The Second Army had the Salient: the First centred on Armentierès; the Third (Gough’s) carried on to the south of Arras, where the Fifth held all along the valley of the Ancre and a portion of the old British line on the Somme. The Fourth joined the French left wing near Roye, and the French pressure worked in with ours.
From the Salient to the Somme battle-front, our line’s business was to draw as much as possible of the enemy’s strength. Therefore, our raids on that part of the line, during the latter half of 1916, were counted by the hundred; and in all that time, at no point on any given day there, could the Germans feel secure against our irruptions.
On the Somme our pressure was direct and, except for the weather, worked as continuously as a forest fire in fallen pine-needles. A fold of the hills might check it there; a bare ridge or a sodden valley hold it elsewhere for the while; but always it ate north and east across the stricken country, as division after division gathered, fought, won foothold, held it, dug in, and gave place to their unspent fellows beneath the cover of the advancing guns. Here is a mere outline of the work of a few weeks:
The affairs of the 15th and 25th of September (1916), when the Fourth Army pushed the line past Lesbœufs and Flers and beyond Gueudecourt on the right, knocked out, as we know, both battalions of the Irish Guards for the time being.
On the 27th and 28th of September the Second and First Canadian Divisions, with the Eleventh and Eighteenth of the Second Army Corps, captured Thiepval, the Stuff and Schwaben redoubts on the left of the line; while the Fifty-fifth and New Zealand Divisions made possible an advance on Le Sars and Eaucourt l’Abbaye villages in the centre, which, after four days’ continuous fighting by the Forty-seventh, Fiftieth, and Twenty-third Divisions, ended in the taking of Eaucourt l’Abbaye and Le Sars.
On the 7th of October the French Army attacked in the direction of Sailly-Saillisel, the Fourth Army chiming in along its whole front from Lesbœufs to Destremont farm, which had been taken by the Twenty-third Division on the 29th September. In this affair the Twenty-third Division captured Le Sars, and the Twentieth Division over a mile of trenches east of Gueudecourt.
Then the treacherous weather broke once more, and the battered and crumbled ground held their feet till a few days of dry cold were snatched for an attack in the direction of Courcelette by four Divisions (Fourth Canadian, Eighteenth, Fifteenth, and Thirty-ninth), where a fresh line was needed.
On the 23rd October, and on the 5th November again, as side-issues while waiting on the weather for a serious attack on Beaumont-Hamel, a couple of divisions (Fourth and Eighth) went in with a French attack against Pierre St. Vaast Wood, where a tangle of enemy trenches at the junction of the two armies was slowly smoked and burned out.
The 10th of November (after one day’s fine weather) gave the Fourth Canadian Division a full day’s fighting and, once more, a thousand yards of trench in the Courcelette sector.
On the 13th of November the battle of the Ancre opened from Serre to east of the Schwaben redoubt (Thirty-first, Third, Second, Fifty-first, Thirty-ninth and Nineteenth Divisions), with the intention of gaining command of both banks of the river, where it entered the enemy lines six or seven miles north of Albert. This was a sector of the old German front to the west, which had thrown back our opening attack of July 1, and had grown no more inviting since. Serre itself, helped by the state of the ground before it, was impossible, but Beaucourt, Beaumont-Hamel, and a portion of the high ground above it, with the village of St. Pierre-Divion in the valley, were, in the course of the next few days, captured and held.
All the above takes no count of incessant minor operations, losses and recaptures of trenches, days and nights of bombing that were necessary to silence nests of subterranean works, marked on the maps of peace as “villages”; nor of the almost monotonous counter-attacks that followed on the heels of every gain. So long as movement was possible the Somme front was alive from end to end, according as one hard-gained position gave the key to the next, or unscreened some hitherto blinded works. Against every disadvantage of weather and over ground no troops in history had before dared to use at that season, the system and design of the advance revealed itself to the enemy. Their counter-attacks withered under our guns or died out in the fuming, raw-dug trenches; the slopes that had been their screens were crowned and turned against them; their infantry began to have no love for the blunt-nosed tanks, which, though not yet come to the war in battalions, were dragging their smeared trails along the ridges; the fighting aeroplanes worried them, too, with machine-gun fire from overhead; photographers marked their covered ways by day and our heavy bombers searched them by night, as owls search stubble for mice. It all cost men and stuff, and the German Army Command had little good news to send back to the German tribes.
Yet the last six months of 1916 had advanced our front no more than some eight miles-along the Albert–Bapaume road. At no point were we more than ten miles from our beginnings. All that showed on the map was that the enemy’s line to the north had been pinched into a salient which, starting from just east of Arras, followed the line of the old German front built up two years before, through Monchy-au-Bois, Gomiecourt and Serre to the high white grounds above Beaumont-Hamel. Thence it turned east across the Ancre, seven or eight kilometres north of Arras, skirted Grandcourt, crossed the arrow-straight Albert–Bapaume road by the dreary Butte de Warlencourt, ran north-east of Gueudecourt, and on the rim of the rise above Le Transloy, till it crossed the Péronne–Bapaume road just north of Sailly-Saillisel. Here it swung south-east from Rancourt and Bouchavesnes down the long slopes to the Valley of the Somme, and its marshes west of Péronne. Thence, south-westerly by Berny-en-Santerre, Ablaincourt to the outskirts of Chaulnes, ending at Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, where the French took on. The twenty-five mile stretch from Le Transloy to Le Quesnoy was the new section that had been handed over to the British care, piece by piece, at the end of the year.
To meet this pinch and all that they could see that it meant, the Germans had constructed, while they and the weather held us, elaborate second and third lines of defence behind their heavily fortified front. The first barrier—a double line of trenches, heavily wired, ran behind Sailly-Saillisel, past Le Transloy to the Albert–Bapaume road, Grévillers and Loupart woods, and via Achiet-le-Petit to Bucquoy.
Parallel to this, at a distance ranging from one to two miles, was a new line through Rocquigny, Bapaume, and Ablainzevelle, almost equally strong and elaborate. Behind it, as every one understood, was a thing called the Hindenburg Line, known to the Germans as “Siegfried”—a forty-mile marvel of considered defences with branches and spurs and switches, one end of which lay on St. Quentin and the other outside Arras. This could be dealt with later, but, meantime, the enemy in the Arras–Le Transloy salient were uneasy. The attacks delivered on selected positions; the little inter-related operations that stole a few hundred yards of trench or half a village at a leap, or carried a gun-group to a position whence our batteries could peer out and punish; above all, the cold knowledge that sooner or later our unimaginative, unmilitary infantry would shamble after the guns, made them think well of lines in their rear to which they could retire at leisure. Verdun had not fallen; very many of their men lay dead outside its obliterated forts, and so very many living were needed to make good the daily drain of the Somme that they had none too many to spare for Austrian or Turkish needs. Their one energetic ally was the weather, which, with almost comic regularity, gave them time after each reverse to draw breath, position more guns, reorganise reliefs, and explain to their doubting public in Germany the excellence and the method of their army’s plans for the future. The battle of the Ancre, for instance, was followed by an absolute deadlock of six weeks, when our armies—one cannot assault and dig out battalions at the same time—dropped everything to fight the mud, while our front-line wallowed in bottomless trenches where subalterns took from three to six hours to visit their posts on a front of one quarter of a mile.
Bitter frosts set in with the first weeks of the New Year and the “small operations” began at once, on our side, round such portions of the Beaumont-Hamel heights as the enemy still clung to. Here the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Divisions fought, shift by shift, for the rest of January and won the high ground needed for our guns to uncover against Serre and Grandcourt, which were the keys of the positions at the corner of the Arras–Le Transloy salient. Thanks to our air-work, and the almost daily improvement in the power and precision of our barrages, that little army came through its campaign without too heavy losses, and still further cramped the enemy’s foothold along the Ancre, while the rest of the line enjoyed as much peace as the Somme allowed them when “there was nothing doing.”
The Guards Division, after their ten days’ rest and clean-up at Sandpits Camp, Méaulte, supplied one brigade to take over a new sector of trench opposite St. Pierre Vaast Wood on the extreme east of things and left their 1st Brigade in reserve at Méaulte, Villesous-Corbie, and Méricourt l’Abbé. The latter camp was allotted to the Irish Guards who had to send one company for permanent fatigues to the railway-station—all the valley here was one long siding for men and supplies—and another to the back of Bernafay Wood for Decauville construction, while the remainder were drilled and instructed in their specialties. This was the time in our armies’ development when nearly every third man was a “specialist” in some branch or another except, as company officers remarked under their breaths, the rifle and its bayonet. The men’s deferred Christmas dinners (it will be remembered they had been in the line on the day itself) were duly issued by half a battalion at a time in the big cinema-hall in camp, and, lest the transport officer should by any chance enjoy himself, their transport chose this time of rest to develop “contagious stomatitis,” a form of thrush in the mouth, and had to be isolated. Still, setting aside the cold, which does not much trouble well-fed men, the Battalion had some pleasant memories of its rest by the river. Leave was possible; smoking-parties made themselves in the big huts; the sergeants gave a dinner, which is a sure sign of wellbeing; there were cinemas for the men, and no one troubled himself too much for the noise of the guns ten miles up stream.
It is difficult to rediscover a battalion’s psychology at any given time, but so far as evidence goes they had not too black doubts as to the upshot of the campaign, though every platoon kept its loud-voiced pessimists who foretold that they would take root in the trenches for evermore and christened the R.O.D. locomotives “Roll on Duration!”
On the 1st February (1917) in “cold bright weather with snow on the ground,” the 1st Brigade were once again in Divisonal Reserve near Carnoy, ready to relieve the 3rd Coldstream near Rancourt on the recently taken-over French sector, in trenches a little westerly of St. Pierre Vaast Wood which is under Sailly-Saillisel. In the wood itself lay a dreadful mine-crater of the old days, filled, as it seemed, with dead French Colonial troops—browned and blackened bodies, their white skulls still carrying jaunty red caps. Our wondering patrols used to look down into it sometimes of moonlight nights.
They moved out on the 2nd of February via Maricourt and Maurepas, left No. 2 Company under canvas in Maurepas Ravine, distributed the rest in shelters and dug-outs and resumed their watch. The frozen ground stopped much digging or “improvements,” and the enemy’s front line gave no trouble, but a few small shells were sent over, one of which hit 2nd Lieutenant J. Orr temporarily in command of No. 1 Company and wounded a couple of men. The rest of their turn—February 2 to 6—was quiet, for the new-fallen snow gave away the least movement on either side. While they crouched over their braziers and watched each other, the operations round Serre and at the nose of the Arras–Le Transloy salient, began again as the earth’s crust hardened. The Sixty-third Division hammered its way for a day and a night up the southern slopes of Serre, and our guns were threatening the line of enemy’s trenches from Grandcourt westward. This move unkeyed the arch of his local defences at this point, and next day he evacuated Grandcourt and such of his front as lay between Grandcourt and the Stuff redoubt.
By the 7th February our troops had carried forward to midway between Beaucourt and Miraumont, and on the 10th February the Thirty-second Division took in hand the business of shifting the enemy out of what remained to him in the Beaumont Valley. Their advance brought Serre village into direct danger from our artillery, and any further move on our part up the valley of the Ancre would make Serre untenable.
