Seventh Manchesters index
Stopping the Hun.
"Good God! What is the matter with the Boche to-night?" Such were our ejaculations on the night of March 21st at Busnes. The coming of darkness had brought with it the long-drawn out, familiar "A-zoom, a-zoom--CRASH--CRASH--CRASH," of enemy planes but in closer proximity than ever before. Previously they had confined their attentions to Bethune each night, but on this particular evening Lillers was the objective, and plane after plane came over maintaining an almost continuous bombardment throughout the night. An ammunition train standing in the station, was hit, and the terrific explosions that followed at irregular intervals accompanied by huge fires added to the evening's excitements. Next day, wires from G.H.Q. enlightened us. The German offensive opened on the morning of March 21st, the fifth and third armies being engaged. The front line defence had been overwhelmed, but we were led to suppose that the enemy was being held up amongst the defended localities.
We afterwards learnt that intensive bombing of back areas and particularly of railheads and junctions had taken place that night in the whole of the British area. One of the objects of this was to impede the movements of reserve divisions, and when it is known that detailed instructions had been issued for the entrainment of the 42nd at Lillers in case we should be required at some distance, such a policy as this is easily understood. But the German had reckoned without the London omnibus driver, who before the war had served another kind of "General." Arrangements were rapidly completed in twenty-four hours, so that on the morning of March 23rd the whole division, in battle order, found a huge fleet of buses ready to convey them to--"Somewhere in France." The French villagers smiled confidently at us as we journeyed northwards in the direction of the Portuguese front, but they did not know, poor souls, that this was the only way the large convoy could "about turn," nor did they know, although perhaps they guessed, that the Portuguese front would collapse the following month and they would be fleeing for their lives before the blonde beast. We eventually turned our faces south and rode the whole of that day without stopping over the dusty roads of France. The Hun had been extraordinarily lucky in weather, there having been hardly a drop of rain for more than three weeks, so that the ground was perfectly dry for his operations.
Nightfall found us still travelling, and the day of 24th March had almost broken before we "debussed" to find ourselves in the devastated area of the Somme lands, near the village of Ayette. There was no rest to be had. Uncertainty as to the situation in front and also as to the future possibilities necessitated an immediate adoption of tactical positions, and the 127th brigade took up a defensive line, on an outpost principle, to cover the ground between Ablainzevelle and Courcelles. Until this had been achieved no man was able to turn his thoughts to sleep, in fact the sun had been up some hours before this was possible. The day produced a complexity of events in the handling of which Col. Bromfield proved himself to be at once human and masterful. In the first place, a "battle surplus" had to be decided upon. This was a small group of officers and men, selected as far as possible from each rank and from each type of specialists, who remained behind the line whilst the battalion was in action. In the event of the battalion being obliterated by casualties, they would form the nucleus of a new unit. Choice generally fell upon those who were considered due for a rest from the line. When the necessary officers and men had been abstracted the Company Commanders were Capt. Tinker, "A," Capt. Nidd, "B," 2nd-Lt. Harland, "C," and Capt. J. Baker, "D." Headquarters comprised the C.O., Capt. J. R. Creagh, Adjutant; Lt. C. S. Wood, Signals; and Lt. S. J. Wilson, I.O.; while Capt. Philp, the M.O., and Padre Hoskyns were in confident control of aid post arrangements.
We had now become a part of the third army, and as such we were destined to remain until the conclusion of the war. General Byng was not a stranger to the 42nd, for it was as a part of his corps on Gallipoli that they made their first fight against the Turk. As the reports have it, "the situation was obscure" on this portion of the third army front. As far as we were concerned the 40th division had experienced a very severe handling but were still fighting gamely. They had recaptured Mory twice and were now expected to be in possession of the greater part of the village, while the Guards on their left were only yielding ground inch by inch. What had happened to the right of this was not very clear. The orders of the 127th brigade were to go up and relieve some fragments of the 40th division in Mory on the night of the 24th, and when darkness fell we set out with this object in view, but such plain, straightforward work as that was not to be achieved in these queer days. Events moved quickly and a change in the situation was an hourly occurrence; it therefore devolved upon unit commanders, and as far as possible commanders of higher formations to act with initiative and resource.
