Seventh Manchesters index
Holding the Line.
On April 27th, our period of fatigues ended, the 7th Manchesters marched out of Peronne in the full panoply of war, not gaudy, but serviceable for modern requirements and not lacking the element of weight, with the certain knowledge that their next deeds would be accomplished "in the presence of the enemy." The enemy of 1917 and after was not so elusive as the Turk of the Sinai, so there was no possibility of marching on and on and never feeling his force! That night was spent at Villers Faucon, and next day preparations were completed for relieving the 4th East Lancs. in the front line trenches east of Epehy. An advance party of an officer and a few N.C.O's. per company had been sent forward to learn dispositions and other information about the line, and the thousand and one minute details about rations, tools, Lewis guns, water, guides, intervals between platoons and sections, etc., etc., had all been dealt with when we got on the move once more in the early evening.
Everyone expected to take over trenches such as we had in Gallipoli or had read about, but we were rather staggered to find that the battalion front was not vastly different from the outpost positions we had made on the desert. This is explained by the fact that the front was just in process of solidifying from the liquid state as a result of the German recent retirement to a safe position. The enemy therefore looked calmly down upon us from his elaborate Hindenburg system of trenches beyond Vendhuile whilst we expanded our isolated outposts into organised continuous lines. He himself, however, was also busy digging a sort of outpost work in advance of the main line of defence, for he had held up any further British advance principally from a bulwark of land mass called the Knoll on the western side of the canal, while his main line was really on the eastern side.
Because of the disjointed condition of the front there was always a danger, when going from one company to another, of men wandering into the Boche lines. This unfortunately did occur one night to a couple of men of the 7th who had to make their way with L. G. ammunition from the Quarry to the Diamond (a forward isolated redoubt) for they struck a wrong direction and walked into a hail of enemy bullets. One was killed and the other wounded. Pte. (afterwards L.-Cpl.) Summers and Pte. Johns distinguished themselves on this occasion, for, realising what had happened, they volunteered to go out and recover the men. After being away for more than two hours, constantly sniped by an obviously-startled enemy they found them and were able to bring back the wounded man. Unfortunately this deed was not recognised by the higher authorities or they would have been the first to have won distinction for the battalion in France.
Little Priel Farm came in for a good deal of hatred by the Boche, and the variations in its contour was a daily source of interest to the troops in the vicinity. The battalion observers in the innocence of their hearts and the zeal born of the new opportunities to put their training into practice, selected the corner of the garden for an O.P. and just as things were growing interesting in the field of view of the telescope, the Hun instituted a "certain liveliness" of a different sort. Repetitions of this sort of thing convinced the observers that no useful purpose could be served by staying there, so they left--fortunately without mishap--and they were eager to inform the I.O. that their new position was infinitely superior to Little Priel Farm! It was in this vicinity that Pte. Wilbraham was killed by a shell. This news saddened the whole battalion, for he was our champion lightweight boxer, and we had been entertained many a time on the desert by his clever exhibitions.
There was naturally a good deal of digging to be done in this sector, and although relieved eventually in the front positions by the 5th, the battalion found itself up in the line each night making continuous trenches. It was in connection with this work that we lost our brigadier, General Ormsby. On the night of May 1st, he, with a number of R.E. officers, was examining the position near Catelet Copse when the Boche suddenly started a short hurricane bombardment. The trench he was in was only waist deep, and soldier and leader to the end he disdained to take full advantage of the scanty shelter, preferring to set an example of calmness and steadiness under fire to his men. A piece of shell struck him in the head and he died almost immediately. This was a great blow to the brigade, just at the commencement of their adventure in the new warfare. It was sadly remarkable, too, that he himself was the first officer casualty in his brigade. A few days later, during which time Lt.-Col. Darlington of the 5th assumed command, the new brigadier arrived--General Henley, D.S.O.--and we were fortunate to keep him as our Commander until the end of the war. The brilliant record of the 127th brigade in France is testimony to his qualities as a leader, and it was not very long before every man and officer in the Manchesters was proud of him. General Ormsby always remained, however, as a tender memory to those who had served under him.
