London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

4th Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) - 1/4th Battalion, Winter 1917/18— The Reserve Battalion 1916/17

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

THE 1/4TH BATTALION, WINTER 1917/18 — THE RESERVE BATTALION, 191G/1T

The closing days of 1917 were full of anxiety for the Allies. The oj^erations at Cambrai had been undertaken by the British forces at the termination of the prolonged and unusually trying offensive on the northern ridges at Ypres, with the object of affording some relief to our Italian AUies. The secession of Russia from the Allied cause had had a most serious effect in all theatres of war. In the East it had afforded the tottering Austrian Empire the respite it so badly needed and had wrought the utter downfall of isolated Roumania, besides giving a severe check to the Allies' aspirations in the Balkans and Palestine. In the West it had entailed a complete reversal of the numerical position, and from the end of November onwards the German strength was being continually augmented by the arrival of divisions from the Russian front, while the Allies became subjected to an ever-increasing strain. The growing requirements of all the battlefields of the world on which the Empire's soldiers were playing their part made it impossible to maintain the British forces in France at the strength necessary to combat the threat of a very serious German offensive. Only from the Far West was any relief for the Allies to be expected. The American Army which had been about ten months in training was already being transferred to France, but it would still be some time before it would be sufficiently numerous or experienced to turn the scale against the enemy. As the winter wore on the threat of an enemy attack on a grand scale developed into a probability, which as all the world now knows, materialised on the 21st March 1918.

For some weeks, however, prior to the launching of this final effort of tlie Central Powers the Allies had definitely passed to the defensive in preparation for the German onslaught, and our present task is to bridge rapidly the gulf between the close of active operations at the end of 1917 and the point, which we will fix in the early days of March 1918, at which we can conveniently take up the story of the regiment in the offensive itself. We propose, therefore, to devote a few pages to bringing up to date the record of the various activities of the regiment, dealing first with the l/4th Battalion in France, and afterwards with the Reserve Battalion at home.

I. The l/4:th Battalion in Artois

After three months in the devastated area around Lagnicourt, where the Battalion had been entirely removed from French civilisation, and where scarcely any had had the opportunity of sleeping under a proper roof, the billets allotted to the troops at Simencourt on the 3rd December were a great treat, and it was hoped that for at least a few days the Battalion would be permitted to enjoy its well-earned rest. On this occasion as on most others, however, the Divisional rest proved a delusion, and after two days occupied in cleaning and reorganisation the Battalion found itself once more on the road, for on the 5th it marched from Simencourt at 9.30 a.m. to Wakefield Camp, near Roclincourt (three miles north of Arras) in the First Army area.

The Division was now allotted to the XIII Corps (McCracken), which formed the right flank of Home's First Army and comprised in addition to the 56th, the 31st and 62nd Divisions.

The following day Lieut. -Col. Marchmcnt and the Works Officer (Lieut. Lorden) reconnoitred the sector to be taken over, and on the 7th and 8th the relief of the 94th Brigade (31st Division) by the 168th Brigade took place, the l/4th Londons moving on the first day of relief to Brigade support and on the second day into the left subsection of the centre Brigade section facing Oppy, in trenches which it took over from the 12th York and Lancaster Regiment.

The whole area had seen a great deal of heavy fighting since the early days of the War. In May and June 1915 during Sir John French's offensive at Festubert, the French troops had attacked Notre Dame de Lorette, Ablain St Nazairc, La Targette and Neuvillc St Vaast. Early in 1916 the Allied positions on the Vimy Ridge, by then held by the British, had been heavily attacked by the enemy ; while in the spring of 1917, in conjunction with the Third Army's operations east of Arras, the Canadian Corps had swept over the Vimy Ridge and down the slopes beyond towards the broad plains of Douai, carrying the line in front of Gavrelle and Arleux-en-Gohelle. The British front line at the end of 1917 was therefore deep in what had originally been a rear German system of defence ; trenches were numerous, but poor and in bad repair, and the whole ground under numerous intense bombardments had been badly " crumped."

The Battalion's sector lay between Arleux and Gavrelle and passed through Oppy Wood, a leafless spectre of what had once been a copse, through whose shattered trunks the remains of Oppy and Neuvireuil were visible. The forward line was held in three posts, known from right to left as Beatty, Wood and Oppy. Each post took a company, with one platoon of each company in the Marquis-Earl line, a continuous trench some four hundred yards in rear. The fourth company was held in reserve in Bow Trench about 1700 yards back from the line of posts, while Battalion Headquarters occupied a dugout in South Duke Street, close to the Marquis line, which was the line of resistance.

