A Brigade Scheme and on the Move.
For 8th March, an elaborate scheme had been prepared by Brigade and, from 815am until about 3pm, the Battalion practised the attack in artillery formation and extended order in the direction of Bomy. Deep snow still lay in the fields and the heavy going all day exhausted the men and practically the whole Battalion was asleep by 830pm that night.
Thursday 9th March, which was the first anniversary of the departure from St Albans, was devoted to moving from Erny St Julien to Sachin in the IV Corps area. The Battalion proceeded by march route in a south easterly direction and – after passing through Cumh, Flechin, Le Polouy, Febvin-Palfart, Nedonchel and Bailleul-les-Pernes – arrived at Sachin, about eleven miles distant, at about 330pm. On account of the hilly nature of the country and the very slippery roads, the transport found the journey somewhat difficult.
The next stage of the march to the line was performed on 10th March when, accompanied by the 19th London Regiment, the Battalion – with a trench strength of 24 officers and 429 other ranks – marched due east for approximately nine miles via Pernes, Camblain-Chatelain and Divion to Bruay. The Staff Captain had missed the London Irish billeting representative with the result that, on arrival, there was some delay in finding the billets allocated to the Battalion.
The few days spent by the Battalion at Bruay were very much enjoyed. Billets on the whole were good, the weather was fair, work was easy and the town offered attractions to suit all tastes. The conditions were in marked contrast to those experienced at Erny St Julian, where the rigorous weather, arduous training, inferior billets and the dreary village made life very hard and drab.
At this time, it was common knowledge that, in consequence of the German pressure at Verdun, the British Army was extending southwards and was taking over the line hitherto held by the French and information had already been received that the 47th Division was to occupy a section of the line recently vacated by the French in the Souchez region.
On March 13th, the Battalion moved forward to Villers-au-Bois and Carency. Leaving Bruay at 715am in bright sunshine and passing through Barlin, Hersin and Coupigny, the Battalion arrived, after a march of about twelve miles, in the early afternoon. There was little or no time to examine the locality but it was apparent from the number of French and German graves that heavy fighting had taken place in the district. The Battalion could recall the time, a few months previously, when furious cannonades took place night after night in the Souchez region.
In the Line at Souchez.
Following a rest in the afternoon, packs were stored and the Battalion paraded at 545pm and marched up to the line via Souchez, relieving the Notts and Derby’s in the Carency left sub-Section. Part of the Battalion occupied the firing line on the extreme left of Vimy Ridge and the remainder were disposed in the Quarries in the rear.
The front line was a dot and dash affair, part trench and part shell hole, with wire practically non- existent. Everywhere, the defences were in an advanced state of decay, and literally shrieking for reconstruction and draining. In places, water was over two feet deep. The left part of the line consisted of a ruinous, waterlogged trench, which ran down from the northern extremity of Vimy Ridge into the Souchez Valley. The trench was fairly deep on the high ground but became gradually shallower as it descended the valley until it degenerated into a mere slushy ditch, draining through a quagmire into the Souchez river.
At intervals in the trench, semi derelict butts of rough construction provided shelter for the garrison of bombers. In an attempt to keep the water level down in the butts, our predecessors had built clay dams at intervals with some outlets for water at the back of the trench. Any movement in the line above, though, caused a slurry of mud and water to splash over the top dam and to surge over the succeeding dams, sometimes conveying little paper boats, launched by the troops further up the slope.
The Bombers provided a night patrol, whose duty was to pass hourly down a long length of crumbling and waterlogged trench to the battered plank bridge, which crossed the river in the Valley. This patrol had to exchange timed notes with a complementary party from the other side of the Valley – from the officers on duty on the north and south sides of the river.
Months of heavy rain had churned up the ground, destroying the natural drainage of the valley and the river, swollen by rains and impeded by submerged obstructions, had spread beyond its bank, converting the low lying land into a vast swamp. The Valley was littered with decayed corpses and skeletons and as patrols moved about hordes of giant rats, feeding on the decomposed bodies, noisily scampered away in the darkness. Locally known as “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, the district richly deserved its title.
