Seventh Manchesters index
An Interlude - 1917 to 1918.
The 42nd division added to its list of new experiences when it was relieved at Nieuport, by a division of French troops. We afterwards heard that they had demonstrated their capacity for common sense in warfare by evacuating all the horrible ground in front of the Redan, which we had clung to with characteristic British bull-dog tenacity.
Lt.-Col. Carr, D.S.O., having proceeded on leave, Major Allan commanded the battalion during the succeeding days. It was found later, however, that the C.O. would not return, having been placed on the sick list at home. The division was destined for Bethune and it was a very pleasant five days' march that took us to that area. On the first day, Nov. 16th, passing through Leffinckoucke, near Dunkirk, we reached Teteghem, while the next day took us to Esquelbec, just outside Wormhoudt. The following two days required only short distances to the Hazebrouck district, but the fifth day was longer, and, marching past the divisional commander in Aire, we arrived at Mazinghem, a small village just off the main Lillers road.
The battalion spent a few days here, and a really happy time it was. The villagers had not become blasé to British soldiers, and they gave our men a hearty welcome in their billets. It was with no small pride that the curé, with whom the padre and myself were lucky enough to be billeted, informed us that General Pètain had at one time spent many happy days in his house, for his uncle had been the curé here. Whilst in this village we received the news of the wonderful Cambrai attack by General Byng, and we had a curious feeling that he had no right to do that without asking the 42nd to help him, for we naturally possessed a fatherly interest in Havrincourt and all its works. The first flush of news gave us no details, and we were perplexed to know what had happened to "Jerry's Wire" which we knew was formidable enough. Then the stories of tanks upon tanks drifted through, and we began to understand it.
It was here that Lt.-Col. Bromfield, of the Leicestershire Regt. first saw the 7th and assumed command. He was due for leave, however, and had just emerged from a trying time at Paschendaele, so Major Allan was soon left in charge once more. We did not remain long at Mazinghem for our duty was to relieve the 25th division in the line at Givenchy, before La Bassee. As everyone knows, this was one of the sectors of the original British line so that everything connected with it was essentially English. Since the fighting at Festubert in 1915 comparative peace had reigned along this front and we were content to allow it to remain so after our noisy experiences at Ypres and Nieuport.
Givenchy was once a mining village situated on a spur of the Aubers Ridge, which, running west to east, looks down upon the flat ground, stretching uninterruptedly northwards through Festubert, Neuve Chapelle and Laventie towards Armentieres. Someone had facetiously suggested in the trench diary (a beautifully bound document that had been handed down from battalion to battalion from early days) that "Givenchy Church be kept in a state of repair for the Huns to register on," and therein lies an important fact. Had the church tower been standing, and one could have got into it, a glorious view of a large part of Northern France would have been obtained. Looking eastwards one saw La Bassee half concealed by thick woods while to the northeast were the outskirts of Lille. Southwards and south-west were the mining villages of the Lens district with their huge conical fosses. In other words, Givenchy was an important tactical point and the fiercest efforts of the Boche in 1914 had failed to move British troops from it, although at the end of the fighting it lay in a very sharp salient, which was only straightened out after Festubert in 1915.
Since those days typical old-fashioned trench warfare had prevailed. There were wonderful ramifications of trenches, front line, duplicate firing line, support trenches, reserve trenches, and numerous communication saps, all built on the old style with numerous sandbags. On the flat ground to the north it had been impossible to dig down for defence, and both sides had built up earthworks on the somewhat marshy ground, so that sandbags were again the most noticeable feature. Running behind the breastworks in this portion was a convenient trench-tramway--for rations, ammunition, etc. To the south of Givenchy were the famous La Bassee Canal and the brickstacks.
When mankind started to fight each other under the earth, as well as on it and above it, No Man's Land in front of Givenchy began to be really churned up. Huge craters had been blown up by both sides in such numbers that they formed the most distinctive feature of this part of the line. The whole of the ground across the ridge between the lines presented the appearance of a model of the Alps on a rather large scale. These craters had to be carefully represented on all trench maps, and they bore distinctive names such as Warlington Crater and Red Dragon Crater. Both sides had pushed forward saps as far as possible through this difficult ground both for observation and sniping purposes. Great mine shafts extended under No Man's Land, and the curious could go down these and listen to the Huns knocking about and digging above.
The great advantage of the quiet nature of this front was the possibility of daylight reliefs, so it was in the afternoon of November 27th that the 7th dribbled across "Westminster Bridge" over the canal, and took over the support positions evacuated by the 1st battalion Wiltshire Regt. in the vicinity of "Windy Corner." We were astonished to find cottages and rows of houses, very little damaged, within 600 yards of the front line, and we reposed comfortably on wire beds inside them instead of in holes in the ground. In fact, across the canal, just behind Harley Street, and at an equal distance from the front, there still lived a Frenchman with his wife and kiddie, who dispensed eggs and chips to hungry Tommies! Surely this must be a "bon front." I am afraid things looked vastly different after the Hun attempt to smash through the 55th division here in the following April. It was with the probability of this attack in view that the 42nd division began to stiffen the defences, and as well as holding the line we interested ourselves in digging, concreting and wiring.