The head of the brigade column had reached Gomiecourt when word was received that the enemy was attacking again, and there were vague reports that Behagnies had either been captured or was being hard pressed. It was considered inadvisable to continue the journey to Mory, and more important to hold up this possible enveloping movement. We were therefore deflected to the right, and then those things were done which we used to practise on the desert, but never expected to put into use in France. We moved across the open in artillery formation by battalions and finally deployed into a defensive position. Meanwhile the guns were hammering away at S.O.S. speed from their hastily improvised positions either on or near the roads. The difficulty of all this work was not diminished by the darkness, and it was with some astonishment that we found the 125th brigade coming through our lines diagonally. One or two stragglers from other divisions came in and told stories of heavy enemy attacks, but a gunner major rode back from the front on a white horse, and said the situation was not so bad as these men's reports had intimated. Still, there seemed to be a good deal of confusion, and the 7th were somewhat bewildered, not knowing quite what to expect next. Meanwhile they longed hard for daylight in order to get their whereabouts and some idea of the lie of the land.
As daylight approached on the 25th it was obvious, from the increasing proximity of rifle fire on our left, that Mory had fallen and the line was falling back steadily. Quiet seemed to reign now, however, in the direction of Behagnies. We later discovered that the L.F's. had received orders to push on and cover the Behagnies-Sapignies Road, and this they had successfully achieved in the night. At the same time the 126th brigade was in touch with the enemy in front of Ervillers, so that on the morning of the 25th all three brigades were in the front line and were rigging up an impromptu battle with the Hun. The enemy soon made his intentions clear and he commenced a vigorous assault. What troops still remained of the 40th and other divisions, when they found that the 42nd were in position, gradually dribbled through in search of a long-delayed and well-earned rest. They had been fighting without respite since the morning of the 21st. The 6th Manchesters were now on the right of the division in the vicinity of Bihucourt, but they were uncertain as to the state of affairs on their right. As a matter of fact, although we were not aware of it at the time, Bapaume had been taken and a large gap had been left in the line south of our right flank, through which the Huns were pouring in victorious mass. The New Zealand division and one brigade of Australians, with the 62nd division on their left were hurried forward, and after very severe fighting stopped the enemy rush about Hebuterne, some miles westward of the position we held on March 25th.
Meanwhile we were in blissful ignorance of our hazardous position and the Manchesters were preserving strict guard over an exposed right flank. The 6th came in for a good deal of heavy fighting in the vicinity of Bihucourt, but they held the village all day. The headquarters of the 7th was in an old shallow dug-out close to the light railway that had been constructed from Achiet-le-Grand to run eastwards in the direction of Bullecourt. This railway wound its way through a sort of valley to the north of which lies Gomiecourt and to the north-east Mory. Due east on higher ground are Behagnies and Sapignies where the L.F's. were making such a fine stand. This high ground continues southwards towards Bihucourt and Bapaume, and it was along this ridge that most of the day's fighting took place.
During the previous night the 7th had been spread out fanwise in out-posts covering the shallow valley, and it was not long after daylight before the enemy began to drop shells indiscriminately about this ground. "C" and "D" companies were ordered forward to assist the 5th and "A" and "B" were left in support. Tanks came up and they courageously crawled out over the ridge and did some very sound work before being knocked out by guns which had been brought up to unwonted proximity. It was whilst crawling out to rescue a wounded man of the crew of a tank that Sergeant Heath, M.M., was mortally wounded. The 127th brigade could not be driven from their positions and they dug themselves in, in small section posts, confidently awaiting nightfall and the next day's fight. The attacks died down and when darkness came, digging parties went up to assist in the work of consolidation. Events as described above, however, had decided otherwise, for about 10 p.m. a divisional staff officer arrived with orders to fall back to a line of defence between Logeast Wood and Courcelles.
