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.
For some days the enemy had been shelling the back areas in a desultory fashion and, on the 4th, an unpleasant reminder of the possibilities of the new German field-gun was given by a direct hit on Swan Chateau by a 77mm. shell which burst in a room occupied by runners of the 17th Battalion, killing one and wounding eleven. The enemy’s artillery and trench-mortar activity, combined with the effects of rain and snow, made the maintenance of our trenches most laborious and difficult. The earth, especially near the Bluff, had the consistency of porridge, and re-vetting was necessary by means of “A” frames, corrugated iron, and expanded metal. These latter, in their turn, when damaged by artillery fire, were very difficult to clear away.
When it is remembered also that all troops on duty were equipped “boots, gum, thigh,” that these had to be changed at least once in each twenty-four hours and carried to and from the drying-rooms, that water had to be brought from a considerable distance, and that the Divisional Commander had given strict orders that all troops on duty in the front system were to be supplied with either a hot meal or a hot drink every four hours, it will be appreciated that a tour in the front-line was no period of ease and leisure. Added to this, the evacuation of casualties, both killed and wounded, was a laborious business that absorbed the services of a number of men, so it is not surprising that a constant state of guerrilla warfare existed between the Staff and the battalions as to the discrepencies between “trench strengths” and the numbers who actually paraded for “work.”
Major-General Gorringe’s insistence on hot food was, however, fully justified by results, the numbers evacuated sick being surprisingly small in view of the, at times, appalling weather conditions. Casualties from “trench feet” also, as compared with the previous winter, dwindled to quite small proportions, thanks to the precautions recommended and enforced.
On the 15th, the Division suffered a heavy loss. Major Lord Gorell, D.S.O., when returning from observing for his battery, was mortally wounded by a shell in Marshall Walk. A pre-war Territorial officer of high professional attainments, and at times almost reckless courage, his loss was universally mourned.
As the enemy’s artillery activity showed unpleasant similarity to that displayed previous to his attack on the Canadians the preceding June, the Army authorities considered a similar operation probable, and measures were taken to counter it. On January 16th these took the form of a mixed intense and deliberate bombardment by the Divisional Artilleries of the 47th, 23rd, and 41st Divisions, the Corps Heavies, and the Army “Circus.” The enemy’s retaliation caused considerable damage; the Battalion Headquarters in Larchwood Tunnels was blown in, and the orderly-room sergeant of the 6th Battalion was killed. The artillery observation post in the Bluff craters was also blown in by a shell which killed Lieutenant Duffus and his telephonist.
Poor visibility on the following day put a stop to the bombardment. Several days’ snow and frost followed. On the 25th, the enemy shelled the 142nd Brigade Headquarters at Bedford House, obtaining direct hits with 82-in. on the mess and the brigade major’s dugout. The Staff had prudently retired to the cellars, and suffered only the total loss of the sweet course.
Hard frost continued during the early days of February, the thermometer falling to zero on the 2nd. This made all work, except wiring existing trees and pickets, almost impossible, and since the water froze as it percolated into the trenches, it seemed only a matter of time before the garrisons on both sides would be lifted to ground level. On February 9th, during a burst of mutual artillery activity, a green light was seen to go up near the Ravine. As all wires to this sector had been cut, and this was at the time our SOS signal, it was naturally assumed to indicate an enemy raid, and the Divisional and Corps Artillery promptly responded. When communication was restored, it appeared that the light was a German one, apparently fired in anticipation of a raid by us.
On the 14th, the enemy were very active against our back areas, the Cafe Beige and Brisbane Dump being heavily shelled. Poperinghe was also shelled by a long-range gun. From now on the front-line infantry began to feel real sympathy for the Transport, as the latter were frequently shelled on the way up with rations, which they nevertheless always contrived to deliver sooner or later. Owing to the heavy demand for R.E. material and ammunition, convoys from the Divisional Ammunition Column, Train, and Engineers, as well as from the Field Ambulances and Supply Column, were trekking night after night over the shelled roads through Vlamertinghe and Ypres, and the task of the military police in controlling the never-ending stream of traffic in the darkness was no light one.
Throughout the desolate winter months, the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers were constantly engaged in the work of improving and maintaining trenches, dugouts, and trench tramway communications in the forward area.
The narrow-gauge tramway tracks running forward from Woodcote Farm Junction to the Bluff and Ravine received unusual attention from the enemy during the spring months of 1917. The cutting of big sections of line was of almost daily occurrence, but the Pioneer breakdown gangs dealt with every emergency, and on no occasion was the nightly flow of engineering stores, rations, and ammunition to the front-line interrupted for long.
A small party of the enemy attempted to raid the 6th Battalion on February 18th near the top of Hedge Row, but they were observed and fired on. Two were killed and several wounded, including the leader, an uncommunicative feldwebel, who was captured with gunshot wounds through both hands. A wounded private was also brought in and proved to be much more talkative. Both belonged to the 65th Reserve Infantry Regiment.
Later on another party succeeded in entering our trenches near the same spot, and in the inky darkness approached a Lewis gun which had been fixed to lire on a gap in the enemy’s ware. The team were busy shifting out the gun to fire on the raiders and mistook the latter in the trench for our own men, so that the enemy succeeded, after badly wounding the corporal in charge and another man, in getting away with the gun, but without any prisoners.
The outstanding event of this winter in the Ypres salient was the raid carried out by the 6th Battalion on February 20th 1917. The raid was planned and rehearsed long before its actual execution; in fact, it was reported that the proprietors of any estaminet in Poperinghe were prepared to tell you the date, time, and personnel of the projected operation for some months before it took place. If this was so, either the German Intelligence Service had deteriorated or the accuracy of the information was doubted, because when the raid was eventually carried out after a week’s wire-cutting, extending, it is true, over a wide area, the prisoners admitted that they were completely surprised by the attack.
