Brigadier General Thwaites Takes Command.
The Battalion was not destined to enjoy a stay of any length in Bethune. On 2nd June, Commanding Officers of the Battalions forming the Brigade attended at Noyelle Les Vermelles and reconnoitred the 1st Guards Brigade line at Vermelles, Y3 and Y4. Later in the day, a conference of Commanding Officers of the Brigade took place at Brigade Headquarters to meet Brigadier General W Thwaites, who had been appointed to succeed the late Brigadier General GC Nugent.
The Battalion received orders to move to Annequin, a small mining village situated on the Bethune-La Bassee road and, in the evening, billeted in empty houses. Some of the houses were badly knocked about but the others were untouched. Here and there, a civilian lingered but, for the most part, the villagers had long since left for safer quarters. In consequence of the village being so close to the line, very few parades could be held although, on 5th June, the new Brigadier inspected the Battalion. On this day, orders were received for the Battalion to act temporarily as reserve to the 142nd Brigade, and, after parading at 10pm, moved off at 1045pm to take up their position at Les Brebis.
The Battalion arrived in the early hours of Sunday 7th June and took the billets of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. On the 7th, in accordance with dispositions arranged during the morning, the Battalion left Les Brebis and proceeded by march route to Fosse 7 (near Puits 7) and took over the line from the Inniskilling Fusiliers.
In the Line at Quality Street – West of Loos.
The new sector was described as X1 and was sited astride the Bethune-Loos road and due west of Loos. “B”, “C” and D Company were in the line and “A” in reserve in a row of semi-demolished cottages on the south side of the Bethune-Lens road known as Quality Street. The trenches held by the Battalion were cut in chalky soil and, owing to fairly heavy rains, were rather wet and slippery – water continually draining through the soil into the trenches. There was not enough moisture to make the line very uncomfortable but heavily laden working parties found the going rather difficult.
The enemy was not particularly aggressive and, apart from some shell fire, the tour in the line was very quiet. On 9th June, a working party of the 20th Battalion engaged in digging a trench in advance of the firing line and, covered by a London Irish party (“A” Company), was revealed by the glare of the enemy’s star shells. The German artillery responded to signals very rapidly and shrapnel was soon bursting over the party, while machine guns and rifles were actively used. The working party withdrew temporarily and the covering party, ordered to follow, made their way back through the long wet grass, through the gap in the wire and, thence, to the shelter of the trenches. Three men of the covering party were wounded and brought in but the withdrawal was made rather difficult owing to the gap in the wire being missed in the darkness. French artillery, which covered the sector, was several times required to fire on the German line to stop interference with our working parties and did so with considerable effect.
In Reserve at Noeux les Mines, Mazingarbe and Les Brebis.
The Battalion, which had suffered five casualties during the day, was relieved on 11th June by 20th Battalion and marched back to reserve positions in Mazingarbe. The troops were rather amused at this place to see large numbers of ruined houses displaying “To Let” bills. When billeted in some of these houses, certain individual solemnly stipulated they would not sign the repairing lease!
At 820pm the following night, the Battalion marched to Noeux les Mines, arriving at 10pm and billeted in empty houses. The town was found to be of fair size, with coal mines on the outskirts in full working order. There were plenty of good shops, estaminets and places of amusement in the town and a comfortable spell in reserve was anticipated.
On 16th June, after morning parade, the men were dismissed to their billets with instructions to stand by in anticipation of a sudden move. Later, the stand by orders were cancelled and most of the battalion attended a concert given in the evening by the 6th London Field Ambulance. After the show, orders were given for the Battalion to parade in full marching order immediately. It was rumoured that the Brigade was to go forward to the support of French Territorials in a sector where a heavy concentration of German troops had been observed by airmen. At 820pm, the Battalion moved off to an assembly position outside Mazingarbe and, on arrival at 1025pm, filed in to a field with orders to bivouac and await further instructions.
The night passed quietly but was very cold and a heavy dew fell. It was with relief that the Battalion rose at daybreak and set about cleaning up. It transpired that the move overnight was made in connection with an attack on the enemy line north of Givenchy by units of 4th Corps. Like the attacks made when the 47th Division was in that region, very little success attended the operations and similarly the French, who were attacking elsewhere, encountered severe opposition.