On the 17th February that move was made by three Divisions (Second, Eighteenth, and Sixty-third) before dawn, through heavy mist on the edge of a thaw, and in the face of a well-contrived barrage that caught the battalions forming up. But the positions and observation-points, already gained, helped our guns to help the infantry, broke up the enemy’s counter-attacks with satisfactory losses, and, in the next few days, gave us good command over the enemy’s artillery dispositions in the valley of the Upper Ancre and a fair look into his defences at Pys and Miraumont. Then the game stood thus: If Miraumont, which lay at our mercy, were taken, Serre would go; if Serre went, Puisieux-au-Mont and Gomiecourt, the pillar of the old German western defences, would be opened too; and it was no part of the German idea to cling to untenable positions, whose loss would have to be explained at home where people were asking why victory delayed so long. Not only was the whole of Arras–Le Transloy salient shaking by now; there was the prospect of indefinite wastage to no good end all along the rest of the Somme front, and though the weather, till then, had blunted the following weight of each following blow, many considerations pointed to a temporary withdrawal of a few miles in order to advance the more irresistibly at a more fitting time. Slowly, methodically then, with careful screens of veiled machine-guns behind them, and a series of scientifically chosen artillery positions, equally capable of supporting a counter-attack, or checking and destroying any too inconvenient body of pursuers, the enemy moved back into ground not yet churned and channelled by shell or traffic, over untouched roads which he had kept in perfect order, to this very end; and left us to follow through bottomless valleys of desolation.
The frost broke on the third week of February, and the last state of the ground was worse even than it had been throughout the rainy autumn. Trenches caved in bodily; dumps sank where they were being piled; the dirt and the buttresses of overhead shelters flaked and fell away in lumps; duckboards went under by furlongs at a time; tanks were immobilised five feet deep and the very bellies of the field-guns gouged into the mud. Only our airmen could see anything beyond or outside the present extreme discomfort, but the mists that came punctually with the thaws helped to baffle even ,their eyes.
On the 24th February the enemy had evacuated his positions in front of Pys, Miraumont, and Serre; next day his first system of defence, from Gueudecourt to west of Serre, running through half-a-dozen fortified villages, was in our hands.
At the end of the month, Puisieux-au-Mont, with Gomiecourt and its defences, were occupied by us. The Germans had pulled themselves cleanly out of the worst of the salient.
By March they were back on their fortified Le Transloy–Loupart line, except that they still held the village of Irles above Miraumont, which was linked up to the Le Transloy–Loupart line by a peninsula of wired trenches. Irles was carried by the Second and Eighteenth Divisions on the 10th march.
As soon as our guns were able to concentrate on the Le Transloy–Loupart line itself, which they did the day after, the enemy, leisurely as always, released it, and fell back on and through his next line a mile or two behind—Rocquigny–Ablainzevelle—steadied his rearguards, and continued his progress towards the Hindenburg defences, withdrawing along the whole front from south of Arras to Roye. By the 17th of March word was given for a general advance of our troops in co-operation with the French.
To go back a month. Rumours of what was to be expected had cheered the camps for some time past; and just as the fall of single rocks precedes the collapse of an undermined quarry-face, so the German line had crumpled in certain spots long before their system readjusted itself throughout. Front-trenches, far removed from actual points of pressure, observed that life with them was quieter than even the state of the weather justified, and began to make investigations.
When the Battalion went up, as usual, on the 15th February to relieve the 2nd Grenadiers in the trenches a little north of Rancourt and opposite St. Pierre Vaast Wood, their casualties for the four days were but three killed and five wounded. “Practically no sniping and very occasional shelling.” They treated it lightly enough, for it was here that the sentry told the conscientious officer who had heard a shell drop near the trench: “Ah, it fell quite convenient here”—a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder, and as an afterthought—“’Twas a dud, though.” The ground was still hard, and, to the men’s joy, they could not dig.
Captain R. J. P. Rodakowski arrived from the base on the 18th of the month. The thaw caught them in camp at Maurepas, just as the enemy’s withdrawal got under way, and their turn in trenches from the 23rd to 26th February was marked by barrages let down on them of evenings, presumably to discourage curiosity. So they were ordered at short notice to send out a couple of officer’s patrols from their left and right companies to reconnoitre generally, and see if the enemy were falling back. The first patrol, under 2nd Lieutenant Shears, an N.C.O., three bombers, and three “bayonet-men,” spent a couple of hours among the wire, were bombed but returned unhurt. The second, also of seven men, under Lieutenant Browne, were seen by the enemy, headed back to our lines, but made a fresh outfall, which carried them to the wire where, “finding a weak spot, they cut their way through it” and won within a few yards of the enemy’s parapet when they were bombed. They used up their own supplies and came back with a good report, and four men and Lieutenant Browne wounded. On their information a raid was arranged for the next day to take over a couple of hundred yards of the enemy’s trench, but it was cancelled pending developments elsewhere. They lost two killed and thirteen men and one officer wounded in this tour, and went back to routine and “specialist” training in a camp near Billon on the last day of February.
Their domestic items for the next fortnight, which, like the rest of March, was cold and stormy, run as follows: 2nd Lieutenant A. L. Bain went to the Fourteenth Corps School for a fortnight at Méaulte, which, in that weather, was no special treat; and Lieutenant E. H. Shears to Headquarters Lewis Gun School at Le Touquet, a much superior place. Lieut.-Colonel R. C. A. McCalmont left on the 3rd March to take over command of the 3rd Infantry Brigade just south of the Somme, and had a tremendous send-off from the Battalion. He was succeeded in the command by Major the Hon. H. R. Alexander, D.S.O., M.C., and Major G. E. S. Young came over from the 2nd Battalion as second in command—as it proved for all too brief a time. The specialist training continued, and “open warfare” was practised by companies. There was an irreverent camp-jest just then that whenever the enemy abandoned one quarter of a mile of trench, the five nearest British army corps forsook every other game to practise “open warfare.” The Battalion learned also attacks on triple lines of trenches, the creeping barrage being personified by their drums and those of the 2nd Coldstream. In this sort of work, men say, there is a tendency to lean a little too heavily on such a barrage, which had to be checked by taking the offender’s name. (“So, ye’ll understand, ye catch it, both ways; for if ye purshue the live barrage ye’ll likely to be killed; an’ if you purshue a dhrummy barrage too close, your name’s in the book. That’s War!”)
By the middle of March the German line was giving all along; and when the Battalion moved up into Brigade Reserve on the 12th, they understood an advance was close at hand. Their allotted and sketchy stretch of trench, which they took over from the 4th Grenadiers (on the 13th March), was at Sailly-Saillisel, of evil associations, and on the 14th, on information received after patrolling under Lieutenant E. Budd and Lieutenant Bagenal, the German front line ahead was reported clear and at once occupied. Then they were committed to a muddle of German works in the direction of Le Mesnil-en-Arrouaise, which were named after the Idols of the Tribes. There was nothing to see or to steer by except devastated earth, mud, wire, scraps of sand-bags, heaped rubbish and carcases. The whole line went forward on the 15th, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in touch by patrol with their 2nd Battalion on their right and on the left with the 2nd Coldstream. No one knew exactly what was in the enemy’s mind, or how far his retirement was extending, but an hour after the Battalion had started they came under long-range machine-gun and heavy artillery fire while they were consolidating “Bayreuth” trench. Major G. E. S. Young was so badly wounded this day by a shell, which came through a company headquarter’s dug-out he was visiting, that he died in a hospital a fortnight later and was buried at Grovetown cemetery, and Lieutenant Walter Mumford, M.C., was slightly wounded in the leg. The next trench, “Gotha,” was also under gun-fire. They simply moved forward, it seemed, into registered areas, where they were held up, as by a hose of high explosives, till the enemy had completed his local arrangements. Then his artillery on that sector would withdraw across clean, hard country; some long-range machine-gun or sniping work might continue for a while; and then all would be silent, with the sudden curious silences of the Somme, till the next step forward was made on our side and dealt with as above. Thus the Battalion worked through the emptied German trenches and dug-outs, and on the 20th March held a line from Le Mesnil-en-Arrouaise to Manancourt on the Tortille River. The German retreat was as orderly as an ebb-tide. In the north, Bapaume had been taken on the 17th March by the First and Second Australian Division, and Péronne was occupied on the 18th by the Forty-eighth Division. Beyond Bapaume our troops entered the third and last—Beugny–Ytres—line of German trench and wire-work that lay between them and the Hindenburg defences four or five miles behind it across open country. From Péronne southward to close upon Germaine, where we were in touch with the French, our advance-parties had crossed the Somme and spread themselves, as far as the state of the ground allowed, in—it could hardly be called pursuit so much as a heavy-footed following-up of the enemy, and making our own roads and tracks as we moved. We found everything usable thoughtfully destroyed, and had to reconstruct it from the beginnings, ere any further pressure could be exercised.
The German front before Arras was unaffected by their withdrawal, and here preparations of every conceivable sort were being piled up against the approaching battle of the Ancre where from Croiselles to Vimy Ridge our Third and First Armies broke through on a front of fifteen miles on April 9, and after a week’s desperate fighting, hampered as usual by the weather, carried that front four miles farther eastward, captured 13,000 prisoners and 200 guns; and, through the next month, fought their road up and into the northern end of the Hindenburg Line near Bullecourt whose name belongs to Australia.
On the 23rd of March the Battalion was taken out of its unmolested German trenches and marched to Combles, where it was used in road-making between Frégicourt, Bullet Cross-roads and Sailly-Saillisel, till the 5th of April. There was just one day in that stretch without rain, hail or snow, and when they were not road-making they buried dead and collected salvage and were complimented by the commanding officer of engineers on their good work. As the men said: “It was great days for the Engineers—bad luck to ’em—but it kept us warm.”
Their total losses for March had been one officer, Major G. E. S. Young, killed and one, Lieutenant Walter Mumford, M.C., slightly wounded; fourteen other ranks killed and forty wounded—fifty-six in all or less than 10 per cent. of the Battalion’s strength at the time. Second Lieutenant H. V. Fanshawe joined on the 30th March.
On the 6th April they changed over to railway construction on the broad-gauge track between Morval and Rocquigny. The men camped at one end of Le Transloy village and Battalion Headquarters in the only house (much damaged) that still stood up. Here they stayed and slaved for a week, in hail and snow and heavy frosts at night; and were practically reclothed as their uniforms were not in the best of condition. (“Ye could not have told us from—from anything or anybody ye were likely to meet in those parts, ye’ll understand. But—one comfort—we was all alike—officers an’ all.”) A village that has not been too totally wrecked is a convenient dump to draw up. The men “improved” their camp and floored their tents out of material at hand, and were rewarded by finding usable German stores among the ruins. One sees how their morale held up, in spite of dirt, iron-rust and foul weather, from the fact that they went out of their way to construct—even as they had done at Ypres—“a magnificent Irish Guards Star of glass and stones all surrounded by a low box-hedge.” Nor was it forgotten that they were soldiers; and, in spite of the railway-work, and the demands of the Sappers, some of the “specialists” and occasionally a company could be trained at Le Transloy. Even training is preferable to “fatigues,” and on the 15th of April they were taken in hand in good earnest. They marched twelve miles in pouring rain to a camp at Bronfay where “a very strict course of platoon training for all ranks was undertaken.” It began with twenty minutes’ walking or running (in the usual rain or snow) before breakfast at 7.30, and it continued with a half-hour’s break till half-past twelve. “Even after three days there was an appreciable improvement in drill and smartness,” says the Diary, and when their Brigadier inspected them on the 22nd April he was pleased to compliment. Of afternoons, every one seemed to lecture to every one else according to their seniority; the Brigadier on “Outposts”; the commanding officer—Major R. Baggallay—on “Advance and Rear Guards,” the officers to the platoon-sergeants on every detail of life-saving or taking, and when their own resources failed, the C.O. of the 2nd Coldstream lectured all officers and sergeants of the 1st Brigade on “the attack in open warfare.” It was a very thorough shaking-up—foot and transport—from the “specialists” to the cook’s mate; and it culminated in No. 5 Platoon (Lieutenant E. Budd) being chosen to represent the Battalion at the Brigade Platoon competition in Drill, Arms Drill, Musketry, Bayonet-fighting and a tactical exercise. The 2nd Grenadiers platoon won, but No. 5 justified itself by taking a very close second place. Survivors, who remember, assert that the platoons of those days were in knowledge, strength, and virtue immeasurably above all known standards of fighting men. (“And in the long run, d’ye see, they went with the rest. All gone! Maybe there’ll be one or two of ’em left—policemen or tram-conductors an’ such like; but in their day an’ time, ye’ll understand, there was nothing could equal them.”)
