London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

4th Battalion in the 47th Division, 1915 - 1916

4TH Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in the Great War 1914 - 1919


THE 1/4TH BATTALION IN THE 47TH DIVISION

The 47th (London) Division to which the l/4th Londons were now attached had just withdrawn for a period of rest and reorganisation from the trenches around Loos where they had seen a good deal of heavy fighting in the battle of the 25th September. The Division had come out from England in March 1915 and had first been engaged as the extreme right Division of the British Army at Festubcrt in May. Although serious losses had been suffered in the attacks on Hill 70 in September, the battalions of the Division had subsequently received strong reinforcements from home, and the majority of them were far larger than the l/4th Londons who, at the date of attachment to the Division, numbered only 24 officers and 435 other ranks.

The Division, which was under command of Major-Gen. C. St L. Barter, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., comprised the following Infantry Brigades :

140th Infantry Brigade — Brig.-Gen. G. Cuthbert, C.B.
l/4th Ijondon Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).
l/6th „ „ (Rifles).
l/7th
l/8th „ ,, (Post Office Rifles).
l/15th ,, ,, (Civil Service Rifles).
141st Infantry Brigade
l/17th London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles).
l/18th ,, ,, (London Irish Rifles).
l/19th „ „ (St Pancras).
l/20th „ „ (Blackheath and Woolwich).
142nd Infantry Brigade
l/3rd London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).
l/21st „ „ (First Surrey Rifles).
l/22nd „ ,, (The Queen's), Kennington.
l/23rd ,, ,, (East Surrey, Clapham Junction).
l/24th „ ,, (The Queen's), Bermondsey.
Pioneer Battalion : 4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

The Division was attached to the IV Corps (Rawlinson) of the First Army (Haig).

The first day after arrival at Lillers (16th November 1915) was devoted by the Battalion to cleaning up uniforms and equipment which had, through the prolonged duty in water-logged trenches, become caked with weeks of mud. The general discipline of the 47th Division and of the 140th Brigade in particular was exceedingly good ; and although the battle discipline of the Lahore Division had been excellent, and the training and experience which the l/4th Londons had gained while attached to it of the highest order, yet it cannot be gainsaid that the parade discipline among the Indian Brigades had not been given that amount of attention which the long years of war showed to be necessary, even in the field, to ensure the best results in action. We have already indicated that this weakness in the Indian Brigades arose through their continual deficiency in numbers and the consequent long periods of trench duty which had been imposed on them.

The sudden change, therefore, from trench duty to a period of rest, in which ceremonial mounting of guards and drill were prominent features, created a totally new environment for the Battalion which was entirely beneficial.

The whole Battalion, from the Commanding Officer to the most recently arrived draft, was determined to maintain the reputation of the Battalion ; and by dint of hard work on and off parade the 4th Londons became rapidly second to none in the Brigade in all the duties they were called upon to carry out — and they were the more impelled to this effort by the realisation that they were the senior Battalion of the Brigade, not only in precedence, but also in point of active service experience.

At Lillers the Brigade spent about a month, passed for the most part in very cold and wet weather, in a thorough course of training, in which particular attention was paid to drill and bombing. At this period the question of the thorough organisation of bombing — or as they were then called " grenadier " — sections with the proper quota of bayonet men, throwers and carriers was attracting a great deal of thought, and the time devoted to this particular branch of the art of war was subsequently found, as will be seen later, to have been well spent.

Each Battalion mounted daily a quarter guard and an inlying piquet of one officer, two sergeants, and thirty rank and file, and the ceremonial mounting of these duties was carried cut with all possible pomp on the Grande Place at Retreat.

In addition to this the peace-time system of " extra drills " as a minor punishment was reinstituted — not perhaps an altogether pleasant recollection for some — but in spite of the disadvantages such a system must always have in the eyes of those for whose particular benefit it is devised, there can be no question that this tightening of discipline had in the end a beneficial effect on all ranks, the extent of which it is impossible to overestimate.

The training period was varied by inter-battalion sports and football matches in which the l/4th Londons achieved some success, beating the 7th Battalion 3-1, and the 6th Battalion 3-1. On the whole the month passed smoothly with very little incident worthy of mention beyond a two-day divisional route march which took place on the 1st and 2nd December.

