In peace time, a paddle steamer named St Tudno carried holiday makers around the Isle of Anglesey. She was not built for the channel but during the night of 23rd/24th June 1916, she carried us safely, if uncomfortably, to Havre where we tied up about 2am. The Battalion Transport and about 150 crossed in the Australind. Our strength on embarkation was 34 Officers and 938 Other Ranks.
At dawn, the deck of the St Tudno was crowded with London Irishmen waiting for their first sight of the fair land of France – and a depressing sight it was. The great docks were completely deserted and the huge warehouses closed up and not a soul in sight.
After a while, the most disreputable figure in khaki shambled into sight – hands in pocket and clay pipe stuck in mouth and proceeded to look us over. In absolute silence, he looked at us and we looked at him. Not a word for a full minute until someone in the ship shouted the catch phrase of the time – “Are we downhearted?” and in answer the while ship roared out “NO!”. Another silence for a few seconds and then the ghastly specimen spoke. “Well you bloody soon will be”. He then shambled off. He was a dock worker, put into khaki and shipped over to Havre to handle army freight – and from the look of him, he handled mostly oil and coal.
We had arrived. Not quite the welcome one had imagined but then I’ve always rather doubted whether Henry V, before Agincourt, said, “And gentlemen in England now abed” et cetera. I think that was Will Shakespeare – and he wasn’t there!
Our senior officers were:
Commanding Officer – Lieut Col WH Murphy.
Second in Command – Major CE Parry.
Adjutant – Capt HS Lane.
“A” Company – Major Payton.
“B” Company – Capt Frisby.
“C” Company – Capt McClure.
“D” Company – Capt Harding.
After a night in the Rest Camp at Harfleur, we proceeded via St Pol, Petit Houvin, Averdoignt to Acq about five miles behind the line at Neuville St Vaast and entered the line on the night of 1st July for a tour of instruction with the 51st Highland Division.
This first move into the Line was, I think, the most unpleasant of all our moves in and moves out while in France. At dawn that night, the great Battle of the Somme had started some thirty miles to the south us and Brother Bosche was very much on his toes that night. We lost 35 moving up – fortunately only one, Rifleman Lochner, killed.
After six days learning the elementary facts of trench life from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who were very good to us for a week, and then took over that part of the Line on July 14th.
We spent four months in this sector, eighteen “in” and six days “out” resting in the wood behind the ruined tower at Mont St Eloi, so it may be of interest to see the map of the Brigade Sector, which was drawn by Sgt JW Ferry. We and the 2/20th Battalion were responsible for the Left Sub Sector while the 2/17th and 2/19th took care of the Right sub sector. The ground between our front line and the German front line will be seen on the map as marked by a continuous line of mine craters.
Starting on the left, Broadmarsh Crater is about 300 yards away on ground slightly higher than ours and is at the foot of Vimy Ridge which rose quite sharply behind it. Then will be seen Durand Crater, Duffield, the Grange Group and Tidza – the biggest of those blown during our occupation of this sector, the Birkin Group, Common, Vernon and Devin Craters. At this point, our responsibility ceased and passed to the 2/17th and 2/19th Battalions. It will be seen that the German front line and our own were both between thirty and fifty yards from the lips of the craters and that “saps” lead out to the craters, on which both sides maintained posts.
On these crater posts, men spoke in whispers. “Duckboards”, on the floor of the sap would be covered with several thicknesses of empty sandbags, so that men could move about without being heard. If anything was seen or heard to indicate that an enemy post, perhaps fifteen or twenty yards away, was occupied, hand grenades would be tossed into it. And carelessness on one of our posts would invite – and receive – the same attention.
To some extent, both friend and foe followed a policy of “live and let live” on these crater posts and cursed the man – on either side who, through disposition or carelessness, stirred things up.
Life on a crater post had one thing in its favour – it was always so close to an enemy post that it was free from bombardment by trench mortars or by artillery – unless all enemy posts in the vicinity had first been evacuated temporarily. But the many disadvantages are self evident.
One period “in” was very like another. Some periods were lucky and casualties light while others were unlucky and casualties high. This did not depend entirely on the amount of stuff thrown at us but to a very large extent on luck. The difference between a shell landing in a trench and one landing a yard away meant the difference between half a dozen casualties or none at all.
The general directive of the Divisional Commander was that we could, by active patrolling and trench raids, dominate no-man’s land and instill in the enemy a sense of his inferiority. But one essential training for battle is “battle”. We were new boys and had much to learn. If the Germans had any new boys in France in 1916, they were not in the Vimy sector. However, we were learning fast and long before we left this Sector that the Division was first rate. Certainly, when we left this sector, we ourselves had no sense of inferiority or of having been dominated – but it is fair to say that the German gave no sign of suffering from those feelings himself.
There were three factors of an unpleasant nature in this Sector:
First, it was at the foot of Vimy Ridge, and the whole sector and all the ground for miles around behind us, was under direct observation from this German-held height.
Next, the sector was the point of greatest mining activity in the whole of France and some idea of this may be gathered from the large number of enormous mine craters shown on the sector map.
