THE hope indulged in for many a past month of a change of scenery from the dreary wastes of Flanders, and the dream of rest billets which might justify their name in back areas which enemy aeroplanes would not bomb every night without respite, of trenches which were not merely connected shell craters, and of villages which, though evacuated by their inhabitants, might still bear some resemblance to the normal haunts of men, were at last to be realised.
It was a cheery Division that detrained in the vicinity of Maroeuil, near Arras, and relieved the 63rd (R.N.) Division (including the 28th London Regiment — the Artists Rifles — old comrades of the 2nd London Division) on the Gavrelle-Oppy front, with headquarters at Victory Camp, Ecurie. Up till a short time previously the XIIIth Corps front had been an uncommonly active one, but at the end of September, 1917, all was quiet, and, with a view to providing the maximum of comfort and health for man and beast during the coming winter, both in the line and back areas, a scheme of work was initiated under Corps instructions, and was forthwith put into operation. The trench system taken over by the Division was an extensive one. Dug deep in the rich loam some distance down the forward slope, it required an enormous amount of labour for its maintenance in winter.
The system adopted in the line was that of a series of defended localities, strong posts from half a mile to three-quarters of a mile apart, garrisoned at first by platoons, and intended when finished to be garrisoned by companies. The gaps in the line of posts were covered by artillery and machine-gun fire from the rear. Orders were issued that no attempt should be made to maintain lateral communicating trenches between these posts, the necessary labour and material not being available. About half a mile in rear of the posts ran the line built by our predecessors, and known as the Naval and Marine Trenches, while behind that again lay the Red Line. In rear of this rose a prominent ridge behind Bailleul village, which made it possible for our forward areas and the enemy trenches to be under complete observation.
While this system of forward posts certainly enabled work to be concentrated with a gain in time, labour, and material, it had the disadvantage of affording a series of admirable targets to the enemy artillery and trench-mortars, especially in the case of those posts situated on commanding and consequently relatively high ground, as, for instance, Mill Post, or those forming a distinct salient in the line of posts, as, for instance, Bradford Post. This system was no doubt only intended to be employed during the winter months, a modern version of the old-time “winter quarters,” and as such it possessed not only the advantage of economy of forces already referred to, but had the added advantage of practising all ranks in the infantry units in constant patrolling in the open or semi-open between the posts.
In the back areas much useful work was carried out by the construction of drainage schemes, the erection of cook-houses, the improvement of huts used for billets and the building of horse standings, but, as was almost invariably the case during the whole war, all work done was on the point of completion just in time to be enjoyed by our successors, for the Division appeared ever to be fated to move on before enjoying the fruits of its labours.
Although all ranks set to work at once with the determination to get on with the job, progress, except in the back areas, was slow, owing to the constant retaliation to our shelling, the bad weather, and dark nights, which made working-parties in the line of small avail; the most useful work was done by the actual trench garrisons. The enemy artillery were peaceably inclined during the early weeks of the Divisional tour, but when our Divisional Artillery came into the line, after having stayed on in the Ypres salient for a short time, they began to ” strafe ” the enemy on every possible occasion with their usual promptitude.
Not since the Division had left Vimy Ridge, when the observation from Notre Dame de Lorette rendered it possible to initiate retaliation under almost ideal conditions, had there been such opportunities for artillery and infantry co-operation; it was again possible to economise the time taken by artillery liaison officers with infantry units in sending back reports, batteries frequently being able to retaliate when necessary on enemy trench-mortar emplacements almost before the enemy bombs hit the British lines. The infantry of the Division always held the opinion that whenever their own artillery supported them, liaison was as complete as possible, and invariably supported the tendency of the Divisional Artillery to make the war as unpleasant as possible for the enemy, even though the penalty of retaliation (prompt or deferred) was the inevitable consequence. How frequently were requests sent to artillery for retaliation when in fact the enemy’s fire was actually retaliation for that of our own gunners.
There was never any intention, however, on the part of the Division to give the enemy a rest, and as soon as our own artillery took over they started wire-cutting, to enable a series of raids to be carried out in conjunction with similar or larger enterprises on other fronts. The enemy was well wired in; the artillery gave necessary attention to that matter. The British lines were also well wired in, so much so, indeed, that in some sub-sectors infantry battalions were under the necessity of cutting lanes through their own wire during their first tour in the line so as to furnish an exit to their patrols. A novelty at this time was the supply of smoke and incendiary shell to field-guns. The former gave promise of most useful results, but the latter, though wonderful to look at on a “dark night and warranted” to set fire to a trench-board under a foot of water,” were of more doubtful effect, and were later little used.
