February 25th, 1915.—June 20th, 1915.
As soon as the detrainment was completed, we proceeded on board the "Mount Temple," with certain Royal Field Artillery Details, the ship being under the command of Major Kent, R.F.A. At 6.30 p.m. we dropped down to Netley, imagining we were off, instead of which we anchored there for the night. The greater part of the next day, February 26th, was spent on board in physical and other exercises and inspections. Late in the afternoon, much to our surprise, orders were received that 21 Officers and 763 other ranks were to disembark, presumably because it was not desirable for so many troops to cross on a slow going boat like the "Mount Temple." Having left on board Major Clarke, Capt. Ashwell, and Lieut. Heathcote with two-and-a-half platoons of A Company, and Capts. Hodgkinson and Davenport with the Signal, Transport and Machine-Gun Sections, the remainder of us disembarked about 6.30 p.m., and proceeded to a Rest Camp about three miles outside Southampton. It was very disappointing to be split up, but there was nothing to be done but to make the best of it. We cannot say that our two days' stay at the Rest Camp was exactly enjoyable, for the camp was uncomfortable, and no passes were allowed to the town. We therefore fully appreciated the kindness of the ladies of the St. John Ambulance Association, who had huts near the camp, and gave us most excellent meals.
On February 28th, a further contingent of 101 men under Captain Becher embarked on the "Caledonian," and later in the day the rest of us went on board a small Clyde pleasure steamer, the "King Edward," where we were crowded beyond description. Neither party sailed, however, that day, and we spent the night on board. The next day those on the "King Edward" had to disembark once again! This took place early in the morning, and after a little wandering we ultimately obtained billets for the Officers at the Central Hotel, and for the men at the Watt Memorial Hall.
In the end we embarked on the "King Edward" on the afternoon of March 2nd, and sailed the same night. There was so much to interest everyone until we got out to sea that we had little time in which to indulge sentimental feelings. That gliding down Southampton Water in silence broken only by the throbbing of the engines, with lights out, sentries posted, and in some cases Machine-Guns mounted, the sudden appearance out of the darkness from somewhere off the Isle of Wight of a destroyer to pilot us across the Channel, the challenge to the ship as to who we were, and the order to "carry on," the numberless rays of searchlights sweeping around on all sides—such was the start of our great expedition, precisely the same, no doubt, as that of most other troops who crossed during the war.
We had an excellent crossing and anchored off Havre early the following morning, disembarking about 7.30 a.m. The morning was spent amongst the hangars at the docks, drawing sheep-skin coats and other equipment. Here we were met by Major Clarke who reported that Capt. Ashwell with two platoons had already proceeded up country, and that they had all had a very uncomfortable time at Havre, sleeping in trucks or wherever they could. They had been joined by M. Lacolle, who was to be attached to the Battalion as Interpreter. After dinner we marched down to our entraining point, and were able to entrain more or less at leisure during the afternoon—our first experience of a French Troop train. Later on we got accustomed to their ideas, but certainly for the men, and often for Officers too, the French way is not quite in accordance with our own ideas, and we must confess it went very much against the grain to have to crowd 36 to 40 men in nothing more or less than a cattle truck. "Hommes 40: Chevaux 8," may be all right for the "Chevaux," but for the "Hommes" we consider a revised number is required.
During these first few hours spent at Havre we learnt to appreciate the Y.M.C.A. huts, which supplied much excellent refreshment, and the Officers will certainly not forget the delicious tea and cakes so generously provided by Mrs. Pitt.
We left for the North at 5.15 p.m. At Rouen a halt was made for the engine to take in water, and ourselves coffee and rum. The taste of the latter was new to most of us, but we liked it well enough to hope that we might make its acquaintance again. Early in the morning of March 4th, we had a short "halte repas" at Abbeville for breakfast, and continuing via Calais and St. Omer we eventually, about 1 p.m., after a 20 hours journey, detrained at Cassel, which if tradition does not lie, was the happy hunting ground of the good old Duke of York, who
"Had ten thousand men,
He marched 'em up to the top of the hill,
And he marched 'em down again."
If the English Tommy of those days was anything like the modern "Old Bill" he probably had something pointed to say about the Hill of Cassel, and was equally unappreciative of the magnificent view one got from its summit!
Capt. Ashwell met us at the Station and acted as our guide to the little village of Oudezeele, which we reached about 5 o'clock after a trying seven miles' march. The men were tired after their long, cramped journey; many wore new boots, whilst all were weighed down with enormous packs, which had been added to by the newly drawn sheep-skin coats. It was not surprising that under such conditions many fell out, and that most of us were thoroughly weary by the time we reached our destination. Ashwell and his party too, had not had a pleasant time. Strangers in a strange land without Battalion, Brigade or Divisional Headquarters—or any of the other luxuries which make life worth living—they had found existence rather precarious. Ashwell himself had walked 45 miles in three days in search of rations, so that our arrival with the transport was more than welcome.
