Back in to Reserve Positions.
The 19th London Regiment took over from the Battalion at 930pm on 29th October and, on relief, the Battalion moved back to the reserve trenches north of Loos. After a day in this line, and the “Keeps” – opposite the German front line – orders for Brigade relief were received and, on 31st October, after being relieved by the 6th Battalion at 1035 pm, the Battalion (less one Company in the Keeps) marched to Mazingarbe and went into billets. The casualties incurred between 20th and 29th October amounted to two officers wounded, five other ranks killed and fifty three men wounded.
The three Companies billeted in Mazingarbe devoted a few days to resting, refitting, drills and inspections, Strong parties were sent to the line nightly to carry out work– under RE supervision – the rendezvous usually being Victoria Station, a dump situated about 1000 yards NW of Quality Street on the Lens – Bethune Road.
The Sergeant Majors of all four Companies: Tyers (“A”), Jones (“B”), Hirst (“C”) and Fairlie (“D”) were made substantive here, due to casualties. The latter two were later killed in action.
On Saturday 6th November, the Lord Mayor of London visited the Brigade. The 17th Battalion was inspected at Philosophe and the 18th, 19th and 20th were, for the occasion, drawn up in massed ranks, just west of Mazingarbe on the Noeux les Mines road. After a wait of about two hours in the rain, the Lord Mayor arrived and walked round the Battalions. After the inspection, the three companies of the Battalion returned to billets and spent the rest of the day drying out their sodden clothes. Later in the day, the other Company was relieved and re-joined the Battalion.
On the following day, 7th November, the 141st Brigade relieved the 142nd Brigade in the B Sector. The 19th Battalion took over the left, the London Irish the centre and the 20th Battalion occupied the right.
Via Haie Alley to the Front Line.
The Battalion paraded for the relief at 230pm and marched overland to the old German front line and continued the journey through a communication trench known as Haie Alley. This alley was approximately two miles in length and was in a deplorable state and there was thick mud and water everywhere. The mud was not just mud, but a compound of an indescribably glutinous character, which made progress very slow. It was 730pm before the Battalion reached the front line.
Asking for an Enemy Surrender !
The trenches taken over were situated about four hundred yards south of Hulluch and were in a very bad state of repair. Heavy rain had caused the sides of the trenches to fall away and, in places, the sandbags of the parapet had slid down into the mud and water, which comprised the floor of the trench. An old communication trench ran from the front line to the enemy trenches and was double blocked about fifty yards from the enemy’s front line. The front line was garrisoned by a few Bombers but, as their post was about seventy yards from the British front line and entirely unprotected by wire, it was an unpleasant spot, and particularly so at night when enemy patrols were about.
It was from this point that the Bombing Officer, 2nd Lt Munro sought to induce the enemy to surrender. An invitation to the Germans to come over in twos and threes (to avoid the crush) was written and good meals and a comfortable time in England was promised. The invitation was fastened to a tin of bully beef and neatly lobbed over the German side of the double block. Wisely, the Bombers eased back slightly to await the result. It came quickly in the shape of half a dozen bombs.
Repairing the Trenches.
The whole efforts of the troops in the line were directed towards strengthening the wiring and improving the trenches. Day and night, work was continued but the weather conditions were execrable and the difficulty of draining the line prevented any substantial amelioration of the conditions. The enemy was fairly quiet and, apart from the use of aerial torpedoes and some shelling of Haie Alley and the support and reserve trenches, there was little active hostility. Persistent rain and no drying facilities kept the men in a state of discomfort throughout the tour in the line.
Relief by the 19th Battalion.
The Battalion was relieved by the 19th Battalion on the evening of Wednesday 10th November and, after wading in mud and water knee deep along the whole length of the Haie Alley, took up quarters in the old German front line and 10th Avenue. A number of good dug outs allowed the men to enjoy reasonable comfort when not engaged on working parties and the facilities provided for drying clothes were a boon.
Corps Reserve at Raimbert.
The 1st Division relieved the 47th Division on the nights of 13th/4th and 14th/15th November, the London Irish being relieved on the night of 13th November. Torrents of rain fell during the journey to Mazingarbe but, in spite of the wretched weather and their exhausted condition, the men marched well and sang lustily most of the way. On arrival, the Battalion billeted in the Abbatoir and new huts, in clean and comfortable conditions. The next morning, 14th November, in keen bright weather, the Battalion, all spick and span, paraded at noon, marched to Noeux-les-Mines and then en-trained for Lillers. On arrival at 3pm, billeting proceeded and the men were all settled by 6pm. After a long abstention from the delights of civilisation, happy parties spent the evening in restaurants and estaminets and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
The Battalion was destined to spend its Corps reserve period at Raimbert, a straggling mining village situated on the St Pol Road, three and a half miles south of Lillers.
