1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Bellacourt

London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Bellacourt

 History of the 1/8th Battalion

HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION

BELLACOURT
July 2nd, 1916.— October 29th, 1916.

We spent one night at Gaudiempré, and on July 3rd, moved a few miles North to a delightful Camp at Bavincourt, where we made up our minds to have a well-earned rest. The Camp was charmingly situated, and we were preparing to have it run on model lines, when alas, in the early hours of July 4th, sudden orders were received to move. We had, however, made the best of our few hours there, most of us going to an excellent entertainment by the "Barn Owls," the Concert Party of the 37th Division, which cheered us immensely.

The fighting on the Somme, which had gone successfully for us in many parts, was causing rapid reorganisation and consequent movement of troops, so that our sudden move was not altogether surprising. We left Bavincourt on the morning of July 4th, and after a little excitement due to the shelling of the road, and a terrific thunderstorm, we eventually got settled once more at Pommier, with the exception of A Company, who went on to Bienvillers. The rest of the Battalion joined them there on July 7th, except Transport and Quarter-Master's Stores, which moved to La Cauchie. Our most important work there was the somewhat ticklish procedure on two nights of carrying up to the Monchy trenches, about two miles North of Foncquevillers, cylinders of gas to loose off on a suitable occasion. These were drawn at Hannescamp, and for carrying were fastened to poles, each cylinder requiring two men. Special precautions were taken to ensure perfect silence, so as not to give the enemy an idea that gas was being installed. Further, in order to protect the carrying party, in case any of the cylinders got broken by shells or otherwise on the way up, every man wore his smoke helmet rolled up on his head, ready for instantly pulling down over his face. Neither steel helmets nor caps were worn on these occasions. As the cylinders had to be got up to our front line trench, the operation was attended with considerable risk, but fortune favoured us, and it is believed that the Battalion never suffered a casualty when engaged on the work, though large parties had to be found on several occasions for a similar purpose.

We moved on July 10th, by route march to Bellacourt, a village about five miles south-west of Arras, and giving its name to a sector which was to prove easily the most peaceful and enjoyable part of the line we ever held. Transport moved to Bailleulval, where they got good lines in a small orchard, and the Quarter-Master's Stores were comfortably fixed up in billets.

It was from this department that we were first to hear of the activities of our new Divisional Commander, Major-General W. Thwaites, R.A., who made it a practice of frequently visiting transport lines at early morning stables. Torrance with his ready wit at once dubbed him "The Mushroom Picker," an epithet which we were told gave him much pleasure when it reached his ears, but did not have the least effect upon his early morning visits.

Several new Officers had recently joined from our 3rd Line, including 2nd Lieuts. C. F. Woodward, F. M. Corry, H. G. Kirby, B. P. Page, W. B. Easterfield, and D. H. Parker. Second Lieut. A. Bedford also rejoined, and others who arrived shortly afterwards were Lieut. R. Whitton, who had been Adjutant of the 3rd Line, 2nd Lieuts. Skinner and Moore, back for the second time, and 2nd Lieuts. C. H. Hicks, D. F. Ranson, L. E. King-Stephens, G. F. Visser, F. D. Byrne, B. W. Hall, and A. D. Bailey. Comp. Sergt.-Major Haywood rejoined with a draft of 72 reinforcements, and was appointed Comp. Sergt.-Major of C Company, where Sergt. Leivers had been carrying on for a short time in place of Comp. Sergt.-Major J. A. Green, who had been invalided to England.

We were thus fairly well off for numbers, when on July 11th, we relieved the Liverpool Scottish in the left sub-sector of the Brigade sector, this being one of the rare occasions on which relief was carried out by daylight. The distribution was as follows: Right—"The Willows"—A Company (Capt. Vann); Centre "The Osiers"—B Company (Capt. Turner); Left—"The Ravine"—C Company (Capt. Piggford); Reserve—Bretencourt—D Company (Capt. Hill). Battalion Headquarters was in the "Sunken Road," just in front of Bretencourt, off "Engineer Street." Each Company had two platoons in the front line and two in support; a system which, besides being more or less in accordance with Field Service Regulations, worked extremely satisfactorily, for whilst the front line posts could be held by comparatively few men, either in the line or at the heads of the various saps running out into No Man's Land, working parties and patrols were found from the support platoons, and were thus able to get back to the support line on completion of their task, and rest in comparative comfort.