The lighter side of life was supplied by the 3rd Coldstream’s historic and unparalleled “Pantomime,” which ran its ribald and immensely clever course for ten consecutive nights when the cars of the Staff might be seen parked outside the theatre precisely as in the West End.
On the 1st May they resumed work on the Etricourt–Fins railroad and made camp among the ruins of the village for the next three weeks in fine hot weather. The officers and N.C.O.’s were exercised freely at map-reading (which on the Somme required high powers of imagination), sketching reports and compass-work and occasionally officers and N.C.O.’s made up a platoon and worked out small tactical exercises—such as the rush-in and downing of a suddenly raised machine-gun after a barrage had lifted. The men were kept to the needs of railway and transport, but it was an easy life in warm, grassy Etricourt after months of mud and torn dirt. A swimming bath was dug for them; there were wild flowers to be gathered, and an orchard in blossom to show that the world still lived naturally, and their work was close to their parade-grounds. Men spoke affectionately of Etricourt where shell-holes were so few that they could count them.
A home-draft had brought the Battalion six pipers who on the 4th of May “played at Retreat for the first time,” and thereafter followed the Battalion’s fortunes. As everybody knows, Irish pipes have one drone less than the Scottish, but it is not commonly understood that the piper in his close-fitting saffron kilt plays them almost without any movement of the body—a point of difference that has puzzled very many Scots regiments. That immobility, as the Pipe Major observed on an historic occasion, is “one of the secrets of the regiment.”
On the 20th of May they marched—not without some discomfort from an artillery brigade which was trying to use the same road at the same time—from Etricourt to Curlu on the Somme, where they were once more billeted in houses. Here, after so many weeks of making their own camps to their own minds, they were introduced to other people’s housekeeping, and found the whole village “left in a filthy condition by previous troops.” So they cleaned it up and trained and learned from the Divisional Gas Officer of Transport how gas-helmets should be adjusted on horses—to which some of the scared beasts hotly objected; and they bathed by companies in the warm Somme, making a picnic of it, while the long-drawn battle of the Ancre in the north died down to mere bloody day-and-night war among the villages covering the Hindenburg Line and its spurs. The talk in the camps turned on great doings—everything connected with the front-line was “doings”—against Messines Ridge that looks over the flat shell-bitten Salient where there is more compulsory trench-bathing than any man wants. It had commanded too much of that country for too long. At its highest point, where Wytschaete village had once stood, it overlooked Ypres and the British positions around, and was a menace over desolate Plugstreet far towards Armentières. Rumour ran that arrangements had been made to shift it bodily off the f ace of the earth; that populations of miners had burrowed there through months, for miles; that all underground was riddled with workings where men fought in the dark, up and down tunnels that caved, round the sharp turns of boarded and bagged galleries, and on the lips of black shafts that dropped one into forty-foot graves. Yet, even were Messines Ridge wiped out, the enemy had large choices of commanding positions practically all round the Salient, and it seemed likely, by what news sifted into their area, that the Guards might be called upon before long to help in further big doings, Ypres way—perhaps a “break-through” towards Lille.
The Salient had been the running sore in our armies’ side since the first. Now that we had men, guns, and material, it looked as if it might be staunched at last. A battalion does not think beyond its immediate interests—even officers are discouraged from trying to run the war by themselves—but it did not need to be told that it had not been fattened up the last few weeks for Headquarters’ pleasure in its appearance. Men know when they are “for it,” and if they forget, are reminded from the doors of crowded estaminets and canteens, or from the tail-boards of loaded lorries as their comrades fleet by in the dusk. They were not surprised when orders came for a shift.
On the evening of the 30th May they were taken by train from their camp, via Amiens, Abbeville, and Boulogne and St. Omer to Cassel in thirteen or fourteen hours, and from Cassel marched back along the well-known pavé; nearly to St. Omer again and billeted between La Crosse and the dingy wide railway-crossing at Fort Rouge. All the country round was busy raising crops; every old man, woman, and child working as long as light lasted. Their only available training-ground was the Forest of Clairmarais, with its two characteristic wooded hills that stand up behind St. Omer. Here they were taught “wood-fighting” in addition to other specialties, and the mess found time to give a dinner of honour to a friendly Field-Ambulance (Irish in the main) to whom they had, on various occasions, owed much. Scandal asserts that the guests departed, in the dawn, on their own stretchers. Here, too, on the 6th June they entered for the Brigade horse-show and won first prize for the best turned out limber-and-pair, and seconds for water-cart and cooker-and-pair—no small thing when one considers what is the standard of excellence in Brigade transport.
On the next day (June 7), the nineteen mines of Messines went up together in the dawn. The three army corps (Second Anzac and Ninth and Tenth Corps) loosed behind them, broke forward over Messines and Wytschaete, and the whole German line from Armagh Wood to Plugstreet was wrenched backwards from a mile to two miles all along. Messines was a singularly complete and satisfactory affair, including some seven thousand prisoners and, better still, a multitude of dead, killed off in counter-attacks. It opened the road for the Third Battle of Ypres which was to win more breathing-space round the wreck of the city. Unlike Arras, where there was almost unlimited space for assembly in subterranean caves and cellars, every preparation in the Salient had to be carried out under the enemy’s eyes on known and registered ground lacking shelter above or below. Thus the attack, which was to cover a front of fifteen miles, demanded as much effort and pre-arrangement as any operation that had till then been undertaken in the whole course of the war. Those were made and carried through among, and in spite of, the daily demands of continuous local operations, with the same thoroughness and fixedness of purpose as when the Brigade competed for its little prizes and trophies at Renescure horse-show.
On the 12th June the Battalion marched thirteen miles for musketry to Moringhem in the bare, high down-country behind Acquin, where two men collapsed with heat-stroke. A century ago the drill-book laid down that unaimed battalion-fire from “Brown Bess” should never be opened at over four hundred yards. They practised slow and rapid firing with fixed bayonets at two and three hundred; company sharp-shooters using figures at the same range.
On the 16th June the first drawing in towards the Salient began. They camped that night at Ouderzeele north of Cassel, after such heat as made several of the men fall out by the way, and on the 17th bivouacked in sheds and shelters in the woods south-east of Proven on the Poperinghe road, where the cultivation, all unaffected by the war half a dozen miles off, was as thick as ever, and, except for “specialist” training in the woods, it was difficult to find the men work. The men bore this quite calmly.
As a sign of the times Lieutenant H. Hickie, who had been on leave, arrived and “again took over his duties as Quartermaster” on the 20th June. Lieutenant J. H. Nash left on the same date for the Army Central School, and on the 22nd Captain R. Rodakowski and Lieutenant W. Joyce were detailed for courses of instruction at Le Touquet Lewis Gun School.
On the 23rd June, Major-General Sir A. J. Godley, commanding the Second Anzac Corps, came over on a visit to the Battalion and inspected the men, and day by day the pieces required for the next move on the chessboard of war were pushed into their places along the Salient. The Fifth Army—of four corps and some divisions—under General Gough was to take the weight of the affair between Klein Zillebeeke and Boesinghe, while the First French Army—First and Fifty-first Divisions—would relieve the Belgians from Boesinghe to Noordschoote and extend the line along the Yser Canal north of Ypres to Steenstraate. The Guards Division was to lie next them on the extreme left of our line at Boesinghe.
On the 25th June, the Battalion moved from Proven into the edge of the battle-area near Woesten, a couple of miles or so behind Boesinghe itself, and came under the fire of a long-range German naval gun which merely cut up the fields round them. Both sides were now hard at work in the air, trying to put out each other’s eyes; and a German aeroplane brought down one of our observation-balloons hideously alight, close to Woesten camp. All the Salient hummed with opposing aircraft, the bombing of back-areas was cruel and continuous, and men had no rest from strain. But our batteries, profiting by the help of our machines, hammered the enemy line as it had not been hammered there since war began. Oil-drums, gas and thermit shells were added to the regular allowances sent over, and, whenever chance offered, raiding-parties dove in and out of the front lines sharking prisoners for identification. The Battalion’s share in this work was the usual fatigue—“unloading trucks” and the like, beneath intermittent artillery-fire which, on the 29th June, ended in three direct hits on the farm-house (Roubles farm) near Elverdinghe, where they lay. One man was killed outright and three others wounded. Their regular routine-work of death had begun again.
On the 1st of July they went into line on the Boesinghe sector, relieving the 2nd Coldstream on the west or near sector of the Yser Canal. Their trenches were of the usual built-up, sand-bagged type. Headquarters were at Bleuet farm, well under fire of all kinds, and though they managed their relief at night with little shelling, early next morning, Lieutenant E. Shears was killed by shell. It was a bad sector in every way, for not only did the Battalion link on here to the Belgian army—later relieved by the French—on their left, and any point of junction of Allied forces is always severely dealt with, but the enemy were kept in tension by constant raids, or the fear of them, all along the line. This meant that their SOS signals went up on the least provocation and their barrages followed with nervous punctuality. Added to this, fatigue-work was very heavy, not only in repairs but in supply; and the necessary exposure of the carrying-parties led to constant casualties.
On the 5th July, for instance, at two in the morning, gas shells fired from projectors (the Germans were searching the line in earnest that night) fell on a working-party of No. 4 Company. Nineteen men were at once prostrated, of whom one died then and there, and two a few days later; while Lieutenant Bagenal was slightly affected. (It is difficult, especially in the dark, to keep working-parties, who have to work against time, inside their gas-masks.) They were shelled for the rest of the day with no further casualties.
On the 6th July Major Hon. H. R. Alexander, leaving for England to attend the officers’ course at Aldershot, Captain R. R. C. Baggallay took over the command, and on the 8th July they were relieved by the 3rd Coldstream and bivouacked at Cardoen farm, where they spent two days nominally resting—that is to say, supplying one hundred and ten men each night for the detestable work of carrying-parties to the front line. Lieut.-Colonel Rocke, D.S.O., commanding since May 24, returned from leave on July 8, but unluckily on the 11th, when the Battalion was in line, in the wreck of Boesinghe Village (Headquarters at Boesinghe Château), slipped and broke his shoulder while going round the trenches, and Captain Baggallay again took over command. There was steady wellranged shelling all that day, particularly on Boesinghe Château, in the rear of which the aid-post and headquarters of No. 1 Company lay. Battalion Headquarters were shelled for half an hour separately. No. 3 Company’s Headquarters in the support-line were wrecked by direct hits, and the entire company shelled out, while the whole of the back lines were worked over, up and down. All repairs had to be built up with sand-bags, for the ground was too marshy to give useful dirt, and the labour was unending.
On the 12th July they were shelled more heavily than the previous two days on exactly the same places, and their transport, which till now had had reasonable luck, was caught fetching up water and rations. The four company quartermaster-sergeants and the mess-sergeant were wounded, a horse and groom killed, and, later on, the transport officer was slightly gassed. (“’Tis the Transport, ye’ll understand, that has to take all Jerry’s back-chat after dhark, an’ no chance of replyin’.”) By night they found carrying-parties to fill dumps—five of them—each dump seeming to those serving it more exposed and undesirable than the other four put together.
