1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Battle of Gommecourt

London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Battle of Gommecourt

HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION

THE BATTLE OF GOMMECOURT
April 22nd, 1916.— July, 2nd, 1916.

At the time of our relief in the Vimy sector, plans at General Headquarters must have been in a forward state for the great offensive, which was to take place later in the year, and the part which the 46th Division was to play in that offensive must also have been fixed, and all our preparations now were for operations on a large scale.

We soon got rid of the mud and filth of the trenches, and were fortunate in finding at Tincques excellent baths run by the 51st Division, of which we made the best possible use, and having got our clothes and boots into respectable order, and everyone generally tidied up, it was not long before we were in very good form and fit for anything. Whilst this and other work connected with the interior economy of the Battalion was going on, some of the Officers had to spend a rather long day on Easter Monday, April 24th, in making a reconnaissance of the Corps line between Maroeuil and Mont St. Eloy.

On April 26th, we were inspected by General Shipley, and felt rather pleased with the result of our efforts at cleaning, for the Battalion looked well, and the General expressed his pleasure at the smart turnout.

The weather now was improving fast, and though excellent for training, it seemed too lovely on some of those delightful Spring days, to be spending our time learning how to kill people. Training included the new form of bayonet fighting, expounded by Officers and others on their return from the Third Army School, where they had been duly instructed in its art by that expert, Major Campbell, who always succeeded in his inimitable way in so impressing his hearers, that they were not likely to forget for many a long day that "two inches well placed" was ample, and many other similar maxims. Many tips were also given us in bayonet fighting by Sergt.-Major Curly, one of the travelling Physical Training Instructors, who often came to see us, and made a great impression on all who ever came under his instruction by his extraordinary keenness and energy. Eventually we passed on to practise the attack in "waves," and were initiated into the art of doing this under the shelter of a smoke screen. In this form of attack, the advance from the moment of leaving the trenches, was carried out behind a smoke barrage, formed by lighting smoke bombs in the front line trench, and heaving them forward over the parapet. If they were good, a dense cloud of smoke was produced, and, provided the wind was in the right direction, it was possible to advance concealed behind the smoke cloud for a considerable distance. This method depended almost entirely for its success on the strength and direction of the wind. Later on, when the method was improved in the light of experience gained, smoke grenades fired from rifles were used, together with smoke shells fired by the artillery, so that a barrage could be put down at any required point, and, except in very strong winds, the smoke made to drift across any desired portion of the front of attack. In many of the later attacks this was done extensively, and was on the whole very successful. We practised at Tincques with hand smoke bombs only, and found it was not very difficult to keep direction through the smoke, whilst at the same time we were screened from the vision of the enemy.

Our period of training at this juncture was not a long one, as we were required nearer the front to begin the many operations necessary to prepare for the big attack. During that short period, however, we had to change our billets, and moved on April 29th, to Averdoignt, a pretty little village near St. Pol, where we were well housed and very comfortable. From there we were called upon to send a detachment for a few weeks' duty at Third Army Headquarters, at St. Pol, and a composite company consisting of 60 of B Company, and 100 of C under Major G. S. Heathcote were entrusted with the task. They must have done excellent work and evidently made a good impression, as a letter of special praise on their smartness and good work, was sent to the Battalion, on their return by the Army Commander, General Allenby.

We moved by easy steps from this area, which we left on May 6th, marching that day to Rebreuviette, the following day to Gaudiempré, and on the 10th to Bienvillers. The Transport remained behind at Gaudiempré, but moved from there on the 11th to La Bazéque Farm, near Humbercamps. This move brought us into the VII Corps, commanded by Lieut.-General T. D'O. Snow.

