By the 10th January they were at Maurepas, ready to move up next day via Combles and Frégicourt into their new sector, which lay the distance of one divisional front south of the old Sailly-Saillisel one. It lay on the long clean-cut ridge, running north from Rancourt, to which the French had held when they were driven and mined out of St. Pierre Vaast Wood, facing the north-west and west sides of that forest of horrors. It was of so narrow a frontage that but one brigade at a time went into the line, two battalions of that brigade up to the front, and but one company of each battalion actually to the front-line posts. These ran along the forward slope of the ride, and were backed by a sketchy support-line a hundred yards or so on the reverse with the reserve five or six hundred yards behind it. “Filthy but vital” is one description of the sector. If it were lost, it would uncover ground as far back as Morval. If held, it screened our ground westward almost as far as Combles. (Again, one must bear in mind the extreme minuteness of the setting of the picture, for Combles here was barely three thousand yards from the front line.)
The reports of the Eighth Division who handed it over were not cheering. The front-line posts had been ten of ten men apiece, set irregularly in the remnants of an old trench. The only way to deal with them was to dig out and rebuild altogether on metal framings, and the Sappers had so treated four. The other six were collapsing. They needed, too, a line of efficient support-posts, in rear, and had completed one, but wire was scarce. All support and reserve trenches were wet, shallow, and badly placed. A largish dug-out a hundred yards behind the front had been used as Battalion Headquarters by various occupants, German and French, and, at one stage of its career, as a dressing-station, but it seemed that the doctors “had only had time to pull upstairs the men who died and dump them in heaps a few yards away from the doorway. Later, apparently, some one had scattered a few inches of dirt over them which during our occupation the continual rain and snow washed away. The result was most grisly.” The French have many virtues, but tidiness in the line is not one of them.
The whole situation turned on holding the reverse of the ridge, since, if the enemy really meant business, it was always open to him to blow us off the top of it, and come down the gentle descent from the crest at his ease. So they concentrated on the front posts and a strong, well-wired reserve line, half-way down the slope. Luckily there was a trench-tramway in the sector, running from the Sappers’ dump on the Frégicourt road to close up to the charnel-house-ex-dressingstation. The regular trains, eight trucks pushed by two men each, were the 5, 7, and 9 P.M., but on misty days a 3 P.M. might also be run, and of course trains could run in the night. This saved them immense backaches. (“But, mark you, the easier the dam’ stuff gets up to the front the more there is of it, and so the worse ’tis for the poor devils of wiring-parties that has to lay it out after dark. Then Jerry whizz-bangs ye the rest of the long night. All this fine labour-saving means the devil for the Micks.”)
The Germans certainly whizz-banged the working-parties generously, but the flights as a rule buried themselves harmlessly in the soft ground. We on our side made no more trouble than could be avoided, but worked on the wire double tides. In the heat of the job, on the night of the 11th January, the Brigadier came round and the C.O. took him out to see Captain Alexander’s party wiring their posts. It was the worst possible moment for a valuable brigadier to wander round front lines. The moon lit up the snow and they beheld a party of Germans advancing in open order, who presently lay down and were joined by more. At eighty yards or so they halted, and after a short while crawled away. “We did not provoke battle, as we would probably have hurt no one, and we wanted to get on with our wiring.” But had the Brigadier been wasted in a mere front-line bicker, the C.O., not to mention Captain Alexander, would have heard of it.
By the time that the 1st Coldstream relieved them on the 14th January, the Battalion had fenced their private No Man’s Land and about six hundred yards of the line outside the posts, all under the come-and-go of shell-fire; had duckboarded tracks connecting some of the posts; systematised their ration- and water-supply, and captured a multitude of army socks whereby companies coming down from their turn could change and be dry. Dull as all such detail sounds, it is beyond question that the arrangement and prevision of domestic works appeals to certain temperaments, not only among the officers but men. They positively relish the handling and disposition of stores, the fitting of one job into the next, the race against time, the devising of tricks and gadgets for their own poor comforts, and all the mixture of housemaking and keeping (in which, whatever may be said, the male animal excels) on the edge of war.
For the moment, things were absurdly peaceful on their little front, and when they came back to work after three still days at Maurepas, infantry “fighting” had become a farce. The opposing big guns hammered away zealously at camps and back-areas, but along that line facing the desolate woods of St. Pierre Vaast there was mutual toleration, due to the fact that no post could be relieved on either side except by the courtesy of their opponents who lay, naked as themselves, from two hundred to thirty yards away. Thus men walked about, and worked in flagrant violation of all the rules of warfare, beneath the arch of the droning shells overhead. The Irish realised this state of affairs gradually—their trenches were not so close to the enemy; but on the right Battalion’s front, where both sides lived in each others’ pockets, men reported “life in the most advanced posts was a perfect idyll.” So it was decided, now that every one might be presumed to know the ground, and be ready for play, that the weary game should begin again. But observe the procedure! “It was obvious it would be unfair, after availing ourselves of an unwritten agreement, to start killing people without warning.” Accordingly, notices were issued by the Brigade—in English—which read: “Warning. Any German who exposes himself after daylight to-morrow January 19 will be shot. By order.” Battalions were told to get these into the enemy lines, if possible, between 5 and 7 A.M. They anticipated a little difficulty in communicating their kind intentions, but two heralds, with three rifles to cover them, were sent out and told to stick the warnings up on the German wire in the dusk of the dawn. Now, one of these men was No. 10609 Private King, who, in civil life, had once been policeman in the Straits Settlements. He saw a German looking over the parapet while the notice was being affixed, and, policeman-like, waved to him to come out. The German beckoned to King to come in, but did not quit the trench. King then warned the other men to stand by him, and entered into genial talk. Other Germans gathered round the first, who, after hesitating somewhat, walked to his side of the wire. He could talk no English, and King, though he tried his best, in Chinese and the kitchen-Malay of Singapore, could not convey the situation to him either. At last he handed the German the notice and told him to give it to his officer. The man seemed to understand. He was an elderly person, with his regimental number in plain sight on his collar. He saw King looking at this, and desired King to lift the edge of his leather jerkin so that he in turn might get our number. King naturally refused and, to emphasise what was in store for careless enemies, repeated with proper pantomime: “Shoot! Shoot! Pom! Pom!” This ended the palaver. They let him get back quite unmolested, and when the mirth had ceased, King reported that they all seemed to be “oldish men, over yonder, and thoroughly fed up.” Next dawn saw no more unbuttoned ease or “idyllic” promenades along that line.
As the days lengthened arctic cold set in. The tracks between the posts became smears of black ice, and shells burst brilliantly on ground that was as pave-stones to the iron screw-stakes of the wiring. One shell caught a carrying-party on the night of the 20th January, slightly wounding Lieutenant Hanbury who chanced to be passing at the time, and wounding Sergeant Roddy and two men. The heavies behind them used the morning of the 21st to register on their left and away to the north. By some accident (the Battalion did not conceive their sector involved) a big shell landed in the German trench opposite one of their posts, and some thirty Huns broke cover and fled back over the rise. One of them, lagging behind the covey, deliberately turned and trudged across the snow to give himself up to us. Outside one of our posts he as deliberately knelt down, covered his face with his hands and prayed for several minutes. Whereupon our men instead of shooting shouted that he should come in. He was a Pole from Posen and the east front; very, very sick of warfare. This gave one Russian, one Englishman, and a Pole as salvage for six weeks. An attempt at a night-raid on our part over the crackling snow was spoiled because the divisional stores did not run to the necessary “six white night-shirts” indented for, but only long canvas coats of a whitey-brown which in the glare of Very lights showed up hideously.
A month of mixed fatigues followed ere they saw that sector again. They cleaned up at Morval on the 22nd, and spent a few days at the Briquetterie near Bernafay Corner, where three of the companies worked at a narrow-gauge line just outside Morval, under sporadic long-range shell-fire, and the fourth went to Ville in divisional reserve. The winter cold ranged from ten to twenty degrees of frost in the Nissen huts. Whereby hangs this tale. The mess stove was like Falstaff, “old, cold, and of intolerable entrails,” going out on the least provocation. Only a few experts knew how to conciliate the sensitive creature, and Father Knapp, the R.C. chaplain, was not one of them. Indeed, he had been explicitly warned on no account whatever to attempt to stoke it. One bitter morning, however, he found himself alone in the mess with the stove just warming up, and a sand-bag, stuffed with what felt like lumps of heaven-sent coal, lying on the floor. Naturally, he tipped it all in. But it was the mess Perrier water, which had been thus swaddled to save it from freezing—as the priest and the exploding stove found out together. There were no casualties, though roof and walls were cut with glass, but the stove never rightly recovered from the shock, nor did Father Knapp hear the last of it for some time.
From the close of the month till the 19th of February they were in divisional reserve, all together at Ville in unbroken frost. While there (February 1), Lieutenant F. St. L. Greer, one of the best of officers and the most popular of comrades, was wounded in a bombing accident and died the next day. In a battalion as closely knit together as the 2nd Irish Guards all losses hit hard.
Just as the thaw was breaking, they were sent up to Priez Farm, a camp of elephant huts, dug-outs and shelters where the men were rejoiced to get up a real “frowst” in the confined quarters. Warriors do not love scientific ventilation. From the 16th to the 25th February, the mud being in full possession of the world again, they were at Billon, which has no good name, and on the 25th back at St. Pierre Vaast, on the same sector they had left a month before. Nothing much had been done to the works; for the German host—always at its own time and in its own methodical way—was giving way to the British pressure, and the Battalion was warned that their business would be to keep touch with any local withdrawal by means of patrols (Anglice, small parties playing blind-man’s buff with machine-gun posts), and possibly to do a raid or two. But it is interesting to see that since their departure from that sector all the ten posts which they had dug and perspired over, and learned to know by their numbers, which automatically come back to a man’s memory on his return, had been re-numbered by the authorities. It was a small thing, but good men have been killed by just such care.
They watched and waited. The air was full of rumours of the Germans’ shifting—the home papers called it “cracking”—but facts and news do not go together even in peace. (“What annoyed us were the newspaper reports of how we were getting on when we weren’t getting on at all.”)
The Twenty-ninth Division on their left were due to put in a two-Battalion attack from Sailly-Saillisel on the dawn of the 28th February, while the battalion in the front line was to send up a smoke-screen to distract the enemy and draw some of his barrages on to themselves. So front-line posts were thinned out as much as possible, and front companies sent out patrols to see that the Hun in front of them was working happily, and that he had not repaired a certain gap in his wire which our guns had made and were keeping open for future use. All went well till the wind shifted and the smoke was ordered “off,” and when the Twenty-ninth Division attacked, the tail of the enemy barrage caught the Battalion unscreened but did no harm. A heavy fog then shut down sarcastically on the whole battle, which was no success to speak of. Through it all the Battalion kept guard over their own mouseholes and the gap in the wire. Sudden activities of our guns or the enemies’ worried them at times and bred rumours, all fathered on the staff, of fantastic victories somewhere down the line. They saw a battalion of Germans march by platoons into St. Pierre Vaast Wood, warned the nearest artillery group, and watched the heavies searching the wood; heard a riot of bombing away on their left, which they put down to the situation at Sailly-Saillisel (this was on the 1st of March), and got ready for possible developments; and when it all died out again, duly sent forth the patrols, who reported the “enemy laughing, talking, and working.” There was no sign of any withdrawal there.