Villers Faucon, which had been the rear H.Q. and transport lines was invaded by battalion H.Q. and two companies when the battalion moved back into reserve, but we did not stay long here, because the 126th brigade required assistance in the completion of their trench system in front of Templeux, and to do this we had to move into the quarries in that district. The other two companies carried out similar work in the vicinity of Lempire and Ronssoy. There was very little of interest during the succeeding days after which the brigade moved out to Roisel prior to accompanying the division to the Havrincourt sector of the front.
At the end of May the battalion marched out with the remainder of the brigade from Roisel and in one day reached their destination behind the Havrincourt Wood sector. We there remained for a short period in the region of Ytres and Fins. Little time was lost in the necessary preliminaries and we relieved a battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's L.I. of the 21st division in support in the wood. "D" company were early unfortunate and suffered a number of casualties from heavy shelling on the shallow trenches which they manned near the western edge of the Wood. The enemy had noted the continued movement in this vicinity, and suddenly decided to pay attention to it in the usual manner. This spot was always remembered afterwards as "Where 'D' Company were shelled."
Conditions at Havrincourt were rather different from those at Epehy, although the same characteristics due to recent consolidation still prevailed. It was more interesting, however, and in many senses more "livable," a word of deep meaning on the Western front! In the British lines--the canal, the slag-heap (or more correctly slag-heaps) and the wood dominated all other landmarks. The canal, a portion of the Canal du Nord, was in course of construction at the outbreak of war, and its deep, well-laid bed is one of the engineering wonders of this part of France. At Havrincourt it first runs west to east and then sharply bends to the north towards Moeuvres past Hermies. The left of the 42nd divisional front rested on the bend, after running over a huge chalk and limestone slag-heap which stands at the corner. Going southwards the line roughly skirted the eastern edge of the wood which lies upon a slope facing the east.
Before their retirement, the Germans had cut down all trees on this forward slope, some said in order to make use of the timber, others for tactical reasons, so as to leave us exposed to view. I should say both reasons weighed heavily with them, but principally the latter, for it was noticeable that the woods in their own lines had not been so denuded. Havrincourt village lay behind the enemy's front line on a ridge that dominated our own positions. Further beyond were Flesquieres, Marcoing, Premy Chapel and Ribecourt, where the main line of resistance of the Hindenburg system could be plainly seen, while further over to the left on the highest ground was Bourlon Wood, which was to become so famous in the history of the British army. Every day the battalion observers watched parties of Germans, large and small, working on these rear trenches apparently quite unconcerned about the fact that they could be plainly seen. Periodically our air service issued aeroplane photographs showing the extraordinary development of these trenches, their elaborate construction, the concrete dug-outs, and solid rows of heavy barbed wire, until it almost came to be recognised that an assault upon them would only be attempted by the maddest of leaders, and the prospect of having to take part in it took one's breath away.
The chief job of the battalion was to guard by day, and get command of by night, the large extent of No Man's Land which varied from 400 to about 1,200 yards across. The day work was easy, but at night it was fraught with quite interesting possibilities. The Boche was not very inimical here, and seemed anxious to lull us into a feeling of peace and security so that, I suppose, he could get safely on with his digging, for he had still a good deal to do. His outbursts of shelling, therefore, although at times disagreeable, gave one the impression that its chief purpose was to remind us of his constant presence. At times, especially in the evening, it seemed to afford him amusement to dust our lines indiscriminately with gas shells. Our gunners, however, were not so lenient and they frequently made excellent use of their good ration of ammunition, so that we were able to make daily notes of the changes in the scenery, particularly in Havrincourt village. Considerable interest was aroused one morning, soon after our arrival, by the sudden disappearance of Havrincourt Chateau in a cloud of red brick dust and smoke. This was always a mystery and a frequent source of controversy. Did the Boche blow it up, and if so, why? Or did it go off as a result of our shelling, and again, if so, why? Some said they saw stretcher-bearers moving about amidst the debris afterwards, which rather indicated the second theory.
