History of the 1/8th Battalion
June 20th, 1915.— October 1st, 1915.
The Canadian's description of it as "Bloody Ypres," referring doubtless to the Salient in general, was very apt, and will be endorsed by all who ever had the misfortune to sample it at any period of the war. We have never met anyone who boasted of having found a "cushy spot" in it, and so far as we ourselves were concerned, the three months spent in the Salient were very nearly, if not quite, the hardest months of the war.
Leaving Locre on the evening of June 20th, we marched with the rest of the Brigade to the Ouderdom Huts on the Reninghelst—Vlamertinghe Road. These were the first "huts" ever occupied by the Battalion; they were absolutely exposed to view, the surroundings being open ploughed fields, and when the Boche "Sausage" went up "Silent Percy," a German long-range gun, warned anyone walking about that movement must cease. There were, however, deep shelter trenches round the huts, which afforded good protection, and we escaped without casualties, though the Transport having had a few shells in the horse lines, deemed it wise to move back a little. We left there on June 23rd, and marching via Kruistraat and Zillebeke proceeded to "Sanctuary Wood," where we relieved the 5th East Yorkshires in trenches 7 to 12. These trenches were good, being both narrow and deep. There was a good deal of liveliness on both sides, and things were anything but pleasant in the region of a wood. whose title was something of a misnomer. The Transport too, had many good runs for their money when bringing up rations and stores. The congestion on the road each night was intense. Only one bridge, "14," over the Ypres-Comines Canal was available for the transport of all units occupying the centre of the Salient, and the journey from the transport lines to the dump and back, took something approaching seven hours. We were not particularly envious of their job here on many occasions, though never once did they fail to get supplies up to the dump. This was at the South-West corner of "Sanctuary Wood," and a very unhealthy spot, where we were lucky indeed in not getting very heavy casualties. There was hardly any water fit for drinking in the front area, so that one of the water carts had to be brought up full every night and left in the shelter of the wood, and the empty one taken back.
Rain made the trenches very uncomfortable, and we had plenty to do in keeping them in order, and in building shelters, of which we were very short. These consisted for the most part of two or more waterproof sheets laced together, and held in position across the trench, by stones placed on the ends on the parapet and parados. Little was done by us in the way of active operations during our first tour, except a certain amount of patrolling, in which 2nd Lieut. Adams and Pvte. Needham were the leading lights, and got some useful information. A Company had rather a bad time, suffering over 20 casualties from "Whizz-bangs" (77 mm. shells) and salvoes of 5.9's.
We were relieved on the night of June 29/30th, after a seven days' tour, by the 5th Lincolns, and moved back to bivouacs at a charming camp near Poperinghe, where we spent 12 of the most enjoyable days we ever had in France. The weather was glorious, and we made the most of it. We were spared strenuous work as far as possible on the very hot days, but carried out much useful training of a general kind, and reorganised and refitted all the units in the Battalion. Two new Officers, 2nd Lieuts. R. E. Hemingway, and E. S. Strachan joined us, the former eventually succeeding Lieut. A. Hacking, who had just been appointed our first Battalion Grenade Officer. A draft of 69 men also arrived, together with 11 rejoined men,—a most acceptable addition to our numbers. Several quite interesting cricket matches were played, the last of which, Officers v. N.C.O's., was won by the Officers. We managed one concert, which was given entirely by our own artistes, and went off very successfully. Poperinghe was quite close, and though possessing no great attraction, yet it was a change to walk or if possible get a horse for the afternoon and ride over there sometimes to see what was going on, and call on our little friend "Ginger" at the café, and do any shopping that was wanted. Here for the first time we encountered a Divisional Troupe, and enjoyed many a pleasant evening with the 6th Division "Fancies," with their Belgian artistes "Vaseline" and "Glycerine." But perhaps the greatest source of pleasure to all ranks now, was that great institution "Leave" which had just been started. True it was but four days, and for an extremely small number, but it was something after all, and encouraged those who were not lucky enough to have it at the moment, that their turn would eventually come to get out of the war for a brief space, and return to their families at home. Capt. Ashwell left us whilst we were here to take charge of reinforcements at St. Omer. During his absence of five or six weeks A Company was commanded by Lieut. J. V. Edge.