On the 14th of July there was a German raid, preceded by an hour’s “box” barrage of trench mortars, .77’s, and machine-guns, on two platoons of No. 4 Company then in the front line behind the canal. A shrapnel-barrage fell also on the supports. A “box” barrage is a square horror of descending fire cutting off all help, and ranks high among demoralising experiences. Luckily, the line was lightly held, and the men had more or less of cover in dug-outs and tunnels in the canal bank. A Lewis-gun post in a covered emplacement, almost on the bed of the canal itself, was first aware, through the infernal racket, of Germans crossing the canal, and fired at them straight down the line of its bed. They broke and disappeared in the rank weed-growth, but there was another rush over the parapet of the line between two sentry groups in the firingbays. The trenches were alive by then with scattered parties stumbling through the black dark, and mistaking each other for friends or enemies, and the ruin of the works added to the confusion. As far as can be made out, one officer, Lieutenant H. J. B. Eyre, coming along what was left of a trench, ran literally into a party of the enemy. His steel helmet and revolver, all chambers fired, were found afterwards near the wreck of a firing-bay, but there was no other trace. It was learned later that he had been mortally wounded and died that evening. In trench-raids, when life, death, or capture often turn on a step to the left or the right, the marvel was that such accidents were not more frequent.
A wounded German was captured. He had no marks of identification, but said he belonged to a Schleswig regiment, and that the strength of the raid was intended to be two hundred. It did not, as the men said, “feel” anything like so many, though the wild lights of explosion that lit the scene showed large enemy parties waiting either in the bed of the canal or on the opposite bank. These, too, vanished into the dark after their comrades in the trenches had been turned out. Probably, it was but an identification fray backed by a far-reaching artillery “hate” that troubled all the back-areas even up to Elverdinghe.
Our front-line casualties in the affair were but one officer and one man missing and one wounded. Yet the barrage blew the men about like withered leaves, covered them with mud, plastered them with bits of sand-bags, and gapped, as it seemed, fathoms of trench at a stroke, while enemy machine-guns scissored back and forth over each gap. The companies in the support-line who watched the affair and expected very few to come out of it alive, suffered much more severely from the shrapnel-barrage which fell to their share.
It was their last tour in the trenches for ten days, and it closed with heavy barrages on the front and back lines, while they were being relieved by the 1st Coldstream. This continued till our guns were asked to reply, and after ten minutes made them cease. The Battalion left the trenches in a steady downpour of wet and entrained from Elverdinghe for Proven, whence they moved into the training-area at Herzeele, where a representation of the ground to be attacked on the day of battle, with its trenches and farms, was marked out, and had to be studied by company commanders, N.C.O.’s, and men according to their rank and responsibility. The officers’ mess at Herzeele was in the quaint old three-storied tower, built when the Spaniards held rule in the Low Countries.
From the 16th to the 23rd July their mornings were spent at every sort of drill—smoke-helmet drill, musketry, wiring, Lewis-gun, etc., and their afternoons in going over the training-ground and practising attacks. All that time the weather was perfect. As soon as they moved away to Proven and into the battle-area on July 25 heavy rain began, which, as on the Somme, where the devil duly looked after his own, was destined to baulk and cripple the battle. For an introduction to their next month’s work, the Battalion, roused at 2 A.M. on that day by gas-alarms from the front, provided over five hundred men for working-parties to get stuff into the front line; lost ten men killed by shell-fire and one officer, Lieutenant H. H. Maxwell (who had come unscathed through the raid of the 14th), and seven men wounded; and next evening moved to their own place, a distance of two and a half miles, with two hundred yard intervals between the platoons, under casual shell-fire.
They camped (July 27) in support near Bleuet farm, and, that evening, had word that our aeroplanes reported no Germans could be seen in the German frontline system, and that the 3rd Coldstream had sent patrols forward who were already established across the canal. As a matter of fact, the enemy was holding his front line in chains of single posts, preferring rather to fight for it than in it; and was relying on his carefully hidden ferro-concrete block-houses—later known as “pill-boxes”—which, as he had arranged them in the torn and marshy landscape, and along the line of the Ypres–Staden rail, could hold up and dissipate any average infantry attack. They were impervious to anything except direct hits of big stuff. Their weakness was the small size of the slit through which their machine-guns operated, and a certain clumsiness in the arrangement of the gun itself, which made it difficult to depress. Consequently, cool heads could crawl up and under, and rush the thing at close quarters.
Whether the enemy believed there would be no serious attack at the junction of the French and British arms in the Boesinghe sector, or whether he drew his men out of the front line to give room for his barrages, may never be known. It is certain, however, that he left his front line immediately facing the Guards Division empty, and that miscalculation enabled the Guards to launch their attack without having first to fight their way across the canal. The Coldstream had possessed themselves promptly of the evacuated trenches, and there stayed for some time before the enemy realised what had happened, sent aeroplanes to locate the raiders, and tried—without success—to shell them back again. It was a quick, well-thought-out coup that saved very many good lives.
On the 28th July the Battalion, after various contradictory orders, was sent forward in the evening to relieve the left of the 3rd Coldstream in the outpost-line. There was a report that the enemy meditated art attack on that Battalion at their junction with the Thirty-eighth Division on their right. (It must be remembered that the French, who had had some difficulty in getting their guns forward, were not in place, and their First Division lay on the left of the Guards.) Up, then, went the Battalion in the evening and took over the outpost-line from Douteuse House, to where it joined the French forces. Two platoons of No. 2 Company, under Captain R. Rodakowski, crossed the canal in the mud on improvised bridges of slabs of wood nailed across rabbit-wire and canvas, and lay up in an old German front line. The other two platoons occupied the old British front line on the canal bank. Battalion Headquarters and aid-post were at the Château, as usual. No. 1 Company (Captain W. C. Mumford, M.C.) in support, and No. 4 Company (Captain Law, M.C.) had a couple of platoons forward and two back. They were all shelled equally through that night with gas and lachrymal shells, plus barrages on headquarters and the various lines of support. The gas was responsible for six casualties, chiefly among signallers and orderlies, whose work kept them on the move. Nothing could be done to strengthen the newly occupied trenches, as there was no wire on the spot; for the R.E. parties, trying to bring it up, were pinned till daylight by back-barrages.
On the 29th July a patrol was sent out to look at a concrete blockhouse which our artillery reported they were unable to destroy with the guns that were in use at the moment. The patrol drew fire from the blockhouse, went on into the dark, and found that the enemy’s line behind it was held by small posts only. Returning, it would seem that they were fired at again, a N.C.O. and a man being wounded, but they wounded and captured a prisoner, who said that the post held twenty men. Whereupon that blockhouse was “kept under observation” by small parties of our men, under Lieutenant Budd, M.C. Next morning they observed five or six of the enemy lying out in shell-holes round the blockhouse, which was too small for the whole of its garrison. This overflow was all sniped in due course, till the blockhouse, with fourteen unwounded prisoners, surrendered, was absorbed into our outpostline, and held against the enemy’s fire. Considering that fire at the time—which included 5.9’s, 4.2’s, and .77’s—it was a neatly expeditious affair. The Battalion was relieved by the 1st Grenadiers and the Welsh, and went back to camp in the Forest area to spend the 30th July preparing themselves and their souls for the morrow’s work.
The Guards Division lay, as we know, between the First French Division on its left and our Thirty-eighth Division on its right; the line of the Ypres-Staden railway with its blockhouses marking the limit between the two British divisions. This was an awkward junction, which caused trouble later. Four objectives were laid down. The first was the nearest German system of trenches, which had lain under searching artillery fire for some time, and would not be difficult; the second, six hundred yards farther on, ran parallel to the Pilckem road; the third an imaginary line a hundred yards beyond the well-known Iron Cross Kortikaar–Cabaret road, beyond Pilckem Ridge, and the last went up to the Steenbeek River. The total depth of the run was about two miles from the canal bank.
The 2nd (Ponsonby’s) and the 3rd (Seymour’s ) Brigades were to take the first three objectives, after which the 1st (Jeffreys’s Brigade), following close behind, was to come through and take the fourth. The 2nd Brigade, which was on the right of the division, held the front from the Ypres–Staden railway-bridge over the canal to Boesinghe Bridge. The 3rd Brigade continued the line to the left for six hundred yards. The 1st Brigade, less the 1st Irish and the 3rd Coldstream, which were under the direct orders of General Feilding, G.O.C. Guards Division, was in reserve.
Our barrages, conceived on a most generous scale, were timed to creep at a hundred yards in four minutes. They were put down at 3.50 A.M., July 31, a dark, misty morning on the edge of rain, and the whole attack went forward with satisfying precision so far as the Guards Division was concerned. The various objectives were reached at the given times, and level with the French advance. By eleven o’clock the farthest was in our hands, and what difficulties there were arose from the division on the Guards’ right being held up among unreduced blockhouses enfilading them from the railway line.
Meantime, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards spent the day, after breakfast at a quarter-past five, in reserve round the little two-roomed, sand-bagged and concreted Chasseur farm, where there was an apple-tree with all its leaves on; under half an hour’s notice to move up if required. But no order came. They were shelled intermittently all day, with a few casualties, and Captain F. S. Law was slightly wounded. The evening, as pessimists prophesied, closed in heavy rain, and the ground began to go. They stayed where they were till the afternoon of the 1st August, when word came to take over the line held by the 3rd Grenadiers and the 1st Coldstream on the first, second, and third objectives.
They moved out in rain into the usual wilderness of shell-holes filling with water, but for the moment were not shelled. No. 4 Company went by daylight to its positions on the first objective—Cariboo Wood and some half-wiped-out German trench-systems in a partly destroyed wood. The other companies waited till dusk before distributing themselves on the Green line—the third objective—which was about a thousand yards this side the Steenbeek River. While the move was in progress, a brigade of the Thirty-eighth Division reported that they had been shelled out of their advanced positions on the river and were falling back, which, as far as could be seen, would leave the right flank of the Guards Division in the air. If this were so, and the dusk and the rain made it difficult to judge, it was imperative to put everything else aside and form a defensive flank along the railway line that separated the two divisions. The companies were diverted accordingly, hastily re-directed in the dark, and, when all was done, the brigade that had made the trouble went back to its original position on the further objective. There was small choice of sleeping-places that night. Such German blockhouses as came handiest were used for battalion and company headquarters while the companies lay out in the wet and talked about the prospect of hot meals. They were not very severely shelled, but when August 2 broke in heavy rain and the brigade on their right continued to send up SOS’s at intervals, thereby obliging them to maintain their flank on the railway line, they felt that “conditions were becoming exceedingly trying,” as the Diary says. Then came a relief, which was at least a change. The 1st Scots Guards relieved the two platoons of No. 4 Company back in Cariboo trenches, where the shelling was light; and later, as darkness fell, set the other companies free to go forward and relieve the 2nd Grenadiers at the front of things. The change-over took five hours, and in the middle of it the brigade on their right once more sent up SOS’s, which brought down a German barrage, and necessitated every one “standing to” for developments. It proved a false alarm, and “no action was taken by the enemy”—an omission which it is conceivable the Guards Division rather regretted. Beyond question that Brigade had been badly held up among the blockhouses, and had been savagely shelled in and out of shell-holes that bewilder troops; but—till their own trouble comes—no troops go out of their way to make excuses for a nightmare of SOS’s. (“There’s enough fatigues, ye’ll understand, when you’re out o’ the line. Extra fatigues in action, like defensive flanks, is outrageous.”)