G.H.Q. were convinced that Germany would in the Spring make a supreme effort to break up the Western Front before the American Army became an effective force in the field. The offensive spirit was to be kept in our pockets for a short time, and we were to turn our attention to the defensive idea. They had also decided that a system of "defended localities," skilfully sited and constructed, would be the most effective method of breaking up the attacking hordes. That is, the British front would consist of a series of posts, each self-contained, but mutually supporting, that would act like a huge breakwater to the Hun waves. In accordance with this general idea, the line near La Bassee was reconstructed, and a good deal of hard work was put in during those winter weeks. Later, when we heard how well the 55th division had stopped the enemy in the localities that we had done so much to perfect, we felt a good deal of pride and satisfaction that they had proved a success, and complimentary messages were exchanged between Maj.-Gen. Solly-Flood and Maj.-Gen. Jeudwine, commanding the 55th division. A combination of the work and fighting qualities of Lancashire men had been too much for the Hun.
It must not be imagined that it was all a bed of roses on this front, for the enemy had his unpleasant moments, particularly at night. There was a steady flow of irritating casualties, and when Corporal O'Connell and Pte. Bowie of the regimental police were killed at headquarters one night, we felt that old familiar faces might not be so permanent amongst us as might be supposed. The cruel disruption of war was ever present. Still we had the satisfaction of knowing that the Boche received as much and more than he gave. The battalion snipers occasionally registered hits, and in this type of warfare there was plenty "of good sport" to be had owing to the short distance across No Man's Land and the large gaps in the sides of the enemy trenches. Our gunners also indulged in sniping with good results, and it was exciting to watch the rapidity of the sequence of two or three grey figures jumping out of a trench and the bang, bang, bang of an 18 pounder shell or two in their close vicinity. But our excitement must have been as naught compared with that of the aforesaid grey figures!
The reliefs in this "model sector" came round like clock-work. A battalion did four days in the front line, four days in support, four days in the line, and then four days in brigade reserve. After thirty-two days of this the brigade went out for sixteen days in divisional reserve. It was all so beautiful and soothing that it seemed as though the problem of perpetual motion had been solved and the war had come for an eternity. The enemy did the same thing, and we knew when he did it. He left us alone on relief days and we returned the compliment. Thus on December 9th we effected a peaceful passage into brigade reserve at Gorre Chateau. In a noisy sector this chateau and all the village in the vicinity would have been reduced to ruins, but here the civilians had not been interrupted in their daily work, and the chateau itself was a wonderful billet for troops, accommodating the whole battalion comfortably. In fact, nearly twelve months later orderly room received bills for the use of the electric light in the officers' mess!
Whilst here Major Allan was sent to hospital, from which he was eventually invalided to England, and did not return to the battalion again. He had had a long, useful career with the 127th brigade since the middle of 1915. Family affairs had caused the regretted departure of Lt. G. W. Franklin, and his place at the head of the transport was taken by Lt. Wilkinson, after a brief period of duty by Lt. C. R. Thorpe. Col. Bromfield returned from leave just after we went into the line again at Givenchy after the four days' rest. This spell in the line was marked principally by cold, frosty weather and most of the battalion figured in the trenches in wonderful fur coats popularly known as leather jerkins.
The Manchester brigade were fortunate again in being out in divisional reserve for 'Xmas. Excellent fare was provided for the 7th in the shape of turkeys, pork, 'Xmas pudding, extra vegetables, barrels of beer and extra rum rations, so that hilarity was the order of the day. There being a good deal of snow about at this time tactical exercises frequently took the form of inter company snow-ball fights. To have Major Hurst with us during this period previous to his departure on Courts-martial work could not have been more opportune, for he had ever been most energetic on the social side of the battalion. With reminiscences of his impromptu concerts and lectures on Gallipoli and in Egypt we knew we should not look in vain for something from him. His was the master-mind behind this Yule-tide festivity, while a delightfully funny sketch written by him in which Gwendoline de Vere of Greenheys Lane figured prominently, gave the officers and sergeants of the 7th an opportunity of displaying their dramatic skill. The inhabitants of Bethune, where most of the brigade were in billets at this time, will not easily forget the efforts of the 127th brigade to make the most of its 'Xmas rest. The Boche made unpleasant contributions to the proceedings by way of long range shelling by day and bombing by night, but although the 8th and the civilians suffered somewhat by these displays, the 7th escaped practically unhurt.
