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47th (London) Division – March to August 1915.

THROUGHOUT the winter of 1914-15 a number of Territorial battalions were serving in the trenches in France and Flanders, but serving as single units attached to brigades of the Regular Army. By March, 1915, the time had come for the Territorial Force to take the field, and serve in its own divisions.

The North Midland Division (afterwards the 46th) and the 2nd London Division led the way. To the former belongs the honour of being the first Territorial Force Division to cross to France, and they were instantly followed by the 2nd London. On March 9th and 10th, 1915, General Nugent’s brigade, consisting of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Battalions the London Regiment, crossed from Southampton to Havre and moved up to Cassel, as the Division was destined for the Ypres salient. But the special request of its former commander, Lieut.-General Sir C. Monro, and the losses incurred at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle caused its destination to be changed, and the rest of the Division, as it arrived, was diverted to the Bethune area, and the brigade at Cassel was brought down to Allouagne in omnibuses, old friends of theirs taken from the streets of London. Each battalion occupied forty-two vehicles, and the vast procession of ‘buses loaded with men in the shaggy grey or piebald goatskin coats, just served out to them, looked like a glorified “Wild West Show” rather than like British infantry going to the front, and caused great amusement to the men and to their comrades of the other units of the Division.

Arrived in the Bethune area. Divisional Headquarters were established at Marles-les-Mines, and the troops were billeted in the neighbouring villages, such as Auchel, Burbure, Allouagne, Ecquedecques, Raimbert, Ferfay, and later also Lapugnoy, Labeuvriere and Fouquereuil, names which were loved and massacred by the troops. To these places they returned again and again during the next year or so, and found a welcome from the villagers, which grew into a deep affection as time went on and men returned again to the same billets. In this area, too, the Division, sadly changed as regards personnel, was destined, after the Armistice, to spend the months of waiting for demobilization.

The Division now formed part of the 1st Corps, commanded by its old G.O.C., General Monro, which in its turn formed part of the First Army under Sir Douglas Haig. Preparations for taking over a part of the line began immediately. At first selected parties of officers and N.C.O.s were attached to battalions of the 1st and 2nd Divisions serving in the trenches, and were replaced by fresh parties every few days. Later, three battalions at a time were attached to the 2nd Division, then in the line about Givenchy, and were replaced from time to time by other battalions.

Brigadier-General J. C. Wray, our C.R.A., had crossed to France on March 3rd, and by March 22nd the batteries had all arrived and were inspected by the Commander-in-Chief, General French, at Equighem. The Territorial artillery was still armed with the old 15-pounder guns, with two batteries of 5-in. howitzers, some which had been in action at Omdurman in 1898. As it was not thought advisable that any part of the fighting line should be covered by 15-pounders alone, it was decided to mix them with the 18-pounders, and our divisional artillery was scattered in separate batteries among the Regular brigades. In a very few days the newcomers had adapted themselves to the existing conditions of war, choosing carefully concealed positions along hedges and in woods, and observing a couple of miles ahead from ruined houses behind the trenches, such as Dead Cow Farm at Festubert, Le Plantin, Artillery House at Givenchy, the Cowl House at Cuinchy, and the buildings on the La Bassee road.

The 2nd London Heavy Battery, marching north to Ypres to be attached to the Indian Corps, was caught in the first great German gas attack. The men fought with their rifles, but were overwhelmed, and the guns, with “London” on them, were captured. When this was announced by the Germans there was very considerable anxiety in London, from the impression thereby created that the London Division had been at Ypres in the gas attack, and had been driven back to such an extent as to lose their heavy guns.

Meanwhile, our remaining batteries were very short of ammunition. In April their allowance was three rounds per gun per day for the 15-pounders, and one round only for the howitzers. During May they carried out registering and wire-cutting for the Festubert battle; and at Givenchy, on May 25th and 26th, the Division for the first time fought with the support of their own artillery. But the heavy rate of fire was too much for the old 15-pounder guns, and by the evening of May 26th eleven guns out of thirty-six were out of action.