On the 6th December the l/4th Londons suffered a loss in the death of Sergt. Bench, who had very efficiently carried out the duties of Transport Sergeant since the Battalion's arrival in France, his death being the result of injuries caused by a fall from his horse.

During the training at Lillers a most gallant action was performed by Lieut. H. Jones. While practising throwing with live bombs one of the men dropped a bomb with the fuse burning. At great risk Lieut. Jones picked up the bomb and threw it out of the trench, where it at once exploded. His bravery undoubtedly saved several lives.

In January, the Battalion was joined by Lieut. V. C. Donaldson.

The front of attack in the Battle of Loos had extended from the La Bassee Canal on the left, where our lines were faced by the village of Auchy, to the village of Loos on the extreme right. In this attack the first objective was the line of the Lens-Hulluch-La Bassee Road, the frontage being divided more or less equally by the Vermelles-Hulluch Road, which ran directly out from our trenches towards the Germans.

North of this dividing line were three very serious obstacles, namely, Auchy itself defended by impassable wire entanglements ; a work of large area and enormous strength known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt ; and a group of Quarries close to the Lens-Hulluch Road.

The 9th and 7th Divisions had met with great initial success on the 25th September 1915, the former over-running the Hohenzollern Redoubt and gaining a position beyond it on a large slag-heap known as Fosse 8, while elements of the 7th Division sweeping the enemy's defence of the Quarries before them had gained the outskirts of Cite St Elie and Hulluch beyond the Lens-Hulluch Road. The unfortunate check to the advance of the 2nd Division at Auchy, however, had exposed the left flank of the 9th Division, who were afterwards ejected from Fosse 8, while the 7th on their right had been unable to retain their advanced positions across the main road.

Desperate fighting ensued for the possession of these strongholds until the conclusion of the battle about 13th October. At that date the Germans retained possession of the whole of the Quarries and the greater part of the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Between the two the British had driven a wedge so that the part of the Hohenzollern which remained in the enemy's hands formed an abrupt salient, of which the west face was formed by a trench irreverently named by the British "Little Willie," and the south face by its obvious companion " Big Willie." Connecting the eastern extremity of Big Willie with the north-west corner of the Quarries the Germans remained in possession of Potsdam Trench, while the Quarries themselves formed another but smaller salient in the enemy's lines, well flanked on the south-east side by our positions, which caused a second abrupt turn to the east in the enemy lines.

The whole area between these confused positions was a vast maze of earthworks, for they were in the midst of what had, prior to the battle, been a strong German third system of defence and No Man's Land was traversed by innumerable short communication trenches and saps, held by the opposing garrisons by means of barricades, for the possession of which an unceasing and murderous struggle with bombs and trench mortars was still proceeding. In addition to these deadly conflicts a still more subtle warfare was being waged underground, where our Tunnelling Companies were fighting a battle of wits with the Germans by mining and counter-mining, and the blowing of mines followed by fierce local infantry fights for possession of the craters thus formed were of frequent recurrence.

A reference to a large map will render clear the extreme importance to the enemy of the possession of these two positions. Situate as they were, one on each of the two lowest spurs of the Vermelles-Hulluch Ridge, their capture by the British would have involved a very serious threat to the German defences on the line Auchy-Haisnes, and might easily have been a prelude to the outflanking of La Bass6e itself. The enemy was obviously alive to these possibilities, and the daily intelligence reports gleaned from our patrols and observers made it abundantly clear that he was strengthening his trenches and wire, and was burrowing strenuously in opposition to our mining operations.

• •••••

This severely contested part of the front was taken over by the 47th Division from the 9th between the 13th and the 15th December, C Section opposite the Quarries and D Section opposite the Hohenzollern Redoubt being occupied by the 141st and 142nd Brigades, the 140th Brigade remaining in reserve.

For some time after the return to the line the l/4th Londons did not enter the trenches as a battalion, but on account of its small numbers was retained in reserve, where it performed a great deal of heavy labour in working and carrying parties for the rest of the Brigade.

On the 15th the l/4th Londons moved from Lillers at 8.30 a.m., entraining for Nceux-les-Mines, whence it marched to billets at Labourse, training being continued while the Brigade remained in reserve.