We enjoyed the advantages of a continuous front line here, but naturally a good deal of time had to be spent in perfecting the system, both in digging and wiring. The brigade was given an opportunity of leaving its mark on the war-geography of France, two copses in No Man's Land being dubbed "Wigan Copse" and "Dean Copse" by the 5th, while we were responsible for "Manchester Trench" and "Cheetham Hill," "Henley Lane" serving to keep green the memory of the brigadier. Two great chalk craters showed up in front, "Etna" and "Vesuvius" respectively, and one of the jobs of the patrol commanders by night was to find out if the former was occupied by the Hun. We very soon found that it was, and that he appeared to use this and the two copses as starting points for his patrols. Thus, when our parties went out at night, the possibility of an encounter in No Man's Land was never remote, and indeed there were a few clashes of this sort. It was all a great education for the battalion, for such work as this had not often come our way in the Gallipoli days, and there had been no opportunity of practising it since. It was considered advisable to get as many officers and men as possible out on patrol at some time or other, for there was a noticeable difference in a man's morale, and in his attitude towards trench life, once he had returned from such an adventure. He was conscious of having in a way asserted his manhood--more than his pal who had not been out--and the dim uncertainty of what there might be in front of our wire had gone. He knew now what was there--nothing. He was acquainted with the ground in such a way that if the enemy did wish to attack he knew exactly where he could get him with Lewis gun, rifle or bombs. A spirit of confidence was thus engendered in the whole battalion, as was eventually shown when a few ventured out on patrol in broad daylight, and obtained some very useful results.
Realistic gas drill was indulged in occasionally at night because the enemy had an irritating habit of putting over a few rounds of gas, either shell or T.M., at irregular intervals. He caught out a few of the East Lancs. by this trick, which naturally produced a state of "wind" in the division so that everyone was more than ever "gas alert." After a few nights of gas alarm, in the middle of one of which the transport officer had to commandeer a fatigue party (in gas helmets) to extricate a full water-cart from a shell-hole, most of us became "fed up." Another night someone imagined he felt the pineapple smell of the type of gas the Hun then used, and the alarm was passed along the front trench. One of the officers on duty was determined to make sure this time, and stopped the passing of the message. He made his way along the trench where the men by this time had assumed their gas helmets, until he came to one stolid, oldish man who was on sentry, staring truculently out in front without his gas protection on. "Jones," said the officer, "can you smell pineapples?" "What, sir," he grunted, "I could if I had a tin of 'em under my nose!"
One night, while we were in support to the 5th, one of their officers, in charge of a patrol sent out to investigate the ground around "Wigan Copse," got into the Copse and discovered a Boche post there. The startled enemy had apparently made off. The next night the 7th took over the front line at an unfortunate moment, for the Hun had decided that "Wigan Copse" must be "retaken" at all costs, and they began the business with a barrage all over the place but particularly on our front line, just as we were beginning the relief. It was decidedly unpleasant, and we had no idea what it was about until we heard the brutes cheering as they rushed into the empty copse. From a report which we captured later we found that this was another addition to their long list of "victories," and I have no doubt that a few iron crosses were doled out to commemorate the occasion.
After three and a half weeks' continuous duty in and around Havrincourt Wood the battalion moved out for a week's rest to Ruyaulcourt in brigade reserve. It was a pleasant diversion and we made the most of the glorious weather with football matches and very successful sports, the latter largely taking the form of comic dress contests.
The affair of "Wigan Copse," and the constant patrolling activity exercised by ourselves and the 5th in that direction had induced a lively interest in this spot, until finally it was decided to raid it, and the 7th were selected to do the job. As this was the first effort of this nature attempted in the division there was naturally a good deal of anxiety as to the result. The 8th were to co-operate with a diversion on "Dean Copse," and if possible, of course, they also were to obtain prisoners. "C" Company (Capt. Townson's) were honoured by the C.O. in having to supply the raiding party of 40 men, and 2nd-Lt. Hodge was put in charge. His qualities as a leader, and his expert knowledge in bayonet fighting left him undisputed as the officer most fitted for the business. He took his men off to Ruyaulcourt, when we had gone into the line again, and there trained them vigorously "over the tapes" for the task in hand. Each time he took them "over" they were inspired to a fiercer zest for the blood of Boche, so that when they returned to the Slag Heap on the night of July 2nd every man was primed up like a fighting cock.