We found our billets rather strange after the houses and cottages to which we had become accustomed in England, as they consisted mostly of scattered farms, several platoons and sometimes a whole Company or more being billeted at one farm, generally in barns.
Capt. Becher and his party arrived late the following day, having been kept three days on the "Caledonian," and the Battalion was once more complete. As the rest of the Brigade had crossed before us and had already gone up for trench instruction, we were temporarily attached to the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade.
We spent a few days training at Oudezeele, including one or two route marches to get accustomed to the pavé roads, and Edge, as newly appointed Sniping Officer, gave a little special instruction in that branch of warfare. We had a visit from Major-General Stuart-Wortley, who discussed the training to be carried out, and our coming duties in the trenches. The weather was very cold, and a good deal of work was in the shape of lectures in billets, and the reading of various routine and other orders issued to troops on arrival.
It was during one of our route marches in this district, which took us through the little village of Wormhoudt, that we made our first acquaintance with French troops. Many of them were back resting in billets, and the warm welcome they gave us as we passed through the narrow streets of the village crowded with French "poilus," the whole Battalion whistling the "Marseillaise," was an experience which will not be readily forgotten.
On March 9th, we marched with the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade via Cassel, Caestre (where General Smith-Dorrien saw us march past), and Strazeele to Merris, where we joined up with the rest of our Brigade, back from their course of instruction in the trenches. Fortunately the fur coats which had caused us so much trouble on the last march were now carried for us by motor 'bus. At Merris we saw our first real signs of fighting, both the Church and the Hospice having been hit several times by shells, whilst there were isolated graves of both French and English scattered about the surrounding country. Here too, we saw our first "fighting" aeroplane (armed with one short French Rifle), which had crashed just outside the village. It was also at Merris that we had our first experience of paying a Company "in the Field." Instructions on the subject had led us to believe that this was a complicated performance, but in practice it turned out to be quite easy. Company "Imprests" were at a later date done away with and a Battalion Imprest instituted, which was much more convenient, as also was the very handy "Officer's Advance Book," which was introduced later. At first there seemed but little check on the money that was drawn, and Field Cashiers appeared to issue money to all and sundry on the flimsiest authority.
Preparations were being made about this time for a British offensive at Neuve Chapelle, and our Brigade was attached temporarily to General Gough's 2nd Cavalry Division, with the object, if the attack succeeded, of breaking through in the region of the Bois du Biez. In order to be nearer the scene of operations we were moved from Merris at an hour's notice at noon on March 10th, and marched via Rouge Croix to Bac-St. Maur. This was a memorable experience, but later on we became accustomed to rapid movement, and the great concentration of troops which was necessary when fighting was imminent. Transport marched brigaded, and in passing through Sailly-sur-Lys in the darkness seemed to be so mixed up in the seething mass of men that we almost began to doubt if they would ever extricate themselves. Under the guiding hand and voice of Capt. Davenport, however, our Transport eventually got clear. During this operation "Davvy" evidently made a great impression on one soldier (a Regular), by his forcible language, as the latter was heard to remark "There's a bloke what knows 'is job." Confusion was great in Bac-St. Maur too, for when we got there, the billets which we had been allotted were still occupied by Canadians. Eventually, we all got shelter of a kind, in probably the dirtiest and poorest billets we ever had either in France or Belgium. This was our first meeting with our Canadian friends, and we can hardly say we were impressed, though we all knew well what they were made of. We have specially vivid recollections of one Canadian sentry on duty at night opposite D Company's billet, evidently "well away," loosing off his rifle at intervals, apparently to let us know that he was "present and correct." One bullet was close enough to be unpleasant, and fetched a lump off the tree just outside the window. In this area we were nearer to the line than we had yet been, some of our guns firing from quite close to the village, and we found it an interesting experience to see for the first time an aeroplane being shelled.
We stood by for two days, ready to move at a moment's notice, hearing much of the noise of the battle. The attack, however, was not successful and the Bois du Biez plan, therefore, fell through. On March 13th, we got orders to move to fresh billets. We had to travel light as we were still regarded as a "flying column." Much superfluous kit was left behind, to be sent for later on, and the weird bundles left at the Estaminet at Bac-St. Maur will not readily be forgotten. We marched that afternoon via Estaires to Neuf Berquin, where we had again to be content with rather crowded, if somewhat more comfortable billets than we had left.