They were shelled and rained upon throughout the whole of the night of the 2nd August, and on the evening of the 3rd, still in ceaseless rain, were relieved by the 1st Scots Guards and marched through mud, water and darkness, over broken ground “beyond description” to Elverdinghe Siding, where they were packed into trucks at five in the morning and taken to Poll Hill Camp near Bandaghem for training.
Their casualties, all things reckoned, had been very light. They had gone into action on the 31st July with 26 officers and 1002 other ranks and had lost only 2 officers and 125 other ranks from all causes.
The total casualties for the twelve battalions of the Guards Division in the action had been 59 officers and 1876 men in two days; and rain falling without a break for the next four days drowned out the sad fight. The enemy’s line had been pushed back from Bixschoote, through Frezenberg, Westhoek, Stirling Castle, and Shrewsbury Forest down to Hollebeke. At that stage our armies, as had happened so often on the Somme, were immobilised. The clay ground was cullendered and punched by the shells into chains of pools and ponds. All valleys and hollows turned into bogs where, if men wandered from the regular tracks across them, they drowned or were mired to death. If they stayed on the plankings the enemy’s guns swept them away. When all had been done that man could do, the first phase of the Third Battle of Ypres closed in a strengthened conviction that all the powers of evil were in strict alliance with Germany. Our armies held off seven counter-attacks along the line, settled themselves in it and then, perforce, waited for the weather to clear.
It rained on and off till the 15th August, and, as most of the corn in the fields round Poll Hill Camp had, owing to the wet, not been cut, training-ground was limited just at the very time when the new German system of holding a line with a chain of carefully camouflaged posts called for a change in attack methods. So the Battalion was practised in “surprise situations”—i.e. discovering invisible enemies with machine-guns in shell-holes that turned the advancing line into a ragged scattering “scrum.” Their dummy barrages were slowed, too, as the Diary says, “to enable the surprise situations to be dealt with and to give time for the line to re-form behind the barrage after having dealt with these situations.” This was a kind of work for which, like bombing, the Irish had considerable natural aptitudes. It was summed up, unofficially, thus: “In the ould days, a trench was a trench, ye’ll understand, an’ something to lay hould upon. Third Ypres was fallin’ into nothin’ and then findin’ ’twas two pill-boxes an’ a fort on your flank.” Therefore, the specialists in the shape of the Lewis-gunner and the “mopper-up” who dealt with the debris of attacks were important persons and were instructed accordingly when the Battalion was not indented upon for working-parties on the gun-tracks and bridges round Boesinghe.
On August 1 Lieutenant the Hon. P. J. Ogilvy joined the Battalion and took over No. 1 Company from Acting Captain W. C. Mumford, who had been appointed Town Major of the busy and occasionally battered town of Elverdinghe; and Lieutenant E. Budd took over the 4th Company from Acting Captain H. F. d’A. S. Law, wounded.
On the 15th August, the eve of the Langemarck attack, they were put on one hour’s notice, which was withdrawn the next day, when six divisions (the Forty-eighth, Eleventh, Fifty-sixth, Eighth, Twentieth and Twenty-ninth) struck again along the line from the Menin road to our junction with the French in the north. The weather once more blinded our aeroplanes so that our artillery could not deal effectively with the counter-attacks; the pill-boxes held up our infantry, and though prisoners, guns, and a little ground round Langemarck were gained, the line of the Salient from St. Julien southwards stood as it had since the first. The Battalion was peacefully at bomb-practice on that day, and by some oversight a live bomb got mixed up with the dummies, and caused thirteen casualties, luckily none of them very serious, and the training went forward. As the crops were cut ground was gradually extended and every one was worked hard at practice attacks; for they understood that their lot would be cast in the Salient for some time.
On the 27th August medal ribbons were presented by the General of the 1st Brigade to those who had won honour in the Boesinghe battle, either by their coolheadedness in dealing with “surprise situations” or sheer valour in the face of death or self-devotion to a comrade; for there was every form of bravery to choose from. Lieutenant E. Budd received the bar to his Military Cross, and Sergeant (a/C.S.M.) P. Donohoe (No. 3056), No. 1910 Sergeant (a/C.S.M.) F. M’Cusker, No. 3224 Corporal E. M‘Cullagh, No. 4278 Lance-Corporal J. Vanston, No. 7520 Private S. Nulty, No. 5279 Private J. Rochford (bar to Military Medal), No. 10171 Lance-Corporal S. McHale, Military Medal; No. 10161 Lance-Corporal W. Cooper, D.C.M.
The following N.C.O.’s and men were unable to be present on parade, but were awarded honours during the past month. No. 4512 Sergeant J. Balfe, No. 3146 Lance-Corporal F. Coyne, No. 4386 Sergeant Macdonald, No. 6078 Private J. Martin, Military Medal; No. 4884 Private D. O’Brien, Croix de Guerre.
On the last days of August they marched to Proven Siding and entrained for Elverdinghe and thence to Dulwich Camp, well known as being “somewhat exposed and liable to long-range shell-fire.” They were used at once by the greedy R.E.’s for burying cables and making artillery-tracks preparatory to the next move in the interminable Third Battle of Ypres.
From the 1st to the 4th September they, with the 1st Guards Brigade, were in support to the 3rd Guards Brigade which was in the line, and sent up about half their strength for carrying-parties every night. The line, swampy and overlooked by the high ground under Houthulst Forest to the north and north-east, consisted of posts in shell-holes—the shell-holes being improved only just sufficiently to make them “habitable.” The standard of comfort in the Salient at that time was lower than on the Somme, where men were dying, at least, dry. All posts were elaborately concealed from overhead observation, for the enemy aeroplanes roved over them, bombing and machine-gunning at large. Though the Battalion was lucky in its four days’ turn, it lost on the night of the 4th September 2nd Lieutenant G. P. Boyd and four men killed and twenty-three wounded. Some of the other battalions in support suffered severely from bombing raids, and all back-areas were regularly raked over so that the troops might be worried by loss of sleep.
From the 5th to the 8th they lay in Rugby Camp, in reserve to the 2nd Coldstream and 2nd Grenadiers of their own Brigade in the front line. Here they enjoyed a “fairly quiet time,” and had only to find a hundred men or so per night for forward-area work. Rugby, Dulwich and the other camps were all duly and regularly bombed, shelled and gassed, but that was accepted as part of the daily and nightly work.
On the 9th they were up at the front among the “just sufficiently habitable shell-holes” of the Green line beyond the Iron Cross Kortikaar–Cabaret road from the Ypres–Staden railway to the junction with the French. Their guides met them at Bois farm, fifteen hundred yards back, and since, once among the holes, all food sent up risked the life or mutilation of a man, they carried two days’ rations and picked up their water from a Decauville railway that ran to the terminus (daily bombed and bombarded) on the Wijden Drift road. While the last two companies (Nos. 2 and 4 ) were getting their tins at railhead, an hour and a half’s barrage was dropped on them and twenty-seven men were killed or wounded. Relief was delayed in consequence till one on the morning of the 10th, and, about an hour later, a wandering covey of eight Germans, who had lost their way in the dark, were rounded up by the forward platoons of No. 3 Company (2nd Lieutenant Corry, D.C.M.). It was a small brisk fight, and it came pleasantly after the barrage at railhead, and the shelling that befell them from three to half-past five. They were annoyed, too, by low-flying enemy aeroplanes who fired at the men in the posts but as a rule missed them. A deserter came in and patrols were sent out to see where the nearest enemy-post might be. One was located near the railway line in front of the right company. Exploration work of this sort in such a blind front as the enemy had arranged here, ends only too often in patrols losing their way as the eight Germans had done; and company officers do not like it.
On the 11th September, after some artillery work on our side, the enemy guns carried out a shoot on the pill-boxes occupied by the right (No. 1) company while their infantry were “unusually active,” probably because the Thirty-eighth Division on the Guards’ right was being relieved that night by the Twentieth. As a side-issue of the fight the Battalion on their left was attacked, which, so far as the Irish Guards were concerned, meant that the left company (No. 2) swiftly manufactured a fresh post on their left to improve communication with their neighbours, and prevent the enemy working round their flank through the remnants of a wood. In this work they had to disperse with rifle-fire several parties of the enemy who might have interfered with their arrangements, and Captain T. F. MacMahon was wounded. This bald record covers a long, tense night of alarms and fatigues, and fatigue-parties dropping like partridges where the barrage found them, to creep forward as soon as it was lifted; and, somewhere on the left, the crackle and blaze of an attack on a battalion which was entirely capable of taking care of itself.
Their relief on the night of the 13th by the 1st Scots Guards was “very much delayed.” Two detachments got lost, one through the guide being killed and the other “through the guide losing himself.” Yet it was a very dark, and, therefore, theoretically a safe, night, with very little shelling—proof of the utter uncertainty of every detail connected with war.
They had lost in that fortnight one officer (2nd Lieutenant Boyd) and fourteen men killed; one officer (Captain T. F. MacMahon) and seventy-eight other ranks wounded. For the rest of the month they were training in camps—Cariboo and Poll Hill—of which the former was not out of reach of shell-fire, and studied new methods of attack to combat the enemy’s new methods of defence in his protected and fortified shell-holes. These he now held in depth, one shell-hole post covering or flanking the next, so that men fought their way up a landscape of miniature redoubts, invisible to guns, almost invisible to aeroplanes, and much more expensive to reduce than the narrow-slotted pill-boxes.
On the 21st September their Brigadier-General Jeffreys saw the Battalion on parade, near Proven, and bade them farewell on his promotion to command the Nineteenth Division. He was succeeded in command of the 1st Brigade by General C. R. C. de Crespigny. On the 27th Lieut.-Colonel R. V. Pollok commanding the Battalion, who had been on leave, returned and took over from Captain A. F. L. Gordon acting in his absence. On the 29th Lieutenant B. Reford who had been Assistant-Adjutant took over No. 3 Company vice Captain T. F. MacMahon, wounded on the 11th, and 2nd Lieutenant T. S. V. Stoney joined for duty on the 25th.
Among the honours mentioned as awarded to the men that month for gallantry and devotion to duty was the D.C.M. to 5279 Private J. Rochford for “gallantry, devotion to duty and organizing ability” when employed as a stretcher-bearer with a working-party on September 3, the night when Lieutenant Boyd and twenty-eight men were killed or wounded by bombs. This, it may be noted, is that Rochford whose presence steadied, and whose jests diverted, whole platoons upon the Somme, and for whose health the men inquired first after the platoon or working-party had been shelled.
And while they trained, with the utter self-absorption of men concerned in the study of methods of taking man’s life, the Salient heaved and flamed day after day with German counter-attacks as our guns covered the adjustment and reinforcements and protection of artillery troops and material in preparation for the battle of September 20. As usual, the weather broke on the eve of it. Ten Divisions (Nineteenth, Thirty-ninth, Forty-first, Twenty-third, First and Second Australians, Ninth, Fifty-fifth, Fifty-eighth and Twentieth) attacked from near Hollebeke in the south to Langemarck in the north; pushed back the line on the whole length of their attack; gained one mile outwards along the desperate Menin road, established themselves in Polygon Wood, broke eleven counterattacks, took over 3000 prisoners and left as many enemy dead. It was followed up on the 26th September by another attack, on a six-mile front from south of the Menin road to north-east of St. Julien, in which six divisions (Thirty-ninth, Thirty-third, Fifth and Fourth Australians, Fifty-eighth and Fifty-ninth) once more moved our line forward along that frontage, in some places nearly half a mile. Our movement clashed, almost to the minute, with German counter-attacks by fresh divisions launched to recover the ground they had lost on the 20th September, and the fighting was none the lighter for that coincidence.