On the 6th March, in snow and frost, they took over from the 1st Coldstream a new and unappetising piece of front on the left which the Coldstream had taken over from the Twenty-ninth Division. It consisted of a line of “about twelve so-called posts which were practically little more than shell-holes.” The Coldstream had worked like beavers to get them into some sort of shape, but their predecessors had given the local snipers far too much their head; and the long, flat-topped ridge where, under an almost full moon, every moving man offended the sky-line, was as unwholesome as could be desired. The Coldstream had lost six men sniped the night before their relief, and it was impossible to reach two of the posts at all. Another post was practically untenable, as the enemy had direct observation on to it, and one sniper who specialised in this neighbourhood had accounted for fourteen men in one tour. The Battalion settled down, therefore, to fire generously at anything that fired. It was noisy and, maybe, wasteful, but it kept the snipers’ heads down.
On the 7th March it was clear that the troops in front of them had been replaced by a more cautious and aggressive enemy. So the Battalion turned a couple of their most untenable posts into listening-posts, occupied by night only, and some one suggested that the new artillery which had just come in behind them might put down a creeping barrage for the greater discouragement of snipers. They cleared out a post or two first, in anticipation of stray shots, and lost one man killed and one wounded; but when the barrage arrived it was weak and inaccurate. Guns need time to learn to work in well with their brethren ahead, and the latter are apt to be impatient when they think they are being experimented on.
Not till towards mid-March did the much-written-of German “crack” affect their chilly world. The C.O.’s of the battalions conferred at Brigade Headquarters on the 13th to discuss the eventuality, and in the middle of it the Major-General came in and announced there was good reason to think that the retirement in front of them would begin that night. In which case, so soon as scouts had reported that the enemy trenches were held very lightly or had been abandoned (“But Jerry never abandoned his dam’ machine-guns till we was on top of ’em!”), two patrols from each company in the front line, of an officer and twelve men apiece, would go forward on schedule time and occupy. They would be followed by the two front companies, who would make good the enemy’s old front and support lines. With two battalions in the front line to draw from, this made a force of four companies, all of whom were to be under the command of the Senior Lieut.-Colonel in the battalions engaged. He would be known as “O.C. Situation Centre,” and would issue all orders, acting as in command of an advanced guard. But the two reserve companies of the battalions in line would be with the main body of the brigade and would not move without the Brigadier’s direct orders. In other words, no one was to be drawn into anything like a vulgar brawl. And on the 14th March, from a hill near by, a vast fire could be seen far off, which was Peronne a-burning. That same afternoon the enemy began shelling their own front line along the western edge of St. Pierre Vaast Wood. The situation betrayed itself. An officer’s patrol out from the 1st Scots Guards reported the enemy gone from in front. Whereupon the battalions in the line, the 2nd Irish Guards and the 1st Coldstream, moved out cautiously at dusk and established themselves partly in the first of the enemies’ abandoned trenches, with supports, more or less, in our old front line. When their relief came it was a pitch-black night, and the Coldstream had pushed out some patrols into bits of the German trench beyond the chaos of No Man’s Land, who, naturally, did not even themselves know where in France they might be, but had to be discovered and relieved just the same, which took the relieving battalion till two o’clock in the morning. At three o’clock the C.O. of the 2nd Irish Guards-Colonel E. B. Greer—was warned that “Situation Centre”—the two advanced companies who were to beat out hidden snipers—would be formed at 7 A.M. By the accident of Lieut.-Colonel Godman of the Scots Guards being sick, it fell to Greer to command that advanced force. Captain Alexander took our two forward companies, and Captain Sir Ian Colquhoun the two companies of the Scots Guards. The general advance was to begin all along the divisional front at 10 A.M. By that hour the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too—they heard and saw it for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks—“something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes.” The shelling through the day was heavy, but ineffective. With such a broken line as ours advancing, the enemy could not tell where any portion was in strength. The force lay up where they happened to stop, and before dawn on the 16th March were told to feel ahead, while the Scots Guards on their right got into touch with the Eighth Division. Progress was slow as the day before, under heavy shelling—sometimes considered and dealt out with intention—at others evidently from a battery using up ammunition before going back. As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.
On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers.” On the 18th, “by daybreak we were out of touch with the enemy, and cavalry patrols of King Edward’s Horse and the 21st Lancers went through us.” Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”
And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”
This last was not our situation. The Fourteenth Corps had no divisions in immediate reserve; the sector the Guards Division was working on had been greatly thinned out, and their artillery was relatively small. With tremendous losses in the past and the certainty of more to come, things had to be done as cheaply as possible. “Hence our mode of advance.” It led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.
And on March 19 they came away from the filth and the multitudes of scattered, distorted dead who grimaced at them over their victory, and were laid off at Montauban next day, to be railway navvies for a few weeks. Their camp had last been occupied by a “labour” battalion. “It would be quite impossible to exaggerate the state of filth in which we found this place. No tins had apparently been burned or buried for months, and rotting matter lay all over the ground.” Something like this has been observed before by other battalions about labour corps. However, they mucked it out into moderate decency, and went daily with the 3rd Grenadiers and the 4th Coldstream to make the broad-gauge line from Trônes Wood to Rocquigny and eventually into Ypres. Eventually, when the Sappers had taught them a little, they slapped it down at the rate of more than half a mile a day. It meant at the last four hours’ marching to reach railhead, and as many hours of strenuous work when they got there. But “the men were quite happy in spite of the long hours and the absolutely vile weather.” They could acquire all the fuel they needed, and had no drills or parades. To toil with your belts or braces disposed as you please; and to wear your cap at outrageous civilian angles; to explain to your desk-bred N.C.O. (with reminiscences, till he cuts you short) that you have had experience on this job in civil life, repairing Dublin trams; to delve in a clean dirt uncumbered by stringy bundles that have once been the likes of yourself; to return, singing, down the road to bountiful meals and a satisfactory “frowst” afterwards, are primitive pleasures far above pay or glory.
Their navvying at one camp or another along the rail lasted till almost the end of April. They were rather pleased with the country round them near Rocquigny, because there was grass on it, and they found passable football grounds. It was a queer, part rural, part mechanical, part military life, in which people grew fat and jovial, and developed sides of their character that the strain of responsibility had hid. The Battalion made friendships, too, with troops in the railway trade—men whom they met day after day at the same place and job, just as though people on the Somme lived for ever. They were taught how to ballast permanent ways, or lever the eternally derailed troop- and construction-trains back on to the sprawling metals.
On the 27th April they were all called in from their scattered labours, reminded that they were guards once more, and promised a long programme of field-training. Inevitably, then, the evening after, came orders to strike their camp at Bois de Hem, pitch it on the Lesboeufs road and get back to road-work between Ginchy, Lesbœufs, and Le Transloy. The march was hot and dusty; which impressed them, for they had forgotten heat. Camp lay close to where the right of the 2nd Guards Brigade had reached, in the battle of September 15, 1916. Here is the picture. The site “had been under severe shell-fire all the winter, so little burying could be done. Before we could pitch the camp we had to get rid of several dead men, and all the country between Lesbœufs and Le Transloy, as well as towards Morval, was dotted with corpses. In one morning, No. 4 Company, incidental to its work on the roads, buried no less than seventy Germans, English, and French. On Ginchy crest we found the body of Lieutenant Montgomery. He had been killed commanding No. 2 Company on September 13 of last year” (that was when No. 2 was wiped out on the eve of the battle of the 15th), “but we had never been able to find him. He was buried on the crest.”
The desolation struck them with continuous horror. Most of the troops had been moved on into the comparatively unspoiled country to the eastward, but the Battalion was forced to sit down among the dead in “mile on mile of tumbled earth, collapsing trenches with their fringe of rotting sand-bags, tangles of rusted wire, and everywhere little crosses. For variety, an occasional wood, in which the trees were mere skeletons, shattered stumps with charred branches.” It is a perfect etching of the Somme. They were impressed, too, by the fiendish forethought and thoroughness with which all signs of civil life and work, and, as far as might be, all means of reviving them, had been wiped out, burned up, blasted off, cut down, or removed by the Hun. Details of destruction and defilement, such as would only occur to malignant apes, had been attended to as painstaking and lovingly in the most unlikely corner of some poor village, as in the fields and among the orchards and factories. They had to fill all shell-holes in camp to make even standing ground for themselves, and, of course, a football “field” came next. Every man returning from work brought back his load of timber or iron out of the pitiful old trenches, not to mention flowers from wrecked gardens, and “we built a regular village.” Their road-mending consisted in digging out the shell-holes till they reached firm ground, filling up with timber and brick (easy to find). By this time specialisation had run its course by rail. And thus they worked till the 9th May. But this was the last that was required of them in that form.
They were turned down to training camp at Curlu, almost on the banks of the Somme, in a clean and cleaned-up country where “dead men, even, were hard to find.” By this time specialization had run its course through our armies till the latest platoon-organisation acknowledged but one section that was known as a “rifle” section. The others, although behung with the ancient and honourable weapons of their trade, were bomb, Lewis-gun, and rifle (sniper) sections. But the Battle of Arras had proved what angry company commanders had been saying for months past—that infantry lived or died by their knowledge of the rifle. These Somme officers were accordingly told that most of their time should be given to platoon-training, fire direction, and musketry. (“We did what we were told, but we always found out when it came to a pinch—suppressing machine-guns in a pill-box and stuff of that kind—if you could rush your men into proper position, good shooting did the rest.”) And just as they were buckling down to the new orders, word came, on Sunday, May 13, that they had better prepare for an inspection by the King of the Belgians on Tuesday, May 15. The Brigade put up one long “agony” of rehearsal, and to its own surprise managed to achieve a creditable parade. Unlimited British generals attended the royal visitor, and for the first time in the Battalion’s history their pipers in their Celtic kilts were present. These had arrived about a fortnight before, when the Battalion solemnly invited Captain Hugh Ross of the Scots Guards to tea in his capacity of a “pipe expert” to pronounce on their merits. And civil war did not follow!
On the 17th May they set out via Billon Farm camp to Méricourt l’Abbé, where for the first time in six months, barring a few days at Corbie in January, they were billeted in real houses such as human beings use. Méricourt in summer is quite different from the cramped, windy, damp Méricourt of winter All the land smiled with the young crops that the old, indefatigable French women and men were cramming it with. Here, while the Guards Division was concentrating preparatory to their move into war again, the battalions were trained hard but not as specialists.
General Ivor Maxse, commanding the Sixteenth Corps (none but corps generals can say certain things in public), lectured on some of the teachings of the Battle of Arras. He gave instances of what comes of divorcing the soldier from his rifle. On one occasion, said he, men were met sidling down a road with the simple statement that the Germans were advancing to counter-attack them, and that they were retiring “because their own supply of bombs had run out.” Patrols sent up to verify, found the counter-attack was being made by four Huns furiously trying to surrender to some one. Again, a company was heavily fired on from a wood about two hundred yards off. Not a man returned the fire. They simply shouted down the trench, “Pass the word for the snipers.” All of which proves what every company commander knows, that the human mind under stress of excitement holds but one idea at a time, or, as the drill books of forty years ago laid down, “men will instinctively act in war as they have been trained to act in peace.”
In spite of the growing crops and intense agriculture, the Battalion found rifle ranges and did “a great deal of much-needed musketry.”
They wound up their stay at Méricourt in great glory at the Brigade sports, sweeping off everything in sight—flat races, steeplechase, tug-of-war, and the rest, and winning their brigadier’s trophy to the corps with the greatest number of firsts by a clear “possible” against the whole Guards Division. (“’Tis this way. A good battalion will do what is wanted; but a happy battalion, mark you, takes on from that. Did we work at the Sports? Remember, we was all in the pink, trained on that dam’ railway an’ fatted up for Boesinghe. What chance had the rest of the Division against us at all?”)
