October 1916

Towards the Front Line and further Action.

The Battalion was detailed to relieve the 10th Gloucesters (1st Brigade) at Becourt in the High Wood support area. At 130pm on 27th September, the Battalion left Bresle and moved up via Lavievlle, Millencourt and Albert, arriving at Becourt at 520pm. After spending one night and the following morning and afternoon at Becourt, the Battalion, under orders to act as Battalion in Brigade reserve, met guides at Bazentin Circus at 830pm on 28th September and took over the trenches in Chester Street and Mill Street, relieving the Northamptonshire Regiment.

The front line was occupied by the 17th, 19th and 20th Battalions in anticipation of attacks to be made by the Brigade with the object of seizing a length of the Flers Line and Flers Support Line, at 545pm, about 100 men, each of the 19th and 20th Battalions, attacked and made a promising start. The enemy appeared in large numbers and stood on the parapet and also bombed from behind blocks in the trenches.

The German artillery kept up a severe fire and the attack failed – the survivors returning to their original position. In connection with this action, the Battalion changed its dispositions. At 1am (29th), “A” Company moved into High Wood, at 7am, “B” Company was disposed in the Flers Line; later, “A” Company occupied a length of the Flag Line, while “C” and “D” Companies remained in the positions previously taken on 28th September.

Parties of London Irish were much occupied during the night in taking up supplies of bombs to the front line. This was arduous duty and the heavily laden men struggled over very bad ground and through very muddy trenches, across a severely shelled area. During 30th September, the Battalion retained its position as reserve to the 141st Brigade and was fully occupied in executing trench improvements and fatigues for the Battalions in the front line.

At 4pm on 30th September, the attack of the 29th was repeated by companies of the 19th and 20th Battalions. After being checked at the outset by machine gun fire from a barricade, the forward movement progressed following the destruction of the machine gun by a trench mortar shell. The enemy retired towards Eaucourt L’Abbaye and the troops of the 19th and 20th Battalions pushed up the Flers Line and Flers Support and established blocks in the trenches, 200 yards distant in the captured line.

The offensive was resumed at 315pm on 1st October when the 141st Brigade attacked with the 19th, 20th and 17th Battalions in the line and with the London Irish in support. The tasks allotted to the Brigade was the capture of the Flers Line and Flers support, where these trenches faced the front of the Brigade, the village of Eaucourt L’Abbaye and sufficient ground to the north east of the village to permit the establishment of strong points.

The dispositions of the London Irish were as follows: “A” Company and Bombers in Flers Line (less bombers attached to the 19th Battalion); “B” Company in the Starfish; “C” Company in Prue Trench; “D” Company in the Coughdrop; Lewis Gunners in Flag Lane and Battalion Headquarters in the Starfish. The attack was immediately successful in the right of the centre and, on the right (20th and 19th Battalions) and the Flers Line and Flers support on this frontage were quickly occupied.

On the remainder of the front, the left Battalion (17th) came under heavy machine gun fire, severe artillery barrage and against uncut enemy wire. Opposition quickly developed and checked further progress on the left and in the centre, but tanks later cleaned up enemy machine guns and the 19th and 20th Battalions passed through the village and took up positions on the northern side.

At 407pm, Brigade issued verbal orders, subsequently confirmed in writing at 445pm, for the London Irish to move up and to occupy positions vacated by the 19th and 20th Battalions.

As rapidly as possible, the orders were executed while “A” and “D” Companies moved forward through communication trenches, “C” and “B” Companies advanced to the line via Sunken Road. The Companies found considerable confusion in the old front line, the 17th, 19th and 20th Battalions having elements still there. “A” Company was first in position, reporting at 630pm. “C” and “B” Companies arrived shortly afterwards but “D” Company, delayed by 19th Battalion, who thought the troops a reinforcement, cold not report arrival until 730pm. The four Companies occupied frontages of approximately 200 yards each and were disposed from right to left in the order: “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”.

Action for the London Irish.

At midnight on 1st/2nd October, Brigade issued information to the Battalion to the effect that the Flers Front and Flers Support lines were held in places but that the enemy still occupied certain strong points. The London Irish were ordered to eject the enemy from one strong point and, at 330am on 2nd October, two platoons of “A” Company and one section of bombers attacked and succeeded in carrying the position. The captured position was immediately double blocked and held.

Following a very wet and black light, there was early morning mist, but this cleared up quickly and, at 645am, 23rd Battalion attacked with the intention of linking up with the 20th Battalion and closing the gap between the Battalion and 50th Division’s right flank in Flers Line. The enemy, reinforced overnight and warned of the impending tack by our artillery preparation, met the 23rd Battalion with murderous machine gun and artillery fire and the attack failed completely.

At 7am, the London Irish received orders from Brigade to attack as early as possible. The objectives given: 1) Flers front and Support lines and 2) the line running north-west of Eaucourt L’Abbaye.

These orders were subsequently cancelled and the Battalion which had contacted its frontage in anticipation of the attack, had an uncomfortable time in OB1 owing to the bad state of the line and overcrowding. In addition to the usual shell fire, there was persistent sniping, which apparently came from a derelict tank. During the night of 2nd/3rd October, patrols were active and ascertained that the enemy still held the Flers Line.

The London Irish Attack without Preliminary Artillery Barrage.

On 3rd October, the London Irish again received orders to attack and the objectives given were the Flers Front and Flers Support lines and a line from the west corner of Eaucourt L’Abbaye to a point north of the village where men of the 19th and 20th Battalions were still holding the ground seized on 1st October.