Up to the time of our arrival this part of the line was reputed to be almost the quietest on the whole of the Western Front. It was said that Company Commanders slept in pyjamas, even when holding the front line, and certainly the personnel of Battalion Headquarters at Foncquevillers, which was only about 1000 yards from the enemy line, lived there for all the world, as if in a peaceful country village in England. The dug-outs were made for comfort rather than safety, and were in many cases artistically decorated with pictures, doubtless got from houses in the village, and surrounded with elegant little garden plots, which showed evident signs of careful tending on the part of our predecessors. Together they formed a kind of miniature "Garden City." This comparative quietness lasted for a considerable time after our arrival; indeed we often failed to understand why the enemy refrained from shelling, as on many occasions we must have offered exceptionally favourable targets. Day by day work went on often in full view of the Hun, and within a range of between one and two miles, and the roads almost daily were a mass of transport of every kind, moving to and fro in broad daylight, and literally asking for trouble. There can be no question that the chief reason was a great shortage of ammunition at this time amongst the Germans, who were under very strict orders as to its conservation, otherwise no doubt we should have had a very disagreeable time. Doubtless they made careful note of all our doings, and the fact that something big was going to take place must have been perfectly obvious to them. That it was so we found afterwards, when in a successful attack, the diary of the German regiment opposite to us (55th R.I.R.) was captured, and from it we learned that they had been able to foresee exactly where the attack was coming. This diary was most interesting reading, as it noted each day their observations of our doings, and the conclusions they drew from them.

The attack of the 46th Division was to be directed against the German trenches West of Gommecourt, immediately opposite the village of Foncquevillers. The German trench line here, forming the Gommecourt salient, was the most Westerly point that they ever held as a permanent line. The general object of the attack was to cut off this salient. The 56th Division were to attack on the South, and join hands with our Division East of the village of Gommecourt, and so establish the left flank of the whole Somme attack.

All the efforts of the troops of our Division who were not actually holding the line, were concentrated on preparing the Divisional front for the attack. The chief work that we were concerned with, was the digging out of old communication trenches from Foncquevillers to the front line, a distance of about 700 yards. There were something like ten or a dozen of these, several of which were named after our Division. The principal were "Stafford Avenue," "Lincoln Lane," "Leicester Street," "Nottingham Street," "Derby Dyke," "Roberts Avenue," "Rotten Row," "Regent Street," "Raymond Avenue," and "Crawlboys Lane." All these had to be dug out about two feet below their existing level, making them about seven feet deep, and boarded with trench grids from end to end, which entailed an enormous amount of work. In addition, the front line had to be cleared of the barbed wire, with which the unoccupied portions had been filled, support and reserve trenches had to be prepared for the supporting troops in the attack, forward or "jumping-off" trenches to be dug at the last moment, for the assaulting troops to attack from, "Russian saps" to be dug out into No Man's Land to form communication trenches, by knocking in the thin covering of earth left to hide them, dug-outs to be made for forward Battalion Headquarters, and several miles of narrow cable trench to be dug about six feet deep for the protection of telephone wires from forward Headquarters back to Brigade, Division and Artillery Headquarters. In addition to all this navvying work, large quantities of stores had to be carried up to forward dumps in the trenches, ready for taking forward if the attack succeeded, shelters had to be made at various points in side trenches, convenient to get at from communication trenches, for storing large quantities of bombs of all kinds, small arm ammunition, iron rations, water, picks, shovels, sandbags, and other Royal Engineers' material likely to be required to consolidate the ground we hoped to win in the attack. The transport of all these stores, and of all the necessary Royal Engineers' material, and the work entailed in all these preparations was colossal, and our first real experience of anything of the kind. It is probable that at this time the mass and variety of material required in an attack, reached a degree of complication never equalled either before or after. The German comment on this contained in the diary already mentioned is of interest. "It must be acknowledged," it states, "that the equipment and preparation of the English attack were magnificent. The assaulting troops were amply provided with numerous machine guns, Lewis guns, trench mortars, and storming-ladders. The Officers were provided with excellent maps, which shewed every German trench system actually named and gave every detail of our positions. The sketches had been brought up to date with all our latest work, and the sectors of attack were shewn on a very large scale. Special sketches shewing the objectives of the different units, also aeroplane photographs were found amongst the captured documents."

During our week at Bienvillers from May 10th to 18th, we were mostly engaged in improving the defences of the village, and the approach trenches behind Foncquevillers, and in work on cable trenches. It was here that one or two civilians roused our suspicions, as they insisted on ploughing and carrying on their cultivations so very near the front, some days working with grey horses, others with brown, and our Battalion Scouts were told to keep a special eye on them. Nothing, however, happened so far as we were aware that in any way altered the course of the war, as a result of our or their action.

