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47th (London) Division – March/April 1917

On March 15th, the enemy, suspecting that the railway was being used to bring up timber and stores, heavily bombarded the neighbourhood of Zillebeke Halt, destroying the track for some three hundred yards to the west of that place. On the 23rd, the 142nd Infantry Brigade moved back from Divisional Reserve to the training area at Tilques. Early next day a hostile aeroplane flying low was successfully engaged by a Lewis gun of the 20th Battalion and crashed behind the enemy support line, where it was ultimately destroyed by our artillery. Following on a very heavy trench-mortar bombardment which blew in all the tunnelled entrances in the craters, the enemy succeeded in entering them, but subsequently withdrew without securing any prisoners.

Several organised bombardments of the enemy lines were undertaken during this period, and it was determined to repeat the raid of the 6th Battalion. The 18th Battalion were selected for this, and were taken out of the line fur training, their place in the Hill 60 sub-sector being taken by the 20th Battalion. The preliminaries were similar to those of February, but on this occasion the enemy was better prepared. He brought up a battalion of storm troops into close support, and his artillery preparations were more complete. The London Irish were shelled on their way up to the line, losing one of their company commanders, Captain Fairlie, badly wounded by shrapnel. When they went over, the enemy promptly put down a “nut-cracker” barrage on both front-lines and brought up his reserves.

The result was something very like a pitched battle in the enemy reserve-line, casualties on both sides being heavy. The state of the ground was very bad and caused delay, and the continued enemy barrage forced the returning raiders to deviate to both flanks. The net results were eighteen prisoners taken, many of the enemy killed, and dugouts and emplacements destroyed. Our casualties were about one hundred and sixty all ranks, including Sec-Lieut. M. E. Thomas, commanding the detachment of the 517th Coy., R.E., who accompanied the raiders, wounded. That evening an enemy aeroplane bombed Divisional Headquarters.

On the following day the reorganisation of the Divisional front began. The 23rd Division took over the Hill 60 sub-sector from the 141st Infantry brigade, relief being complete by 2.15 a.m. on April 9th. Hardly had the newcomers settled than the enemy opened a heavy artillery and trench-mortar bombardment of their new sector, also shelling the Dickebusch and Brisbane Dump road with gas-shells. At 7 p.m. he raided Hill 60 sub-sector, after disabling many of the garrison with carbon monoxide trench-mortar bombs. The Germans penetrated into the “high level” underground defences, and a confused struggle, in which infantry and Australian tunnellers co-operated, took place. Extraordinarily little damage was done in the circumstances, one bomb being thrown into the Company Headquarters, which was empty, and another into the dynamo which supplied the electric light for the tunnels, without disabling it.

That evening, the 7th Battalion took over the Spoil Bank section south of the Canal from the 41st Division, relief being complete by 2 a.m. on April 10th. This southward move took the Division astride of the Canal, which was a serious obstacle to counterattacking troops. The move also obviated the cutting of the Divisional front in two by the barraging of the railway cutting, which now formed the north boundary. On the night of the 14th-15th, a patrol of the 7th Battalion, south of the Canal, lost its way and was captured.

This period was marked by great artillery activity on our part, with considerable enemy retaliation. On April 12th, the 142nd Brigade, who had returned from the training area, relieved the 140th Brigade on the right. The 141st Brigade then moved out, returning on April 26th. On the 20th, our artillery supported the 41st Division, who were being heavily shelled, following this up with a raid. The command of the Divisional Artillery had been taken over at the end of March by Brigadier-General E.N. Whitley, a Territorial officer who had already won distinction with the West Riding Division, and a brother of the present Speaker of the House of Commons. Two months earlier Major the Hon. H.G.O. Bridgeman had joined the Division as Brigade Major, R.A. Both these officers were destined to remain with the 47th until the end of the war, Major Bridgeman being promoted to command a brigade in November, 1918.

In the early hours of April 24th, the enemy attempted to raid the centre battalion of the 140th Brigade, but were driven off by Lewis-gun fire. This was repeated on the following morning near the Ravine, but the left battalion again succeeded in driving the enemy off.

On the 29th, the enemy shelled the Reninghelst-Ouderdom road with a 47-in. naval gun, one shell landing on the parade-ground of the 141st Brigade reinforcement camp and wounding two men. From this period the whole of the Divisional area was intermittently shelled, and the strain on the troops was proportionately increased, no one being able to count on uninterrupted rest when out of the line. The constant whistle of our shells going over and the enemy’s retaliation proved most trying even to those whose nerves were the strongest. On April 30th, the enemy exploded a pile of trench-mortar ammunition at Brisbane Dump and did considerable damage, and a fire occurred in the Battalion Headquarters in the tunnels in the Bluff.

Read May/June 1917.