They entrained on the 30th May as part of the vast concentration that was crystallising itself for the Third Battle of Ypres, and, after twelve hours, breakfasted at Arques, near St. Omer, and marched all day to their crowded billets, which, like the rest of the landscape, were loaded up with crops and difficult to train in. They knew nothing of what was expected of them till 11th June, when C.O.’s were told at Brigade Headquarters that they were to practise assaults from trench to trench instead of “open warfare.” A battle, including earthquakes, had taken place at Messines which had unkeyed the situation to a certain extent, and the Guards Division would be needed to develop it.
The screw would be applied next in the Salient, and they would go up to Elverdinghe, on a sector that had long been notoriously quiet. But they were assured that as soon as “Jerry” had word of their arrival they would not feel neglected. All this on the top of their open-warfare exercise was disappointing. They knew more than they wanted to about the Ypres areas, and had hoped that something was going to crack on the high and windy Somme and let them triumphantly into Cambrai. “Fatted troops” are ever optimistic.
Their march towards their new ground was a hot and villainously dusty one, with packs and steel helmets, of eleven miles and the wind at their backs, so they moved in a sweating pillar of cloud. Not a man of theirs fell out, and the Brigade knew it, for the C.O. of the 3rd Grenadiers, who were bringing up the rear, sent along written congratulations with word that he had not seen one single Irish guardsman panting by the wayside. To have won that little record had meant the hardest sort of work for officers and N.C.O.’s.
On the 15th June they lay at Cardoen Farm, in shelters and huts round the place on which the enemy had no direct observation, though it was not four miles behind the line. Brigade Headquarters was more or less underground at Elverdinghe Château, and the enemy attended to it the instant the Guards Division relieved the Thirty-eighth Division. The front lines, as usual hereabouts, were too close together for unrestricted artillery work; but supports, communications, railways, and battery positions were open to him, and he dosed them by day and night. The divisional sector had a frontage of about twelve hundred yards, which ran from the point where our line bending back from the Ypres salient, turned across the Yser Canal some five thousand yards north-north-west of Ypres itself, and thence straight along the canal bank to where the Belgians took on. The Battalion relieved the 1st Coldstream on the 18th June, and found their front, which was on top of the canal embankment and within fifty yards of the enemy’s, fairly good. Owing to water showing at two feet, trenches were protected by breast-works and well revetted, but liable, from their make, to be badly blown by direct hits when, since it crowned the breast-works, their own wire would hamper the occupants. The canal bed, empty and overgrown with high grass and weeds, was all dead ground. The most that could be said for the position was that it gave fair protection against shell, but might be awkward to hold, as support and back lines were much too much under direct observation. Battalion Headquarters were regularly shelled, and in Boesinghe village itself, the most dangerous area of all, there was no cover, and one had to skirmish about in the open, with both eyes and ears on what might be coming next. The front, as usual, under these conditions was the safest. They were so close to the enemy that they were not shelled at all. What little stuff fell near them was the enemy’s own shorts, upon receipt of which the German front line would loose protesting rockets. Support and reserve companies were regularly shelled, with the ration and water parties pushing supplies up the railway in trucks from Elverdinghe to B.H.Q. The Battalion’s normal work was repairing blown head-cover and breast-work, and reporting, with oaths, that it was impossible to dig on account of subsoil water. They indulged the enemy every early morning with five minutes’ “rapid” of Lewis-guns or rifles, and their Stokes mortars were busy day and night. Machine-guns (nothing can keep a machine-gunner quiet long) sprayed enemy dumps intermittently all night long. It was an intimate, uneasy dog’s life of dodging and ducking; yet with reliefs and all it only cost them twenty-four casualties, mostly slight, in the four days’ turn. Their rest at Cardoen Farm afterwards meant fatigues of carrying sand-bags and six casualties to show for it; a brisk shelling of the camp; and a brawl between their Lewis-gun battery and one of the wandering Hun planes with which the camps were so infested that they were hardly noticed in reports or letters.
Their next tour, June 27 to 29, was in support behind the canal, in dug-outs round Bleuet Farm; Battalion Headquarters in the remnants of the farm itself. Our own artillery seemed, from the infantry point of view, to be devoting its attention to building up dumps and bringing in more guns; so the enemy had it rather their own way in shelling working-parties and communications. The relief was a bad one, and that tour worked out at nineteen casualties, of whom six were dead.
They ended June in wet bivouacs at a camp near International Corner, which had an unsavoury reputation for being shelled, and under the shadow of a specially heavy fatigue of burying a cable in a forward area. But—army fashion—nothing happened. No shells arrived; it was too wet even for parades, and some other lucky battalion had that cable-picnic all to itself.
On the 2nd July they were marched off twelve miles to Herzeele, where as no billets were ready they dined in a field, and shook down afterwards among a crowd of gunners. Many tales have been told of happy Herzeele, for it boasted at that time no less than three town majors, every one of them a colonel! Hence some small muddle as to billets.
The immense preparations for what was to be the Third Battle of the Ypres included, for the Guards Division, ten days’ special training over trenches such as they would have to deal with when their turn came. These were duly dug by fatigue-parties in an open stretch of country near the town, and “the whole model was on the same scale as the actual German front-line system.” Although the existing features of the ground were puzzling at first, the model proved to be extremely useful as teaching all ranks the lie of the land.
The only features not included were the hidden concrete “pill-boxes” supporting each other behind his line, on which the enemy was basing his new and unpleasant system of elastic defence. But, allowing for inevitable unrealities, there is no doubt that training “on the model” supplies and brings a battalion to hand better than any other device. The men grow keen as they realise by eye what is to be expected; talk it over afterwards (there are certain analogies between trench-to-trench attack and “soccer”); the N.C.O.’s discuss with the officers, and the battalion commander can check some preventable errors before the real thing is loosed.
His Majesty the King came on the 6th July to watch a brigade attack in the new formation. It was a perfect success, but the next week saw them sweated through it again and again in every detail, till “as far as the Battalion was concerned the drill of the attack was reduced almost to perfection.” In their rare leisure came conferences, map- and aeroplane-study, and, most vital of all, “explaining things to the N.C.O.’s and men.” They wound up with a model of a foot to a hundred yards, giving all the features in the Battalion’s battle area. The men naturally understood this better than a map, but it was too small. (“’Twas like a doll’s-house garden, and it looked you would be across and over it all in five minutes. But we was not! We was not!”)
On the 14th, in hot weather, the move towards the cockpit began. They bivouacked in certain selected woods that gave cover against searching planes, who knew as much about it as the enemy staff did, and bombed all movements on principle.
On the 17th they went into line “for a tour which proved to be one of the most unpleasant and most expensive” since the Battalion came to France. They held the whole of the 2nd Guards Brigade frontage, with a battalion of the 3rd Guards Brigade on their left, so the companies were necessarily broken up, as their platoons were detached to the separate trenches. All No. 4 Company and two platoons of No. 3 were in the front line, and a platoon of No. 3 and Company H.Q. in the support-line near Hunter Street. In Walkrantz Trench was another platoon of No. 3; No. 1 Company was in an unwholesome support-trench; and working with it, one platoon of No. 2. In Bleuet Farm were the remaining three platoons of No. 2 Company; and Battalion Headquarters were in Chasseur Farm, about a hundred and fifty yards behind No. 1 Company. Altogether, it might fairly be called a “hurrah’s nest” to relieve, hold, or get away from. The enemy, even without being stirred up by our first series of preliminary bombardments, which had opened on the 15th, were thoroughly abreast of things. They began by catching No. 2 Company coming up to Bleuet Farm in a barrage of gas-shells, which meant putting on box-respirators in the dark and going ahead blind. Only one man was knocked out, however. The transport was gassed late at night on the Elverdinghe road, and held up for two hours under fumes of lachrymatory and phosgene. But transport is expected to get in, whatever happens, and the fact that Lieutenant R. Nutting, its officer, was badly gassed, too, was an incident. From the official point of view he should have put on his respirator at the first, which is notoriously easy when rounding up hooded men and panicky horses. So he suffered. But as he was the only person who knew where Bleuet Farm might be in that poisonous blackness, he lay on the messcart, and between upheavals, guided the convoy thither. Next mom, after spending the night in a dug-out, he had to be carried back to the dressing-station. That same night 2nd Lieutenant Lofting, while on patrol along the canal bank, was slightly wounded in the leg.
The next three days were one nightmare of stores of all kinds for the battle-dumps pouring into the front line while the platoons there stacked and sorted them out, under continuous fire. Our hourly increasing force of heavies (the field-guns were not yet called upon) took as much of the burden off our men as they could, but the enemy were well set and knew just what they had to bowl at. The front-line companies’ work was to repair a very great deal of trench damage; make assembly-trenches for the coming attack; pile up the dumps, praying that the next salvo would not send them all sky-high, and keep the crawling communication-lines clear of corpses, wreckage, wounded and traffic blocks.
The Diary puts it all in these cold words: “Some of the carrying parties under N.C.O.’s did very fine work under fire. In no case did any party fail to perform the work set it.” Other pens have described that tour as “house-moving in Hell.” They lost men in the dark who were not missed till morning. On the night of the 18th, probably through a misreading of the many lights which were going up everywhere and might have been read as SOS’s, our big guns suddenly put down a bitter barrage just behind the German front line. They replied by one just behind ours, and a searching bombardment round our wretched Battalion Headquarters. One shell went through the roof of an officer’s dug-out in No. 1 Company trench and killed Lieutenant James (he had joined the Battalion, for the second time, not a month ago) and 2nd Lieutenant Wilson, only a few weeks joined. Lieutenant Paget was also wounded in the knee. The casualties among the men were heavy also; and next night, as our field-guns came into play, a “short” from one of them killed an irreplaceable C.S.M.—Grimwood of No. 4 Company—which on the eve of engagement is equivalent to losing an officer.
On the morning of the 20th, No. 4 Company sent out four raiding parties across the canal bank to see how strongly the enemy was holding things, and, quaintly enough, to “accustom them to our temporary occupation of their front line.” The inventive Hun had managed to raise the water level of the canal, and two of the parties had to abandon the attempt altogether. The others, led by their sergeants, floundered across, sometimes up to their chins, found the enemy line held, and came back with useful news and no casualties, for which their corps commander and their brigadier congratulated them. On the afternoon of the same day, the C.O. (Byng-Hopwood) and Second in Command (Stephen Bruton) of the 1st Coldstream came up to look at the line, and were both killed by the same shell in a communication-trench.
On the 21st, at the discomfortable hour before earliest dawn, our R.E. Company began to send over gas from four-inch Stokes mortars and projectors, and our own two-inch Stokes in the front line strove to cover the noise by separate rapid fire. Thanks to past practice with the box-respirators, in which our perspiring men had at last learned to work, there were no casualties when a gas “short” burst just behind the front line. It was their first acquaintance with gas-shells but, all told, only one officer and five men were gassed, nearly all of whom returned to duty in a few days. The relief was a small action in itself, for the companies had to be extricated one by one, and “the dispositions of the relieving battalions were different from ours.” Nor was it a clean departure, since the back lines were more and more crowded with fatigue-parties, each claiming right of way, and the Battalion was held up in Hunter Street, which at its widest was perhaps four feet and a half, by a couple of hundred men shifting trifles such as mats and bridges towards the firing-line. When they were getting away between Bleuet and Marguerite Farms, Lieutenant Keenan was hit in the thigh by a splinter of shell.
