The 47th (London) Division, 1914-1919
by Maude, Alan H
March to August 1915
Throughout the winter of 1914-15 a number of Territorial battalions were serving in the trenches in France and Flanders, but serving as single units attached to brigades of the Regular Army. By March, 1915, the time had come for the Territorial Force to take the field, and serve in its own divisions.
The North Midland Division (afterwards the 46th) and the 2nd London Division led the way. To the former belongs the honour of being the first Territorial Force Division to cross to France, and they were instantly followed by the 2nd London. On March 9th and 10th, 1915, General Nugent’s brigade, consisting of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Battalions the London Regiment, crossed from Southampton to Havre and moved up to Cassel, as the Division was destined for the Ypres salient….
September to November 1915
At the end of August the Division took over from the 15th (Scottish) Division the W sector, which it had left at the beginning of the month. This sector extended from the Maroc-Puits No. 16 road (exclusive) northwards to the Bethune-Lens road (exclusive). Schemes were by now well in hand for an offensive on a grand scale, and no time was lost in making the necessary preparations. The existing front line was not suitable for the attack opposite Loos; it lay in a concave curve north of the Double Grassier, and diverged, to a distance of some 700 yards, from the enemy front line. A new line was, therefore, dug in the form of a chord across the arc of the old line, joining up the heads of long saps pushed out into No Man’s Land….
December 1915 to February 1916
At the end of the second week in December the Division relieved the 15th Division in the north sector of the Loos salient, which included the quarries and the Hohenzollern Redoubt. The legacy of the awful fighting which had taken place in these trenches on and after September 25th, in the shape of half-buried bodies and a general atmosphere of mortality, alone made this part of the line almost uninhabitable, and there were other disadvantages. Near the quarries a precarious hold was maintained by us on some rising ground in front of our main line by two long parallel saps which ran across to the German line…
The armies of our Allies and of our enemies developed likewise. But the Boche was still ahead of us, and the new methods first appeared in the storm that broke at Verdun on February 21st. On that fateful day the Division was grazing in the pastures of G.H.Q. reserve — cold comfort, for the ground lay deep in snow, and brigades sent successively for training to the Bomy area found it impossible for the next fortnight to accomplish much in the way of training…
The situation was thus eased on our front; but the enemy was continuously aggressive, worrying the front line with many “minnies,” and the whole of the forward area with frequent bombardment. Immediately south of us he did some successful mining, and the 25th Division were blown out of a part of their line in the Berthonval sector. They counter-mined, and on May 15th put up a string of mines and reoccupied their line. On May 19th this troubled sector was taken over by the 140th Brigade, who handed over to the 23rd Division the pleasantest part of our line, the Lorette defences…
After the trying days on the Vimy Ridge the Division was resting for about a fortnight in the Bruay-Dieval area. At the end of this period the Lord Mayor of London (Sir Charles Wakefield) visited us. The official photographer followed in his wake, and several pictures of the incidents of his visit are in the Imperial War Museum. At this time also General Thwaites returned from hospital, cured of his wound.
On June 12th, we began to move up the line again, this time to the Angres sector, where we stayed for a month. It was a peaceful time, but for an elaborate programme of bluff operations which ushered in the Battle of the Somme..
Considerable reinforcements came to the Division during June and July 1916. Men from different parts of the country now came to our London battalions under the new scheme by which drafts from training depots at home were posted at the Base, and sent where they were most needed. But the spirit of the Division did not change, and each unit had a strong enough character and tradition to absorb any reinforcement that came its way.
It was a strong Division that started marching southward on August 1st….
Between September 10th and 12th we relieved the 1st Division in the High Wood sector.
We walked into a new world of war. We passed through Albert for the first time, under the Virgin, holding out her Child, not to heaven but to the endless procession below. Fricourt, where the line had stood for so long, was now out of range of any but long-range guns, and we could see freshly devastated country without being in the battle. All round the slopes were covered with transport of all kinds, and whole divisions of cavalry waiting for their opportunity…
The attack on Eaucourt I’Abbaye started at 3.15 p.m. on October 1st. The attacking battalions, from right to left, were the 19th, the 20th, and the 17th. The 18th Battalion was in support, and, farther back, the 23rd, placed under orders of the 141st Brigade. Two Tanks co-operated, but had to start from cover some distance behind the infantry, and could not reach the village till at least an hour after zero.
The right two battalions entered the Flers Line without difficulty. But their further advance was held up by persistent machine-gun fire from the west corner of the abbey enclosure…
On November 4th, the Duke of Connaught inspected the 18th Battalion (London Irish Rifles), of which battalion he was Honorary Colonel, and the Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel B. McM.Mahon, M.C., was presented to him. The same day, our miners succeeded in blowing in an enemy gallery that had been driven under our front line, and the mining situation became easier. The enemy’s trench-mortars having devoted considerable attention to Marshall Walk, and a good deal of damage having been caused, a prearranged scheme of immediate retaliation was introduced which succeeded in largely abating the nuisance…
January 1st was marked by a heavy enemy bombardment of the whole Divisional front which did considerable damage to our trenches, blowing in the entrance of North Street tunnel to crater A. All indications pointed to a raid, but none took place, and by 6.15 p.m. things had become quieter. At night mild excitement was caused by the circulation to units from Divisional Headquarters of details of the New Year Honours and Awards, which covered the period March to September, 1916, and thus included the Somme operations….
