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47th (London) Division – May/June 1917

IT was a great relief to all ranks when the long damp nights started growing shorter, and the trenches and country in general began to show us that spring had arrived and that summer was coming.

We soon began to realise, however, that as well as summer other things were in the air. More minute investigation of the enemy’s lines, and more frequent work by our aeroplanes, gave us the idea that operations were pending. In addition to the regular visits to the forward areas by our Divisional Commander and his Staff, Staff officers of higher formations showed even more interest than usual in our positions and those of the enemy opposite to us.

Well as the secret was kept, there was that indefinable something in the air which made us think that at no very far distant date we should be called upon to carry out some form of offensive operations.

At this time, May 1st, the Division formed part of the Xth Corps of the Second Army, and was holding the front from the Bluff Craters, on the Ypres-Comines Canal, as their right boundary to a point a few hundred yards north of the famous Hill 60. Two brigades were in the line, and one in reserve in hutted camps near Outerdom.

For many weeks both our own miners and those of the enemy had been actively at work on our front, especially at the Bluff Craters and about Hill 60.

There were many alarms of enemy mines being blown at Hill 60, and our own large mine, actually under the German lines at this point, was often in danger either of being discovered or fared prematurely by us to prevent discovery. A special scheme was, therefore, arranged in the event of the blowing of this mine being necessary at short notice, and the brigade holding the left sector of the line had many anxious moments. Fortunately, however, this great mine of ours was never discovered until the day when we ourselves made very good use of it.

Several weeks before the actual details of the offensive became known to the front-line troops our artillery had started organised destructive shoots on various points in the enemy’s lines and on his communications, and as usual this provoked retaliation on our back areas. On May 6th, the 21st Battalion at Halifax Camp had to move their quarters owing to shelling, though they were in the resting brigade.

About the middle of May the details of the “Second Army Offensive,” as the operation was termed, were pretty thoroughly known by all concerned, and orders were issued accordingly, informing us that the object of the attack was to capture the dominating Messines Ridge, from which the enemy had for many months had splendid observation of our lines and back areas.

Each corps in the Second Army was given its objective. To our Corps, the Xth, was deputed the task of capturing about 6,000 yards of front to a depth of about 1,000 to 1,500 yards, which included the heavily entrenched position known as the Damstrasse on the right, the White Chateau, both banks of the Ypres-Comines Canal, Hill 60, and Battle Wood, on the left.

Three Divisions attacked on the Xth Corps front, the 41st, 47th, and 23rd, from right to left respectively. To the 47th Division fell the lot of attacking astride the Ypres-Comines Canal. The Divisional Commander decided that the 140th Infantry Brigade (Brig.-General Kennedy) should attack on the south, and the 142nd Infantry Brigade (Brig.-General Bailey) on the north side of the Canal. Two battalions of the 141st Brigade were placed under the command of the attacking brigades, the 17th Battalion operating with the 140th Brigade and the 20th with the 142nd Brigade.

The approximate disposition of the infantry of the Division at the actual date of the attack is shown in the map.

To reach these positions the various battalions had to carry out several more or less rapid moves.

During the first fortnight of May our gunners were steadily pounding away at the enemy’s defences and starting to cut his wire

To the 141st Infantry Brigade fell the duty of holding the Divisional front before the operation, and they did valuable work in preparing trenches, dumps of rations and ammunition, and many other things for the final day.

The enemy’s artillery had by now (May 19th) become much more active, and both our trenches and our artillery positions came in for some heavy shelling at times.

The two attacking brigades were given opportunities for rehearsing their attacks, and had a few very pleasant days in the Steenvoorde area at the end of May. How useful and important was this training over taped-out courses was shown on the day of the attack, when both officers and other ranks found the enemy’s trenches almost identical with those that had been laid out for them to practise over.

The splendid devotion to duty shown by our Air Force in taking photographs of the enemy’s positions was of the greatest possible use to us in locating and putting on the maps any difficulties in the way of hidden wire and machine-gun emplacements which had to be overcome in our advance. We learnt many useful things, too, from our divisional intelligence summaries, which enabled us to go direct to good dugouts in the enemy’s lines, where company and battalion headquarters could be established.

On June 1st, our bombardment of the enemy’s trenches and the cutting of his wire became intense, and on June 4th the attacking troops began to get into their allotted positions.

Divisional Headquarters moved up from Hooggraaf to Winnipeg Camp, 140th Infantry Brigade Headquarters to Spoil Bank, and 142nd Infantry Brigade to the Bluff Tunnels.

It speaks very well for the sometimes maligned Staff that the concentration marches of all troops of the Division were carried out without a hitch, and every unit was in its allotted position by 5 p.m. on June 6th. Every effort had been made by the Divisional Commander to ensure the comfort of the troops during the trying hours immediately preceding the attack, and success rewarded his efforts on their behalf.