That tour cost the Battalion six officers killed or wounded and sixty casualties in other ranks. Considering the shelling, the heavy traffic and the backline “furniture removals,” the wonder was that they had not suffered thrice as much; but for the eve of a first-class engagement it was ample.
Their last preparations for the attack were put in in bivouac in the wooded area about half a mile northwest of De Wippe Cabaret, where half the Battalion was requisitioned for long, heavy, and unpleasant fatigues across shelled ground into forward areas, which led to a small group of casualties. Accommodation in the woods was insufficient, and many slept where they could under the trees (no bad thing with wandering planes at large); but the weather held fine and hot. And then, with everything ready to loose off, the attack was delayed. The reason given was that the French were to spend a few days more in making sure of success before carrying out their end of it. A battalion takes the smallest interest in its neighbours at any time, and on the edge of battle less than usual. All that the men knew was that the French were on their left, where the Belgians had been, and they hoped that they were strong in .75’s. (“Ye can hear the French long before ye can see them. They dish out their field-gun fire the way you’d say it was machine-guns. A well-spoken, quiet crowd, the French, but their rations are nothing at all.”)
There is pathetic interest on the entry of the 26th July that the C.O. (Eric Greer) “wrote out Operation Orders for Father Knapp”—a dead man, as the Fates were to decree it, for a dead man. Those orders were as simple as the problem before the Battalion. They had to advance straight to their front, with the 1st Scots Guards on their right, the latter Battalion’s right being neatly bounded by the Langemarck–Staden railway which again was the dividing line between the Guards and the Thirty-eighth Division. If luck held, and pillboxes did not turn out to be too numerous, they would all fetch up eventually on the banks of the Steenbeek River, three thousand five hundred yards north-east by east from their starting-point.
A happy mixture of chance and design had shown that the enemy were in the habit of abandoning their front line along the canal during daylight, and of manning it lightly at night. General Feilding, commanding the Guards Division, promptly took advantage of the knowledge to throw the 3rd Coldstream across and establish them on the far bank. The coup was entirely successful, and it saved the Division the very heavy casualties that would have followed a forcing of the canal had that been held in strength.
On the 27th, at a conference of C.O.’s, they were told that the enemy had further withdrawn on that sector, about five hundred yards up the stage, so to speak, and were resting their front line on a system known to us as Cariboo and Cannon trenches. One of our scouting-aeroplanes had been searching the ground at two or three hundred feet level, and was of opinion there was nobody there who cared to shoot back. It was a curious situation, for though the Battalion had rehearsed and rehearsed what they were to do till, as men said, they could have done it in their sleep, nobody was at ease. (This, by the way, disproves the legend that battalions know by instinct whether they are going to win or lose.) Late that night a hostile plane came over the forest area and woke them up with bombs. Lieutenant Arthur Paget, attached to the M.G.C., was slightly wounded. On the same day a draft of ninety men arrived as reinforcements. Their position was that of supers, for in a corps trained as the 2nd Irish Guards had been to carry out this one affair in a certain way, no amateurs were allowed. Greer had seen to it that every soul over whom he had authority should study the glass, sand, tin, and twig model of the ground till he knew it by heart, and had issued, moreover, slips of paper with a few printed sentences (“like home post cards”) to serve for unit commanders’ reports in action. On the back of these was a map of the sector itself, and “every one was instructed to mark his position with an X.” The results were superb, though Greer did not survive to see them.
The Division had its battle-patrols out and across the canal on the night of the 28th July, pressing forward gingerly, digging themselves in or improving existing “slits” in the ground against shell-fire. The Battalion did much the same thing at the back, for all the world where they walked with cautious shoulders was very unwholesome, and the barrages clanged to and fro everlastingly. Yet, had they been asked, they would have said, “Our guns were doing nothing out of the way.” Men were so broke to the uproar they hardly noticed it.
On the 29th July two companies (1 and 2) of the Battalion moved out to relieve the leading companies of the 3rd Coldstream, who had been for some time on the far side of the canal. All went well in the summer afternoon till a hostile aeroplane saw them filing across, and signalled a barrage which killed or wounded forty men, wounded Lieutenant Hannay of No. 2 Company, and killed Captain Synge in command of No. 1. Synge was perhaps one of the best company commanders that the Battalion had ever known, and as popular as he was brave.
Colonel Greer went up into the line directly afterwards with Captain D. Gunston as his second in command, and Lieutenant Hanbury as adjutant. They were cruelly short of combatant officers—past casualties had reduced the number to ten; and the only ones left in reserve were Major Ferguson and Lieutenant Hely-Hutchinson. The day and night were spent by the two companies in digging in where they were, while Nos. 3 and 4 waited on.
Early on the morning of the 30th July the French on their left and the whole of the Fifth Army put down a half-hour barrage to find out where the enemy would pitch his reply. He retaliated on the outskirts of Boesinghe village and the east bank of the canal, not realising to what an extent we were across that obstacle. In the evening dusk the remaining two companies of the Battalion slipped over and took up battle positions, in artillery (“pigtail”) formation of half-platoons, behind Nos. 1 and 2 Companies, who had shifted from their previous night’s cover, and now lay out in two waves east of the Yper Lea. By ten o’clock the whole of the Guards Division was in place. The 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigades were to launch the attack, and the 1st, going through them, was to carry it home. A concrete dug-out in the abandoned German front line just north of the railway was used as a Battalion Headquarters. It was fairly impervious to anything smaller than a 5.9, but naturally its one door faced towards the enemy and had no blind in front of it—a lack which was to cost us dear.
July 31st opened, at 3.30 A.M., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.
His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 A.M. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 A.M. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss. They were pushing on to the second objective, six hundred yards ahead, when some of our own guns put a stationary barrage on the first objective—Cariboo trenches and the rest. Mercifully, a good many of the men of the first and second waves had gone on with the later ones, where they were of the greatest possible service in the annoying fights and checks round the concreted machine-gun posts. Moreover, our barrage was mainly shrapnel—morally but not physically effective. No. 2 Company and No. 4 Company, for example, lay out under it for a half and three quarters of an hour respectively without a single casualty. But no troops are really grateful for their own fire on their own tin hats.
About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeplechaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded. Captain Gunston took command of the Battalion, for, of the seniors, Captain Alexander was out ahead with No. 4 Company, and Major Ferguson was in Regimental Reserve. Headquarters were moved up into Cariboo trench, and by six o’clock the second objective had been reached, in the face of bad machine-gun fire from Hey Wood that had opened on us through a break in our barrage.
No. 3 Company on the right of our line, next to the Scots Guards, found themselves at one point of this advance held up by our own barrage, and had the pleasure of seeing a battery of German field-guns limber up and “go off laughing at them.” Then they came under oblique machine-gun fire from the right.
Lieutenant Sassoon,1 commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.
Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood. Captain Alexander launched an attack at these through a gap in our barrage, outflanked them and accounted for three machine-guns and fourteen Germans. There was some slight difficulty at this point in distinguishing between our barrage, which seemed to have halted, and the enemy’s, which seemed to be lifting back. So Captain Alexander had to conduct his advance by a series of short rushes in and out of this double barrage, but somehow or other contrived to consolidate his position without undue delays. (“Consolidatin’ positions at Boesinghe meant being able to lie down and get your breath while the rest of ye ran about the country hammerin’ machine-gun posts an’ damnin’ our barrages.”) Thus occupied, he sent back word to Captain Gunston that in the circumstances he waived his seniority and placed himself under the latter’s command. “The pace was too good to inquire.”
This was in the interval before Ferguson, acting Second in Command, who by regulation had been left behind, could get word of Greer’s death, reach Battalion Headquarters and take over, which he did a little later. On his way up, their brigadier (Ponsonby) told him that “he could not find words strong enough to express his appreciation of the way in which the Battalion had behaved, and for its dash and devotion to duty.” Indeed, they admitted among themselves—which is where criticism is fiercest—that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked”; and, for a small reward, Fate sent to Battalion Headquarters the commanding officer and adjutant of the 73rd Hanoverian Fusiliers who had been captured near the second objective, and who wore in gold braid on their left sleeve the word “Gibraltar” in commemoration of the siege when that regiment, as Hanoverian, fought on the English side. The adjutant spoke English well, and thought that the U.S.A., coming into the war at last, would be bad for Germany. When they asked him if he wanted peace he replied: “The country wants peace. The men want peace, but I am an officer, and an officer never wants peace.” Herein he spoke more truly concerning his own caste than was ever realised by the British politician.
He was immensely interested, too, in our “Zero” hour and its arrangements, but seemed unable to grasp the system. “How,” he asked, “do you manage your—love hour, your nought hour—how do you call it?” He appeared to think it was something like lawn-tennis, and they explained to him in the wet-floored dug-out, which had already received two direct high-explosive souvenirs, that there was, as he might have observed, very little of “love” about a British Zero.
Then there fell, most naturally, a great thirst upon all the world, for bottles had been drained long ago, and a carrying-party of the 3rd Grenadiers had gone astray in that wilderness, and word had come in from Brigade Headquarters that the pontoon bridge over the canal was not yet finished, so they would have to draw on the water-dump on its west bank. Fatigue parties were sent off at once from the two companies panting there. The other two in the second objective further on would . . . but orders had scarcely been issued when Lieutenant Nutting pushed up with a string of pack-beasts and made a forward water-dump just behind the first objective, which saved trouble and that exposure which means men’s lives. (“All that time, of course, the battle was ragin’—that is to say, we was being shelled and shot over as usual—but, ye’ll understand, we wanted water more than we minded the shells. Thirst is stronger than death with the need on ye.”)
They disposed themselves for the afternoon, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies taking over from the 1st Scots Guards in the first objective, and Nos. 3 and 4 in the second, with linked strong posts connecting both lines. They also withdrew a couple of platoons sent forward from Nos. 1 and 2 Companies to the final objective (all objectives had now been reached) to rejoin their companies. At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters—that most insanitary place—and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others. Captain David Lees, the Battalion M.O., seems to have been equally careless, but luckier. He walked through what is described as “an intensely hostile” barrage (there were not very many friendly ones falling that day) to the corner of Artillery Wood, where he found a batch of wounded exposed to barrages and machine-guns. He was shelled all the time he was dressing them, and when he had finished, he carried, in turn, Lieutenant Buller, Sergeant McNally, and Private Donoghue to a safe trench just outside the barrage zone. To do this he had to go four times through the barrage before he could continue his round of professional visits which took him through it yet a fifth time.
During the afternoon, though there was a general bombardment by the enemy of the first and second objectives for ten minutes every half hour, the bulk of the shelling was aimless and wandering, as though the gunners could not hang on to any target. Men were killed, but not with intention, and the living could feel that the sting had gone out of the affair. They finished the interminable day under a barrage of gas-shells and H.E., which suggested at first a counter-attack behind it. At that moment, Nos. 2 and 4 Companies were holding an advanced position near Captain’s Farm towards the last objective; and it looked as though they would have to be left there all night, but by eleven o’clock the shelling had died out, the mopping-up companies of the 1st Coldstream relieved our outlying two, and a quarter of an hour later, dripping and muddy, the whole Battalion got away to a low, wet, and uncomfortable camp in the Roussel area, whose single mitigation was a rum-issue.
They had lost in the past three days three officers (Greer, their C.O.; Synge, by shrapnel, on the 29th; and Lieutenant Armfield, found shot on the 31st, not far from the dug-out they had converted into Battalion Headquarters). Lieutenants Crawford, Buller, and Vaughan-Morgan were the wounded. Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut allout affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he. The elder and the younger man had both given all they had to the Battalion, and their indomitable souls stayed with it when, next day (August 1), the authorities inquired whether it felt equal to going into the line again for what would certainly be an unusually abominable “sit and be hit” tour. The Battalion replied that it was ready, and spent the day cleaning up and putting in recommendations for awards for the battle. Among these were Lieutenant Black, the intelligence officer who in the course of his duties had had to wander for eighteen hours over the whole position captured by the Battalion, reporting situations, meeting crises as they arose, and keeping his head and his notes under continuous barrages. His right-hand man had been Sergeant Milligan, who “succeeded in establishing advanced Battalion Headquarters in the first objective five minutes after it had been captured, in spite of the fact that the barrage fell on that line for the next half hour.” He then found a company, all of whose officers, save one, had been wounded, helped to “reorganise it” with a strong hand and a firm voice, went on with it, assisted in outflanking three machine-gun positions, and kept communication unbroken between the front and back of their attack. Be it remembered that the right sector over which the 2nd Irish Guards and the Scots Guards moved was much more blinded with houses, woods, and the like than the left; and there was room for every sort of trouble if the sectors did not work together. But Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent. of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”
Their work on the 2nd August was to take over from a 1st Brigade Battalion on the left of the divisional front next to the French. The latter’s front here ran several hundred yards in rear of the Guards, and since their centre was well forward again, the re-entrant angle was an awkward and unsafe pocket, which necessitated any battalion that lay on the French right spending men and trouble in making a defensive left flank. The advance at this point had been carried forward to within a few hundred yards of the Steenbeek River. Indeed, on the right of the divisional front the 2nd Grenadiers were across and established. The Battalion moved up in rain across the water-logged, shell-pitted ground at dusk, to be welcomed by news that the enemy were massing. The enemy would surely have stuck in the mud had they attempted any counter-attack, but the Thirty-eighth Division on the right seemed to see them advancing in battle-array and sent up urgent demands for a barrage, which at once brought the hostile barrage down all along the line. Under this quite uncalled-for demonstration the companies floundered to their shallow trenches, which were a foot deep in mud. They had no particular idea where they or their rendezvous might be, but, obviously, the first thing was to get into touch with the French and beg them to straighten up their line where it nicked into ours. This was done in the dawn of the 3rd August, and before the end of the day our allies had attended to the matter and advanced up to the line of the Steenbeek. Then they, in turn, asked us to supply a standing patrol to link up their right to our left at Sentier Farm on the extreme edge of the ground won. It was not a locality, however, where any move could be attempted in daylight. The 3rd Coldstream had some men there, but these, for good reason, were lying low till we could relieve them. Captain Alexander and Lieutenant Hanbury had been sent down for a rest after their heavy work; and the Battalion, under Ferguson, was divided into two wings, the right commanded by Sassoon, with Lieutenants Van der Noot and Kane; the left by Captain Gunston, with Lieutenant Rea and, temporarily, Lieutenant Black. The 1st Coldstream turned up just on the edge of dusk to take over from the Battalion which was to relieve the 3rd Coldstream in the front line. Here, for once, efficiency did not pay. The handing over was completed all too well before the light had gone, and as they moved forward a burst of shrapnel killed one man and seriously wounded Lieutenant Van der Noot and five men. They disposed two companies in snipebogs at Signal Farm, and the other two, in like conditions, at Fourché Farm. There was practically no shelter against heavy shelling. Battalion Headquarters was an eight-by-four concrete dug-out with three inches of water on the floor, and the only people who kept warm seem to have been Lieutenant Rea and a couple of platoons who got into touch with the French and spent the night making a strong standing-patrol of two sections and a Lewis-gun at Sentier Farm, which was where the French wanted it. For the rest, “practically no shelter, incessant rain, continuous shell-fire, and mud half-way up the legs, but casualties comparatively few, and the spirit of all ranks excellent.”
The Welsh Guards relieved them on the night of the 4th, and they got hot tea (the adjutant had gone down on purpose to see to that) at Bleuet Farm, entrained at Elverdinghe for Proven, and at Porchester Camp, which they reached on the morning of the 5th, found a dry camp that had been pitched before the rain, more hot tea, a change of clothes, socks, and rum waiting for them. They breakfasted “before retiring to bed.” (“We was dead done, but ye’ll understand, ’twas nothing more than that. Our hearts was light—except for Father Knapp an’ Greer; but if they had not been taken that day ’twould have been later. That sort of men they are not made to live. They do an’ they die.”)
The general impression at Porchester Camp was that the Guards Division would be out of the line for the next two weeks or so, while the Twenty-ninth Division took over their work and secured a jumping-off place on the far side of the Steenbeek, with a new advance, in which the Guards would take part, towards Houthulst Forest. Meantime, sufficient to the day was the camp’s daily small beer—rows, for instance, with company cooks about diet-sheets (this was a matter Greer had been deep in just before his death), an inspection which kept them standing-to for nearly a couple of hours and was then cancelled; a farmer who, meaning to be kind, cut his crops early so that they might have a nice stubbly parade-ground, which no one in the least wanted; a lecture on Boesinghe by the C.O. to Captains Ward and Redmond and Lieutenants FitzGerald and De Moleyns, and all the N.C.O.’s who had come up with the last drafts that were making good the Battalion losses and giving the old hands a deal of trouble. For the enemy had developed at Boesinghe a defensive system of shell-holes filled with a few men and a machine-gun, and further protected by modest flanking machine-gun pill-boxes, over a depth of fifteen hundred or two thousand yards before one got to his main-line system of triple trenches. It was wholly damnable because, as the Guards and the Twentieth and Twenty-ninth Divisions had found out, artillery was not much use against holes in the ground, even when the fieldguns could be brought close enough across the morasses to reach them. Warley knew little about the proper forms of attack on such positions, and the new hands had to be taught it under menace of the daring planes. The Hun never threw away an opportunity of doing evil to his enemy, and while they lay at Bedford Camp (August 13) a number of the A.S.C. horses died owing to steel shavings having been cunningly mixed in their baled hay by some pro-Boche agent in the far-off lands where it was purchased.
On the 18th August orders came to move up the line to a camp west of Bleuet Farm, where aeroplanes were more vicious than ever. There they had to construct the camp almost from the beginning, with tents and shelters as they could lay hands on them, while most of the Battalion, was busy making and mending roads; and a draft of one hundred and fifty new men, under Lieutenant Manning, came in, so that nothing might be lacking to the activity of the days.
On the 20th August, owing to the aeroplanes, they had to spread out and camouflage the shelters for the men, which were too bunched together and made easy targets. Lieutenants D. FitzGerald, Dalton and Lysaght joined that afternoon, and in the evening there was a heavy air-raid along the east edge of the camp. Lieutenant Bellew, who had only joined with his draft ten days before, went to see the result, was hit and mortally wounded; and Lieutenant de Moleyns, who accompanied him, was also hit. The trouble was a couple of twelve-inch howitzers near our camp which were greatly annoying the enemy, and their machines rasped up and down like angry hornets hunting for them.
The 2nd Coldstream relieved the Battalion on the 21st August, when they returned to Elverdinghe, and were shifted to Paddington Camp—no improvement on its predecessor from the overhead point of view. Here the awards for Boesinghe came in: Captain Lees, who had been recommended for the V.C., getting the D.S.O. with Captain Alexander; Lieutenant Sassoon the M.C.; and Sergeant Milligan, that reorganiser of officerless companies, the D.C.M.
On the 22nd August Father Browne, who had taken Father Knapp’s place as chaplain, held a short service over Lieutenant Bellew’s grave, while the drums played the Last Post. His platoon, and a platoon has every opportunity for intimate knowledge, reported him “A grand little officer.” (“There was so many came and went, and some they went so soon that ’tis hard to carry remembrance of them. And, d’ye see, a dead man’s a dead man. But a platoon will remember some better than others. He’ll have done something or said something amongst his own men the way his name’ll last for a while in it.”)
On the 25th of the month they were told that the Guards Division offensive was cancelled for the time being; that they would probably be used in the line till about the 20th September, and that the final attack on Houthulst Forest would be carried out by a couple of other divisions. Meantime, they would be shifted from camp to camp, which they rather detested, and lectured and drilled. As an earnest of this blissful state they were forthwith shifted to Abingley Camp, in the Elverdinghe area and on the edge of trouble, in cold, driving wet, to find it very dirty and the tentage arrangements abominably muddled. Naturally, when complaints might have been expected, the men were wildly cheerful, and wrestled with flapping, sodden canvas in a half gale as merrily as sailors. The housekeeper’s instinct, before mentioned, of primitive man always comes out best at the worst crisis, and, given but the prospect of a week’s stay in one place, a Guards Battalion will build up a complete civilisation on bog or bare rock. The squally weather was against aeroplane activity till the 2nd of September, when the neighbourhood of the camp was most thoroughly searched with bombs, but nothing actually landed on them. Next midnight, however, they had all to flee from their tents and take refuge in the “slits” provided in the ground. This is ever an undignified proceeding, but the complaint against it is not that it is bad for the men’s nerves, but their discipline. The Irish appreciate too keenly the spectacle of a thick officer bolting, imperfectly clad, into a thin “slit.” Hence, sometimes, unfortunate grins on parade next morning, which count as “laughing.” Vastly more serious than the bombing, or even their occasional sports and cricket matches, was that their C.O. inspecting the Pipers “took exception to the hang of their kilts.” It ended in his motoring over to the Gordons at Houbinghem and borrowing the pipe major there to instruct them in this vital matter, as well as in the right time for march music. They were then sent to the master tailor to have some pleats taken out of the offending garments and fetched up, finally, on parade wearing their gas-helmets as sporrans! But they looked undeniably smart and supplied endless material for inter-racial arguments at mess.
These things and their sports and boxing competitions, where Drill-Sergeant Murphy and Private Conroy defeated two black N.C.O.’s of a West Indies battalion, were interludes to nights of savage bombing; carrying and camouflage parties to the front line, where they met a new variety of mustard gas; and the constant practice of the new form of attack. The real thing was set down now for the 14th September but was cancelled at the last moment, and the Battalion was warned for an ordinary trench tour on the night of the 12th-13th. Unluckily, just before that date Captain Sassoon and Lieutenant Kane and twenty-seven men of a big fatigue a day or two before, were badly burned and blistered by the new mustard gas shells. It put them down two officers at the time when every head was needed.
They were to take over from the 3rd Coldstream on the 12th September on what was practically the old Boesinghe sector. That battalion which lay next the French had just been raided, and lost nine men because their liaison officer had misunderstood the French language. Hence an order at the eleventh hour that each battalion in the sector should attach a competent linguist to the liaison-post where the two armies joined. The advance across the Steenbeek, after Boesinghe, had only gone on a few hundred yards up the Staden railway line and was now halted three thousand yards sou’west of Houthulst Forest, facing a close and blind land of woods, copses, farms, mills, and tree-screened roads cut, before any sure advance could be made, less than a quarter of a mile from the Guards divisional front by the abominable Broembeek. This was more a sluit than a river. Its banks were marsh for the most part; and every yard was commanded by hostile fire of every kind. On the French right and our extreme left was a lodgement of posts the far side of the Broembeek which the Coldstream had been holding when they were raided. These lay within a hundred yards of the enemy’s line of strong posts (many lectures had been delivered lately on the difference between lines of trenches and lines of posts), and were backed by the stream, then waist-deep and its bed plentifully filled with barbed wire. Between Ney Copse and Ney Wood, say five hundred yards, they could only be reached by one stone bridge and a line of duckboards like stepping-stones at the west corner of Ney Copse.
The Battalion went up in the afternoon of the 12th September, none the better for a terrific bombardment an hour or two before from a dozen low-flying planes which sent every one to cover, inflicted twenty casualties on them out of two hundred in the neighbourhood, and fairly cut the local transport to bits. The relief, too—and this was one of the few occasions when Guards’ guides lost their way—lasted till midnight.
Six platoons had to be placed in the forward posts above mentioned, east of the little river whose western or home bank was pure swamp for thirty yards back. Says the Diary: “This position could be cut off by the enemy, as the line of the stream gives a definite barrage-line, and, if any rain sets in, the stone bridge would be the only possible means of crossing.”
A battalion seldom thinks outside of its orders, or some one might have remembered how a couple of battalions on the wrong side of a stream, out Dunkirk way that very spring, had been mopped up in the sands, because they could neither get away nor get help. Our men settled down and were unmolested for three hours. Then a barrage fell, first on all the forward posts, next on the far bank of the stream, and our own front line. The instant it lifted, two companies of Wurtembergers in body-armour rushed what the shells had left of the forward posts. Lieutenant Manning on the right of Ney Wood was seen for a moment surrounded and then was seen no more. All posts east of Ney Copse were blown up or bombed out, for the protected Wurtembergers fought well. Captain Redmond commanding No. 2 Company was going the rounds when the barrage began. He dropped into the shell-hole that was No. 6 post, and when that went up, collected its survivors and those from the next hole, and made such a defence in the south edge of Ney Copse as prevented the enemy from turning us altogether out of it. Most of the time, too, he was suffering from a dislocated knee. Then the enemy finished the raid scientifically, with a hot barrage of three quarters of an hour on all communications till the Wurtembergers had comfortably withdrawn. It was an undeniable “knock,” made worse by its insolent skill.
Losses had not yet been sorted out. The C.O. wished to withdraw what was left of his posts across the river—there were two still in Ney Copse—and not till he sent his reasons in writing was the sense of them admitted at Brigade Headquarters. Officer’s patrols were then told off to search Ney Copse, find out where the enemy’s new posts had been established, pick up what wounded they came across and cover the withdrawal of the posts there, while a new line was sited. In other words, the front had to fall back, and the patrols were to pick up the pieces. The bad luck of the affair cleaved, as it often does, to their subsequent efforts. By a series of errors and misapprehensions Ney Copse was not thoroughly searched and one platoon of No. 3 Company was left behind and reported as missing. By the time the patrols returned and the Battalion had started to dig in its new front line it was too light to send out another party. The enemy shelled vigorously with big stuff all the night of the 13th till three in the morning; stopped for an hour and then barraged the whole of our sector with high explosives till six. During this, Lieutenant Gibson, our liaison officer with the French, was wounded, and at some time or another in a lull in the infernal din, Sergeant M’Guinness and Corporal Power, survivors of No. 2 Company, which had been mopped up, worked their way home in safety through the enemy posts.
The morning of the 14th brought their brigadier who “seems to think that our patrol work was not well done,” and had no difficulty whatever in conveying his impression to his hearers. Major Ward went down the line suffering from fever. There were one or two who envied him his trouble, for, with a missing platoon in front—if indeed any of it survived—and a displeased brigadier in rear, life was not lovely, even though our guns were putting down barrages on what were delicately called our “discarded” posts. Out went another patrol that night under Lieutenant Bagot, with intent to reconnoitre “the river that wrought them all their woe.” They discovered what every one guessed—that the enemy was holding both river-crossings, stone bridge and duckboards, with machine-guns. The Battalion finished the day in respirators under heavy gas-shellings.
Then came a piece of pure drama. They had passed the 15th September in the usual discomfort while waiting to be relieved by the 1st Coldstream. Captain Redmond with his dislocated knee had gone down and Lieutenants FitzGerald and Lysaght had come up. The talk was all about the arrangements for wiring in their new line and the like, when at 4.30, after a few hours’ quiet, a terrific barrage fell on their front line followed by an SOS from somewhere away to the left. A few minutes later five SOS rockets rose on the right apparently in front of the 1st Scots Guards. Our guns on the Brigade front struck in, by request; the enemy plastered the landscape with H.E.; machine-guns along the whole sector helped with their barrages to which the enemy replied in kind, and with one searching crash we clamped a big-gun barrage on the far bank of the Broembeek, till it looked as if nothing there could live.
When things were at their loudest a wire came in from the Brigade to say that a Hun captured at St. Julien reported that a general advance of the enemy was timed for 6.30 that very morning! By five o’clock the hostile barrage seemed to have quieted down along our front, but the right of the Brigade sector seemed still to be at odds with some enemy; so the Brigadier kept our local barrage hard-on by way of distraction. And at half-past six, tired, very hungry, but otherwise in perfect order, turned up at Brigade Headquarters Sergeant Moyney with the remainder of No. 3 Company’s platoon which had been missing since the 12th. He had been left in command of an advanced shell-hole post in Ney Copse with orders neither to withdraw nor to let his men break into their iron ration. The Wurtembergers’ raid had cut off his little command altogether; and at the end of it he found a hostile machine-gun post well established between himself and the duckboard-bridge over the river. He had no desire to attract more attention than was necessary, and kept his men quiet. They had forty-eight hours’ rations and a bottle of water apiece; but the Sergeant was perfectly definite as to their leaving their iron ration intact. So they lay in their shell-hole in the wood and speculated on life and death, and paid special attention to the commands of their superior officer in the execution of his duty. The enemy knew they were somewhere about, but not their strength nor their precise position, and having his own troubles in other directions, it was not till the dawn of the 16th that he sent out a full company to roll them up. The Sergeant allowed them to get within twenty-five yards and then ordered his men to “jump out and attack.” It was quite a success. Their Lewis-gun came into action on their flank, and got off three drums into the brown of the host while the infantry expended four boxes of bombs at close quarters. “Sergeant Moyney then gave the order to charge through the Germans to the Broembeek.” It was done, and he sent his men across that foul water, bottomed here with curly barbed-wire coils while he covered their passage with his one rifle. They were bombed and machine-gunned as they floundered over to the swampy western bank; and it was here that Private Woodcock heard cries for help behind him, returned, waded into the water under bombs and bullets, fished out Private Hilley of No. 3 Company with a broken thigh and brought him safely away. The clamour of this fierce little running fight, the unmistakable crack and yells of the bombing and the sudden appearance of some of our men breaking out of the woods near the German machine-gun emplacement by the river, had given the impression to our front of something big in development. Hence the SOS which woke up the whole touchy line, and hence our final barrage which had the blind good luck to catch the enemy as they were lining up on the banks of the Broembeek preparatory, perhaps, to the advance the St. Julien prisoner had reported. Their losses were said to be heavy, but there was great joy in the Battalion over the return of the missing platoon, less several good men, for whom a patrol went out to look that night in case they might be lying up in shell-holes. But no more were found. (“’Twas a bad mix-up first to last. We ought never to have been that side the dam’ river at that time at all. ’Twas not fit for it yet. And there’s a lot to it that can’t be told. . . . And why did Moyney not let the men break into their ration? Because, in a tight place, if you do one thing against orders ye’ll do annything. An’ ’twas a dam’ tight place that that Moyney man walked them out of.”)
They were relieved with only two casualties. The total losses of the tour had been—one officer missing (Lieutenant Manning), one (2nd Lieutenant Gibson ) wounded; one man wounded and missing; eighty missing; fifty-nine wounded and seventeen killed. And the worst of it was that they were all trained hands being finished for the next big affair!
Dulwich Camp where they lay for a few days was, like the others, well within bombing and long gun-range. They consoled themselves with an inspection of the drums and pipes on the 17th, and received several six-inch shells from a naval gun, an old acquaintance; but though one shell landed within a few yards of a bivouac of No. 2 Company there were no further casualties, and the next day the drums and pipes went over to Proven to take part in a competition arranged by the Twenty-ninth Division (De Lisle’s). They played beautifully—every one admitted that—but what chance had they of “marks for dress” against line battalions whose bands sported their full peace-time equipment—leopard skins, white buckskin gloves, and all? So the 8th Essex won De Lisle’s prize. But they bore no malice, for when, a few days later, a strayed officer and forty men of that battalion cast up at their camp (it was Putney for the moment) they entertained them all hospitably.
They settled down to the business of intensive training of the new drafts that were coming in—2nd Lieutenant Murphy with ninety-six men one day, and 2nd Lieutenants Dame and Close the next with a hundred and forty-six, all to be put through three weeks of a scheme that included “consolidation of shell-holes” in addition to everything else, and meant six hours a day of the hardest repetition work. Sports and theatrical shows, such as the Coldstream Pierrots and their own rather Rabelaisian “Wild West Show,” filled in time till the close of September when they were at Herzeele, warned that they would be “for it” on or about the 11th of the next month, and that their attack would not be preceded by any artillery registration. This did not cheer them; for experience had shown that the chances of surprising the enemy on that sector were few and remote.
The last day of September saw the cadres filled. Three 2nd Lieutenants, Anderson, Faulkner, and O’Connor, and Lieutenant Levy arrived; and, last, Lieut.-Colonel the Hon. H. R. Alexander, who took over the command.
Rehearsals for the coming affair filled the next few days at Herzeele camp, and their final practice on the 4th before they moved over to Proven was passed as “entirely satisfactory.” Scaled against the tremendous events in progress round them, the Broembeek was no more than a minor action in a big action intended to clear a cloudy front ere the traitorous weather should make all work on the sector impossible, and, truly, by the time it was done, it cost the Division only two thousand casualties—say four battalions of a peace establishment.
The battle they knew would depend on the disposition of the little Broembeek. If that chose to flood it would be difficult to reach across its bogs and worse to cross; and, under any circumstances, mats and portable bridges (which meant men having to halt and bunch under fire) would be indispensable.
The existing line was to be held by the 3rd Guards Brigade till the 9th of October, when the attack would be put through by the 1st and 2nd Brigades on the right and left respectively. In brigade disposition this would lay the 2nd Irish Guards next to the French on their left, and the 1st Scots Guards on their right. The usual three objectives were set for the Division; making an advance in all of rather more than three thousand yards from the Broembeek to the edge of the Houthulst Forest; and equally, as usual, when the leading battalions had secured the first two objectives, the remaining battalions of each brigade would go through them and take the final one.
With the idea of concealing the attack, no preliminary work was undertaken, but on the morning of the 6th the light bridges and mats were issued, and the Battalion practised fixing and laying them over a piece of ground marked to represent the river. They moved from Putney Camp to the front line on the 7th, when Nos. 3 and 4 Companies relieved the 2nd Scots Guards who had been getting ready the mats and bridges for the real thing. The last day concerned itself with disposing the companies in the trenches so that they should be able to have a good look at the ground ahead while it was yet light. No one could pretend that the sweeping of the small-featured, ill-looking, and crowded landscape would be an easy job, and at the far end of the ominous perspectives lay the dull line of Houthulst Forest upon which rain shut down dismally as the day closed. The enemy made no signs beyond occasional shelling, in which Battalion Headquarters, a collection of three concrete block-houses, was hit once or twice with 5.9’s, but no harm followed.
At dusk Nos. 3 and 4 Companies laid out the tapes parallel to the Broembeek that were to make forming-up easier. For some reason connected with the psychology of war, this detail has always a depressing influence on men’s minds. An officer has observed that it reminded him of tennis-courts and girls playing on them at home. A man has explained that their white glimmer in the dusk suggests a road for ghosts, with reflections on the number of those who, after setting foot across on dead-line, may return for their rum-ration.
