on the afternoon of 14th June, suggesting that the enemy might blow a mine in the evening. In consequence of this intelligence, crater parties were detailed and took up appropriate positions in the line at 6pm and the Battalion stood to arms. The expected explosion did not occur and, after waiting until 10pm, the first crater parties were relieved by other specially detailed parties. However, apart from trench mortar activity, the night passed quietly.
On 14th June, Brigade issued instructions for steps to be taken to clear the old derelict French trenches in and around the Bajolle Line – from the junction of Corons d’Aix and Flapper Alley, Bajolle Line and Angres Alley – and for saps to be pushed out from, and including, Saps 12 and 16. This work was stressed as being of considerable urgency and Brigade ordered the Battalion to send two officers forthwith, to reconnoitre these trenches by what remained of daylight and for these officers and five NCOs from the Battalion to meet working parties from other units of the Brigade at Mechanic’s Trench and to allot tasks and to set the parties to work.
Labour on the old trenches and saps continued day and night and the Battalion participated in work until relieved. The enemy’s line came in for a good deal of close scrutiny as Brigade had issued orders calling for schemes for raids to be submitted. The idea favoured by high authority contemplated the use of parties of about one company strength, raiding with, or without, the use of gas and bombardment according to local taste.
Relief and a Sojourn at Bouvigny.
The Battalion’s tour in the line concluded on 17th June when the 23rd Battalion took over the sub-Section in the afternoon. On relief, the Battalion moved back to huts in Bouvigny Woods but were shelled on the way by the Germans, who had evidently observed the movement.
Under the command of Major W Parker of the 24th Battalion, the London Irish remained at Bouvigny huts for a few days, enjoying cloudless skies, bright sunshine and the pleasant surroundings, regaling themselves with wild strawberries, which grew in profusion in the vicinity of the huts.
On 21st June, the Battalion moved to Bully, occupying some deserted houses and reserve trenches and, on the following day (22nd June), moved into the support trenches.
The weather was good and, in consequence, there was considerable aircraft activity. Some planes flew so low that they were attacked by field guns. The usual working parties were provided for trench improvements, and carrying parties took up rations nightly to the 20th Battalion in Link Alley via Coron d‘Aix, Spinney Trench and Cooker Alley.
Return to the Front Line and Preparing for a Raid.
The Battalion moved into the front line on the afternoon of 25th June and relieved the 20th Battalion in “A” sub-Section, Angres Section. A minor operation was about to be undertaken and the artillery was busy carrying out organised shoots to which the enemy was responding with considerable vigour. During the night of 26th/27th June, an attack was observed on Vimy Ridge when, following a furious bout of shelling, there was a splendid display of red, green and white rockets while, above the roar of guns, the staccato clatter of machine guns and the crackle of rifles was plainly heard.
On 27th June, the Battalion spent a busy time perfecting the arrangements designed to assist the 19th Battalion in the raid, which was due to take place that night. To support the raid, the Battalion was required to send over a smoke screen at stipulated times, while gas was to be discharged from the front line and a barrage of rifle grenades and trench mortars fired on certain important tactical points in accordance with an elaborate schedule, which was timed to seconds.
The raid was to be made by two groups of men: Party “A” – comprising 140 all ranks, two RE NCOs and four sappers – were detailed to occupy the northern portion of the enemy salient opposite trenches Vasseau, Lever and Dupuis; Party “B” – consisting of 50 men, 1 RE NCO and two sappers – were required to occupy the Bully craters and the enemy front line due east of Castle Street, Bully Alley and Saps 11 and 12. Eleven Bombers of the London Irish, under Cpl Edwards were attached to the raiding party to participate in the operation.
At 1115pm, gas and smoke were projected along the whole of the Angres Section for two hours, all accompanied by artillery fire. At 115am on 28th June, the raiding parties pushed forward towards the German trenches. The enemy put up a stout defence and met Party “B” in no-man’s land with bayonets. Party “A”, however, succeeded in entering the enemy defences with less difficulty.
The raid achieved its objective, identification of enemy troops was secured, many dugouts were bombed and a considerable number of casualties inflicted on the enemy.
During the action, casualties in the London Irish lines (including attached troops) amounted to four men killed and thirty wounded. On the right of the line, between Saps 12 and Solfrino, the trenches were practically obliterated by shell fire but, elsewhere, the firing line was not materially damaged.