One or two changes in personnel had already taken place. Capt. Hodgkinson gave up the appointment of Quar.-Master owing to some technicalities, and for the moment acted as Censor. In this capacity he was obliged, to our great annoyance, to carry out the order to relieve us of our cameras, which were sent home,—no doubt on the whole a wise and necessary precaution. Capt. Hodgkinson was succeeded as Quar.-Master by Lieut. Torrance, who was destined, with a short break in 1918, to carry out the duties up to the end of the war. He performed them with much success, and in a way that only Torrance could. On his appointment as Quar. Master, the Orderly Room came under the charge of Corpl. R. Harvey, who carried out his difficult task with the utmost devotion, without a break until the last man of the Battalion was demobilised. Second Lieut. G. W. Fosbery, who received his Commission as we were about to cross to France, took over his platoon from Handford, who as Signalling Officer had enough other work to keep him busy.
We stayed at Neuf Berquin for ten days and did a considerable amount of useful training, but unfortunately at this time many men were sick, owing to the bad water, so that parades were somewhat small. In addition to continued route marches to keep feet in condition we practised formations for advancing through woods in the Bois d'Aval, open warfare attack under the watchful eye of General Gough, and several trench-to-trench attacks on the leap-frog principle, the first line capturing and holding the front trench, and other lines passing through them to attack the support trenches. We also began to practise making and throwing the old "jam-tin bomb," the beginning of the attack of "bomb fever," which unfortunately was to play such a prominent part in the warfare of the next two or three years, undoubtedly to the detriment of all sound training and tactics.
Arrangements had meanwhile been made for our initiation into the mysteries of real trench warfare, and with that object in view we were moved on March 24th, to Vieux Berquin, and on the 26th, across the frontier to Romarin in Belgium, being once more attached to the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade. Much to our regret the rum issue was stopped the next day!
We were attached for instruction to the 10th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division, and the programme arranged allowed each Company to spend two nights in the trenches, with a break of 24 hours in billets. The Battalions to which we were attached included the Royal Irish Rifles, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, and 2nd Royal Warwicks, who held the trenches about Ploegsteert and opposite Messines.
The first night each Officer and man studied the work of his counterpart in the Battalion to which he was attached, and the second night platoons were allotted definite lengths of trench, for which they were held responsible. This first experience was not exactly full of incident, as on the whole we had a very quiet time, but for us, as for all others on their first visit to the line, many little incidents of everyday trench routine were novel and exciting. Recollection lingers on the long, slow tramp to the trenches, along corduroy tracks in thick darkness lighted up from time to time by Very lights from our own trenches and by the infinitely superior ones from the enemy (we recollect that some of us, faithful to our instructions, but slightly misguided, began ducking quite five miles behind the line when a flare went up), the constant order to keep closed up, the whizz of bullets, at every one of which we ducked instantly, the cracking of rifles, the 'dead cow' smell which afterwards became so painfully familiar, the arrival at the trenches and the posting of sentries. Later the cautious creeping over the parapet to look at the wire and at dawn stand-to, followed by the frizzling of bacon and the brewing of tea (in these days each side had a more or less respectable breakfast, evidenced by the columns of smoke that went up from the respective front line trenches directly after stand-down). Such incidents we feel sure were sufficiently novel at the time to impress themselves vividly on the memories of those whom a kindly fate has preserved to read these recollections.
Probably the most uncanny feeling some of us had was, when on starting from Battalion Headquarters for the trenches, we met a stretcher party carrying out one of our own men, Comp. Sergt.-Major Hopkinson, who had been wounded by a sniper, and was our first casualty. It was an experience that everyone had to go through, but it was not pleasant. Hopkinson and two men of D Company wounded by shell fire were our only casualties during our instructional tours. That we did not make a bad impression is attested by a letter written from an Officer of the 2nd Seaforths, who says:—"I thought your Officers and men most awfully keen, and I was immensely struck by the way your men came into the trench—no noise at all, and perfect discipline and quietness and keenness. They were awfully willing to act up to any small suggestions you made as to what they ought to do. They came in so much better than Regulars, and I was genuinely filled with admiration for them. They were a splendid body of men." It is, perhaps, needless to say that we on our part much appreciated the great kindness shewn us by the units to which we were attached. Those of us who happened to be in or near Petit Douvre Farm during this attachment were much interested in finding some of the early drawings of Bairnsfather, as done for the "Bystander." The interior walls of the farm were covered with his charcoal sketches, in some cases to the order of Commanding Officers who were to follow! It was at the same farm that Pvte. Cottam, of D Company, acted as head butcher in the slaughter of an abandoned pig, causing a good deal of excitement before final despatch. Most of the men brought away with them "souveneers" of this first visit, none more unaccountable than the dud 77 mm. shell carried about in his pack for several days, by a sturdy sanitary man of A Company—in fact, until discovered by a rather alarmed Company Commander.
On March 31st, we left Romarin, and marched back to our old billets at Vieux Berquin, being met at Doulieu and escorted from there by the 6th Battalion band. Only one band had been allowed to come out with the Brigade, and after some discussion that of the 6th Battalion was selected, and carried on up to the end of the war, virtually as a Brigade Band.
