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47th (London) Division – 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. It was a change which all units of the Division fully appreciated, and reorganisation and training were started with a will as soon as everybody had had some much-needed sleep and been able to get rid of some of the accumulated mud of the salient.

The weather was all that could be desired. Hot sun during the middle of the day, with cool mornings for work, and warm evenings for recreation of all kinds.

Musketry training was begun at St. Martin-au-Laert, and our reinforcements and men from units who had remained at the reinforcement camp during the fight were quickly absorbed. This was the first occasion on which an organised reinforcement camp was used by the Division, and the results obtained showed us the wisdom of this new arrangement.

On June 26th, Divisional aquatic sports, organised by Lieut.-Colonel Galbraith, were held in the canal at Blaringhem, and were a great success. They were enjoyed not only by the members of the Division, but also by a great gathering of the local inhabitants who came from all the villages round. In fact, the Blaringhem rest area and the all too short time we spent there will always remain a pleasant memory to those who were there, and when orders were received on June 27th for the Division to start moving up to relieve the 41st Division in the area round Ridge Wood, it was with genuine regret that we quitted our hospitable billets.

The march up to the forward area was uneventful, the Division passing through Meteren and so into the salient once more. On June 29th, the 142nd Infantry Brigade relieved the 124th Infantry Brigade south of the Ypres-Con lines Canal, and took over roughly the ground which had been captured by the 140th Infantry Brigade on June 7th.

Many German concrete dugouts had been converted for use at unit headquarters in the captured lines, and the enemy was extremely active with his artillery all around the famous White Chateau. He was using quite a number of gas-shells, too, which made our stay in these trenches anything but a peaceful one. Much work remained to be done to complete the consolidation and reorganisation in depth of our newly-won position.

Patrols were active, both our own and the enemy’s, and hardly a night passed without some small encounter taking place, most of which resulted in our favour and in the capture of several prisoners.

On the night of July 3rd-4th, the 141st Infantry Brigade took over the line north of the Canal, and the front of the 142nd Infantry Brigade was reduced by the taking over of their right battalion front by troops of the 19th Division.

A good piece of work by a strong fighting patrol of the 7th Battalion was carried out on July 9th, which resulted in the capture of ten Germans at Foret Farm, a fortified point in the enemy’s outpost line. Our artillery put down a heavy barrage on the farm, which eventually caught fire, and Sec.-Lieutenant Goldsburg, who was in command of the patrol, took full advantage of this fact, not only to make his captures but to inflict heavy loss on the enemy as they retired.

Fighting patrols of the 6th and 8th Battalions also did very useful work in attacking enemy posts, and carrying on the principle of giving the Germans opposite to the Division no rest. One especially good minor operation was carried out by Sec.-Lieutenant Sampson and thirty men of the 6th Battalion, who, advancing very closely under an artillery barrage, completely surprised the enemy in Oblique Trench, and captured twenty-nine prisoners.

On July 25th, after just four weeks of holding the line, the Division received orders for relief by the 41st Division, and so ended a tour of duty chiefly memorable for its night patrol work, several small but very successful raids, and heavy gas-shelling of both trench and back areas by the enemy.

After being relieved by the 41st Division, we moved back only as far as the Westoutre area, as the Division was in Xth Corps reserve for eventualities in the offensive of the Second and Fifth Armies, attacking in conjunction with the French troops farther north of Ypres, which was launched on July 31st. This offensive met with considerable success, and by August 8th the Division received orders to move back into the Wizernes area for a further period of training and reorganisation.

The 140th Infantry Brigade had to be left behind, when the Division moved back, to undertake certain work on defences, and also to be in close support of the Xth Corps front in case of emergencies; but on August 15th they were relieved from these duties, and re-joined the Division after their extra stay in the unpleasant forward areas.

On August 16th, the Division was transferred from Xth Corps, Second Army, to XIth Corps, Fifth Army. This change showed us that before long we should probably be called upon to go into the line somewhere east of Ypres to take part in the Fifth Army offensive, which was still in progress, and gradually gaining ground over the waterlogged and desolate country in the neighbourhood of the Westhoek Ridge, whose acquaintance we were shortly to make.

On August 17th, the Division, less Divisional Artillery, 140th Infantry Brigade, and 4th R.W.F., moved up by tactical train to the IInd Corps area, preparatory to relieving the 8th Division on the night of August 18th-19th, in the front-line defences between the Westhoek-Zonnebeke road and the Ypres-Roulers railway.