As early as May 13th a French artillery group of 75’s had been lent to the 1st Corps, and had been in action just north of the La Bassee Canal and near the celebrated “Tuning Fork” roads, while our Division was holding the line in front of them. And, later on, when the Division moved south to the Grenay sector, om- artillery munitions were so short that we had to get the support of the French artillery, who lent us two heavy batteries and the 75’s of the French 58th Division, of our friend General Bajolles. This French artillery was under Colonel Muller, a most enthusiastic gunner, whose greatest delight was “arroser les Boches,” “Tuez les Boches, et encore tuez les Boches! “he used to say, and the really marvellous quickness and efficacy with which his guns would come into action to support any infantry in the line or any working- party upon whom the Boches might open fire was the admiration and delight of our men. From the first he installed his own telephones direct from the infantry to the guns that were to support them, and the latter instantly began to “arroser les Boches” as soon as the Huns began to shell us. Up to that time Company Headquarters had to telephone to the battalion, battalion to infantry brigade, and in any special case that to the division, and so on back to the guns — a wearisome and disgusting routine of red tape, which was too often crowned by the reply that the guns could not possibly spare the ammunition, or by the belated firing of a few rounds.

Once after an inspection of the 75’s Colonel Muller suggested to the C.R.A. that they should visit the new French anti-aircraft equipment. With this he was very much pleased, but he was much annoyed with the personnel. He said: “If you want to see drill, go and look at the English horse artillery. They have a rotten equipment, but do marvels with it. As for you, it is waste to give you anything up to date — you might as well give a monkey a razor.”

But while we record the shortage of ammunition, the wearing out of the guns, and the artillery support given to the Division at first by regular batteries of 18-pounders, and later by the French 75’s and heavies, it must not be thought that the infantry felt the slightest loss of confidence in our own artillery. They fully realised the handicap imposed by the lamentable lack of ammunition, but they saw that their batteries, when they had the good ammunition which we got later on, could shoot very well, even with an inferior weapon, and their pride in their own Territorial gunners was so great that they would have preferred to retain them even armed with 15-pounders, rather than have any outside artillery with 18-pounders. It may have been stupid obstinacy to refuse to see the merits of the better gun, but it shows the pride of the men in their own Division and every part of it. The gunners, however, were under no false illusions as to their handicap, and dreamt almost nightly of more up-to-date equipment, while French visitors to battery positions regarded with ill-concealed mirth and amazement “ces droles de pieces,” and displayed much sympathy for the sweating detachments who toiled at them.

The Higher Command must have thought our divisional artillery was doing good work, for from the time they reached the front, at the end of March, our Divisional Artillery Headquarters were kept continuously at work for over four months, and they went into rest for the first time at the Bois des Dames, in August, 1915, and at once began to train their men in the use of 18-pounders and 4.5 howitzers, which weapons, however, were not issued to them until the following November.

As the bulk of these pages must be occupied with the infantry a few incidents in the story of the artillery may be recalled here. The first effort of our divisional artillery was a very happy one. They were behind the 4th Guards Brigade at Givenchy, who suddenly called for supporting fire during the night. The guns were already laid on the right objectives, and they got their supporting fire in forty-five seconds from the call — a very good performance when one considers the then state of the communications.

The 13th Battery had all the bad luck — which would please the superstitious. During the Battle of Loos they had a defective carrier-ring, which resulted in the breech-block of a 15-pounder blowing out and igniting the non-metal-contained cartridges in the gun-pit. The Nos. 1, 2, and 3 were killed on the spot, but their No. 4 ran about 400 yards to get help for them, with no clothes and no skin left on him. He found the medical officer, and died ten minutes afterwards.

The same battery after Loos went into action just north of North Maroc. On two days running No. 1 gun-pit was hit by an 8-in. shell, which wiped out the whole detachment each time.