Orders were received on April 1st, for our Division to take over its first portion of the British front in relief of the 28th Division, and on April 2nd we marched with the rest of the Brigade via Bailleul to Locre, in Belgium. As few, if any of us, had ever studied Flemish, the language question in some of the villages of Flanders presented a little difficulty, but with his guiding principle of "tout-de-suite, and the touter the sweeter," the British Tommy never seemed to have any trouble in getting what he wanted. We were disposed to think sometimes that the Belgians did not look very kindly on us. Perhaps it was because in our early days we were rather inclined to take too much notice of the frequent reports we heard of supposed Belgian spies, and of Belgians being in communication by various means with the Boche on the other side of the lines. One well remembers the suggestion made from time to time that signalling was carried on by means of the windmill on Mont Rouge, or by the display of washing laid out to dry on the ground by Belgian housewives. At any rate we did find a house at Locre, where a number of pigeons were kept, a fact which aroused the suspicions of some of the Officers of D Company, and in the same house were discovered quantities of British stores of all kinds, which must have been got from our troops in a not too straightforward manner. Some of the inhabitants, too, treated us with scant courtesy. It was here that the lady of the establishment removed the handle from the pump where Sergt. Markham's platoon was billeted, and not content with that went a step further, and for some reason best known to herself, gave him a cold douche when asleep one night. Some of us, on the other hand, were more fortunate in our billets, and all who went to the Hospice can have nothing but the most pleasant recollections of the great kindness of the Mother Superior and other ladies. Padre Hales, who left us to be attached to Brigade Headquarters, when we crossed to France, was billeted there with our Field Ambulance, and we were allowed to go there for baths when out of the line, and always received much kindness and hospitality. Unfortunately during the German onslaught in 1918, this delightful place was completely destroyed. The bathing arrangements in general at this time were somewhat poor, the nearest military baths being at Bailleul, about four miles away, so that we were very delighted at receiving during our stay at Locre, from Miss Gilstrap, of Winthorpe, Newark, three galvanised iron baths, with boiler complete. With these and other local devices we were able to get the men bathed at their own billets, which was a great boon. Another similar consignment from Mrs. John Becher, unfortunately got lost in the post, but we trust was of benefit to some other unit.
In the afternoon of Easter Eve, April 3rd, we attended a Church Parade, taken by the Bishop of London, of which many of us have bitter recollections, as owing to a mistake in Divisional Orders, we were rigged out in full marching order. Further, as it was a damp and windy day, few of us could hear a word of the address, and all wanted to get as much sleep as possible in view of the great adventure before us. The same night, which turned out to be miserably wet, we left Locre, to take over the trench sector in front of Kemmel held by the 1st Devons. Company Commanders had already been in the trenches for 24 hours to get the lie of the land, and they, together with the guides of the Devons, met us at the appointed rendezvous, the celebrated band stand at Kemmel. There were, of course, no lights; rations and trench fuel, which had been taken up by the Transport, were issued in sandbags, and water in petrol tins, and each platoon was then led off by itself. When one looks back on trench reliefs, one is inclined to wonder how on some occasions they were carried out at all, the possibilities of going wrong seemed so great. In the present case, however, nothing untoward happened, and we set off by our various routes to the front line, passing such favourite spots as the "Sahara Desert" (the final resting place of every bullet fired within a radius of five miles, or so it seemed), the "Willows," "Irish Farm" or "The Orchard," and into the G and H trenches. In our heavy greatcoats and with full packs, which we continued religiously to carry for many months for no apparent reason, the journey was not pleasant, and we were not sorry to get into the trenches, where the relief was completed about 11 p.m. C Company being mainly composed of miners and under the command of a Mining Engineer, were put in the right sector where was our only mine, much to the relief of, at least, one Company Commander, who had mental visions of a mine as a large black cavern, where hand-to-hand fighting went on incessantly! A Company had the centre and D Company the left, B Company occupying the two supporting points and billets in Kemmel Village. Battalion Headquarters were at the Doctor's house in Kemmel, and the Transport and Quar.-Master's Stores remained at Locre.
There was practically only one trench line at this time, and this, like most of the trenches in Belgium and the low lying districts, was a line of breastworks with very little wire in front, and only one or two small supporting points. The opposing front lines varied from 25 to about 300 yards apart, being closest at "Peckham Corner," on the right. Shelters were built mostly of timber and corrugated iron, strengthened with sandbags, and were generally in the parados of the trench.
