The 2nd Army Offensive: Messines Ridge.
In the 2nd Army’s attack for the Messines Ridge, 47th Division formed part of X Corps and, in the action, was allotted the centre position of the Corps astride the Ypres Comines Canal.
The Division’s neighbours were 41st Division on the right and 23rd Division on the left.
The objective of the Xth Corps included Battle Wood and Hill 60 on the left, both banks of the Canal in the centre and, on the right, a section of Damstrasse and White Chateau. Penetration of the enemy’s line was planned to be achieved in three jumps: the successive objectives being described as the Red, Blue and Black Lines – the Black Line being the final objective and situated in 47th Division’s front, 1000 yards away on the right and 1500 yards distant on the left.
140th Brigade was in the line on the right and 142nd Brigade on the left, the canal constituting the boundary between the brigades.
In reserve to the Division, 141st Brigade was disposed as under:
17th Battalion, in reserve to and at the disposal of GOC 140th Brigade (fighting strength, 23 officers and 735 other ranks).
18th Battalion (London Irish), in Echo Trench (fighting strength, 25 officers and 719 other ranks).
19th Battalion, in trenches of GHQ, 2nd line, east of Swan Chateau (fighting strength, 22 officers and 627 other ranks.
20th Battalion, in reserve to and at the disposal of GOC 142nd Brigade (fighting strength, 20 officers and 638 other ranks).
Brigade HQ was situated at Bedford House.
Zero was timed for 310am on 7th June and, at this hour, the long string of mines, which had been in preparation for many months, was fired and the barrage opened all along the battle front. The mines exploded with a reverberating roar and the upheaval annihilated the already badly battered enemy front and support lines. Meanwhile, the assaulting troops prepared for the attack by moving up close to the barrage.
On the right, south of the Canal, the 7th and 8th Battalions advanced according to schedule under cover of a highly satisfactory creeping barrage and took their objectives with the exception of White Chateau. Here, from windows and openings in the walls, the enemy garrison fought with determination, using three machine guns and showers of stick bombs.
A second assault, covered by Lewis gun fire and rifle grenades failed, but a third attack was launched simultaneously with the opening of the second phase of the attack on the Black line. The assault was successful and the garrison of White Chateau surrendered at 750am.
The 6th and 15th Battalions, detailed to pass through 7th and 8th Battalion, came up and pressed on to their objectives: securing the Black Line according to schedule.
On the northern side of the Canal, 142nd Brigade, with 24th and 22nd Battalions in the front line, moved onto the assault and secured their objectives without much difficulty. Close touch with 140th Brigade was maintained on the right flank and a platoon of the 24th Battalion succeeded in crossing the Canal at Iron Bridge and worked forward on the south side of the Canal.
The 23rd and 21st Battalions moved up to the positions vacated by 24th and 22nd Battalions, in readiness for the second phase of the attack, timed for 435am (8th June).
Aided by a very accurate creeping barrage, 23rd Battalion captured its objectives and the crossing of the Canal was effected with few casualties. The left of the Battalion was, however, exposed owing to the 21st Battalion being held up and machine guns were pushed out to protect the flank.
On their first objective, reached at 712am, 21st Battalion was subjected to heavy rifle and machine gun fire from Long Spoil Bank and Battle Wood. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th waves of 21st Battalion attempted to push forward in the face of heavy machine gun fire, but only succeeded in establishing a post on the western end of the Spoil Bank. It was apparent that further progress was impossible and a bombardment of Long Spoil Bank was commenced at 2pm.
In the meantime, two companies of 20th Battalion and two platoons of 21st Battalion were detailed to assault at 7pm. The attack was launched, under difficult circumstances. This failed largely owing to a very heavy enemy artillery barrage, which fell on the assembly positions just prior to the attack, and to effective machine gun fire. The 141st Brigade, apart from the action by 20th Battalion, was not called upon to proceed to the front line and acted in accordance with pre-arranged plans. The 19th Battalion moved forward to the Bluff.