The second defensive system consisted of the Red line, a continuous trench in front of Bailleul and Willerval, while a third system, the Green line, followed the crest of the Vimy Ridge. The observation throughout the area was excellent owing to the regular slope eastwards from the Vimy Ridge, and brigade and battalion commanders could overlook the whole of their sectors from their respective Headquarters.

The Battalion's sector was served by one main communication trench, Ouse Alley, which started from the Green line no less than 5300 yards from the front line. The administrative arrangements were distinctly good. Steam trains ran to daylight railhead in rear of the Green line, and this was connected with the Red line by a night service of petrol-electric trains. From the Red line forwards rations and stores were moved by truck. Battalion Headquarters also enjoyed the luxury of having water laid on by pipe line. Having said so much, however, we have almost exhausted the good points of the sector. The defences themselves left much to be desired. An early reconnaissance of the wire in front of the three company posts revealed an alarming weakness, for the single lines of concertina wire afforded but little obstacle to an enterprising enemy, and were placed out much too close to our parapets. The trenches, with the exception of the Red line, which was of good construction, were shallow and much knocked about.

The Battalion's first tour in this sector passed without incident, the enemy being rather surprisingly inactive, and the Battalion was able to make much progress towards remedying the defects in its defences. On the 13th December it handed over its lines to the Rangers and withdrew to Divisional reserve in Springvale Camp at Ecurie, a pleasant camp, but one of the filthiest the Battalion had ever had to occupy.

A few days were spent in training here, and on Sunday, the 16th, Major-Gen. Dudgeon attended the Battalion's Church Parade, and presented medal ribands to all available N.C.O.'s and men who had been decorated for their services at Cambrai. The Division was now expecting relief by the 31st, and, as this relief would have ensured a Christmas out of the line, considerable disappointment was caused to all ranks by the announcement on the 17th December that the relief was cancelled temporarily, and that the Battalion was to return to the trenches. The change took place the following day, and the l/4th Londons took over the Oppy sector from the Rangers.

Five uneventful days passed in the Oppy trenches.

On the whole the enemy displayed little activity beyond occasional retaliation to our continuous and systematic bombardments, which were by day and night directed against the enemy's " weak spots." At night the Bosehe showed signs of considerable nervousness. A good deal of progress was made with the Brigade programme of trench and wiring work, which was carried on in intensely cold weather, and on the 23rd the Battalion once more exchanged with the Rangers and withdrew to Brigade support.

In the support area Headquarters and B Company (Spicer) were in a 30-foot railway cutting in rear of Bailleul, while A (H. N. Williams), C (Barkworth) and D (Cooper) were in the Red line. Christmas day, which was fortunately not marked by hostile activity, was spent in these positions and by means of numerous small parties in the Red line the troops were able to get as much enjoyment out of it as the circumstances permitted, but the festivity was rather damped by the death of 2 /Lieut. E. L. Stuckey, a keen and promising officer, who was killed by a stray shell in the Red line.

Late on Christmas evening the enemy carried out a hurricane bombardment on the front line posts, and during the last day of the year showed some disposition to increase his harassing fire on our back areas.

On the 28th December the 167th Brigade relieved the 168th, which withdrew in Divisional reserve to the Maroeuil area, the Battalion being billeted at St Aubin, where five days of training and refitting were obtained. The New Year was celebrated by carrying out the arrangements which had originally been made for Christmas, and after a quite pleasant interlude the Battalion moved on the 3rd January 1918, into the right sector of the Divisional front at Gavrelle, relieving the Queen's Westminsters. The weather was now intensely cold and the ground was covered with snow, which effectively stopped any attempts at active work. The tour of duty passed quietly and without any casualties, though the enemy's artillery and trench mortar fire continued to show an increase in volume, and on both sides aircraft activity developed.

The 62nd Division now took over the Division's sector, and on the 6th January the 56th Division passed into G.H.Q. reserve at forty-eight hours' notice to move. The Battalion handed over its trenches to the 2/4th K.O. Y.L.I, and moved to billets at Maroeuil, continuing its route on the 7th to Monchy-Breton (near St Pol), where it arrived in billets at 4 p.m.

A great deal of useful training was carried out at Monchy-Breton, but the incident which probably did as much good to the Battalion as any, was the formation by Lieut. Faulkner, the quartermaster, of an orchestra which was an enormous success from its inception, and maintained its reputation until the end of the War. The orchestra included the following :

'Cellos .... Ptes. Montague and Stone.

Violins . . . Ptes. Barton, Fairman, Pen-in and Cornell.

Cornets . . . Sergt. Fulford and Pte. Stevens.