In the Grenay sector Lieut.-Colonel E. H. Eley most successfully concealed the 22nd Battery in the railway cutting south-east of Les Brebis, each 5-in. howitzer being placed between some abandoned railway trucks, and the intervals covered with tarpaulins, so that no break showed from the air. There was also a very cunningly sited position near Les Brebis station, with the guns between the scullery outhouses of a row of miners’ cottages. This was first discovered by the 19th Battery, and afterwards nearly every battery in the Division had a turn there. These were the only British gun positions which were not found marked in the German maps captured at Loos.

Sometimes one got an amusing reminder of a man’s previous occupation in civil life. The C.R.A., visiting a gun-pit of the 6th London Brigade, near the Tuning Fork, asked a question of the corporal in charge. He did not know, but would call the sergeant. Whereupon he bawled out: “Sergeant Green! Forward, please!”

To return to the Division round Marles-les-Mines and Tillers. On March 25th Major B. F. Burnett-Hitchcock, D.S.O., Sherwood Foresters, joined us as G.S.0.2. The training of our battalions in the trenches with the 2nd Division was continued until April 20th. Divisional headquarters were moved to Bethune, and on the 25th the Division went into the line. The 5th London (141st) Brigade took over the Festubert sector, and the 6th (142nd) the Rue de I’Epinette sector, from the Indian Division, the 4th London (140th) Brigade being in corps reserve. On the same day ‘C’ squadron of King Edward’s Horse, under Major E.V. Hermon, arrived from England to be our divisional cavalry. They, with the divisional cyclist company under Captain H. C. Leman, and later under Captain Norie, were used for every conceivable purpose, and more than once took their turn most efficiently in the trenches.

The Germans had just used gas with deadly effect at Ypres, so precautions against gas were hastily sought for. Strange pads and masks were served out in quick succession. The first gas-pad was a home-made affair, devised jointly by our medical and “Q” staff at Bethune, and was composed of a brown knitted “cap-comforter,” folded into a pad to cover nose and mouth, and furnished with four long white tapes. This we were ordered to tie on our faces after damping the pad with a solution of carbonate of soda, if we happened to have such a thing about us, but if not then with another liquid which contains a certain amount of ammonia, and is obtainable even in the trenches.

Supply officers scoured the country searching for carbonate of soda, but the combined stocks of every chemist within reach went only a very short way to fill the need. Soon more elaborate chemical masks were provided. Gas experts visited the Division and lectured on the proper use of masks, and filled trenches with gas, through which the officers of the Division marched, headed by the G.O.C. and his headquarter staff, all duly muzzled with the latest appliances.

The men were thoroughly glad to get to France and to end the long period of winter training in the country round St. Albans, now remembered chiefly for so often having had to fling themselves flat in attacks over its muddy ploughs, and for the glorious flow of invective with which their errors used to be pointed out to them by the various generals and staff officers responsible for their military education, who now saw the results of their work. For the men were now soldiers, proud of themselves, proud of their units, and proud of their Division. The supply and transport and medical services worked smoothly and efficiently, and the men thought themselves better fed and better looked after than any division with which they came in contact, and they had the fullest confidence in their leaders. And they deserved that confidence, for it was a surprising sight to see, for instance, the long lines of transport, manned entirely by Cockney drivers, men who had never lived in the country or been out of sight of a gas-lamp, toiling steadily through the darkness, in mud and pouring rain, and delivering their loads with unfailing regularity and punctuality to every unit of the Division.

The men considered themselves fortunate, too, in their trench training in the front line, for they found in the 2nd Division, under Major-General Home — now General Lord Home — some of the best battalions in the Service, including the 4th Guards Brigade, with whom many of our battalions double-manned the firing-line, and learnt from their regular comrades to keep their trenches clean, repaired, and strong, and all the various duties of a battalion in the firing-line. And later on, in July, 1915, when one of the first “Kitchener’s Army” divisions — the 15th (Scottish) Division that fought so well and suffered so heavily at Loos — came up to take over a sector of the line for the first time, they themselves — the 47th London — were selected to give to the new “K” division the same instruction in the duties of the firing-line as they had received from the 2nd Division and the 4th Guards Brigade.