We left camp with much regret on the afternoon of July 11th, and proceeding via Kruistraat, where a halt was made for tea, at the "White Château," we eventually took over trenches B 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8, in the Hooge sector, from the North Staffords. The trenches here were close together, at some points not more than 25 yards apart. This nearness necessitated in some cases the erection of small-mesh wire netting to prevent the enemy throwing hand-grenades into our trenches. Mining was carried on unceasingly, and with both sides displaying abnormal activity with every kind of war machine invented, life was not at all pleasant. Possibly we had the greatest dislike for the rifle grenades which the Hun was in the habit of showering over on every possible occasion, but his shelling of the whole of our sector, which he carried out with great regularity, was extremely uncomfortable, and casualties mounted rapidly. To the more normal means of trying to wear down the enemy, we were now able to add fixed rifles and rifle batteries. These were laid on definite targets, and fired according to a time table specially arranged, and we hope had the effect desired. Sergt.-Drummer Clewes too, in charge of the Brigade Sniping Section, was always worrying the Huns on every possible occasion, and made some splendid "bags." Work in the trenches was of a more or less normal kind, consisting chiefly of strengthening fire and support trenches and putting out wire, not forgetting the never-ending efforts to drain away the water. Good patrols were carried out by Lieut. James and Corpl. Hotson.
After a heavy tour of 12 days we were relieved on July 23rd, by the 7th Battalion, and marched back to bivouacs near Ouderdom, a long trek, the last Company not getting there until 7 a.m. the following morning. We were shelled out of this camp almost immediately, doubtless because a Staff Officer anxious for the comfort of the Officers had had four beautiful white tents put up. Unfortunately they had been pitched on the Eastern slope of the field in full view of the "Sausage" already mentioned, and "Silent Percy" soon got busy! On July 25th, we took over another field near Busseboom, where we were left in peace, so far as the Hun was concerned, though as the field had just previously been used by Gunners for horse lines we had in other ways quite a lively time. Here we were joined by 2nd Lieut. Everard Handford and an excellent draft from the 2/8th Battalion.
We had little time during this six days' rest to do more than the usual refitting and cleaning, as large fatigue parties were required on two days for Divisional work. Bathing was an easier matter, as we were now able to use the new Divisional baths at "Pop." So far as the washing of clothing was concerned, the men did their own, laundries being very few and far between.
We had now in front of us what turned out to be the longest and most trying of all the Battalion's experiences in the trenches, for after relieving the 7th Battalion in trenches B 3, 4, 7, and 8 at "Sanctuary Wood" on the night of July 29/30th, we did not get out for 19 days.
Col. Fowler at this time was on leave, whilst Major A. C. Clarke was unfit, and a little later had to return to England. Major Becher, who succeeded him as Second-in-Command was, therefore, in temporary command of the Battalion. Much to our regret our old friend "Doc" Stallard had also just left us for a tour of home duty. Well had he stuck it all through, but he was beginning to feel the strain of his strenuous duties, which were now taken over by Surgeon-Lieut. C. B. Johnstone. The latter had a memorable journey to join the Battalion, which was then in the line, riding up on the front of the horse ambulance that used to go nightly to "Maple Copse" to evacuate the previous twenty-four hours' wounded. The road was very rough and mostly shell holes full of water, and he had a decidedly rough passage. Other arrivals about this time included three new subalterns, Lieut. C. M. Houfton, and 2nd Lieuts. R. V. Harvey and A. H. Date, whose first experience of trench warfare was to be rather more exciting than the average! Comp. Sergt.-Major J. A. Green was temporarily acting as Regimental Sergt.-Major in place of Sergt.-Major Westerman, who had just left for England.
The trench system taken over ran partly on the outskirts of "Sanctuary Wood," and partly through the wood itself, which in those days was most picturesque, with delightful wild flowers and thick undergrowth. The right was held by B Company (Lieut. J. W. Turner) and C Company (Capt. G. S. Heathcote) and the left by D Company (Lieut. E. C. A. James), whilst A Company (Lieut. J. V. Edge) were in reserve. By a very happy coincidence, we had with us A Company of the 10th Sherwood Foresters, sent into the line for the first time for instruction. Capt. G. P. Goodall, subsequently killed at St. Eloi, was in charge of this Company, amongst whom our men found many friends.
We occupied the left of the 46th Divisional sector, with the 5th Battalion on our right, the 7th Battalion in immediate support in "Maple Copse," and the 6th Battalion in Brigade Reserve.
The 14th Division, which had only been in France a few weeks, and had been with us for instruction at Kemmel, had recently taken over the sector on our left, where there had been much fighting during the past few weeks for the possession of Hooge, which centred about the stables and wall running near the Château. It was there that in our last tour we had seen a brilliant assault by the Gordons and Middlesex, after a terrific mine explosion.
At 3.30 a.m. on July 30th, immediately after stand-down, and within a few hours of our arrival in the trenches, on a perfect summer morning, the whole of the wood was suddenly surrounded by a ring of fire, while at the same time a heavy bombardment was opened, concentrating apparently on the trenches around "Hooge Crater." Under cover of this bombardment, and behind "flammenwerfer," the enemy attacked the point of the salient held by C Company, at the same time throwing the greater weight of his forces against the Hooge sector occupied by units of the 14th Division. The latter, who like ourselves had only come into the line the night before, were undoubtedly surprised by the sudden attack, and by this first use of "flammenwerfer." Their men, dead tired, had just got down to sleep, and the rapidity of the enemy attack left little opportunity for organising successful defence.
The result was that the enemy succeeded at once in gaining the whole of the front and support trenches on our left, pushing forward into the North end of the wood, and threatening to cut off the whole of the salient, and leaving the trenches held by D Company in imminent danger of being turned from the rear.
The first attack on the point of the salient was driven off by rifle and machine gun fire. Here Pvte. Grantham displayed conspicuous gallantry in remaining at his post, in spite of being surrounded by flames, and killing several of the enemy at close quarters. Very few of the enemy succeeded in getting into our lines, though for a short space of time there was a dangerous gap on the left of C Company, which was filled up by the presence of mind of 2nd Lieut. Hindley and Sergts. Sheppard and Smith, and a platoon of B Company, one of whom, Pvte. Tyne, did particularly fine execution by throwing back unexploded enemy bombs. This platoon lined the parapet, and by opening rapid fire prevented the attack from developing. Unfortunately, an enemy machine gun traversed the parapet, killing many of the men of this gallant platoon, until a bomb thrown a prodigious distance by Sergt. G. F. Foster appears to have fallen on the top of it, evidently knocking it out, and by the volume of smoke produced wrecking a "flammenwerfer." Several of the enemy were seen to be killed or wounded by this lucky bomb.
Further attacks by the enemy on the point of the salient were made during the day, and a more serious one early next morning, but they were readily driven off with loss. We should like here to pay a tribute to the magnificent courage and coolness of the men of the 10th Battalion, which contributed very largely to the entire defeat of the enemy's attack on this front.
Meanwhile the position on the left was uncertain and very alarming, and Sergt. A. Phillipson in particular, in command of the left platoon, No. 13, had a most anxious and trying time. Elements of the 14th Division straggled from the left with stories of the German advance. These accounts might easily have demoralised our Battalion but for the magnificent example of Lieut. James, his Second-in-Command, 2nd Lieut. Vann and Sergt. A. Phillipson, and the coolness and courage of every man of D Company. The situation on this flank was serious indeed. All the trenches on the left had been captured, and the enemy were reported as pushing into the wood in the rear of our trenches. James acted promptly, and immediately pushed out a left flank-guard. Major Becher at Headquarters sent forward reinforcements from the Reserve Company, and eventually the 7th Battalion from "Maple Copse" were despatched by Brigade and did splendid work in spite of heavy shelling, in digging a switch line connecting the trenches in the neighbourhood of "Zouave Wood" to our left flank.
Early in the afternoon the Reserve Brigade of the 14th Division, who had only reached bivouacs near Poperinghe at three in the morning, returned and made a gallant but fruitless counter-attack to recover the lost trenches. Could it have been expected that men, who had been in the trenches for a week, marched back during the night no less than 12 miles, only to turn once more, march back those interminable 12 miles, part of the time under heavy shell fire, dog-tired, without sleep or food, could without adequate artillery preparation perform a feat which later required a Division of fresh troops, after one of the most carefully planned and destructive bombardments at that time known? The Brigade could but have failed, and to the onlooker it seemed a tragic blunder, but to those who have read the pathetic story of a tragic day, the title given by "The Student in Arms" of "The Honour of the Brigade" alone provides the excuse for an operation which from every other point of view, was one of the costly blunders of the war.
On August 9th, the 6th Division attacked after a very heavy bombardment and re-established the situation. No troops could have done finer work. The enemy who had manned the redoubtable "Hooge Crater" in great strength, suffered very heavily, but the total prisoners captured in a hard fought attack amounted to five. The 2nd Sherwood Foresters, under that magnificent Officer Col. Hobbs, who in pre-war days had at one time been Adjutant of our Battalion, eventually endeavoured to hold the crater on our left, but this was soon found to be untenable, and remained in No Man's Land.
An incident which is not without its humour, while illustrating the tiredness of our men, may be worth recalling. During the bombardment preliminary to the counter-attack, when the noise of our own artillery was deafening, and the proximity of the enemy shelling far from assuring, a platoon commander discovered one of his men fast asleep on the firestep. With some difficulty he was aroused and, rubbing his eyes, he exclaimed, not without a certain degree of indignation that his slumbers had been cut short—"What's oop?"
Our casualties during the activities of July 30th and 31st, amounted to 21 killed and 40 wounded, and the 10th Battalion had ten casualties in addition. This total was increased from day to day by incessant shelling, trench mortars and rifle grenades, and by the unfortunate inaccuracy of one of our 6-inch naval guns, which persisted in firing into our trenches until its identity was eventually discovered. During the first fortnight in the line here, our casualties were no fewer than four Officers wounded (Vann, E. M. Hacking, Hindley and G. G. Elliott); 36 other ranks killed, or died of wounds, and 90 wounded. Included amongst the killed were Sergt. A. Phillipson, who throughout had shewn the utmost coolness and gallantry, and Sergt. E. Layhe, who had done very good work as Scout Sergeant. "Jimmy" James, who had struggled on manfully in spite of being very unfit, eventually had to give up and go to hospital, D Company being taken over by Vann.
During these days there was much active patrolling in order to make certain of the dispositions of the enemy, and much daring work was carried out by Lieuts. Vann, Turner, and H. B. S. Handford, 2nd Lieuts. A. & E. M. Hacking, Corpl. Gadd, L.-Corpl. Wilson, and Pvtes. Nicholson and Thompson. Vann in particular was much in the good books of General Allenby, the Corps Commander, for his splendid work, though he was once the cause of his very nearly spoiling an immaculate pair of breeches when showing him with much glee a particularly un-get-at-able loophole plate in a very muddy trench. We are led to believe, however, that this crime was forgiven, as Vann was later honoured by the General with an invitation to dinner.
Apart from shelling, which continued intermittently, the rest of our stay in the line was uneventful. It was not, however, until August 17th, that the Battalion, reduced in numbers but tried at last in real fighting, were relieved by the 7th Battalion, and marched back to bivouacs near Ouderdom, dead tired but happy in the thought that they could hand over intact the trenches which they had taken over three weeks before.
The attack had evidently not been an attempt to break through. The enemy no doubt had hoped to seize our front line system from the right of B 4 trench northwards. There can be no doubt that had this succeeded the difficulty of the counter-attack would have been largely increased. Indeed, at a time when troops could ill have been spared, it is probable that the Ypres Salient would have been considerably reduced, and the morale of the enemy proportionately increased. This was pointed out by General Allenby, who, addressing the Battalion on parade on August 25th, said: "I have read with great pleasure and pride the report of the General commanding your Division, telling of the arduous work which you recently did in the neighbourhood of Hooge. By your boldness, tenacity, and gallantry, you did work of very great importance. Perhaps you do not know that not only did your action have an important bearing on that particular bit of line, but on the whole campaign, because of the political reason for holding the Salient. The town of Ypres is nothing to us, but if the Boche took it they would publish it to the world that they had captured the fortress of Ypres, which we have held since November, 1914."
The Battalion also received the special thanks of the Field Marshal Commanding-in-Chief on their efforts during the tour. To the delight of everyone, especially all ranks of B Company, John Becher was awarded the D.S.O., a very well-deserved honour for most splendid work whilst in command of the Battalion, during one of the most anxious periods in its history; Vann for his gallantry here and previously at Kemmel got the M.C. Mention must also be made of the splendid work of our new Medical Officer (Johnstone), his assistants Corpls. Sissons, Martin, and Bescoby, and all the stretcher-bearers, who worked indefatigably day and night, often in circumstances of great personal risk in dressing and evacuating the wounded, not only of our own Battalion, but of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, the Rifle Brigade, and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters. In these operations they established a reputation for gallantry and devotion to duty which in the whole Brigade was conspicuous throughout the war.
