London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

Formation of the 56th Division, 1916

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


Formation of the 56th Division
From May onwards during the remainder of 1916 the history of the Regiment in France is that of the l/4th Battalion, into which the 2/4th Battalion was merged ; and we may therefore proceed to follow its fortunes from the date of its attachment to the newly formed 56th Division.

At the date of the l/4th Battalion's arrival in billets at Citerne on the 9th February 1916, the 56th Division was just being concentrated. The 47th Division, which comprised chiefly battalions of the 2nd London Division of pre-war days and which the Battalion had just left, had joined the British Armies in France as a Division ; but the units of the old 1st London Division, which had been among the first Territorial units to leave England, had hitherto been scattered throughout the Army attached to different regular divisions. The 56th, therefore, though junior in precedence, owing to its comparatively late formation, to many other Territorial Divisions which had left England as complete organisations, consisted entirely of battalions which might fairly be described as veteran, since all had seen a good deal of stiff work up and down the lines.

The infantry battalions were brigaded as follows :

56th (London) Division— Major-Gen. Sir C. P. A. Hull, K.C.B.

167th Infantry Brigade— Brig.-Gen. F. H. Burnell-Nugent, D.S.O.
1/lst London (Royal Fusiliers).
l/3rd London (Royal Fusiliers).
l/7th Middlesex.
l/8th Middlesex.

168th Infantry Brigade — Brig.-Gen. G. G. Loch, O.M.G., D.S.O.

l/4th London (Royal Fusiliers).
l/12th London (Rangers).
l/13th London (Kensingtons).
l/14th London (London Scottish).

169th Infantry Brigade— Brig.-Gen. E. S. D'Ewes Coke, C.M.G., D.S.O.

l/2nd London (Royal Fusiliers).

l/5th London (London Rifle Brigade).

l/9th London (Queen Victoria Rifles).

1/1 6th London (Queen's Westminster Rifles).

The Division was attached to the VI Corps (Keir) of the Third Army (Allenby).

The record of the next three months may be passed over quickly as they were devoted solely to organising and training the new Division in areas well to the rear of the trenches, and it was not until the early days of May 1916 that the various units came under fire as a Division. This prolonged period of rest, which indeed was the longest ever spent in this manner by the Battalion in the whole course of its active service history, was of considerable importance in order that staffs and units might become thoroughly acquainted with each other, and that the individual battalions of each Brigade might have a sufficient opportunity of creating the divisional esprit de corps which experience has shown to be so necessary in action.

But the three months of routine work will provide us with a useful respite in which to make some reference to one or two developments in organisation which were carried out before the British forces plunged into the dreary and protracted struggles of the Somme, and which affected the l/4th Londons equally with other units.

One of the developments which took place about this period, and which had an effect on the general efficiency of the Army so far-reaching that its value can hardly be overestimated, was the formation of Army and Divisional Schools, in which the lead was taken by the Third Army. These schools, as is well known, were established under selected bodies of instructors to achieve the double object of keeping the fighting troops, through the medium of the regimental officers and non-commissioned officers who attended them for short courses of instruction, in touch with the progress made from time to time in the art of war, and particularly in the more technical branches, such as gas, bombing, Lewis gunnery, etc., and also of assisting battalions to provide efficient courses of instruction and training for their own personnel while out of the trenches for short periods. The success which in general attended these efforts was great and their influence on the action of our troops in the great battles of the latter part of the War was undoubtedly far-reaching.

The 56th Divisional Schools were first established under Major D. V. Smith, D.S.O., 1/lst Londons, at Givenchy-le-Noble and Ambrines in April 1916.

Attention was also directed at this time towards training the infantry to assume greater responsibility for the general maintenance and strengthening of the forward trenches in their own occupation, and thereby releasing the Royal Engineers for works requiring more technical skill. To this end the early days of March saw the formation in the Division of trench pioneer squads in each battalion consisting of selected men under the supervision of a subaltern officer. These squads were given special training in erecting wire entanglements, constructing strong points and consolidation of newly captured positions. The first trench pioneer officer of the l/4th Londons was 2/Lieut. V. C. Donaldson, and under him the trench pioneers began to shape well towards efficiency ; but the need for the existence of such squads was subsequently modified to some extent by the attachment to each Division of a specially trained Pioneer Battalion, the l/5th Cheshire Regiment joining the 56th Division in this capacity. The Pioneer Battalions were fighting units but, as their name implies, were employed more particularly on constructional work rather beyond the powers of the ordinary infantry officer to direct or of the troops to execute, and in active operations their usefulness in consolidating new trenches and similar duties was established beyond a doubt. The advent of such higlily trained units had a tendency somewhat, perhaps not altogether rightly, to depreciate the value of battalion pioneer squads, and ultimately these were done away with. The duty of trench working parties, whether in active operations or in holding trenches, afterwards fell equally on all the personnel of the companies, while in the 56th Division if not in others, general direction was given to the Battalion's activity in trench work by a " Works " officer attached to Battalion Headquarters. This appointment established early in June 1916 was first filled in the l/4th Londons by Capt. R. N. Arthur, and remained in existence until the end of the War. The Works officer became responsible for making arrangements between company commanders and the Royal Engineers for the supply of the material required for the trench work undertaken by the companies in the line, for detailing the working parties supplied by the Battalion while out of the line, and in general forming a link between the Commanding Officer and the company commanders in the matter of trench work.