Casualties had been fairly heavy in this day's work. Capt. J. Baker and 2nd.-Lt. B. Taylor had gone down wounded, while Col. Bromfield, Capt. Creagh and the M.O. had all been slightly wounded by a shell which knocked in the entrance to the headquarter's dug-out. They remained at duty, although the C.O. suffered considerably from an internal bruise in the stomach which made it impossible for him to walk without assistance. The arrangements for clearing the wounded became confused when Gomiecourt was evacuated, for there the Advanced Dressing Station had been established. Then it was that the Padre displayed his vigour, courage and resource. He commandeered a hut close to Achiet and had a large number of wounded from various battalions collected there. Eventually he was able to get an ambulance which carried many of them back to the Casualty Clearing Station, but this process suddenly stopped. All sorts of conveyances were then seized and men were gradually carried back. When the order to withdraw became known matters were critical, but the Padre continued his labours. Difficulties were not diminished when the Hun commenced to drop 5.9's near this spot. Hoskyns was slightly wounded, but he was bound up and carried on his self-appointed task until some time after the last of the brigade had gone by, leaving him with no one in front but the Hun. Not until the last man had been carried safely off did he leave this place, and then he collected various stragglers and marched them up as a platoon to join their own units! This, and his continuous plucky and considerate work in tending bodily as well as spiritual needs during the next few days obtained for him a well-earned M.C.
The night of the 25th-26th was even more strenuous than the previous one. About 11.30 p.m. the withdrawal commenced, and was very skilfully carried out, so skilfully, in fact, that the German battle outposts could be heard firing intermittently for hours after our troops had retired. After steady plugging, man-handling everything, we reached a system of admirably prepared trenches north of Logeast Wood. The pioneer battalion 7th Northumberland Fusiliers, who had come to the division in February, had been working upon them all day, and, excellently sited as they were, they inspired everyone with a great feeling of confidence. Men took a lively interest in their posts, and after a considerable amount of organisation sentries were mounted and the battalion settled down for a rest until the enemy should arrive. It was now 3 a.m. At this hour it so happened that the division had received another urgent order to fall back still further. Staff officers made their way on foot through the congested roads behind the front and searched dimly for the various brigades, a most uncertain task in view of the rapidity of events. We were found eventually and the brigade major aroused us from slumber to transmit the news.
Once again the 7th rose up, shouldered their burdens, and strode backwards. "What are we going back for? What does it all mean? We held up Jerry yesterday--why retire?" It all seemed very unsatisfactory and we were very tired. Food had naturally been scanty and only obtained in snatches, but much energy was being consumed. It was a disappointed battalion that straggled wearily through Logeast Wood. We were only just in time, however, for advance parties of the enemy were already entering the east side of the Wood as we emerged from the south-west side. Here we found some explanation of things. Col. Wedgewood, of the 6th, reported bodies of the enemy moving forward to strike in on our southern flank, and this news had the effect of an electric shock amongst us. Col. Bromfield at once ordered positions to be taken up to face the enemy who were advancing from the south and south-east. "A" and "D" companies moved out quickly to seize the high ground and one or two Lewis guns opened fire at the bodies of grey figures in the distance. Meanwhile, however, the brigadier had decided to cover the Bucquoy-Ablainzevelle road, and so touch up with the 62nd division, who had some hours previously occupied a position from Hebuterne to Bucquoy, and were at that moment resisting violent efforts on the part of the Hun to turn our right flank. It was, therefore, in the latter village where we met the gallant Yorkshiremen of the 2nd line West Riding Territorials. Gen. Henley personally assisted in getting the platoons of "B" and "C" companies into position, and then "A" and "D" companies were ordered to withdraw to their line.
When the withdrawal had been completed the 7th were on the right of the division, with the flank resting on the edge of Bucquoy village. The road from Bucquoy to Ayette, which was almost south to north, is an important one and is marked by a row of trees on each side. As one walks from Bucquoy along this road, another road branching off to the right from the edge of the village is seen leading down to Ablainzevelle. The road junction marks the highest portion of ground in the vicinity, and there is a long sweep eastwards towards Logeast Wood and Achiet-le-Petit. It was when we noticed the latter place that the whole irony of the situation broke upon us. Eight month's ago we had been enjoying a blissful period of rest on this self-same spot, and such features as we now gazed upon had merely been used for the purpose of containing a supposed enemy in the working out of a tactical exercise--a sham fight. Now--the enemy could not be more real or more alive. He was here with the sole intent of destroying us by any possible method if we would not vacate our position. What happened?
