History of the 1/8th Battalion
HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION
AUCHEL TO PONTRUET
Sept. 7th, 1918.— Sept. 26th, 1918.
We left Beuvry on the morning of Sept. 7th and were taken back on the light railway to Ferfay. On this occasion, much to our surprise, the trains moved off at the scheduled time. From Ferfay it was but a short march to Auchel, another mining village, where we found very good billets, and were welcomed in their usual hospitable way by the French miners and their families. Thanks to a most generous Town Major we got all sorts of little billet comforts, of which he seemed to have an unlimited supply, whilst opposite the Headquarters Mess was a very comfortable little restaurant, bearing the sign, "Cosy Corner," where we found helping to run the show, an old friend known to us in earlier days at Béthune as "Lily."
On the day after our arrival Lieut.-Col. J. F. Dempster, D.S.O., 2nd Manchesters, took over command of the Battalion, Major Andrews resuming the duties of Second-in-Command, and Lieut. C. H. Powell temporarily acting as Adjutant. Changes had also taken place in the Higher Commands in the Division. Brigadier-General John Harington, D.S.O., from the 46th Machine Gun Battalion, had succeeded General Wood in command of the 139th Brigade, and Major-General Thwaites, who had laboured so assiduously to keep the Division up to the highest pitch of perfection in every respect, had gone to England to take up the duties of Director of Military Intelligence at the War Office, and we now had the pleasure of meeting his successor, Major-General G. F. Boyd, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., D.C.M., who was to command the Division for the rest of the war. He came to see us at Auchel, and we soon realised that under his leadership, given ordinary luck, we could not help doing well. Fresh from the battles of the South, he had much to tell us about the latest forms of attack, particularly those carried out in conjunction with Tanks, and we were not long in finding out that what he could not tell us about the kind of fighting that was going on was not worth knowing. He introduced to us the system of advancing in the early stages of the attack in the "Blob" formation, that is, with Companies on wide frontages, echelonned in depth, with each Platoon in a line of sections in "blobs," or small and somewhat open groups. With this formation there was less likelihood of severe casualties from shelling or machine guns, whilst it was a most simple formation from which extensions could be carried out, and at the same time it allowed the Section Commander to retain control of his men up to the last possible moment. This system we at once set about practising, and later on used it in all the battles in which we took part. Very little training was possible during the few days spent at Auchel owing to the bad weather.
It was, of course, general knowledge that we were shortly to take an active part in the fighting in the South, and therefore no surprise when we received orders to entrain. This was carried out in the early hours of Sept. 12th, at Calonne-Ricouart Station, and was rendered extremely uncomfortable by a torrential downpour, which made it specially difficult to get the transport vehicles up the steep ramps on to the trucks. C Company had to do the loading for the whole Brigade, and were at the station for nearly twenty-four hours, working in shifts. They left by the last train at 12.40 p.m., the main body having left at 3.16 a.m. This was our farewell to a district of which we had got to know practically every inch, and of which we shall always retain most happy recollections. We had been there for seventeen months without a break.
Slowly but surely we wended our way Southwards, until we reached Amiens. At one period the town had been emptied of all civilians, but they were just beginning to come back and the streets were now showing slight signs of life again. A certain amount of damage had been done by shell-fire, and as we moved Eastward from Amiens, signs of the one-time proximity of the front line became more marked. Eventually we came to a stop at Corbie Station, where we detrained during the afternoon, after a journey of about twelve hours. After most welcome and refreshing tea, which we owed to the forethought of Capt. Salter, the Acting Staff-Captain, we marched to billets at La Houssoye, some five miles away, where C Company joined us early the following morning. We were now in the IX Corps, which formed part of General Rawlinson's Fourth Army. We were soon able to make ourselves comfortable, though the village was somewhat battered and contained very few inhabitants. When we moved further forward, it was, from a purely military point of view, a decided advantage to find no civilians at all. All around was a delightfully free rolling country, and we could wander anywhere according to our own sweet will, those lucky enough to have horses getting some lovely gallops across the chalk downs. This area had been too near the front line for the past few months for any work to be carried out on the land, and such crops as there were were now being harvested by soldier labour, mostly Canadian.