Easter day—our first day holding a bit of line on our own—was fairly quiet, except for a little shelling of D Company on the left during the afternoon. On the right, some men of C Company sang hymns, and the enemy made overtures for a truce by showing a white flag. About 40 of them appeared on the parapet, and a brisk conversation ensued for several minutes across "No Man's Land." A somewhat unflattering remark from one of the enemy who had a wonderful knowledge of forcible English, ended the armistice rather hurriedly.
On most nights during these early days of the war, each side had its turn at five or ten rounds "rapid" to relieve the monotony of things. In this we were on equal terms with the enemy, but during the day we were hopelessly outclassed owing to the great shortage of periscopes, and the lack of telescopic rifles and well constructed loophole plates, of all of which the Hun seemed to have an abundant supply. It was long before we got anything like adequate numbers of these very necessary trench requisites. It was not surprising, therefore, that for some time the Boche snipers had the upper hand and could do almost what they liked. Their shooting was extremely accurate, and as the trenches were enfiladed on all sides, and there was in many cases little parados, we soon had casualties, most of which were sentries shot through the head. Our first fatal casualty was Pvte. Hyde, of A Company, shot in this way on April 6th. We were also short and entirely inexperienced in the use of rifle grenades and trench mortars, with which the enemy made very good practice. A large trench mortar certainly did find its way up to the trenches by some means one day, and provided considerable amusement to our men. It is reported to have dropped its first bomb into the enemy trench, and its second into our own—its erratic behaviour ultimately making it no doubt more annoying to ourselves than to the enemy. Lieuts. A. Hacking and Hollins were the pioneers in the use of rifle grenades, with which they eventually did good work at "Peckham Corner."
After a tour of four days which were most uncomfortable owing to constant rain, we returned to Locre. The system of four days in trenches and four in billets, taking turns with the 6th Battalion, continued for some time with little variation. When out of the line we, of course, had to find those never-to-be-forgotten working parties, which had become part of the normal trench warfare system. Having had a hard four days in the trenches, it was never a pleasant duty to have to march up three or four miles on one or perhaps two nights out of our few days' rest, to do a job for the Royal Engineers or some other specialists in the trenches. Otherwise, our stays at Locre were fairly pleasant. There were no great attractions, but we had enough to do as a rule in general training and cleaning, and the country round about was extremely pleasant, either for walking or riding. Perhaps the greatest excitement was to go down to Bailleul to shop and call on "Tina." Such luxuries as Canteens for supplying the wants of the inner man were quite unknown in these early days, when we had to rely mainly on parcels from home or purchases in the local towns.
Work in the trenches consisted mainly of strengthening or rebuilding the parapet and parados, and in putting out barbed wire defences. As a rule, we wanted far more sandbags than were ever forthcoming, but in these days they were used indiscriminately, and in consequence many very weak structures were built, which could not possibly stand without support through a single wet season. The barbed wire defences were very poor, and as soon as we got into the way of doing it much time was spent in that not too pleasant work, for Boche snipers did execution by night as well as by day, and made themselves very objectionable. Our entanglements consisted mainly of "knife-rests"—wooden frames strung with barbed wire. These were made by the men in the Brigade workshop at Kemmel, run by Major Wordsworth, the Staff Captain, to which each Battalion contributed a quota of pioneers and trade specialists. One Officer learnt a very practical lesson in their use from the enemy. He had some carefully placed in position one night, where he thought his wire particularly weak, but his spirits fell to zero the following morning, when on looking over the top he saw his precious knife-rests in position guarding the Boche trenches opposite! From that time onwards knife-rests were securely fastened to each other and to the ground. Our Brigade (hereafter known as the 139th Infantry Brigade) had a good reputation for trench work, and the digging element was used to great advantage by the 6th Battalion commencing what was one of the first long communication trenches dug on the British front. It extended from the front line nearly back to Kemmel and was for ever known as the "Via Gellia." In its later stages it was worked on by ourselves. This trench was a great convenience, as it enabled reliefs to be carried out much more securely by avoiding going over the open, and permitted of visits of inspection to be made by daylight, and the wounded to be carried back to the dressing station at Kemmel. In the early days they remained in the trenches until it was dark enough for the journey to be made over the top.
On April 22nd, we experienced a little of the backwash of the first Hun gas attack against the French and Canadians in the Ypres Salient a few miles North of us. During most of the time we had been in this area there had been considerable activity in that quarter, and the shelling and burning of Ypres could be plainly seen from the Kemmel trenches. This attack was the beginning of the second battle of Ypres. The only effect on ourselves of the gas used on this occasion, was to make our eyes smart and a few men sick. It did, however, cause a commotion on all sides, and with unaccustomed speed, the first consignment of respirators was sent out to us—pieces of gauze which had to be filled with tea-leaves, damped, and fastened round the mouth in the event of attack. These were improved from time to time, and a little later we got a gas-proof smoke helmet—the earliest form known as "P," and the later as "P.H." Vermorel sprayers were also provided in due course, and some solution for spraying the trenches to clear them of gas. Bells and gongs formed of shell cartridge cases or pieces of iron were also hung in the trenches to be sounded by the sentry if any sign of cloud gas was seen. There was perhaps a natural tendency to imagine gas when there was none, and an official report of gas by C Company on the night of May 8th, was found to be due to the proximity of a dead cow.