Finally, there was Minnie and the first two unpleasant features paled into insignificance by comparison. Minnie lived in the village of Thelus, only a hundred yards or so behind the enemy line. She flung a mortar shell, which looked about the size of a dustbin and held 360 lbs of high explosive – making a hole almost big enough for a double decker bus. It seemed to take about two minutes to prepare her for firing and her idea of a pleasant way to spend the afternoon was to drop one on our front line every two minutes for an hour or so. “Minnie sentries” with whistles were always on duty looking up into the air over Thelus – the whistle being the warning that one was in the air. Everybody would look up and wait for it to pass the top of its arc and start to come down, as only then could one guess where it would fall. One then, of course, would run away from the point of impact. To run before it had started to fall meant one as just as likely to run into it as away from it.
Nothing seemed to worry her. One time when she had been particularly vicious, we called for massive help from the back. The Field Artillery, having made no impression at all in previous “straffs”, the Heavies, from way back, laid on a concentration of fire for over an hour – real big stuff, which seemed to shake the foundations of the earth. All on the ruins of this small village of Thelus, some 200 yards away, where we knew, with certainty, that Minnie had her habitat. A few minutes after the heavy shelling stopped, Minnie flung over just one – apparently to let us know she was all right. Or perhaps giving us Winston Churchill’s “V for victory” sign, but with the back of the hand to the front!
Parties were at work all round the clock trying to keep pace with Minnie’s destruction, but there were times when it just couldn’t be done. We always tried at the end of each trench tour to hand over to the 2/20th, with the area in no worse a state than we received it from them and I’m sure they tried to do the same for us. It was not always possible.
To attempt to cover the four months in detail would be impossible after so many years and the sameness of one period of eighteen days with another would make it pointless anyway. Therefore, I think that a day to day account of our last tour, from 5th to 24th October and taken from the Battalion’s War Diary will provide some idea of what one trench tour meant. For obvious reasons, the War Diary does not make use of ten words if two will serve. The year, of course, is 1916:
5th – Relieved 2/20th Line. Captain McClure to Town Major, Neuville St Vasst.
6th – Coy Sgt Major Roffey and Sgt Keen descended mine shaft at top of Common Crater and rescued gassed miner. Both nearly overcome by gas but, after 15 minutes, assisted later by Lieut McCartney RE succeeded.
7th – Killed: L/Cpl Wiltshire. Wounded: 4 OR.
8th – Wounded: 3 OR.
9th – During morning, a minenwerfer buried one man. 2 Lts Hicks, Sgt EG Grey, Cpl AG Baxter and Rfn FC Smith continued for forty minutes, digging him out whilst minnies fell all around them. All four were killed just as they reached the buried man; this man was the only one to survive. Most gallant work on the part of all four.
At 8pm, a raiding party of three officers and 98 OR raided enemy lines on a front of 100 yards, Wire was cut by 2” trench mortars and, at 8pm, artillery opened a rectangular barrage on the enemy support line. The raiders in three parties, under respectively (from left to right) 2/Lt Curling, Lieut Brown and 2/Lt Kimberley, had meanwhile left our line and taken position on a white tape in front of the enemy wire – tape previously laid by 2/Lts Cousin and Whyte.
As soon as the raiders moved forward, they were met by very fierce MG and rifle fire, which inflicted many casualties before they reached enemy wire. Enemy was found prepared and expecting them – six men mine in each bay and others behind the Parados. Night very light with exceptionally bright moon and our men were visible for a considerable distance as they advanced. 2/Lt Kimberley shot in leg and Lieut Brown also wounded before wire was reached but, in spite of very fierce resistance, our men pushed on, encouraged by Kimberley and other wounded, who urged the others forward. The whole of the left party, under 2/Lt Curling succeeded in penetrating enemy trenches as did a portion of the centre party. Enemy fought steadily until our men came to close quarters when they ran for dugouts. A number were bayonetted in trenches and others bombed in dugouts with Mills and Phosphorus Bombs, which were hurled down. At 815, the recall signal was given and our men returned to our lines.
Totals were; Lieut Brown, 2/Lts Kimberley and Curling wounded; five OR missing and later found killed; 41 OR wounded.
10th – Draft of 7 OR received from Base. 4 OR wounded.
11th – 2/Lt Sanderson and 3 OR killed.5 OR wounded. Relieved by 2/20th and proceeded to Brigade Reserve – Mont St Eloi.
12th – Reported from Base: 2/Lts AG Glendenning and GE Macnamara.
13th – Major Parry left to attend Commanding Officers’ Course at Aldershot.
14th – 2/Lts Ashbridge and Turney reported from Base.
17th – Relieved 2/20th in Line. 2 OR reported from Base.
18th – Lt-Col WH Murphy proceeded seven days leave in England. Battalion commanded by Captain Frisby.
19th – 2 OR wounded.
20th – 2 OR wounded.
21st – 1 OR killed; 3 OR wounded.
22nd – 2 OR killed; 3 OR wounded.
23rd – 5 OR wounded.
24th – Relieved by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 3rd Canadian Division. 2/Lt Willis and 8 OR left in Line to assist the incoming Battalion. Battalion proceeded to Acq.