During the day, the Battalion was transferred, as a temporary measure, to the 142nd Brigade and moved to Les Brebis in the evening.
In the Line near South Maroc.
The following day, Friday 18th June and the hundredth anniversary of Waterloo, the Battalion relieved the 21st Battalion London Regiment on the W1 sub-Sector, on the extreme right of the British line and situated east of South Maroc. “A” and “D” Company occupied the firing line with “C” Company in support and “B” Company in reserve. The Sector, a particularly quiet one, was gay in colour. A glance over the parapet revealed no-man’s land ablaze with bright red poppies, while deep blue cornflowers and yellow centred moon daisies rioted against a background of vivid green grass and young wheat.
The chalk trenches were in good condition, very well drained and amply provided with dug outs. Some of the dug outs were elaborately fitted with furniture, linen and crockery, which had doubtless been taken from the deserted houses of South Maroc. After stand down, about 345pm, one of the first duties was cleaning up the trenches. The chalk floor had to be swept and the first steps dusted, with sandbags in the best housemaid style, until they were quite free from spot or blemish. A matchstick left on the trench floor meant a load of trouble for the NCO responsible.
Meals were prepared by the Battalion cooks in South Maroc and carried up to the line by fatigue parties through about half a mile of communication trenches. Other parties occupied their time by filling sandbags in readiness for the night work of repairing parapets and trenches damaged by shell fire during the day. Owing to the distance between the lines, 1000 yards in some instances, patrols were active all night and wiring parties laboured strenuously, making good damage and improving the barbed wire defences.
During the afternoon of 21st June, the enemy shelled the vicinity of Battalion HQ in Grenay, wounding one man and several of the village children. At night, the French artillery bombarded Loos and, a quarter of an hour later, at 1145pm, the German artillery retaliated by shelling Les Brebis. Brigade HQ was forced to take to the cellars while “A” Company of the 17th Battalion, billeted in the school, had four men killed and fifty two wounded by direct hits. On the following day (22nd), the enemy again shelled Grenay, wounding three children and three men of the London Irish.
Target Practice !
During the daytime, at a place where the distance between the lines was about 1200 yards, the troops frequently amused themselves by firing at the top of the white chalk parapet of the enemy line. The “flick” of the bullets striking the parapet was plainly seen and, apart from getting the range there was always the chance and hope that bullets would be deflected into the trench and cause some damage. During such shooting, the Germans frequently gave the correct “wash out” signal by waving spades above the parapet.
In the German front line, there was a large iron water tank mounted 20 to 30 feet high on steel framing. The troops found it amusing to fire at a tank and listen to the metallic clang of the bullet striking the ironwork. Fritz evidently thought the mark too large and, when it became light on 24th June, sentries were amazed to see that a target, complete with bull, inner and outer, had been painted on the tank.
Major Healy (Acting CO) leaves the Battalion.
The Battalion was relieved by the 17th London Regiment on the night of 24th/25th June and moved back into Brigade Reserve at Les Brebis, being billeted in empty houses. There had been no fatalities but seven men had been wounded. During the tour in the line, the Battalion was commanded by Major Beresford, Major Healy having gone to Hospital on 19th June with a badly ulcerated mouth. Major Healy, who was 54 years old, did not return to the Battalion and his departure was keenly regretted by all ranks. Major Healy had served in the Battalion since 1897 and the London Irish Rifles owed much to his soldierly qualities.
French Actions in the South of the Line, Reserve Activity and Replacements.
About this time, night after night, there was intense artillery and infantry activity in the Souchez region, about four miles to the south, where the French were battling for the Lorette area, the Labyrinth and for a foothold on the Vimy Ridge. Gunfire created a ceaseless din, which fluctuated in intensity, from a heavy reverberating roar to a raging crescendo of violence as tornadoes of shell deluged the battle line. Myriad explosion illuminated the sky with a fiery glow and heavies, bursting with devastating crashes, threw up sheets of brilliant light, which flashed and flickered across the heavens, revealing the heavy pall of smoke overhanging the tortured region. The crackle of musketry and machine guns added to the racket and showed that the infantry were contending for the shell wrecked and battered trenches.
In the Labyrinth, battles of unimaginable ferocity raged underground, as well as on the surface and few, who witnessed the nightly encounters were not extremely glad to be in a quiet section of the line.