Careful reconnaissance during the preceding nights, and long scrutiny by day through telescopes and field glasses left no doubt as to the weak spot in the Hun armour. He had placed low wire in front of the copse but had no protection on the flanks. A track leading from the front line showed how his men moved up to occupy this outpost position and also the probable route taken by patrols. As it also seemed evident that the copse was held at night only, the plan of the raid was obviously to give the enemy ample time to settle down in the outpost, and then dispose the raiding party so as to strike in on an exposed flank. The western side was selected, because there was little or no danger from the canal, and it left the 8th a free hand to deal with "Dean Copse." At the appointed time our men filed quietly along and got into position across the track without any alarm being raised. Lewis guns were posted at one or two points to cut off retreating Huns. At 1.8 a.m. exactly, our guns opened fire, not upon the copse of course, but upon the enemy main lines. A remarkably good and accurate barrage was put down on the German front line, which formed a crescent within which lay the two copses, especially on known M.G. positions; while, by request, the Australian heavy guns from the next divisional sector northwards joined in with crumps on strong points behind the front line. Simultaneously the raiding party leaped up and rushed into the copse like howling dervishes. Some hours of a deathly, eerie silence, the nerve-racking quality of which is only known to those who have experienced it, and made all the more impressive by the fact that it occurred on a front which is not usually quiet, was followed by a sudden din and an unexplained mad charge of the hated English. It must have put the fear of God into the Germans of "Wigan Copse," for they made no effort to resist and tried to "run for it." In fact one poor devil--a youngster--who had been lying out in the grass on sentry (but must have been doing his work rather badly) got up and ran with our men. Hodge noticing his unusual headgear, seized him by the scruff of the neck and flung him bodily, rifle and everything, back to his men. No one wanted him at the moment, for the "fun" in the copse had to be encountered yet, and he went from hand to hand until one of the covering parties took him in charge.
Two more prisoners were secured on the edge of the copse. Several other Germans who offered resistance were bayonetted while Hodge shot one or two with his revolver. Then it was discovered that the Hun had not left himself so badly protected as we had thought. Interlaced among the branches and shrubs at about five feet from the ground were strands of barbed wire which caused a few nasty cuts and scratches on the faces of some of our men. It was found to be impossible to go through the copse because of this, but Hodge had good reason to be satisfied with the night's work. He had secured his toll of prisoners as ordered, without sustaining a single casualty, and had inflicted other casualties on the enemy, for his men had emptied rifles and Lewis guns at the few flying Boche and into the copse, so he gave the word to withdraw. The men had crawled out at the beginning like fighting cocks, but they came back like roaring lions. They were naturally in a great state of excitement, because it was their first venture of this sort, and it had been crowned, after a glorious five minutes' rough and tumble, with unqualified success.
2nd-Lt. Hodge was decorated with the Military Cross for this feat--the first M.C. in the division in France--and this was really the beginning of a brilliant career for him as a soldier. He was eventually transferred as a Company Commander to the 5th East Lancs. with whom he obtained the D.S.O. From there he progressed to Major with the L.F's., and finally finished the war as Commanding Officer of the 8th Manchesters, leading back the cadre of that battalion to Ardwick Green in March, 1919. He is unreservedly one of the officers whom the Fleur de Lys are proud to claim.
Sgt. McHugh and Ptes. McLean and Braithwaite received Military Medals on this occasion, and they also were glad to know that they opened the long list of decorations that the battalion was to obtain in France.
I have spent some little time on this "Wigan Copse" raid because it is an important event in the history of the battalion. The 7th Manchesters never looked back after that show, and they held up their heads in the proud consciousness that they had attempted a good thing and had achieved it. It gave them confidence--for there was a reputation to live up to, and all felt that they could not possibly fail once a job was begun. And so it was. Nothing the battalion ever touched in future went wrong, and there has been no incident in the war which the 7th need look back upon with remorse or regret.
