Seventh Manchesters index
Wearers of the Fleur de Lys gazed their last upon one of the countries of their toils from the deck of the ship "Kalyan" as they steamed out of Alexandria harbour on March 3rd, 1917. There were many present who had accompanied the battalion on their venture from this same harbour nearly two years before, to try their fortunes upon ill-starred Gallipoli, and I have no doubt they wondered what these new experiences would bring them. One thing is certain, however, and that is no one imagined we should be compelled to continue our wanderings for full two more years before the last journey home could be made. And yet, so it was. The Fleur de Lys, for the first time since it had been adopted by the Manchester Regiment, was borne to the soil of France, the country that gave it birth, and whose kings wore it proudly for hundreds of years, by Englishmen who had pledged themselves to fight in and for that fair land. "Fair Land!" I hear someone scornfully mutter. However much we were destined in the days to come, when wallowing to our waists amidst the soil and water of France, to think very much the reverse, it would be impossible to forget the glory of our Southern entrance to this sad country.
The battalion made the trip across the Mediterranean in good company, for the ship was shared by ourselves and the 8th Manchesters (the Gallant Ardwicks) commanded by Lt.-Col. Morrough. We had an opportunity of renewing our acquaintance with Malta, so vivid in its intense colouring, whilst our escort of torpedo boats was changed. Perhaps the following extract from an officer's diary will suffice to epitomise whatever incident there was in the journey:--
"... It was more or less boisterous all the way, and on occasion decidedly so--a vastly different voyage from my journey out. The much-vaunted German submarine 'blockade' was not conspicuous, for we neither saw nor heard of a submarine. Undoubtedly, of course, one is conscious of the menace, and a good deal of what might be enjoyment of the sea is spoiled by this horror. One thinks not of the sea as inspiration of sublime thoughts and all things the poets tell us of, but as a receptacle for submarines ... and for us if we are hit. It was decidedly disconcerting to contemplate a dip during the heavy weather. There would be little chance of being picked up I should imagine. Still, we were able to appreciate the colours of Malta, the grand snow-capped mountains of Corsica and the neighbouring islands, while the entrance to Marseilles is a sight I shall never forget. For colour and form I think it is perfect. In a sense Plymouth resembles it, but as a cat the tiger. Here the rocks run down in their limy whiteness sheer to the sea, with chateaux and churches on impossible peaks, backed by tremendous stern giants. Why will they not allow us on shore to get a closer view?... Just above my head the men are concluding a concert with the 'King,' the 'Marseillaise' (I wonder do they appreciate that here it was first sung in its grandeur under Rouget de Lisle), and then with what should be our national song, 'Rule Britannia.' Well might they sing that with zest after the voyage we have concluded to-day."
After standing out in the harbour at Marseilles for 24 hours, we first set foot in France on March 10th. No time was wasted at Marseilles, and we were soon entrained for a long journey northward. In the first hours before dark we were able to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the coast region near Marseilles. At Orange we halted for a meal at midnight. Next day was a glorious journey up the Rhône Valley, passing through Lyons, Chalons-sur-Saone and Dijon. Wherever the train stopped crowds of enthusiastic French people collected to greet us and the news of the fall of Bagdad made us doubly important to them, for not only were we British but they knew we had come from somewhere in the East.
The following morning we arrived at the environs of Paris, and after a stay at Juvissy continued our journey past Versailles and on through Amiens to our destination at Pont Remy, a few miles from Abbeville. It was pitch dark and raining. Imagine the shock to troops straight from Egypt, where they had left a beautiful dry climate, when they jumped out of the carriages into four inches of squelching mud. Then we were told we had to march six or seven miles through the cold rain to our billeting area at Merelissart. However, we were amongst new surroundings and new modes of doing things, and conditions were vastly different from those we had just left, so the sooner we became accustomed to them the better.
Despite the midnight hour everyone found subject for fun in the French barns and shippons which were to be our temporary homes. Lt. Hodge and Lt. Taylor who had worked hard allotting the billets for us joined the battalion here. Lt. Sievewright had rejoined us at Alexandria on the boat, he having been invalided to England from Gallipoli. Lt. G. Harris left to take charge of a Divisional Bombing School, and ended his service with the battalion, although later he became the Brigade Intelligence Officer, when we saw a good deal of him again.
After three days the battalion moved back to Liercourt and there the work of refitting commenced. We had much to learn about organisation and methods of warfare as practised in France, and vigorous training was commenced at once.
Major-General Sir W. Douglas left the division, and his successor, Major-General Mitford, lost no time in getting us ready for the line. Just at this time, and whilst Col. Cronshaw and other officers and N.C.O's. were up in the line for instruction, the German retirement on the Somme and the Ancre to the Hindenburg line took place. As soon as brigades were fitted out they lost no time in moving forward into the war zone, commencing with the Lancs. Fusiliers. At the end of March the 127th brigade entrained for Chuignes and from there the 7th marched forward to Dompierre, which had been the scene of such heavy fighting by the French in 1916. We thus got our first impressions of the devastated area of France, and I am sure there was not a mind in the battalion into which these impressions did not sink deep. The misery of it was by no means diminished when we arrived at our destination, for accommodation had to be found amidst impossible ruins and in the scattered half-destroyed dug-outs amongst the trenches which criss-crossed the village. All this had to be done in pouring rain. When at last we settled down it was found that our new homes were also shared by huge rats who capered about in a most homely manner.
Dompierre was our abode for a few days whilst the battalion made daily excursions through the mud in the direction of Villers Carbonel to execute road making fatigues. Major Scott concluded his long period of active service with the battalion about this time, being invalided to England. His place at the Q.M. Stores was later filled by Lt. Rose of the R.W.F's. After this period we moved into Peronne, and were installed in more comfortable dwellings, for although the town had been badly knocked about, it was possible to find more or less good cover for troops. The great boon here was the plentiful supply of timber from the destroyed houses, and every group of men had its roaring fire. The battalion and indeed the brigade was still on fatigue, repairing roads, railways, bridges, etc. Meanwhile the division had made its debut in France, the 125th and 126th brigades having taken over part of the line during the pursuit of the Hun.
The 7th suffered their first casualty in the new theatre of war at Peronne in a rather unfortunate manner. Whilst on a fatigue of salving telephone wire on the battle-swept ground of Biaches, just outside the town, Pte. Gibson of "C" company was accidentally killed by a bomb, whose explosive mechanism he had unwittingly set in action when pulling up the wire.