The 7th was assured that this was at last the spot where resistance would be offered. There were no trenches, and the men lay out in the open on the sloping ground east and south of the Ablainzevelle road, with intent to dig in as soon as possible. "C" company were on the right, and they were rather fortunate in being on the site of an old camp, because in these days of modern war it is necessary to dig a hole in a tent even, as a safe-guard against bombing. "C" company then disposed themselves amongst these circular holes, and later found them useful protection when the heavy shelling commenced. "B" company, in the centre, were totally exposed, while "A" company on the left, in touch with the 6th, were almost as bad, although two platoons were able to make use of the sunk road. "D" company were behind in support and could occupy portions of an old Boche trench running east and west. Headquarters lay out in the Ayette road at first until an old Boche dug-out, not completed, was found farther up the road, and then they got into it. Platoons had barely been allotted their areas when clumps of Huns began to appear on the ridge we had just vacated. They proved to be teams of light machine gunners, and without preliminaries in the matter of searching for cover, they promptly opened fire, and soon there was a perfect hail of grazing bullets swishing over the battalion area. German officers calmly walked about directing operations and the whole scene resembled a "stunt on the pictures" rather than modern war. They had made a mistake, though, and if they were seeking dramatic effect it was only short lived. Our men were delighted at the perfect target they presented on the skyline, and rat-tat-tatted merrily in reply to the Hun swish. By this time also "D" company of the Machine Gun battalion had taken up a position and they also joined in the conversation. The enemy then considered the advisability of concealment, and he disappeared from view. Small parties of his infantry meanwhile had dribbled forward, considerably helped by old systems of trenches which extended down into the low ground. Our men were ready, however, and met them with a heavy fusillade whenever they showed themselves.
Between Logeast Wood and Ablainzevelle was a camp of Nisson huts, which had been protected against bombing, in the usual manner, by thick walls of earth round each hut. The enemy was now making the fullest possible use of these, for they afforded him most excellent protection. Luckily they were on a piece of ground fully exposed to us, and we were able to get some idea as to his movements in that direction. It was soon evident that they were to be utilised as a stepping stone to a further advance. First, light M.G's. and snipers were brought up, and these dribbled out of the huts into Ablainzevelle, where they established themselves to the discomfort of our men, for they were well on our left flank and could take some of our position in enfilade. The battalion suffered a number of casualties from this cause. Unfortunately also, our guns had not got a clear conception of the state of affairs, and one battery fairly peppered the H.Q. road with shrapnel, inflicting about a dozen casualties, while others covered our own forward positions with the same kind of shell, and so added to the list. I am convinced that there is nothing more demoralising to a soldier in defence than to come under the fire of his own guns, so, to say the least, these moments were very trying. The difficulty of communicating with the rear caused a further delay in the correction of this serious blunder, and our men had to maintain a grip on their positions whilst subjected to fire from both sides, for by this time the enemy had got his guns up, impudently close to the front line, evidently with a view to a further advance, and was using them to advantage. Some of them could be distinctly seen on the outskirts of Logeast Wood, and it was obvious that most of the others responsible for our discomfort were in the Wood itself. Further away the roads from Grevillers, Bapaume, Loupart Wood, etc., could be seen choked with masses of advancing Germans. If only we had had a few 60-pounders, what perfect execution we should have accomplished. There were batteries of guns, companies of infantry, columns of transport, staff-cars, and all the impedimenta of a moving army. I expect the heart of every Hun of them swelled with the pride of achievement. They were marching to the last victory that was going to obliterate the hated English and end the war. They were not yet aware that just here there was a row of troops, from right to left, New Zealanders, Australians, Yorkshiremen, Lancashiremen, and Guards, who did not intend to concede another yard of ground.
How we longed for the heavy guns during the days that followed, but they could not, of course, come into action until the infantry line had been stabilised. Weeks later we heard stories of the doings on those roads behind the lines, and perhaps we should not judge too harshly, for traffic control was difficult and there was obviously an excessive demand upon transport. Add to this the disturbing lack of news and the peculiar shape of the front, for whereas we were facing east, the 62nd division with the exception of one battalion in Bucquoy were facing south, and some explanation may be found for the slight degree of confusion. The divisional artillery, 18-pounders and 4.5 howitzers, remained faithful to the infantry, and the 42nd gunners never showed up to prouder advantage than they did during those stern days. It was not they who had fired upon us. They were too close to us to make any mistake in that way, for during the heaviest fighting they had their guns within 1,600 yards of the front line, and where cover was unobtainable either for gun or man. Needless to say they suffered very heavily both in personnel and material, for the enemy aircraft soon found them, and they were hammered and gassed mercilessly. Their forward observation officers maintained a liaison with the H.Q. of the infantry battalions, and in addition to courageous work in searching for targets and correcting gun fire they showed the greatest consideration for our needs.
