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47th (London) Division – June/July 1916

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. The artillery did most of the demonstration, but infantry also played a part in the form of raids, a new kind of amusement invented by the Canadians up north. The first divisional raid was done by the 19th Battalion near the Bully Crater in the Angres sector, the prelude to many successes achieved later by the Division in these enterprises. It was preceded by a discharge of gas, for which some 1,300 cylinders had been brought up in Army Service Corps wagons with old motor-car tyres fitted to their wheels.

Two raiding-parties with blackened faces reached the Boche trenches successfully, secured a live enemy for purposes of identification, and killed others. Sappers of the 4th London Field Coy, RE, went over with the party, each carrying thirty slabs of gun-cotton in a pack for demolitions. One of them found the dugout he wanted to blow up occupied, so set a fuse to his pack and bowled it down the steps of the dugout.

The battalion signallers took over a telephone line and maintained communication with Battalion Headquarters from the enemy trench during the whole raid.

The next raid, undertaken by the 15th Battalion, on the night of July 3rd- 4th, was less successful. It was remarkable from the fact that the enemy put down a “box barrage,” the second of our acquaintance, on the piece of trench attacked. This failed in its object of catching the raiders, but kept them from getting nearer than bombing distance from the trench. During the raid, Lieutenant GL Goodes’ 140th Trench Mortar Battery did notably good work. They fired 750 rounds in half an hour, although two mortars were knocked out and four gunners wounded.

A 22nd Battalion raid on July 8th was a more elaborate affair. It consisted of two acts. First, a discharge of smoke on the Souchez sector was succeeded by a raid in the Angres sector by sixty infantry and four sappers. The party reached their objective, but found no Germans in the trench. Dugouts were bombed, and some demolition done. Some hours later, in the early morning, the second raid started with a discharge of smoke and gas along the Angres sector. A raiding-party followed, but were met with all kinds of fire — artillery, trench-mortar, and machine-gun. Only a few individuals reached and bombed the trench, which they found strongly manned.

Undoubtedly many such enterprises were spoilt by the fact that the Boche frequently overheard our telephone conversations on his listening sets. Many months later we learnt from a captured document that he had on one occasion heard our Town Major of Villers-au-Bois announce to a front-line battalion that he would have billets ready for them after their relief that evening. That we were dimly aware of such danger was shown by the first adoption of fancy names for units in March, 1916. At first there was some sort of system about the names — e.g the 141st Brigade specialised in stationery, paper, string, etc., while the Train was jam, and the Signal Company was cable. But later the names became purely irrelevant. Nabob’s staff-captain once rang up his Nurse, and was put on in error to Oily. The Division, and, consequently, the GOC, was often given a Christian name. At one time it was Fanny, but this was supplanted by the more dignified John. Last of all, in 1918, the great co-ordinators at GHQ brought their minds to bear on the subject, and every unit in the Expeditionary Force had a separate and meaningless combination of four letters, a scheme which had the single good result of making one chary of using the telephone at all. Mercifully, at all times of real stress in operations it was assumed that the Boche was too busy to listen to us, and it was possible to call things what they were without the fear either of unintentional treachery or of a FGCM.

It was, however, in this sector that a few “Fullerphones” were first issued to the Division. These telegraph instruments defy any listening sets, and afforded a much-needed feeling of security to commanders in the “danger area.” There were at this time only enough of them available to work between battalions and brigades. During the winter of 1916-17 they were multiplied to an extent which permitted of their use between companies and battalions.

During June and July, 1916, several well-known figures left the Division. Early in July Brigadier-General W. Thwaites left the 141st Brigade to command the 46th Division. He had nursed the 47th Division in early days as GSO1, and had commanded the 141st Brigade since May, 1915. A few days later Brigadier-General GJ Cuthbert was appointed to command the 39th Division, and left the 140th Brigade, which he had brought out to France. Brigadier-General Lord Hampden succeeded to the 140th Brigade. After a month, during which Brigadier-General R.J. Bridgford was in command, Brigadier-General R. McDouall came to the 141st Brigade.

The Royal Naval Division, which had been learning from us the ways of war on the Western front, relieved us on July 18th, and we returned for a short spell to the Carency and Berthonval sectors, now delightfully quiet. Before we left, the RE and Pioneers were able to join up the “grouse-butts” into one continuous trench. The 141st Brigade was temporarily attached to the Royal Naval Division as divisional reserve, and remained in billets round Bouvigny-Boyeffles. At the very end of July we handed over to the 37thDivision, and marched away to train for the Somme.

In the Angres sector we had seen the last of flowery trenches and pleasant, deserted villages, with fruit and vegetables, a little way behind the line. Vimy had shown us the devastated result of concentrated shelling; such desolation was soon to be our normal dwelling-place.

Read August 1916.