Chapter 3 – Winter in the Loos Salient.
Out of the Line at Hesdigneul.
On 1st October, the Battalion, consisting of 14 officers and 559 men, paraded at 10am for inspection by Brigadier General Thwaites. After the inspection, the Brigadier addressed the officers and men and complimented them warmly on the spirit and dash shown in the recent operations and the splendid discipline, which carried them through a very trying period.
On the following day, Major General Barter visited the Battalion in billets and made a short speech praising the work of the whole Battalion at Loos.
Around this period, it was stated that critical remarks had been passed on about the fact that salvage parties had found so many London Irish Rifles abandoned on the field after the Loos battle. The explanation, however, was quite simple. New troops, who had passed through the Battalion’s lines during the engagement, were armed with short rifles similar to those used by the Regulars. The Battalion was armed with a long rifle and a large proportion of the Battalion, seeing the opportunity of getting the latest model short rifle had blithely made the exchange as opportunities occurred, discarding the old type rifle. While in the line, this was not looked at seriously but, on inspection parade, the mixture of long and short rifle was too noticeable to pass without comment.
At Hesdigneul, a few days were devoted to drill, training and route marches. The route marches, with the Battalion at its then full strength, were made with the object of hardening the men’s feet, practising the strictest march discipline and included advance guard work and the rapid deployment of platoons from column of route into artillery formation.
Moving to Hallicourt.
At 1145am on 5th October, the Brigade issued an order to the Battalion to move at 4pm and, accordingly at that time, the Battalion paraded and proceeded by march route to Hallicourt. The Battalion arrived at its destination at 5pm but owing to billeting difficulties, it was 7pm before all the men were under cover. Incessant rain fell during the operation of changing billets.
Future Plans of Attack.
The 141st Brigade paraded at 1015am on 9th October, at a point five to six hundred yards west of Houchin, for inspection by the Corps Commander, General Sir H Rawlinson. After the inspection, the General complimented the Brigade on its achievements at Loos and remarked that, in future, when the Brigade was again called upon to make sacrifices, he hoped it would acquit itself as they had on 25th September and the succeeding days. The General’s words had an ominous tone and gave point to the rumours that further attacks were in contemplation.
The same day, operational orders were issued by Division, regarding the resumption of the offensive in the Loos area. It was intimated that Fourth Corps was ordered to secure and consolidate the Lens – La Bethune road between the Chalk Pit and Hulluch. Simultaneously, 11 Corps was to capture and hold Fosse 8 and the Quarries and to establish a defensive flank north east of those places. The 4th Corps’ task was to be carried out by the 1st Division and that Division was to be relieved by the 15th Division.
Within a week, 47th Division on the left and 15th Division on the right were to attack Puits 14 bis and Hulluch – the village being the 47th Division’s objective. GOC, 47th Division, proposed to put the 142nd Brigade into the attack at Hulluch, the 140th Brigade to follow up eastwards and the 141st Brigade to be in Divisional Reserve. The Battalion moved up to Mazingarbe on 12th October, arriving about 830pm. A draft of about 100 men from base was absorbed by the Battalion on the following day.
In consequence of IV Corps’ operations, timed to commence at 1pm on 13th October, the Battalion stood to arms under orders to move at half an hour’s notice. At the appointed hour, the 1st Division attacked with gas, smoke and artillery preparation but, after a promising start, the attack failed.
At nightfall on 14th October, 141st Brigade moved up into Loos and relieved 3rd Brigade (1st Division). The London Irish marched to Loos in the darkness via Quality Street and over the territory captured on 25th September and thence across country to the trenches due west of Puits 14 bis. The journey to the line was not very comfortable. There was a good deal of German machine gun and rifle fire and bullets whizzed overhead and ploughed into the ground in a most disconcerting manner. Lt LA Dircks was shot through the groin and two other ranks wounded. The Battalion took over the front line from the Munsters at 8am – the relief being effected in heavy fog.
The line taken over, extended from the Chalk Pit Copse on the north to the junction with the French on the Loos–Vendin road; “B” Company held the left, “D” Company the centre, “C” Company the right and “A” Company occupied the supports. The sector was a very unpleasant one.
Immediately in front, and in German hands, were Bois Hugo and Puits 14 bis, the scenes of bloody conflicts on 25th September and in the succeeding days. The British dead were thickly scattered over a wide area. Here, a group of twenty men had died behind the little mounds, which had been hurriedly raked up in a futile effort to provide cover; there, a bandaged body lay on a stretcher with two bearers dead beside their charge; elsewhere lines of prostrate forms showed clearly how machine gun fire had torn gaps in the ranks. It was impossible to move twenty paces without stepping over a body.
