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47th (London) Division – 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. A heavy snowfall and continued frost had made the roads and places almost impassable, and the long journeys with supplies to outlying villages, together with the insatiable demand for fuel, meant a long day’s work for the Divisional Train and Supply Column.

During this period the original Supply Column of the Division, the 47th, which had accompanied it from England, was restored to it for good, the system of changing over the mechanical transport with every change of area having been found unsatisfactory.

Brigade training began directly after Christmas, but it soon became clear that a return to the line was imminent. On December 29th orders were issued for the Pioneers and two field companies to move up to the Vth Corps area on New Year’s Day. On the following day the enemy attacked on the Vth Corps front, and the 142nd Brigade was moved up by train at a few hours’ notice. On January 4th it relieved the left brigade in the Flesquieres sector, which was already covered by our own Divisional Artillery. In a raid on the 24th Battalion on January 6th, one prisoner was taken by the enemy.

Meanwhile, the whole Division had been transferred from IIIrd to Vth Corps. Divisional Headquarters left the chateau of Baisieux on January 6th for the Nissen huts of Ncuville Bourjonval; on the 7th the 141st Brigade, who had moved into the Bertincourt area two days earlier, took over the right brigade front of the 17th Division, and Sir George Gorringe took over the command of the whole Division front. The 140th Brigade remained in the rest area until January 10th, when they rejoined the Division at Bertincourt.

Intense cold, followed by a thaw which rendered the trenches almost impassable, added greatly to the hardships of the troops in the line. Except for normal artillery activity, however, the days passed quietly. It was decided to evacuate the Havrincourt-Premy salient, including Dago Trench and Premy Switch, and this was done on the night of January 14-15th.

The evacuation of the salient by the 140th Brigade involved a demolition of eight dugout systems, with twenty-four entrances, and in making these uninhabitable and otherwise making things as uncomfortable as possible for any Germans who might seek to take up their abode there, 1,505 slabs of gun-cotton, and 108 gallons of petrol or paraffin were used.

Work on the Beaucamp-Trescault-Hermies line was begun on January 24th, and a working party of 300 infantrymen was employed on it daily. A great deal was done by all arms in preparing rear lines of defence. Batteries were arranged in depth; anti-tank guns were placed on the Flesquieres Ridge, and alternative systems of communication from front to rear were practised.

The Chaplain-General (Bishop Taylor-Smith) visited Divisional Headquarters, which were now established in Ytres, on January 26th, and on the Sunday officiated at a church parade of the 140th Brigade.

A 47th Divisional memorial cross was erected at Eaucourt I’Abbaye on February 3rd, 1918, when Major L. Boosey, of the 22nd Battalion, the senior officer present, read the following words of dedication:

“We set up this memorial to the honour of our brave comrades who fell in the battle of Eaucourt L’Abbaye on October 1st, 1916. Their names are too many to repeat, but not one of them shall be forgotten. For in the face of a powerful enemy they continued to go forward, giving their lives for England and for London, for all they loved best at home.

Peace has come to this village; its trees and houses shall grow again. So we have placed a cross on the place where our soldiers fell, as a sure sign that they, too, rest in peace, and have the certain hope of a glorious resurrection in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

A memorial cross was also erected in High Wood in commemoration of those who fell in the successful attack of September 15th, 1916.

Two important changes in organisation, which were being put into effect throughout the British armies in France, resulted in great changes within the Division during the next few weeks. These were the reduction of the strength of infantry brigades from four battalions to three, and the combination of the four machine-gun companies into one machine-gun battalion.

The reorganisation of the infantry resulted in the loss to the Division of the 6th Battalion (City of London Rifles), the 7th Battalion, and the 8th Battalion (Post Office Rifles). These three City battalions, which had joined the Division some months before it embarked for France, had played a leading part in most of the big operations in which it had been engaged, and their loss to the Division was a heavy one. They were ordered to join the 58th (London) Division, where they were to be amalgamated respectively with the 2-6th, 2-7th, and 2-8th Battalions, London Regiment, which were already serving there. A large proportion of their personnel, however, was retained with the 47th, and was sent as drafts to other units of the Division. The 6th Battalion, for example, received orders to dispose of its personnel as follows: 14 officers and 250 other ranks to the 2-6th Battalion London Regiment; 8 officers and 250 other ranks to the 1-15th Battalion, and 6 officers and 170 other ranks to the 1-18th Battalion. The 8th Battalion sent its headquarters and 200 men to the 2-8th; 7 officers and 250 men to the 1-24th, and 8 officers and 300 men to the 1-17th.