The enemy had been driven back from the neighbourhood during August by the Australians, who had had particularly hard fighting about Villers-Bretonneux, not many miles distant from where we were billeted, and the work of clearing the battlefield was already in hand. Gangs of Chinese were employed in the task, but we were not impressed by their industry. Everything had to be carried to dumps by the roadside, and no matter what the burden the only authorised way of carrying it was by putting it on the end of a pole, which the "Chink" carried over his shoulder. It seemed decidedly comical, to say the least, to see a man walk several hundred yards to retrieve a coat, for example, hang it on the pole, and walk several more hundred yards with it to a dump! Nevertheless, this seemed to be the recognised way of working.
Such training as we carried out was mostly in the attack and other operations, such as advanced guards, likely to be required in open warfare. Little was done in the way of bombing, which had had its day. There was a good deal of Lewis gun work, and "field-firing" practice in the shape of Platoon attacks on strong points. Flags to represent Tanks were introduced into the scheme with a view to giving some idea of how to follow up a Tank and take possession of the ground it gained. A good deal of practice in Map Reading and Compass work was carried out by Officers and N.C.O.'s, which proved most useful in the days to come. Several Officers and N.C.O.'s here enjoyed their first aeroplane flight through the kindness of the Officer commanding a Bombing Squadron in the vicinity.
Orders for a move came after little delay, but with unexpected suddenness. We had to break off in the middle of a practice attack on September 18th, to prepare for our departure, and at 9 p.m. on the same day we left La Houssoye and marched to Bonnay, where we embussed for the forward area once more. Transport marched brigaded and was now under Lieut. Toyne, who took charge when Lieut. Tomlinson broke his collar-bone in a jumping competition a little while before at Vaudricourt. Somewhere about midnight the long procession of lorries moved off. The other two Brigades of the Division were being moved by the same means, and there is no doubt that the Auxiliary 'Bus Companies were having a pretty busy time! In the darkness the journey seemed endless. It was too bumpy to allow even a doze, sleepy as most of us felt. The whole area was a desolate ruin, but in the darkness we were, of course, able to see little or nothing of it. For something like 40 miles, the Somme area, through which we were passing, was nothing but an immense wilderness—every village practically in ruins, and hardly sufficient remains in many cases to identify their position. In one case a signboard had been put up to mark the site of the village, and on maps they were usually described as "—— ruins of." Old trenches and barbed wire entanglements existed at various points. Not a scrap of ground was cultivated—all was wild and uncared for. Not a living soul was there except a few odd troops of our own, working mostly on roads or guarding dumps, and French, Italians, Portuguese and "Chinks" working on the railways. A few odd woods and shattered trees were practically the only things standing in this enormous tract of country. Later on we saw all this for ourselves when we used to cross this devastated area going on leave or for trips to Amiens, which a generous staff permitted us to indulge in occasionally. Much of the area had been fought over four times—firstly, when captured by the enemy in the original advance; secondly, when he withdrew to the Hindenburg Line early in 1917 and laid the whole place waste; thirdly, during his offensive of 1918; and, lastly, when he was driven out once and for all by British and other troops just before our arrival.
Eventually, about dawn on September 19th, the long train of lorries came to a halt, and we were dumped on the road about a mile West of a one-time village known as Poeuilly, to which we marched, and where we were told we had to bivouac.
It was a cheerless prospect to be turned loose into a bare field at 4.0 a.m. on a late September morning. Poeuilly, however, was found to contain a certain amount of useful material which very soon found its way to our field, and with the aid of a few "trench shelters," and taking advantage of some trenches which were there, it was not long before we had put up some quite useful protection. Though chilly in the early morning the weather was quite seasonable, and on the whole we did not fare badly. Our Transport arrived late the same day.