The Move to Old French Trench.
The London Irish, under Lt Col DB Parry. Moved forward at 7am in artillery formation to Old French Trench, with Battalion Headquarters at Arundel House and Advanced Headquarters at West Face. In a report to Brigade, the movement was described as a: “pleasant journey up”. The 17th Battalion was employed in furnishing carrying parties for 141st Brigade.
Early the following morning, 8th June, 141st Brigade was instructed to reconnoitre the front with a view to taking over positions of 142nd Brigade – north of the Canal. During the day, the London Irish remained in Old French Trench and were not unduly harassed by artillery fire. A move to the front line, timed for 10pm, was subsequently cancelled.
The Advance to the Firing Line and Patrols.
The London Irish advanced to the firing line during the night of 9th/10th June and relieved two companies each of the 23rd and 24th Battalions in the Blue Line and Triangular Spoil Bank, north of the Canal. By dawn on 10th June, the Brigade was disposed as follows:
Right – 17th Battalion. South of the Canal.
Centre – 18th Battalion. Holding Triangular Spoil Bank and from there north to the Quarry.
Left – 19th Battalion. From Quarry, north to left of Divisional front and in touch with the right Battalion of 23rd Division.
During the night, a strong London Irish patrol of 30 men, under 2nd Lt CF Burnay pushed forward along Spoil Bank, bombing the dug outs of the southern face of the Bank. This patrol encountered a considerable body of the enemy at the eastern end of the Spoil Bank and a lively fight ensued. Many casualties were inflicted on the enemy before the patrol returned.
2nd Lt Burnay’s party lost one man, missing – believed killed and three men wounded. During the day, there was some erratic shelling from the enemy’s guns, north and north east, but otherwise conditions were fairly quiet. At 1030pm, an SOS signal was put up on the right of the Divisional front and our barrage opened forthwith but, by 1115pm, the front line Battalions were able to report quiet conditions and the artillery received orders to slacken fire.
Relief by the 8th Buffs and the Move to Caestre.
The Battalion remained in the line until 13th/14th June when Battalion Headquarters and two advanced Companies proceeded to Bluff Tunnels on relief by a company of the 8th Buffs.
During the last few days in the line, there was heavy shelling continuously and a good deal of patrolling activity at night – but, otherwise, the period was uneventful.
Orders from Division intimated that further operations against Spoil Bank were to be undertaken by 24th Division and the Battalion stood to arms in Bluff Tunnels on 14th June when that Division launched an assault at 730pm. The attack was completely successful and the London Irish were not called upon to assist.
The Battalion left Bluff Tunnels at 4am on 15th June and marched back to Heksken Camp, Westouter.
At 530pm on Saturday 16th June, the Battalion left Heksken Camp and marched through Westouter, south west to Caestre via Mount Kokreele, Berthen and Fletre and, after a pleasant march, arrived at Caestre by 1030pm.
Casualties incurred by the Battalion during the period from 7th to 14th June amounted to one officer wounded, 16 other ranks killed and 52 men wounded.
Training and Conversion to “Shorts”.
On Sunday 17th June, the Battalion rose with orders to convert their long trousers into “shorts”. The time for this innovation was very appropriate as the day was blazing hot. The troops explored the town and found most of the inhabitants going to church in their Sunday “best”.
At 415pm, the Battalion, on a further stage of their march to the training area, set out along the main Caestre road en route for Racquinghem and La Belle Croix, passing through Hindeghem, Sercus and Blaringhem, arriving at midnight on 17th/18th June. The march was a long one of about 18 miles and, in the early stages, the heat and dust made conditions rather trying. After proceeding about twelve miles, the Battalion halted for a wayside tea and the march resumed in more comfortable conditions. The troops gleaned the information, rightly or wrongly, that their destination had been advanced about six miles in consequence of 142 Brigade being put into their billets. Needless to say, the men found the occasion a suitable one for indulging in disparaging remarks on the skill of the Staff.