On March 15th, the enemy, suspecting that the railway was being used to bring up timber and stores, heavily bombarded the neighbourhood of Zillebeke Halt, destroying the track for some three hundred yards to the west of that place. On the 23rd, the 142nd Infantry Brigade moved back from Divisional Reserve to the training area at Tilques. Early next day a hostile aeroplane flying low was successfully engaged by a Lewis gun of the 20th Battalion and crashed behind the enemy support line, where it was ultimately destroyed by our artillery. Following on a very heavy trench-mortar bombardment which blew in all the tunnelled entrances in the craters, the enemy succeeded in entering them, but subsequently withdrew without securing any prisoners….
It was a great relief to all ranks when the long damp nights started growing shorter, and the trenches and country in general began to show us that spring had arrived and that summer was coming.
We soon began to realise, however, that as well as summer other things were in the air. More minute investigation of the enemy’s lines, and more frequent work by our aeroplanes, gave us the idea that operations were pending. In addition to the regular visits to the forward areas by our Divisional Commander and his Staff, Staff officers of higher formations showed even more interest than usual in our positions and those of the enemy opposite to us….
June to September 1917
The Division remained only three days in the Westoutre area, and on June 13th moved back into comfortable billets round Blaringhem for rest and training after the strenuous time in the Battle of Messines. Divisional Headquarters and the 141st Infantry Brigade were quartered in Blaringhem village, the 140th Infantry Brigade at Ebblinghem, and the 142nd Infantry Brigade at Sercus.
It was a tremendous relief to be in proper billets again, with green fields round us, and not to have the continuous noise of the guns in our ears at night, and before our eyes the desolate shell-marked ground at which we had been looking for the last nine months…
September to November 1917
The hope indulged in for many a past month of a change of scenery from the dreary wastes of Flanders, and the dream of rest billets which might justify their name in back areas which enemy aeroplanes would not bomb every night without respite, of trenches which were not merely connected shell craters, and of villages which, though evacuated by their inhabitants, might still bear some resemblance to the normal haunts of men, were at last to be realised.
It was a cheery Division that de-trained in the vicinity of Maroeuil, near Arras, and relieved the 63rd (R.N.) Division (including the 28th London Regiment — the Artists Rifles — old comrades of the 2nd London Division) on the Gavrelle-Oppy front, with headquarters at Victory Camp, Ecurie….
“Too good to last!” There spoke the cheerful pessimism of the “other ranks” when they heard that another move was imminent. For we had begun to assume a certain permanence in our positions on the Oppy front, and to regard them as affording the promise of a quiet winter broken only by a merry Christmas.
But by the beginning of November the field-kitchen, most fertile handmaid of rumour, was busy with strange stories of a journey to the far south…
January to March 1918
Christmas, 1917, was spent by the greater part of the Division, except the artillery, under tolerably comfortable conditions. The brigades were billeted in villages behind Albert — the 140th around Ribemont, the 141st around Bouzincourt, and the 142nd around Lavieville. The Divisional canteen did a big business in pork and turkeys and such other delicacies as could be obtained, and everybody settled down to enjoy a peaceful Christmas after the stress of the past month.
There was little rest, however, for the transport…
Although the big German attack was expected in March, 1918, the exact day and hour when it should be launched was not known. The night of March 20th-21st was quiet. This was not unusual as, with the exception of aeroplane bombing raids and an artillery bombardment early every morning, the enemy had of late refrained from great annoyance in the forward positions at night. The world, however, woke up at 4.15 a.m. on the 21st to excessive noise of shells and guns. Alert sentries sent up the S.O.S., and our artillery soon replied. “The usual morning strafe,” said someone, and snoozed down into his blankets again. His composure was short-lived, however, for the enemy fire increased in intensity, and gas-shell was fired in particularly heavy concentrations; heavy trench mortars joined in with a nasty, thick, methodical bombardment of our front line posts and sap heads, long- range guns sent high-bursting shrapnel over the headquarters and villages miles behind the line….
May to August 1918
The success of the German offensive at the end of March shocked the Government and the nation at home into seeing the urgency of the need for more men, and large reinforcements were hastily sent across the Channel,
During the first week in April, over 3,000 new troops, mostly boys of eighteen, joined the Division, and had a very uncomfortable first taste of active service in improvised camps in the muddy orchards of Rubempre. They were absorbed by the brigades on April 9th, when the Division began to move back by way of Beauval and Domart to a pleasant rest near the forest of Crecy…
September to November 1918
A train journey was quite a remarkable occurrence. The Divisional Artillery had not travelled by train since their first journey up the line in 1915, and now they were being carried back to the same area. The Infantry Brigades had made one short journey by train (from Albert to Ytres in the snow) during the last year.
We found our old quarters – Chocques, Auchel, Calonne-Ricouar – much changed. Hutted camps had sprung up everywhere, and the inhabitants had naturally long since tired of entertaining the British Army. During the last spring the war had come inconveniently near; Chocques was badly knocked about and Bethune was a desolation. Still, it was a very pleasant change after so long a stay by the Somme, and, if the artistic eye of a few missed the rich colour and soft contours of the southern battlefield, the homely sense of most of us preferred the somewhat squalid urbanity of a mining district to the desolate rusticity which we had left. And in war-time the pleasure of revisiting old haunts is more than usually keen…
Armistice to Disbandment
The period which began with the Armistice and ended with the return of the “cadres” of units to England may be passed over very briefly, although the five months dragged wearily enough for those who were left till the end. “Nothing of interest to record” is a phrase that recurs often in the war diaries of this time.
On the day following the Armistice, Sir George Gorringe held a conference of all commanding officers at La Tombe when plans for “educational and recreational training” and for making the best of things generally for the troops were discussed. The formation of Old Comrades’ Associations, which should, in after years, provide an opportunity of renewing war-time friendships and keeping alive the spirit of the Division, was at once put in hand…..