At the same time selected parties of officers of the 15th Division attended our Divisional Bomb School of Instruction at Noeux-les- Mines to learn something of the very crude bombing of our Army in 1915.

About twelve different types of bombs and rifle-grenades were then more or less under trial, and new experimental bombs came out almost every week. All were pretty bad, and the Army in France, during the summer of 1915, fought mainly with the Battaye bomb. It was a rough iron casting about the shape and size of a small glass tumbler, with oblong lozenges cut in the outer surface to facilitate bursting into small pieces. A plug of hard wood, having a hole bored for the insertion of the fuse and detonator, was hammered into the mouth of the tumbler, above the bursting charge, which was ammonal. The fuse was lit by a lighter, got from the French coal mines, looking like two cardboard thimbles one inside the other, and the fuse was inserted in the inner one. To light it the outer thimble had to be pressed down and twisted on the inner one, which then lit the fuse. This burnt (from three to five seconds, according to its length) down through the hole in the wooden plug, and so ignited the detonator, which, in turn, exploded the bursting charge. But accidents were of constant occurrence, and our bombing-parties were frequently knocked out by their own bombs. Even in the bomb schools we had repeated premature bursts. The lighter was intended for long fuses, not three and five second lengths, but three or five minute fuses, as used in the coal mines.

Sometimes possibly the powerful flash from the lighter forced its way down through the hole in the plug beside the fuse, but what was no doubt the chief cause of the constant accidents was only discovered in July 1915, namely, that the men who fused the bombs used often to receive a fuse too thick to go readily into the detonator or the lighter, and instead of stripping the insulating tape only from either end of the fuse, to save time, and without consulting their officers, they used to strip whole lengths of fuse, yards long, and then cut it into short lengths so that the part going through the plug also was left naked, and if there was the slightest looseness in the hole round the fuse the flash was apt to be carried on the naked surface of the fuse right down to the detonator, and if it did not enter the detonator it probably lit the ammonal which set off the detonator.

After repeated accidents the 47th Divisional Bomb School, in July, 1915, discovered the cause of these failures, and, undoubtedly, this discovery saved many lives of our men, as measures were taken throughout the whole Army to prevent similar accidents in future. Soon, however, the Mills bomb, with its automatic system of lighting the fuse as the bomb was thrown from the hand, was perfected, and was made in sufficient quantities to do away altogether with the home-made bomb, where the bomber had to unwind a sticky tape, pull out a safety nail, and then (with the fingers of his left hand, fingers always clumsy and often cold and wet, and frequently nervous in addition) take the cardboard lighter, wobbling on the top of two inches of pliable fuse and secured to the bomb with a bit of wire, to twist the upper thimble on the lower one to light the fuse. Small wonder if fatal accidents were common, and brave men thought the risks from our own bombs were far more than from those of the enemy.

On May 9th, and again on May 15th to 18th, 1915, great attacks were made by the First Army, and heavy fighting took place at and north of Festubert on the immediate left of our Division, but the attacks in each case failed to break through.

Our 7th Battalion was ordered to support the right of the 7th Division on May 15th, and for several days’ fighting was under the orders of the G.O.C., 2nd Infantry Brigade. The London front was heavily shelled by the Germans, and for the three days, May 16th to 18th, we suffered three hundred and twenty casualties in killed and wounded.

On May 11th the name 2nd London Division, which, to avoid confusion with the 2nd Division, had already been changed to “London Division,” was again changed to 47th (London) Division. The 4th, 5th, and 6th London Infantry Brigades became the 140th, 141st, and 142nd Infantry Brigades; but the artillery, field ambulances, and R.E. field companies retained their old names.

On May 24th to 27th the Division took part in the Battle of Festubert, holding the line Festubert, Le Plantin, Givenchy. The German trenches opposite Le Plantin, about the points known as J I and J 2, had been taken by the 10th Canadians, who handed them over to Strathcona’s Horse. The latter made repeated and most gallant attacks with great loss on the rest of the German trench extending southwards and ending in a strong point at J 3.

