HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION
THE CAPTURE OF GOMMECOURT
October 29th, 1916.— March 17th, 1917.
Having spent the afternoon of October 29th in packing up, we left Bailleulval about dusk, and late the same evening arrived at Warluzel, where we spent the night in indifferent billets. We proceeded the following day to our old quarters at Le Souich, where we rested for 24 hours, continuing the march on November 1st to Neuvillette, and on November 3rd, to our final destination Maison Ponthieu, in the Third Army (St. Riquier) training area, having completed a march of something like 40 miles.
Considering that this area had been used for training for some considerable time, we cannot say that we found the billets of the best or well provided with those comforts, which one might reasonably expect for troops out of the line preparing to take part in an offensive. Our energies at first were therefore concentrated on trying to make ourselves comfortable, and a considerable time was spent in carrying out improvements, making bathing arrangements, cookhouses, canteen and reading rooms. Rightly or wrongly we were inclined to think that we were unlucky with regard to billets, as we so often found ourselves scavenging and cleaning up other people's refuse. Doubtless every other unit thought the same. In the way of entertainments we had little or nothing, and Maison Ponthieu itself boasted nothing more than one or two estaminets. Auxi-le-Château, the home of the Third Army Training School, had a few shops and was rather more lively, while, for those who could get there, St. Riquier was quite interesting, and the battlefield of Crécy was not far off. Abbeville some distance away, was patronised only by a few lucky ones.
We stayed in this area for nearly three weeks, and trained hard with a view to taking part in the Somme offensive. The chief points were to make everyone fit, and to practise formations for open warfare. For the former, recreation of every kind and for all ranks was an essential part of the programme, though we were inclined to think that perhaps a little too much compulsion was added to this part of the scheme. Inter-platoon football matches were a prominent part of the recreational training, and created a great deal of genuine interest and amusement. There were also inter-battalion football matches in the Division, in which we started well by beating the 7th Battalion, but were hopelessly defeated by the 5th Battalion at Noyelle on November 18th, by eight goals to nil. One of the most entertaining matches was that which took place at Maison Ponthieu, between Divisional Headquarters and Brigade Headquarters. When the Divisional goal was threatened S.O.S. rockets were sent up and smoke bombs let off, which to the onlookers, seemed rather to baffle the defending goalkeeper, who was none other than the Assistant Provost Marshal, Major Newbold! Preliminary contests held to select representatives for the Divisional Boxing Championship, which unfortunately did not materialise, were won by Sergt. Slater, Sergt. Attenborough, Signaller Gearney, and Pvte. Hall.
For open warfare we practised mostly the attack, beginning with artillery formation. Those who did know something of it had by now grown very rusty, after so many months in trenches, whilst many Officers and men in the Battalion at this time, had had practically no training at all in this kind of warfare, so that much work was required in the simple practices of shaking out into artillery formation, lines of companies, half-companies, platoons or sections, and eventually extending for the final stages of the attack leading up to the assault. The other main feature of the training, was practice in night marching on a compass bearing and subsequent deployment for attack.
On the whole we must confess we felt that the training was rather overdone. We had to put in many hours daily, and the march to the training ground at Yvrencheux and back, some six miles in all, was to say the least of it somewhat tedious. We were besides, most unfortunate with regard to weather, which was very unpleasant most of the time, and we were hardly sorry when our time came to leave the area. We were not, however, required to take part in the Somme fighting, as this had by now more or less worn itself out. From what we read and heard from troops, who came out of it, of the appalling condition of the ground and the impossibility of making any further progress during the Winter, we were not surprised or sorry that there was no need for us in that direction. Our lot was to return once more to our old trenches at Foncquevillers.