A Surprising German Attitude.
The attitude of the enemy infantry was surprising. There was almost a state of truce and it was stated that working parties fraternised in no-man’s land, even to the extent of borrowing each other’s tools. It was rumoured that the Germans opposite were undergoing a sentence of sixty days as a punishment and it certainly appeared that they were acting on the “live and let line” principle. On the night the Battalion took over, two officers were, by mistake, led by their guide right up to the German trenches and their first intimation of the fact was when the German sentry, in broken English, reproachfully said: “You Engleesh, you go back queek”.
In spite of detailed instructions from Brigade on the need to prosecute the war vigorously in the new area, the position was such that, with no wire nor trenches worthy of the name, it was merely suicidal to invite retaliation. The enemy infantry was in no mood to be aggressive and some fraternisation occurred. The enemy agreed not to shoot at our troops and were considerate enough to blow a warning whistle when about to fire their quota of minenwerfers, which they were required to shoot daily.
One night, a party of London Irish officers, accompanied by a Staff Officer who could speak German fluently, kept an appointment in no-man’s land with some German officers – one of whom spoke English well, having been in business in England before the war. Captain Mahon asked permission to watch a German wiring party at work and the necessary authority was courteously accorded to Captain Mahon with the stipulation, however, that he should not go into the enemy trenches. Captain Mahon walked over to the German line and watched the wiring party for some time and was greatly impressed by the rapidity and efficiency of the German method of working.
The conversation in no-man’s land, during which a copy of the “The Time” was passed over, continued for quite some time and it is remembered that the English speaking German officer remarked: “This is a nice restful time now, but there is going to be some bloody fighting here soon” – a prophecy, which subsequent events fully justified.
Casualties in the Souchez Sector.
This first spell of duty on the new front was light in casualties but, in the first twenty four hours, the Battalion suffered the loss of Sgt Jones, the Signal Sergeant, who was killed by a minenwerfer, which exploded just outside the signaller’s dug out at Battalion Headquarters (situated in the Souchez quarry) and which also wounded two others of the signal section.
Relief by the 17th Battalion.
At 230pm on 17th March – St Patrick’s Day – the Battalion was relieved by 17th Battalion and two companies proceeded to Carency and two companies to Villers-au-Bois. After a morning spent cleaning up, shamrock, from Ireland, was distributed.
In consequence of the vast amount of work required to repair and remodel the forward area trenches, the labour of every available man was urgently required and, on the nights of 17th, 18th and 20th March, the Battalion supplied large working parties.
The CO made an effort to get the Battalion excused from a working party on St Patrick’s Night but, as this could not be arranged, celebrations of a sort were held during the day. The two Companies posted in Carency, which was a terribly battered village, contrived to enjoy a midday meal on an unusually sumptuous scale but, though the menu was prepared and circulated by the CQMS seemed to promise wonderful things, the main and only feature was really Irish stew. The Officer’s Mess was in better luck as some bottles of white wine were discovered in the cellar of the largest, and most ruined, house of the village.
The enemy shell fire was troublesome and the Souchez road, Souchez village ruins and the exposed slopes of the Ridge were regularly searched by enemy guns. Frequent shelling by shrapnel disturbed the working parties and casualties occurred: 2nd Lt Harvey Banks and five other ranks being wounded on the night of 19th March. Fortunately, fatalities at this time were rare.
The Battalion moved at 1pm on the 20th March via Gouy-Servins, Petit Servins and Grand Servins to Verdrel in readiness for work on the Reserve defences at Gouy under the guidance 138th Coy RE. The weather was unfavourable for digging but a considerable amount of work was done. There was deep snow on the ground when, on 25th March, the Brigade was inspected by the Corps Commander, Lt General H Wilson. About this time, Lt Blake Concanon was invalided home with heart trouble and 2nd Lt Hone became Adjutant.
Respite at Bouvigny.