The frontage allotted to us was a long one, and the front line was thinly held, some of the posts being as much as 200 yards apart. Frequent visiting patrols were necessary during the night to prevent any daring Boche from getting into our lines. In the communication trenches, blocking posts and gates were fixed at various points to hold up the enemy if they did ever get in and attempt to push forward. To look after the rear portion of these communication trenches the system of Trench Wardens was instituted during our stay at Bellacourt. These were usually light duty, or warworn men drawn from the various Battalions, whose duty it was to repair broken trench grids, relay any that required it, clear falls of earth, and generally look after upkeep.

This sector was reputed to be the quietest on the British Front, and though we had one or two lively times, there is no doubt that for the period of three-and-a-half months we were there, it lived up to its reputation. Rumour said that some of our troops had been in the habit of going out and repairing the barbed wire by daylight! Certainly it was normally extremely peaceful. The trenches were from 300 to 400 yards apart, and in the region of the Ransart Road on the right, one could indeed go out for some distance without coming in view of the Boche trenches. The weather during most of our stay was of the best, and there could be few things more pleasant than to stroll on a quiet afternoon round some of the communication trenches, e.g., "Dyke Street," "Couturelle," and "La Motte," where masses of wild flowers of every kind and of brilliant colours were in full bloom, and in many parts completely covered the sides of the trenches. Cooking was normally done out of the trenches, and hot meals were carried up in kettles or food containers (something in the nature of large thermos flasks) by the Reserve Company billeted at Bretencourt.

We had something of a shock during our first tour in the trenches, and began to suspect the reports as to the quietness of the sector, for on our second morning the enemy poured over for nearly an hour, between 4.0 a.m. and 5.0 a.m., showers of heavy trench mortars on to part of the front line held by B Company. Their aim was very good, several bombs falling right into the trench and doing considerable damage, whilst Lieut. Lomer's Platoon, which was holding the part bombarded, had four men killed and nine wounded. One man had to have his foot amputated by Johnstone, the Medical Officer, in order to be released from a shelter that had been smashed by the bombs. Sergts. Tanner and Yeomans did splendid work in rescuing the wounded, as did also Sergt. Bescoby, Pvte. Axon and other Stretcher Bearers. This, however, turned out to be the only "hate" of its particular kind that the enemy inflicted on us during our stay. Possibly it was to let us know that he was aware of our recent arrival, and wished to give us a welcome, but most likely it was what we knew as his "Travelling Circus" which he brought up at certain times in order to carry out an organised "straff" on a particular piece of the line.

For some time after this, and in fact for most of Our sojourn here, life in the trenches was of a somewhat humdrum character. There were a few days cf activity now and then, but normally the enemy was very inoffensive so far as we were concerned. He did, however, raid the 6th Battalion one night in the right sub-sector, almost completely levelling one of their communication trenches with heavy trench mortars during the preliminary bombardment, on account of which we had to stand-to, when back at our rest billets at Bailleulval. On another occasion we had a fidgety night owing to a gas alarm having been given. This however, proved but another case of "wind."

The work in the trenches was of a normal character, but we welcomed that new article known as the "A" Frame, consisting as its name indicates of framing shaped like the letter A. This was the best form of support for trench revetment that we ever had, and from this time onwards was used almost universally. A suggestion of this exact form of framing had been made by Col. Blackwall as early as November 1915. and submitted to higher authorities, who turned it down as unsuitable.