On 15th November at 830am, the Battalion, refreshed by stimulating breezy and bright sunshine, proceeded by march route to its destination, arriving at 1040am. The village provided excellent billets and gave promise of solid comfort. During the night, the weather broke and next morning (16th), the ground was covered in snow. After rifle inspection by the Armourer Sergeant (Sgt Bacon), kit inspections took place and lists of “deficiencies” were prepared as a preliminary to necessary re-fitting. A bathing parade at the adjacent mines followed but, as the water was cold, it was difficult to remove entirely the accumulation of grime.
On the 17th, there was considerable rain and sleet. The weather, combined with the fact that the parade took place in a ploughed field, made drill under the Regimental Sergeant Major a little less polished than usual. The Battalion scheme of organised training commenced on 19th November. Brigade laid down the general lines and, to obtain maximum results, stipulated that all parades were to be as strong as possible and to be held under the direct supervision of the Commanding Officer and with the Adjutant, the Regimental Sergeant Major and the four Company Sergeant Majors present. The scheme of training provided for a full day with normal routine as below:
730am – Reveille.
8 to 9am – Breakfast.
9am to 1230pm – Parade.
1230 to 2pm – Dinner.
2 to 4pm – Parade.
4 to 5pm – Tea.
5 to 6pm – Lectures.
830pm – Men to be in billets.
845pm – Lights out.
General training comprised running practice, physical drill, close order drill and ceremonial drill, outpost schemes, the attack in the open and against trenches, bayonet fighting, musketry, lectures to the men and amongst the officers. All training in the field was to be in full marching order.
Training of Young Officers.
All young officers, who had joined since 25th September 1915, were to be formed into squads and trained under Battalion arrangements. The squads were to be made up to 20 strong by the inclusion of young NCOs. The course of the training was to be for 36 hours weekly and suspended only by Battalion close order drill and route marches. The course was to embrace: squad, platoon and company drill with and without arms, inculcation of principles and habits of command, inspection of platoons, care of arms and equipment, map reading and field sketching, use of compass, musketry, tactical training (including principles of attack, outposts, patrols, defence of houses and village), guard duties, bayonet fighting and lectures.
Training of Specialists.
An elaborate scheme of training for the grenadiers, machine gunners, signallers, transport, sharpshooters, scouts, trench mortar men and stretcher bearers were formulated with the object of improving the efficiency of specialists and to ensure as many men as possible being trained to undertake specialist duties. Particularly, it was laid down that the Grenadier Officer was to form a reserve grenadier platoon organised similarly to the service platoon and to provide Company Commanders with competent instructors for training men of the Companies in the use of bombs and rifle grenades.
It will be seen that, while the Battalion was in Corps Reserve, the long hoped for rest was not to be a slack and lazy time but was actually to be a period of sustained activity intended to enliven the mental and physical condition of the troops. The real rest was a respite from incessant shell fire, and relief from the turbid outlook engendered by long spells of routine in waterlogged trenches.
For the remainder of November, the prescribed training was closely followed.
Captain AP Hamilton, the Adjutant, left the Battalion on 19th November for attachment to the 19th London Regiment and was succeeded by Lt Blake Concanon. Captain Hamilton was recognised by all as an officer of exceptional efficiency and held in high esteem by all ranks. He carried with him all the best wishes of the Officers and men but his departure from the Battalion was a definite loss to the London Irish.
During the training period, two incidents occurred which did little to increase the Brigadier’s regard for the Battalion. The first happened when the Brigadier General was proceeding on horseback through the streets of Raimbert. When the General was passing a courtyard in which a machine gun team was being trained, one round of ball was accidentally discharged from the gun. The bullet crossed the Brigadier’s path and smashed a window on the other side of the road! On the second occasion, a sentry of the Battalion failed to call out the guard when the Brigadier passed and merely presented arms without halting, and while marching the length of the beat!
On 1st December, the Battalion paraded at 730am for a Divisional exercise. At 8am, the Battalion set out in full marching order for Rebecq, passing through Burbure, St Hilaire, Rombly, Witternesse, Blessy, Mametz, across the river Lys, arriving at Rebecq at 330pm. The march was about 15 to 16 miles in length and was performed at a leisurely pace and took the Battalion through interesting and unspoilt countryside. En route, Major General Barter (47th Division) and Lt General Sir H Rawlinson (IV Corps) watched the Battalion march past.