Chapter 8 – From the Somme to the Ypres Front:
Moving from the Somme Front.
At 1145am on 14th October 1916, the Battalion moved off from Franvillers and marched to the Railway Station at Albert. One half of the Battalion en-trained at 3pm and the other half at 6pm.
The night was spent in the train and, after what appeared to be the slowest possible railway journey, by the morning, so little progress had been made that the train was actually within half an hour’s walk of Franvillers – the village from which the Battalion had departed the previous day. By 2pm on the 15th, the distance covered by the train was estimated to be about 15 miles.
The leisurely journey, which continued all day, ended at 10pm, when the first half of the Battalion reached Longpre-les-Corps-Saints, followed by the second half of the Battalion, which arrived at midnight on 15th/16th October. A meal of bread and meat followed de-trainment and the Battalion then set out on foot for Bussus, a village 15 kilometres distant. Soon free of their stiffness and exhilarated by the keen air and crystal clear night, the troops swung along easily, their iron shod boots ringing cheerily on the cobbles of the tree lined road.
Overhead, the frost laden branches and twigs gleamed with myriad jewel points of light, and wide stretches of water – which flanked the avenue – reflected the soft sheen of moonlight. Rime-clothed fields stretched beyond the water and the dark mass of woods merged into the starry indigo of distance. The peaceful beauty of the night, so different from the clamour and dreary filth of the Somme battlefield, swept away all care and, quiet and content, the men marched onto their destination.
On arrival at Bussus, billets were ready and the Battalion was soon asleep in the clean comfortable barns of the village. After a few hours rest, the men were paraded at 2pm for a rifle inspection and were then free to enjoy themselves in the orchards and amongst the blackberry laden hedgerows. At 1015pm (16th October), the Battalion set out on their return march to Longpre-les-Corps-Saints.
On arrival at the Station, hot tea was issued and the business of packing the Battalion into inadequate truck space began an hour later.
En route for the northern area, half the Battalion departed from Longpre-les-Corps-Saints at 330am on 17th October with the remainder leaving at 9am. The journey was not as leisurely as the previous one and the train rattled along merrily. The route was interesting and, after passing Etaples, the sea coast was followed to Boulogne, Wimereux and Calais, from where the journey continued to St Omer and thence to Caestre, which was the de-training point.
The Battalion arrived in two sections, at 9pm and 1130pm respectively, and, in heavy rain, marched to Steenvoorde. There was some confusion over billeting and, in consequence, much irritating marching backwards and forwards in the rain. Eventually, the Battalion was accommodated and, cold and wet and without the benefit of their greatcoats, the men settled down for the night in straw floored barns.
On 20th October, the Battalion set out at 8am and marched through typical Flemish scenery to Reningelst via L’Abeele and, on arrival, occupied a hutted encampment known as Scottish Lines. The absence of blankets, in a temperature registering several degrees of frost, prevented the men from getting the full benefit of their otherwise comfortable huts.
Training, Fatigues, Brigade Reserve and Inspections.
Until 29th October, the London Irish were occupied with training and camp maintenance fatigues. The new type of box respirator was issued on 26th October and, in small parties, the Battalion spent ten minutes in a gas chamber to test and appreciate the efficiency of the new gas mask. On 27th October, General Plumer, GOC of 2nd Army, inspected the 18th and 19th Battalions and, in a short speech, welcomed the Division into his command.
The Battalion moved up into Brigade Reserve on 29th October and relieved the 8th Battalion. One Company and Brigade Headquarters took over Woodcote House; one Company occupied strong points; one Company took over at Café Belge and the remaining further Company was quartered in dugouts. The Battalion had a quiet time in Brigade Reserve and was employed, chiefly on trench repairs and working parties.
On 4th November, HRH, the Duke of Connaught, Colonel of the London Irish, inspected a party of four officers and sixty men of the Battalion. The inspection took place at Vlamertinghe and the GOC and Lt-Col MacMahon MC had the honour of being presented to His Royal Highness.