A further great advance was made by us here in the provision of deep dug-outs, for which the chalk soil was eminently adapted. Excellent plans were drawn out by Major Zeller, commanding the Field Company attached to our Brigade, for complete systems of these dug-outs to be made in the support line, and a special Brigade Dug-out Company was formed for this purpose, to which we contributed, besides a number of men, 2nd Lieuts. Moore and Powell. Great progress was made with the work, and before we left the sector a large number had been finished, and fitted up with wire beds on wooden framework in two tiers, with rifle racks and other etceteras. The organisation of this work was one of the first tasks of the new Brigade Major, Capt. W. P. Buckley, D.S.O., of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, who had succeeded Major Neilson, when the latter left to take up a higher appointment. In Major Neilson we lost one who was always ready to help and advise on every possible occasion, and though it was with the greatest regret that we said goodbye to him, it was a great pleasure to know that his hard work had brought its reward.

At this period after doing six days in the front line, we spent six days in Brigade Reserve at Bellacourt, where three Companies were in billets, and usually found large parties for the Royal Engineers for working in trenches and dug-outs, and one Company provided garrisons for the four posts in front of the village, "Starfish," "Boundary," "Burnt Farm" and "Orchard." After a further six days in the front line we went back for six days to Bailleulval, where we were able to have our periodical clean up, do a little training, and generally enjoy life for a brief space. We relieved always with the 7th Battalion, and held the left of the Brigade sector, which remained the same as originally taken over, except that we gave up the "Willows" on the right and took over "Epsom" on the left.

Our billets at Bailleulval were fairly comfortable, and were constantly improved, under the guiding hand of Major Wordsworth, the Staff Captain. We had a splendid parade ground on the high land behind the village, a good Canteen, a Sergeants' Mess, a Corporals' Mess, home-made Russian baths erected with much skill by our own Pioneers, and frequent visits from the "Whizz-bangs," who gave us excellent programmes. We played cricket, football, both soccer and rugger; we had Officers' Riding Classes, which were a source of much interest not to say amusement, to the onlookers, and we got good dinners at the well-known "Seven Sisters," in the neighbouring village of Basseux. The weather for the most part was delightful, and life was extremely pleasant.

Major-General Thwaites twice inspected us, and all who were in the Battalion during the time he reigned at Division will remember what an inspection by him entailed! Our best salute proved very inadequate on the first occasion, and the Commanding Officer was requested, after putting himself and his horse in front of the centre of the Battalion, to do it again! Capt. Turner, too, who was acting Second-in-Command, got a polite enquiry as to what he was doing with his horse! Poor "Strawberry" was apparently rather upset over the fixing of bayonets! As a rule, however, we believe our efforts to make a good show did not pass unnoticed, though a good deal that was uncomplimentary was said. On his second inspection Lieut.-General Snow, the Corps Commander, was with him, and appeared to be quite satisfied with the turnout.

Training at this time, so far as the Battalion was concerned, consisted only of such general work as could be done in the few days we spent periodically at Bailleulval. The Divisional School, however, was in full going order, Regimental Sergt.-Major Mounteney doing duty there for a time, and in addition a Brigade School was formed at Basseux, to which Major Ashwell went as Commandant and expounded the art of war to young Subalterns and others, taking with him 2nd Lieut. Hopkinson as his Adjutant. Whilst Major Ashwell was away, Capt. Turner took over the duties of Second-in-Command, leaving B Company in the capable hands of Lieut. G. Wright. At an Assault Competition arranged by the Brigade School on October 12th, we almost swept the board, winning five out of eight events—Physical Drill, Bayonet Fighting, Bombing, Relay Race, and Obstacle Race—so we were well satisfied with our efforts, and the training work that was being done. By this time the whole Battalion had been fitted out with the short rifle, the last of the old long rifles being handed to Ordnance on September 26th.

A new "toy" that was issued in these days was that horrible thing known as the "Lewis Gun Hand Cart." Tomlinson had some most entertaining experiences in trying to get mules to pull these "handcarts," but the mules usually found it more interesting to try and turn round to see what extraordinary things on wheels they were now being insulted by being asked to pull, or in going off at breakneck speeds to try and get rid of them. These carts were never popular, and never a success, and gradually, by being carefully "left" by the roadside or some other convenient spots, they were eventually disposed of.

