Nigel Wilkinson describes six months in the life of the First Battalion:
IN THE build up to the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Great War, the media has understandably concentrated its attention on the PBI (poor bloody infantryman) who spent his time going ‘over the top’ against the machine guns of an entrenched and invulnerable enemy and after a succession of expensive defeats finally won the last battle in 1918. This view is naive, as it ignores the heavy casualties suffered by artillerymen, sappers and the men of the transport columns. Fortunately set-piece battles took time to plan and so were comparatively rare. Our armies and those of our allies spent the lengthy periods between battles just holding the line, which entailed living in the squalor of water-logged trenches in all kinds of weather, patrolling in no-man’s-land and at the instigation of the Staff, carrying out ‘raids’ to obtain information and prisoners. The rate of attrition in the trenches varied depending whether the sector was a quiet one or not. It would not be uncommon for twelve or so unfortunates to fall to a sniper, a shell, sickness or mortar bomb in the course of a month on the Western Front. I hope what follows gives you an inkling of how boring and uncomfortable life was in the line for the average Tommy in the ‘Salient’.
OFF FOR A REST IN THE YPRES SALIENT
On the 14th October 1916, a month after losing the Commanding Officer and suffering heavy casualties storming High Wood and Eaucourt l’Abbee, the battalion, along with the rest of 47th Division, left the Somme where they had fought with great courage and distinction for the stinking swamp that the General Staff called the Ypres Salient and the soldiers called ‘Wipers’. The battalion marched all day from Francvilliers to Albert where they entrained for Longpre les Corps Saints, arriving about midnight. The next day they marched again to Bussus where they spent the night in what were described as ‘comfortable barns’. In the morning the battalion retraced its steps to Longpre and took a train to Caestre which was the rail head for Ypres. The train, made up of cattle trucks, took a roundabout route passing, but not stopping, at Etaples, Boulogne, Wimereaux, Calais, St Omer and finally Caestre. Their march in freezing rain to Steevoorde where they settled down for the night in their rain sodden uniforms with only straw for bedding.
On 20th October, there was another march to Reningelst where they moved into the muddy wilderness of Scottish Lines. The Regimental History notes that the huts were comfortable, but once again there were no blankets and the temperature was several degrees below zero. The War Office, despite the widespread civilian use of cars, buses and lorries had been slow to mechanize their armies in France and Flanders. Sappers and Gunners might travel on horse-drawn limbers and wagons but for the infantry it was mostly cattle trucks and footslogging. The majority of the men that made up the armies of the early 20th century were used to toil and hardship as part of their every day lives so after enlistment they accepted the discomforts of war service with a certain amount of mostly good tempered grumbling and sucking of teeth. There was no rest for the London Irish at Scottish Lines. After a round of inspections and exchange of worn out clothing and equipment, the battalion was thrust into an intensive period of training. This was to prepare them for service in the front line and ended on 29th October when, as the brigade reserve battalion, they took over positions at Woodcote House and Café Belge. Here they worked hard repairing trenches.
At this time, the Commanding Officer was Lt Col B McMahon Mahon MC (who had assumed command after Maj J R Trinder MC was killed at High Wood). Maj, (as he was then), McMahon Mahon had planned and carried out the successful battalion assault on Eaucourt l’Abbee which had followed the hard won victory at High Wood. He persuaded his Brigade Commander and the Commander of 47th Division to dispense with the usual artillery barrage before the attack. The enemy were taken by surprise and the attack was a complete success. On 8th November the London Irish moved into the front line, relieving the 17th (Poplar & Stepney Rifles) at the Ravine sub sector. Someone, probably at Brigade, safely in a dugout well to the rear, decided it would be a ‘good idea’ to try and breach the Boche wire. So there followed a series of ‘shoots’, using trench mortars and artillery. This resulted, according to the ‘War History of the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles‘, in “swift and severe retaliation by the enemy that caused havoc in the line and many casualties were sustained.” The Trench Mortar Platoon having fired off a few salvos, packed up and retired to their deep dugouts, leaving the unfortunate occupants of the trench to take the consequences.