The Hindenburg Line lay a few miles in front of us, and some of its outer defences were already in our hands. On the afternoon of September 20th, we left Poeuilly and relieved the 2nd Royal Sussex in Brigade Reserve in trenches and dug-outs about Pontru, with Battalion Headquarters at "Cooker" Quarry, the 5th and 6th Battalions taking over the front line. At this point we were some seven miles North-West of St. Quentin, and two to three miles West of Bellenglise, on the St. Quentin Canal. There was no great excitement during the three days we spent there except that we had rather bad luck with the Transport. As the idea was rather pressed on us that we were now taking part in "moving warfare," some of the horses and Company limbers of bombs and small arm ammunition were taken forward to the edge of a small wood just behind Battalion Headquarters. Unfortunately this wood got shelled and several mules were knocked out, with the result that the ammunition was dumped, and the limbers and rest of the animals were sent back to Poeuilly.
On September 23rd we received orders for certain action to be carried out by us in connection with an attack which was to be launched the next day, when the 46th Division were to carry out a "minor operation" in conjunction with the 1st Division on their right. The Australians had pushed forward considerably on the left, and the line now bent back sharply, where the troops we had relieved had been held up by the village of Pontruet. The attack was planned both to straighten out the line and to get possession of the high ground on the right. The 138th Brigade, who had taken over from the Australians on the left, were ordered to capture the village of Pontruet, and for this purpose detailed the 5th Leicesters. The attack was to be carried out by an enveloping movement from the North, and the village was to be rushed from the East. Our 5th and 6th Battalions were to co-operate by occupying some trenches about Pontruet, and, on the night following, the 8th Battalion was to relieve the 5th Leicesters as far North as the inter-Brigade boundary.
The attack was launched at 5 a.m. on September 24th, and though the 5th Leicesters made most strenuous efforts to attain their objectives, they just failed to achieve the full purpose for which they set out, and at the end of the day Pontruet was not ours. Our 5th Battalion on the right also had some stiff fighting, and suffered several casualties, taking their objective on the high ground South of Pontruet, and capturing about 100 prisoners. Late in the day our orders to relieve the 5th Leicesters were cancelled, and we had to take over from our own 5th Battalion, who were holding the Western edge of Pontruet. This operation was completed just before dawn on the 25th, Battalion Headquarters being in a dug-out in the high ground South of Pontru. Fortunately we were there only two days, for the discomfort was very great, the dug-outs and cellars swarming with flies and vermin, and there was little other protection from the enemy shelling, which was fairly frequent. On September 26th we were relieved on an intensely dark night by the 1st Black Watch and went back to bivouacs just off the Vendelles-Bihécourt Road, put up for us by the Battle Details, who had moved up from Poeuilly. They, together with the Transport and Quar.-Master's stores, had had none too peaceful a time during the last few days. Having moved to Vendelles they were shelled out of it almost at the moment they arrived, but eventually found a quiet resting-place for a brief space at Bernes, where, in addition to ordinary stores, there were piled all the men's packs and spare kit, and numbers of Lewis gun boxes. All moves now were done in light "fighting order" and the Quar.-Master and Quar.-Master-Sergts. had their time fully occupied in thinking how all the spare kit was to be got forward when it was wanted.
During our recent moves we had received a regular influx of new Officers, no fewer than nine having joined between September 3rd and September 26th. They were 2nd Lieuts. G. Newton, John Henry Smith, A. N. Davis, R. N. Barker, T. F. Mitchell, W. J. Winter, R. S. Plant, P. A. Turner, and W. G. Jacques. We had lost 2nd Lieut. Morris, who had gone to the 139th Trench Mortar Battery; and Comp. Sergt.-Major Slater and five N.C.O.'s who were sent to England as Instructors. Slater was succeeded as Comp.-Sergt.-Major of A Company, by Sergt. Attenborough. Our battle casualties at Pontruet amounted to five killed and 24 wounded.
The men were now very fit and the Battalion was on the top of its form. Our chief anxiety was whether after all we were to be in a real good push. We suspected that we might have been brought here to be whittled away in minor trench attacks, and that the opportunity of really showing what stuff the Battalion was made of would never present itself. Our fears were not lessened when we saw how the 5th Leicesters and 5th Sherwood Foresters suffered at Pontruet, and we saw looming ahead what we imagined to be the never-ending luck of the 46th Division. Our fears were ill-founded. Better things were before us and arrived sooner than we expected.