As might be expected, there was no little heart burning over the question who should be taken and who should be left. There was much making of nominal rolls (in triplicate), much hurried transferring of indispensable clerks and mess-servants at headquarters who were suddenly found to belong to one of the doomed battalions, and much quiet horse-coping and camouflaging of transport and equipment.

At last the tangle was more or less straightened out, and on February 2nd the Divisional and Brigade Commanders bade farewell at Bertincourt to the headquarters and nucleus detachments of the “Cast-iron Sixth.” the “Shiny Seventh,” and the Post Office Rifles as they left in omnibuses to join the 58th Division.

The 47th Division owed to these “lost tribes” several distinguished commanders and Staff officers who remained with it, among them Brigadier-General Mildren, a former Commanding Officer of the 6th, who had succeeded Brigadier-General Erskine on January 2nd, 1918, in command of the 141st Brigade; Lieut.-Colonel (afterwards Brigadier-General) Maxwell, of the 8th, and Lieut.-Colonel C. Salkeld Green, of the 7th, while others, such as Lieut.-Colonel W.B. Vince, afterwards returned to us.

In the war diary of the 8th Battalion the closing entry, written almost three years after the landing of the unit in France, runs as follows:

“The battalion is gone, and its officers and men scattered abroad. But the spirit of the battalion — that spirit which carried it through over two and a half years of hard fighting — will always remain in the hearts of those who have served in and for it.
Hac olim meminisse juvabit.”

To fill the gap thus made in the 140th Brigade, the 17th Battalion was taken from the 141st Brigade and the 21st Battalion from the 142nd. The new order of battle, therefore, was:

140th INFANTRY BRIGADE. (Brigadier-General H.B.P.L. Kennedy, D.S.O.)
15th Battalion, London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles).
17th (Poplar and Stepney Rifles),
21st (First Surrey Rifles),

141st INFANTRY BRIGADE. (Brigadier-General W.F. Mildren, C.M.G., D.S.O.)
18th Battalion, London Regiment (London Irish Rifles).
19th (St. Pancras).
20th (Blackheath and Woolwich).

142nd INFANTRY BRIGADE. (Brigadier-General V.T. Bailey, D.S.O.)
22nd Battalion, London Regiment (The Queen’s).
23rd
24th (The Queen’s).

The reorganisation of the machine-gun companies took place towards the end of the month of February, which passed without incident of importance on the Divisional front. An enemy raid on the front of the 17th Division on our left and a great increase of patrol activity, however, were among the many indications that the expected German offensive would not be long delayed.

On February 22nd and 23rd the Division was relieved by the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. The 141st Brigade went back to Lechelle, and the 142nd to Rocquigny. On February 27th the 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, like other Pioneer battalions, was reorganised into three companies instead of four.

Training in the field, in which all arms combined, and musketry on the range at Le Transloy, interspersed with gymkhanas, boxing and football matches, occupied the first three weeks of March. Just outside the village of Bus an excellent racecourse had been laid out by a division which had previously been in possession of that desolate area. The jumps — which were vigorously shelled by the Germans later during their advance, under the impression that they were gun positions — were still in good repair, and two most enjoyable gymkhanas were held there on March 9th and 16th.

Meanwhile, the shelling of back areas, and the bombing by night, became daily more persistent. On March 12th, Divisional Headquarters, in the remains of the chateau at Ytres, was heavily shelled. Captain Arthur Gorringe, the camp commandant, and a brother of the Divisional Commander, who had won the affection of all with whom he came into contact during the short period of his service with the Division, was seriously wounded in the hand.

Sunday March 17th, was the third anniversary of the Division’s first landing in France. A special service of thanksgiving, remembrance, and self-dedication was held in the evening in the large theatre at Lechelle. So many of the original members of the Division desired to attend that it was impossible to accommodate them all, but the theatre was crowded with representatives from every unit of the Division. The Divisional Commander and his Staff were present. The service was conducted, and an address was given, by the Senior Chaplain, the Rev. A.E. Wilkinson, M.C., and the music was provided by the band of the 19th Battalion.

On the same day orders were received for the Division to relieve the 2nd Division in the La Vacquerie sector, south-west of Cambrai, on the right flank of the Third Army. The 2nd Division, as well as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division had suffered heavy casualties during the recent gas-shell bombardment by the enemy. Its replacement in the line at this stage by the 47th Division, which had been in training as a counter-attack division for the right flank of the Vth Corps and the Third Army, was a change of Corps plan which had far-reaching results.

Read April to August 1918.