The 3rd October saw the weather break again just as fighting was resumed on a seven-mile front from the Menin road to the Ypres–Staden railway. Twelve divisions went in here (the Thirty-seventh, Fifth, Twenty-first, Seventh; First, Second and Third Australians; the New Zealand; Forty-eighth, Eleventh, Fourth and Twenty-ninth). Reutel, Nordemhock, and Broodseinde villages were taken, Abraham Heights gained, the Gravenstafel spur cleared by the New Zealanders; three fresh German divisions were caught by our guns almost in the act of forming up for attack, and 5000 prisoners were passed back. The enemy’s losses here were very satisfactory and mainly due to our gun-fire.
On the 5th October, then, so far as the Guards Division was concerned, the line of our working front ran through Poelcappelle and thence back to the Ypres–Staden railway at a point some thousand yards north of Langemarck. From that point it merged into the old line gained on the 20th of September which followed the Broembeek River at a short distance to the south of it, towards our junction with the French, and thence lost itself in the flooded areas beyond Noordschoote. No weight of attack had fallen on that sector of the front since September 20 when Langemarck had been captured, and the French line, with ours, advanced in the direction of Draibach and Houthulst Forest.
It was decided to renew the attack, in combination with the French here, on the 9th October, from northwest of Langemarck across the Ypres–Staden railway down to a point in the line gained on the 4th October, east of Zonnebeke, on a front of six miles. The weather prepared itself in advance. Rain began punctually on the 7th, continued through the 8th, and made the going more than usually unspeakable. It affected the Guards Division principally, since their share of the work involved crossing the little valley of the Broembeek River which, should it continue to flood, offered every possible opportunity for holding up troops under fire, loss of direction (since men never move straight across bogs) and engulfment of material. The Broembeek was a stagnant ditch, from twenty to thirty feet wide and from two to five deep, edged with shell-holes and, in some parts, carrying vertical banks four or five feet deep. There was, mercifully, no wire in it, but night-patrols sent out the week before the battle of the 9th reported it could not be crossed without mats.
The 1st Brigade of the division, which lay in reserve while the 3rd Brigade held the front line, had trained for several days at Poll Hill Camp over ground “marked” to represent the ground that the Battalion would have to attack over. The certainty of being drenched to the skin on a raw October night as a preliminary to tumbling from shell-hole to shell-hole till dawn between invisible machine-guns and snipers was left to the imagination of the men.
On October 6th, “the details to be left out of the attack departed to join the Guards Division Reinforcement Battalion at Herzeele.” Men say that the withdrawal of these reprieved ones on the eve of action was as curious a sight as the arrival of a draft. (“For ye’ll understand, at that time o’ the war, men knew ’twas only putting off what was bound to happen.”)
Then, in foul weather, the Battalion entrained for Elverdinghe with the 3rd Coldstream of their Brigade. The idea was that the 1st Brigade (De Crespigny’s) would attack parallel to the line of the Ypres–Staden railway on their right, about three hundred yards from it, the 2nd Brigade (Sergison-Brooke’s) on their left next against the French, with the 3rd Brigade (Seymour’s) in support. This last brigade had been very heavily used in making arrangements for the Division to cross the Broembeek, piling dumps and helping to haul guns into fresh positions through the mud. The furthest objective set, for the advance, was the edge of the Houthulst Forest, three thousand yards across semi-fluid country with no landmarks other than the line of smashed rail on their right, and whatever fortified houses, farms, pill-boxes and shell-holes they might encounter during their progress. When they had overcome all obstacles, they were instructed to dig in on the edge of the forest.
At 9.30 on the night of the 8th, in heavy rain, the Battalion marched from Abingley Camp to their assembly lines (these all duly marked by tapes and white signboards, which, to the imaginative, suggest graveyards) from Elverdinghe to Boesinghe road, up “Clarges Street” to Abri Wood, and then to Cannes farm till they met the guides for their assembly areas at Ruisseau farm. From here began the interminable duck-boards that halt and congest the slow-moving line; and it was not till four in the morning that the Battalion was formed up and moved off. The rain had stopped a little before midnight and a late moon came to their help.
The companies were commanded as follows: No. 1, Captain the Hon. P. J. Ogilvy; No. 2, Lieutenant D. S. Browne; No. 3, Captain R. B. S. Reford; No. 4, Lieutenant N. B. Bagenal.
There was some shelling as they got into their assembly positions at 5.20 A.M., but casualties were few. The 2nd Grenadiers and 2nd Coldstream led off under a few minutes’ blast of intense fire from field-guns and Stokes mortars, crossed the Broembeek and were away. At 6.20 the 1st Irish Guards and 3rd Coldstream followed them. The Battalion’s crossing-place at the river, which, after all, proved not so unmanageable as the patrols reported, had no bridges, but there was wire enough, on the banks to have made trouble had the enemy chosen that time and place to shell. They went over in three-foot water with mud at the bottom; reformed, ‘wet and filthy, and followed the 2nd Grenadiers who had captured the first and second objectives, moved through them at 8.20 and formed up on the right of the 3rd Coldstream under the barrage of our guns for their own advance on the final objective—the edge of the forest.
So far, barring a tendency to bear towards the right or railway side, direction had been well kept and their losses were not heavy. The companies deployed for attack on the new lines necessitated by the altered German system of defense—mopping-up sections in rear of the leading companies, with Lewis-gun sections, and a mopping-up platoon busy behind all.
Meantime, the troops on the Battalion’s right had been delayed in coming up, and their delay was more marked from the second objective onward. This did not check the Guards’ advance, but it exposed the Battalion’s right to a cruel flanking fire from snipers among the shell-holes on the uncleared ground by the Ypres–Staden line. There were pill-boxes of concrete in front; there was a fortified farm buried in sandbags, Egypt House, to be reduced; there were nests of machine-guns on the right which the troops on the right had not yet overrun, and there was an almost separate and independent fight in and round some brick-fields, which, in turn, were covered by the fire of snipers from the fringes of the forest. Enemy aircraft skimming low gave the German artillery every help in their power, and the enemy’s shelling was accurate accordingly. The only thing that lacked in the fight was the bayonet. The affair resolved itself into a series of splashing rushes, from one shell-hole to the next, terrier-work round the pill-boxes, incessant demands for the Lewis-guns (rifle-grenades, but no bombs, were employed except by the regular bombing sections and moppers-up who cleared the underground shelters), and the hardest sort of personal attention from the officers and N.C.O.’s. All four companies reached the final objective mixed up together and since their right was well in the air, by the reason of the delay of the flanking troops, they had to make a defensive flank to connect with a battalion of the next division that came up later. It was then that they were worst sniped from the shell-holes, and the casualties among the officers, who had to superintend the forming of the flank, were heaviest. There was not much shelling through the day. They waited, were sniped, and expected a counter-attack which did not come off, though in the evening the enemy was seen to be advancing and the troops on the Battalion’s right fell back for a while, leaving their flank once more exposed. Their position at the time was in a somewhat awkward salient, and they readjusted themselves—always under sniping-fire—dug in again as much as wet ground allowed, and managed in the dark to establish connection with a battalion of Hampshires that had come up on their right.
They spent the night of the 9th October where they lay, in the front line, while the enemy sniped them, shelled their supports, or put down sudden wandering barrages from front to back. Every company commander had been killed or wounded during the day; their medical officer (Captain P. R. Woodhouse, M.C.) was wounded at duty on the 10th, the men were caked with mud and ooze, worn to their last nerves and badly in need of food and hot drinks. There was no infantry action on their front, however, throughout the 10th, and in the evening they were relieved by two companies of the 1st Grenadiers; the other two companies of that battalion relieving the 2nd Grenadiers in the support-line. The battle, which counted as “a successful minor operation” in the great schemes of the Third Battle of Ypres, had cost them four officers killed in action on the 9th, one died of wounds on the 11th, seven officers and their doctor wounded in the two days; forty-seven other ranks killed; one hundred and fiftyeight wounded, and ten missing among the horrors of the swampy pitted ground. The list runs:
Capt. the Hon. P. J. Ogilvy
Capt. R. J. P. Rodakowski
2nd Lieut. A. L. Wells
2nd Lieut. T. S. V. Stoney
|killed October 9.|
|2nd Lieut. H. V. Fanshawe||died 11th October of wounds received on the 9th.|
|Capt. R. B. S. Reford
Lieut. N. B. Bagenal
Lieut. D. S. Browne
2nd Lieut. E. M. Harvey
2nd Lieut. T. Corry
|wounded October 9th.|
|Capt. P. R. Woodhouse
Lieut. H. H. Maxwell
2nd Lieut. E. H. Dowler
|wounded October 10th.|
It took them eight hours along the taped tracks and the duck-boars to get to Rugby Camp behind Boesinghe, where they stayed for the next two days and drew a couple of officers and a hundred men from the Divisional Reinforcement Battalion to replace some of their casualties.
On the 13th October they, with their Brigade, took over the support line on the old battle-front from various units of the 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigade. The 2nd Grenadiers relieved the 1st Grenadiers in the front line on the right and the 2nd Coldstream the Welsh Guards on the left sector. The Battalion itself was scattered by companies and half-companies near Koekuit–Louvois farm, Craonne farm, and elsewhere, relieving companies and half-companies of the other battalions, and standing by to attend smartly to the needs of the forward battalions in case of sudden calls for more bombs, small-arm ammunition, and lights. They were instructed, too, to be ready to support either flank should the troops there give way. But the troops did not give way; and they had nothing worse to face than heavy shelling of the supports at night and the work of continuing the duckboard-tracks across the mud. Most of the men were “accommodated in shell-holes and small, shallow trenches,” for water stopped the spade at a couple of feet below ground; but where anything usable remained of the German pill-boxes, which smelt abominably, the men were packed into them. It was in no way a pleasant tour, for the dead lay thick about, and men had not ceased speaking of their officers of the week before—intimately, lovingly, and humorously as the Irish used to do.
More than most, the advance on Houthulst Forest had been an officer’s battle; for their work had been broken up, by the nature of the ground and the position of the German pill-boxes, into detached parties dealing with separate strong points, who had to be collected and formed again after each bout had ended. But this work, conceived and carried out on the spur of the moment, under the wings of death, leaves few historians.
They were relieved on the 16th October by the 20th Lancashire Fusiliers of the 104th Brigade on their right, returned to Elverdinghe through Boesinghe, and entrained for a peaceful camp at Proven. During their three days’ tour, Lieutenant R. H. S. Grayson and fourteen other ranks were wounded, mainly by shell and two other ranks were killed.
They had begun the month of October with 28 officers and 1081 other ranks. They bad lost in sixteen days 252 other ranks and 14 officers killed or wounded. Now they were free for the time to rest, refit, and reorganise in readiness, men said, to be returned to the Somme. (“Ye’ll understand that, in those days, we had grand choice of the fryin’-pan or the fire.”)
The Salient, with its sense of being ever overlooked and constricted on every side, fairly represents the frying-pan: the broad, general conflagration of the Somme, the fire. They quitted the frying-pan with some relief, entrained at Proven with the 3rd Coldstream and the 1st Brigade Machine-gun Company, detrained at Watten between the Bois du Ham and the Forêt d’Eperlecques, beyond St. Omer, and marched to the pleasant village of Bayenghem-les-Eperlecques, where they had the satisfaction of meeting the 6th Border Regiment just marching out of the billets that they were to occupy. The place was an intensive training-camp, specialising in all the specialties, but musketry above all. The Somme was open country, where, since they had left it, multitudes of tanks had come into use for the protection of troops, and troops thus protected do not need so many bombers to clear out shell-holes as they do in the Salient, where tanks stick and are shelled to bits in the mud. The inference was obvious! They enjoyed compulsory and voluntary musketry, varied with inspections and route-marchings.
