HISTORY OF 1/8th BATTALION
January 22nd, 1918.— April 20th, 1918.
What the ultimate object of our training was to have been is somewhat uncertain. Our withdrawal from the forward area after six months may have been merely to give us a thorough rest, but with affairs in the state they then were, we can hardly imagine that the intention was to fit us for anything of an offensive character for some time to come, for as a result of the withdrawal of Russia from the war, and the consequent release of German troops from the Russian front, everything pointed to the Allies on the Western front being on the defensive for some considerable time. That the I Corps knew this had been clear for some time before we left the St. Elie sector. Their Headquarters had remained in the same billets at Labuissière since the beginning of the war, and they were taking all precautions not to have them disturbed—in fact sometimes we used to think that they intended to end their days there! There was no doubt a genuine fear that the Boche might try to break through and capture the rest of the mining district round about Béthune and Bruay, and this caused them to take early steps to prevent such a catastrophe, and for some time before we left the St. Elie sector, they had all available labour and material disposed strengthening the defences behind the line as far back as Béthune. This mainly consisted of putting up row upon row of "double-apron" barbed wire entanglements every few hundred yards, which was looked upon, rightly we think, as the best kind of obstacle to hold up an attack. With machine guns skilfully placed at intervals, so as to enfilade these entanglements, it was thought that the best form of defence had been attained. Work on trenches in the Division and Corps reserve lines was also pushed on, and the machine gun emplacements were made ready for occupation in case of need, and provided with supplies of ammunition and water. We were called upon to help in this work shortly after we were relieved, and on January 30th, sent a party of 460 of all ranks by motor lorry to Mazingarbe for this purpose. They stayed there with Col. Blackwall himself in charge until February 7th, and during that time worked hard in digging reserve trenches, constructing anti-tank trenches, and wiring "localities" under Royal Engineer supervision, near Vermelles. These "localities" were points in the different reserve lines most suitable for, and capable of, all-round defence; they were selected mainly as having a good field of fire on all sides, and so as to command approaches by which the enemy might advance in case of a break through.
The detailing of such a large party naturally left us with very few men for training at Burbure, so that we were able to do little in that respect. Such refitting as was possible was done, and bathing after a good deal of trouble was arranged at Lillers, but as was the case in many of the back areas "billet comforts" were not good. Just at this time, too, we suffered from a scarcity of clean clothes, and later on the scarcity became worse. The supply was extremely short, and more often than not the clothes were rather dirtier on their return from the Abbeville laundry, than when they were sent off. This was not our experience in the I Corps, which we had just left, and whatever we may have thought or said about some of the doings of that Corps, it must be confessed that many of their "Q" matters were very well worked, and in the whole of their area, which included the entire region round about and in front of Béthune, in which we spent many months, we were seldom short of anything in the nature of supplies which one might reasonably require, though there may have been some Battalion Commanders who considered that there should have been a much more liberal allowance of motor lorries, which they were certainly very chary about letting us have.
Economy in all things was now the order of the day, and in order to make the most of our diminishing forces, and to reduce the number of units, it was decided to reorganise the Army on the basis of three instead of four Battalions to a Brigade. This was begun whilst we were at Burbure, the 46th Division being one of the earliest to undergo the change. In the 139th Brigade the 7th Battalion was the one selected to be temporarily broken up. The change was carried out with lightning rapidity, and within about three days of first getting the order that they were to be so treated, our old friends the 7th, were scattered almost to the four winds. We were very glad to be allotted of their number six Officers, Lieuts. R. B. Gamble, S. E. Cairns, S. Sanders, who was attached to the 139th Trench Mortar Battery, and B. W. Dale, and 2nd Lieuts. W. S. Peach and O.S. Kent, also 151 other ranks, who joined us and were absorbed into our Battalion on January 29th. On the 30th we said "Goodbye" with much regret to their Commander Col. Toller, who left that day with the bulk of his Headquarter Staff, to join their corresponding unit in the 59th Division. From the 2/8th Battalion, which was the Sherwood Forester Battalion of the 59th Division to be broken up, we also got a quota of five Officers, Major F. G. Cursham, Capt. C. P. Elliott, M.C., Lieuts. G. G. Elliott, M.C., and G. Thomas, and 2nd Lieut. E. R. Elphick, and 85 other ranks, who joined us on January 31. Frank Cursham, who later met such a sad fate in England, was known to some of the older members of the Battalion, and G. G. Elliott too, had already served with us. This large influx sent up our strength with a bound, and at the end of January, we were probably the strongest we ever touched, viz., 53 Officers and 987 other ranks. The old nomenclature "1/8th" and "2/8th," used to designate the 1st and 2nd lines of the Battalion, was no longer necessary, and we were henceforth known simply as the "8th Sherwood Foresters."