Changes in personnel during this period were mostly in Officers. Major Ashwell had rejoined and resumed his duties as Second-in-Command; Major Lane also rejoined after nearly 18 months in England, as a result of his wound at Kemmel, and took over A Company from Capt. E. M. Hacking. A further addition was Lieut. Simonet, who had by some means managed to get the Hospital Authorities to pass him fit again for general service. We also had a small draft of 32 men. On the other hand we had to part with six Officers at extremely short notice to the 12th Rifle Brigade and King's Royal Rifle Corps which had lost very heavily in the Somme fighting, and sent 2nd Lieuts. Ranson, Hall (who later won the M.C.), Visser, H. G. Kirby, Byrne and Bailey (afterwards killed). Second Lieut. Cox also left us to join the Signal Company of the 14th Division, his place as Signalling Officer being taken by Lieut. Warner. For good work on a subsequent occasion Cox was awarded the M.C. Lieut. Martelli was still Intelligence Officer, Lieut. White, Grenade Officer, and Lieut. Tomlinson, Lewis Gun Officer.
We went by easy stages back to the line, leaving Maison Ponthieu on November 22nd, and proceeding to Bealcourt, and the following day to Neuvillette. The chief item of interest in our two days' stay there, was a revolver shooting match between teams of Officers from our own and the 7th Battalion, in which we were badly beaten. On November 25th, we marched to Humbercourt on a pouring wet morning, arriving there about mid-day drenched to the skin. Here we stayed for nearly a fortnight, training and cutting wood in Lucheux Forest. The weather was wet and cold, and as the village lay in a hollow, we got the full benefit of all the rain, and consequent flooded streams. On November 30th, we took part in a Divisional cross-country run, a part of the programme left over from the St. Riquier area. The distance was two and three-quarter miles, and we felt quite pleased to finish 6th out of the 13 Battalions running, our pleasure knowing no bounds at seeing C. B. Johnstone and F. Torrance finish well within the time limit, happy if breathless.
On December 2nd, a Brigade Ceremonial Parade was held at Sus-St. Leger, where we were inspected by Major-General Thwaites. It was a bitterly cold day, but on the whole the show passed off well. It was perhaps aided a little by the fog, which covered one or two of our more intricate and unconventional movements rather successfully.
On the following day we took part in what was probably one of the most interesting football matches in the Battalion's history, when a team of Officers played one from the 7th Battalion, and beat them one-nil after a great tussle.
It was at Humbercourt that Sergt. "Sammy" Foster played an important part in trying to make us all "gas proof." With much success he made up a gas chamber in the village out of the shed for the "Pompe à incendie," where all ranks of the Battalion were fitted with the new small box respirator, which had just arrived. This proved to be much the most satisfactory form of gas mask we ever had, and continued in general use up to the end of the war.
We left Humbercourt on December 6th, and the same day went into Brigade Reserve, in the Foncquevillers sector, the 46th Division having taken over this portion of the line from the 49th Division. The sector was now fairly quiet, everyone having more or less gone into winter quarters. Our rest billets and Transport Lines were at Souastre, where, considering all things, we were fairly comfortable. There were good baths under the control of one of those celebrated Town Majors, of whom so much has been heard, a Y.M.C.A. hut, and a new form of entertainment in the shape of a Cinema, which our Division had recently added to its institutions. The Divisional "Whizz-bangs" were still showing, but were rather under a cloud, although that great actor subaltern from the Battalion, Moffat Johnston, gave them a helping hand for a short time. Being "out to soldier," however, he preferred the front line, and very soon came back to us.
When in Divisional Reserve all companies were back at Souastre, and carried out a little training in addition to the usual refitting and cleaning. Parties were also generally provided for Town Major's fatigues. When in Brigade Reserve two companies were at Souastre, and two at Foncquevillers, the latter finding garrisons for posts on the Eastern edge of the village, and at "Fort Dick," between Foncquevillers and Hébuterne.
When in the line we held the left sub-sector, relieving with the 7th Battalion, the right company front having its right on the Foncquevillers-Gommecourt Road, the centre company being disposed about "Lincoln Lane," and the left company front running from "Roberts Avenue" to the Brayelle Road. Companies holding the line, had two or three platoons in the front line, and the remainder in support. The support Company occupied the dug-outs in "Sniper's Square."
The trenches throughout this period were in an appalling state, though efforts had been made to improve them by the 49th Division, who certainly left Roberts Avenue well revetted, and with a good floor of trench grids. For the most part, however, they were deep in mud, and in a deplorable condition, and "gumboots thigh" were in great demand. Dug-outs were of the poorest, and life in the trenches was not pleasant. Efforts were made to improve matters during our stay and the Royal Engineers and Monmouths did a great deal of work, helped by large parties from all Battalions, but improvement was very slow.
Fortunately the trenches were no great distance from the village, where Company cooks had their cookers, whilst the Battalion was in the line, so that hot meals were sent up regularly, and included a hot supper issued generally about midnight, the meals being mostly carried up by the Support Company. During the latter part of January and beginning of February, we had very hard frosts and much snow, and the carrying parties had a difficult task in walking on the slippery roads and trench grids, but this was overcome to a great extent by the use of sandbags tied over the boots. It was perhaps a somewhat expensive method to employ with sandbags costing something like a shilling each, but they served the purpose very well, and were in great demand in consequence. A drying-room was established at Battalion Headquarters in the village, in a large cellar, fitted with double-tier wire beds, stoves, and braziers. A supply of blankets was also available, so that the men who had been on patrol, or had got wet through, could come down from the line and get their wet clothes dried and a good rest and sleep in comfort. Inter-Battalion reliefs were carried out every four days, whilst Companies were able to relieve their men in the front line every 48 hours, or, when the weather was extremely bad, every 24 hours, by taking up the men from the support line. By this means, the time any particular man was actually in the front line was reduced to the lowest possible limit. During December and January, reliefs were carried out by daylight, usually beginning immediately after breakfast, and being completed by about noon. This system not only enabled the incomers to settle down in the trenches before night, but also gave the relieved Battalion four complete nights out, a system which was very much appreciated. At the end of January we changed to night reliefs. The main artery for traffic was the Foncquevillers-Souastre Road, and although it was usually fairly quiet, we sometimes astonished ourselves at the pace we made along it on relief nights, and most of us were glad when we got over the crest into Souastre.
Martelli and his Scouts and many others did some very good patrols, but on some nights when the moon was bright, and the ground covered with snow, this work was not easy. Long white nightshirts complete with hoods were tried, but not considered very suitable, as they looked quite dark against the white snow, and on the whole were not a success.
Though normally quiet the sector was occasionally trench mortared and shelled fairly heavily, most attention being paid to the front line about Roberts Avenue and Lincoln Lane, the Gommecourt Road, the Orchard in front of the village, where our heavy trench mortars, familiarly known as "Flying Pigs", had their quarters, and the village itself. It was in connection with one of these bombardments that the I-Tok machine professed to have some success. By some means a Boche map had been secured shewing the areas into which our front was divided for the purpose of "shoots", and if the I-Tok picked up messages from which it was inferred that a shoot over a particular area was likely to take place, the information was at once passed on to the Battalion concerned. On one occasion when such information was received, no sooner were the men cleared of the area than it was indeed shelled! It may have been an accident of course, but the I-Tok personnel took the credit, which we hope was deserved.
One night, when the 7th Battalion were in the line, they were raided after a very heavy bombardment, in which they suffered several casualties. The following day the Officer Commanding that Battalion sent us a kind message of appreciation of the prompt way in which Capt. Turner and B Company, who were in support in Foncquevillers, had turned out and stood by ready to help. Fortunately their services were not required.
The most unpleasant experience we ourselves had was on February 16th, when we relieved the 7th Battalion for the last time in this sector. The relief itself was carried out under difficulties, owing to a certain amount of gas shelling, but later on the Hun sent over perfect showers of gas bombs, and absolutely deluged the front and support lines, whilst he also fired a considerable number of gas shells into the village. It is estimated that in all between 500 and 600 were put over, mostly filled with phosgene. It was our first experience of any real gas shell bombardment, and partly owing to this and partly to the high concentration of the gas used we suffered heavy casualties, four men being killed and 24 wounded.
Christmas Day, 1916, was spent in the line, and passed off very peacefully without anything untoward happening. We were not able to get our Christmas dinners until early in the New Year, when we were back at Souastre, and made the most of all the good things that had been sent out by kind friends at home. Each Company enjoyed a most sumptuous dinner, followed by a splendid entertainment provided by local talent, speeches, and so on.
The Battalion front remained unchanged until early in February, when we extended Northwards to include the "Crawlboys Lane" area, then held by the 138th Brigade.