The most notable event during this period was undoubtedly Vann's raid, the first really successful raid carried out by the Battalion. This took place on the night of September 21/22nd, and was carried out by Capt. Vann, with practically the whole of his (A) Company. In order to illustrate the thorough manner in which the scheme was devised and carried out, the story is given in some detail.

Lieut.-col. B. W. Vann, V.C., M.C. Killed in action at Ramicourt, Oct. 3rd, 1918, when in command of the 6th Sherwood Foresters.

The point to be raided was a short sap known as "Italy Sap," running out from the Boche front line about 300 yards away. The wire protecting the sap was cut during the afternoon of September 21st by our 2-inch trench mortars, and other gaps were cut on another part of the front further North, partly as a "blind" and partly for use in a future operation. In order to verify that the gaps were properly cut, a wire patrol under L.-Corpl. Hickman went out at 8.0 p.m. and reported that the gaps were good, and that the ammonal tubes which the Royal Engineers had in readiness to take out and blow gaps with were not required. Frequent bursts were fired by our machine guns on to the gaps to prevent them being repaired by the enemy before the raiding party got there. At 11.15 p.m., the wire patrol again went out and laid tapes from the gaps back to "Cavendish Sap" in our own front line to guide the raiding party across No Man's Land. The party was divided up into several smaller parties, commanded respectively by Lieut. Martelli, 2nd Lieuts. Duff, White, and Hall, and Comp. Sergt.-Major G. Powell. In addition there were two teams of Brigade machine gunners to guard the flanks, and seven sappers to blow up dug-outs. The total of the party was five Officers, and 136 other ranks. All identification marks, badges, letters, etc., had been removed from all members of the raiding party, and faces, hands and bayonets were blackened. Smoke helmets were carried in the pocket, and gas and phosphorus bombs were taken for clearing dug-outs, together with a number of flashlights and torches. At 12.15 am the enemy trenches in the region of the area to be raided were bombarded by 18 pounders, 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, 2-inch trench mortars, and 3-inch Stokes mortars. The raiding party guided by the tapes, got as close up to the barrage as possible, and as soon as it lifted at 12.28 a.m., went through the gaps and into the enemy trenches. One German who was met was at once bayoneted. Several dug-outs were bombed, and in some cases set on fire, one being blown up by the Royal Engineers with an ammonal tube. An enemy machine gun which opened fire from the right was immediately silenced by our Lewis and machine guns. The time fixed for the return of the party was 12.50 a.m. and it was only in the last minute or so that the main object of the raid, a prisoner, was secured. Most of the dug-outs were empty, but eventually Vann found one which contained some Boches. These he at once ordered to come out. Two came up with bayonets fixed, one of whom was at once shot dead by Vann, and the other wounded. They were followed by four others, including a stretcher bearer, who came out with hands up shouting "Kamerad!" "Kamerad!" They were at once hustled out of the trench with the scantiest of ceremony and brought back to our lines. Immediately after this, Vann ordered his bugler to sound the recall signal, and at the same instant the prearranged signal of six red rockets went up at Battalion Headquarters. During the last ten minutes of the raid the enemy had surrounded the occupied portion of the trenches with red lights and their artillery had begun to shell their front line and "Italy Sap," but did the party little harm, and every man got back to our trenches, the only casualties being eight men wounded. The net result of the raid was that five Germans were killed by the raiding party, and five taken prisoners, including one wounded, apart from any casualties inflicted by our bombardments. It is worth noting that a bombardment of the area around the blind gap was also carried out, and that the barrage there "lifted" before that on the gaps where the raid was actually to take place. This was undoubtedly of great assistance to the raiding party in diverting the enemy's attention, and in causing his barrage to come down first in No Man's Land opposite the blind gap, where we had no troops whatever. The number of rounds used to cut the wire was 670, fired by seven 2-inch trench mortars.

Many messages of congratulation were received on the success of the raid, including one from the Corps Commander. It was a great pleasure to all when it was known shortly afterwards, that Vann, whose gallantry knew no bounds, had been given a bar to his M.C., and that the M.C. had been awarded to Duff, who had already done most admirable work at Vimy, and was one of the pluckiest Officers the Battalion ever had. Vann was subsequently awarded the French Croix-de-Guerre.

