A TRAIN journey was quite a remarkable occurrence. The Divisional Artillery had not travelled by train since their first journey up the line in 1915, and now they were being carried back to the same area. The Infantry Brigades had made one short journey by train (from Albert to Ytres in the snow) during the last year.
We found our old quarters – Chocques, Auchel, Calonne-Ricouar – much changed. Hutted camps had sprung up everywhere, and the inhabitants had naturally long since tired of entertaining the British Army. During the last spring the war had come inconveniently near; Chocques was badly knocked about and Bethune was a desolation. Still, it was a very pleasant change after so long a stay by the Somme, and, if the artistic eye of a few missed the rich colour and soft contours of the southern battlefield, the homely sense of most of us preferred the somewhat squalid urbanity of a mining district to the desolate rusticity which we had left. And in war-time the pleasure of revisiting old haunts is more than usually keen.
It was soon known that the Division was to go to Italy by the end of the month to relieve the 7th Division. A small advance party was sent off, and arrangements seemed to be complete. Days were spent in mild training and lively anticipation. The prospect was delightful – a long and interesting journey, a picturesque country, and, from all accounts, a good kind of war. Apart from the distance from home and possible difficulty of leave, the only serious drawback was that our horses must be left behind, to be exchanged for those of the 7th Division, and the thought of this parting was a real grief to many artillery and transport drivers. The entrainment was several times postponed, but when, on September 27th, the Division moved to the neighbourhood of St. Pol, the move seemed quite certain. The 140th Brigade were supplied by an enterprising Brigade Headquarters with maps of the route and a list of useful phrases in Italian. Rations for the journey were actually being loaded on the first train, and we hoped in a few hours’ time to say good-bye to France.
But plans were changed again. The great success of the Allies in France culminating in the capture of the Hindenburg Line by the Fourth Army, the capture of Damascus in the East, and the capitulation of Bulgaria showed that the end of the war was near. It was a race against time to settle the issue on the Western Front before winter set in, and neither the time nor the rolling-stock could immediately be spared for our expected move.
Orders came on October 1st, and on the next day the Division began to concentrate in the XI Corps area at Lestrem and La Gorgue, with a view to relieving the 59th Division on the following night. But the Germans were already retreating fast, and the 141st Brigade was hurried forward to take the place of two pursuing brigades. The operation in which we now took part was not of a really urgent nature, but it was intended to keep in touch with the enemy, to maintain constant pressure, so as to prevent his thinning out his line, and to inflict as much damage upon him as possible during this retreat. At the same time our own troops were to be kept from engagement in heavy fighting. By the end of the day, the 141st Brigade had advanced across the Aubers Ridge to a position just east of Radinghem.
There was little fighting except on the right, where the 18th Battalion had come up against machine-guns, with which the enemy, as so often, skilfully embarrassed our pursuit, but the brigade had a difficult job moving forward about four miles on a frontage of well over two miles in new and featureless country. All battalions were very weak, and two out of the three had a trench strength of hardly more than 300. The casualties suffered by the brigade on October 3rd and 4th – 120 all ranks – show that the enemy’s fire was a considerable obstacle. The result of this advance was to cause the Germans to hurry up reinforcements which were badly needed elsewhere.
The ground of the advance was full of interest. The Aubers Ridge, which now fell so easily into our hands, had been the object of repeated costly attacks since the British Army had been driven from it in October, 1914. It commands a fine view of the plain that stretches far away to the west and north – a very close and watery countryside, intersected with dykes and dotted with farmsteads, singularly ill-suited to the trench warfare of four years.
We could examine at leisure the German defences, the great belts of barbed-wire covering breastworks and trenches, and immensely strong concrete pill-boxes disposed along their trench systems or built into ruined farmhouses. Some of these were demolished, but the majority were intact, although often filled with explosive charges ready to blow the unwary occupant sky high. The sappers made them safe for us, and we were able to enjoy the peculiar stuffy security which German dugouts and blockhouses afford.
Apart from this work, the Royal Engineers and Pioneers were now and onwards mainly busied with repairing roads and bridges to allow transport of all kinds to keep pace with the advance. Large craters had been blown at most crossroads, and bridges and culverts were generally destroyed. It was only by the untiring efforts of sappers and pioneers that supporting artillery and first-line transport were always able to keep up with the leading units.
On October 4th, the 142nd Brigade took over the right half of the Divisional front, and pushed on with the 141st Brigade. Opposition was considerably more severe and the strong wire defences of the evacuated trenches were an obstacle. The 22nd Battalion succeeded at some cost in forcing the enemy to leave the village of Beaucamp on our right, and on the left the 19th Battalion secured a footing on the Armentieres-Wavrin railway, which was held in some strength, apparently as an outpost position in front of the main Lille defences about a mile farther east.
