The period which began with the Armistice and ended with the return of the “cadres” of units to England may be passed over very briefly, although the five months dragged wearily enough for those who were left till the end. “Nothing of interest to record” is a phrase that recurs often in the war diaries of this time.
On the day following the Armistice, Sir George Gorringe held a conference of all commanding officers at La Tombe when plans for “educational and recreational training” and for making the best of things generally for the troops were discussed. The formation of Old Comrades’ Associations, which should, in after years, provide an opportunity of renewing war-time friendships and keeping alive the spirit of the Division, was at once put in hand.
For a week or so, the 140th and 141st Infantry Brigades were kept busy working under the direction of railway construction companies on the Tournai-Ath railway, to which the Boche had done an almost incredible amount of damage on his retirement. The 142nd Infantry Brigade and the Artillery moved to Cysoing and Bourghelles, on the frontier of France, on November 15th, and Divisional Headquarters to Chereng on the next day. The Portuguese attached infantry and artillery returned to their own division, and everybody settled down to enjoy himself as best he might in an area where at least accommodation for men and horses was fairly comfortable and the British soldier was still welcome after the long German occupation. For it was soon known that the 47th Division was not among the fortunate few which were to go forward to Cologne.
A fortnight after the Armistice, however, the Division was moved back by road through the devastated country behind Lille to billets in the familiar area behind Bethune. We were to finish the war in the same area in which we had first entered it.
Divisional Headquarters were established at Lozinghem. The Artillery, to which the 189th (Army) Brigade R.F.A. was attached, settled in Marles-les-Mines, Lapugnoy, Labeuviere, Fouquieres, and Chocques; the Engineers at Raimbert and Burbure; the Pioneers in Labeuvriere; the 140th Infantry Brigade Group in Auchel, Ferfay, and Cauchy-a-la-Tour; the 141st Infantry Brigade group in Pernes and Lieres; the 142nd Infantry Brigade group in Allouagne and Burbure, and the Divisional Train in Lillers, moving later to Camblain Chatelain as the railhead changed from Lillers to Pernes.
In these none too cheerful little mining and agricultural villages, with Christmas festivities and an occasional move into new huts or billets to relieve the monotony, the Division settled down to discuss the great topic of demobilisation. For some time, matters did not seem to be getting beyond the stage of discussion and the rendering of many returns, except as concerned the so-called “pivotal” men. The most unlikely individuals suddenly discovered that the wheels of British industry could not begin to revolve again until they were returned to civilian life. As these same individuals – no doubt by reason of their “pivotality” – were also in many cases those who had most recently become soldiers, discussion of the matter among the troops sometimes assumed a somewhat acrid tone.
Early in 1919, however, demobilisation began in real earnest and the Division grew smaller day by day. There was much inspecting and classifying of horses and mules – some for sale in England, some for disposal in France, and a few for retention in the Regular Army. There were many touching farewells said as men were parted from animals that they had driven and cared for, perhaps, for years, or officers from chargers which had served with them on many battle fronts.
The education scheme, on which a beginning had been made in the Army even before the Armistice, developed to imposing proportions – on paper. Each unit had its classes, and although little useful work could be done in those arms and services which had horses to look after or departmental duties to carry on, a certain amount of progress was made among the infantry, and at least opportunities were given to those who wished to take advantage of them for serious study or technical training with a view to civil life. Lecturers visited the Division and held forth on a multitude of subjects, from “Exploration in Central Asia” to “World Problems after the War.”
Athletics naturally occupied much of the time, although it was not always easy to find playing fields. Divisional football cup ties were played during December and January, and D/236th Battery, R.F.A., defeated the Machine-gun Battalion in the final at Auchel.
Concert parties and theatricals – sometimes sadly disorganised by the demobilisation at a critical stage of the leading lady – helped to pass away the long evenings. The 15th Battalion produced an admirable pantomime with the topical title, “Pack Up,” at Ferfay, and besides the Divisional Follies, who worked hard, as they had done throughout the war, for the amusement of the troops, there were a number of “touring companies” who exchanged visits.
By the end of March, 1919, the units were reduced almost to cadre strength, and Major-General Gorringe left us to return to England. Shortly afterwards he was appointed to command the 10th Division in Egypt, where so many years of his career as a soldier had been spent. He handed over the command of the cadres to Brigadier-General Mildren.
On the eve of his departure Sir George Gorringe issued the following farewell order:
SPECIAL ORDER OF THE DAY.
By Major-General Sir G. F. Gorringe, K.G.B., K.G.M.G., D.S.O.
Friday, March 28th, 1919.
The day has arrived for the 47th (London) Division to cease to exist in France as a Division and for the remnant to be formed into Brigade Groups of Cadres.