Much of the success of the raid was undoubtedly due to the excellent patrolling which had been done by Martelli and his Scouts, L.-Corpl. Hickman, and Pvtes. Bambrook and Haslam, who throughout worked with the greatest skill, and left nothing undone to ensure that all was in order. Many gallant deeds too, were performed in the enemy trenches. Pvte. Chappel, a leading bayonet man successfully shewed one Boche the proper way of making the point; Pvte. Walsh wanted to go on to the German second line when he was unable to find any to kill where he was; Drummer Heath shewed great bravery and devotion as he had often done on previous occasions, in carrying messages; Drummer A. L. Smith, though wounded, remained at his post to the last to sound the recall signal; while great gallantry was also shewn by Lieut. Martelli, Comp. Sergt.-Major G. Powell, Sergt. Slater, Corpl. Carrier, and Pvte. Needham. The raiding party had a special little dinner of their own a few days after the raid at the canteen at Bailleulval.

There is but little to record of our other doings in the trenches. We recall efforts being made to have "Daily Trench Exercises" carried out, such as physical jerks, bomb throwing, and rifle practice, but the orders issued on the subject were, we fear, honoured rather in the breach than the observance! We did, however, appreciate the opportunity given us in these days of sending Officers from time to time to our Gunner friends to learn something of the elements of artillery work, and though these visits were very short, it was certainly not the fault of the Gunners if we were not wiser for the instruction they gave us. We on our part were also called upon to do some instructing, having attached to us at various times Lieut.-Col. Smeathman of the Hertfordshire Regiment, Lieut. Haslam (afterwards killed) and 12 men of the Artists' Rifles, and an Officer and 14 men of the 1st King's Dragoon Guards, to all of whom we imparted as much of our knowledge of trench warfare as was possible during the short time they were with us.

As time wore on changes took place. Vann, who had once more been slightly wounded during his raid and was not very fit, went to the Senior Officers' Course at Aldershot, and was succeeded in command of A Company by Capt. E. M. Hacking. Capt. Davenport after a week's tour in the trenches for instruction left to attend the Staff Course at Cambridge. Hicks, who was afterwards killed, went to the Trench Mortar Battery, E. A. Huskinson to the 138th Brigade to learn Staff duties, Easterfield to the Machine Gun Corps, where he won the M.C., Corry (who later died of wounds) and Newton to the Royal Flying Corps, Woodward to the "Whizz-bangs," and Capt. A. Hacking (from Brigade Headquarters), Field, Parker and Wells were invalided to England. Jones, who followed Marshall as Intelligence Officer, got wounded on patrol, and was succeeded by Martelli. Under the new scheme of sending home as Instructors, Warrant Officers and N.C.O.'s who were feeling the strain of long periods of active service, we lost Comp. Sergt.-Major Chappell, and Sergts. L. Bell, Shore and Wells. Comp. Quarter-Master-Sergt. Hotson then became Comp. Sergt.-Major of B Company, and Sergt. Deverall, Comp. Quarter-Master-Sergt. of C Company. Our casualties during the period amounted to seven killed, and 37 wounded. Against these losses we were joined by two Officers, 2nd Lieuts. J. M. Johnston, and E. W. Warner, and about 80 men, including 40 from No. 4 Entrenching Battalion.

All this time the Somme fighting had been going on, more or less successfully, and we wondered time and again when our turn would come to go and take part in it. Divisions around us were moved backwards and forwards, to and from the fighting area, with almost lightning rapidity, and still we were left in this peaceful part with few cares, and almost began to think we had been forgotten, or that the office boy had scratched our name off the list of Divisions in France! But it was apparently not so, for on October 20th, we got news of our approaching move to a training area, preparatory, no doubt, to taking a more active part in the fighting. Eventually, on October 29th, we were relieved by the 16th Manchesters and said goodbye to that delightful area where we had such good times, and to which we shall always look back with the greatest possible pleasure.