On the night of 22nd of November, in pouring rain, the Battalion was relieved by 22nd (Queens) and marched back to Ypres where they entrained for the 10 minute ride to Poperinghe. Whilst de-training Rfn William Oliver was killed when he stepped into the path of a light engine. Understandably depressed, the Battalion arrived back at Scottish Lines soaked to the skin, having lost their way in the dark. After a spell in Divisional reserve, the 1st Battalion were transferred to Brigade reserve on 28th November. They moved from the quagmire of Scottish Lines to much better quarters in Halifax Camp – a group of huts by the side of the Outerdom to Vlamertinge road, taking over from the 8th (Post Office Rifles). Here, they had the opportunity to see 47th Division theatre’s ‘Follies’ before moving up to the front line on 3rd December. Possibly this period in reserve, although not free from danger, was intended to help the battalion to build up its strength and recover from the damage done whilst they were on the Somme. It was badly needed as they were to move to one of the most dangerous sectors in the salient — the left sub sector at the infamous Hill 60.
Hill 60 is so called because it was and still is 60 meters in height. The hill is an artificial one, made from the spoil of the railway cutting adjacent to it. The tactical value of Hill 60 was immense. Since 1914, many bloody actions had been fought to try and wrest it from the enemy. After years of occupation the Germans had transformed what was an innocuous hillock into an impregnable fortress of concrete and barbed wire. Bristling with snipers, machine guns and minenwerfers, (German mortars) it commanded the rear areas right up to the walls of Ypres. It was only vulnerable to mining operations and the Australian Tunnelling Company and British miners fought a long tunnelling war against the German sappers. For some months before the battle of Messines they dug an elaborate network of galleries and chambers towards the hill. The Germans were also tunnelling at a higher level, so close to our tunnels that at one stage they brought the roof down on the ammonal in a detonation chamber. At one stage four-hundred miners worked non-stop pumping water to save the operation.
At 0300 hrs on June 7th 1917, the mines were detonated and two enormous craters were blown in Hill 60. Even after the explosions, Hill 60 remained a formidable emplacement. The observation posts had been constructed from sixty pound rails riveted together and set in six feet of concrete, their observation slits gave an unrestricted view of the British positions. The battalion relieved the battered Poplar & Stepney Rifles, who had been given a very rough time by the enemy. The trenches had been badly damaged by shell fire so the battalion’s first task was to set about repairs. The battalion front ran from the ruined bridge over the railway cutting to the flooded Allen Crater, which projected well beyond the front line. There was a persistent rumour that the enemy would use underwater craft to pass through the ‘lake’ in the railway cutting and so outflank the battalion. The Bomber’s post which overlooked the ‘lake’ was commonly known as the submarine post. The battalion was due to be relieved on 8th December, but this was delayed because of an exceptionally heavy mortar strafe. Several men were killed and wounded. The trenches and dugouts were in a terrible state and to make matters worse there had been days of torrential rain. Eventually the battalion were relieved by the 19th St Pancras Rifles. Wearily they made their way in single file along the Railway Trench, marched on to Transport Farm and then Shrapnel Corner where they turned right and entered Ypres by the Lille Gate. After the short rail journey to Poperinge they marched to Scottish Lines where a hot meal was waiting. After the issue of two blankets a man they spent the night in “…great comfort.”
RELIEF AND A VISIT FROM HAIG
The next day The London Irish were due to be inspected by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig but due to the appalling weather the great man consented to carry out the inspection in the men’s billets. It is recorded in the War History that the Band gave a concert on Christmas Eve, but the battalion was soon back in the front line to relieve the 17th Poplar and Stepney Rifles at the Ravine sub sector. At about this time, the battalion nearly lost an officer. Lt R E A Mallet took two riflemen on a recce patrol. They were detected near the enemy lines and were attacked with grenades. Mallet and one man returned, but there was no sign of the other rifleman. However, he returned the next afternoon at dusk, having spent the day in a flooded shell crater. He was too hoarse to answer the sentry’s challenge, who threw a grenade; fortunately neglecting to pull the pin!