Return to the Front Line.
At 515pm on 8th November, the Battalion moved forward and, after a long march, relieved 17th Battalion in the front line. The area taken over was known as the Ravine sub-Sector and derived its name from the little valley, which ran through the Battalion’s line; the Ravine thickly bestrew with bushes and undergrowth, comprised a shallow depression, which commenced in the German line and extended into the Battalion’s area – widening and deepening rearwards until it merged into the extensive Ravine Wood in the support area. Across the ravine, the front line consisted of a breast work of sandbags, five to six feet high, while the remainder of the Battalion’s front comprised good deep trenches.
The enemy’s front line, named Imperial Trench, was a well-constructed defensive work, situated on slightly higher ground. On the right of the Battalion’s, the opposing trenches were just within bombing range but, on the left, the distance between the lines was much greater.
Repairing Trenches and their Design.
The condition of the Battalion’s area was fair but communication trenches and support trenches needed repairing and extensive work was detailed by Brigade to improve matters.
A standard type of front line was devised by the CRE to suit the local conditions. The trench was dug to a depth of five feet and was three feet wide at the top and two feet wide at the bottom. The sides of the trench were retained by sheets of expanded metal or corrugated iron, and wooden framing, in the form of an inverted “A”, were fixed at short intervals. Duck boards were nailed to the cross piece of the “A” frame, one foot above the floor of the trench and timber supports were provided for a plank fire step.
Above ground level, a sandbagged parapet and parados were formed to give the trench an effective depth of six foot, eight inches. The “A” frames, minus the fire step, were also used extensively for communication trenches. The standardisation of trench design ensured a rapidly of construction, as the “A” frames were manufactured in large quantities by the RE and used as required.
Drainage was a matter of great importance and levels were studied and comprehensive schemes were prepared and successfully executed by the infantry under RE supervision.
During the Battalion’s spell in the line, there were several organised shoots against the enemy wire and front line – artillery and trench mortars being used. Enemy retaliation, which was always swift, was very severe and was invariably by means of heavy shell and minenwerfer and caused havoc in the line. Many casualties were sustained and, on 10th November three other ranks were killed and six wounded.
2nd Lt WWT Steadman was killed on 11th November and, on 12th November, four men were killed and sixteen wounded. Sgt Robinson of “C” Company, a popular NCO, was killed on the night of 16th/17th November.
In Reserve at Scottish Lines and Halifax Camp.
The London Irish were relieved by 22nd Battalion on the night of 18th November and, in pitch darkness and pouring rain, moved back to Ypres. Following a ten minute ride on the railway, the troops de-trained in the vicinity of Poperinghe and, while de-training, the Battalion narrowly escaped disaster. A warning shout was heard and, almost before the men had time to jump clear of the permanent way, a light engine raced by in the darkness. One man failed to get clear and was knocked down by the engine and killed.
The Battalion resumed its journey to billets and, after losing its way on account of darkness and unfamiliarity at Scottish Lines, soaked to the skin, arrived at 4am on 19th November.
The London Irish remained in Divisional Reserve at Scottish Lines until 28th November when they passed into Brigade Reserve and moved forward to Halifax Camp, taking over from 8th London Regiment. Halifax Camp, which comprised a group of huts situated on the side of the Ouderdom–Vlamertinghe road, was an improvement on the vast quagmire, which constituted Scottish Lines. Adjoining the Camp was the theatre of 47th Division, where excellent shows were given from time to time by the “Follies”.
Return to the Front Line at Hill 60.
On 3rd December, the London Irish moved up to the front line and took over from 17th Battalion in the Hill 60 left sub-Sector. While in the line, 17th Battalion had been roughly treated and the enemy’s shell fire and minenwerfer strafes had caused a considerable amount of drainage to the trenches. Rains and frost had helped to extend the damage and, on arrival in the line, the Battalion quickly realised that trench repairs and improvements would monopolise the whole of their time.