This was a strong position; a railway embankment, protected by means of wire, gave good advantage to machine-gun posts and snipers, and admirable cover for lateral communication along the front. A determined attack with adequate artillery support could have captured it, but the policy of the Fifth Army was not to make a deliberate attack upon the defences of Lille, but merely to follow closely when pressure north and south compelled the enemy to withdraw.
For the next ten days, therefore, while the line of the railway was still held, no operations were attempted beyond patrolling and raids, to test the resistance of the enemy and to obtain identification of the troops opposing us.
The most considerable raid was made by Captain R. W. Turner’s D Company, of the 24th Battalion, on the morning of October 14th against the railway embankment opposite Erquinghem. Artillery co-operation was arranged, including the support of 6-in. trench mortars. In reconnoitring for their position the Divisional Trench Mortar Officer, Captain J.G. Brown, M.C., unluckily missed our outpost line and cycled past Radinghem into the enemy’s country. An able and gallant young officer was thus lost to the Division.
The raiders reached the railway and sent patrols into the village, but they were counter-attacked in unexpected strength and withdrew with considerable casualties. The enemy, however, had fired his usual Parthian shot, and during the next day our line was able to move forward 1,000 yards, so that the centre of the 142nd Brigade held the farmstead of Fin de la Guerre, a very suitable objective. Early on the 16th the advance continued. On the extreme left opposite the 141st Brigade was highground and the tremendous earthwork of Fort d’Englos, one of the biggest of the forts that girdle Lille. It was intended not to attack this, but to surround it by a forward movement of the 142nd Brigade on the right. As it turned out, however, the strongest resistance came from the right, where the western edge of the suburbs of Lille gave shelter for machine-guns. The direction of the advance was, therefore, turned somewhat northwards, and by the end of the day we held the village of Hallennes and Englos.
Meanwhile, orders for relief had come, and on October 17th brigades of the 57th Division passed through our line, and were able to march straight on to Lille. We thus just missed the satisfaction of being the first British troops to reach the city, and the duty of carrying out elaborate orders for sealing the exits which we had been studying for some days past. Instead, the 47th Division moved back by easy stages to the Norrcnt-Fontes-St. Hilaire district, and the Artillery to St. Vcnant, all ready once again to entrain for Italy. But within a few days the journey to Italy was finally cancelled, and the Division was warned to be ready to accompany the Army Commander on his official entry into Lille on Monday, October 28th.
The weekend was spent in Lomme and Loos, suburbs to the west of Lille, where the magnificence of some of our billets was a striking contrast to the hunger and destitution of many of the victims of the German occupation.
There was great pleasure in feeling that we were in quarters which the enemy had lived in so long and so securely, and a deeper satisfaction in realising to some extent from the appearance and narratives of the French the measure of relief that our advance had brought them. It needed now no imagination to know that it was something more than a few miles of desert that we were fighting for, and that we were up against something worse than a nation of home-loving conscripts driven unwillingly to war. For the sufferings of Lille were among the worst consequences of a systematic militarism, and many who may have found little satisfaction in contemplating wretched groups of tired and dirty prisoners on the Somme felt that the joy of a liberated town was well worth years of discomfort and danger.
The procession started on October 28th at ten o’clock from the Porte Canteleu. The Army Commander (General Birdwood) was preceded by a company of the 22nd Battalion. Behind the Army Staff followed the XIth Corps Commander (Lieut.-General Sir R. Haking) and his Staff.
Then came the 47th Division. The General led the way, followed by some of his Staff, and the three Brigade Groups marched in the order which they had taken in the last operations – 142nd, 141st, and 140th. Between the 142nd and 141st Brigades came the C.R.A. (Brig.-General Whitley) and Divisional Artillery Headquarters, followed by the 235th Brigade R.F.A. and a detachment of the Divisional Ammunition Column. The 236th Brigade R.F.A. and the Machine-Gun Battalion marched between the 141st and 140th Brigades. In rear of the 140th Brigade came the 4th Battalion R.W.F. and detachments, mounted and dismounted, of the Divisional Train and the Mobile Veterinary Section. Within each Brigade Group, the affiliated Field Company R.E. followed the Brigade Headquarters; after them the three battalions and Trench Mortar Battery, and then the affiliated Field Ambulance. A company each from the 140th and 141st Brigades had gone on ahead to form a cordon in the Grande Place.
It was “roses, roses all the way.” The tricolour was flying everywhere (one heard pathetic stories of the careful concealment of flags all through the war against the day of victory), with a sprinkling of extemporised (and rather inaccurate) versions of the Union Jack, and American and Belgian flags. Several hundred small flags adorned the rifles and equipment of our units, and flowers were on the guns. Brass bands played, and great crowds along the road and at every window cheered and sang as the troops marched by. A special ovation was given to the Indian drivers in the D.A.C. An enterprising printer had produced posters in red, white, and blue, some with the inscription “Honneur et gloire a la 47me Division, nos Liberateurs,” and others with the same message in English.