A further development occurred in the formation of a Headquarters Company, called in the l/4th Londons for ease of distinction K Company. The object of this change was to separate so far as was reasonably possible the fighting personnel of the Battalion from the administrative personnel, such as transport, headquarters clerks and telephone operators ; and to relieve the company commander of responsibility as regards clothing, pay and accommodation, etc., of such administrative personnel by bringing them under the direct control of a Head-quarters officer, usually the Assistant -Adjutant, to whom as a rule such men were more accessible than to the company officers. This left the companies more intact as fighting units and much reduced the work of company quartermaster-sergeants in looking after large numbers of men who in practice were seldom with the company. Upon the whole the system worked exceedingly well ; though, as was almost inevitable, K Company showed from time to time a tendency to assume unreasonable proportions and required a little " weeding out."

At least a passing reference must be made to the 56th Division's famous concert troop, the Bow Bells. The uniform excellence of its entertainments from its inception till the end of the war was the means of providing all ranks of the Division from time to time with hours of intense pleasure and mental rest of inestimable value.

Lastly, mention must be made of an institution which made its appearance in the Battalion about this time and carried out exceedingly useful work, namely, the Regimental Canteen. Thousands of l/4th London men have happy recollections of Sergt. Plumbley and his assistant Pte. Blight, who, like the sutlers of former wars, followed the Battalion in all its wanderings with their welcome stocks of tobacco, chocolate, notepaper, newspapers and other useful articles, and, fair times or foul, were always to be found with their little shop neatly set out in a dugout or a ruined cottage not very far in rear of the most advanced troops of the Battalion.

The Battalion occupied its comfortable quarters at Citerne for about a fortnight amid conditions which presented a total change from those amidst which it had passed the previous year, and which brought a corresponding benefit to the troops by way of mental as well as physical recuperation. The Hallencourt area, lying as it does on the broad rolling hills of Ponthieu on the west bank of the Somme, formed a complete contrast to the dreary flats and marches of Flanders not only in the pretty variation of the landscape but also because this part of the country was unscarred by the ravages of war. At Citerne, moreover, the Battalion for the first time since it joined the Ferozepore Brigade in February 1915 was stationed beyond the range of heavy gun fire. Citerne is but a small village, but its kindly and warm-hearted folk, from IM. le Maire downwards, will always be held in grateful remembrance by those of the l/4th Londons who had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality.

The fortnight's sojourn here was devoted principally to training, but the amusement of the Battalion was not overlooked and football matches with other units and concerts in the tiny village theatre made a welcome break in the routine of parades.

At Citerne the l/4th Londons became possessed for the first time in France of a Chaplain, the Rev. R. Palmer, C.F., Brigade Chaplain, being attached to the Battalion on the 19th February. The Battalion was also rejoined at Citerne by Capt. W. Moore, who had been hit at Ypres the previous April, and was further strengthened by the arrival of a draft of 95 N.C.O.'s and men.

On the 27th February the Division moved to a fresh training area on the opposite bank of the Somme, Divisional Headquarters opening at Domart, when the 168th Brigade Headquarters and the Battalion were billeted in Vauchelles. Here the programme of training was continued until the 12th March, on which day a second move was made, this time to the Doullcns area, all the battalions of the 168th Brigade occupying billets in the town.

On the 8th March a further reinforcement of 100 N.C.O.'s and men arrived from the 4/4th Battalion and was posted to companies. At this time also the bad news was received that Lieut. -Col. L. T. Burnett, who had gone on leave in January, was unfit to return overseas, and Major W. G. Clark, D.S.O., therefore continued in command of the Battalion, with Major W. Moore as second in command.

Doullens did not provide a refuge to the Brigade for long for the 15th March saw the Division once more on the move to the Le Cauroy area (cast of Frevent), the l/4th Londons taking over billets at Beaufort. In this area the Division settled down steadily to a period of training which continued without interruption and with very little incident calling for notice for nearly seven weeks, during which the strength of the Battalion, as of all other units, gradually crept up, if not to war strength at least to such size that it became abundantly evident that the Division was not destined to remain for long in billets behind the line. Drafts joined the Battalion consisting of 2/Lieuts. G. E. Stanbridge, G. H. Davis and A. G. Blunn, and also of 87 other ranks on the 22nd March ; of 12 other ranks on the 6th April ; and a final reinforcement of 33 other ranks arrived on the 20th April ; these additions bringing the Battalion to the respectable strength of nearly 600 all ranks.

During the same period the Battalion suffered losses among officers in Capt. J. R. Pyper, M.C., who was seconded to the 168th Brigade Machine-Gun Company ; Lieut. S. E. H. Walmisley, who after carrying out the duties of Quartermaster for nearly four months during the absence on sick leave of Lieut. E. S. Tomsett, was appointed to the Central Training School, Rouen ; and 2/Lieut. C. R. P. de Pury who was seconded as R.T.O.

On the 23rd March Major W. G. Clark, D.S.O., left the Battalion on short leave and he also succumbed to a severe breakdown while at home and was unable to return. Command of the Battalion was carried on temporarily by Major W. Moore until the 8th April, when Lieut. -Col. L. L. Wheatley, D.S.O., Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Staff Captain 168th Infantry Brigade, took command.

It would be but tiresome to follow the daily routine of the Battalion during this prolonged period of rest where one day's work so much resembles that which preceded it, and we may therefore be forgiven for passing quickly over this part of the record. Enough has been said to show how from the Battalion point of view the Division came into being and was prepared for the work allotted to it, and it remains therefore for us to pass on and endeavour to recount the manner in which the l/4th Londons performed their task.