The rain gave over in the night and was followed by a good drying wind. Zero of the 9th October was 5.20 A.M. which gave light enough to see a few hundred yards. An intense eighteen-pounder barrage was our signal to get away. Four barrages went on together—the creeping, a standing one, a back-barrage of six-inch howitzers and 60-pounders, and a distant barrage of the same metal, not to count the thrashing machine-gun barrages. They moved and halted with the precision of stage machinery or, as a man said, like water-hoses at a conflagration. Our two leading companies (3 and 4) crossed the river without a hitch, met some small check for a few moments in Ney Wood where a nest of machine-guns had escaped the blasts of fire, and moved steadily behind the death-drum of the barrage to the first objective a thousand yards from their start. There the barrage hung like a wall from the French flank, across the north of Gruyterzaele Farm, over the Langemarck road and Koekuit, and up to Namur Crossing on the battered railway track, while the two leading companies set to work consolidating till it should roll back and the rear companies pass on behind it. The dreadful certainty of the job in itself masked all the details. One saw and realised nothing outside of one’s own immediate task, and the business of keeping distances between lines and supports became a sort of absurd preoccupation. Occasionally a runner passed, very intent on his errand, a free man, it seemed, who could go where he chose at what pace suited his personal need to live; or the variously wounded would lurch by among the shell-holes, but the general impression in the midst of the din was of concentrated work. The barrage held still for three quarters of an hour, and about half-past seven the 2nd Coldstream came up through our Nos. 3 and 4 Companies who were lying down, curiously unworried by casualties, to carry on the advance to the last objective which was timed to take place about eight. No. 3 Company was told to move up behind the Coldstream and dig in a couple of hundred yards behind Nos. 1 and 2 as a support to them, where they lay behind the second objective, in event of counterattacks. Unluckily a French gun on the left began to fire short, and that company had to be withdrawn with some speed, for a “seventy-five” that makes a mistake repeats it too often to be a pleasant neighbour. Battalion Headquarters came up as methodically as everything else, established themselves behind the first objective, strung their telephones, and settled down to the day’s work. So far as the Battalion was concerned they suffered no more henceforward than a few occasional shells that do not seem to have done any damage, and at six in the evening their two leading companies were withdrawn, with the leading companies of the 1st Scots Guards, and marched back to Dulwich Camp. The remaining two companies of the Scots Guards passed under the command of the C.O. of the Irish (Alexander), who had been slightly wounded in the course of the action. The four companies then were in direct support of the troops at the third objective waiting on for counter-attacks which never came.
On the dawn of the 10th October, Battalion Headquarters moved forward again to the second objective line, but except for some low-flying enemy planes, the day passed quietly till the afternoon when the same French “seventy-five,” which had been firing short the day before, took it into its misdirected head to shell No. 1 Company so savagely that that had to be shifted to the left in haste. There was no explanation, and while the company was on the move the enemy put down a two hours’ barrage just behind the second objective. It has often been remarked that when the Hun leads off on the wrong foot, so to say, at the beginning of a fray, he keeps on putting his foot into it throughout. Luckily, the barrage did not do much harm.
The Welsh Guards relieved in the late evening, and by eleven o’clock the whole Battalion was safe in Dulwich Camp with an amazingly small casualty list. The only officer killed had been Captain Hanbury. Lieutenants Close and Bagot were wounded and also Alexander and Father Browne, these last two so slightly that they still remained on duty. Of other ranks they had but twenty dead, eighty-nine wounded, and two missing. The Wurtembergers’ raid had cost them more. And that, too, was the luck of war.
None of them knew particularly how the fight outside their limited vision had gone. The Scots Guards were comfortably on their right, keeping step for step; and the French on the left, barring their incontinent gun, had moved equally level. But they were all abominably stiff from negotiating the slippery-sided shell-holes and the mud, and it took them two days’ hard work to clean up.
On the 13th October they relieved the 1st Scots Guards for fatigue-parties to the front, and lay in a camp of sand-bag and corrugated iron hovels where the men had to manufacture shelter for themselves, while a long-range German gun prevented that work from being too dull. But again there was no damage. They were relieved on the 16th October from these duties by a battalion of the Cheshires and marched to Elverdinghe, leaving the Pioneers behind for a little to put up crosses over the graves of the newly dead. That closed the chapter and they lapsed back to “the usual routine,” of drill, inspections, and sports. They were at Houlle Camp near Watten on the 21st when the 2nd Guards Brigade was inspected by H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught, and the Battalion, in walking-out order, lined the roads and cheered. Sir Douglas Haig, too, inspected them on the 25th October with the whole of their Division, dealt them all those compliments on past work which were their undeniable right, and congratulated them on their turn-out. The Battalion then was specially well set up and hard-bitten, running to largish men even in No. 2 Company. Their new drafts had all been worked up and worked down; the new C.O.’s hand and systems were firmly established; company cooks and their satellites had been reformed, and—which puts a bloom on men as quickly as food—they were “happy” under a justice which allowed an immense amount of honest, intimate, domestic fun.
Of the tales which ran about at that period there is one perhaps worth recording. During the fatigues on the Boesinghe front it fell to them to relieve some battalion or other which, after much manœuvring in the mud, at last drew clear of its trenches to let in the wet and impatient Irish. The latter’s C.O., wearied to the bone, was sitting in the drizzling dark beside the communication-trench, his head on his hand and on his wrist his campaign watch with its luminous dial. Suddenly, as the relieved shadows dragged themselves by, he felt his wrist gently taken, slightly turned, and after an instant’s inspection, loosed again. Naturally, he demanded by all the Gods of the Army what the unseen caitiff meant by his outrageous deed. To him, from the dark, in irresistible Cockney, “Beg pardon, Sir, but I thought it was a glow-worm,” and the poor devil who had been cut off from all knowledge of earthly time for the past three days shuffled on, leaving behind him a lieut.-colonel of the Brigade of Guards defeated and shaken with mirth.
Their rest lasted till the 9th November, during which time 2nd Lieutenants Cary-Elwes and A. F. Synge joined, and Captain Sassoon came up from the base and took over No. 3 Company. Lieut.-Colonel Pawlett of the Canadian Army was attached to the Battalion from the 6th of the month, and Captain the Hon. H. A. V. Harmsworth rejoined from the staff where, like a brother-officer in the entrenching battalion, his heart was not. On the 9th, too, Lieutenant Lysaght and Sergeant R. Macfarlane were decorated with the Croix de Guerre by General Antoine commanding the First French Army.
On the 10th of November they were ordered out into the St. Pol area which, as a jumping-off place, offered as many possibilities as Charing Cross station on a Bank holiday. One knows from the record of the 1st Battalion that the whole Division now on the move were prepared for and given to believe anything—even that they might be despatched to Italy, to retrieve October’s disaster of Caporetto. But it is known now that the long series of operations round the Salient—Messines, the two months’ agony of the Third Battle of Ypres, and the rest—had drawn the enemy forces and held them more and more to the northward of our front; and that Sir Julian Byng had been entrusted to drive at the Hindenburg Line on the Somme with the Sixth, Fourth, Third, and Seventh Army Corps, from Bullecourt southward to a little south of Gonnelieu.
It was to be a surprise without artillery preparation, but very many tanks were to do the guns’ work in rooting out trenches, barbed wire, and machine-gun nests.
The main attack was on a front of six miles, and, as has been noted elsewhere, the official idea was not to make the capture of Cambrai, behind the Hindenburg Line, a main feature of the affair, but to get as far into the enemy’s ground as could be, and above all, to secure a clean flank for ourselves to the north-east of Bourlon Wood near Cambrai where the lie of the Somme Downs gave vital observation and command. The Guards Division, as usual, would wait upon the results. If the thing was a success they would advance on Cambrai. If not, they would assist as requisite.
It was late in the year, and the weather was no treat as the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards marched out in the wet from Houlle on the 10th November to Ecques, and, in billets there, made its first acquaintance with a battalion of Portuguese troops. Two days more brought them to Ostreville’s bad billets and a draft of a hundred new hands with Lieutenant M. R. Hely-Hutchinson and 2nd Lieutenant F. C. Lynch-Blosse. Not a man had fallen out on the road, but they were glad of a four days’ halt and clean-up, though that included instruction in outpost companies and positions.
On the 17th they continued their march south to Ambrines over the large, untouched lands of the high water-shed between the Scarpe and the little streams that feed the Authies River. The next day carried them no longer south, but east towards the noise of the unquiet Somme guns, and had they any doubts as to their future, it was settled by one significant gas-helmet drill. (“But we knew, or at least, I did, having done my trick here before, that we were for it. Ye could begin to smell the dam’ Somme as soon as ye was across that Arras railway.”)
They heard the opening of Cambrai fight from Courcelles in the early morn of the 20th November—a sudden and immense grunt, rather than roar, of a barrage that lasted half an hour as the tanks rolled out through the morning mists, and for the first time the Hindenburg Line was broken.
They held on, under two hours’ notice, through Achiet-le-Grand, Bapaume, and Riencourt to Beaulencourt in icy rain and mud. The wreckage of battle was coming back to them now, as they moved in the wake of the Fifty-first Division that was pressing on towards Flesquières, and passed a number of prisoners taken round Noyelles and Marcoing. Here were rumours of vast captures, of Cambrai fallen, and of cavalry pushing through beyond. The 24th November brought them, in continuous drizzle, to the smoking and ruined land between Trescault and Ribecourt, which was crowded with infantry and the Second Cavalry Division near by; and they lay out in a sound unoccupied trench, once part of the Hindenburg Line. Our tanks had left their trails everywhere, and the trodden-down breadths of wire-entanglements, studded here and there with crushed bodies, suggested to one beholder “the currants in the biscuits one used to buy at school.” Suddenly news of Cambrai fight began to change colour. They were told that it had “stuck” round Bourlon Wood, a sullen hundred-acre plantation which commanded all the ground we had won north of Flesquières, and was the key to the whole position at the northern end of the field. Seldom had woodland and coppice cost more for a few days’ rental, even at the expensive rates then current on the Somme. Here are some of the items in the account: On the 21st November the Fifty-first Division, supported by tanks, had captured Fontaine-Notre-Dame village which lay between Bourlon Wood and Cambrai, and, till beaten out again by the enemy, had worked into the Wood itself. Fontaine was lost on the 22nd, and attacked on the 23rd November by the Fifty-first Division again, but without definite result. The Fortieth Division were put in on the evening of the same day and managed to take the whole of the Wood, even reaching Bourlon village behind it. Here they held up a fierce counter attack of German Grenadiers, but, in the long run, were pushed out and back to the lower ground, and by the evening of the 25th were very nearly exhausted. Five days of expensive fighting had gained everything except those vital positions necessary to security and command of gun-fire. Hence the employment of the Guards Division, to see what could be fished out of the deadlock. The decision was taken swiftly. The 1st and 3rd Guards Brigade had been sent up on the 23rd November to relieve two brigades of the Fifty-first Division round Flesquières, and also to assist the Fortieth then battling in the Wood. It was understood that the whole of the Guards Division would now be employed, but no one knew for sure in which direction.