During the winter, we had all seen much of Ypres on our way up to the trenches, but we were now to become more intimately acquainted with it and its wonderful ramparts, the Menin Gate, Hell Fire Corner, and many other well-known landmarks. We were also to get to know the sensation of marching up the Menin road on a pouring wet night, with its mass of transport, its mud, and the enemy’s shells trying to prevent any horse, wagon, or man arriving at his destination that night.

Gas-masks were in constant use, and everybody became an expert in the rapid adjustment of these valuable items of our kit. The journey through Ypres, too, was always a trying time for troops moving up the line, as frequent halts were necessary in the narrow street ways, and it was very seldom that some part of the poor, battered town was not being shelled. But the traffic control was most efficient, and the Military Police seemed always to be standing at their allotted corners, no matter how hot the shelling was, ready to help with all kinds of information, military and otherwise.

We found our old friends of Loos, the 15th (Highland) Division, on our left when we went into the line, and on August 15th this Division attacked with some success, and our front-line troops pushed forward posts in conjunction with their advance to the line of the Hanebeek, a small stream, which our shelling had turned into an absolute morass.

The rain was our chief enemy in these trying days, when to get off the duckboard tracks often meant sinking up to one’s knees in the sodden ground. It seemed to rain every day and every night, and on the night of August 26th there was a perfect deluge, which filled every shell-hole — the ground seemed to consist of little else — with water up to the brim, and made the roads and tracks more difficult than ever.

Offensive operations under these climatic conditions were extremely trying, the deep dugouts often being inches deep in water, and anybody in possession of a concrete German pill-box was much to be envied. Derelict Tanks were to be seen in all directions, and generally the state of the forward areas was anything but pleasant.

Communications were extremely difficult, as we had no buried cable systems to rely on, and wires laid over the open were continually being cut by the enemy’s shell-fire or damaged by the weather. Trenches, as such, were practically non-existent, and a series of fortified shell-holes with occasional pill-boxes acted as our defences. Practically all communication up to the front line was over the open, and in many cases under enemy observation, so that visits to the front line by day were not joy trips. Pigeons were of great use in sending back messages, and our infantry made frequent use of flares for showing their positions to our aeroplanes when other means of communication failed.

On August 30th, the IInd Corps, of which we formed part, was transferred to Second Army, and on September 3rd the Division was relieved in the line by the 25th Division. During this tour of duty our right was on the high ground in front of Inverness Copse, where we joined up with the 23rd Division. The enemy’s observation from the vicinity of Polygon Wood and the high ground towards Hollebeke enabled him to bring accurate artillery fire to bear on any movement by day in the forward area, but the Division had advanced the front line at many points, and considerably improved our line for any troops which might have to make an attack from it. The enemy opposite to us was only holding a series of outpost positions very lightly, with the main body of his troops in rear in natural features, such as woods and small valleys, and this made it difficult for our artillery to inflict much damage on his front-line troops, as their positions were continually moving. The state of the ground, too, was greatly in the enemy’s favour, and with a little wire and a few fortified shell-holes his position was not an easy one to attack except on a wide front.

On relief by the 25th Division, the 142nd Infantry Brigade moved to Steenvoorde on September 5th, and the 141st Infantry Brigade to the Busseboom area. The 140th Infantry Brigade had been in Divisional reserve in the Winnipeg Camp area, where it remained.

Brigades only remained in these areas for a very short time, for on September 8th, 9th, 10th, the 140th and 141st Infantry Brigades moved up and relieved the 25th Division, and on September 10th the G.O.C., 47th Division, assumed command of practically the same front as was held by the Division before, but under the orders of the 1st Anzac Corps, to which we had been transferred on September 5th from IInd Corps. Our main task was now to make the preparation on the front of the Anzac Corps for the offensive timed for September 20th, in which they were taking a leading part. This included the construction of several cross-country tracks in the forward area, and a road and trench railway track to Bellewarde Ridge. The heavy enemy shelling by night and their good observation by day made this extremely difficult, but the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, then under command of Lieut.-Colonel W. H. Matthews, succeeded in carrying through this work up to time by adopting the principle of spreading their men out in pairs at intervals of some twenty yards or so. Thus they were able to work in broad daylight in an area directly under enemy observation without attracting his attention and with but few casualties.