Prior to relief by the Battalion, the Munsters had experienced terrible artillery fire from Hill 70, the environs of Lens and Hulluch. Enfilade shell fire had blown in long sections of trench, completely burying the garrison and, when the Battalion dug out these trenches, many dead were found still sitting on the fire step.
The situation of the trenches in this salient was such that the bullets fired by the French further south passed over the German trenches round the bend a few hundred yards away, finally pitching into the parados of the line held by the Battalion.
During the Battalion’s tour in this section of the line, from the night of 14/15th October to 21st/22nd October, the weather was fine generally but with very cold nights and misty mornings. A good deal of work was done on improving the line and excavating blown in portions and a new front line opposite Puis 14 bis was commenced on 18th October by the Royal Welch Fusiliers (Pioneer Battalion) and occupied by the London Irish Battalion on 20th October.
The misty mornings permitted a great deal of movement in the open until about 10am and aided materially in the work of collecting and burying the dead. In four nights, the Battalion’s parties alone buried over 80 bodies. Father Lane Fox, the RC chaplain was indefatigable. Night and morning he toiled with the salvage and burial parties and spared no effort to ensure the collection of identity discs and personal effects of the dead men and to see that all bodies were given a Christian burial. The men of the Battalion, who previously had the highest respect for the Chaplains unfailing cheerfulness and courage were moved to enthusiastic admiration by Father Lane-Fox’s labours in no-man’s land. Whenever the Battalion found itself up against it, the men knew that Father Lane Fox, armed with a light whippy cane, would be on the spot, giving cheerful advice and encouragement to all, and tending the wounded with unstinted devotion.
Fraternisation with the French neighbours.
On the right of the Battalion, the line was held by the French 18th Division and there was a lot of fraternisation between the men of “C” Company and the French on the other side of the Loos – Vendin Road. The troops bartered cigarettes, razors, jam, bully beef and bacon for wine, bread and sausage and souvenirs and the happiest spirit of camaraderie prevailed.
The Bombers holding the Loos – Vendin Road post on the right of “C” Company and, in contact with the French, made a great friend of Sgt Francois Raimbault of the 77th Regiment of the line. This French soldier was a great fighter, who had seen much active service and who specialised in lone no-man’s land patrols. One of the Sergeant’s hobbies was to spend long periods at night reclining on the Loos – Vendin Road loosing off shot after shot down the road into the enemy lines. The bullets could be heard ricocheting off the pave and, if they did no actual damage, they made conditions very unhealthy for the enemy troops using the road back.
On the night of 19th/20th October, an incident occurred which might have had disastrous consequence for our French friends. Cpl Peake and two Bombers, while patrolling in no-man’s land, were surprised by a good deal of rifle fire and commotion in front. Star shells soared aloft from the German trenches and soon a line of figures, emerging from the gloom, were seen advancing towards the patrol. Cpl Peake shouted back a warning towards the front line trenches and the trenches were instantly manned, the troops awaiting the order to open rapid fire. Cpl Peake challenged the advancing figures and, receiving a reply in French, went forward to investigate. The Corporal satisfied himself that there was no deception and passed the word back, whereupon the Frenchmen returned to their lines.
Apparently our Allies had been out with the intention of erecting a new belt of wire but, owing to the irregular run of the trenches and the darkness, they had commenced to attach the new wire to the German wire. The enemy opened up a sharp fire causing the wiring party to withdraw hurriedly across the British side of the Loos-Vendin road. But for Cpl Peake’s coolness and knowledge of the language, rapid fire, with its inevitable consequences, would have been opened up on the wiring party. It may be added that, with troops bearing down on them in front and with their comrades about to open fire in the rear, the men of the patrol were distinctly uncomfortable for a short time.
Enemy Attack Expected.
The following day, 20th October, was a day of alarms and trouble was expected. Division reported the presence of unusually large bodies of troops in Bois Hugo – the enemy artillery had obviously been stiffened, as very heavy bombardment of the line had taken place and a report from the French, through Division, had been received that the enemy had cut diagonal lanes through his wire defences.
The circumstances pointed very strongly to the probability of an attack by the Germans and preparations were, at once, made to deal with the emergencies. The French Commander on the flank was interviewed and defence schemes coordinated, machine guns were brought forward, extra clips of ammunition were put out, rows of grenades were placed on the fire step and parapets and special attention given to rifles. The support troops and artillery were warned and stood by in readiness.
All the afternoon, the enemy shelled the trenches causing considerable damage. The French Commander forwarded a message, which was passed to the troops, intimating that his men were calm and confident and happy to have on their flank a Battalion, which had so distinguished itself at Loos.