On February 9th, the Division moved back by route march to the First Army Training Area, known officially as the "Bomy Area." This move was carried out as a sort of scheme, the idea being that the Division was following up a retreating enemy, and that at the end of the day's move we should billet just as though we were actually pursuing in a hostile country, without so much prearrangement as was generally possible. This did not tend, perhaps, to billeting in as great comfort as one might have wished, and we were inclined to think it was unnecessary. Be that as it may, we found ourselves at the end of the day with Headquarters and two Companies at Laires, and two Companies at Livossart, all somewhat crowded. This in the nature of things was unsatisfactory, and steps were at once taken to try and bring about a change, with the result that on February 13th, we moved to a very nice little mining village, Enquin-les-Mines, which we had to ourselves. The Headquarter Mess was at the Maire's House, where we were particularly comfortable, and received much kindness from the Maire and his family. There we had rather more callers than on some other occasions, but none of them seemed disappointed if we were not at home, so long as they could leave a message with the Maire's charming daughter, and Officers of the Battalion positively vied with each other in gallantry!
Musketry played the most important part in our training, and ranges were in great demand. An A.R.A. platoon competition was carried out in the Division and roused considerable interest. The winning platoon in the Battalion was No. 15 (D Company), but unfortunately in the Brigade competition, they were beaten by the platoon from the 5th Battalion. Much open warfare and trench-to-trench attack practice was also carried out, a very ominous sign being that this consisted mainly of counter-attacks to regain portions of trenches lost! The training culminated in a fairly successful Brigade Field Day, near Coyecque.
Recreation of course figured largely in the training. In a Brigade inter-Company football competition, B Company's team reached the semi-final, in which they were knocked out by a team from the 5th Battalion. For amusements we were not well off, as we were somewhat isolated. We did, however, manage to get the Divisional Cinema for the last week of our stay, a very acceptable acquisition.
Whilst we were at Enquin our "tin hats" which had recently been shorn of their questionably ornamental or useful sandbags, with which we had been ordered to keep them covered, were painted a dull green, with, for some curious reason, the Transport sign (dark blue square), and narrow light green stripe on the left (denoting 8th Battalion) painted on the side. The change was doubtless due to the pressing need for economy.
By the first week in March, it was realised on all hands that the great Boche offensive could not long be delayed. The enemy had brought Division after Division from the Russian front across to the Western, and, during the Winter, had got together an enormous concentration of troops in France and Belgium, including at least three Austrian Divisions, and it was now only a question of knowing exactly when and where the onslaught would come. In these circumstances our training was cut short, and on March 5th, we began to retrace our steps once more towards the forward area, marching that day to Westrehem, where we had been so comfortably billeted nearly a year before, and were now enthusiastically greeted by our old friends. Only one night was spent there, and the next day we were taken in 'buses to Béthune, and billeted once more at the Orphanage, this being our third time to be quartered there. We were now back again in the I Corps.
Then began a period of about seven weeks activity, during which we had a considerable amount of excitement, some of it of not too pleasant a nature, and one was never quite certain what a day might bring forth. The first week, however, was spent in absolute peace at Béthune in most delightful summer-like weather, and was thoroughly enjoyed by all. During that time the 46th Division took over the Cambrin sector again, and on March 14th, we relieved the support Battalion in that sector, the 5th Lincolns, who were holding the Annequin "Locality," including the whole of Annequin Fosse and its Colliery cottages, which was being put in a state of defence, and was to be held to the last in the event of the enemy breaking through the front line system of trenches.
With the greatest regret we had now to say goodbye to Col. Blackwall, who left us for a tour of duty at home. He had been in command of the Battalion without a break since October 15th, 1915, and during the whole time had never been off duty, except when on leave or attending courses. We feel sure no one felt more than he did what bad luck it was that he should go just at this important juncture, but he left with the best wishes of everyone for a well-earned rest at home. At the same time we welcomed to the command of the Battalion Lieut.-Col. R. W. Currin, D.S.O., of the York and Lancaster Regiment, who was destined to remain with us, with only a short break, until the conclusion of the war.