Our bivouacs were in a nice spot sheltered from view by a small wood. Our rest was not a long one, and was much of the usual type, but had an additional interest in that we were fortunate in getting two very good entertainments from the 46th Divisional Concert Party, the "Whizzbangs," which had lately been formed, and was to be a source of much pleasure from now on to the end of the war. Whilst there we were joined by two new Officers, 2nd Lieuts. A. H. G. C. Moore and P. C. Hemingway, and 107 other ranks, but we wanted men badly now, as in addition to our heavy casualties in the line, we lost during the month of August 41 N.C.O's. and men, whose term of enlistment expired on the completion of one year's war service. These included many old hands who were difficult to replace.
On August 29th, we took over trenches at "Middlesex Wood," where the Brigade were holding the line astride the Ypres-Comines Canal, near St. Eloi, and there we stayed, with one short rest in bivouacs, for a month of more or less normal trench warfare. Perhaps the main points of interest were that we were covered by Belgian gunners, who were not too particular where or when they fired, that we were now getting a supply of sniperscopes (specially constructed rifles, fitted with periscopes, for firing from a trench without looking directly over the parapet), which formed most useful additions to our trench stores, and seemed to cause the enemy considerable annoyance, and that we were able on one or two occasions to make good practice with Col. Fowler's Elephant Gun against some of the enemy's loophole plates. On September 25th, in conjunction with attacks by the French and British, on various other parts of the Western front, we had to "demonstrate" by means of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, and a dummy gas and smoke attack, which was to be provided by burning on the parapet of the front line trenches large quantities of damp straw, which had been carried up with much labour, and a good deal of very frank comment. Much to the relief of those intimately concerned with this bonfire, the wind on the day of the attack was unfavourable, and the straw at least did not end in smoke. The demonstration provided some amusement to our Grenadiers, who, with the assistance of a "Gamage" catapult, and two West Spring Throwers succeeded, to their immense delight in bursting the old Béthune bomb as shrapnel over the German trenches. It was only when the last bomb was thrown that Sergt. G. F. Foster, the stoutest Bomber that ever lived and fell, ended a demonstration which can hardly have caused a flutter in the dove-cotes of the German Higher Command.
Here, as on many other occasions, all ranks would have worked more intelligently, and with greater personal satisfaction, if they had known something of the general plan, and the part they were being asked to play. This plan really must have been a big thing, for some one was kind enough to send us a lot of literature on such subjects as "How to guard against spies in newly captured territory," and generally how to behave there; whilst maps and other documents gave us the most intricate detail of every well, and other supply of water for at least 20 miles East of where we were. Evidently the sender was an optimist!
On the 30th September, the 8th Lincolns took over from us in support in the Canal dug-outs. The enemy having already given us an extremely unpleasant afternoon chose this very inconvenient occasion for "putting up" a mine under the trenches held by the 6th Battalion, on the South side of the Canal. This operation and the accompanying bombardment involved a stand-to, and caused a certain number of casualties both in the trenches and among the troops in the support dug-outs. The relief was, however, duly carried out, and the Battalion marched back to tents near Ouderdom in the early hours of October 1st, where a little later in the day General Allenby came to say goodbye and wish us luck in our new sphere of action.
We had previously, on September 21st, had the honour of being inspected by General Plumer, commanding the Second Army, who expressed himself as very satisfied with the smart turnout of the Battalion. We were still very weak, though we had continued to receive small drafts of reinforcements, and had been joined by five new Officers, 2nd Lieuts. G. H. F. Payling, R. T. Skinner, R. A. Abrams, G. H. Fisher, and C. Pickerell; "Dolly" Gray also came out again and rejoined. We had, however, lost Capt. Collin, the Adjutant, who had just left to take up a Staff Captaincy, and his place after being held for a few days by Lieut. A. Hacking, was now taken by Lieut. Weetman, who had just rejoined. Capt. Piggford had gone home sick, and 2nd Lieut. P. C. Hemingway wounded; and we had also recently lost M. Lacolle, our one and only Battalion Interpreter. Henceforth we were not to be allowed this luxury.
It is, perhaps, not out of place to mention here an interesting little episode which had taken place at home, namely the depositing of the Colours in Newark Parish Church. This ceremony was carried out on July 24th, and was attended by the Mayor and Corporation of Newark. Lieut.-Col. G. S. Foljambe was in charge of the parade, and Capt. R. F. B. Hodgkinson commanded the escort to the Colours, which were carried by 2nd Lieuts. R. J. Shipley and C. Pickerell.