Ruin caused by enemy shell fire, the flooded state of some sections of line and sandbags pulled down from the parapets as protection for the gas cylinders, gave the line a very dilapidated and battered appearance. Many gas cylinders were leaking and the front line was so full of gas that masks had to be worn for a considerable time. By 2am, the excitement was diminishing and, shortly afterwards, apart from heavy shells which continued to crash on the support line, normal conditions prevailed and the remainder of the night was quiet.
Every man that could be spared was immediately set to work clearing up the debris and repairing the damaged line, but tasks were much hampered by heavy rain and working parties spent a most depressing night.
Move to Brigade Reserve.
The 20th Brigade took over the sub-Section on 29th June and the Battalion, weary from incessant toil on trench repairs and drainage work, moved back into Brigade Reserve.
Headquarters and two companies billeted in Sains and the two other Companies, Bombers and Lewis Gunners took over the cellars in Bully.
30th June was a quiet day devoted to cleaning up. A 180 strong draft arrived and, after being inspected, the men were posted to Companies. During the afternoon, gun positions in the Battalion’s vicinity were heavily shelled, armour piercing shells being freely used and one man was killed and another wounded by a shell, which wrecked a house in Bully.
The Battalion remained in Brigade reserve until 3rd July when it moved to Bouvigny in Divisional Reserve. Preparations were made for a move to the trenches and the Souchez region was reconnoitred by the officers.
Brigadier General Bridgford takes Command.
During this period, the Brigade said goodbye to its well-tried and trusted Brigadier. While extremely sorry to lose Brigadier General Thwaites, it was recognised by all that the Brigadier’s sterling qualities demanded greater scope and that promotion to command of the 46th Division was well deserved. Brigadier General RJ Bridgford CMG DSO assumed command of the Brigade in succession to General Thwaites.
Return to the Line at Souchez.
Strengthened by a further draft of 99 men, the Battalion left Bouvigny Boyeffles at 910am on 7th July and proceeded to the line, relieving the 7th Battalion in the front line at Souchez. The sub-Section occupied by the Battalion was quieter than on the last occasion when the Battalion occupied the same area but the trenches were still very wet in places.
A raid by 22nd Battalion on the Angres section on 9th July caused a good deal of shell fire and 2nd L A MacKenzie Smith and seven other ranks were wounded and one man killed. Among the wounded was Sgt Bert Warren, a most competent and courageous NCO.
After a period, during which the Battalion worked hard, and carried out an almost complete transformation of the trenches in its area and submitted to a good deal of shelling and battering by minenwerfers, relief took place on the night of 14th/15th July when 17th Battalion took over. Prior to relief, the Battalion lost one man killed and two men wounded.
In Support at Lorette.
Ablain St Nazaire and the Lorette Heights were reached at 2am (on the 15th) and the Battalion occupied the support position.
Unusual freedom from shell fire marked the Battalion’s sojourn on the Lorette Heights. Working parties were plentiful and the Battalion’s energies were fully exploited but the quiet conditions gave relief from mental stress. As a result, after so much fatigue and weariness, sleep brought a new and refreshing vitality to the men.
To Corps Reserve and Lt Col Tredennick resuming Command.
The Drake Battalion from the RN Division took over Ablain and Lorette on 19th July, whereupon the Battalion moved back to Bouvigny Boyeffles in reserve.
Lt-Col JP Tredennick resumed command of the Battalion on 20th July and, on the same day, a party of men left the Battalion for attachment to 182nd Coy RE for work on Vimy Ridge. After a few days spent in Bouvigny, the Battalion, stronger than it had been for many months, prepared to accompany the remainder of the Brigade to Corps reserve.
On 27th July, the men were up at 530am and paraded at 715am in full marching order and were soon en route for Divion. In blazing sunshine, the Battalion marched north through Boyeffles, Sains-en-Gohelle, then north-west through Houdain, arriving at Divion at 1pm. The march was approximately eleven miles in length but the dust and heat made the journey rather trying. No time was lost on arrival and the men were soon comfortably settled in barns.
Lt-Col Tredennick leaves the Battalion.
Lt-Col Tredennick was appointed Commandant of the 4th Division School at Pernes on 29th July and Major JR Trinder assumed command of the Battalion.