April 24th witnessed our first serious bombardment. We had already had several somewhat severe baptisms, but they were trifling in comparison. About 6 p.m., after an exceptionally quiet day, and just before we were to be relieved, the enemy began an organised trench mortar bombardment of G1 and 2, occupied by platoons of C and D Companies, and H 4 held by Lieut. Vann and his platoon of B Company. It lasted for about an hour, and made large breaches in the parapet of G1 and 2, and practically demolished the whole of H 4, a small isolated trench on the extreme left, opposite Petit Bois. Both these trenches were completely enfiladed by the Boche, so that their shooting was extremely accurate. It was thought at one time that the enemy might attempt a raid on G1 and 2, but this did not develop. A Machine Gun team consisting of L.-Corpl. Sharrock and Pvtes. Hopewell and Davis, which was posted in G1, behaved most coolly, and Sergt. A. Phillipson, of D Company, did very gallant work in the same trench under heavy fire with Pvtes. Coombes and Durand, all in a more or less dazed condition, helping to dig out the wounded. On the left Vann and his platoon had a very bad time. Whilst he was digging out wounded a bomb fell close by, killing four and burying three others, and blowing Vann himself several yards across the open at the back of the trench, and practically wiping out the garrison. Major Becher brought up reinforcements and helped Vann to get the position made good, and great assistance was given by 2nd Lieut. Hollins and L.-Corpl. Humberstone. Pvtes. F. Boothby and A. Gleaden of B Company also did excellent work, helping to dig out and dress the wounded, most of the time in full view of the enemy, not more than 70 yards away. The 2nd Royal Scots on our immediate left, also gave us valuable assistance. Our total casualties during the hour's bombardment were 14 men killed and two Officers (Vann and Gray), and 14 men wounded. When we were back at Locre after this tour, General Shipley spoke to the Battalion on parade and thanked them for the good work done, especially congratulating Vann, and on the following day the General Officer Commanding our Division also congratulated the Battalion on its behaviour under fire.
Several changes took place during April, owing to casualties. Capt. Allen went down sick on April 6th, and Lieut. James took over the command of D Company until the 14th, when Capt. Hodgkinson was appointed. He, however, also had a short stay there, for on April 22nd, when in an excess of zeal to see what was going on opposite G1, where some suspicious work was reported, he apparently thought he could sufficiently camouflage himself behind a pair of field glasses to gaze over the top of the parapet, the almost immediate result was a bullet which just grazed his head, and he, too, had to leave us. D Company then came under Capt. Lane. Second Lieut. Eddison, our first fatal Officer casualty, was killed on April 21st, being hit by a bullet whilst out wiring, and though help was instantly rendered by Drummers Newton and Robb, who pulled him out of the shell-hole of water, into which he had fallen, and carried him into the trench, he died in a few minutes. Four Officers were down for a short time with measles, including Capt. Martyn, who unfortunately was invalided to England, and was succeeded in command of C Company, by Capt. H. G. Wright. Martyn served later in Ireland and France, as Second-in-Command of the 2/8th Battalion and in command of the 2/7th Battalion, and won the D.S.O. and M.C. Lieut. Lawson got a shell wound in the shoulder and had to leave, and 2nd Lieuts. Gray and Vann also had to be in hospital for a short time from what was later known as "shell-shock." A great loss, too, was Sergt. Wilmore, a very gallant soldier, who was sniped one day when outside his trench.