Although the 7th occupied a commanding position it was singularly bare and exposed so that cover was difficult to find. During the first few hours "D" company of the M.G's. had all their guns but one put out of action, and almost all their officers and men became casualties. They had pluckily worked their weapons in the hastily sited positions until knocked out--not before, however, they had carried out savage execution amongst the more venturesome Huns, and they certainly had the effect of making the remainder hesitate. The nature of the ground made it difficult also for the battalion observers to work, for it was evident the enemy F.O.O's. were specially searching for such people, and the moment they fixed up a telescope down came a hurricane of shelling, the close proximity of the Boche guns making their fire extremely accurate and deadly. The result was that after the first day's fighting, of the observers only two, Cpl. Maguire and Pte. Wilmer, remained. Not to be daunted by the fate of their comrades they clung to their task, and when shelled out of one spot immediately found another. They kept the enemy under close watch and strung together most valuable chains of evidence as to their movements, gallant work for which both received the M.M.
The signallers also suffered heavily. Wires were difficult to keep in repair but the linesmen continued to go out during the heaviest shelling, while others maintained a system of lamp signalling to the brigade behind a pile of ammunition boxes until a 5.9 dropped plumb amongst them with dire results. Other signallers at once found a new spot and kept communication going. But these were searching days for everyone, when physical endurance and mental stamina were stretched to their furthest limit. As the day wore on, the guns that we had seen in the distance gradually came into action against us until shells were raining down continuously on all parts of our line. Obviously, the enemy infantry had given up the hope of further progress, for our men were like terriers, keenly watching for the slightest sign of a Hun helmet, and the artillery were left to do their worst upon us. Just before dusk the M.O., Capt. Philp, was killed by a shell whilst bending over a wounded man on a stretcher. No cover could be found for an aid-post, and it had to be established in the open at a convenient spot on the ground. In fact, the only dug-out in the area was that occupied by H.Q., and it was shared by Col. Wedgwood of the 6th, so that two battalion H.Q. were confined in a spot no more than seven feet square, while the entrance faced the enemy in an exposed part of the road.
Darkness had brought quiet at last, but no rest. Rations had come up and they had to be distributed. Similarly with ammunition and water. Also the enemy might attempt a night assault, for it was not to be expected that he would be satisfied with this very pronounced re-entrant in his line. The 6th, whose line ran close to the edge of Ablainzevelle, sent a patrol into the village. The small parties of Boche fled at their approach and left two M.G's. in their hands. Our patrols searched all the low ground in front but could not find the enemy.
Next morning, March 27th, about 9 o'clock, the battle re-opened with redoubled vigour. Fresh enemy troops had been brought up and they made a determined attempt to push forward. A terrific bouncing barrage came down upon our positions, but the men stood up to it, in spite of the heavy casualties, and opened fire upon the groups of Boche who attempted to get across the open. The main infantry assault took place near Ablainzevelle, and here the 6th had the work of repelling them, but after some hand to hand fighting the enemy fell back and confined his energies to sniping and M.G. work. Meanwhile, the landscape was steadily changing its appearance in the 7th sector. What had once been good roads and respectable fields were shell-pitted and strewn with debris, a pile of S.A.A. boxes that had been left behind had been hit and in the fire that resulted there was a disturbing display of fireworks from the exploding cartridges. The trees were losing their accustomed beauty, many having been smashed down completely. But picture the trepidation of the aid-post detachment, now in charge of Capt. Greville, for they lay close to a huge dump of shells that was liable to be hit at any moment. During the quieter days Bucquoy had evidently been an ammunition park, and as not much of the stuff had been removed, it was an exciting spot to fight in.