Trombones . . Sergt. Grimston and Pte. Westerman.

Clarionets . . Sergt.-Dr Ingham and Pte. Spooner.

Horn .... Pte. Cuffe.

Drum .... Pte. Smith.

Harmonium . L,-Corpl. Weekes.

The numerous concerts given by this excellent band, which was really well trained by the quartermaster, afforded real pleasure, not only to the Battalion and to other units of the Division, but also to the French inhabitants of the various villages in which the Battalion found temporary homes.

During December and January the Battalion was joined by 2/Lieuts. H. T. Hannay and H. O. Morris, and by 2/Lieut. A. E. Hanks (13th Londons), while Capt. G. E. Stanbridge was granted an exchange to England for six months' duty at home, after having been in France since March 1916.

By this time the possibilities of a German offensive had developed into a practical certainty, and all training was directed towards methods of defence and counter-attack. Much attention was paid to musketry and Lewis gun training. The importance of the rifle and bayonet as the infantry weapon ^9ar excellence was once more being realised, and the bomb and rifle grenade, which in 1916 and 1917 had to a large extent ousted the rifle from its proper function, were again recognised to be only subsidiary aids in certain circumstances, so that full advantage was eagerly taken of the chance to ensure that all ranks were " handy " with their rifles.

The defensive systems in the area lately occupied by the Division still needed a vast amount of work to bring them to a condition to resist a serious attack, and accordingly throughout the period spent in G.H.Q. reserve each brigade of the Division supplied one battalion for work in the forward area under the Chief Engineer XIII Corps. The Battalion's turn for this duty came after seventeen days of training at Monchy-Breton, and on the 24th January it moved forward, railing from Tincques to Ecurie, and was accommodated at Stewart Camp, Roclin-court, the transport lines being stationed at Maroeuil. Every available man was now put ±o work in one or other of the large parties which were supplied daily for the R.E.'s, the principal tasks which fell to the Battalion's lot being the wiring of the Green line and the construction of cable trenches {i.e. narrow deep trenches in which telegraph cables were buried to minimise the risk of their destruction by shell fire) in the forward area by night. The severity of the winter had now given place to thaw ; the weather was warm for the time of year and a good deal of rain fell.

This duty continued till the end of January, when the Battalion was relieved and returned to the reserve area by train from Ecurie to Tincques, marching thence to billets at Magnicourt, which were reached on the 1st February.

An extensive reorganisation was now effected throughout the British armies in France. The ever-dwindling supply of reinforcements from home, due in part to failing resources in man-power and partly to the retention in England of large defence forces which were held in readiness against a possible German invasion, had caused the numbers in infantry battalions throughout the Army to sink dangerously below full strength. In the l/4tli Londons the casualties of Ypres and Cambrai in 1917 had never been balanced by reinforcements, and this was typical of the condition of affairs in every unit which had been heavily engaged in the preceding six months. The decision arrived at, therefore, was to reduce all Brigades to a three, instead of a four, battalion establishment, and this was carried out by disbanding one battalion per brigade and dividing out its strength among the three battalions which were retained. Inevitably such drastic action caused bitter disappointment among the battalions which had the misfortune to be selected for disbandment, and esprit de corps received temporarily a severe check. In the 56th Division the 3rd (Royal Fusiliers), 9th (Queen Victoria's) and 12th (Rangers) Battalions v/ere reduced to cadre strength and transferred to the 58th Division, so that from the beginning of the month of February 1918 the infantry of the Division consisted of :

167th Brigade — 1st London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).

l/7th Middlesex Regiment.

l/8th do.

168th Brigade — l/4th London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).

l/13th do. (Kensingtons).

l/14tli do. (London Scottish).

16t)TH Brigade — l/2nd London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers).

5th do. (London Rifle Brigade).

l/16th do. (Queen's Westminster

Rifles).

The Battalion received through these changes about 150 N.C.O.'s and men from the 9th Londons, 50 from the 3rd Londons and 60 from the 2/lst Londons, who had been disbanded from the 58th Division. Four subalterns also came to the Battalion as follows : Lieuts. G. G. Lewis and F. G. Athey from 2/lst Londons, H. F. Dade from 3rd Londons and W. G. Hook from 9th Londons. The new arrivals naturally felt sore at first at the disappearance of their own units, but, being all good sportsmen, accepted the inevitable, and rapidly settled down in the l/4th Battalion. This acquisition of strength enabled the Battalion organisation of companies to be expanded to a three-platoon basis instead of the two-platoon system which had been in force since August 1917.