Major Mahon, OC London Irish, called at Brigade Headquarters, where General Gorringe, the new Divisional Commander, happened to be and, while discussing the scheme of the attack, suggested that the London Irish be allowed to attack without a preliminary bombardment. The suggestion was received dubiously but Major Mahon explained that he had watched the two previous attacks and had noted the enemy’s terrific artillery reply to our preliminary shelling and, to this, he ascribed the failure of the previous assaults.

Consent was given for the attack to be made in accordance with Major Mahon’s wishes but, just prior to zero hour, Brigade, very nervous of the experiment phoned to enquire whether the Battalion would like a ten minute bombardment. Major Mahon reiterated his desire to dispense with the gunners’ assistance and Brigade acquiesced.

At 3pm, three companies of the London Irish advanced in attack order and the remaining company was sent up Crescent Alley to form a defensive flank. The London Irish advance, unheralded by artillery fire, took the enemy by surprise. The Germans had little time to act and their machine gun and rifle fire quickly ceased as the assault developed.

The Battalion had penetrated the Flers Line and Flers Support line before the enemy’s guns opened fire. With frightful power, the German artillery barrage crashed down – but too late to aid the enemy infantry. With the enemy’s barrage wasting its fury in no-man’s land, the London Irish pushed through the German line and, by 345pm, the whole of the Flers Line and Flers Support Line were in the Battalion’s possession and about 40 Germans had surrendered to the troops on the left.

Leaving the two rear waves to consolidate, the first and second waves advanced again at 4pm and, without difficulty, overran the village of Eaucourt L’Abbaye. By 410pm, the Battalion’s objectives were taken and contact established with 20th Battalion on the right. Patrols, which were pushed out immediately, ascertained that the enemy had evacuated the length of the Flers Lines situated between the London Irish left and the right of the 50th Division and Brigade was requested to arrange for the gap to be filled. By 1245am on 4th October, two companies of the 17th Battalion were in position.

Throughout the night, the enemy guns played on the new positions but consolidation was energetically carried out to strengthen the front. The Battalion held the forward trenches and advanced posts during the whole of 4th October without difficulty and no infantry action developed, although the enemy were seen acting suspiciously on the Butte de Warlencourt. On two occasions, large numbers of the enemy were dispersed by artillery fire. Orders to prepare for relief were received and, at 245am on 5th October, 6th Battalion took over the line and the London Irish moved back to Becourt Wood in Brigade Reserve.

The Move to Mametz Wood.

In connection with further operations, the Battalion was moved, in company with the remainder of the Brigade, on 6th October. The London Irish, 20th Battalion, Trench Mortar Battery and Machine Gun Company took up positions in Mametz Wood. The Wood was a frightful jumble of smashed trees and tangled undergrowth. Thousands of “dud” English and German shells were scattered around and mixed up with the derelict barbed wire were hundreds of broken rifles and much abandoned equipment. There were still many dead horses awaiting burial and the atmosphere reeked of chloride of lime and putrefaction. The artillery were much in evidence and guns, sited in pits and in the open, fired unceasingly.

On 7th October, 47th Division with the 140th Brigade in the line, attacked at 145pm, accompanied by 41st Division on the right and 23rd Division on the left but, on the 47th Division’s front, little progress was made.

Under the command of Sgt Loveless, a working party set out at 5pm for a task in the vicinity of Martinpuich. The party passed streams off prisoners and wounded returning from the line and was exposed to some harassing fire before reaching its destination. After spending a few hours in soaking rain engaged in the task of filling in shell holes in the road, the working party prepared to return. When lined up in readiness for departure, the German guns opened a very heavy fire and shells burst all around the party but, fortunately, no one was hit. Slipping and slithering in the mud and filth, which covered the roads, the working party eventually reached Mametz Wood at midnight still intact, but having narrowly escaped destruction.

Throughout the night of the 7th/8th, preparations were in hand for further assaults and guns fired continuously. After the attack, a few prisoners trickled down the Contalmaison road but it was learned subsequently that the assaulting troops had not succeeded.

Leaving the Somme.

Less Major Skevington and 300 men, who had left to carry out working parties, the Battalion packed up and, at 230pm on the afternoon of 8th October, marched westwards – its fighting in the 1916 Somme battles finished.

Proceeding via Fricourt, the London Irish passed through Albert at dusk and after a six hour march (about 14 miles), reached Franvillers. The men were soon billeted but, as their overcoats were still in store, a chilly night was spent.

While at Franvillers, the Battalion followed the usual routine and had baths, started light training and refitted. On 12th October, the Battalion was inspected by the Commanding Officer, Lt-Col McM Mahon, at 9am and, in the afternoon, by General Gorringe and later by the Corps Commander, who reviewed the whole Brigade. An announcement was made that the Division would be leaving almost immediately for another part of the front and, with intelligent anticipation, the men concluded that they would next appear in the line at Ypres.

The London Irish had no regrets at leaving the Somme. A magnificent Battalion had been shattered at High Wood, largely owing to the failure of the tanks but with amazing resiliency, cheerfulness and courage, the survivors, strengthened by the new drafts, had tackled their subsequent tasks with determination, efficiency and success. In conditions requiring soldierly qualities of a very high order, the Battalion had emerged, not merely with the old traditions maintained but with a higher reputation to uphold in the future.

Chapter  8 – To Ypres.