Several other changes had recently taken place. Hugh Kirby had left to take up a commission in the Indian Cavalry, and the Transport was now under the charge of Capt. Tomlinson. We had also lost Lieuts. White, Day, and Cairns, who had gone to England for a rest, and were followed shortly afterwards by Lieut. H. G. Kirby. Lieut. Gamble, and 2nd Lieuts. Sutton, Peach and Saunders were unfit and were struck off strength, and 2nd Lieut. Clarke went to the Machine Gun Corps. Major Cursham had taken over C Company from Capt. Geary, and Capt. C. P. Elliott had succeeded Lieut. Day in command of B Company. We had been given a new Padre, W. N. Kempe, who made himself very popular during his few months' stay with us. Sergt. J. Eggleston, after a long period of excellent work as Pioneer Sergt., was appointed Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. of D Company, in place of Gammon, who went home for a commission.
Transport was lucky in being put in lines at Le Quesnoy, probably the best constructed and best equipped that we ever struck during the whole war. Units which had been there before had evidently worked hard on them to carry out improvements, and for once we were really lucky in finding a good spot. The stables were strongly built, well roofed, floored, and provided with harness and fodder rooms, and to a certain extent protected from bomb splinters by earth revetments.
On March 20th, we relieved the 5th Battalion in the Cambrin left sub-sector, with which we were already well acquainted. On the following day there took place in the South the first onslaught of the Boche, in his great Spring Offensive of 1918. There was no actual attack anywhere near us, the only offensive action on our front being a "demonstration" in the shape of a heavy bombardment with gas shells, which was decidedly unpleasant, though not causing us any casualties.
During the night of March 21/22nd, we did experience a real touch of the offensive in the shape of a big raid on the right Company, the most vulnerable portion of the line on the whole Brigade front. This front, which was held by A Company was of enormous length, extending from Railway Craters on the right to Munster Parade on the left, a distance of about 600 yards. Three platoons (about 60 all told) held the outpost line in small posts of four or five men, each under a N.C.O., the fourth platoon being held in support as a counterattacking platoon in Old Boots Trench at the West end of Munster Tunnel. The latter was about 400 yards behind the outpost line, and was also occupied by the support Company, and contained the right Company Headquarters. The orders laid down were that in case of attack the platoon detailed for the task was to counter-attack either through the tunnel (quite impossible if the enemy obtained a footing in the trench at the tunnel mouth) or over the top.
Shortly after midnight, the enemy put down an intense barrage of trench mortars, wing bombs, and shells of all calibres, along the whole of the Brigade front and support lines, forward communication trenches, Battalion Headquarters, the Village Line, and extending even to roads, villages, and batteries far behind the line. Telephone wires were broken immediately, but the "S.O.S." was sent by signal rocket and power buzzer, and our artillery and machine guns replied at once. There had been no preliminary bombardment or warning of any kind. The enemy entered our trenches directly behind his barrage from the cover of the craters on the right, between our right post and the left Company of the 138th Brigade, who were on our right, also near Dundee Walk in the centre, and just North of Munster Tunnel on the left. Such wire as had been put up by the few men who were usually available was swept away by the hurricane bombardment, which prevented movement of any kind, either to or from the front or support lines. Two runners were wounded whilst attempting to take messages between Company Headquarters and Munster Tunnel, a distance of 50 yards. The posts in the front line were unable, owing to their small numbers, to offer any prolonged resistance, or on account of the distance between them, to assist neighbouring posts.
The front line entrance to Munster Tunnel was held by us the whole time, and an attempt to blow it in, which was one of the main objects of the raid, was frustrated, 2nd Lieut. Hartle being wounded by a hand grenade. That the garrison of the outpost line withstood the onslaught to their utmost there is no doubt, and to this the pools of blood and reeking bayonets of some of the rifles found afterwards in the trench, bore convincing testimony. After the enemy's withdrawal, one unwounded and one seriously wounded German were left in our hands, the former having apparently become detached from his party, and being discovered later in front of our trench with a sheet of newspaper fluttering from his rifle.
The thoroughness with which the Boche trained for this raid was proved from the prisoners' statements and documents, which afterwards came into our hands. For six weeks the raiding party, consisting of about 250 men, had been training over an exact replica of our trenches, constructed with the help of an aeroplane photograph. The training had also included the teaching of several words of English. The work of the raiders was extraordinary, and our own men in the front line testified to the remarkable dexterity with which they removed their casualties. This is the more wonderful inasmuch as they had to penetrate our barrages, in order to regain their trench, and there is no doubt that in doing so they lost heavily. Our casualties amounted to three other ranks killed, including a very gallant N.C.O., Corpl. Tyne, 26 other ranks missing, and one Officer (Hartle), and ten other ranks wounded. We should like to pay tribute to the excellent work done by the Signallers, who as usual worked their hardest, to try and keep their lines in order, in spite of the heavy shelling. L.-Corpl. Parry's efforts to repair the broken lines back from one of the front Companies, were especially praiseworthy.