At Magnicourt a week's useful training was effected, in which the reorganisation necessary in consequence of the above changes figured largely. The Battalion was joined by 2/Lieuts. R. E. Campkin, C. H. Board, T. H. Mawby and G. R. Pitman.

The morale of the Battalion — as indeed of all units of the Division — was now splendid. All ranks were perfectly confident as to the outcome of the approaching offensive and the competitive spirit between companies, always strong, was fostered in every possible way. The Battalion transport under Lieut. G. V. Lawrie, M.C., also maintained high efficiency, and received special commendation from Gen. Dudgeon for the smartness of its turn-out. Amid strenuous work amusements were not overlooked and the pleasures of the lighter side of life were much added to by the extraordinarily good concert given one evening by the Quartermaster's band.

At the end of the first week of February the 56th Division's period in reserve was brought to a close and its relief of the 62nd Division began. On the 9th the Battalion left Magnicourt and marched to Maroeuil, moving forward again the next day to its old trenches at Oppy, where it relieved the 2 /5th West Yorkshires. In addition to its old sector the Battalion had to take over, as a temporary measure, Bird Post on the right. The front line posts were not approachable by daylight at this date as Boyne and Bedford Streets, the communication trenches leading forward from the Marquis line, had fallen in as a result of the severe weather, and had not been repaired. Other parts of the trench system also needed much repair.

This tour of duty was remarkably quiet, and with the exception of sporadic shelling the enemy was inactive. The Bosche had apparently been permitted to contract a habit of walking about in the open in rear of his lines, but B and C Companies in Bird and Beatty posts were soon able to bring home to him the unwisdom of exposing himself in daylight. The Headquarter Scouts under Sergt. Hayes also did good work in this direction from a useful fire position on a big mound near Beatty Post, whence by good marksmanship they secured six head one evening. At this period also the close liaison which the Battalion always maintained with the Divisional artillery stood it in good stead. A battery of the 281st Brigade R.F.A. had a section of 18-pr. guns in Bailleul, and the Battalion signallers having run a wire to the guns from Bird Post, the gunners settled down to a little sniping. The gunner officer in charge, Lieut. J. Powell, M.C., registered the guns on a small cart standing in Bosche ground and it was easy to switch and elevate the guns roughly on to any party of Bosche moving about. The results were most successful and the Bosche was finally cured of his desire for walking exercise outside his trenches.

On the evening of the 14th February the Battalion handed over its trenches to the London Scottish and withdrew to billets in Roclincourt in Divisional reserve. Here nine days were spent, during which the Battalion supplied working parties for the further improvement of the trenches.

From the 22nd to the 27th the Battalion was once more in the trenches for another quiet tour of duty, and on the latter date it withdrew to Roclincourt West Camp in Divisional reserve. The lack of activity at this period is evidenced by the fact that only two men were wounded during the month of February.

Attention was now fixed solely on the coming offensive, to meet which preparations were being pushed forward with thoroughness. Additional firesteps were constructed in the trenches and the already formidable wire was further strengthened.

From this date forward every tour in the trenches or in Brigade support was passed by platoons in exactly the same position, so that every man might, whenever the offensive should be launched, be well acquainted with his position.

The five days at Roclincourt West Camp were succeeded by a short period in Brigade support, in which position the Battalion relieved the Kensingtons on the 5th March. The tour of duty passed quietly with the exception of a somewhat severe enemy bombardment with gas shell on the evening of the 8th. Early on the morning of the 9th the Kensingtons carried out an excellent raid on the enemy lines north of Oppy, in the course of which about 20 Germans were killed and 4 brought back as prisoners. The raiding party was under Lieut. Lester, M.C. (since killed), commissioned from the 4th Londons. The identification obtained was normal, that is, the prisoners belonged to the German regiment which was believed to be opposed to us. These captures elicited information that the offensive was imminent, and this, combined with unmistakable signs of enemy activity, such as extensive road repairs, clearing and repairing enemy trenches formerly derelict, and so forth, left no room for doubt that the Germans' great effort could not be long delayed. Thenceforward extreme vigilance was exercised all along the line.

11. The Reserve Battalion

Shortly after the reconstruction of the 1st London (Reserve) Brigade, which resulted in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion being made the draft-finding unit for both the 3rd and the 4th London Regiments, the Brigade was moved from its camps at Hurdcott and Fovant to billets in various watering places on the South Devon coast. The 3rd Battalion was fortunate enough to be allotted to Torquay, where it took up its new quarters in December 1916. As a military station Torquay was, of course, not so desirable as Hurdcott. In the first place, the scattering of untrained troops in billets greatly increased the difficulty of disciplinary control, while training grounds were farther removed and somewhat inadequate. In spite of these undoubted disadvantages, however, the change from the bitter searching winds of " The Plain " in winter time to the more genial climate of South Devon was universally welcomed, and the Battalion lived for some weeks in considerable comfort.