Another important event in our life at Havrincourt was the digging of a new front line about 500 yards in advance of the old one along almost the whole of the divisional front. The 5th, being the collier battalion, achieved their part of the business on the Slag Heap, while the 7th and 6th worked on their right. The first night was a great success, there was not a whisper of protest from the Boche, and we had cut through an almost continuous line, adequately protected by concertina barbed wire, and particularly strengthened at various points where posts had to be held during the next day. The enemy must have rubbed his eyes rather vigorously next morning when he saw what had been accomplished during one night. However, he soon began to register on the new trench, and unfortunately an isolated tree (Cauliflower Tree) helped him in this work. We were not surprised therefore to have our labours frequently interrupted on the next night's digging by violent displays of wrath accompanied by pyrotechnics. One of these was particularly spectacular, eliciting from a digger the remark: "Wouldn't Jennison be damned jealous if he was here now!"
Rumours increased about going out for Divisional rest, until elements of the 58th (2nd line London Territorial) division began to appear and make reconnaissances of the front, from which we augured good. One of their C.O's. on being told that we had arrived in France in March, was quite delighted, and said he had been searching the British Army for troops who had come out after they did. They arrived a month before us--but from England! Nothing pleased Col. Cronshaw better, and he carefully led him through the exploits of the 42nd from the day they sailed from England in September, 1914. The London C.O. left the dug-out with a more or less chastened countenance, and I presume he still continued his search.
July 8th was our last day at Havrincourt, and although we were glad at the time for the promise of a respite from trench duties, we have since frequently looked back on those sunny days with great pleasure, for by comparison it was a "bon front," and picturesque withal, which can hardly be said about any other sector we learned to know. The light railway was utilised again to take the battalion to Ytres, and after a night there we marched first to Barastre, and then to Achiet le Petit, beyond Bapaume.
The 127th brigade resided under canvas about the battered village of Achiet le Petit on patches of ground not too incommoded by shell holes. The war had passed comparatively lightly over this portion of France, but a short walk westward took one to the battle-scarred fields of the fierce Somme fighting, and this was useful to us for we could pay visits to these districts to learn something of modes of battle in those days. One day, the Brigadier took a number of officers to Thiepval and recorded his own personal experiences of the fighting around there. On another occasion a brigade scheme took place on the famous Gommecourt trenches. We little guessed in those days that we should actually be fighting for our lives in those same trenches in less than twelve months. It seemed as though the tide of war had rolled over this ground for ever, and that the very earth would cry out if it were to hear again the shrieking and tearing of shells that came to wound it.
Intensive training was the order of the day, and realising that we had still much to learn the work was seriously taken up. The men came from Lancashire, the division had been sorely tested by fire in Gallipoli, and by endurance in the Sinai, so that hard work under able leadership was all that was required to uphold the flag of achievement which had yet received no stain. As the days wore on, and we had almost forgotten our trench activities at Havrincourt, rumours began to float once more about an early move, and this move was to be connected with a big stunt coming off soon "up north." At any rate no one disputed the suggestion that our next contact with the enemy would probably be of a more serious nature than the last.
Let it not be supposed, however, that these rather sordid thoughts occupied our minds completely whilst we remained at Achiet. Officers and men took full advantage of the period of rest, and the weather fortunately was exactly suited to enjoyable life under canvas. The thing of the moment only concerned us, and this was more often than not an important football match with another battalion, a game of cricket, a sports day, a visit to the divisional concert troupe--"Th' Lads"--who gave some very good shows about this time. Boxing was a great thing, and Pte. Finch, who was, poor chap, killed and buried in this spot the following March, knocked out all comers in the divisional heavyweight. Some of these events took place in a huge crater, which had been transformed into a sort of Roman amphitheatre, produced by the blowing up of a large and deep German heavy ammunition dump. In the divisional sports also, the officers proved that they were at least the most able-bodied in the 42nd by winning the Tug-o'-War cup.
On the whole, we look back to the weeks at Achiet as a period of solid training, plenty of "Spit and Polish," but "lots of fun." On the 1st of August we got word of the big offensive at Ypres amidst all that disastrous rain, and we expected to move up there any day. It was not until three weeks later, however, that we did move, and then it was known definitely that we were for Flanders. The battalion marched down to Aveluy, near Albert, on an enervatingly hot day and remained one night in huts there. The next night they entrained and proceeded to Poperinghe in Belgium, and so added another country to the list of those they visited during the war.