After a somewhat chilly night on the stone floors of billets, the troops rose rather late. A gale of amazing severity blew up in the afternoon and several large trees were blown across the road.
The troops found the locality to their liking and merry parties thoroughly enjoyed bathing in the Canal de Neuffosse.
Bad weather set in and, during the period to 23rd June, violent thunderstorms disturbed the Battalion’s work and pleasure very considerably. In spite of the weather, however, the men were able to enjoy the Battalion’s water sports meeting and make visit to the surrounding villages, where the men’s bare knees aroused the villagers’ curiosity.
There were some Portuguese troops in the vicinity and the London Irish were much interested in the kit and appearance of their Allies. After a morning’s swim in the Canal, the troops paraded in bright sunshine at 215pm on 23rd June and marched to St Martin-au-Laert, skirting St Omer and passing 24th Battalion en-route, which was returning to the line. On arrival, the troops were billeted in comfortable quarters where gardens were well stocked with cherries, strawberries and other fruits.
For the next few days, the Battalion engaged in musketry practice on a range situated about two and a half miles W.N.W. of St Marin-au-Laert between Cormette and Tilques.
The locality was very attractive and the clean undulating countryside, with wide sweeps of fresh green wheat, dotted with woods and red roofed cottages and white washed walls had a very charming and peaceful appearance.
St Omer, with its atmosphere of pleasure and plenty and the glamour of GHQ, was like a magnet and drew all ranks to itself. The troops enjoyed the attractions of St Omer as often as opportunity allowed.
Marching to the Front.
With the feeling that all good things come to an end, the Battalion enjoyed a swim during the morning of 27th June and paraded ready to move off at 2pm. After leaving St Martin au Laert, the Battalion passed through St Croix, Arques, La Crosse, Fort Rouge, Renescure, Lynde, St Leger and arrived at Sercus – their destination – at 730pm. The length of the march was about 18 miles but as the men were lucky enough to have their packs carried on transport, they were not unduly fatigued.
The 47th Division was under orders to relieve 41st Division in the line and units of the Brigade group moved forward independently. The London Irish left Sercus by march route on Saturday 30th June after a 530am reveille and, in a soaking drizzle, proceeded in the direction of Hazebrouck, skirting that town in the north side to Borre. Continuing the march to Thieushouck, the Battalion, soaked to the skin, mounted the slopes of Monts des Cats, passing the convent on the right. Tired and wet through, the Battalion billeted in the northern slope of the hill near Godewaersvelde.
During the night of 30th June/1st July, the big windmill on the summit of Mont des Cats, a landmark familiar to the greater part of the British Expeditionary Force, was burnt down. After a quiet morning, packs were handed in and, at 3pm, the Battalion marched to Reningelst via Godewaersvelde and Boeschepe. At Reningelst, the Battalion’s destination was changed and, instead of taking over Ontario Camp, the Battalion proceeded to a camp just beyond Chippewa on the La Clytte Road, arriving at 730pm.
All the roads in the vicinity were crowded with transport, Reningelst and Ouderdom being particularly congested with lorries and limbers.
Further operations were in contemplation and the Battalion was ordered to proceed to the forward area. On Thursday 3rd July, the Battalion paraded at 240pm and marched to Ridge Wood, near Dikkebus and bivouacked there beneath the trees. There was little for the men to do during the day and, after rifle inspection and physical drill, the troops were free to enjoy scratch games of football and baseball and to visit the much appreciated YMCA canteen at Hellebast Corner. At night, parties from the Battalion were sent to the forward area on various tanks. Enemy activity was considerable and there was much shelling by day and air bombing by night.
HM King George V passed through the rest area on a visit to the front and was cheered by the troops on sight.
Moving to the Firing Line.