Four days (from 25th to 28th June) were spent in reserve billets at Les Brebis. Owing to the close proximity of the line, there were few parades by day. Working parties were provided for trench digging and for the construction of splinter proof shelters in the gardens of houses as cover for the inhabitants, while all night long parties continued – frequently in pouring rain – the improvement of the firing line, digging new trenches and machine gun positions.
The air was full of rumours: on the one hand, it was stated that the New Armies created by Lord Kitchener were ready to take the field and that, on their arrival in France, all Territorial Units would return to England; on the other hand, there were plenty of signs unmistakably indicating an early British offensive and it was held to be hardly conceivable that the Division would not be involved. A spy fever raged again and orders were given for all pigeons in the area to be collected and destroyed. The Battalion guard rooms were crowded with alleged spies: whole families of them including the children.
On 25th June, the Battalion was strengthened by a draft of four officers and twelve men.
Relieving the 20th Battalion.
At 845pm on 28th June, the Battalion marched to the line and relieved the 20th Battalion in the W3 sub-Sector (between the Bethune-Lens road and the North Maroc-Loos road). Relief was completed by 1230am (the 29th) with “A”, “B”, and “D” Companies in the front line and “C” in reserve. The enemy was not very active and the distance between the line quite 700 yards. In consequence of heavy rains, the line was in a very sticky state and saps in advance of the front line, occupied by bombers, were very wet and muddy. The enemy shelled Battalion Headquarters and vicinity with high explosive shell and the north observation post was more or less constantly under review and was, at times, severely damaged by very accurate artillery fire. As fast as repairs were finished, further damage was done.
Fatigue parties going to Maroc from the line usually found it possible to spend a few minutes in gardens of deserted houses where fruit and vegetables were to be had for the taking.
The spell in the line which commenced on 28th June, terminated on 6th July when 15th Battalion (140th Brigade) relieved the Battalion. During this period, the Battalion had sixteen casualties: one man killed, fourteen wounded, as well as Lt Dircks slightly wounded.
In Reserve at Mazingarbe and Strengthening the Front Line.
On relief by the 15th Battalion, the Battalion proceeded to Mazingarbe, in Brigade reserve, occupying billets in the Rue Berthold area. For the following eight days, the Battalion remained at Mazingarbe and, during this time, large parties were supplied for improving the condition of the line. These parties paraded between 6 and 8pm and toiled through the night, returning in the small hours of the morning.
In consequence of their successes in Galicia, it was expected that the enemy would strengthen the Western Front by transferring troops and guns. With the prospect of unprecedented shelling, instructions were issued for the front line wire to be strengthened and made at least three feet high, for the support line to be adequately wired, for the construction of dug outs in the front and support lines, deepening of communication trenches, of island traverses designed to give flanking fire positions. The nightly tasks of the Battalion were largely concerned with bringing about these improvements.
Relieving the 21st Battalion and the Formation of the Bombing Platoon.
On 14th July, in pouring rain, the Battalion paraded at 650pm and marched up the line via Philosophe (north east of Mazingarbe) and relieved the 21st Battalion (142nd Brigade) in X1, the sector astride the Bethune-Lens road. The section of line occupied was in a bad state, with mud and water everywhere and with little or no shelter. The enemy liberally shelled the line with light, heavy velocity shells but, fortunately, the damage was confined to the trenches.
During this period, there was a little difficulty with the rations and, on 16th July, a day of torrential rain, the rations per man for twenty four hours consisted of 1/3 of a loaf, one date and one fig. The Battalion returned to Quality Street on 16th July, being relieved in the line by the 20th Battalion. On the following day, a separate bombing platoon was formed of selected men from the four companies with its own officer and NCOs. From this time onwards, the bombing platoon paraded and worked as a unit distinct from the other Battalions, generally occupying the saps in advance of the front line and other points of tactical importance.
The 21st July saw the Battalion in the X1 Sector again, the 20th Battalion being relieved. On this occasion, the Battalion took in, for instruction, two Companies of the 6th Cameroons. This unit formed part of the 15th (Scottish) Division and their men were of magnificent bearing and physique and were worthy representatives of Lord Kitchener’s New Armies.
Manning the Bomber Post at Sap 18.