The Brigade was now under command of Brig. -Gen. Howell, who at the outbreak of war had commanded the l/3rd Londons, Col. Godman having returned to the Scots Guards on the Somme.

Life in the Reserve Battalion at Torquay proceeded on very much the same routine as had obtained at Hurdcott, and an attempt at describing it in detail would only be wearisome. Once again the instructional staff had to face the " spade work " of training raw recruits, since the drain on the Battalion's resources during the Somme battles had denuded it of trained soldiers, and a fresh batch of recruits now filled its ranks.

A further modification in training organisation took place about this time, and we may refer shortly to this as it affected the functions of training battalions considerably. This modification lay in the establishment of " Command Depots " which were formed for the reception from hospital of officers, N.C.O.'s and men returjned from the Expeditionary Force who were not yet physically fit to return to their respective units. At a stage in their convalescence, in which their retention in hospital as in-patients was no longer required, such men were sent to their Command Depot for light exercise in walking, physical training and so on, and for such local treatment as their individual cases necessitated. N.C.O.'s and men remained in the Depot until their recovery was complete, when they were despatched to their training reserve units for a short " smartening-up " course of instruction before being once more sent overseas. The Command Depots thus relieved training battalions of a great deal of medical and convalescent work for which they were neither equipped nor suitable, and also ensured that the staff of instructors in the training battalions were engaged for the minimum of time in " brushing-up " the trained men prior to their return to France, whereby they were enabled to devote the maximum of attention to the recruits. The Guards and the London Regiment were amalgamated for the purpose of a Command Depot, and this was located at Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex. Shortly after its formation, Major G. H. M. Vine was appointed from the Reserve Battalion to the Permanent Staff of the Depot.

In January 1917, Major L. T, Burnett joined the Reserve Battalion from sick leave and was appointed second in command, a position which he continued to fill until the following July, when he was transferred to the War Office.

The South Devon station was retained for only a comparatively short period and in April the Brigade moved again, this time to Blackdown, in the Aldershot Command. Blackdown is some seven miles north of Aldershot, and is one of the many pine- and heather-covered hills in which the district abounds. Most of the barracks at this Station were hutted camps, but the 3rd Battalion was fortunate in being sent to Dcttingen, a pre-war permanent barracks in which it was exceedingly comfortable.

The advantage of having the Battalion compacted in one camp became almost at once exemplified, and the desirable tightening of discipline rapidly effected a great increase of efhciency. The unsurpassed facilities for training afforded by the Aldershot Command also proved of incalculable value, and enabled the keen and efficient training staff of the Battalion to raise the unit to the position of one of the best organised battalions of a Brigade whose reputation for training was second to none.

At Blackdown, moreover, the facilities provided for the recreation of the troops were really excellent, and among these mention should be made first of the Y.M.C.A. and the Church Army, whose excellent institutions were of the greatest value. Each battalion also was provided with a sports ground, and among the pleasant memories of men trained in this Station not the least is the Blackdown Garrison Theatre, which was visited weekly by capable companies. The Sunday evening concerts in the theatre were also a very notable and valuable feature of the social life of the garrison.

Training here proceeded on the same lines, but a further modification was now introduced for the benefit of the large numbers of lads under military age who were now joining. Under the Military Service Acts no men might be sent overseas till the age of nineteen, and in order to ensure that their training should not be unnecessarily hurried a special syllabus of work was evolved for them, the original scheme being so enlarged and lengthened as to provide for such young soldiers becoming " trained " not earlier than the age at which they might be sent to the front. To ensure the smooth working of this amended scheme the young soldiers, or "A IV's " as they were called, were grouped in special companies, and in addition a number of " young soldier battalions " were added to the Coastal Defence Forces.

In January 1918 Lieut. -Col. Montgomerie Webb vacated command of the Battalion on attachment to the Royal Air Force, and the Battalion was taken over by Lieut. -Col. Hanbury Sparrow, D.S.O., M.C., Royal Berkshire Regiment, who had come to England under the six months exchange system. Under Lieut. -Col. Sparrow the Battalion continued to make great strides, and his striking personality was the means of winning every ounce of willing and devoted service from all who had the honour to be under his command. The work of the Reserve Battalion during the early part of 1918 is so much bound up with the movements of the overseas battalions under the stress of the German offensive that we may conveniently break off here and take up the story of the Second Battle of the Somme.