May found us beginning to feel our feet. The Commanding Officer had talks with Officers as to a more aggressive attitude being taken up; we had a lecture from Major Howard, R.E., at Kemmel as to the construction of an invisible loophole, low down in the parapet, and so built as to afford a good field of fire and permit of our replying better to the Hun snipers. Sergt.-Drummer Clewes also got into action with his telescopic rifle from sniping posts cunningly placed behind the front line, the only possible position from which really successful sniping could be done, and was not long in getting quite a good "bag." Shortly afterwards he was put in charge of the newly-formed Brigade Sniping Section. A trench mortar was actually got into use, and did a certain amount of damage to the Boche trenches, but naturally produced considerable retaliation. Further efforts to fire rifle grenades met with some success, whilst a "Gamage" catapult introduced to throw bombs provided, at any rate, a little amusement. In patrolling considerable progress was made. Second Lieut. A. Hacking did some very daring work at "Peckham Corner," and near Petit Bois; 2nd Lieut. Hollins and L.-Corpls. Heath and G. Gadd of B Company made splendid reconnaissances of the enemy's wire; and 2nd Lieut. Edge, who was always to the fore in wiring, no matter how bright the night, carried out a daring daylight reconnaissance, the first attempted in the Battalion, getting nearly up to the German front line in company with Pvte. C. E. Bryan, of A Company. Pvte. W. O'Brien, of the same Company, was another who knew no danger; in fact, at night it was difficult to keep these two men in the trench at all. Daring patrols were also carried out by 2nd Lieut. Vann, Sergt. Pickering and L.-Corpl. Humberstone. Perhaps the most successful was a fighting patrol, which went out on the night of May 9-10th under 2nd Lieut. Oates, with the object of rounding up a Hun patrol. Oates, who had a party of six men with him, went forward with Pvte. Nicholson, leaving the remainder behind, to within about 50 yards of the German wire. On their way back they ran into a Boche patrol. Oates promptly shot one man, Nicholson bayoneted another, whilst two others who were wounded got away. Oates and his party got back safely.
On May 14th, we carried out one of those little manoeuvres which may have been of immense importance, but appeared to us at the moment to be so much waste of time, trouble and energy. Instead of proceeding to the trenches that night according to programme, we got sudden orders to "embus" for Hill 60, in the Ypres Salient, to dig there under Royal Engineers' supervision for the 5th Division. The net result was that of the 600 who went, 400 dug for one-and-a-half hours, and 200 for three-quarters-of-an-hour, after which the party returned to Locre in the 'buses. The idea, doubtless, was a good one, as it was necessary to dig more trenches where part of our line had given way during the recent fighting, but the organisation of the work seemed to leave a good deal to be desired. It was the remnants of a Canadian Battalion returning from this fighting in the Salient shortly after midnight on one occasion, whilst we were back at Locre, which made us think we must have had more than an ordinary nightmare, for we awoke with a start to hear the strains of a brass band coming along the pavé,—at 1 a.m. such a proceeding seemed decidedly strange. It was not long, however, before we found that all was well, and that it was our own Brigade Band playing the Canadians through the village. This was evidently appreciated by them, for one of their number in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, after describing the magic effect of the music on his men, concludes with the remark: "The Canadians will remember how the band of the Sherwood Foresters played them through the darkness at midnight out of 'Bloody Ypres.'"
About the middle of May we began reliefs with the 7th Battalion, and our sector was extended slightly left to include some of the J trenches opposite Petit Bois. An interesting entry in the War Diary is that May 16th, the day following relief, was the first day absolutely free from casualties since we took over our portion of the line. This, however, must have been an exceptional day, for bad luck so far as casualties went pursued us with great regularity. Capt. Lane was badly wounded on May 26th, when out wiring, and the command of D Company then passed to Lieut. James. Capt. H. G. Wright, to the great regret of his friends in all ranks was killed on June 6th, being shot, through the double loophole plate from which he was firing, and was succeeded in command of C Company by Capt. G. S. Heathcote. Lieuts. Kirby and Weetman and 2nd Lieut. Fosbery were wounded in May, and 2nd Lieut. Oates early in June, and all had to leave the Battalion. Capt. Ashwell and 2nd Lieut. Edge were also slightly wounded. Our only reinforcement Officers were 2nd Lieuts. N. L. Hindley and G. G. Elliott. Comp. Sergt.-Major Mabbott, of A Company, was invalided to the Base, and was succeeded by Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. Haywood, Sergt. G. W. Godfrey being promoted Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. in his place. Comp. Sergt.-Major Mounteney, B Company, was invalided to England and Sergt. Chappell was appointed Comp. Sergt.-Major of that Company. Sergt. J. A. Green was appointed Comp. Sergt.-Major of C Company in place of Comp. Sergt.-Major Hopkinson wounded, and Sergt. T. Powell became Comp. Sergt.-Major of D Company after Comp. Sergt.-Major Spencer left, also wounded. The latter obtained a Commission some time later, only to be killed in France when doing excellent work in command of a Company of another Battalion of the Regiment. A change had also taken place in the Brigade Staff, Major E. M. Morris, the Brigade Major, who had worked so strenuously all through our period of training in England, and done so much to help us in learning our job in France, having left on June 1st, to take command of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. He was succeeded by Major W. G. Neilson, D.S.O., of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Early in June we moved still further left and took over more of the J and K trenches, with the reserve company at Siege Farm, and Battalion Headquarters at Rossignol Farm. Our numbers at this time were swelled by the presence of a Company of the 8th King's Royal Rifle Corps who were attached for instruction—the first of Kitchener's Army that we had seen.