In the opening days of the New Year we returned to the line in the Brickstacks sector south of the canal, and the heavy snow and frost having been succeeded by a sudden thaw accompanied by rain, the condition of the trenches in the low ground can be better imagined than described. Leather jerkins were quickly supplemented by "boots, gum, thigh," and the British soldier came to assume the appearance of a Yarmouth fisherman. Runners, etc., arriving at company H.Q., would first demand from the harbour master permission to navigate their course through the troubled waters, while facetious notices indicated times when pleasure boats could be taken out. This amphibious warfare was extremely unpleasant, and it further delayed the work on the new defensive positions. Captain Jimmy Baker and Lt. Jack Morten, whilst on a midnight prowl in No Man's Land almost met with disaster, and the performance came to an undignified close after they had extricated one another from deep muddy water to make their way back to dock minus gum boots. We knew that the Huns must be in a similar predicament, for their ground was equally low, and we could only laugh when on one occasion dawn revealed one or two of them jumping about in the open in attempts to dry their clothes and to restore life to their numbed bodies. It hardly seemed the game to fire upon them.
Kindness to a German is often misplaced, as we found when his "travelling Circus" of heavy trench mortars arrived. Having unobtrusively got these weapons into concentrated positions near his support line he suddenly loosed them all off one afternoon at an extremely annoying and rapid rate of fire, peppering all the trenches that we had spent such time in getting into habitable condition. It was a nerve-racking experience while it lasted but the 7th stuck to their posts ready to meet any Hun attack should it develop. What the enemy had really intended was never quite understood, but a small party of Boche got across No Man's Land that night. One of "B" company's posts saw them, however, and attacked them. One German got into our trench and Pte. Saunderson chased him but failed to get him. Jerry, in his hurried departure, left behind him his cap and one or two other articles and these, together with a collection of battered trenches and a few slight casualties, were the only souvenirs we got out of this "stunt," with the exception of the M.M. awarded to Pte. Saunderson, for his plucky conduct. The divisional commander was in the battalion area at the time, and he afterwards sent us a congratulatory message on the steadiness of the men, a compliment of which we were justly proud.
On January 22nd we moved out to Le Preol into brigade reserve. The 7th were particularly fortunate in coming out of the line at this time, for we did not go in again before the whole division was relieved. After our allotted period at Le Preol it was the brigade's turn for divisional reserve, and this was accompanied by another move back to Hingette, near Locon. One of our functions in this position was to back up the Portuguese if they should be attacked, for they lay on the left of the 42nd. This entailed a careful reconnaissance of all the ground behind their positions, and the siting and construction of defended localities in that area. So the battalion found itself digging and wiring once more in new soil.
The 55th division, having recovered from the severe handling they had received in the enemy reply to "Cambrai," eventually took over the line, and on February 12th the 7th marched back to Burbure, near Lillers. The end of the 42nd's tour of duty in this sector had been marked the previous night by a highly successful raid by the 9th Manchesters which had taken the Boche completely by surprise, and had furnished quite a number of prisoners and machine guns. The warning rumblings of the German offensive storm now steadily increased to a marked degree. His guns were growing in number, range and activity, and what had once been peaceful back areas were steadily becoming more uncomfortable. This was displayed all along the front, so that it was impossible to deduce from that fact alone where his blow would fall. There was a good deal of suspicion, however, about the Portuguese front, and the duties of the 42nd, as 1st Army reserve, were clear if the attack took place there.
Eventually the division, without having to move again, became G.H.Q. reserve, which meant that we were liable to be sent to any part of the British line when Germany commenced to strike. With the aid of motor buses, parties of officers and men made reconnaissances of the defended localities behind the Loos and Hulluch sector, so that by now we were more or less conversant with the larger part of the 1st Army front. The divisional commander lectured officers and N.C.O's. of all brigades concerning the work of defence, and it was about this time that he instituted the divisional motto:--"Go one better"--which was taken up and acted upon with such popular enthusiasm by everyone connected with the 42nd. In fact, if a coat of arms of the East Lancashire Division had been designed in 1918, the following three features would have stood out clearly:--
During the month of February the drain upon the manpower of the British Empire caused by the war made itself apparent. It was found to be impossible to maintain in the field four battalions per brigade, and a reduction to three was ordered. Then took place the solution of a most confusing Chinese puzzle. Some battalions were broken up, and the fragments sent to others either in the same division or in other divisions, while in the case of many units, particularly territorials, there was a transfer of a sort of cadre which was amplified to full strength in its new division. The 42nd division lost the 6th L.F's., the 4th East Lancashires and the 9th Manchesters, and the 8th Manchesters were transferred to the 126th brigade, which was now composed of 5th East Lancs., the 8th and 10th Manchesters, while the 127th brigade was left with the 5th, 6th and 7th Manchesters. A whole company of seven officers and 200 men of the 2/10th Manchesters from the 66th division came to wear the Fleur de Lys, and we were glad to welcome them as comrades. In the heavy fighting that followed they proved themselves to be good stuff of the regular Oldham type, while they themselves forgot their natural initial heart burnings and grew proud of the Cap badge and flashes that they had adopted.
Our period of rest was divided between Burbure and Busnes, and in both places the mesdemoiselles and the estaminets were a source of real delight to the men of the 7th. As might be expected, some good, solid training was achieved, and this was interspersed by most enjoyable football competitions and cross-country running. In fact, the middle of March found the division extremely fit.