On May 19th, we relieved the 5th North Staffords in Foncquevillers, being then in reserve to our 5th, 6th, and 7th Battalions, who were holding the front line. Our Transport moved the following day to Souastre.

This was a somewhat uneventful period, and after a few days in the front line mostly spent in improving trenches, we were relieved on June 5th, by the 4th Leicesters, and marched back to huts at Humbercamp, preparatory to moving further back for our final training for the "Big Push." We left there the following night, and arrived in the early hours of June 7th at Le Souich, where we were destined to spend one of the least enjoyable periods out of the line that we ever experienced. We were only there for a week, but into that short time was crammed an immense amount of work both in training, and in cutting wood and making wattle hurdles in Lucheux Forest. The weather was very wet, and our billets were anything but comfortable. In our humble opinion the training here was too strenuous. We had to march out four miles to the training ground, and four miles back in full marching order, practise the attack for two hours through fields of growing corn three or four feet high soaked with rain, and complete six hours training daily (not including the marching) with bayonet fighting, physical exercises, and drill in the fields near our billets. It takes very little of such intensive training to make men stale.

The form of attack practised was that ordered for the general attack, which we now knew was to take place about the end of June: this allowed each Battalion a frontage of 250 yards, with three Companies in front, and one in support, each Company having its four platoons echelonned in depth at distances of about 50 yards, thus forming four "waves," the men in each wave being extended to about four paces. In the attack the leading wave was to go through to the final objective, the other waves occupying and mopping up the trenches passed over by the leading wave.

A full size model of the German lines at Gommecourt that we were to attack, was made near Sus-St. Leger, the trenches being dug to a depth of about two feet. Tape lines were laid for the men to form up on, and the whole attack was practised time and again as a "drill," until eventually we were able to carry it out without losing direction, with a fair amount of success.

We were now stronger in Officers than we had ever been during the campaign, our strength being 38. This was due to the recent arrival of several reinforcements, including Capt. Piggford and Lieut. Hindley, rejoined, and 2nd Lieuts. H. de C. Martelli, J. B. White, C. J. Wells, A. G. T. Lomer, T. G. Day, E. A. Huskinson, H. I. Newton, and A. A. Field. We had, however, lost Capt. Lawson, who left for a tour of duty at home, and Major E. H. Heathcote, Capt. Gray, and 2nd Lieut. Hodgson invalided to England, also 2nd Lieut. Peerless, who unfortunately got badly hurt one day by accidentally kicking a live rifle grenade, which had been left lying on the bombing practice ground. His place as Battalion Grenade Officer was taken by 2nd Lieut. Duff. Lieut. Simonet had gone to hospital, and was succeeded as Lewis Gun Officer by 2nd Lieut. Tomlinson. Major G. S. Heathcote was attached to Headquarters, Third Army, and was succeeded in command of C Company by Capt. Piggford, whilst Major Ashwell became Second-in-Command. We were not particularly strong in other ranks, something less than 500 being available for the attack, though we had recently received over 100 reinforcements, including a very good draft of 61 from the 2nd Sherwood Foresters. Fortunately General Headquarters had taken an excellent step in laying down that certain Officers and other ranks known as "Battle Details," were now to be left out of every attack to form a nucleus for carrying on Battalions in the event of their suffering heavy casualties. This was a very wise precaution, and was adopted by us for the first time in the attack at Gommecourt.

On June 15th, we marched to Humbercamp, the Transport at the same time moving to lines at La Bazéque Farm. Capt. H. Kirby was now Transport Officer, having taken over from Capt. Davenport, who, after being attached for some time to XVII Corps Light Railway Company, Royal Engineers, went to Brigade Headquarters to learn Staff work. The transport vehicles had somewhat camouflaged themselves, having been decorated on all sides by wonderful and mystic signs, so as to show to the initiated to what unit they belonged. If you enquired you would be told that the dark blue square meant "First Line Transport," the narrow light green oblong edged with white placed on the left of this square was for the "8th Sherwood Foresters," whilst the square divided diagonally into red and green, and bordered with white, was the sign of the "46th Division." It was not an easy matter to arrange all these coloured patches clear of the odds and ends carried on the different vehicles, and this problem was still exercising the minds of those in authority nearly up to the Armistice—such an important part did it play in the ultimate winning of the war!