The front, held by the Battalion, extended from the ruined bridge over the railway cutting on the right to a point just beyond Allen Crater on the left. At the bridge, where the cutting attained its maximum depth, an accumulation of water, several feet deep, was blocked by the debris, which filled the space under the brick arch of the bridge.
It was rumoured that, to attack, the enemy planned to utilise underwater craft to pass through the lake in the railway cutting and, in consequence, the Bombers’ post at the bridge was styled “submarine post”. On the left, the extensive water filled Allen Crater projected well beyond the front line. The whole Crater was in British hands and a rough but heavily sandbagged path, ran round its side. Some derelict trenches led off from the left of the crater and one trench, which was neither blocked nor protected by wire, ran straight into the German line from the forward extremity of the Crater. This point was safeguarded day and night by a group of Bombers.
The Battalion was situated about 350 yards behind the front line in tunnels under Larch Wood. The railway cutting normally provided a convenient screened way to the front line but, when artillery strafes were in progress, the cutting, swept by storms of heavy shrapnel and fiercely bombarded with high explosives, was a death trap. With very few exceptions, the numerous dugouts, which lined the northern bank of the cutting from Battalion Headquarters to the front line (Marshall Walk), were badly battered and standing orders prohibited their use as shelters on account of the extreme risk.
Hill 60, from which the sector derived its name, comprised the low crown of the slopes, which rose gently from behind the British lines. It was situated in the enemy’s lines just north of the Railway and south west of Zwarteleen and was hardly distinguishable from the surrounding terrain.
The tactical value of Hill 60, however, was immense as it provided valuable observation of the British back areas. Snipers operated with considerable success from its fastness and machine guns and minenwerfers had their homes there. Since the severe fighting in the early days of the war, Hill 60 remained in German hands and many months of occupation by them had enabled them to convert the position into an almost impregnable fortress. Its reduction by mining was, however, feasible and galleries were constructed by the Australian and Canadian Tunnellers with this end in view.
After a troublesome period in the line, the Battalion was due to be relieved on 8th December but, as on this day, the enemy delivered an extremely heavy trench mortar strafe, the relief was cancelled. Several men were killed and wounded and Allen Street, Deep Support and Metropolitan Left were completely wrecked. Every available man was set to work at once to make good the damage.
The weather was atrocious and trenches and dugouts were in a dreadful state, with thick mud everywhere. A plentiful supply of duck boards, brought up with infinite labour, ameliorated conditions somewhat in the front line but, elsewhere, little could be done on account of shortage of labour.
After dark on 9th December, the Battalion was relieved by 17th Battalion and, in torrents of rain, left the trenches and, in single file, made its way down the railway track. Battalion Headquarters and one company took over in support at Railway Dugouts, two companies went to Belgian Chateau and one company occupied Battersea Farm.
Relief and Patrols.
The support position in Railway Dugouts was a comfortable one. Here the railway embankment, south of Zillebeke Lake was tunnelled to form dugouts and these shelters were quite dry and were equipped with excellent wire bunks and even had electric light. The Company, at Battersea Farm, nightly provided an outpost line to cover ground, which was too swampy for a trench and too exposed to be occupied by day.
Bombers and other parties proceeded at dusk every night to occupy forward posts south east of Fosse Wood, the two most important positions, being known as Glasgow Post and Berry Post.
Similarly, the Germans sent out parties at night to the same vicinity. It appeared that there was an arrangement, understood between the opposing patrols, that the first to reach the established outpost positions were entitled to undisturbed occupation. Arrival was usually announced by firing a few shots but, if the opposing patrols or outpost groups arrived together, a few grenades were hurled to settle matter – whereupon, local custom and practice came into operation.