This move was followed by a further approach to the line which took place on the 19th December, when the 140th Brigade relieved the 141st in C 1 and C 2 Sections, opposite the Quarries, the 6th and 15th Battalions occupying the front trenches with the Tth Battalion in support at Le Philosophe and the 4th and 8th Battalions in Brigade reserve at Noyelles-les-Vermelles.

Here the l/4th Londons' duties in carrying and trench working parties in the forward areas were severe as the reserve billets were some three miles from the front line trenches.

The most active part of the Brigade's new front was C 2, the subsection now garrisoned by the 15th Londons, where on the left of the Quarries the continuous struggle already referred to in sapping, bombing and mining was proceeding with particular violence. The centre of this fighting was a work held by the British, known as the Hairpin, and two saps, Essex Trench and Shipka Pass, which pushed forward from the Hairpin towards the German lines. Essex Trench in particular was the scene of much hard fighting, for the Germans were in occupation of the further end of it and were separated from our garrison by a double barricade. This trench and Shipka Pass were coveted by the Germans, as it was through them that they hoped to obtain a lodgment in the Hairpin, the possession of which would secure the right flank of their salient at the Quarries and render their precarious tenure of that feature much more secure. With this object they had on the night of the 17th launched a determined bombing attack along Essex Trench and Shipka Pass, the enemy bombers being well supported by trench mortar and rifle grenade fire. Our garrisons, how^ever, were ready, and none of the enemy reached our barricades, and their attack was finally dispersed by our artillery.

This attempt was renewed in the early hours of the 20th, when so vigorous an attack was delivered that the 15th London bombers in Essex Trench were forced back from their barricade for some 20 yards, and were unable for the moment to organise a counter-attack as the Germans had constructed " arrow head " trenches flanking his sap, so that he was able to bring fire to bear on our garrison from three points simultaneously.

After a personal reconnaissance the Brigadier decided on making the same evening a bid for the recovery of the lost trench. The 15th London bombers having already suffered considerable loss, they were reinforced during the day by the Battalion bombers of the l/4th Londons, who moved up to the Hairpin. The day passed quietly but for some accurate shelling of our positions to the right of the Quarries, which was stopped by our heavy guns. At 9.45 p.m. our attack was delivered by three parties of bombers simultaneously — one in Essex Trench, one in a neighbouring sap, and one moving over the open, flanking support being given by machine-guns posted in Shipka Pass and west of the Quarries.

The first attack failed, the Essex Trench party on reaching our old barricade coming once more under a shower of bombs from three directions, while the sap party found progress impossible owing to the water-logged condition of the sap, and the party in the open were brought to a standstill by machine-gun fire. Second and third attempts proved equally unsuccessful, and after the 23rd December attacks were discontinued though the enemy portion of Essex Trench was kept under constant trench mortar fire.

Through all these days the l/4th London bombers remained in line, taking an active part in the unceasing battle of bombs which was pursued between the barricades, practically without intermission, and unhappily a large number of casualties was caused.

On the 22nd December a special Order of the Day was received in which Sir John French said farewell to the troops on the occasion of his relinquishment of the Commander-in-Chief ; and on the same day Sir Henry Rawlinson handed over command of the IV Corps to General Wilson.

Orders were received on the 23rd that in consequence of certain signs of activity on the enemy's part, the line would be held in greater strength for the ensuing forty-eight hours, and in accordance with the prearranged defence scheme the l/4th Londons occupied the old British front line in front of Vermelles early on the morning of the 24th. At 8 a.m. a mine near the Hohenzollern Redoubt was blown by the British, the crater being successfully occupied by troops of the 141st Brigade. The Artillery activity caused by this operation dying down shortly afterwards, the l/4th Londons and other units in reserve returned to their billets later in the day.

During this tour of duty the Brigade Light Trench Mortar Battery, which was in line in the Hairpin sector, was joined by 2/Lieut. Goodes. The Battery did exceedingly good work during the fighting in the Hairpin. When the l/4th Londons left the 47th Division Goodes remained with 47/1 L.T.M. Battery, and was killed at High Wood in September 1916, having been decorated, for his consistently gallant service, with the Military Cross and Bar.

Christmas Day passed in the line without particular incident beyond the daily " hates " of shells and bombs, and this year, in consequence of special orders, no attempt was permitted to indulge in the remarkable fraternisation with the enemy which had occurred during the first Christmas of the war.