The occasion is one on which we who have served in the Division cannot but feel a mutual sense of regret, severing as it does ties which have closely united us for so long. Most of our comrades have already left us to restart their vocations in civil life, others to join the Army of Occupation, and those who remain – the Cadres – will shortly be returning to England, there to be demobilised. Many, also, we shall never meet again; their lives have been given for the cause for which we, as the 47th Division, were formed and have fought together at Festubert, Loos, Vimy, High Wood, Eaucourt L’Abbaye, Messines, Menin Road, Bourlon Wood, Welsh Ridge, Highland Ridge, Dessart Ridge, Rocquigny to Bouzincourt and Aveluy Wood, Bray, Albert Ridge, Le Foret, Rancourt, Moislains, Nurlu Ridge, Lieramont, in the advance on Lille and the crossing of the Scheldt, on many a battlefield, in minor operations, and in trench warfare.
Looking back on these past years, we cannot but feel proud and thankful that we have been enabled to take such a prominent part in these operations and in building up the fine record which the Division has achieved. In fact, no less than 97 D.S.O.s or bars, 472 M.C.s or bars, 321 D.C.M.s or bars, and 1909 M.M.s or bars have been awarded to the Division. But it is not so much this splendid record of rewards of which we should be most grateful; it is what we have been able to do during the war and our share in winning victory that we may feel so justly proud of.
On relinquishing command of the 47th Division I desire to place on record my very high appreciation of your devotion to duty, discipline, gallantry and loyalty at all times. No Commander could have been better or more loyally served than I have been by you.
We do not yet know what has been decided as to the future – whether the Division will be re-formed on lines similar to those which existed prior to 1914 or otherwise – but whatever that decision may be, let the spirit of the Division remain and be maintained and fostered by various Old Comrades’ Associations which have been and are being formed, and by which, I trust, we shall have opportunities to meet together during many years to come, to remember our happy relations in the past – the splendid co-operation between all branches of the Service in the Division.
My parting request is that you will all do your utmost to maintain the spirit of our comradeship at all times and that it will continue to unite us in future, so that we may be a very powerful factor and tower of strength for good in our country, that our victories in war may be consolidated in peace by that happy bond of true comradeship which is called co-operation, that discipline in civil life, that best of disciplines which we have attained in this war – the subordination of selfishness to the benefit of the community.
F. Gorringe, Major-General.
The debt of the Division to General Gorringe himself it would be hard to estimate too highly. His skill as a commander had been proved in many difficult operations, his coolness in action and his courage were an inspiration to all who served under him, and his unceasing thought for the comfort and welfare of the junior officers and men of the Division, who probably never realised how much they owed to it, was an example, as well as an occasional cause of some anxiety, to the subordinate commanders and staff.
The 47th Division was fortunate in not suffering from the frequent changes in command which were the lot of some divisions. Each of its two commanders remained with it long enough to know the Division well and to earn its confidence. The achievements and the spirit of the Division under their command are the measure of their success and their reward.
Not only in its chief commanders was the 47th Division fortunate. It was allowed to remain to the end what it was from the beginning – a division of London Territorials, and as such it had a homogeneity and a civic patriotism such as few other divisions possessed. The only one of its units which was not recruited in London – the 4th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers – was composed of Territorials like the Londoners, and quickly assimilated itself. So, too, did the occasional drafts for London battalions which were received from other regiments.
Among the brigade and battalion commanders and the senior Staff officers were many, like Brigadier-Generals Lewis, Mildren, Whitley, and Lord Hampden, who were Territorial officers themselves; and many others, like Brigadier-Generals Cuthbert, Thwaites, Wray, and Kennedy, or Lieut.-Colonels Foot and Thunder, who, though Regular officers themselves, had served long enough before the war as commanders, Staff officers, or adjutants in the Territorial Force to understand the Territorial soldier thoroughly.
To the junior officers, the warrant officers, and the N.C.O.s, the backbone of the Division, and to the men themselves, it is impossible to pay tribute high enough. The dogged courage and endurance of the Londoner, his unfailing cheerfulness and humour in adversity, have been the subject of so many panegyrics in official despatches, in the Press, and elsewhere, that there is no need to dwell upon them here. If in the pages of this history too little mention has been made of individual acts of heroism or of the personalities of many born leaders of men of whom death or wounds robbed the Division before they had attained high rank, it is due chiefly to the difficulty of selecting from among such numbers.
There were a few, but very few, among the cadres which returned to England in May, 1919, who had served with the 47th Division during all its four years in France and Flanders. The last trainload left Pernes on May 10th. The Artillery and divisional troops were finally demobilized at Shoreham a month or so later, and the Infantry brigades at Felixstowe.
But the Division was not doomed to die.
On February 16th, 1920, it was reconstituted as part of the new Territorial Army, under the command of Major-General Sir Nevill Smyth, V.C, K.C.B., and the 47th (2nd London) Division lives to carry on the traditions of the men who fought at Loos and Vimy, at High Wood, Messines, and Bourlon.