On the 21st October His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught visited them as senior Colonel of the Brigade of Guards, was introduced to all the officers, spoke to most of the N.C.O.’s and the men who had been decorated during the war. The Battalion was formed up in “walking out” order in the streets of the village to receive him. It is alleged by survivors that the sergeants saw to it that never since the Irish Guards had been formed was there such rigorous inspection of “walking out” men before they fell in. (“We looked like all Bird-cage Walk of a Sunday.”)
On the 24th there joined for duty a draft of six officers, Major R. R. C. Baggallay, M.C., Lieutenant G. K. Thompson, M.C., and 2nd Lieutenants C. E. Hammond, F. G. de Stacpoole, T. A. Carey, and E. C. G. Lord. Lieutenant D. J. B. FitzGerald was transferred from the 1st to the 2nd Battalion on the Twenty-fifth, which was the day chosen for an inspection of the whole Division by Sir Douglas Haig, in cold weather with a high wind.
On the 6th November General Antoine, commanding the First French Army Corps, which had lain on the Division’s left at Boesinghe, was to present French medals gained by the Division, but, thanks to the wet, parade, after being drawn up and thereby thoroughly drenched, was dismissed and the medals presented without review. Lieut.-Colonel R. V. Pollok, commanding the Battalion, received the Croix de Guerre. It is all a piece with human nature that the miseries of a week in liquid mud among corpses should be dismissed with a jest, but a wet parade, which ruins three or four hours’ careful preparation, regarded as a grievous burden for every one except the N.C.O.’s, who, by tradition are supposed to delight in “fatigues” of this order.
Their three weeks’ training came to an end on the 11th November, when they moved thirteen miles, in torrents of rain, to the village of Ecques, which was filled with Portuguese troops, and began a long march. They did not know their destination, but guessed well where they were going.
Some had all the reasons in the world to know that the Division would relieve the French on half a dozen different named sectors. Others were certain that it would attack independently quite elsewhere. Even Italy, where the Caporetto disaster had just taken place, was to the imaginative quite within the bounds of luck. But their line of route—twelve or thirteen miles a day in fine weather—dropped always south and east. From Ecques it crossed the Lys at Thérouanne; held over the worn road between St. Pol and Béthune, till, at Magnicourt-le-Comte, came orders that all kits were to be reduced and sent in to St. Pol. Elaborate reasons were given for this, such as lack of transport owing to troops being hurried to Italy, which dissipated the idea of light wines and macaroni entertained by the optimists, and deceived no one. If they turned left when they struck the St. Pol–Arras road, it would not be the French whom they were relieving. If they held on south, it would be the old Somme ground. And they held on south to Beaufort, marching by daylight, till the 18th of October found them in a camp of huts outside Blaireville and well in the zone of aeroplane observation. They moved under cover of darkness that night to a camp of tents at Gomiecourt between wrecked Bapaume and battered Arras.
The bare devastated downs of the Somme had taken them back again, and they were in the Fifth Corps, Third (Julian Byng’s) Army. It was revealed at Divisional Headquarters conference on the night of the 19th that that army was on the eve of attack. There would be no preliminary bombardments, but an outrush of tanks, with a dozen infantry divisions on a six-mile front from Gonnelieu to the Canal du Nord near Hermies.
The affair might be a surprise for an enemy whom our pressure on the Salient had forced to withdraw a large number of troops from the Somme front. If the tanks worked well, it ought to result in the breaking through of the triple-trench system of the Hindenburg Line, which had been immensely strengthened by the Germans since their leisurely retirement thither in April. We might expect to push on across their reserve system three or four miles behind the Hindenburg Line. We might even capture Cambrai twelve thousand yards from our jumping-off place, though that would be a side-issue; but, with luck, our attack would win us more high ground towards the north and the north-east, whence we could later strike in whichever direction seemed most profitable. Secrecy and hard-hitting would be of the essence of the contract, since the enemy could bring up reinforcements in a couple of days. Meantime the Guards Division would stand by at two hours’ notice, ready to be used as required. If Cambrai were taken, they would be called upon to hold it and make good. If it were not, then the battle would rank as a raid on a big scale, and the Division might be used for anything that developed. That same day Major Baggallay, M.C., carried out a road reconnaissance of the front at Doignies and Demicourt north of Havrincourt Wood. The situation there betrayed nothing. “Apparently the whole of that front-sector was habitually very quiet.”
Twenty-four hours later, it was alive and roaring with our tanks rooting through the massed wire of the Hindenburg Line, the clamour of half-a-dozen divisions launched at their heels and the smashing fire of our guns in advance of them and their covering smoke-screens; while far to the north and south dummy attacks, gas and artillery demonstrations veiled and confused either flank. The opening day was, beyond doubt, a success. The German line went out under the tanks, as breakwaters go out under the race of a tide; and from Gonnelieu to north of Hermies three systems of their defence were overrun to a depth of four or five miles. By the 21st November our attack had punched out a square-headed salient, ten miles across the base, the southerly side of which ran along the high ground of the Bonavis Ridge, more or less parallel to the St. Quentin–Escaut Canal from Gonnelieu to Masnières, which latter place we held. The easterly side lay from Masnières through Noyelles-sur-l’Escaut and Cantaing to Fontaine-Notre-Dame and Bourlon Wood. This latter, as the highest point of command, was the key of the position on our north flank. Thence, the northerly flank of the salient ran roughly westward from the wood, south of Mœuvres till it joined our original front north of Boursies. About one half of the salient was commanded by German guns from the north of Bourlon Wood, and the other half from the south in the direction of the Bonavis Ridge.
Besides these natural disadvantages there were large numbers of our cavalry hopefully disposed on the main routes in readiness for the traditional “breakthrough,” the harrying of enemy communications, etc. November on the Somme is not, however, quite the best season for exploits of horse, sabre and lance.
Meantime, the Battalion spent the 20th November, and till the evening of the 21st, at two hours’ notice in camp near Barastre, and on the 23rd November moved to bivouac just west of the village of Doignies behind Demicourt on the edge of the “habitually very quiet sector” before mentioned. The 1st and 3rd Brigades Guards Division had been detailed to relieve two brigades of the Fifty-first Division in the line attacking Fontaine-Notre-Dame village at the extreme north tip of the salient a dozen miles away; and on the evening of the 23rd November they received verbal orders to get away from Doignies. At the moment the Battalion was moving off, came written orders that the whole of its first-line transport should accompany it; so a verbal order was sent to the transport officer to bring it on in rear of the Brigade column. That was the beginning of some not too successful Staff work and some unnecessary wanderings in the dark, complicated by the congestion of the roads and the presence of the ever-hopeful cavalry. The Battalion, its transport all abroad, crossed the Canal du Nord from Doignies and waited by the roadside till Lieut.-Colonel Follett, commanding the Brigade, rode into Graincourt, picked up guides from the 152nd Brigade, brought on the Battalion another couple of thousand yards to the crossroads at La Justice, found fresh guides from the Gordons and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and moved downhill straight into line at Cantaing mill after “a good and quiet relief,” at 3.20 A.M. on the morning of the 24th. Fighting had been going on day and night since the 20th for the possession of Bourlon Wood and village, where the Fortieth Division had been worn to a skeleton in alternate attack and counter-attack, but there was no trouble that dawn or day on the Cantaing sector where the Battalion lay and listened to the roar of the battle a mile and a half to the north. Their concern was to improve their line and find out where on earth the Staff had lost their first-line transport. It appeared that varying orders had been given to the transport for the different battalions, complicated by general instructions to follow their own units by the light of nature; and there the orders stopped. Naturally, as the roads boiled with traffic, all transport was promptly stood aside to let troops get ahead, with the result that after many adventures in the dark, including the collapse of a bridge over the Canal du Nord when half the loads had crossed, the Battalion’s transport got into Ribecourt at five in the morning, still without any orders, found that no one knew where Brigade Headquarters might be, billeted themselves in a wrecked farm and managed to get into touch with their Battalion in the afternoon of the 24th. About this time, the Fortieth Division with the tanks attacked Bourlon village, captured the whole of it, only to be fought out by the enemy on the following day. The Wood had not at that time gained its dark name in history. All that the waiting Battalion at Cantaing reports on the 25th November, while wood and village fumed like the infernos that they were, is “no fighting on the battalion front, although there was heavy fighting on the left.”
It broke out again on the 26th towards evening (the fifth day of continuous battle), when the 4th Grenadiers of the 3rd Guards Brigade were sent up to support the Fortieth Division and, on the way thither, went through a heavy German barrage as though they were on parade.
But the high ground above Bourlon Wood and Fontaine-Notre-Dame gave the enemy an artillery and observation command which enabled them to sweep our front and back areas in the northern half of the salient almost as they chose. Pressure, too, was beginning to develop on the flanks. The forty-eight hours in which the enemy could bring up fresh troops had grown to nearly a week, and they had used every hour of it. In no way could the situation be called healthy, but were the Bourlon Ridges won, at least our gain of ground might be held. So it was decided that the 2nd Guards Brigade, 3rd Grenadiers, 1st Coldstream, 2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards, together with the 4th Grenadiers and the Welsh Guards borrowed, should on the 27th attack Fontaine village and Bourlon Wood. They did so attack; they were cut to pieces with machine-gunfire in the advance; they were shelled out of Bourlon Wood; they were counter-attacked by heavy reinforcements of the enemy; they had no reinforcements; they fell back on Fontaine village in the evening; they withdrew from it in the darkness and fell back on La Justice. It was a full failure with heavy casualties and the news went back, with the speed of all bad news, to the 1st Brigade, which had been relieved on the 26th, the 1st Irish Guards lying at Ribecourt in the ruined farm where their transport had taken refuge. They should have been in a trench outside the village, but a battalion of another division was found in possession of it, and so was not disturbed.
There was no shelter against the driving snowy rain, and the men, without great-coats or blankets, were “very cold, wet and miserable.” The next day was no better, and on the 29th the Fifty-ninth Division took over their area from them while the Guards Division was rearranged thus: the 3rd Brigade at Trescault, the 2nd at Ribecourt, and the 1st at Metz-en-Couture, a wrecked, red-brick village, once engaged in the sugarbeet industry, lying on and under a swell of the downs some four thousand yards west of Gouzeaucourt. The Divisional Artillery was at Flesquières, more than four miles away. The Battalion’s march to Metz was badly delayed by blocks on the road and a general impression spread that trouble was not far off. Individually, the soldier is easy to deceive: collectively, a battalion has the sure instinct of an animal for changes in the wind. There were catacombs in Metz village where one company was billeted whereby it was nearly choked to death by foul gases.1 This seemed all of a piece with the bad luck of the tour, and the dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted. Eventually, the Division as a whole was assigned to the Third Corps, the 3rd Brigade was ordered to come up from Trescault and help the 1st, and the various C.O.’s of the battalions of the 1st Brigade rode forward to see for themselves what was happening. They had not far to go. Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières.
As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day—“’Tis little ye can do with gunsights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and—we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an’ shovels and came on with us.”
They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz–Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place. The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while, but the 3rd Brigade, which had been originally ordered to come up on the right of the 1st, was diverted to the left on the Gouzeaucourt–Villers–Plouich line, and they got into touch with the 4th Grenadiers. There was no attempt to counter-attack. Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment or “some cavalry” came up on the left flank.
The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded, and missing; Lieutenant N. F. Durant killed, Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Joyce, Lieutenant G. E. F. Van der Noot, Lieutenant G. K. Thompson, M.C., and 2nd Lieutenant P.M. Riley wounded. All the casualties were from machine-gun fire; men dropping at the corners of streets, across thresholds in cellars and in the angles of wrecked walls that, falling on them, hid them for ever.