Though there was an element of surprise in the raid, there is no doubt that its success was due to the fact that the defence was designed for an attack on a large scale, and led inevitably to a weakening of our outpost line, making it peculiarly vulnerable to a raid or attack with a limited objective.
The following night, the whole Battalion was ordered to wire as hard as possible, and hundreds of reels of barbed wire were put out. Even Battalion Headquarters shared in the work, the whole staff being out in an endeavour to wire themselves in.
On March 24th, we were relieved by the 6th Battalion, Headquarters and two Companies proceeding to Beuvry, and two Companies remaining in the trenches in close support. "Wind" at this time was very "high," and our Intelligence reported that we must be prepared for any eventuality. The enemy had made enormous progress in their attack in the South, and everything pointed to the possibility of a general attack along the whole front. As a matter of fact no such attempt was ever made on the Cambrin-St. Elie sector, but we had to take every precaution, and for the next two or three nights, we marched up to our battle positions in front of Cambrin, in case the expected attack should mature. We even made arrangements for a possible retreat, and worse than that, all leave was stopped.
It was at this juncture that our Brigade Commander, General Carey left us to take Command of the 20th Division, with everyone's good wishes and congratulations. He arrived near Amiens in time to assume Command of a composite Army, known as "Carey's Force," and to assist materially in finally stopping the great German onslaught. He was succeeded by General Wood.
The "wind" in this quarter, dropped for the moment, but we heard that things just North of Arras were not looking too bright. The enemy were expected to attack at Vimy, and the Canadians who were holding the sector opposite Lens, were to be moved to that part to help the defence. As a result, we got orders on March 25th, to move back once more to the Lens region, to relieve the Canadians. Hasty plans were made by which the 11th Division took over from us, and on March 27th, we marched to Calonne and relieved the 72nd Canadian Battalion there in reserve, moving up the following night to the St. Emile sector, in front of St. Pierre, where we took over the right sub-sector front line from the 78th Canadian Battalion. The completion of the relief had to be rather hurried, as the enemy attacked at Oppy on March 28th, and the Canadians were hastily sent there to help. Transport and Quarter-Master's Stores had meanwhile gone to Fosse 10.
The front line in this sector was now of course much further forward, than when we were last there, as the Canadians in connection with their attack on Hill 70, had forced the enemy out of the whole of St. Pierre, St. Laurent, and St. Emile Cités, back to the outskirts of Lens itself. These Cités were now to all intents and purposes destroyed, and presented nothing but a mass of streets heaped up with broken tiles, brick and other débris, interspersed here and there with trenches, the remains of houses, and a few shattered trees. Amongst the ruins the Canadians had laid a splendid system of tramways, and the transport of stores and rations to the line was carried out every night by this means, in a most expeditious manner. Canadian Engineers continued to run the lines during our stay, and we must confess that we did not envy the drivers their job, for the lines went up uncomfortably close to the front line, and a good deal of noise accompanied the arrival and departure of the trains, unloading of stores, and loading of empties for the return journey, the guard or man in charge usually helping matters with a few shrill blasts of his whistle, quite in approved Canadian fashion.
After a quiet tour of four days, we were relieved in the early morning of April 1st, by the 6th Battalion, and went back to Brigade support at St. Pierre, where we lived in the cellars of the otherwise destroyed houses. Our stay there was rendered less pleasant than it might have been, by the fact that practically the whole of the village was under observation from Lens, so that during the day hardly any movement was possible, and most of our exercise had to be taken by night, when we were kept pretty busy with carrying and working parties. The nightly gas shelling of the village made this work anything but pleasant. Bathing parades too, were held at night, and took place in the weirdest bathing establishment we ever met, which was in the crypt of the church. It was well protected by the ruins of the church, and had been fitted up with a spray bath.
On April 3rd, we relieved the 5th Battalion in the line, and had a somewhat "thin" six days, owing to the enemy being extremely active, particularly with heavy trench mortars, with which he did a lot of damage to our front line, being particularly obnoxious on the night of April 5/6th, in retaliation for one of our gas projector shows. L.-Corpl. Beech did especially commendable work during these days in charge of a Lewis gun post.