About the same time we had Companies of the 2/5th, 2/8th, and 2/11th Battalions London Regiment with us for instruction, and a fine lot of men they were. Our difficulty was in knowing where to put them, for whereas we were about 80 per Company, they came out with their full complement of 250. One dreaded on occasions what might happen if the enemy suddenly decided to shell the trenches they held, for in some parts they were almost like the proverbial sardines. They came out fully equipped, with mobilisation stores made up to completion. Rumour says that when they had finished their instruction with us they were wiser not only in trench routine, but also in their Quarter-Master's Department!
This period saw several important changes in personnel. With great regret we had to part with Major Ashwell, who left to take up the duties of Commandant of the Divisional School. This post, however, he only held for a brief space, as his excellent services throughout the war were very soon rewarded by his appointment to command first the 5th, and shortly afterwards the 6th Battalion. He was succeeded as Second-in-Command by Major Lane. Capt. E. M. Hacking, who commanded A Company for a time, was appointed Railhead Disbursing Officer, and handed over his duties to Lieut. Andrews. Capt. Turner stuck to B Company, but during periods of absence of the Commanding Officer and Major Lane, acted as Second-in-Command, leaving Lieut. G. Wright to look after his Company. Capt. Piggford, after struggling on for some time, although very unfit, eventually had to go down sick, and shortly afterwards was appointed Divisional Claims Officer, to which he later added the duties of Divisional Burials Officer. When he left, C Company was handed over to Lieut. Abrams. Capt. Hill, after a long and successful period in command of D Company, also had to leave owing to sickness, and was succeeded by Lieut. Simonet. In 2nd Lieut. King-Stephens we lost a very gallant Officer, and a great favourite. He was killed one morning when returning from wiring. The fog which had been so helpful for the purpose, cleared rather suddenly and a Boche sniper picked him off just as he was getting back to the trench. Reinforcement Officers who joined during the period were 2nd Lieuts. C. H. S. Stephenson, A. E. Geary, and J. E. Mitchell. So far as other ranks were concerned there were now no discharges as the Military Service Act, which was in force, gave to very few the opportunity of getting home. We lost, however, two excellent Comp. Sergt.-Majors, G. Powell and Hotson, who went to England to train for commissions, and were shortly followed by Comp. Sergt.-Major T. Powell. George Powell was destined one day to be awarded the D.S.O., whilst Hotson unfortunately met his fate in Italy. Sergts. Slater and Rawding, and Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. Deverall, then became Comp. Sergt.-Majors of A, B, and D Companies respectively. Our casualties in the line during this period were not heavy, amounting to seven killed and 47 wounded. Reinforcements who joined totalled 243, and included several men from the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry.
On February 19th, after handing over our portion of the front line to Battalions of the 138th Brigade, we marched back to St. Amand.
We now entered upon what turned out to be one of the most interesting periods in the history of the Battalion. The idea at the moment was that the 46th Division should take part in an early offensive against Beaurains, just south of Arras, and the immediate purpose of our relief was to withdraw to the Sus-St. Leger area and dig a model of the front to be attacked, ready for one of the other Brigades of the Division to practise over. With this object we moved back on February 20th, to Ivergny, where we spent the first few days refitting and reorganising. The latter was now becoming of great moment, for important changes were taking place. To begin with the Battalion Grenade Platoon, that picked body of specially trained Bombers, to which it was everyone's ambition to belong, ceased to exist, and the personnel rejoined their Companies, in which from this time onward each platoon had its own section of Bombers. This was only a preliminary to the absolute reorganisation of the platoon, which was now rightly coming into its own, and regarded as the most important tactical fighting unit. We had already been lectured at Souastre by Lieut.-General Sir Ivor Maxse, our Corps Commander, and later Director General of Training, also by Major-General Thwaites, on the new organisation of the platoon, which was now to consist of four specialist sections: (1) Riflemen, (2) Bombers, (3) Rifle Grenadiers, (4) Lewis Gunners. We now began the preliminaries of this new organisation, which was to remain practically unchanged for the rest of the war. The Signallers were also reorganised under Lieut. Warner, and divided into "Battalion" and "Company" Signallers.