All day this steady pounding continued, and when the enemy infantry definitely gave up their efforts to get near our line they supplemented the shelling by an unceasing hail of traversing M.G. fire. Yet, through this the runners and stretcher bearers performed their appointed tasks, and there was no period when perfect touch was not maintained between the C.O. and any part of the front line and also back to brigade H.Q., nor were there cases of wounded men being left unduly exposed after they had been hit. The constant stream of runners, etc., of both battalions converging on the H.Q. dug-out, exposed to observation as it was, soon made the truth of the matter plain to the enemy, and he began to pay attention to it with 5.9's. An anxious moment came when he hit the entrance and buried a number of men standing in the improvised steps. All were extricated, however, and those who were wounded carried away. The entrance was cleared, steps constructed again, and the work carried on as usual. "D" company lost its commander again, for Lieut. Morten was hit, and this left Lieut. Gresty in charge.
Evening again brought a welcome respite, and it was decided to minimise casualties by reducing the garrisons of the front trenches, for by now a sort of trench had been made and a little wire had been put out in front the previous night. One platoon per company was taken out and sent back, where they were placed under the command of Col. Blatherwick of the 5th, who remained in brigade support. Daylight of March 28th brought a resumption of the enemy effort at least to straighten his line and masses of Huns could be seen gradually collecting in the Nisson huts. In the previous days the 18-pounders had kept this spot under fire, but Col. Bromfield decided to call for howitzer assistance to smash down the earth walls round the huts, a plan which met with great success. Our shells dropped plumb amongst them, and Huns could be seen dashing about in all directions in search of more effective cover. Our shrapnel barrage had been considerably improved also, and the moment the enemy left their positions it promptly came down and drove them to earth again. The 7th were worn out, and the men were losing their spruce appearance, but rifles and L.G's. were kept clean, and amidst the terrific shelling of that day they asked for nothing better than that Jerry would try to come across to give them an opportunity for revenge. The enemy's guns had increased in number, chiefly the heavy variety, and it was now his obvious intention to blow us off the ridge. The heavy pounding never ceased. Many gallant deeds were performed by runners, stretcher-bearers and ammunition-carrying-platoons through this inferno. Lieut. Bagshaw was awarded the M.C. for his work in leading ammunition fatigues, but the supreme decoration of all--the seal of death--came to a large number of the Fleur-de-lys. Amongst the officers--Capt. Tinker, Lieut. Walter Thorp and Lieut. Ludlam were killed outright, while Lieuts. Woods and McLaine were mortally wounded.
After a final effort in the late afternoon to advance against our positions in a line of small sections, which was met with the usual devastating fire, the enemy gave it up and occupied the remaining hours of daylight with fierce shelling. Our heavy artillery had at last returned and got to work and their shelling began to have effect, for it was noticeable that the Boche shells were now arriving from a greater distance than formerly. The 6th had an exciting episode that day. A party of courageous Germans, led by an officer, had pushed forward and were throwing bombs amongst them. Lieut. Mall decided this must be stopped, and he led one platoon over in a short sharp charge. Fifteen Huns were bayonetted, and Mall returned triumphantly with the officer and one man as prisoners. They proved to be Jaegers, and although the officer told us nothing the man was very voluble. It was some comfort to find that of one fresh battalion that had entered Ablainzevelle, about forty only remained. A couple of packets of Woodbines were found in the pockets of the officer--loot from the canteen at Achiet-le-Grand. The soldier told us that this form of German enterprise was reserved for the officers.
This day, March 28th, marked the end of the heavy fighting. The German thrust had been checked, and the effort to reach the Coast had failed. A glance at the map will show that, had the advance continued here the Arras position would have been seriously threatened, and the Germans would have been well on their way to Abbeville and the Channel Ports. That night the 7th were overjoyed to hear that they were to be relieved. The L.F's. took over the brigade sector, but the relief had been ordered so suddenly that there was no time for reconnaissance, with the result that it was almost dawn before the last platoon of the battalion had struggled over the crest line to the old system of trenches 1,500 yards further back in dead ground. Heavy rain, during the evening had converted these neglected trenches into veritable ditches of mud. A few cubby holes had been constructed by the previous occupants, and filled with mud though they were, our men dropped into them and fell fast asleep. It was the first undisturbed sleep they had had for nearly a week, a period which had seemed more like a month. During the afternoon the battalion received orders to furnish a billeting party which had to proceed to Gommecourt. Billeting--this was indeed bliss. They received a rude shock on arrival however to find that the word was a misnomer. We were to relieve the 15th Hampshires of the 41st division, who had just been hurried back from Italy. They occupied trenches on the edge of Gommecourt village in support to the front line, which was only about 400 yards away. The astonishment of the battalion on arrival about 3 a.m., on March 30th, when they found the nature of their new headquarters, can be easily imagined. They were indeed "fed up"--back to the old game, mucking about in a muddy trench, keeping a keen look-out when on sentry (for owing to a gap in the front line a portion of our position virtually was front line), and still shell dodging. We were also becoming rather disreputable for the weather had broken, and mud became the ruling element. In this manner, Easter Sunday was spent. But there were cheering rumours about going back for recuperation, and these kept our spirits up.