One morning during a tour in the front line in this sector. Col. Currin very nearly lost his runner. It was a rather foggy morning, and the Commanding Officer sent him to find an Officer in an adjoining Company. Unfortunately the runner made a mistake at a trench junction, and gaily followed an old communication trench, running straight to the enemy's lines. It was doubtful which party was the more surprised when he suddenly found himself confronted by a Boche sentry post behind a barricade. At any rate the latter were too amazed to shoot, whilst true to his calling the runner ran, and never stopped until he nearly crashed into the arms of the Colonel, who was wondering what on earth had happened.
On April 9th, the 6th Battalion relieved us again, and we went back to St. Pierre. On the same day there happened an event which was to have an enormous effect on the future of the war, at any rate so far as the fighting on the Northern portion of the front was concerned, viz., the attack on the British line immediately North of the La Bassée Canal, and on the Portuguese in the Neuve Chapelle area. The result was that whilst the 55th Division put up a magnificent defence on the Canal, and completely beat off all the enemy attacks, the Portuguese gave way, and the enemy were able to push on West for a considerable distance, until brought to a halt by the British, who were later helped by reinforcements rapidly sent up by the French. This had an almost immediate effect on us, for on the night of April 11/12th, we were taken out of the line, being relieved once more by the Canadians (13th Battalion) who were hurried up from the area North of Arras, where things seemed to be quiet once more. After a great scramble, relief was completed by 5.30 a.m. when it was practically daylight. Some got rides on the trains which brought up the Canadians, but the rest had to walk, and eventually we all got to Noeux-les-Mines, where we had breakfast and dinner, and proceeded in the afternoon to Vaudricourt. The whole Division had been relieved—one of the quickest reliefs known—and we now found ourselves in Army Reserve, to be sent to any spot where we might be required.
Things once more were in a very "nervy" state, as it was felt that ere long the enemy would make another desperate attempt to capture the rest of the mining area, either by direct frontal attack from the East towards Béthune, or by continuing his enveloping movement from the North, and attacking it from that direction across the La Bassée Canal. A large part of this area now formed a prominent salient, with the enemy on the East and North, and the consequence was a rapid evacuation of the French inhabitants from many of the mining towns and villages in that district, including Béthune, Beuvry, Annequin, Sailly-Labourse, Noeux-les-Mines, and Bully Grenay—all of which we knew well. For several days we watched the wretched inhabitants toiling along the roads, taking with them by whatever means they could, the few belongings they most treasured or required. Some had carts loaded with bedding and furniture, some their little dog carts full to overflowing, others footed it burdened with loads almost beyond human strength to carry. Ever the throng kept passing back from the forward regions, having left everything that they could not carry just as it was in their houses, with no other protection than locked doors. Their cattle and horses too, were driven back, and taken to pounds in villages in safer regions. Several more mines had to cease work, and the French miners thus thrown out of employment were mostly set to work in digging line upon line of additional trenches about Fouquières and Drouvin, for us to fall back on in case of a break through, as it was determined to contest every bit of the ground to the very utmost. Right well they worked, and in an incredibly short time, they had dug miles of trenches, and well wired them in front with substantial entanglements. Our only fear was that if the enemy got through, we should not have sufficient men to garrison these trenches so excellently dug!
This was probably the darkest period of the war. The inspiring message from the Commander-in-Chief was read to all ranks, and all indeed realised that we had our backs to the wall and were fighting for our very existence, and that it was touch and go whether the Hun would not, after all, break through the whole line and sweep through to the coast, and ultimately to England.
It was in these circumstances, after a few days quiet training about Vaudricourt, that we got word at 2.30 a.m. on the morning of April 18th, that a German prisoner had been captured, and had given information to the effect that the enemy were going to make another desperate attack that morning along the La Bassée Canal. We were accordingly ordered at once to man part of the Sailly-Labourse "Locality," known as the "Tuning Fork Line," just in front of that village, so-called because it formed part of a system of trenches and breastworks shaped like a tuning fork. There was some slight delay in getting the orders passed on, and it was 4.30 a.m. before we marched off. This was unfortunate, for we were not able to reach our battle position before dawn, when the enemy's barrage began. This as usual included heavy shelling of the rear roads and villages through which we had to pass, particularly Verquigneul and Sailly, where we suffered several casualties, and lost Corpl. Caudwell, who had done such good work with the Transport, and two men killed and several others wounded. One of the cookers was also badly blown about by a shell in Verquigneul. We got to our position at 6.30 a.m. where we were comparatively comfortable. The enemy had actually attacked at Givenchy, but once again, thanks to the 1st and 55th Divisions, he was completely defeated, and never again did he try to get through on this part of the front. We were kept in our positions here for two days, by which time things had become normal once more, and in the afternoon of April 20th, we marched back to our billets at Vaudricourt.