One of the Bombers’ posts in the Sector was the notorious Sap 18. This sap was a very long trench situated on the north side of and running parallel with the Mazingarbe–Loos road. It ran from our front line to a barricade within a few yards of the German wire. Beyond the barricade and, under their own wire, the Germans had a barricade of their own. The far end of the sap was held as a bombing post by two men, while midway between the head of the sap and the front line was another bomber’s post, as support to the advanced post. The head of the sap was in a ruinous condition owing to an accumulation of mud and water and the results of persistent enemy shelling. Altogether, it was a thoroughly dismal and uncomfortable spot. On account of the danger of enemy’s patrols getting into the sap from no-man’s land, and scuppering the Bombers on the way back to their own lines, it was essential, at night, to be especially alert and to challenge movement from both directions, back and front. The men at the head of the sap were close enough to hear the enemy talking and working.
Relief from the Line, Diversions and Training.
After relief by the 20th Battalion on 25th July, the Battalion moved back to Philosophe, billeting in the Chateau, school, some empty houses and dug outs in the vicinity of Rue Alexander Dumas. While the Battalion remained at Philosophe, nightly working parties were found for work on new trenches in the new forward area.
The Battalion was relieved by the 6th Battalion (140 Brigade) on 30th July – a day in which the rations per man for twenty four hours consisted merely of 1/10th candle, one box of matches and a portion of cheese – and moved back to Mazingarbe in the Divisional Reserve, arriving there at about 1030pm.
The 46th Brigade took over from the 141st Brigade on 3rd August, on which day the Battalion paraded at 9pm in pitch darkness and pouring rain, for an all-night march to Allouagne. The route of the march was via Houchin (where hot tea – less milk and sugar – was issued), Marles les Mines and Lozinghem – the distance being approximately twelve miles and the time of arrival about 5am. Allouagne was found to be a rather attractive large sized village with fairly good billets and acceptable amenities for solid and liquid refreshments in the evenings.
The following 18 days were occupied by vigorous training. The work was designed to get the men fit for the next spell in the line which, it was reported, would have a special significance. The weather was good and, although the Battalion was kept busy with training, it was a pleasurable time. There were opportunities for concerts, boxing matches, and a Battalion sports meeting was held on 14th August. At the sports meeting, a touch of comedy was introduced when the band suddenly appeared, followed by a mouth organ band, clad in fancy dress- representing miners, flappers, French soldiers in motley, Germans, Highlanders and plump dames.
During the morning of Sunday 15th August, a Brigade church parade was held but, on assembly, a deluge of rain soaked the unprepared troops, who eventually marched away without having a service. The afternoon turned out fine and the Battalion sports meeting was continued.
The Bombers, who had trained assiduously in the practice and theory of bombing, were served out with a distinguishing badge on 7th August. While very proud to wear the red grenade of the “suicide club”, on their first parade embellished, they evoked a good deal of chaff from the rest of the Battalion.
On the afternoon of 17th August, a Brigade Sports meeting was held. The afternoon was fine, the sports field excellent, with plenty of bands, much good music and a large range of extremely well contested events. The London Irish carried off a goodly proportion of the prizes and everyone had a thoroughly enjoyable day.
On the following day, the Battalion rose early and with orders to prepare for a move forward. After a long wait on the Battalion parade ground, the Battalion eventually moved off at 12 noon for Noeuux les Mines. The route followed was via Marles les Mines and Bruay. On arrival at Noeux les Mines at 3pm, it was found that the guides of the outgoing Battalion had already departed and, in consequence, billeting difficulties rose and the men were not finally settled in billets until 7pm.
Until 25th August, the Battalion proceeded daily to the Sailly-Labourse area and worked hard on the third line of defences under the direction of the CRE 47th Division.
During this time, the Bombers, under Lt Dircks, were quartered at Houchin, a pretty village situated on high ground about a mile and a half west of Noeux les Mines. Here, with bombers of other units of the Brigade, they underwent an intensive course of training organised by Captain Thorn, the Brigade Bombing Officer. Throwing grounds and targets were laid out, trenches dug and a system of attack and defence developed and practised.
By experience, it had been found that a capture of the enemy line could be extended by parties of determined men bombing their way along trenches. That skilled bombers were required on the flanks and in communication trenches, to prevent the enemy recovering ground by similar methods and that, in certain circumstances, where an attack across the open was likely to be checked by machine gun and rifle fire, the opposition might be removed, or outflanked, by bombers thrusting along under the cover of a trench.