We now knew that in our Brigade we were to be the Battalion in reserve, the 5th and 7th Battalions having to carry out the assault, with the 6th Battalion in immediate support. As a consequence much of the "dirty" work during the final preparations for the attack fell to our lot. This consisted chiefly in holding the trenches during our preliminary bombardment, and putting up with such retaliation as the Hun might choose to carry out, and in completing the final arrangements in our own trenches. After three days at Humbercamp, during which we found large working parties for digging cable trenches, and putting up screens to conceal the approaches to trenches, we moved to Foncquevillers on June 18th, and took over part of the left sub-sector from the 5th Lincolns. An immense amount of work had been done whilst we had been away; the prospects seemed bright, and our hopes rose. Our Headquarters at Foncquevillers became a centre of attraction to all and sundry. At every hour of the day and night we had callers, from the Divisional Commander downwards. The Brigadier and his staff constantly paid us visits. Gunners galore came to sample what we kept, and incidentally to see about finding observation posts. Royal Engineer gentlemen requested our help at every turn and corner, usually wanting working parties rather larger than our total strength, whilst "Tock Emma" Officers were on our doorstep day and night. Indeed so great was the crowd that at one time we almost had to put Corpl. Cross on to regulate the queue, and all the time our poor stock of victuals and drinks was getting less and less.

All went well until the afternoon of June 23rd, when there was a violent thunderstorm, which practically undid the whole of the work we had carried out in the trenches, filling them in most cases to a depth of two feet or more with mud and water. This area was a difficult one to drain, and it was impossible to get the water away, so that all hands had to be got on as soon as possible to man trench pumps, and endeavour to clear the trenches in that way. This method was extremely laborious, and very little real progress was made, though every available man was put on to the work. Our poor dug-outs were knee deep in water, and the newly constructed bomb and other stores were too weak to stand such a storm, and in most cases collapsed. Our hopes sank, for we realised how much depended on all the careful preparations which had been made, and that the time left before the attack would be all too short for us to get the damage repaired.

It is impossible to give anything like an adequate idea of our plight for the next few days. The artillery scheme, including a six days' bombardment, began on the following day with wire cutting, causing a certain amount of retaliation, which added to our trouble. This got worse on the following days, doubtless owing partly to the fact that we dug a new advanced trench. This was in a deplorable mess, and our men who had to occupy it had a most distressing time. Casualties rose rapidly, especially in B Company, whose front line trench was enfiladed from Adinfer Wood. Our carrying parties, who had to take up Royal Engineer material, ammunition of all sorts, rations and other stores to various points in the line, mostly adopted the very suitable dress of a sandbag kilt and boots. They were objects of much interest, but it was the most workmanlike rig-out for our trenches, which in many cases remained knee deep in mud and water for several days. The carrying had to go on whatever happened, and continued night and day, assistance being got from the 6th and 7th Battalions, from the Machine Gun Company, and from the Transport men of all units, parties of whom marched up nightly for the purpose. With trenches in such a state, it is needless to say that it was impossible for men to hold the line for many days, and in order to give us a brief respite, we were relieved by the 5th Battalion on the night of June 27th, and moved back to Pommier.

The nine strenuous days during which we had held the line, had been a severe trial, and where everyone did so well it is difficult to single out any for special mention, but we feel we must say how much we owed to Capts. Turner, Vann and Hill, for the excellent way in which they worked to keep up the spirits of their men during those trying times, and to Sergts. Slater and Rawding, for the splendid way they kept their men together during several particularly unpleasant "straffs" by the Boche of our front trenches. During that time, too, much excellent patrolling was done by Marshall, who unfortunately was wounded one day when taking rather too great risks in observing the Boche lines, and Martelli, ably helped by L.-Corpl. Hickman, and Pvte. E. C. Bryan. Our casualties during those nine days included Capt. Vann, slightly wounded, Lieut. Hindley, who got a nasty splinter wound on the nose, 16 other ranks killed, and 44 wounded.