The 142nd Infantry Brigade moved up into reserve in camps around Dickebusch. Our orders were to keep up a continuous pressure on the enemy in the hope of inducing him gradually to give ground, and we were continually carrying out small raids at night, not only to keep up the offensive spirit of our men, but to break down the already weakening moral of the enemy. One very successful raid was carried out by troops of the 7th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant B.N. Cryer, against a German strong post near Inverness Copse, at dusk, on September 15th. This enemy post was on the top of, but just over the crest of the high ground at Inverness Copse. During previous attacks by the IInd Corps it had held out stoutly and resisted all previous attempts to capture it. It formed a small but dangerous salient into the front we took over, and from it withering fire had been brought to bear during previous attacks on our troops in their attempts to seize the high ground at Inverness Copse. To ensure a good start for the leading waves in the next attack it was imperative for us to gain possession of it and thus straighten out our front line.

After carefully studying the ground for several nights before, by means of patrols, the raiding-party, under cover of a hurricane artillery barrage, rushed the post, killed ten of the enemy, and captured thirty-six prisoners and a machine-gun, with comparatively light casualties. This operation earned the troops concerned the praise of the Army and Corps Commanders, who considered it a really first-class piece of work. An enemy counter-attack against this newly-established post, which had been consolidated, was driven off early on the morning of the 16th, with heavy loss to the enemy, but the gallant Cryer, to the regret of all, was killed. In his memory the captured post was named “Cryer Farm.”

There were many other offensive incidents of this nature, some successful, others unsuccessful, but the Division advanced its line considerably during this tour in the trenches, and handed over much newly-won ground when it was relieved by troops of the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions on September 16th to 18th. It had been a trying time for all troops in the forward area, and it was with relief that the infantry moved back into camps in the support area, and thence to the Eecke area, for an easier spell. The artillery once more were left behind in action, and did not re-join the Division until its rest was ended.

On September 21st, the Division started entraining at Godewaersvelde, Caestre, and Cassel, for transfer to General Horne’s First Army farther south, where on arrival it came under orders of the XIIIth Corps (Lieut.-General McCracken), and remained for a few days in villages round Maroeuil before taking over a quiet sector of the line from the 63rd(Royal Naval) Division.

To say that the Division was sorry to leave the Ypres salient would not be true, but on leaving it could look back on many successful operations carried out, many weary months in which we held intact the front of line entrusted to our keeping, and much useful knowledge obtained as regards all branches of a soldier’s training. We considered ourselves experts at all kinds of drainage systems, even to making liquid mud and water run up hill, apparently, under the careful and never-failing instruction of the Divisional Commander.

That the services of the troops of the Division were appreciated, not only by our own Commander, but by the Army and Corps Commanders under whom we served in the salient, is testified by the following order issued on September 22nd, as we were about to quit the Second Army :

The following extracts from letters received by the Divisional Commander from General Sir Herbert C.O. Plumer, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., A.D.C., Commanding Second Army, and from Lieut.-General Sir W.R. Birdwood, K.C.B., K.C.S.I., K.C.M.G., C.I.E., D.S.O., Commanding 1st Anzac Corps, are forwarded for information and communication to all concerned :

1. From General Sir Herbert C.O. Plumer, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., A.D.C.

“Before your Division leaves the Second Army I should like to express to you, and to ask you to convey to all Commanders and Staff, my appreciation of the excellent work the Division has done and of the way in which they have carried out all the duties assigned to them.

“They have taken part in a highly creditable manner in an important offensive operation, they have carried out some successful raids, and have throughout the whole period maintained their positions efficiently.

“I am sure they will do well wherever they may be sent, and I wish you all the best of luck.”‘

2. From Lieut.-General Sir W.R. Birdwood, K.C.B., K.C.S.I., K.C.M.G., CLE., D.S.O.

“I must write, however, to thank you again so very much for all the real cordial and great help which you have given us while your Division has been with me. All my people have recognised this so very fully, and we are one and all most grateful to you for it. If you will let your Brigadiers and Regiments know this, and how gladly we shall welcome the opportunity of having the 47th Division with us again one of these days, I shall be grateful.

“I went round this morning to see what I could as to how things were going on, and was delighted to see the real progress which has been made in every direction.”

The Divisional Commander, in publishing the above, desires to express to all under his command his grateful thanks for the loyal help and support which he has at all times received from them, and his high appreciation of their gallantry and devotion to duty since taking over command of this Division.

One and all have carried out the duties with which he has entrusted them in a highly creditable and soldierly manner.

He congratulates them most sincerely on the splendid record and successes which they have achieved, both in the various operations and in the different branches of work, no matter how difficult or dangerous, which they have so devotedly carried out during the past eleven months in the Ypres salient — a record of which they may indeed well feel proud.

(Signed) S. THUNDER, Lieut.-Colonel,
September 22nd, 1917. A.A. & Q.M.G., 47th (London) Division.

Read September to November 1917.