The attack on Eaucourt I’Abbaye started at 3.15 p.m. on October 1st. The attacking battalions, from right to left, were the 19th, the 20th, and the 17th. The 18th Battalion was in support, and, farther back, the 23rd, placed under orders of the 141st Brigade. Two Tanks co-operated, but had to start from cover some distance behind the infantry, and could not reach the village till at least an hour after zero.
The right two battalions entered the Flers Line without difficulty. But their further advance was held up by persistent machine-gun fire from the west corner of the abbey enclosure. The Tanks later silenced these guns, whereupon the 19th and 20th Battalions rushed through the village, and established a line to the north of it. This position was most successfully held by troops under Lieutenant L.W. Needham, of the 20th Battalion, who held on under most difficult conditions until our line was established round Eaucourt I’Abbaye. On the left of the attack, the 17th came up against uncut wire in front of the Flers Line; some of them got through this, but not in strong enough force to hold the line, and they were bombed out. Again, therefore, our troops on the right had gone forward and occupied their objective, but their position was menaced by an unprotected left flank, and a gap was left on the right of the 50th Division in the Flers Line. To put this right, the 23rd Battalion was ordered to attack the Flers Line, and to push on through the village to join up with the 19th and 20th Battalions.
This operation was planned for 5 a.m. on the 2nd, just before dawn, but owing to the dark, wet night, the battalion was not assembled until 6.25 a.m., when it attacked in broad daylight. The advancing waves were cut down by machine-gun fire from the flank, and the attack achieved nothing.
On the following day, at 3.35 p.m., two companies of the 18th Battalion attacked up the Flers Line successfully, got through Eaucourt I’Abbaye, and completed the circuit of our troops round the village. It was later discovered that we might have made good our line on the night of October 1st without trouble, for the German battalion which had met the 141st Brigade attack was expecting relief that night, and left before their relief arrived. The enemy quickly found this out, and rushed up a battalion from support. Two companies came up to occupy the Flers Line opposite Eaucourt I’Abbaye; one tried to go east of the village and was stopped by our barrage and the fire of the forward troops of the 141st Brigade; the other came west of the village through the gap, and occupied their trenches just in time to meet the attack of the 23rd Battalion next morning. They were helped to save the situation by a dark night of pouring rain and our ignorance of newly-gained ground which we had hardly seen by daylight.
The capture of Eaucourt I’Abbaye brought several of the batteries over the High Wood ridge into a little valley beyond the “Starfish,” where they maintained a precarious existence for the remainder of their stay on the Somme, and helped to cover the gallant but unsuccessful attacks of the 47th, and later of the 9th Division, on the Butte de Warlencourt.
On October 4th, the 140th Brigade took over the line from the 141st Brigade in preparation for another general attack. On the next day the 6th Battalion gained an important point by occupying the old mill 500 yards west of Eaucourt I’Abbaye.
The IIIrd Corps attack of October 7th was on a three-division front. On our right was the 41st, and on our left the 23rd Division, both our familiar neighbours later in “The Salient.” The main German line of defence opposite us was the Grid Line, running north-west from Gueudecourt to Warlencourt, and including the Butte de Warlencourt, an ancient mound of excavated chalk, about 70 feet high, cunningly tunnelled by the enemy, and used as an observation post from which machine-gun and artillery fire from positions echeloned in depth was directed with devastating effect on the western slopes up which our men had to advance. Anticipating an attack on this important line, the Germans had dug a new trench across our front over the high ground north of Eaucourt I’Abbaye, westward into the valley. This trench — named Diagonal — was the first objective of the 140th Brigade; their final objective was the Grid Line, including the Butte itself. The 8th Battalion was to secure Diagonal Trench, the 15th and 7th (in order from the right) were to push on to the final objective; the 6th Battalion was in support.
The attack was at 1.45 p.m. on October 7th. The whole attacking fine came under very heavy fire from Diagonal Trench, the garrison of which were apparently armed with automatic rifles. On the right, some progress was made, and a line was established along the sunken road leading north-east from Eaucourt I’Abbaye to La Barque, where a mixed force of the 15th and 8th Battalions was organised and commanded by Captain G. G. Bates, of the 15th. On the left the companies of the 8th, followed by the 7th Battalion, tried to advance down the slope, forward of the mill, and met, in addition to fire from Diagonal Trench, the full force of the enemy artillery and machine-gun fire, cleverly sited in depth, so as to bring a withering cross-fire to bear along the western slopes leading up to the Butte and the high ground to the south of it. From across the valley the enemy had magnificent observation of the ground leading to our objective, and made full use of it.