As far as the 2nd Guards Brigade was concerned, their brigadier was not told of the intended attack on Bourlon till the afternoon of the 26th; the C.O.’s of battalions not till four o’clock, and company commanders not till midnight of that date. No one engaged had seen the ground before, or knew anything about the enemy’s dispositions. Their instructions ran that they were to work with the 186th Brigade on their left “with the object of gaining the whole of Bourlon Wood, La Fontaine, and the high ground behind it.” As a matter of fact, they were to be brought up in the dark through utterly unknown surroundings; given a compass-bearing, and despatched at dawn into a dense wood, on a front of seven hundred yards, to reach an objective a thousand yards ahead. This pleasing news was decanted upon them at Brigade Headquarters in the dusk of a November evening hailstorm, after the C.O., the Assistant Adjutant, and all company commanders had spent the day reconnoitring the road from Trescault to the front line by Anneux and making arrangements for taking over from the 2nd Scots Guards, who were supporting the Fortieth Division outside the Wood.
The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge; the 1st Coldstream filling any gap between the Irish Guards and the Grenadiers. When all objectives had been reached, the 1st Scots Guards were to push up and get touch with the 3rd Grenadiers who should have captured La Fontaine. (It may be noted that the attack was to be a diverging one.) They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood.
The Battalion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by companies through the dark to the Bapaume–Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his company commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated and shovels issued. (“There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know—except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duckboards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us—used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.”)
By five in the morning, after a most wearing night, the Battalion was in position, the 2/5th West Riding of the 1st Brigade on its left and the 1st Coldstream on its right; and the Wood in front alive with concealed machine-guns and spattered with shells. They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves; No. 1 Company on the right and No. 2 Company on the left, supported by No. 3 Company and No. 4. Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil-sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned. Meantime, the Battalion took half a dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step. In some respects Bourlon was like Villers-Cotterêts on a large scale, with the added handicap of severe and well-placed shelling. A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations. Nor, when the affair was well launched, was there much help from “the officer with the compass” who was supposed to direct the outer flank of each company. The ground on the right of the Battalion’s attack, which the Coldstream were handling, was thick with undestroyed houses and buildings of all sorts that gave perfect shelter to the machine-guns; but it is questionable whether Bourlon Wood itself, in its lack of points to concentrate upon, and in the confusion of forest rides all exactly like each other, was not, after all, the worst. Early in the advance, No. 2 Company lost touch on the left, while the rest of the Battalion, which was still somehow keeping together, managed to get forward through the Wood as far as its north-east corner, where they made touch with the 1st Coldstream. Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily threshing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realized him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken, and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties. Such as had kept their sense of direction headed back by twos and threes to their original starting-point; but at noon Battalion Headquarters had lost all touch of the Battalion, and the patrols that got forward to investigate reported there was no sign of it. It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: “If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.” Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover—not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards—the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact was that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers. The records say that the 2nd Guards Brigade with the rest of the Division “fell back to its original line.” Unofficially: “We did—but I don’t know how we did it. There wasn’t any Battalion worth mentioning when the Welsh Guards relieved us in the dark, but stray men kept on casting up all night long.” The losses were in proportion to the failure. Of officers, two were killed—Cary-Elwes, just as they reached their objective, by a bullet through the head, and A. F. Synge shot down at the beginning of the attack, both of them men without fear and with knowledge. Three were missing, which is to say, dead—2nd Lieutenants N. D. Bayly of No. 2 Company, W. G. Rea of No. 3, and N. F. Durant of No. 4 who was also believed to have been wounded. Four were wounded—Captain the Hon. H. A. V. Harmsworth, No. 1; Captain Reford, No. 3, bullet through the shoulder; and Lieutenant S. S. Wordley, of the same company, in the head. Also 2nd Lieut. F. C. Lynch-Blosse of No. 2 blown up, but able to get back. The C.O. (Colonel the Hon. H. R. Alexander), the Second in Command (Captain the Hon. W. S. Alexander), Captain Nugent, Adjutant, 2nd Lieutenant W. D. Faulkner, Assistant Adjutant Captain Sassoon and Lieutenant O’Connor, these last two being company officers in reserve who were kept with Battalion Headquarters, were unhurt. Twenty-five men were known to be dead on comrades’ evidence; one hundred and forty-six were missing, of whom a number would naturally be dead; and one hundred and forty-two were wounded and brought back. Total, three hundred and twenty-two.
They came out of the Wood on the evening of the 27th one hundred and seventeen strong; lay, nominally in reserve, but actually finished for the time being, along the La Justice–Graincourt road till one company of the 2/5th Leicesters took over. Their losses seemed to be enough to justify their resting a little, which they did at Ribecourt and, next day, the 29th November, moved on to a camp, at Bertincourt, of Nissen huts, crowded but comfortable, where they thought to relax and take full stock of their hurts, and fill their ranks again from the divisional reserve. [It is to be remembered that battalions went into action with only three officers per company and platoons reduced to practically half strength.] They had been warned by prisoners that the enemy had at least three battalions ready with which they intended to attack, but put the matter out of their collective minds as one to be attended to by their neighbours. All they desired were the decencies of a rest-billet far behind the infernal noise of the guns. But on the dawn of the 30th that irregular noise turned into the full-mouthed chorus which heralds a counterattack. The Third Army Corps was being hammered somewhere towards Gonnelieu a few miles to the southward, and the orders were for the whole of the Guards Division to get thither with every speed; for it looked as though the bottom were all out of the Cambrai fight. The 2nd Guards Brigade were away from Bertincourt ere noon, and, preceded by the 1st Scots Guards, moved in artillery formation straight across the country-side to the ridge in front of Gouzeaucourt Wood—there are two ridges between Metz and Gouzeaucourt village—where they were told to dig in and lie up as reserve. They noticed in their progress that the landscape was fairly full of retiring troops to whom they occasionally addressed remarks of an encouraging nature. (“After what we had took in bloody Bourlon ’twas great comfort to see that there was others not making any picnic of it either.”) But they also observed with satisfaction that the 1st and 3rd Guards Brigades were ahead of them, making almost a parade movement of their advance against the machine-guns of the village. It was abominably cold, they were without greatcoats for the most part, and they had to dig in in frozen chalk, and whenever there was a block on the road, the enemy shelled it. Occasionally, the shells got in among their own prisoners, of whom small detachments were already being gathered, and sent back. The Battalion had been made up to four hundred rifles at that time, and when on the evening of the 1st December they moved to the western outskirts of Gouzeaucourt they relieved one company of the 2nd Coldstream and a company of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards in the support line beyond Gouzeaucourt railway station. Gouzeaucourt, and the situation, had been saved by the Guards Division. The 1st and 3rd Guards Brigade had attacked and, as we know, captured Gauche Wood to the east of Gouzeau court on the 1st, and the supporting brigade was not called upon to do more than sit in its trenches and take a not too heavy overflow of enemy’s shelling. Altogether the Battalion’s casualties were under half a dozen. An attack, which they were told would be sprung on them on the 2nd, did not arrive, and on the 4th December the 1st South African Infantry Regiment relieved the whole of the 2nd Brigade without a hitch, and the men moved off to bivouac in Gouzeaucourt Wood. Their bitter cold shelters lay among our vociferous batteries, which worked all night. At three in the morning 4.2’s began to fall among the officers’ tents so that the disgusted inmates had to move. One officer’s pillow was blown away almost immediately after he had quitted it, and it is reported that the C.O. and Adjutant “took refuge” behind a tent where they delivered their minds about the horrors of “sleeping with the guns.” The incoming brigade relieved them of their last responsibilities on the night of the 5th, and they would have rested at Fins, whose field railways they had helped to build in the pleasant summer days, but that a long-range gun was attending to the hutments there, and it was judged safer to push on several more weary miles to Etricourt which they reached at one in the morning.
Battles are like railway journeys in that the actual time of transit is as nothing compared to that wasted in getting from door to door. They were marched off to Etricourt Station at eight on the morning of their arrival, where they waited till eleven for a train that had run off the line, and it was late in the dark of the evening when, after passing Ginchy and the old battlefield of Transloy and Lesbœufs which they fought over on the 15th and the 26th of September the year before, and through Trônes Wood, of immortal and unhappy memories, they reached at last Beaumetz close to their billets at Simencourt where, with one day’s rest, the companies were “handed over to company commanders for reorganisation, inspection, etc.”
On review the last tour (everything between rests was a “tour” in those days) had not been very glorious, but there was no denying it was very much up to Somme pattern. One came out of line and was fatted up; one was “messed about,” thrown in, used up and thrown out again, to be refatted for the next occasion with apparently small results, except, always, the saving of the situation at Gouzeaucourt. (“If that thing had happened one day later an’ the Division in rest miles back instead of being on top of it, Saints know the whole line might have gone.”) Otherwise the Somme seemed as large, as sticky, and as well-populated with aggressive enemies as ever before. The bodies and the uniforms of the dead of past years had withered down somewhat on the clawed and raked fields; but to the mere soldier’s eye, uninfluenced by statements of the Press, there was no reason under the grey heavens why their past performances should not be repeated, as part of the natural order of things for ever and ever. Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees.
There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.
That autumn Russia deliquesced and began to pass out of civilisation, and the armed strength of Germany on that front was freed to return and rearrange itself on the western border, ready for the fourth spring of the War. We are told with emphasis that that return-wave was foreseen, and to some extent provided for, by increasing the line for which our armies were responsible, and by reorganising those armies so that divisions stood on a ten-battalion as against a thirteen-battalion basis.2 We may once more quote Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches on this head. “An unfamiliar grouping of units was introduced thereby, necessitating new methods of tactical handling of the troops and the discarding of old methods to which subordinate commanders had been accustomed.” But the change was well supported in the home Press.
Meantime, as far as possible, the war stood still on both sides. The Battalion was encouraged to put on fat and to practise cleanliness, kit inspections, and interregimental and company football matches till the end of the year. During the month of December, at Simencourt, Captain the Hon. H. B. O’Brien arrived and took over No. 1 Company; Lieutenant B. Levy, M.C., joined from the 4th Army School, and 2nd Lieutenants J. C. Maher and T. Mathew also joined. The Christmas dinners were good and solid affairs of pork, plum-pudding, plum-dough (a filling and concrete-like dish), three bottles of Bass per throat and a litre of beer, plus cigars and tobacco. The C.O. had gone into Amiens to make sure of it and of the Headquarters’ Christmas trees which, next day, were relighted and redecorated with small gifts and sweets for the benefit of the village children.
A moral victory over Eton crowned the year. The officers of the 2nd Battalion played the officers of the 1st Coldstream at Eton football at Wanquetin. They lost by a goal to two goals and a rouge, but their consolation was that their C.O., an Harrovian, scored their goal and that half the Coldstream’s goals were got by Harrow. It was a small thing but it made them very happy in their little idleness after “Bloody Bourlon.”
1. In those peaceful days when the Division was “fattening” for the fight, Greer had kept a sympathetic eye on Sassoon, who had gone down very sick some time before Greer came to command the 2nd Battalion, and was convalescing in the Entrenching Battalion where his heart was not. Greer, who had a keen eye for good officers, said of him: “He writes me pitiful letters protesting that he is now completely fit, and asking that he should be allowed to come up to this Battalion. . . . He is a stouthearted savage, and a life-sentence with the Entrenching Battalion would certainly be an awful prospect.” So Sassoon was rescued, and Greer’s faith in his “stout-hearted savage” abundantly justified. [back]
2. On this basis, as is noted in the history of the 1st Battalion, a Fourth Brigade of the Guards Division was created by the lopped-off battalions: viz., the 4th Grenadiers, 3rd Coldstream, and 2nd Irish Guards, which as a brigade was attached to the thirty-first Division, Thirteenth Corps (Major-General Sir Charles Fergusson). [back]