The first organised “hate” in this sector took the form of a discharge of 710 gas projectors into Oppy village on October 11th at 3 a.m., shortly after, or perhaps during, a relief by the enemy division opposing us. Apart from minor patrol engagements, our first raid was carried out by a party of the 17th Battalion London Regiment at 3.30 a.m. on October 18th north of the Arras-Gavrelle road.
Frequent raids by divisions on the flanks during the ensuing fortnight, further gas projections, the activity of our patrols and the policy of constant annoyance to the enemy had some visible effects, for desertions from the enemy became more frequent, showing that his moral was becoming affected to some extent.
The chief event of the Divisional tour on this front took place on the afternoon of November 4th, in the form of a combined raid over a flagged course on a frontage of about 1,000 yards and a depth of about 500 yards immediately south of the Arras-Gavrelle road by two companies each of the 23rd Battalion London Regiment (Major T.C. Hargreaves, D.S.O.) and the 24th Battalion London Regiment (The Queen’s) (Lieut.-Colonel G.E. Millner, D.S.O.). In all about 500 of all ranks were engaged, including attached R.E., with explosives for demolitions, specially trained for the purpose by Major S.G. Love, D.S.O. R.E.
The raiding companies moved out of the line four days before the attack to train for the event at St. Aubin. The remaining companies took over the line as a composite battalion under the command of Major T.O. Bury, 4th R.W.F., and made all the necessary preparations on which success must largely depend, including continuous Lewis-gun fire on the gaps made by the artillery in the enemy’s wire, in the course of reported practice barrages, cutting twenty-four gaps in our own wire, labelling these, fixing guiding marks and making steps in the fire bays. Similar tactics were carried out by the other divisions on the flanks, so as to keep the enemy guessing.
Before the event every officer and man had patrolled No Man’s Land, so as to become familiar with the ground.
At 4.30 p.m. every man was in his assembly position when rockets of every description were sent up on the whole Corps front. This so puzzled the enemy that his barrage was dispersed, spasmodic and ineffective. Our artillery barrage was excellent, so accurate, indeed, that our men were at one time unable to get at the fleeing enemy. Major F.G. Stapley, R.F.A., was actually in the line and afforded invaluable assistance throughout the operations. Triplicated wires running by alternative routes enabled communication between each of the raiding companies and advanced battalion headquarters and thence to brigade headquarters to be maintained uninterrupted.
The enemy front-line was carried within five minutes of zero hour, and his support-line five minutes after that. The enemy was overwhelmed and offered little resistance. The garrison, including a large working-party, probably numbered about 150 or 200 men. Of these over 100 were killed, and fifteen, belonging to the 459th Infantry Regiment, 236th Division, were captured, along with four heavy machine-guns, a number of light machine-guns, and two trench mortars. In the half-hour that the raiders spent in the German trenches over nine dugouts were destroyed or set on fire (in some cases with their garrisons, who would not come out of them) together with numerous stores and ammunition. One man accounted for nine of the enemy single-handed; one officer for four or five. The small number of prisoners captured, as compared with the number of enemy killed, is explained by the receipt of news shortly before the raid that some enemy bombing aeroplanes flying over South London had killed the relatives of some of the men. In fact, a notice-board was left in the raided area: “We’ll teach you to bomb London.” Our casualties were very slight: 23rd London, 9 other ranks killed and 32 wounded (including one officer); 24th London, 2 other ranks killed and 10 wounded (including 2 officers).
Everybody was very much pleased with everybody else, including the Army, Corps, Division, and Brigade commanders. General Home himself attended a special parade of the units who carried out the raid and specially praised their work, as well as that of the staff of the 142nd Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier-General Bailey, who were responsible for the preparations.
The much-discussed “winter post scheme” came into full operation on November 19th, by which date orders had been received for relief by the 31st Division and concentration in the Aubigny area. Our destination was the XVIIth Corps, Third Army, and active operations on the Cambrai front, where General Byng launched his attack with Tanks on November 20th, were the magnet to which we were being drawn.