The Canadians were directed to attack another very strong position known as K 5, and the 8th London Battalion took over from them, on May 23rd and were directed to take the remaining trench, including J 3, the possession of which was needed to secure the left flank of an attack to be made by our 142nd Brigade from Givenchy, north-east towards Chapelle St, Roch. In repeated attacks by the 8th the trench up to J 3 was taken, bit by bit, but J 3 itself was not taken until the morning of the 26th, after its garrison of the 91st Prussian Guard Reserve and its machine-guns had considerably harassed the left flank of the 142nd Brigade’s attack the night before.

The attack by the 142nd Brigade on the German trenches, known as the “S” bend, north-east from Givenchy, was to be made at 6.30 p.m. on May 25th, and was to precede an attack by the Canadians farther north at 9 p.m.; and it was the first big attack in which the Division took part.

From the trenches on the left, near Le Plantin, the present writer saw that attack by the 142nd Brigade. The 21st Battalion was in support, and the first advance was made by the 23rd and 24th London Battalions, who swept across the open ground just like a field-day attack at St. Albans, and at once captured, with comparatively small losses, the German trenches opposite to them. But they then encountered a fierce and deadly enfilading fire from the German guns, and particularly from a heavy battery posted near Auchy-les-la-Bassee, far to the south and out of reach of the guns of our Division.

Later on these would have been dealt with by other guns which could reach them, but in those days there were no counter-batteries, and no corps artillery, and each division had to rely upon the guns posted behind it in its own divisional billeting zone. Supports were brought up, including the 20th Battalion, which was then in divisional reserve, and desperate efforts were made to extend our gains, but tremendous losses were suffered by the men crowded in the captured trenches. Nothing could be done to keep down this enfilading fire, and by the following morning much of the captured trenches had been knocked to bits and had to be abandoned, but a considerable part of their front line was retained and taken into our own trench system.

In this attack Lance-Corporal Leonard James Keyworth, of the 24th Battalion, won the first V.C. of the Division for most recklessly and persistently standing up on the German parapet and throwing bombs into their trenches in the course of a long and desperate bombing attack, in which Corporal Keyworth himself threw about one hundred and fifty bombs, and out of the seventy-five men engaged no fewer than fifty-eight were killed or wounded.*

He got his V.C, but many more of the 24th deserved one. One of their youngest subalterns. Lieutenant F. Chance, lying mortally wounded on the edge of some sloping ground, refused to let his men bring him in, and waved them back again and again, because from where he lay he could see that when they got to him they ran great risk of being shot down.

The 142nd Brigade suffered severe losses in this affair, and by the evening of the 26th their fighting strength was reduced to 1,225 in all. The Germans had been seen registering on their own trenches, and there can be little doubt that they were fully prepared for our attack. By means of their microphones they were able to listen to our trench telephones, and are now known to have done so. But their use of microphones was not even suspected at this time, although they frequently used to hail newly-arrived battalions by name within an hour of their taking over the firing-line. A sort of spy mania infected the minds of our authorities, who were content to put down all these occurrences to information conveyed by spies from behind our lines, although both the microphone and the tapping of messages by induced electric currents were facts well known to every scientist.

From time to time our Higher Command turned their attention to various devices for winning the war. The personal appearance of the troops attracted their attention. The following is quoted from 1st Corps Routine Orders dated April 12th, 1915:

“Moustaches — It is observed that of late the provisions of King’s Regulations regarding the shaving of the upper-lip have been disregarded. . . . Any breach of these regulations will be severely punished in future.”

The most farcical apologies for a moustache were adopted, cut as close as nail-scissors would clip them. We never heard of any punishment. Perhaps that was not strange in an army whose King wore a beard, whose Prince of Wales, with clean-shaven face, was then serving with them, and whose greatest wars, from Wellington’s backward, had been fought clean-shaved. Before long formal permission was given to shave the upper lip if you liked.

