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47th (London) Division – 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 25th September, 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. We held these saps and piece of trench joining their heads, and so completing the Hairpin. We also held a piece of Essex Trench, which continued the top of the Hairpin southwards. An equally high value was set on this position by our Higher Command and by the Boche. The former looked upon it as a valuable tactical point; the latter as a piece of their front-line system insolently occupied by the enemy. The day after the Division took over the line the enemy raided Essex Trench. This raid, and another, was successfully repulsed by the 15th Battalion, who had three anxious days defending the position. Their success in doing so earned the praise of the Corps Commander (Sir Henry Rawlinson). A few days later the Boche renewed his efforts, and succeeded in bombing the 15th Battalion out of some twenty yards of Essex Trench.

Two counter-attacks, which cost the 15th Battalion and bombers of the 18th Battalion fifty casualties, failed to regain the captured ground. Our hold on the Hairpin was less secure after this misadventure, and work was at once put in hand to protect it by a new fire trench on the southern flank. This was to be effected by Russian saps, driven just underground, and broken through when complete, and on these saps the R.E. and Pioneers worked at top pressure for several nights. But our real danger lay farther underground. The infantry had previously reported sounds of mining under the Hairpin. Experts visited the spot, and pronounced their fears groundless — a report which reassured the authorities rather than the garrison, who are apt to be fussy about such things. When miners of the R.W.F. heard the same sounds the question was taken more seriously. The garrison of the top of the Hairpin was reduced, the Russian saps were abandoned, and a new scheme was started of joining the legs of the Hairpin nearer to its base.

At tea-time on 30th December the Hairpin was blown up, and with it we lost many of Captain Woolley’s B Company of the 22nd Battalion, and most of the bombing platoon. A number of men, fortunately, were not buried by the explosion, but were cut off and became prisoners. At the same moment the enemy opened a remarkably heavy bombardment on our front line, causing many casualties to the garrison, knocking in the trenches, and levelling with the ground the local communication trench. Throughout this anxious half-hour the 22nd and neighbouring battalions maintained a steady rifle and machine-gun fire in the new craters, and no Boche infantry attack developed. A party of seamen from the Grand Fleet on a visit to the front were in the line with the Brigade. They were surprised to find that the sea has no monopoly of mines. They also showed us that sailors can fight on land as well as at sea, and did useful work manning a machine-gun, the crew of which had been knocked out. The support battalion was hurried forward to relieve the 22nd, and everyone worked hard to clear the battered trenches. In the morning high mounds of chalk were seen to command our front line, and the Boche was occupying the new trench across the Hairpin which we had so conveniently dug for him. Three days later the Dismounted Division relieved us, and we moved south to take our old Loos sector from the French.

The Division had spent a thoroughly “windy” month, full of excursions and alarms, during which our first Christmas in France had passed unobtrusively. The 142nd Brigade, indeed, had been lucky enough to be in billets in Sailly-Labourse and Verquin at the time, but of them at least one battalion had been favoured with a special Christmas Day alarm, and a battalion mess Christmas dinner was laid when the order came to march off to a new billet. The brigades in the line had to make the best of a muddy job, and were enlivened by a little extra activity on the part of our guns, just to show the Boche that any attempt at fraternisation would be severely discouraged. Many batteries fired 300 rounds apiece during the day, by way of a Christmas present for him. Mines and counter-mines, hurricane bombardments, and mud—liquid, penetrating mud that flowed in over the top of knee-boots and sent many men down the line with trench feet — these are among the chief memories of Christmas, 1915, our first Christmas at the war.

We relieved the French 18th Division at Loos on 4th January 1916. On completion of relief, their commander. General Sir Georges Lefevre, KCMG., under whose command we had passed, wrote the following letter to the divisional commander:

“At the moment of handing over command of the 47th British Division to Major-General C. Barter, CVO CB, Chief of this Division, I wish to inform this General Officer of my great admiration for the manner in which every service of his Division has been working during relief operations, and for the superb attitude of his troops in every circumstance.

The 18th French Division leaves the Loos sector with regret, but knows that it cannot be in better hands than those of the 47th British Division, who captured it.”

The Loos sector had become considerably more habitable since we had left it. The French seem to aim at comfort in their trenches rather than at the smartness which we try to bestow on our fire-bays when circumstances do not allow us to spend our spare energy by polishing buttons. They are more naturally soldiers and need less the artificial encouragements that have come to mean so much to us. Their dugouts are apt to have a pleasant domestic air, sometimes combined with a touch of drawing-room elegance, which makes their inmates forget to consider how much cover lies above their head. Ours generally miss this amenity, and resemble the cave-dwellings of primitive man at their worst, and, at their best, an efficient and compact cabin between decks.

Loos had been much ruined during our absence, and no overground accommodation remained. The best cellars were the battalion H.Q. in the post-office, and the spacious rooms under a farmhouse on the western edge of this village, which were used as an advanced dressing station, manned by the 6th London Field Ambulance. Boche shells had knocked the top off one of the pylons of the Tower Bridge.

The bulk of the artillery went into positions in and around Grenay, where the still intact cottages of Maroc gave a welcome improvement in observation. The practice of pushing up guns close to the trenches began to be carried out, and a gun of the 19th London Battery was brought into action in the fosse at Calonne, not more than 300 yards from the front line, to shoot laterally at the railway triangle east of Loos. Although searched for by every type of missile, including trench-mortar bombs, the gun remained in action for several weeks, until the battery left the neighbourhood.

Some batteries were engaged in counter-battery work, and poured an immense amount of ammunition on to the battery positions, billets, and communications in and around Lens. At last it could be felt that in weight of metal we could at least hold our own, and even carry out the precept that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Mining operations again demanded our most serious attention. Our predecessors had driven a long tunnel under the north arm of the Double Crassier, and a great pile of excavated chalk pro- claimed this enterprise to all the world. But more secret and urgent work was going on farther east, where the line crossed the Lens-Bethune road, and on 23rd January our miners successfully blew up a large mine, the visible result of which was Harrison’s Crater. The 21st Battalion was holding the line at this point; they had considerable casualties from the explosion which destroyed our own trenches, but they successfully occupied the near lip of the crater. The difficult work of consolidation was undertaken by the 4th London Field Coy., RE, who lost a number of men in the effort, and later by the 2/3rd Field Coy. A fortnight later we blew a mine to improve our position on the east edge of the spinney south of Loos. By way of retaliation the Boche blew a mine near Harrison’s Crater, which undid the work we had done to consolidate it. Within a few days, on 14th February, we were relieved by the 1st Division, and went into corps reserve. On 17th February. the Division was transferred (on paper) to GHQ, in which supposedly blissful state it remained for a whole week.

Read April/May 1916.