One night, Major Parry decided to visit Glasgow Post and was escorted by the garrison commander, Sgt Brown of “C” Company. A Very light revealed the pair to the watchful enemy and, at once, a German machine gun opened fire and the Major’s favoured support, a stout walking stick, was shot out of his grip. A further adventure awaited the Major as he and the Sergeant approached the outpost. When challenged by the sentry, the CO’s reply: “The Major” failed to satisfy the alert sentry, who threatened to throw a grenade. Sgt Brown saved the situation by hurriedly identifying himself with a hoarse, “It’s Buster”. The Major examined the post, said a few words to the men and then, piloted again by Sgt Brown, departed through the blackness of the night to more attractive quarters but without his walking stick: ‘shot out of his hand at Glasgow Post.’
Return to the Line, a Heavy Bombardment and Exploding a Camouflet.
On 14th December, the Battalion moved up into the Left sub-Sector of the Hill 60 Sector and relieved 17th Battalion. Overnight, the men were warned that the Germans might attempt to repeat the feat of a year ago when they carried out a raid in which they succeeded in penetrating the British lines as far back as the dugouts of Battalion Headquarters in Larch Wood.
The night passed quietly but, at 7am on 15th December, the enemy guns and trench mortars opened fire. The shelling gradually increased and the whole of the Battalion’s area was soon being lashed and deluged with high explosive shells and minenwerfers. After the torrent of shells had continued to rain on the Battalion for an hour, Battalion Headquarters ordered up the Reserve Company and called a general “stand to”.
The front line troops prepared to repel an attack and the miners were ordered out of their galleries. Bombers filled their bomb bags and prepared to rush the threatened points, machine gunners and the riflemen were alert and the Artillery stood by, ready to barrage the enemy front line on sighting the SOS. The enemy guns and trench mortars pulverised the Battalion’s line for three hours before the bombardment began to slacken.
No infantry action developed on the Battalion’s front but the enemy unexpectedly attempted to rush the trenches on the left. Casualties occasioned by the shelling were extraordinarily light: only ten men being knocked out, although the trenches were flattened in many places.
At dusk, the enemy resumed his bombardment and the weight and volume of his fire increased at an appalling rate. Heavies, whizz bangs and trench mortars crashed into the line without intermission. The front line, supports and communication trenches were literally alive with bursting shells. The Railway Cutting was swept with salvos of heavy shrapnel and clouds of black smoke hung over the forward area.
The SOS signal was put up and any intention, which the enemy might had of attacking, was speedily crushed by the shattering reply of the British artillery. For an hour, the artillery, on both sides, pounded the line with terrible ferocity and night was turned into day by the blinding flashes of shell explosions and the ceaseless displays of star shells.
Certain the enemy was about to raid, the Battalion stood to arms in trenches that seemed to rock and sway under the impact of the heavies, while streams of machine gun bullets ripped the sand bags of the parapets and whistled overhead. Gradually, the fury of the barrage fire eased off and, after 90 minutes, the shelling died down.
A tour of the line revealed ruin and devastation everywhere. Working parties were organised forthwith and repairs put in hand. Stretcher bearers had an arduous time evacuating the wounded. The battered and blocked trenches were difficult obstacles but the work was performed with cheerful efficiency.
A report that the Battalion would be relieved on 18th December put the men in high fettle and the prospect of Christmas out of the line was eagerly welcomed. However, on the 18th, an intimation was received that the relief would be postponed for one day. The reason given for the change of plan was that the Tunnellers were preparing to blow a camouflet at night to wreck a German gallery, which was perilously close to the British mines. It was explained that a chain of mines, extending over a considerable length of front, had been prepared for the forthcoming operations and there was a danger that the camouflet might, by concussion, set off “Big Willie”, the principle mine under Hill 60. It became necessary, therefore, to dispose the front line troops so that they would be ready to carry out the full pre-arranged programme of attack should the main mine be touched off.
In the evening, a large number of RE arrived and, when darkness set in, the Battalion quietly left the trenches and lay out in the open. All ranks were acquainted with the objective and storming parties, machine gun sections and Bombers were assembled in accordance with the plan of attack. The troops were withdrawn later as the time of blowing the camouflet had been deferred until 2am on 19th December.