Not a man turned back, and some got right up under the Butte, but they were not seen again. Parties dug themselves in where they could, and a post was located on the next day by an aeroplane half-way up the road towards the Butte. The only permanent gain, however, on the left, was a few posts pushed out from the mill, which were established as strong points, to keep in touch with the 23rd Division, who advanced along the line of the main road, and succeeded in capturing the ruined village of Le Sars. The 140th Brigade suffered very severely in this operation, and on the following day were relieved of the left portion of their line by the 142nd Brigade. But it was found to be impossible to relieve the 6th Battalion detachment in the advanced posts, which were left in their unenviable position until the 142nd Brigade attacked past them.
Our relief by the 9th Division was impending, and it was hoped to improve the position on our left before we handed over. With this object, the 142nd Brigade made another attempt on October 8th to seize Diagonal Trench, and, if successful, were to assault the Butte. At 9 p.m. the 21st and 22nd Battalions made the attack, after one minute’s intense bombardment. The 21st Battalion advanced to within 200 yards of Diagonal Trench without a casualty. Then, all at once, the full force of machine-guns was turned on them with dreadful effect. It seemed that the short bombardment had warned the enemy to be ready just in time. On the left, three companies of the 22nd entered Diagonal Trench without great opposition. But it was found to be a position untenable by day, and our success was limited to the establishment of several strong points, some 100 yards short of the objective. Only in this, their last operation, did battalions of the 142nd Brigade attack under command of their own brigadier, General Lewis.
On October 9th the 26th (South African) Brigade relieved the 140th and 142nd Brigades in the line. The Division had finished its part in the summer fighting of 1916. Our total loss in casualties on the Somme was 296 officers and 7,475 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing.
At this price, we had borne our share in the successful advance of the IIIrd Corps, moving the line forward nearly three miles, and capturing, on the way, two German defence systems of prime importance. We were the last to fight in High Wood, and the first to break ourselves against the high ground in which stood the Butte de Warlencourt. Although attacked successively by three other divisions, the Butte was not captured until the enemy left it in his general retirement at the end of February, 1917. The Divisional Artillery remained in action for a few days longer and, together with two brigades of the 1st Divisional Artillery, supported the unsuccessful attack of the 9th Division on the Butte on October 12th. After this they were relieved in the line and assembled in the Behencourt area preparatory to marching northwards.
On October 10th the brigades were at Albert, Franvillers and Lavieville. Here they had valedictory inspections by the IIIrd Corps commander (Lieut.-General Sir W. Pulteney), and on October 14th they entrained at Albert for a journey northwards.
On the same day the Divisional Artillery, having been relieved in the line, assembled in the Behencourt-Frechencourt area, preparatory to marching to join the Division in the Second Army area.
In a farewell message to the Division, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Commanding Fourth Army, wrote as follows:
“The operations carried out by the 47th Division during the Battle of the Somme have been of material assistance to the Fourth Army, and I desire to congratulate all ranks on their gallantry and endurance.
The capture of High Wood and the trenches beyond it on September 15th and 16th was a feat of arms deserving of high praise, whilst the attack and capture of Eaucourt L’Abbaye on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd October, involving as it did very hard fighting, was a success of which the Division may be justly proud. The Divisional Artillery has rendered excellent service in supporting the infantry attacks and in establishing the barrages on which success so often depends.
I regret that the Division have now left the Fourth Army, but at some future time I trust it may be my good fortune to again have them under my command to add to the successes they have won at Loos, at High Wood, and at Eaucourt I’Abbave.”
ON October 14th, the infantry of the Division marched into Albert from their billets in Lavieville and Franvillers to entrain for the North.
There were some anxious moments, as trains were late and fresh columns kept converging on the station approach, where time was whiled away by the music of the London Irish pipers. Albert was still within artillery range of the German guns, but this unpremeditated concentration passed unnoticed, and the last train, containing part of the 141st Brigade, got away in due course.