At these times there are bound to be halts on the roads up to the trenches, when such large bodies of troops and transport are moving over badly shelled roads and newly-made cross-country tracks, but everybody felt that he was being given every chance to arrive at his appointed place as fresh as possible. Great efforts were made to keep the actual date and hour of the attack secret, and it appeared from information obtained from prisoners afterwards that these were quite successful.

The principal features of importance to be captured on the Divisional front were (a) on the 140th Brigade front, the White Chateau and stables, and the portion of the Damstrasse trench opposed to them; (b) on the 142nd Brigade front, the two Spoil Banks and the Canal Bank.

Never before had the Division been in better spirits or more confident of success. Only to hear our artillery firing over our heads was to know that we were going to receive splendid support from our gunners, not only in accuracy but in weight of shells. Our battery areas seemed to grow guns every few yards — large and small,

“Z” day, as the day of the attack was known, was finally fixed for June 7th, and zero hour for 3.10 a.m. By 2.30 a.m. every man was in his place, absolutely ready and heartened up by a good hot breakfast.

During the night of June 6-7th the front line troops had cut gaps in our own wire entanglements to let our attacking troops assemble in No Man’s Land. Positions of battalions were as follows:

140th Infantry Brigade      On the right 8th Battalion. On the left 7th Battalion. Support 15th and 6th Battalions.

142nd Infantry Brigade      On the right 24th Battalion. On the left 22nd Battalion. Support 23rd and 21st Battalions.

A section of Tanks was allotted to the 140th Infantry Brigade to assist in the capture of the Damstrasse and the White Chateau and stables. Of the four Tanks actually engaged, one was ditched 200 yards north of the chateau, and two others near the stables.

During the winter our miners had prepared a series of large mines to be exploded in conjunction with this attack, and these were to be fired at zero hour. The nearest to our Divisional front were the ones at St. Eloi, on our right, and our friend under Hill 60 and the
Caterpillar on our left.

At zero hour (3.10 a.m.) on June 7th, immediately after the explosion of the great mines, and supported by fire of unprecedented accuracy and weight, our attacking infantry stormed the enemy’s front-line trenches.

To one who saw the dull glare of the exploding mines and the continuous flashes of our guns, and heard the rumble of the explosions mingled with the crash of the shells and rattle of the machine-guns, this zero hour will always remain a very vivid recollection. The ground trembled with these vast subterranean explosions, and the debris hurled high into the air could be seen against the grey dawn of the morning sky.

In such a setting did the men of the 47th Division attack their objectives in the Battle of Messines. These objectives, with one exception, were all safely in their hands on that day by the appointed hours.

From the beginning the attack went well. Opposition was met with and overcome all along the line. Hostile machine-guns came into action, and were destroyed, as seemed best to those on the spot, great initiative and daring being shown by subordinate commanders in this respect.

On the right, the 7th and 8th Battalions of the 140th Brigade went forward with splendid dash and overcame all obstacles until the White Chateau was reached. Here the attack was held up temporarily. But our men were not to be denied, and at the third attempt, in which Lieutenant J.F.Preston, 7th Battalion, especially distinguished himself, the last of a determined party of the enemy were at last forced to surrender, and the most difficult part of this brigade’s task was finished. The 6th and 15th Battalions, which were detailed to pass through the 7th and 8th to complete the attack, had a difficult task to carry out, but reached their final objectives to the scheduled time, reorganised, dug themselves in, and held every foot of ground they had captured. The 6th Battalion had to pass through the vicinity of the Chateau stables to avoid what had been reported to be an unfordable stream, take ground to the left, deploy to the right, and get into their assigned position in time to move forward at the appointed hour. Led by their fearless commander, Lieut.-Colonel Mildren, they carried out this trying operation under heavy fire without incurring many casualties. It was a brilliant piece of work by this brigade, which, besides taking four officers and 278 other ranks prisoners, captured ten machine-guns and one minenwerfer.

The 140th Brigade suffered in casualties (Killed, Wounded, Missing):
Officers:                    7              32             1
Other ranks:           157            752            47

Among the many gallant officers and men who fell during the day was Captain W.E. Ind, M.C., Adjutant of the 15th Battalion, who was mortally wounded during the attack. As an able officer and a very gallant gentleman, his loss was keenly felt throughout the Division.

At the same time, the 142nd Brigade attack was proceeding well up to time, and the leading battalions, the 24th and 22nd, gained all their objectives, and were ready to pass the 23rd and 21st through their lines when these latter advanced for the second phase of the operation.

The 23rd Battalion, who had to cross the Canal and take trenches on the south side to connect up with the 140th Brigade troops, encountered considerable opposition, and only after hard fighting managed to reach and hold their final trenches. Their left, however, had become exposed, as the 21st Battalion on their left had been held up short of the triangular Spoil Bank by hostile machine-guns concealed in the Spoil Bank, and in spite of the most gallant efforts could not get forward. On the left of the 21st Battalion again the troops of the 23rd Division were having difficulty in clearing the enemy out of Battle Wood, and this rendered their left flank also exposed.