The War History records a succession of periods in the line, relief and rest, usually in Scottish Lines. Throughout January, the weather was awful, blizzards followed by torrential rain. It may have been the constant exposure to foul weather that caused Lt Col McMahon Mahon’s breakdown in health. On the 15th of January, he handed over command to Maj Parry and was admitted to hospital. To quote the official history,: “Col Mahon had with difficulty passed the medical test in 1915, and although not considered physically strong enough for active service, had on the field performed his onerous duties with conspicuous ability and had won the devotion of all ranks.” He also won a well-deserved DSO, gazetted on 4th June 1917 to add to his MC.
While at rest, the London Irish are reported to have enjoyed the cinema in Poperinghe and the estaminets of Outerdom, but they were back in the line by the end of January. They marched along the Ouderdom to Vlamertinghe Road, past the Café Belge along the railway track, past Chateau Segard, turned left, crossed the Yser Canal to Shrapnel Corner and on via Transport Farm to their old positions close to Hill 60. However, now the Allen Crater and the trenches were frozen. They were supplied with white smocks and more importantly, Brigade authorised a double rum ration for the outpost company. It is recorded as being, “…one extra gallon a night.” In the middle of February there was a thaw and the icy conditions gave way to mud and slush. Whilst in reserve it was decided to disband the bombing platoon and attach a bombing section to each company. This was not a popular decision. A week afterwards the Battalion moved into the line at Dikkebus to relieve the 6th City of London Rifles.
The 6th Londons had recently carried out a very successful battalion raid, which penetrated the enemy lines and succeeded in capturing an officer and 119 men of the Wurtenburg Regiment. At the end of February the battalion was in support, Battalion HQ and one company at Chateau Segard, one company in Canal Dugouts and one company in Strong Points 7 and 8. March is recorded as being an uneventful month. A few days were spent in the front line relieving the 6th City of London Rifles and 17th Poplar & Stepney Rifles, the rest of the time was spent in providing working parties.
VOICES FROM THE TRENCHES
According to veteran Rfn George St John the weather alternated between “Lovely spring weather and bitter cold and blizzards…”
In his journal he had this to say in a letter home: “You ask what the weather is like – jolly cold. The trenches are covered with snow and I fear when the thaw sets in there will be a rare lot of work for us. I do not remember it being so cold for many years…the weather is bitter and a lot of the boys suffer severely from trench feet.”
On the 4th of March he writes again; “Thank you for your kind greetings. Just fancy, 37 years old today. I feel just a wee bit too old for this killing game we are playing out here. On the 9th of March we celebrate the second anniversary of our landing in France. We hope to have a dinner of all the original members who came out with the Regiment that day. There’s only a handful of us, and I think it will bring back some rather painful memories. Capt Fairlie is arranging it. Fancy, there are only two of the original officers left with us.”
St John was worried that the dinner might be “stopped by some order or other”. He needn’t have worried because on the 11th March the anniversary was celebrated quietly in Scottish Lines. The survivors of the original battalion were treated to a concert which, probably fuelled by Quartermaster’s rum, continued into the early hours. There were two football matches on 11th March. The officers thrashed 17th Bn officers 8 – 1, but the ORs only managed to draw 4 -4. They did better on 25th March when they beat the Royal Sussex 4 – 0, but they lost again on 28th March, losing to the Civil Service Rifles’ transport section.
I will let veteran Rfn George St John have the last word in this short account of life in the Ypres trenches, writing home on 26th March he said, (without any intentional irony): “the food was splendid. We get a rare lot of extras lately. We have had oranges, Quaker Oats; and now they are making rissoles from bully beef, ground biscuits and onions. They are awfully nice fried in fat. Yes we had the cold snap you referred to, and it is still bitterly cold with plenty of rain. I received a box of kippers from Fred quite safely, and they were in splendid condition. They came when we were in the trenches, and we had quite a decent tea party.” In St John’s letters there are some insights in the ‘hardships’ being endured in England, apparently there was an invasion scare and: “It must be very awkward not being able to get your coals delivered – also I dare say you do miss potatoes, as it is one of the chief items of foodstuffs. We don’t get many, but we get a decent number of onions.”