Their progress was not rapid, various rumours circulating to account for the delay. As the transport had all gone before by march route, permission was given for the iron ration to be consumed. The delighted faces of some of the men on the receipt of this information showed clearly that they had exercised intelligent anticipation and were faced with a foodless future of unknown duration, for estaminets in Albert were few and far between. However, as the trains crawled slowly towards Amiens, undamaged villages came in sight, and at each halt parties slipped away to purchase eggs and bread, and if the train started again in their absence, walked after it and caught it up. The Divisional Staff were most helpful, walking ahead of the train as it approached Amiens and purchasing ample supplies at the station.
After passing that congested spot progress was more rapid, and after a journey that occupied some thirty-four hours to cover the thirty-six miles, the Division went into excellent billets round Pont Remy and Longpre, to be occupied, alas, for a few hours only. The following day units marched back into the pleasant Somme Valley and re-entrained for the North, passing through the hospital areas round Etaples.
On October 16th, Divisional Headquarters were established at Hooggraaf, near Poperinghe, and arrangements were made to take over the Bluff sector from the left brigade of the 2nd Australian Division, and the Hill 60 sector from the right brigade of the 4th Australian Division. Meanwhile, the Division was arriving from the South, the 140th and 142nd Brigades reaching the Boeschepe area on the 17th, and the 141st Brigade the Steenvoorde area on the 18th.
The Divisional area west of Ypres was a dull and depressing slice of country, almost dead flat, intersected by beeks, or ditches, with a few somewhat squalid clusters of houses at intervals, and covered with frequent hut-camps that required incessant labour to keep them drained and habitable. As time progressed these grew and multiplied, together with new railways, heavy and light, dumps, horse lines, heavy battery positions, “sausage” balloon stations, and all the impedimenta of the war of position. An excellent arrangement was that by which units coming out of the line always went to the same camp, and thus came to regard it as theirs, taking more pride in its upkeep and amenities generally than if they had been only casual occupants.
Except for the occasional delights of Poperinghe the Division was dependent on itself for the necessary relaxation when out of the line. Its own excellent “Follies” and the corresponding units of its neighbours provided constant entertainment, culminating in the very successful revue of Christmas, 1916. Good playing fields were deficient in that closely cultivated country, where grassland was almost unknown and the best field became a slippery morass in wet weather.
A captured artillery map, which gave the Second Army Intelligence Department much invaluable information as to the exact location of enemy battery positions, was less accurate with regard to ours, but showed every hutted camp with unpleasant accuracy. As most of these were under direct observation from the enemy’s observation posts on the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, the only wonder is that they were left so long in peace, serious shelling of the back areas being almost unknown until April 1917.
Farther east and to the south of Ypres the country, though still flat, was much more picturesque, and was dotted with country houses, small and large, with what had been delightful gardens and well – wooded approaches. Though much knocked about the majority were still habitable.
Coming to the line itself, the ground sloped gently upwards to a low ridge, the possession of which, it was no secret, was regarded by the Second Army as vital to the retention of the whole sector, the spur in the south-east part of Ravine Wood, the Verbrandenmolen Spur, the Bluff and Zwartelen Spur (north of the railway) being specially valuable. That this view of the tactical situation was shared by the enemy was shown by his heavy attack on the Canadian Corps in the previous June, the repulse of which cost our overseas comrades over 8,000 casualties. A repetition of this was constantly before the minds of the Army Commander and his Staff. This accounts for the fact that the Divisional front was relatively narrow, extending from the Ypres-Comines Canal (exclusive) on the right (Bluff sector) to the Zwartelen Spur, north of the Ypres-Comines railway (inclusive) on the left (Hill 60 sector), a frontage of 2,300 yards.
This required a garrison of two brigades, with four battalions for the front and support lines in the Bluff, Ravine, Verbrandenmolen and Hill 60 sub-sectors, with two battalions in local reserve at railway dugouts and Woodcote House, and two farther back at Swan Chateau and Halifax Camp, the remaining brigade being out of the line in Ottawa, Devonshire, Ontario, and Vancouver camps. The front line from the right included the large group of mining craters, mostly of enemy origin, at the end of the cutting that carried the Canal across the ridge, the earth embankment (or Bluff) being tunnelled to provide covered communication with the craters and dugout accommodation for part of the garrison.