The chief incident during our two days' stay at Pommier, occurred on the afternoon of June 30th, when the Huns began shelling the church. John Turner, Michie and Harvey, were having tea in their mess, which was only a few yards from the church, when a 5.9 blew in the end of the house, practically bursting inside the room where they were sitting. Their escape was little short of a miracle. John Turner, however, as one would expect, came into Headquarters smiling and perfectly cool, though covered with dust and blood. Harvey and Michie were a bit shaken, the former having to go to hospital.

The attack, having been postponed owing to the bad weather, was eventually fixed to take place on the morning of July 1st, and we left Pommier again the night before to take up our position at Foncquevillers. Our cookers were taken down to the Western edge of the wood behind the village, where we were issued with soup and rum on arrival at about 10 p.m. Each man carried in addition to the following day's ration, his iron ration, and a bacon and bread sandwich. Equipment carried included 200 rounds small arm ammunition, four sandbags, two Mills grenades, two gas helmets, haversack, waterproof sheet, and a supply of wire cutters and gloves. The new pattern "tin hat," with which we had by this time all been supplied, formed a by no means unimportant part of our dress. It was not a thing of beauty, and took a little while to get used to, but it proved a good friend to many in the days that were to come.

The attack by the 46th Division was to be carried out with two Brigades, Staffords and Sherwood Foresters, with the Lincolns and Leicesters in reserve. The 139th Brigade on the left was to attack between the Northern edge of Gommecourt Wood and the "Little Z," the 5th Battalion being on the right, and 7th on the left, the 6th Battalion in support, and 8th in Reserve; the German first, second and third lines were to be captured, and in conjunction with the 56th Division on the right, our line was to be carried to a point just East of Gommecourt village.

We reached our assembly positions early on the morning of July 1st. Our bombardment opened at 6.25 a.m. and the discharge of smoke from our front line began an hour later. Under cover of this the assaulting Battalions moved off from our advanced trenches at 7.30 a.m. A heavy and accurate barrage was immediately put down on our front and support lines by the enemy, who were evidently well aware of the extent of the attack and ready for it. The attack by the 139th Brigade is described in the following extracts from the captured diary of the 55th R.I.R., the times given being German:—

"G1. sector 7.30 a.m. An extremely violent bombardment began, overwhelming all the trenches and sweeping away the wire.

8.30 a.m. The enemy's fire lifted. The enemy's attack, which was made under cover of gas bombs, was perceived. In consequence of the sharp look-out kept by the Commander of the 4th Company, and by a Platoon Commander holding the most dangerous portion of the line, the shell holes were occupied exactly at the right moment, and the attackers were received with hand grenades. The barrage fire which had been called for began at once.

8.40 a.m. Strong hostile skirmishing lines deployed from Pilier Farm. They were at once met by heavy machine gun and infantry fire. Second Lieut. ——, of the 2nd Company who was holding the 3rd support line of G1, recognised the superior strength of the enemy's attack which was being carried out against No. 4 Company. In spite of the intense bombardment he decided to advance with his Platoon over the open, and, crossing the second line, reached the front line of G1 at the decisive moment to reinforce No. 4 Company.

The enemy built up his firing line and attempted to press forward with bombers and flame-projectors, but was repulsed everywhere.

10.30 a.m. The fine spirit of the troops of the 2nd and 4th Companies succeeded by their stubborn resistance in annihilating the thick charging waves of the English. The ground was covered with numbers of dead, and in front of our trench lay quantities of English arms and equipment. Gradually the artillery fire recommenced on the front line trenches and rose to a pitch of extreme violence in the course of the afternoon. The fact that all attacks were completely repulsed without the enemy gaining a footing in the front line of G1. at any point is due, next to the bravery of the troops, to the carefully thought-out arrangements of Major ——, to the care of the Officer Commanding No. 4 Company, and to the energy of the Platoon Commanders."

To resume our own story. At about 8.0 a.m., as the forward trenches were cleared of troops, we began to move forward, but everywhere found the trenches, which were still in many parts deep in mud and water, blown in, or blocked by dead bodies, or wounded men trying to make their way back. Little progress was possible, and there was nothing to be done but to await further developments.