The attack was expected to take place at dusk and, just before that time, the enemy artillery fire died away and an ominous calm descended on the line. In the trenches, the British and French stood to arms in a state of excited emergency, waiting for the moment when the full weight of the enemy’s barrage would crash on the line. For a time, everything remained very quiet, and not a shot was fired by either side. Gradually, twilight faded into darkness. With nightfall, tension eased and, as no attack developed, the troops “stood down” and resumed their normal nightly tasks.
About 1130pm, the quietude of the night was broken by a fearful yell, followed by enemy rifle fire. In a few moments, Cpl S Mitchley and two other Bombers, who had been in no-man’s land on patrol, came tumbling in. The patrol, returning from its visit to the German wire, had stumbled against an enemy listening post, manned by two men. Cpl Mitchley had crashed his rifle butt on the unprotected head of one man and the other German had been accounted for by a rifle shot. When the excitement had died down, the remainder of the night passed quietly.
Relief from Line Duties and in Reserve.
After a trying day, during which the enemy kept up a heavy artillery fire, the Battalion was relieved on 21st October by the 17th London Regiment and took over that Battalion’s reserve position in Loos village. The relief was completed at 7pm in the first rain for seven days. During the tour in the line, the Battalion had lost one officer (Lt Dircks) wounded, three men killed and thirty six other ranks wounded. These casualties were practically made good by the arrival from the base, on 20th October, of a draft consisting of 2nd Lt Monypeny and twenty six men.
The Battalion remained in the reserve trenches on the north side of Loos during 22nd October, making the most of the opportunity of getting some sound sleep for the first time since taking over the line on 14th October. As soon as night fell, the Battalion’s working parties proceeded to the line to labour on the improvement of Chalk Pit Alley.
The 20th Battalion’s Tour in the Line.
On the following day, 23rd October, preparations were made for a return to the front line trenches and, at 750pm, the Battalion relieved the 20th London Regiment in the A2 sub-Section. “A”,”B” and “D” Companies occupied the front line and “B” Company took over the support. This portion of the line, which embraced Chalk Pit Wood and the Chalk Pit, was notorious for the violence of the enemy’s artillery fire.
The 20th Battalion had had a very rough time, particularly following a direct hit by enemy gun fire on an accumulation of smoke shells in the Chalk Pit. The dense curtain of smoke emitted by the exploding smoke shells had frightened the enemy into the belief that an attack was imminent, with the result that a most appalling barrage fire descended on the unfortunate 20th Battalion. In this section of the line, both sides were “touchy” and very suspicious of anything out of the ordinary. The Germans were extremely susceptible and used the full weight of their artillery on the slightest pretext. A highly organised system of cross fire with light and heavy guns firing from the direction of Bois Hugo, Hulluch and Cite St Elie inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion and made life in the trenches very uncomfortable. In consequence of the heavy shelling, the trenches were in a bad condition and, in spite of superhuman efforts, repairs could not keep pace with the daily destruction wrought by the enemy’s guns. In addition, communication between Battalion HQ and the Companies was rendered very difficult.
The “Mad Minute”.
For musketry practice and the benefit of drafts, Brigade ordered a nightly “mad minute” and, at a given time, the men lined the parapet and blazed away fifteen rounds as rapidly as possible. On these occasions, apart from the enemy’s skill in getting in a few rounds of shrapnel, it was occasionally found that as many as four out of five rounds of SAA misfired. Brigade attributed this to the striker of the long rifle being short as no such instance occurred with the new short rifle.
On 26th October, a German aeroplane flew over the Brigade front dropping white flares and an observation balloon rose in the enemy’s lines. Shortly afterwards, a fearful pounding of the line by enemy guns commenced and continued all day. The bombardment reopened at 9am on the next day (27th) and, on this day, Division communicated to Brigade from IV Corps to the effect that it was known on good authority that the Germans were preparing for an attack in the sector.
Active preparations were put in hand to deal with the situation and the 6th Battalion (140th Brigade) was placed at the disposal of the 141st Brigade. The enemy bombardment continued throughout the day, while the British artillery retaliated with 9.2s and heavy howitzers. 2nd Lt EA Bury (Cyclists, attached to 18th Battalion) and Lt BG Dale were wounded, four men killed and sixteen other ranks were wounded during the day. At dusk, the gunfire ceased. There was no relief from the artillery fire on 28th and 29th October but the enemy shelling, concentrated on the Battalion front from three sides, was borne by the troops with cheerful fortitude, British artillery retaliated with marked success and the German infantry doubtless suffered severely.