Our severest handling in the Kemmel area occurred on the last day of our last tour there, and was begun by the blowing of enemy mines, a form of warfare which had already developed considerably at various points along the battle front. Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Engineers had been formed, but their numbers were not sufficient to cope with all the work, and in order to help them Mining Sections were formed in some of the Infantry Brigades as well. From the miners of the 139th Brigade, it was not difficult to select suitable men for this purpose, and towards the end of May, a small party was taken from the Battalion to join the Brigade Mining Section, which was put under the command of Capt. Piggford. Included in the party were Corpls. Boot and Attenborough, both of whom later received decorations for gallantry in underground work. These Brigade Sections were normally used for defensive mining only—broadly to prevent the enemy blowing up our trenches. The Royal Engineers' Tunnelling Companies on the other hand, were employed for offensive work in blowing up the enemy. Where mining was feared, sentries in the front line had to report at once if any suspicious sounds were heard, which might indicate that the enemy were mining in the neighbourhood, in order that protective measures might be taken. The J trenches, which varied from 30 to 70 yards away from those of the Boche, were mostly built on water-logged ground, where to sink shafts and drive galleries was not an easy task. Nevertheless, for some time signs and sounds had been reported which seemed to indicate that mining on the part of the enemy was going on in this very region. Attempts had, therefore, been made by us to sink shafts and take counter measures, but these had proved unavailing owing to the bad nature of the ground. The enemy, however, succeeded where we failed, and on June 15th, exploded three mines, one of which blew up a portion of J 3 Right. This took place at 9.10 p.m., when the 7th Battalion were just beginning to arrive to relieve us. At the same time a terrific fire was opened with artillery, trench mortars, rifle grenades, Machine Guns and rifles, and for over an hour an incessant cannonade was kept up on our front line, Support Company and Battalion Dump. Telephone wires were broken—an occurrence looked on later with less anxiety as it happened so often, and we had no S.O.S. signal; pigeon service, which had been established in the trenches just before this time, was, of course, of no avail for night work, and Battalion Headquarters were out of communication with the trenches except by runner. Our reply to the bombardment was almost negligible, and whatever the politicians and their statistics may prove, we know that our supply of gun ammunition at this time was totally inadequate. Some of the enemy got into the mine crater, but were driven out by C Company at the point of the bayonet. Pvte. J. Sharman, of B Company, who was practically the only man left in the trench when the enemy tried to occupy it, shot one and drove off another, both of them having attacked him at the same time. He was hit on the leg by a dud bomb, and got a bullet through his haversack. Excellent work was also done by Corpl. Humberstone in reorganising the garrison, and by L.-Corpl. Templeman and Pvte. Tongue in repairing telephone wires. Eventually things quietened down, and when the relief was complete, we returned to Locre for a few days' well-earned rest. Our casualties were unfortunately heavy, and included two excellent Officers, Eric Dobson and Humphrey Hollins, also Corpl. Wilcox and eight men killed, and 29 wounded, whilst the 6th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, some of whom were in the trenches with us for instruction, also lost several men.
This was one of the earliest raids that ever took place, and was planned doubtless to inflict casualties and secure prisoners, but not to capture trenches. One man of D Company is reported to have blamed this affair for the loss of a pair of boots, as he assured his Platoon Commander at a kit inspection a little later "that they were lost when that there mine at Kemmel went up!" As no man had more than one pair at a time the Platoon Commander scratched his head.
Thus ended our stay in the Kemmel sector, which was taken over by the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. We were now beginning to feel quite "old hands," but our experience had been dearly bought. We had lost heavily and were sadly in need of a draft, for to balance our total casualties in other ranks of 49 killed or died of wounds, and 120 wounded, we had so far received only 20 reinforcements.
The Corps paid a tribute to the work performed by the Brigade during our stay at Kemmel. Far more valuable, however, were our first experiences of trench warfare. The meaning and importance of responsibility and discipline were for the first time really impressed upon the minds of Officers and men alike. Gradually, if imperceptibly, they had learnt something of what would be required of them in the times of fighting ahead.
Sometimes one is tempted to compare conditions at Kemmel with trench routine three years later. In the Kemmel days the Platoon Commander lived with his Platoon, and seldom even visited his Company Headquarters and he undoubtedly acquired an intimate knowledge of every man of his Platoon, which was never equalled in later days. This further bred a sense of responsibility and initiative which was all to the good at a time when comfort, safety and enterprise depended so largely on individual initiative. At the same time it must not be forgotten that in later days Officers and men alike were called upon to undertake more patrols and raids, and had to suffer far heavier and more incessant shelling and trench-mortaring than was our general experience at Kemmel.
As a school of instruction our time at Kemmel undoubtedly provided a very valuable lesson not only to Officers, N.C.O.'s and men of the Battalion, but to Officers of the Brigade and Divisional Staffs, whose experience of the new form of warfare could hardly have been learnt under better conditions than those which obtained during our first two months of trench routine.