On April 20th, 1915, the order was issued that “Batteries in action are not to hang their washing up in the vicinity of the guns.”

Later the vocabulary of the troops received attention at General Headquarters. Slang expressions were no longer to be used. Such “slang” words as “dug-out” and “bomb” were forbidden. Instead, the words “splinter proof” and “grenade” alone were to be used in future.

Shortly after this a corps commander paying a flying visit to the trenches reached the lines of a certain company. “Where is Captain Smith?” asks the attendant CO. ” He is asleep, sir. Been out all night with a working-party.” Just then Captain Smith appears, rubbing his eyes. “I am sorry they sent for you, Captain Smith,” says the G.O.C., in his kindest tones. “You were in your dug-out, weren’t you?” “No, sir.” “What!” says the general. “Do you tell me you were not in your dug-out?” “No, sir,” says Smith.” We have no dug-outs now, sir. I was sleeping in my splinter-proof.”

Some visiting generals gave great delight to the troops. One general — whose name we could give — found it difficult to follow his trench names on the map. Going round the firing-line of breastworks at Festubert with a major of the Canadians he kept on asking, “What is this place called?” “What is this?” At last they came to a low bit, under fire from the German snipers, and particularly unhealthy. “Ah! And what place is this?” says the general, looking over the parapet. “This,” said the exasperated major, “is the place where you are going to put your head down and run as fast as God will let you, or you’ll get a bullet in your backside.”

On May 31st, 1915, General Nugent, commanding the 141st Infantry Brigade, was killed by a stray bullet, and Lieut. -Colonel Thwaites was appointed to command this brigade. His place as G.S.O.1 of the Division was taken by Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. W. P. Hore Ruthven, C.M.G., D.S.O., Scots Guards (now Lord Ruthven), who had previously served as D.A.A. and Q.M.G. with the Division in peace-time. However, on the formation of the Guards Division, Colonel Ruthven went to them as G.S.O.1, and Lieut.-Colonel B. Burnett – Hitchcock became G.S.O.1 of the 47th Division on August 20th, 1915.

Meanwhile, early in June the French handed over to our army the line from the La Bassee Canal southward to Lens, and the 47th Division, on June 2nd, took over the Vermelles sector (“Y”), and later on the “X” sector, opposite Loos, and the “W” sector, from Loos to the French front opposite Lens, and in one or other of these sectors they spent the summer, having divisional headquarters most of the time at Verquin, and working hard at strengthening and improving the trench system and digging a new front line in “X” sector, running northward from the Loos road and considerably nearer to the German trenches. Later on they were to do the same thing in “W” sector, as part of the preparations for the attack on Loos. The Divisional Artillery Headquarters during this time were in the mine buildings at Les Brebis.

As we were always so near the French army, and had several times had the help of their artillery, and as our G.O.C. and most of his staff could speak French, it came about that we saw a great deal of the French generals and their staffs, and many warm friendships grew up, and the most cordial relations existed between us all. Throughout the autumn and winter of 1915 a frequent exchange of visits and hospitality took place between our staffs and the French generals and their staffs, and particularly General Curd, of the IXth French Corps d’Armee, General Bajolles, of the 58th Division, and General Sir Georges Lefevre, of the 18th Division, who had received the K.C.M.G. for his timely support of our troops earlier in the war.

The kitchens on both sides were made to put out their utmost efforts for these merry dinners, and although the French cooks in general left ours far behind, yet we had one dish, the soldiers’ suet and currant pudding, which, perfectly cooked and masquerading as “Duff aux Soldats,” was always welcomed, and completely demolished by the French guests.

Thus it happened that on June 18th, 1915, the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the 47th Division was holding the right of the British line and working in close liaison with our French Allies. A snapshot taken in the trenches near Maroc on that day and reproduced in this volume, shows a group of officers and riflemen of the 21st Battalion (1st Surrey Rifles) — among them Brigadier-General Kennedy, then adjutant of the battalion — with some men of a neighbouring French regiment.

Read September to November 1915.