This ends the quotation from the Battalion War Diary.
A few days after the raid on the 9th, the following was received from the Corps Commander:
“I have read the report of this raid with great interest and I consider that the party showed determination and gallantry and a fine fighting spirit, which reflect credit on the Battalion. I shall be glad if you will acquaint the Commanding Officer for the information of the Battalion.Signed, Charles Ferguson,
Lt-General, Commanding XVII Corps.
The most distressing consequence of this costly day on the 9th was the loss of two brothers – the brothers, Baxter. As we have seen, Cpl AG Baxter was one of the four killed during the morning, while digging out the man buried by a Minnie at that time. The raiding party was out of the line (they had been out some days practising the “show”) and one of the raiders was the brother of Cpl Baxter. Unfortunately, the raider Baxter was one of the five missing who, at daylight the next morning, could be seen dead in the enemy wire.
The Commanding Officer, Lieut-Col Murphy was a tremendous character; it was impossible to be near him without being influenced by his cheerfulness and all round competence. The loss of these two brothers on the same day and the necessity of writing to the family – which he did – was the only time I saw him really distressed. He blamed himself for not taking the raider Baxter off the night operation following the loss of Cpl Baxter in the morning. From that time, I have not liked to see brothers serving together.
Although we did not know it at the time, this relief by the Canadians was the last we were to see of war in France. We moved well to the rear and spent some time practising “wave attacks” and generally preparing to go into the Somme Battle – about which we had heard quite a bit from the Princes Pats”, who came to us from there.
From Acq, we proceeded by omnibus to Bouret and then marched, via Outrebois and Vacqueire to Gorenflos, which we reached on 2nd November. On the 1st, whilst on the road from Vacquerie, the Division was inspected by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig.
Soon after arrival at Gorengflos, rumours began to circulate that we were not at all destined for the Somme but were to move to another front. I seem to remember that Italy and Egypt were the strongest tips. Another (which was received with a certain amount of hilarity) was that Haig had not liked the look of us on 1st November so we were being sent home to grow potatoes.
About 5th November, it was generally known that the Division was destined for Salonika and, on the 7th, the first leave party left for England. This was short and only about 5% got to England and then only for 48 hours. For the rest, those who survived, only saw England again after the war – which meant an absence from June 1916 until March/April 1919.
Re-equipment now started and proceeded at a rapid pace to fit the Division for the very different requirements of Salonika. This, in the main, concerned Transport section – no wheeled traffic but pack mules for all purposes.
There was a number of changes among the senior officers of the Division. We, of 180th Brigade, got a new Brigadier, which was not expected to affect us to any extent, but we also lost Colonel Murphy. He meant so much to the Battalion that I think a brief account of his subsequent history will of interest.
When he left us at Gorenflos after a really personnel “goodbye” to very man, he was given an ovation such as I have never seen given to any man before or since. We, in the Battalion at that time, had no doubt that he was removed because he struggled too hard to have the raid on 9th October cancelled at the last moment, on the grounds that conditions of exceptional moonlight made success impossible and heavy losses, to no purpose, inevitable. Events of course proved him right but the judgement of the time meant that he was overruled by the man at the back. His stubbornness in fighting for his battalion resulted in his removal.
On 11th November, Lieut-Col Murphy left for England and Lieut-Col AE Norton assumed command. Here, again, the Battalion had all the luck in the world as will appear in later pages.
Drafts arrived from England, bringing us up to the Salonika strength of 35 officers and 880 other ranks.
On 19th November, we entrained at Longpre for Marselles, which we reached at midnight on the 21st and went into camp at Cascassone until the 25th. Embarking in the ss.Caledonia, we arrived at Salonika at midnight on the 30th.
The 1st and 2nd Battalion never met during the war, but came very near to it towards the end of August or early September. Perhaps half a dozen exchanged visits – secretly and at the risk of “serious reproaches”, if they had been caught in the act. The 47th Division came into the Line on our left and, for a few days when we were the Left Battalion of 60th Division, our 1st battalion was the Right Battalion of 47th Division. For this short time, therefore, the two Battalions were side by side in the Front Line.
Lieut-Col WH Murphy.
Leaving us on 11th November 1916, he returned to England and attended a Senior Officers Course where he passed but with the highest Report.
Returning to France in 1917, he joined the 47th Division just as it was to be thrown into the Cambrai Battle and took command of the 1/23rd Battalion in support of the hard pressed 2nd Division. It was here that he won his DSO. His mention runs as follows:
‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst in command of the Battalion, he reconnoitred the whole of the position and was continuously in the front line, where his unfailing cheerfulness was an inspiration to all ranks. On the occasion of an attack, he successfully led his Battalion in support at very short notice and in darkness. Later, he directed the withdrawal with remarkable skill and, on another occasion when the outpost line held by his Battalion was attacked in large force by the enemy and eventually pressed back, he re-established the lines of posts and organised them in a defensive position, maintaining them until relieved. He displayed magnificent courage, leadership and ability.’
He was later given command of our own 1st Battalion also, of course, in the 47th Division.”
Read the War Diaries for 2/18th Bn for the period in France: