Return to the Line.
141st Brigade relieved 140th Brigade in the left sector on 26th October, the London Irish moving up to the Red line into Brigade support. After a few days in the Red line, the Battalion took over the front line from 19th Battalion on 30th October and occupied the left section. The situation in the line was generally quiet, although the enemy periodically subjected sections of the line to salvos from heavy guns.
A successful raid on the enemy lines was carried out on the evening of 4th November on the right Brigade front by two companies of 23rd Battalion and two companies of 24th Battalion, assisted by the RE. The London Irish in the line on the left section naturally came in for a good deal of shelling during the operation but had the satisfaction of securing one prisoner of 356th Regiment “B” Company, who surrendered at Sunken Road.
The London Irish CO reported on the raid as under:
“Barrage opened punctually at zero. At zero plus 5, single green lights were fired in Oppy Wood and hostile guns opened on Baby Trench and Marine Trench. Also, a heavy battery was fired in the vicinity of Ouse Valley and Viscount Trench. On the Gavrelle Front, hostile artillery opened at zero plus 2 on our front line: Windmill – Chico Trench. I then lengthened to support Belvoir Trench. The enemy fired single red light, double green and double white.
Hostile machine guns were very active. Two enemy ammunition dumps were fired in Oppy and one near Fresnoy Wood. The smoke barrage was too dense to observe all lights and the enemy showed no signs of his SOS lines on the front.”
The Departure of the Brigade Commander.
Brigadier General R MacDouall, CMG DSO issued the following special order dated 26th October 1917:
“On relinquishing command of 141st Brigade, I desire to convey to all officers, NCO and men of the Brigade, which I have had the honour to command for the last 15 months, my gratitude for the loyal cooperation in the past and my best wishes for their continuing success in the future. May good luck be with my comrades of the Somme and Ypres Salient.”
Relief to Support Positions, Training and Leisure.
The 19th Battalion relieved the London Irish in the front line on 8th November and the Battalion moved back to the support position in the Red Line. Working parties were supplied by the Battalion, in the daytime and at night, for trench improvements, carrying etc and these parties laboured in the dreary waste which constituted the forward area.
After stand down on 12th November, the Battalion packed up in readiness for relief and, during the morning, 6th London Regiment took over from the Battalion in the support area. On relief, the Battalion moved out through Tyne, Bailleul, East and Ouse Alley; communication trenches which seemed to be of indeterminate length and then proceeded by train to Maroeuil (five kilometres NW of Arras) in Corps Reserve.
The Battalion’s losses in the line were slight: three other ranks killed and seven wounded.
The Battalion remained in Maroeuil until 21st November. During this time, the Battalion was posted as an emergency Battalion – in readiness to move at two hours’ notice by day and half an hour’s notice by night. A considerable amount of training was accomplished in fairly good conditions.
The Battalion football team suffered a sad reverse on 17th November when they were defeated by 17th London Regiment by 2 goals to nil in the first round of the Divisional Cup. The transport, however, covered themselves in glory when they represented 141st Brigade and were declared winners of the 27th Divisional Transport competition and received a cup represented by the “Daily Mail” and 5 francs.
The Battalion enjoyed a route march on 19th November to Neuville St Vaast, Mont St Eloi and Ecoivres but en-route saw with melancholy interest graves of members of the London Irish Rifles’ 2nd Battalion.
With great consideration, Division made arrangements for a limited number of men to have a day’s leave for the purpose of visiting Amiens. The fortunate ones rose at 3am and set out via Anzin and Ste Catherine in time to catch a train at Arras at 618am. The leave train ran through the old Somme battlefields and arrived at Amiens, via Albert, at 9am.
After a full and interesting day, the men returned by train, leaving Amiens at 645pm and arriving at Arras at 11pm. Such a day represented a great contrast from the normal and was greatly appreciated.
Rumours and Transfer to the 3rd Army.
On 21st November, with rumours of the wildest description circulating, the Battalion packed up and moved to “Y” huts in the Etrun area, about one and a half miles to the south west. The very wet night was enlivened by an excellent show given by the Battalion Concert Party: “The Shamrocks”.
A move southwards was indicated when it became known that the Division was being transferred to the IIIrd Army and, on 23rd November, the Battalion paraded at 920am in full marching order and, preceded by 19th London Regiment, moved off in a south westerly direction.
After a comfortable march via Harbarcq and Wanquetin, the Battalion arrived at Fosseux at 2pm. The march was resumed at 930am on the following morning – 24th November – in wet and boisterous weather. The Battalion marched due south and passed through Bavincourt, La Herliere and Pommier, thence south east to Bienvillers-au-Bois and Hannescamps. Here, a rather battered village, packs were dumped and, after half an hours rest, the march was continued through Bucquoy to Achiet-le-Petit. The latter part of the 15 mile march was through desolate territory wrested from the Germans in the spring and was depressing in the extreme.