The formation adopted comprised sections of seven men, the sections operating singly or in groups according in requirements. Sections were made up of a bayonet man, leading and protecting the bomb thrower who followed in the rear. An NCO followed the bomber and directed operations Behind the NCO came a reserve bayonet man and a reserve bomber, then two other men, who carried extra supplies of bombs.
Every man was trained to take any position in the section to avoid any delay or confusion should casualties occur in front and or in the rear.
The London Irish Bombers acquired a high degree of skill in throwing and tactics and were frequently chosen by the Brigadier General to demonstrate bombing and trench fight theories.
The climax of the training was reached when, in the presence of a representative gathering of Allied and British Generals, officers and other ranks, the London Irish won the Divisional Bombing Competition. The set piece at this competition required the Bombers to assault, over open ground, a line of trenches one hundred yards distant from the starting point, then to bomb along the trench and also to take a support line after bombing up a long communication trench. The bombs used for the occasion were standard Battye bombs with a small charge of gunpowder instead of the usual detonator and ammonal explosive. These bombs produced a satisfactory “bang”, but no danger.
The rush over the open into the front line and bombing into the communication trench was simple but there was a very difficult obstacle to surmount in the communication trench midway between the front trench and the support line. The obstacle consisted of a perfectly straight section of trench, 40 yards long with a notice board on the buttress at the far end marked “Machine Gun.” It was quite clear that a bomb had to be hurled accurately over a distance of forty yards to pitch into the trench in which the machine gun was placed – otherwise the alternative was to running through forty yards of open trench, with a machine gun firing down it, men leaving the trench to assault over the open. A fatal bar to progress in both instances. A forty yard throw with a Battye bomb from a confined space and with equipment on, was a severe test.
The situation was dealt with in brilliant style by Cpl F Peake, who was acting as leading bomber. His first bomb struck the notice board and dislodged it. A second bomb was neatly pitched into the communication trench immediately in the rear of the machine gun position. It was impossible for any throwing to more accurate or effective. With a yell of triumph, the leading section of the Bombers rushed forward.
Almost immediately, the support line was observed within bombing range and the leading section’s NCO passed back the word “support trench ahead” and the leading section going left. After bombing the support trench right and left of the communication trench junction, it was noticed that the support line was in the form of an island of traverses. At once, the message went back “support trench, island traverses”. Taking the situation in at a glance, Sgt Andrews, in charge of the party, gave an order, “Island traverses. Leading half sections take left” and the Bombers swept on.
As ordered, the leading section of the Bombers bombed and rushed to the left, the leading half section taking the left of the island traverses and the rear half section rushing round the other side of the “island”. The second section of Bombers simultaneously attacked the right hand side of the support line, divided, and then dealt with the island traverses there. At the junction of the communication trench and the support line, the carrying party delivered bombs to supply the advanced parties on each side of them.
The judges had no difficulty in making up their minds as to the winner of the competition and praised the performance of the London Irish as one of outstanding merit. It was remarked that all the bombs thrown, except two or three, fell effectively inside the trenches. Also, in no case had bombers of other competing teams succeeded in overcoming the forty yard obstacle by throwing and had been compelled to deal with the matter by exposing themselves out in the open.
The success of the London Irish Bombers was due principally to the splendid training under Lt Dircks, the brilliant work of Rfn S Farmer, acting as leading bayonet man, Cpl F Peake’s magnificent throwing and to the skilful handling of the party by Sgt Andrews, the NCO in charge.
Prizes given by Sir Harry Watcher (141st Brigade staff) were awarded to the winning team, Lt Dircks receiving a silver bowl and every man a silver cup and thirty five francs. At the presentation of the prizes by the Brigadier General at Brigade Headquarters, the silver bowl was filled with champagne and circulated among the assembled officers and men as a loving cup.
After the ceremony, the elated Bombers passed into the streets of Noeux les Mines and had a most hilarious time on their cash prizes, which had been augmented from other directions. After an exciting journey back most of the Bombers succeeded in reaching Houchin that night, very late, “full up” and completely broke.
The London Irish Bombers also won the Brigade and Divisional Bombing championships at the end of their time in Corps Reserve in Raimbert during December 1915.