On Sunday 26th March, the Battalion paraded at 915am in a full blizzard and in full marching order and moved to Bouvigny huts, arriving there two hour hours later. The huts were situated in the Bois de Bouvigny on high ground and made excellent billets. The Battalion frequently returned from the line to Bouvigny huts and were greatly refreshed by the lovely situation and the glorious views across woods, hills and valleys. In the spring time, when the keen wind was tempered by sparkling sunshine, it was delightful to ramble in the fresh green woods and along the mossy paths, which ran through masses of bluebells, primroses and cowslips.
A Move to Lorette Heights.
The 141st Brigade relieved the 142nd Brigade on 27th March. Following a wet day and still tired from the previous night’s working party, the Battalion paraded at 530pm and, after a wait of about two hours, moved off towards the line in a downpour of rain. The men were heavily laden with rations, coke and wood in addition to the usual full marching order and were very soon wet through. After a long march through the woods, the Battalion passed along roads deep in mud and liberally pitted with water filled shell holes. Progress was slow and there were many trying delays while crossing the swamps near Ablain St Nazaire.
Immediately after leaving Ablain, the Battalion started to mount the heights of Lorette by a precipitous route. The ascent in daylight would have been a difficult task but it was a nightmare climb to the rain soaked, overburdened men, already much fatigued by a laborious march. In the darkness, it was difficult to find a foothold and nearly every man slipped down once or twice and quite a number of men tumbled backwards head over heels. Somewhat “blown”, the Battalion eventually arrived at the top of the hill and took over the reserve position from the 24th Battalion.
At the Lorette Heights.
The position on the Lorette Heights, which had wonderful observation over Lens and the enemy’s intervening defensive works, comprised sections of trenches scratched across the shell hole pitted eastern face of the spur. The trenches were in a ruinous condition, badly drained and without traverses. Few sections of the Lorette lines were dry and, for the most part, there was a foot of water, beneath which there was about three to six inches of mud and slime. Dugouts, which were not numerous, were grouped in the rear of the main trench in a dug out line. Most of these shelters were deep, very damp and, from want of repair, dangerous to users. Since taking over from the French, many improvements had been made by the Battalion’s predecessors but an immense amount of work remained to be done to put the trenches into a habitable and defensive condition.
On such work, the Battalion was fully employed until 2nd April. All night long, parties toiled, carrying up engineering material from the dump at Ablain St Nazaire, while others filled sandbags, reconstructed trenches and, under the supervision of the RE, performed urgent drainage work. For the greater part of the time, the weather was bright and sunny and, during the daytime, the men enjoyed the rare delight of an extensive panorama over the enemy’s back areas. Towns and villages in the enemy occupied country could be picked out and traffic on road and rail could be watched. Lens and its satellite “Cities”, with chimneys smoking and coal mines in full working order, could be studied in detail.
As a diversion from more serious matters while occupying the Lorette defences, officers and men enjoyed a certain amount of light amusement in the form of rat hunts. The “hunt” found whole colonies of rats in an old refuse hunt situated in front of the support trenches on the slopes of Lorette. The rats, regularly and sumptuously fed on corpses and refuse, were of enormous size, very fierce, cunning and speedy. The scene of the chase was an expanse of rugged ground covered with coarse, thickly matted grass and the “hunt”, armed with stout sticks, had many exciting runs and often secured good bags. The “meets” generally took place at dusk and dawn out of deference to enemy observation.
On one occasion, however, when local mist permitted a daylight hunt, the proceedings were most unceremoniously interrupted by the enemy, who evidently heard “the gladsome noises of the chase” and decided to intervene. A few bursts of shrapnel sent the “hunt” scurrying to earth as rapidly as the rats but, fortunately, with considerably less casualties. In more secluded spots, midnight meets were sometimes possible when the rats were hunted in the beams of electric torches and dealt with by revolver shots. So ferocious were rats in this area, that men’s boots were gnawed as they slept at night and many a sleeping rifleman was awakened by rats scurrying over his face.