On the 26th the relief of the 140th Brigade by the 142nd in C Section commenced, and the following day the l/4th Londons withdrew to new billets at Sailly Labourse.

In Divisional reserve the Brigade devoted a few days to the usual routine of baths, cleaning, refitting and training, and on the last day of the year once more entered the trenches, but on this occasion in D Section, the left sector of the Divisional front, which it took over from the 141st Brigade, the 6th and 15th Battalions once more occupying the front system, the 8th Battalion in support to them, while the 7th who joined the 4th at Sailly Labourse were with the 4th in Brigade reserve. The new sector included the trenches opposed to the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and extended to the left to the vicinity of the Vermelles-Auchy railway. During the Brigade's short tenure of the sector the usual shelling and trench mortar activity continued but without incident of any particular interest. The l/4th Londons continued in the wearisome and unpicturesque task of supplying working parties.

During the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of January 1916, the relief of the 47th Division by the Dismounted Division took place, the 140th being relieved on the morning of the 3rd by the 1st Dismounted Brigade, withdrawing on relief to a group of villages some seven miles behind the line in the Bethune area, the l/4th Londons billeting at Drouvin, and the remainder of the Brigade being distributed between Verquin and Mouchin.

This relief was merely the first stage of a " side-step " which the Division was making towards the south, and on the following day the Brigade moved via Noeux-les-Mines to Les Brebis and made arrangements for the taking over of a sector of the line south of Loos from the French.

The l/4th Londons' service in the Hulluch area had been arduous owing to the long marches imposed on the working parties in addition to their tasks, but it had fortunately, except among the bombers, not been a costly one, and its strength had not very much decreased since the date of its joining the Division.

During December a few officer reinforcements were received as follows : 2/Lieuts. H. G. Beal, C. W. Cragg, J. Elliott and E. W. Monk, and during January the Battalion was joined by 2/Lieut. C. F, P. de Pury (to D Company).

During December also the Quartermaster (Lieut. E. S. Tomsett) went on leave during which he fell sick, not returning to the Battalion until the 15th March 1916. In his absence his duties were carried out by 2/Lieut. S. E. H. Walmisley.

In the New Year's Honours List the names of Lieut. - Col. L. T. Burnett, Capt. W. G. Clark, D.S.O., and Capt. J. R. Pyper were mentioned in despatches and a few weeks later the award of the Military Cross to Captain Pyper was announced.

The new sector taken over by the 47th Division involved relief of the 18th French Division, and a consequent extension southwards of the British lines. This sector roughly comprised the lines in front of the villages of Maroc and Loos, and had first been taken over from the French in June 1915. The 47th Division had fought in this part of the line in the battle of Loos, and carried the British positions forward through Loos village up to the famous Double Crassier, and on to the lower slopes of Hill 70. Subsequently the French had once more taken the position over from them. This sector was divided into two subsectors known respectively as Maroc and Loos, the Maroc subsector on the right including some 1000 yards of trench extending from the vicinity of the Grenay-Lens railway to the extreme southern limit of the British advance in September 1915 and also about 1700 yards of the new positions then gained ; while the Loos sector comprised entirely new positions gained in September and extended for some 1700 yards to the left completely covering Loos village and the well-known " Tower Bridge."

On the night of the 5/6 January the 140th Brigade entered the Maroc sector, the 141st occupying the Loos sector with the 142nd in Divisional reserve. The difficulties of the relief were somewhat increased owing to the fact of taking over French troops, and the difference of language was the inevitable cause of some delay, but finally, however, matters were successfully adjusted and the 140th Brigade was left in possession with the l/4th Londons occupying the right subsection, on a frontage of some 800 yards opposite the " Fosse 16 de Lens " ; the 7th Londons in the right-centre subsection, the 15th Londons in the left-centre subsection, which included the Double Crassier, and the 6th Londons on the left. The 8th Battalion were in reserve with two companies in South Maroc, and two in the old British front line just in rear of the Double Crassier, which was the danger point of the Brigade sector, not only on account of the observation of our lines which it afforded the enemy but also because it lay at the apex of an abrupt re-entrant in the British front line.

In this sector the l/4th Londons found their own supports which were billeted in cellars in South Maroc, a mining village built on the unattractive " square " plan of American cities, and consisting of innumerable rows of artisans' dwellings, then unhappily in a state of complete ruin. The cellars of these dwellings, however, still afforded sufficient cover for the concentration unobserved by the Germans of a considerable body of troops, and the Germans were evidently somewhat disturbed at the prospect of this for their artillery, both light and heavy, paid continual attention to the village both day and night.