To the north the line, partly breastwork, partly trench, continued just below the crest in front of the Ravine and the wrecked village of Verbrandenmolen to the second cutting through the ridge through which the railway ran. The left was overlooked and in places enfiladed or taken in reverse by the low eminence of Hill 60, which was in enemy hands. In spite of the greatest care, casualties were constantly occurring from enemy snipers.
North of the railway, the defences were of a most elaborate nature, as great mining activity had been going on for twelve months, and we had now a very large mine dug right under the hill and ready for the coming Battle of Messines.
The guarding of this treasure involved two systems of underground defences, the infantry being responsible for the high level as well as the surface, and the tunnellers for the low level workings. In case the enemy’s countermining activities should necessitate the premature explosion of the big mine, a special local operation, involving the attack and capture of Hill 60 and the adjoining sectors, was ready to be brought into operation at very short notice.
To the north of the hill, the ground sloped down to a swampy valley, so that a continuous line became impossible and a series of posts approached only at night over the open took its place, with a strong point at Battersea Farm in support.
Touch was maintained with the Division to the north by means of night patrols. The ground, especially at the Bluff, where mining activities had unearthed a series of quick sands, was very soft and swampy in wet weather, No Man’s Land being quite impassable to either side. Drainage was very difficult when the ground became waterlogged. It almost appeared that water in those parts had the faculty of draining uphill. Much good work had been done in the previous six weeks by the Australians, but much additional shell-proof accommodation was required to make the defence secure.
The artillery were arranged in two groups, one in Ypres and one in the Railway Dugouts, The batteries went into positions which had been occupied on and off for years, such as Brisbane Dump, Doll’s House, Trois Rois, Lankhof Farm, and some east of Ypres. They were all well known to the enemy, and in fact nearly all well in view from their high ground, but there were no others better, so it was a matter of making the best of it and strengthening the pits as much as possible. The appearance of any of these positions after a heavy bombardment by 5’9-in. and 8-in., however, made one sadly conscious of the fact that they existed almost on sufferance. Indeed, it was always a marvel that the enemy did not knock them out more often than he did.
At 8 a.m. on October 19th, Major-General Gorringe took over command, the 140th Brigade taking over the Bluff and the 142nd Brigade the Hill 60 sectors. The Canadian tunnellers, however, remained, being relieved at intervals by the Australians. Mining activity on both sides was considerable, though not of the strenuous nature to which the Division was accustomed on the Vimy Ridge. Our tunnellers claimed to have the upper hand, and subsequent events proved that this contention was fully justified.
No sooner was the Division installed than the enemy proceeded to celebrate their arrival by a little mining activity at the Bluff. At 6 a.m. on October 22nd they blew two or three mines near craters C and D, the 6th Battalion with their usual luck being the garrison at the time. Our posts in C and D craters were buried by the explosion, the two craters being practically blown into one, and some men were also buried at the eastern end of B crater. A new and separate crater, known as E, was also formed to the north of D.
No attack was made by the Germans when the mines were blown, but about 9 a.m., when the 6th were digging out the buried men, some Germans came across with a machine-gun from their trenches, which were only some fifty yards from C and D craters. The 4th Australian Division, on the south side of the Canal, fired at the raiders and inflicted some casualties, but they bombed our men and mounted their machine-gun in such a position as to command the interior of B crater. Our men escaped through the tunnel to A crater, but failed to reoccupy B, owing to the fire of the hostile machine-gun. The tunnel was therefore blocked, and trench mortars were turned on to the Germans who were occupying the eastern lips of C and D craters.
The situation remained unchanged until night, when our men reoccupied B crater, and found no trace of the Germans in any of the others. The lip between B and C and D craters was consolidated in such a way as to command the interior of the two latter.
The weather had now turned colder and rain was frequent. The “trench strength” of the Division was 264 officers and 8,481 other ranks. The Division having settled down, the usual process of reminding the enemy that there was a war on began on October 30th by an organised bombardment of the enemy’s front and support lines opposite the Bluff, considerable damage being done.