There was a halt when the head of the procession reached the Grande Place. There the Army Commander presented his fanion (the small red flag with a black cross which is carried behind an army commander in the field) to the Mayor of Lille, M. Delesalle, and received a flag from the city. Then the Mayor and Corporation and the Army, Corps, and Divisional Commanders took their place upon the grand-stand, where a large gathering of officers and civilians – among them the British Secretary of State for War, Mr. Winston Churchill – was assembled. No compliments were paid as the Division marched past. Its smart appearance won general approbation, and a message of congratulation from the Army Commander, with a special word of praise for the Divisional Artillery.
After a few days’ rest in the eastern suburbs of Lille the Division moved up to relieve the 57th Division on the west bank of the Scheldt just north of Tournai. The 140th and 141st Brigades took their place in the line on October 31st. Two Portuguese battalions and a Portuguese brigade of field artillery were here attached to us, and the provision for their needs caused no little anxiety to the administrative staff and services, in the absence of interpreters or of any certainty as to their movements. The difficulty was not lessened by the fact that during their attachment to us the distinguishing numbers of the two battalions were changed.
The Germans had destroyed all bridges across the river, which was swollen with the recent rain, and could not be crossed without a carefully planned operation beyond the scope of our waiting tactics. The villages of Froyennes, Pont-a-Chin, and Ramegnies Chin lay on our line. Froyennes is only a mile from Tournai, and round it stand comfortable chateaux, the houses of local magnates. One of these, a stuccoed building of pseudo-Moorish style, had long been the residence of Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, against whose army we had often fought. In the villages were neat villas, hastily evacuated and very little damaged, and the country generally had a trim and prosperous appearance, very different from the impoverished French country we had left, as Tournai was different from Lille. A good many civilians stayed on in Froyennes.
For a week, nothing was done beyond the usual patrolling and reconnaissance of possible approaches to the river when the time should arrive to cross it. One day a small patrol of the 18th Battalion crossed the river and captured an enemy post. One night a party of Germans attacked a post of the 17th Battalion, but were driven on the following night from the house they occupied.
Meanwhile, the enemy harassed us somewhat with field-guns and machine-guns. He had excellent observation from the railway just east of the Scheldt, and especially from Mont St. Aubert, a steep hill which rose 150 metres high less than two miles north-east of us, and commanded a wonderful view for miles round. We later found a most complete observation-station established here.
Early in the morning of November 8th civilians entered the 74th Division line on our right with the news that the enemy had withdrawn, and later the part of Tournai west of the Scheldt was occupied. Our patrols found the line of the river still strongly held, and shelling in the forward area was unusually vigorous. Everything pointed to an imminent evacuation, and orders were given to arrange for the building of a trestle bridge early next morning at Pont-a-Chin, and a footbridge was successfully placed there during the night.
At dawn on November 9th, the 22nd Battalion started crossing the river and pushed straight ahead without opposition. By eleven o’clock, the 142nd Brigade reported that Mont St. Aubert was in our hands, and at the same hour the 140th Brigade, whose advance had been delayed by the difficulty of building a footbridge in their sector, were in La Tombe. Both brigades moved rapidly forward during the afternoon, and at nightfall we were in the village of Melles and Morcourt, about five miles east of the river.
The engineers had some difficulty in constructing heavier bridges across the Scheldt. The Pont-a-Chin trestle bridge was not finished on the 9th, but by 2.30 p.m. a pontoon bridge was ready near Froyennes. Forward sections of artillery and infantry first-line transport started crossing this at once. The approach to the bridge was by a narrow, muddy road with a dyke on either side, and in spite of stringent traffic regulations there was a scramble to get across. It somehow happened that General Kennedy’s mess-cart was the first vehicle to cross the river.
The last casualties of the Division were suffered by the 17th Battalion, which lost five men on the night of November 8th. On the next day the five bodies lay wrapped in blankets in the hall of Prince Rupprecht’s chateau, amid rich furniture and gaudy decoration. In some such way much that was blatant and insincere in the world at war served only to throw into deeper relief the simple realities of loyal service and unselfish death.
The chase was continued on the 10th. In front were the 19th Hussars with a battery of Royal Horse Artillery, and the 142nd Brigade followed as the advance guard of the Division. The cavalry met slight opposition from some machine-gun posts which the Germans had left behind, but these were soon put to flight by the R.H.A. One wounded prisoner was sent back. By the end of the day the 142nd Brigade held an outpost line beyond Frasnes-lez-Buissenal and Moustier – a day’s advance of between six and seven miles. On November 11th, the 140th Brigade was to lead the way, but orders came early to say that the XIth Corps was to be “squeezed out” of the line, and that the Division would concentrate near La Tombe. A little later we heard that hostilities were to cease at eleven o’clock.
There was nothing dramatic about the end of the war for the 47th Division. News of the Armistice reached the troops on their march westwards, and it hardly raised a cheer. The 141st Brigade took charge of Tournai, and Brig.-General Mildren was for a time military governor there; the rest of the Division kept Armistice night as best they could in billets in the northern outskirts of the town.