This sector having once more come into occupation by British troops an enormous amount of work was immediately necessary to complete the front line and company supplies of small arms ammunition, bombs, rifle grenades and trench stores of all sorts ; and this support and reserve companies were kept busily engaged in this work throughout the tour of duty.

In this sector also the steel shrapnel helmet first made its appearance, so far as the l/4th Londons were concerned. It is amusing to look back on the distrust with which its advent was first regarded by all ranks alike — although afterwards, when once its efficiency and protective qualities had been tested, it was as highly prized as it had been previously sliunned. The first issue was made at the rate of one helmet per fire bay, the honour of wearing it falling to the man on sentry duty for the time being, and most remarkably disinclined the men were to assume this undesired badge of office.

On the 9th the 140th Brigade was relieved in the line by the 142nd, moving on the 13th into the Loos sector, where it took over the trenches of the 141st Brigade. The l/4th Londons did not take part in this relief but remained in the right subsection, temporarily under the orders of the 142nd Brigade, with the 22nd Londons on their left. Here the Battalion remained until the 16th, when it was relieved by the 17th Battalion, rejoining the 140th Brigade in rest billets at Haillicourt.

On the 19th January Lieut. -Col. L. T. Burnett left the Battalion on short leave, and as it unfortunately proved, permanently, for he fell seriously ill while on leave and was unable to return to duty for nearly a year. The command was assumed during his absence by Major W. G. Clark, D.S.O., while Major S. Elliott became temporarily second in command. The loss of Lieut. -Col. Burnett was keenly felt. His nine months' command had been marked by a striking advance in the Battalion's efficiency and by the unswerving loyalty of all ranks under his command. Later he joined the Reserve Battalion in England, being subsequently transferred to employment in the War Office.

At Haillicourt the Battalion spent a few days in rest and training and returned to the trenches on the 24th January, occupying the same subsector as on the previous occasion with the 7th Londons once more on its left.

This tour of duty was marked by particularly heavy artillery activity on both sides, the Germans shelling our trenches and Maroc daily with great accuracy and using a good deal of gas shell. A certain number of casualties inevitably occurred, but, having regard to the continued intensity of the bombardment, the number was remarkably small.

On the 27th January the Kaiser's birthday was celebrated, and it was somewhat confidently anticipated that, as in 1915, the Germans would endeavour to score some success against the British. It had been known for some time that enemy mining operations in this area had been proceeding apace, and it therefore appeared not improbable that the Germans would endeavour to time the firing of their mines for the 27th. Preparations to meet this possibility were made. The Kaiser's birthday did indeed prove to be a day of considerable activity, and though the Germans delivered an abortive attack against the 15th Division on the left no infantry movement occurred opposite the 140th Brigade ; and their activity was confined to shell fire, which assumed serious proportions on the 27th and again on the 28th. Our artillery, however, was ready with heavy retaliatory fire and by the evening of the 30th conditions in the Maroc sector had reverted to something approaching quietness.

During this period the newly arrived 16th (Irish) Division of the New Army was attached to the 47th Division for instruction in trench warfare, the l/4th Londons taking over the supervision of the 8th Munsters, among whom unfortunately several casualties were caused by hostile shell fire on the 30th. The 31st January was marked principally by heavy British artillery fire, which elicited but little response from the enemy and inflicted considerable damage on his wire and defences generally.

The following day the 140th Brigade handed over its trenches to the 142nd, the l/4th Londons being relieved by the 21st Londons and proceeding to rest billets in Haillicourt.

This tour of duty really brought to a conclusion the Battalion's service with the 47th Division, for though it did not part from the Brigade until the 9th February, the intervening days were spent in training, route-marching and cleaning.

On the 8th Brig.-Gen. Cuthbert — then in temporary command of the Division— inspected the l/4th Londons prior to their departure, and addressed the troops ; and the following day the Battalion marched to Bethune, entraining for Pont Re my (near Abbeville), and marched via Hallencourt to Citerne, where it went into billets attached to the 168th Brigade of the newly formed 56th (London) Division, an attachment which remained unbroken to the end of the War.