The plan was to raid the enemy trenches in the map-square 1.34 in daylight, with the object not only of inflicting casualties, capturing and destroying war material, dugouts, machine-gun and minenwerfer emplacements, but of gaining information in regard to the hostile front system and its garrison, and also to look for, and, if found, to destroy any mine-shafts in the vicinity, to search for gas-cylinders, and to destroy a light gun which had been the cause of considerable annoyance to us, and had been located not far behind the German third line.
Zero was fixed at 5 p.m. with the idea of ensuring more efficient control and taking advantage of the dusk to cover the withdrawal of the attackers an hour later.
The troops employed consisted of four companies of Lieutenant-Colonel Mildren’s 6th Battalion, with six Lewis guns, one officer and twenty sappers of the 520th Company, R.E., and one officer and four other ranks of the 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company, making a total of twenty officers and six hundred and forty other ranks. With the object of deceiving the enemy as to the actual point of the attack, a dummy raid by the 22nd Battalion of the 142nd Infantry Brigade, who were holding the Hill 60 sector, was arranged to precede the actual raid, a small mine being fired in No Man’s Land five minutes before, and a second two minutes before zero.
The firing of the first mine was to be followed by a barrage of field-guns and 2-in. trench-mortars, which lifted at zero to form a box barrage in rear of the craters until zero, plus ten minutes. Trench junctions and strong points behind the line were bombarded by howitzers and 2-in. trench mortars, and smoke-bombs were fired at Hill 60 and the Caterpillar. Various coloured rockets were fired behind our lines. Other coloured rockets were collected in the Bluff craters and were fired in salvos, six, nine, and twelve minutes after zero, while the 41st Divisional Artillery kept the high ground south of the Canal under heavy fire throughout. Finally, Stokes mortars were borrowed, for over eighteen were in position to barrage the enemy’s front-lines on the actual front to be raided, most of which was too close to permit of wire-cutting by the 18-pounders. The usual artillery and machine-gun cooperation was arranged, and smoke-grenades and trench-mortar smoke-bombs were used to isolate the raided portion of the enemy’s lines and prevent accurate enfilading fire being brought to bear from the high ground on their side on either flank.
This plan worked out admirably. The enemy was evidently very nervous of the situation at Hill 60, and as this had been included in the previous wire-cutting, mistook the dummy raid for the real one, as his counter barrage was prompt, and, of course, descended upon almost empty trenches, the garrison, with the exception of the minimum number of sentries, having been withdrawn into the tunnels. The firework display from the Bluff also contributed, as another barrage descended on that area. The hurricane bombardment of the eighteen Stokes mortars not only cut the enemy’s wire, but forced the garrison of the front line either to get into their concrete dug outs or stop outside and be killed.
In consequence, the attackers met practically no hostile fire when going over. They captured the front-line almost without resistance, the hostile machine-guns in their concrete recesses not being ready for action. The only officer captured in the raid was found in one of the dugouts, which was solidly built and almost undamaged. He proved to be the officer in command of the sector, and had been caught on an ordinary tour of inspection without a revolver or even a stick. He was a brave man, and it was only the lack of something to do it with that had prevented his putting up a fight. The intermediate line, which did not appear to be used, was badly flattened out, and the main support line was also badly damaged and yielded a considerable haul of prisoners. There were no gas-cylinders, and only one mine-shaft was discovered, which was destroyed.
The light gun was not found. Enemy dugouts and machine-gun emplacements were wrecked by firing mobile charges in them, and this very nearly caused us severe casualties, as during the noise and confusion of the raid the R.E. Company had the greatest difficulty in diverting triumphant raiders returning dragging machine-guns and other loot from the neighbourhood of dugouts containing a fizzling charge of ammonal. The withdrawal was carried out according to plan, the red rockets that were fired behind our lines proving a useful guide and signal. Other rockets of a different colour were being fired north and south of the actual signals.
The total results were: One officer and one hundred and seventeen other ranks captured, two of whom died in our trenches; two heavy and three light machine-guns and large quantities of documents, maps, and papers. A large number of the enemy were also killed or wounded when escaping to the rear. A great deal of destruction was carried out in the enemy’s trenches at a total cost of eleven other ranks killed, three died of wounds, two missing, with four officers and fifty-six other ranks wounded, a total of seventy-six. The number of prisoners broke all existing records, and was never equalled in a raid by a single battalion during the whole of the war. The large number may be attributed to the fact that the enemy were largely surprised, while the attacking troops had few casualties going over, and also succeeded in cutting off the bulk of the garrison of the enemy salient. The official German account of this extraordinarily successful raid, circulated to the German Press of February 22nd, 1917, was as follows: “Strong English patrols which attempted to advance after exploding mines on both sides of the Ypres-Comines railway were checked by our barrage fire. Some few did reach the German lines, but were driven out again, losing prisoners. It is significant that the unwounded English prisoners captured here were so absolutely intoxicated that it was impossible to interrogate them.”
On February 25th, three officers’ patrols of the 141st Infantry Brigade went out, but encountered no enemy patrols, and reported that all was quiet and the enemy’s line was not strongly held. Two days later the 39th Division — commanded by our old friend General Cuthbert — relieved the 23rd Division on our left. Next evening another mutual “scare” occurred, both the 6th London in the railway sub-sector and the enemy sending up the SOS during a bombardment. The 6th had one officer and twenty other ranks hit, and one Lewis gun knocked out. As raids and bombardments by both sides were of almost nightly occurrence on the Corps front, these incidents admit of easy explanation, the lines being so close together that the putting down of a hostile barrage naturally led the infantry on the spot to assume that a raid was taking place, or about to do so.