Although little news came through, it soon became evident that the attack on our front had not succeeded. We learnt later that, owing to the difficulty experienced by the supporting waves in getting across our own water-logged trenches, they lost the advantage of the barrage, and that the smoke cleared long before the bulk of the assaulting troops had got across No Man's Land. In spite of our long protracted artillery bombardment comparatively little damage had been done to the German trenches and wire, and our men met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire, not only from their front, but also from the right flank, where the 137th Brigade were unable to gain the German front line owing to uncut wire. A few of both the 5th and 7th Battalions got into the German trenches, but they were soon surrounded and overwhelmed. Some who were wounded before reaching the wire, crawled for shelter into shell holes, where in several instances, they were deliberately bombed or shot by the Boche from their trenches. At 3 p.m. a fresh bombardment was begun by the right Brigade, and continued on our front, with a view to an attack being made by two Companies of the 6th Battalion, but this was cancelled.

At 5.5 p.m. we were ordered to send out daylight patrols to ascertain the position of affairs in front. Several volunteers, amongst whom were Corpls. G. Clay, and C. E. Bryan, L.-Corpls. Moss and Hickman, and Pvtes. Charles, Brett, Adams, and Nightingall, remained out for some time, and brought back useful information. Meanwhile much gallant work was also being done by the Stretcher Bearers and others. Pvtes. Holbery, Thomas, Nelson, and Shearman worked continuously for nearly 36 hours carrying in wounded, often under heavy fire, whilst Comp. Sergt.-Major T. Powell, who brought in three wounded men by daylight, and Sergt. Grainger, who controlled his men with great skill during the battle and also rescued a wounded man, are deserving of special mention.

At 6.10 p.m. we received instructions to take over the original front and advanced trenches from the 6th, and remnants of the 5th and 7th Battalions, who were there, and this was done. Later, however, the 5th Lincolns took over the line as they had been ordered to carry out another attack at midnight, in order to try and rescue some of the 5th and 7th Battalions, who it was thought were still in the Boche trenches. This, however, was not pressed, and finally A Company of our Battalion were given the melancholy task of scouring No Man's Land to find the dead and wounded. Eventually the 5th Lincolns took over from us on the morning of the 2nd July, and we withdrew the same day to billets at Gaudiempré.

Even as we left Foncquevillers ill-luck pursued us, for a premature burst of a shell from one of our guns took place close to us as we were formed up behind the wood ready to move off, and wounded four, fortunately not seriously. Otherwise our casualties during the actual battle had not been heavy, amounting to three killed, two missing (attached to Trench Mortar Battery) and 37 wounded.

We cannot look back with anything but regret on that awful battle, when so many lives were sacrificed apparently to no purpose. July 1st is not our happiest of days—indeed on two successive occasions it was our most unfortunate day of the year. It must have been quite obvious to the enemy that this was to be the flank of the Somme attack, although some demonstration was made by the 37th Division on our left. The enemy, therefore, were able to bring all their guns from the direction of Adinfer Wood to bear on No Man's Land on our front. Lack of troops had necessitated the employment of the attacking Battalions in the most exacting fatigues up to the very eve of the assault. Probably, barely a man had had a full night's sleep for a week prior to the attack, and there had been scarcely a day or night when rain had not fallen consistently and heavily, and working parties had not been soaked through to the skin. Those of us, who eight months later, stood on some of the German concrete machine gun emplacements opposite, commanding a magnificent field of fire from positions proof against the heaviest shells, saw still the lines of dead bodies lying in No Man's Land, a tragic and pitiable witness, if witness were needed, that the failure of the attack was in no measure due to any lack of dash or courage on the part of our indomitable Infantry. Practically every Officer of the attacking Battalions was killed or wounded, and a large proportion of the men, and but an insignificant proportion fell alive into the hands of the enemy.

It was some slight comfort to receive from the Corps Commander an appreciation of our efforts, which had kept busy a large number of the enemy's best troops, and to know that we had a share in the success of the great Somme attack, and that our terrible losses were not entirely in vain.