At 130am, the troops again silently clambered out of the line and lay down in the open. No signal was needed to put into operation the scheme of attack, as the blowing of the main mine would be unmistakable. In the event of the camouflet being successfully blown, “All’s well, stand down”, was to be signalled by a white rocket, which the RE would fire. After half an hour of keen tension, at 2am precisely, a low muffled roar was heard, followed by a slight earth shudder. The excited troops gazed forward into the blackness of the night. Would the first slight shock be followed by a terrific volcano-like eruption? Thirty seconds would tell. Slowly, the seconds ticked off. Half a minute passed and then ten minutes.
It was clear that “Big Willie” remained intact but it was equally certain that the “all’s well” signal had not soared aloft. Colonel MacM Mahon, who with Adjutant Captain Strachan, had watched events from the Railway Cutting outside Battalion Headquarters, sent messengers to the Companies, ordering them to resume normal dispositions and then proceeded to the RE dugout to ascertain why the white rocket had not been fired.
On arrival, the CO found the RE in a state of turmoil, the white rocket being the cause of the trouble. It had been stuck into the ground tightly and instead of shooting skyward on being ignited, had swerved and plunged down the mouth of the dugout. The sappers below had been then treated to a dancing inferno of sparks and flame, from which ordeal they had emerged singed and half suffocated.
Relief for Christmas.
On the evening of 19th December, the Battalion was relieved by 23rd Battalion and between 9 and 10pm, the London Irish left the line and proceeded down the Railway track to the point where the Verbranden–Molen road cuts across the Railway. Taking to the road at this point, the Battalion marched to Transport Farm and onto Shrapnel Corner, where the Battalion turned to the right and entered Ypres via the Lille Gate and made for the railway station. After a short wait, the Battalion en-trained and was conveyed to a point near Poperinghe, marching from there to Scottish Lines. On arrival, a hot meal was followed by the issue of two blankets per man and the Battalion, thereupon, settled down for the night in great comfort.
On 21st December, the Brigade was to have been inspected by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig but, in consequence of inclement weather, the parade was dismissed and the Field Marshal visited the men in their billets during the afternoon.
On Christmas Eve, the Band excelled themselves and gave highly popular renderings of Christmas Carols: the men assisting vocally with great enthusiasm.
A short service was held in the YMCA but, on Christmas morning and after a day as free from work as possible, the Battalion enjoyed a Christmas dinner of substantial and varied fare, followed by a sing-song in the evening.
Into Reserve and Issue of Bombing Equipment.
The Battalion moved up into Reserve on 29th December; Battalion Headquarters and two Companies were accommodated in Swan Chateau and the remainder of the Battalion took over at Chateau Segard.
At this point, the Bombers were issued with steel body armour shields, which had been designed to reduce the casualties caused by bomb splinters. The shields were rather cumbersome and, in normal trench life, were heavy and unpleasant to wear. In action, they prevented essential rapidity of movement and restricted throwing range. In consequence, the Bombers heartily disliked the shields and, from time to time, made every effort to be rid of them. As Battalion equipment, the shields were constantly being checked and, on more occasions than one, the men who had unceremoniously dumped their shields found themselves trekking back to the line to recover them. When the shields were finally withdrawn, the Bombers were much relieved.
Another source of irritation to the men were the difficulty experienced with gumboots. The theoretical arrangements for their issue, cleaning and drying were excellent and, naturally, in wet sections of trench, gum boots were of inestimable value. The trouble with gumboots usually arose when the Battalion, en route for the line, halted at some point near the trenches and in pitch darkness and very often in a downpour of rain, endeavoured to fit themselves out with an inadequate number of boots of assorted sizes.
Gumboots were often not in pairs and while men with small feet generally managed quite well, others frequently had great difficulty and, in the limited time available, searched frantically for suitable boots. Gumboots of the right size did not necessarily mean satisfaction, as there was no certainty that the two boots would be a “right” and a “left”.