After only a few days training in Lucheux Wood, and digging model trenches near by, we were ordered to move to Simencourt, preparatory to taking over the line near Beaurains. Just about the same time, however, the Boche began his great Somme retirement, and on February 27th, the news came through that he was evacuating the Gommecourt salient. This of course entailed a complete change in our plans, and instead of moving North, we marched back towards Foncquevillers, reaching Grenas on February 28th. There we stayed for one night, proceeding the following morning to St. Amand, where hurried preparations were made to relieve the 138th Brigade, who were busy following up the retreating enemy. We left St. Amand early on the morning of March 3rd, for Gommecourt, where we took over the old Boche lines from the 5th Leicesters. The enemy were still in the Northern and Eastern outskirts of the village, and the line was in a more or less "fluid" state. The enemy's retirement continued slowly during the day, and our troops kept moving on in close touch. The 7th Battalion were working in conjunction with us on the left, and the 31st Division on our right. On March 4th, the withdrawal was more rapid, and it became somewhat difficult to keep touch. The few dug-outs that were not set on fire or otherwise destroyed, were found to contain quantities of stores and rations, and shewed evident signs of having been evacuated very hurriedly. A neat souvenir in the shape of a Boche bugle was got from one of these dug-outs, and is now treasured with the Battalion plate at Newark. One was rather nervous of "booby traps" in some of them, but so far as our experience went at this time there were none. "Pigeon Wood" was captured during the afternoon, after some fighting and an unpleasant sort of game of hide and seek, and we also occupied Rettemoy Farm, and "The Z."
Evidently thinking that we were too close on his heels, the enemy delivered a determined counter-attack about 6 p.m. against C Company, who were holding the trench line in front of La Brayelle Farm, forcing them to withdraw slightly. During this attack Lieut. Duff did magnificent work in holding off a bombing attack, and L.-Sergt. Sansom gallantly held on to a bombing post which was cut off, until he was rescued by a party ably led by Corpl. Street, who went forward under heavy fire, and opening fire on the attacking enemy, enabled the post to withdraw. Sergt. Henley also did splendid work in holding his post against a strong bombing attack, until he was eventually wounded in the head, dying the next day.
The Battalion suffered a great loss the same day by the death of Lieut. Abrams, who was killed during the afternoon whilst reconnoitring near La Brayelle Farm. Thinking, apparently, that the coast was clear, he was walking across the open with his batman when a Boche machine gun suddenly opened fire on them at close range, killing them both instantaneously. C Company then came under the command of Lieut. A. Bedford. The casualties that day in other ranks, were seven killed and 17 wounded.
Very little happened on March 5th, except a certain number of bombing encounters, and at night the 5th Battalion took over the right portion of our front from Rettemoy Farm to "Brayelle Graben". On March 6th, we were relieved by the 6th Battalion, commanded by Major Ashwell, and moved back to dug-outs in and around Gommecourt. It was with much regret that we heard on the 9th that Major Ashwell had been badly wounded the previous night in an attack on "Kite Copse."
The line had not altered appreciably when we relieved the 6th Battalion again on March 10th. The weather was cold, and the trenches were deep in mud and water, and movement was extremely exhausting. The object now was to force the enemy to retire more rapidly, and orders were received that we were to seize "Hedge Trench" and "Kite Copse" as soon as possible, and form a line across to "Rettemoy Graben" on the right, which was to be captured by the 5th Battalion. As a preliminary during the night of March 11/12th, a party from C Company under Corpl. Kirk successfully cut gaps in the wire in front of Hedge Trench.
At 1.10 a.m. on March 13th—a wet, pitch dark night—the 5th Battalion attempted to seize Rettemoy Graben in conjunction with a hastily planned attack by the Staffords on their right. In spite of the most gallant efforts, these attacks were dismal failures, and attended with a large number of casualties. At the same time strong parties of A, C and D Companies made demonstrations along communication trenches towards Hedge Trench. At 7 a.m. on the same day Capt. A. Hacking, who had now rejoined the Battalion and taken command of A Company, ordered Lieut. A. H. Michie with his platoon to seize Kite Copse. Michie made a rapid reconnaissance, and in a very short time found himself in possession of this important point, the enemy garrison having nearly all left to fetch their rations. The water was boiling in the dug-outs, and a supply of coffee was found, which enabled Michie's platoon to get breakfast as soon as the position was consolidated. During the evening the enemy made two determined counter-attacks against the position, but these were both driven off with heavy loss by the excellent work of Pvte. Teare with his Lewis gun, Sergt. King and Corpl. Scrimshaw.