A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did—so to say—rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them. One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived—the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (“’Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then—nothin’, nothin’—nothin’—of the three of them!”)
The next day, orders came for the Guards Division to continue their work and attack on a front of two miles along the line of the ridge a thousand yards east of Gouzeaucourt, which ran south through Gonnelieu village and Gauche Wood to Villers Hill. Tanks, they were told, would help and the Divisional Artillery would put down barrages. The Fifty-ninth Division would be on their left and the Cavalry Division on their right. The 1st Guards Brigade were assigned Gauche Wood; the 3rd Brigade had the much more difficult problem of rushing Gonnelieu village in the event of another Division who were attacking it that morning (1st December) failing to make headway. The 1st Brigade’s attack on Gauche Wood was undertaken by the 2nd Grenadiers on the right, the 3rd Coldstream, in reserve, in their trenches. They assembled before dawn on the 1st December, waited a while for a promised detachment of tanks and finally started off without them. Their artillery support was meagre, and the troops had to cover three-quarters of a mile over grassy land to the fringe of the wood. The enemy’s first barrage fell behind them; the wood itself was crammed with much more effective machine-guns, but, once it had been entered, the issue became a man-to-man affair. Then some tanks turned up and some cavalry, the latter an hour late. The tanks were eventually withdrawn, as they found no trenches to crush in the wood and drew much shell-fire in the open; but the cavalry, which included Bengal Lancers, were of good use on the right flank of the attack. The two Guards Brigades, one attacking Gonnelieu to the north, the other Gauche Wood to the south, drew a little apart from each other as the men closed in where the machine-gun fire was hottest, and about nine o’clock the 1st Irish Guards sent up a company (No. 1) to fill the gap which developed on both sides of the Gouzeaucourt–Gonnelieu road, the boundary between the Brigades.
They do not seem to have been called upon to do more than sit, suffer and be shelled till evening, when they were relieved by a company of the 1st Coldstream and went back in the hard black frost to their bivouac in Gouzeaucourt Wood. Gauche Wood was won and held, but Gonnelieu, its houses and cellarages crammed with machine-guns, was a hopeless proposition from the first, to troops lacking tanks or adequate artillery aid. The sole excuse for attempting it was that the enemy’s pressure was heavy and increasing on all three sides of the Cambrai Salient (Bourlon Wood in the north was the point of most actual danger) and had to be met by whatever offered at the times and near the places. The 3rd Brigade was held up by the inevitable machine-gun in trenches in front of Gonnelieu and round the cemetery on its eastern outskirts; and there it stayed, under circumstances of extreme misery, till the 3rd December, when the 1st Brigade came back from Gouzeaucourt Wood to relieve. The 1st Irish Guards, numbering, then, four hundred and fifty battle-strength, who took over the 2nd Scots Guards’ and half the 1st Grenadiers’ line, were allotted what might be termed “mixed samples” of trench. No. 1 Company, for instance, held six hundred yards of superior wired line, evidently an old British reserve line, with the enemy dug in sixty yards away. No. 3 Company on its right had a section mostly battered to bits and, further weakened by an old communicationtrench running up to the enemy, which had to be blocked as soon as possible. No. 2 Company was even less happily placed; for the enemy inhabited the actual continuation of their trench, so that they worked with their right flank grossly exposed. Two platoons of No. 4 Company lay close behind No. 2 to cover a gap; while the other two platoons in Flag Ravine, four or five hundred yards back, by the railway-line, were all the reserve the Battalion possessed east of Gouzeaucourt Wood. By some unexplained mercy of Providence that night, the next day and the next day’s night were “quiet” in the sense that there was no actual attack. The men sat in the trenches and froze; for the frost held day and night, and the enemy shelled the line at their will, with trench-mortars from near at hand and heavier stuff from the ridges beyond. Just before dawn, on the 5th December, they put down a very heavy mixed barrage behind the front line and a trench mortar one on the line itself, and then attacked the two weak spots—No. 2 and No. 3 Companys’ position—with armoured bombers. The barricade to the communication-trench of No. 3 Company was blown in by a direct mortar-hit and a rush followed. No. 2 Company’s trench was also rushed end-on from the right, and three or four bays of it were taken. At this point, the Irish left the trenches all filling with the enemy, got out into the open, where for the moment there was no mortar-fire, and dealt with the invaders from outside, bombing and shooting downwards into the heavily-moving queues. The Germans wore their packs, “from which it may be inferred,” says the Diary delicately, “that they meant to occupy our trenches.” This, and their scientific armour, proved their undoing, and when—presumably to make doubly sure—an infantry attack swarmed out in two lines from Gonnelieu, it was broken up by our rifle and machine-gun fire, till it turned round and fled. Hereupon, says the Diary, “they were heavily bombed by their own side,” presumably as an example to His Majesty’s Guards of Prussian discipline. The casualties in the Battalion were one officer, 2nd Lieutenant Carey, and four other ranks killed; and about thirty wounded, mainly by bombs and mortars. But the affair was waste-work on both sides; for Gonnelieu was never taken by our arms. Our line here, in the next day or so, fell back on Gauche Wood; and of all the salient won at the Battle of Cambrai between the 20th and the 23rd of November, all that remained by the 7th of December was a stretch of country perhaps four thousand yards deep running from the Gouzeaucourt–Cambrai road to north of Demicourt. On the other hand, a cantle had been taken out of our old front line from opposite Vendhuille to Gonnelieu. But in the area that we held lay a sample of the great Hindenburg Line with its support-systems, its ten-foot-deep concreted and camouflaged trenches, covered gunways, machine-gun wells and shafts, and the whole detail of its immensely advertised impregnability. Men saw it with their own eyes, explored its recesses wonderingly, followed down the terrible lanes that the tanks had cut in its hundred-yard-deep beltings of wire, and settled themselves thankfully in its secure dugouts, not foreseeing the days next spring when they would be swept out of it all like withered leaves. Cambrai was no success, but it would be unjust to hold it, as some wearied and over-wrought souls did, an unrelieved failure. The enemy had not achieved their purpose, which was to cut off all our troops in the salient, and were quite willing to break away and wait till the transfer of fresh divisions from the collapsed Russian front should be methodically completed. We, on our part, were equally ready to cut our losses, for we had no men to spare. The Guards Division was moved out of the battle-area on the 6th December, being relieved by troops of the Ninth Division. On the evening of their own private battle the Battalion handed over their none too pleasant trenches to the 5th Cameron Highlanders, and went back to bivouac in Gouzeaucourt Wood after a “very good relief,” which drew from the Diary the tribute that the Camerons were a “fine Battalion.” Had they been an hour late, in that cutting wind across the slopes, a cohort of angels with fiery swords would have been put down as hopeless!
They moved from the Wood next day to Etricourt down the long road through Fins, and at Etricourt entrained for Beaumetz-les-Loges on the Arras–Doullens road which they reached late at night, cold and empty, and were not billeted at Berneville, two or three kilometres to the north-east, till midnight. They had lost, in November and December, two officers killed; Lieutenant N. F. Durant on the 30th November, who had joined on the 1st of that month, and 2nd Lieutenant T. A. Carey, killed on the 5th December, joined on the 24th October. (The average expectation of an officer’s life in those days on the Somme was still about six weeks, though some were so lucky they survived for months.) Four officers had been wounded in the same period: Lieutenants G. K. Thompson, Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Joyce; G. E. F. Van der Noot, and 2nd Lieutenant P. M. Riley, all on the 30th November. The following officers joined in November and December: Lieutenants Zigomala, B. F. Crewdson, D. J. B. FitzGerald and J. N. Ward; and 2nd Lieutenants H. A. A. Collett, A. W. G. Jamrack and C. A. J. Nicholson.
At Beaumetz-les-Loges they lay till the end of the year, cleaning up, refitting, drilling, and not forgetting their football—the 2nd Scots Guards beat them in the third round of the Divisional Football Competition at Arras—or their company Christmas dinners. These were the fourth that the Battalion had eaten within sound of the weary guns, but if any one had told them that their next would be celebrated in stately steam-heated barracks at Cologne, hospital would have been his portion. They could not have been called happy or hopeful at that time; for they knew, as all our armies did, that the year’s gain had been small, and the work ahead of them, now that the German divisions, released from Russia were pouring westward, would be heavy. But for the moment they were free of the Somme and its interminable duckboards that led men to death or hard work; its shell-holes floored with icy snowwater, the grave-like chill of its chalk trenches, and the life-sapping damps of the uplands on which they had lain out from nights till mornings.
Here is a memory of those days presented by the teller as a jest. “Aye! Gouzeaucourt and Gonnelieu! I’m not like to forget ’em. I was back from leave, ye’ll understand; no more anxious to die than the rest of us. An’ there was some new men, too—new young lads just come over. My kit was all new, too, me bein’ back from leave. Our C.S.M. dhrew me attention to it one of those merry nights we was poachin’ about in No Man’s Land. ‘’Tis a pity,’ says he, ‘ye did not bring the band from Caterham also,’ says he. ‘’Twould have amused Jerry.’ My new kit was shqueakin’ an’ clicking the way they could have heard it a mile. Aye, Gouzeaucourt an’ the trenches outside Gonnelieu! Jerry was usin’ trench-mortars at his pleasure on us those nights. They was crackin’ on our heads, ye’ll understand. An’ I was in a bay with two men. Wan was a new young man, an’ the trench-mortars was new to him. Cowld? It was all of that! An’ Jerry crackin’ this dam’ trench mortar-stuff of his on our heads at will. It put the wind up me! Did I tell you the other man in the bay was dead! He was. That finished me new young man. He kep’ trying to make himself smaller an’ smaller against the trench-mortars. In the end of it, he laced his arrums round his ankles—he did—an’ rocked to an’ fro, whishperin’ to the Saints. Shell-shock? Oh, yes, ’twas all that. Presintly I heard Mr. —— comin’ the rounds, walking outside the trench. Ye see more where ye’re outside a trench, but ’tis no place I’m fond of without orders. ‘An’ are ye all cozy down there, Sergeant?’ says he. Yes, ‘cosy’ was his word! Knowin’ him well, ‘Why wud we not be cosy, Sorr?’ says I, an’ at that he dhrops into the bay to have a look. We was cosy enough, all three of us—the dead man dead an’ stiffenin’ in the frost, an’ this fine new young lad of ours embracin’ his own ankles an’ rockin’ back an’ forth, an’ me so sorry my leave was up. Oh! we was the cosiest party in the whole dam’ front line that night; and for to make it all the cosier, my new young man, as soon as he set eyes on Mr.——, he flung his arrums around his neck, an’ he let out a yell, an’ he hugged him like a gurrl. I had to separate ’em! I’ve laughed at it since, an’ so did Mr.—— an’, begad, I remember laughin’ at it at the time. Ay, ‘cosy,’ Mr.—— said. That was the word! So I laughed. Otherwise there was not much laughin’, ye’ll understand, at Gouzeaucourt an’ them ‘cosy’ trenches before Gonnelieu.”
|1. These were vast cellars reached by a hundred steps, and at the bottom of them resided a very old soldier, who did little more than “boil the hot water for the officers’ baths” and look after a certain mascot-goat which had been given them by a French Corps. When the order to move at once came, the parting words of the Officer in Charge of the Goat to the aged man were: “Now you look after the goat and our blankets, and don’t walk about upstairs. You needn’t worry about yourself. If you’re taken prisoner we’ll send you lots of parcels. Look after the goat and hang on to our blankets.” He did. [back]|