As soon as definite information was received from the 21st Battalion that they could not capture the triangular Spoil Bank, Brigadier-General Bailey decided to make a fresh attack on this strong point with troops of the 20th Battalion, as both the Divisional and Corps Commanders were particularly anxious that the whole of our objectives should be in our hands by night-fall.

Heavy artillery was turned on to the Spoil Bank during the afternoon, and at 7 p.m., supported by a strong artillery barrage, three companies of the 20th Battalion, who had been sent up from reserve, attacked.

While these companies were forming up, however, they had been heavily shelled, and the moment they advanced they met with a particularly heavy fire from the hostile machine-guns concealed in the Spoil Bank. Although some progress was made; the attack, was eventually held up without gaining its objective. Later, this obstinate resistance point of the enemy was captured by troops of the 141st Brigade.

Casualties in the 142nd Brigade during these operations amounted to:

Officers:                   11             28              –
Other ranks:            167           833            48

The prisoners taken by the 142nd Brigade numbered two officers and 151 other ranks, in addition to four heavy machine-guns, two light machine-guns, and two trench-mortars. Lieut.-Colonel H.H. Kemble, commanding the 23rd Battalion, was mortally wounded while supervising the forming up of his battalion for their advance. His loss not only as a commanding officer, but as one of the oldest members of the Division, was very much felt. He came to France as second in command of a company in the 15th Battalion, and had been with the Division the whole time since its landing.

It would be impossible here to give a detailed account of the various duties performed by the other units of the Division — Artillery and Engineers, the Pioneer Battalion, the R.A.M.C, the Supply, Transport, and Signal Services, and others — one and all performed their tasks in the same gallant and devoted way as the attacking infantry. Great use was made of our machine-guns, both individually and in batteries, for putting up both offensive and protective barrages. Signal detachments attached to both artillery and infantry went forward with some of our most advanced troops in order to set up rapid communication. Their efforts were, in most cases, very successful, as throughout the whole battle news was transmitted back very rapidly and with extreme accuracy. During the day of attack a special captive balloon was detailed to receive messages by lamp, direct from the front-line battalions, in case of communication being impossible by any other means.

No account of any operation can be complete without mention being made of the battalion and brigade runners. A more devoted and determined set of men cannot be imagined. Their esprit de corps was wonderful, and during June 7th their reputation for gallantry was only enhanced. No matter how heavy the enemy’s barrage or how deadly his machine-gun fire, our runners managed to find a way through to deliver their messages.

Another very efficient arm of the Division was our trench-mortar batteries, who took part in the initial barrage on the 142nd Brigade front, at points where our trenches were too near to those of the enemy to enable effective artillery fire to be brought to bear. One Stokes mortar detachment fired no fewer than 120 rounds in the three minutes of the final bombardment.

Throughout the whole operation the infantry found that our artillery fire was wonderfully accurate, and the advancing troops were able to keep within thirty yards of our creeping barrage without danger to themselves. The difficulties of finding battery positions, far enough advanced to enable the guns to cover our infantry to the limit of their advance, were very great, as also was the supply and storage of ammunition at the gun positions. As on all other occasions, though, Brigadier-General Whitley, the C.R.A., and the officers and men under his command performed wonders in this respect, as was shown by the fine support which they gave the attacking troops. One 18-pounder battery alone, during the twenty-four hours from the beginning of the attack, fired no fewer than 6,000 rounds, which means that each detachment must have lifted approximately ten tons, and this in spite of being shelled.

On June 9th, the 141st Brigade relieved the 142nd Brigade north of the Canal, and the latter brigade was withdrawn to support positions for reorganisation.

On June 13th, the Division was relieved by units of the 24th and 41st Divisions, and moved back into the Westoutre area for a well-earned rest.

Thus ended, for the Division, the Battle of Messines. As a battle it had many aspects, but chief among them, perhaps, was that it was a carefully studied attack, after infinite preparation, from a well-organised trench system against an equally well-entrenched enemy. Never before had our artillery superiority over the enemy been so great, and the successful results achieved by this operation were the outcome of months of planning by all formations down to the smallest details.

The artillery, with their positions mostly “given away” by huge ammunition dumps and furious firing, came in for weeks of the heaviest shell-fire they had yet experienced, especially in Zillebeke, at Bedford House, and in St. Eloi (“Dead Man’s Gulch”). Casualties were numerous and new guns frequently in demand.

The horses also during the whole of the summer suffered severely, gun teams and ration and ammunition wagons being frequently knocked out on the shell-swept roads at night. The scene at Shrapnel Corner or any other main cross-roads on any morning was more than enough to make all real horse lovers fervently hope that the big wars of the future would be waged without their aid. They received no rewards and were allowed no “nervous breakdowns,” but it is certain that most of them suffered from fear of shell-fire very acutely.

The total casualties suffered by the Division during the Battle of Messines were:

Officers:                  21               76             1
Other ranks:           359           1764            82

Read June to September 1917.