On arrival at Achiet-le-Petit, the Battalion was put up in tents just outside the village. There was little rest for the men at night owing to the incessant rain and the violence of the gale. Guy ropes were broken and many tents were blown down and it was with relief that the Battalion rose in the morning.
Orders were received during the morning for an immediate move and the Battalion paraded forthwith. Packs were dumped for separate conveyance and the Battalion marched off in bitter weather through Achiet-le-Petit, Achiet Grand and Bihucourt. Between Bihucourt and Sapignies, the Battalion em-bussed and proceeded through Sapignies along the main Arras – Peronne road via Bapaume, Beaulencourt to Le Transloy. The route ran through Somme devastation and all the villages and the town of Bapaume were in ruins. The Battalion left the buses at a point near Rocquigny and in the darkness marched into the village.
Rocquigny was in a ghastly mess of utter ruin and filthy with mud. News filtered through that the Division’s destination was the Hindenburg Line and that the troops would be thrown into the fight in front of Cambrai. Heavy gunfire was heard all the following day but no forward move was made by the Battalion. After a very cold night, during which there was a heavy fall of snow, the Battalion rose at 6am on 27th November with orders to proceed by bus to the Hindenburg Support Line.
The Hindenburg Line Defensive System.
In consequence of the territorial gains by the British forces in the latter part of 1916, the enemy found himself in circumstances of difficulty. Therefore, he decided upon a voluntary surrender of ground with the object of avoiding a battle in the old positions and of ensuring that new assaults would be delivered in conditions difficult for the attackers and most favourable for defence.
The enemy’s preparation for retirement began on 8th February 1917, when over an area extending from the north bank of the Aisne River to the Scarp east of Arras, he began to evacuate all movable stores and systematically to destroy all wells, buildings, towns and villages. Roads were mined and all fruit trees were destroyed and every obstacle that military engineering could devise was prepared to check the pursuit. Traps for the unwary were laid in abundance and many of these took the form of delayed action mines on the road.
A new system of defences, known as the Hindenburg or Siegfried Line, was constructed with immense labour, on a line running in a north westerly direction just north of the Aisne and east of Cruy La Fere, St Quentin, thence to the Scarpe River, east of Arras. The new line of trenches, perhaps the most vast, elaborate and scientific military earthwork in the history of the world, comprised in the main, three successive lines of trenches of a depth from the front line of between 650-900 yards. The front line, with magnificent re-vetted fire bays, was protected by barbed wire of extremely heavy gauge, arranged in two or three belts, each roughly twelve to fifteen yards wide at five foot intervals affixed to the ground in each case by six rows of corkscrew stakes, 2 ½ to 6 feet in height.
The principle feature of the front line was the extraordinary width and depth of the trench. In the trench itself, there were machine gun emplacements every 5 yards (part of a system of machine gun positions arranged in depth chequer wise) and reinforced concrete observation posts every 20 yards fitted with periscopes protected by steel plates.
Lavish dug out accommodation was provided, the upper portion in each case being a concrete shelter under the parapet for groups of one NCO and eight men. Below such shelters were dug outs proper, very deep and wide, sometimes connecting with a passageway running along the whole length of the front line and connecting with underground communication trenches.
Normal communication trenches linked the front and support lines and, in addition, every Battalion sector had two underground communication trenches from the support to the firing line.
The reserve line was sited 650-960 yards behind the firing line and this was connected with the forward trenches by ordinary open communication trenches. Occasionally, covered trenches ran back a distance of half a mile.
A remarkable feature of the front defence was the pre-detection of places where, owing to the nature of the ground and other physical obstacles, assaulting troops might be expected to bunch and so present good targets. At those points, the wire was skilfully arranged to develop and accentuate the crowding tendency and machine gun emplacements were sited to rake such areas in enfilade. In this regard, the enemy was, perhaps, a little too clever. While inspection from the ground might fail to indicate the tactical importance of irregularities in the wire, air photographs showed that lines drawn along the outer edges of the angles in the wire at such places, if produced, tended to converge at certain points in the fire trench. These points were clearly the exact points from which machine guns would be most effective. Thus were many machine gun emplacements located for the attention of the British artillery.
A defensive work, such as the Hindenburg Line, by its construction and magnitude, held by a resolute infantry and covered by sufficient artillery, might well be regarded as impregnable and it was in this belief that the enemy confidently awaited the future onslaughts of the British forces.