In the afternoon of the same day Lieut. Hopkinson attempted to push through the "Burg Graben" to Hedge Trench, but was met by strong opposition. He, however, withdrew his party without casualties, after inflicting several on the enemy. For his gallantry here and splendid work on other occasions "Hoppy" was awarded the M.C. On this occasion Corpl. Kirk again did splendid work. Many other gallant deeds were performed during these strenuous days, special credit being due to Sergt. Edis for good work in charge of a platoon, Corpl. J. Wilson, who worked unceasingly for 36 hours, when in charge of an advanced bombing post, Corpls. Blythe and Marvill for good patrol work, and L.-Corpls. Fern, Martin and Leonard, and Pvtes. Simpson, Crane, Peplow, W. Barwise, and Bacon. Invaluable work was also done by the Transport Section, who had a very hard time in getting supplies up to Gommecourt. The roads were in an appalling state, and every night were thronged with horses and vehicles, whilst the enemy had ample ammunition to loose off before retiring, both high explosive and gas, most of which he sent over to Foncquevillers or Gommecourt, or the road in between. It was on one of these nights that Pvte. Chapman did excellent work in clearing a block in the road, in the midst of heavy shell fire, and enabling the masses of transport to pass.
In this miniature moving warfare, the Signallers found their task more entertaining than it had hitherto been. Warner one day went so far as to try flag-wagging, until he found that his performance was in full view of the enemy. On another occasion he established a Trench Wireless set to Brigade, which he maintained successfully for an hour, but at the end of that period the whole apparatus was dissipated in the explosion of a German shell. A second effort with new apparatus met with a precisely similar fate.
As evidence of the closeness with which we had followed up the retreating enemy it is interesting to note that at one time Capt. Hacking reported that from his front line, he could hear perfectly plainly both our own Gunners and those of the Boche giving their fire orders.
An incident in the Quarter-Master's Department that was not without interest, was a great ride by our great Quarter-Master. In his anxiety to see that all our wants were provided for (or was it for a heavy wager?), long before horses were allowed so far forward "Harry" Torrance arrived one night at Pigeon Wood mounted on "Buster," having defied the Military Police and all other Traffic Controls. Another unique experience was that of Lieut. Whitton, who for a brief space held the appointment of Town Major of Gommecourt, and was we believe, the one and only person ever to occupy that post of honour. As Officer Commanding 300 dozen Boche mineral waters found in the village, he was a very useful person to know.
On March 14th, we moved back to Gommecourt, where we were finally relieved by the 4th Leicesters three days later. The enemy were retiring very rapidly, and on the same day evacuated Essarts and Bucquoy. Being squeezed out owing to the shortening of the line, the 46th Division began to follow several other Divisions to the back areas, preparatory to taking part in operations in other spheres. Never again did we go to Gommecourt, which we believe is being retained by the French untouched. It will thus ever remain a type of a completely destroyed village, for it is probably one of the worst treated in the whole of France. There were certainly one or two spots where the remains of buildings were still standing, but practically every sign of a once prosperous village had been obliterated. As a type of German fortification it was probably one of the best, containing the deepest and best constructed trenches we ever saw. The wire in front was almost impossible to break through; each line of trenches was protected in much the same way; the dug-outs were deep and proof against all except the very heaviest of shells, and there was a long subterranean passage built by the Boche from behind Gommecourt Wood to his second line, along which reinforcements could be brought in safety to counter-attack any troops that might have gained a footing in the front line. It was sad to find magnificent tapestries and valuable pieces of furniture, evidently taken from the château, which once existed there, adorning the German dug-outs or ruthlessly cut and knocked about, but sadder still to find the bodies of our own Officers and men lying unburied exactly as they had fallen on that fated 1st of July, 1916. It is pleasing, however, to record that the grave of an Officer of the Brigade was found in Essarts with the inscription in English on the Cross: "To the memory of a very gallant British Officer and Gentleman, killed July 1st, 1916."