April 1st--All Fools Day--we might have known. The brigade went back to the old spot and thus settled all rumours for the present. Our work was not yet done. The 7th went to the support trenches they had recently vacated, but the 41st divisional R.E's. had been busy upon them during our absence, and a few habitable bivvies had been made. The 5th and 6th were further back behind Essarts. The Hun had converted Essarts into a perfect hell, and at irregular intervals he subjected it to tremendous bombardments with his largest guns, particularly during the night. Our transport knew something about this, for their road passed through the village when bringing up rations at night. In this connection Lieut. Wilkinson distinguished himself by the courageous manner in which he got his column through during the most anxious moments. His job at this time was not an enviable one, but we could always rely upon his arrival each evening, very seldom late, with his store of rations, water, rum and bundle of letters. After three days in reserve the brigade took over the front line, in practically the same position as before, but there had been a readjustment of divisional boundaries, so that we were now on the left, while the 125th brigade were on the right, and their line ran in front of Bucquoy. The 7th were in support at first, so we only moved about 400 yards to trenches vacated by the 8th Manchesters.
At dawn on April 5th the Hun commenced to send over thousands of gas shells in the direction of Essarts. It was a dull, misty morning--perfect conditions for this form of devilry--and we could hear the brutes whistling and whining over our heads for more than three hours. The intention was, of course, to silence our guns, and the object of this was to make an attack upon Bucquoy all the easier. He came over at the L.F's. and there was heavy fighting all the morning, but he did not progress much. The 8th L.F's. suffered severely, losing all their officers, including Lt.-Col. Davies (previously of the 6th Manchesters), who was killed. The enemy's intention had been to take the village and push on with a view to straightening the line, but he only captured the eastern portion of the village, and that only after very heavy losses. Similar progress had previously been made against the division on the right, and this made the L.F. situation impossible. We afterwards learnt that a large number of gas casualties had gone down from the Essarts district. In their solicitude during the bitterest days the division had called upon the battle surplus of each unit, and had made a composite battalion of them to act in reserve amongst the trenches N.E. of Gommecourt. These people, as well as the gunners, came in for the gas shelling, and it was very disappointing to hear of our own men, like C.S.M. Shields, Sgt. Tabbron, etc., who had been left behind as battle surplus, going down gassed. Fortunately, most of them rejoined the battalion later. During this day's fighting some L.F's. were staggered to find an old French woman in a cellar in Bucquoy, and they had the utmost difficulty in persuading her to leave her "home." That was her abode and she was prepared to live in it whatever the conditions.
The next few days resulted in a complete victory for mud. Rain continued, and work as we would the conditions could not be conquered. Men stood in it, and when they could, slept in it. To move about meant wading through it, in places up to the thighs, and this was steadily wearing out the last flicker of humanity and grit in our men. Casualties were also increasing. Lieut. Bateman was wounded in Essarts whilst on his way back to the battalion from a Course, and in "B" company 2nd-Lt. Woodworth was hit. Eventually we relieved the 5th in the front line near Ablainzevelle, where we found the trenches in an even worse condition, if that were possible. Real joy possessed our souls, although it is doubtful whether at the time we were capable of appreciating it, when the news was definite that the division was to go right out for a rest. On the night of April 7th, the 2nd 7th West Ridings (62nd division) came up and relieved us, and the Fleur de Lys set their faces joyfully to the west and marched off in good spirits, although with exhausted bodies, conscious of having done their duty in stopping the mad rush of the Huns.