On 9th July, the Battalion prepared for a move to the firing line and, at night marched forward via the overland track to the brickstacks near Blighty Bridge, Spoil Bank. Guides from this point led the Battalion along the Bluff and, after crossing OG1 and 2, the Battalion relieved 20th Battalion in the right sub-Section north of the Canal. The relief commenced at 10pm and was completed at 230am on 10th July.
In consequence of an attack at 10pm by the troops on the right of the Divisional front, the Battalion was subjected to considerable shelling during the relief but, having regard to the volume of the enemy’s fire, casualties were slight.
The line was taken over in a wet and battered state but there were many concrete dug outs which, although flooded, were made serviceable. The troops noticed that the ex-enemy dug outs were wired for electric light.
The Battalion remained in the line until 15th July and, during this period, were subjected, by day and night, to an almost continuous bombardment. Enemy fire on the forward area was less severe after dark, but the back areas and communications were kept under heavy harassing fire until the early hours of the morning.
German aircraft were particularly aggressive and many new planes, painted bright red, appeared at the front. Air flights were of frequent occurrence and observation balloons on both sides of the line were successfully attacked.
Relief from the Front Line, Sporting Activities and Duties.
The 24th Battalion London Regiment relieved the Battalion in the night of 15th July and companies returned independently to the hut-ments on the La Clytte Road, arriving between 1am and 4am on 16th July.
The Battalion remained in the La Clytte Road Camp until 30th July. Working parties by day and by night were provided but this did not save the Battalion from an orgy of cleaning up in anticipation of an inspection by the Major General and Brigadier.
The Battalion and the Camp were inspected by the Major General on 20th July and the CO was congratulated on the appearance of the men and the clean state of the Camp. Decoration awards were presented for the Messines battles.
On the afternoon of 21st July, the Battalion’s representatives visited Ontario Camp to oppose 20th Battalion. The boxers put up a magnificent show: Garrett, Balchin and Rixon succeeding in putting out their opponent in the first round. The big feature of the boxing contests was the fight between Rfn Abrahart and RSM Chesney of 20th Battalion. The Sgt Major was a big, powerful man, whose main idea in the ring was to stand like a rock waiting for the moment when he could half kill his man with a smashing right hand swing. Abrahart, on the other hand, was an accomplished boxer, sound in wind and limb, with the grace of a panther and the footwork of dazzling quality. The fight went to the fourth round, by which time the Sgt Major was so severely punished that he was compelled to retire.
Tug of War contests followed and, in the first event, London Irish Sergeants, pulled 20th Battalion Sergeants by the last of the two pulls of three in a very exhausting struggle. The team, composed of the men of the London Irish, beat the 20th Battalion but the London Irish officers were beaten by 20th Battalion officers.
After tea, the London Irish football team showed impressive form and routed the 20th Battalion by five goals to one.
The day was a successful one for the London Irish but, owing to the broiling heat, the contestant returned to camp extremely tired. As a result of the first of a series of inter-Battalion competitions, the London Irish took pride of place with a total of 166 marks, closely followed by 20th Battalion with 165 marks.
A New Second in Command.
Major WH Murphy joined the Battalion on 22nd July and assumed the post of Second in Command.
American Medical Officers.
In July 1917, American Medical Officers were attached to the Division because of the decreasing availability of Medical Officers from Britain.
Air Activity, Bombing and Long Range Artillery Fire.
During this period, the back areas were fairly quiet during the daytime. British planes, in large formations, patrolled continuously and, in general, managed to keep off enemy planes. Immediately after sunset, however, German artillery watched the roads, tracks and villages and maintained a very accurate harassing fire, which seriously incommoded transport and frequently exploded ammunition dumps.
Enemy planes crossed the lines from dusk to dawn, in spite of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, and bombed everybody and everything indiscriminately. The continuous bombing and long range gunfire by night created conditions of appalling discomfort and a night’s rest was almost an impossibility.
The offensive was being maintained in the forward area and the heavy traffic caused big dust clouds, which must have been easily discerned by enemy observers.