T.E. Sandall, History of the 5th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment (1922)

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Early Days in France

At 11 p.m. on Friday, February 26th, 1915, the Battalion paraded for the last time in England, and marched to Bishop's Stortford station where they entrained for Southampton on their way to the Front. The departure from Stansted of the Battalion headed by the band, which had been selected to accompany the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade as the Brigade band, was witnessed, despite the late hour, by large numbers of the inhabitants, and was a scene of great enthusiasm. All ranks were in the highest spirits, confident in themselves, eager to prove themselves in the Field, proud to belong to the first Territorial Division to proceed as such, to France. The three miles march to Bishop's Stortford completed, the Battalion entrained without a hitch, arriving at Southampton Docks at 7 a.m. on February 27th. The Transport and 200 men proceeded to a Rest Camp, while the remainder waited in the Docks till 3 p.m., when they embarked on the S.S. Empress Queen, with various other details, and left the Harbour at 10 p.m. for Havre. The passage was uneventful and fairly smooth and was completed at 4 a.m. on the 28th, but many of the men had never been at sea before and a considerable number fell victims to sea-sickness. At 8 a.m. disembarkation began, under the superintendence of Major E. Sleight, who had proceeded to Havre some days previously to act as Assistant Military Landing Officer to the Division. A march of four [p20] miles to the Rest Camp, on the heights between Havre and Harfleur, overlooking the estuary of the Seine followed, and the Battalion found themselves under canvas for the first time since mobilization. The contrast between tents on the wind-swept heights of Normandy in bitterly cold weather in February and the training camp under a hot July sun on the Yorkshire coast at Bridlington can better be imagined than described. Under these conditions the Battalion proceeded to make themselves as comfortable as circumstances permitted to await the arrival of the Transport and the detachment left at Southampton, and for several days they waited in vain. A route march of six miles was undertaken daily to keep the men fit and a certain amount of instruction given by means of lectures; goat-skin trench-coats were issued to the great delight of the recipients, the more welcome as the ground was covered with snow, which remained, where not churned up into mud, until our departure. On March 2nd two Platoons were detailed as an advanced-party and left by train for their destination, and at length on the 4th the anxiously-awaited Transport arrived, and the Battalion left the Rest Camp at 9 p.m. to join them at the Gare de Merchandise at Havre. The first entrainment with French rolling stock was rather a slow performance, owing to inexperience, but was completed in good time for the departure of the train at 2.15 a.m. on March 5th. The long railway journey at the pace of a French train in war time was a novel experience. Monterolier-Buchy, where boiling water was ready to make tea, was reached at 7 a.m. and Abbeville at 2.30 p.m. with many wayside halts, passing Boulogne and Calais: St. Omer, then the Headquarters of the British Army, was reached at 8.30 p.m. and our final destination, Arneke, [p21] near Haazebrouk, which had only been notified at St. Omer, at 11 p.m. The Battalion was to experience many such journeys in the future, but this first slow progress towards the Front in the unfamiliar French "wagons", each carrying 40 men, made an indelible impression on the minds of those who made it.

The Battalion detrained most satisfactorily by the unaccustomed light of flares, found temporary billets near the station for the night, and marched at 9 a.m. next morning to Zermazeele and Weimar's Cappel, where they remained in scattered billets for the next three days, the time being occupied in Platoon training, while the Signal Section distinguished themselves by their first effort at communication in the Field, running up temporary but efficient telephone communication between Battalion Headquarters at Weimar's Cappel Chateau and the various Company Headquarters in the villages. The other Battalions of the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade were billeted in the neighbouring villages, and on March 9th the Brigade concentrated, and marched through Cassel, passing the Headquarters of the French Army under General Foch, the band playing and the usual compliments being paid; then on through Caestre, where they were inspected on the march by General Smith-Dorien, under whose command the North Midland Division was then placed, to Strazeele near Bailleul, where good billets were found.

At Strazeele, the Battalion remained for two days, under orders to be ready to march at short notice. Excitement ran high as the Division was known to be detailed as Army Reserve during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, from which so much was expected; visions presented themselves of the Battalion coming into action for the first time in "open warfare" [p22] instead of in trenches, as a consequence of the hoped for break through in the German line. All ranks were directed to remain near their billets, but horses must be exercised, and by an evil chance the orders to move at 11.45 a.m. was received at 10.55 a.m., when all the Transport animals were out at exercise. As a consequence the fulfilment of the order was impossible and it was not until 1.40 p.m. that the Brigade was formed up to march to Sailly-sur-Lys, the displeasure of the Divisional Commander at the delay descending with the added wrath of the Brigade Commander, on the unfortunate C.O. of the Battalion. The march, during which continuous heavy gun-fire was heard, was very trying and tedious, with many halts, and the Battalion at length arrived at Sailly at 8.45 p.m., the supply waggons not appearing till 10.30 p.m., to find very limited billeting accomodation, and the only shelter available for some 250 men was beneath the transport vehicles, which were parked in the streets.

During March 12th and 13th, the Battalion remained at Sailly under orders to be ready to move at a moment's notice, billets being gradually found for everyone, but the hope of coming into action, slowly faded as the days passed and on the 14th and 15th the orders were varied, viz., to be ready to move at two hours' notice, and a certain amount of Platoon training was carried out to occupy the time. At length it was realised, although a part of the Divisional Artillery came into action, that the Infantry would not have the opportunity of taking part in the battle of Neuve-Chappelle, and on the 16th, the Brigade was ordered to move back, the Battalion retiring to very scattered and crowded billets near Trou Bayard, our right to occupy some of them causing a somewhat heated dispute, finally terminated in our favour, with some detachments [p23] of the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, who had also arrived to billet in the same area. After two days, during which only Platoon training could be carried out, the Battalion moved to Steenwercke, about three miles south of Bailleul, and settled down into comfortable billets, and for the next week the time was occupied by route marches, Company training, Platoon training, instruction in trench construction, and the usual interior economy and routine of a Battalion behind the lines in the early days before the era of laundries and divisional baths. The billets at Steenwercke were more or less typical of those occupied in Northern France on many subsequent occasions; they have often been described but in order to appreciate the surroundings of the Battalion when not in the front line, it must be remembered that the men of a Company were usually billeted in the barns and out-buildings surrounding the farm house in which the Company Officers could find accommodation, the centre of the yard being invariably occupied by a gigantic manure heap, to the great discomfiture of the British Sanitary Service, who entirely failed, then and afterwards, to convince the inhabitants that this was detrimental to health, even though the sole water supply was obtained from a well in a corner within a few feet of the oderiferous mound. In the early days straw was usually easily obtained on payment and the Officers generally provided it for their men. For bathing large tubs could usually be borrowed; when these were not available a large hole was dug in a neighbouring field, lined with a tarpaulin sheet from a transport waggon and a very useful, if primitive, bath provided: hot water was obtained from the Battalion cookers. Clothes were washed as and when opportunity offered and dried on the grass or hedge rows. Battalion Headquarters were [p24] generally in a similar farm or house in the village, while the Transport was parked and horses picketed on the nearest suitable ground.

During the next fortnight, the Division was sent up to the Line in relays of Battalions for instruction in trench duties. The turn of the 5th Lincolnshire arrived on March 26th, when the Battalion moved to Oosthoove Farm, a large pile of buildings near Ploegsteert, known to the Army as Plug Street, which accommodated the whole Battalion while attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade, then holding the line in this sector. One Company proceeded to trenches each night for attachment to a Company of the 2nd East Lancashire Regiment who occupied a line on the edge of Ploegsteert Wood, being relieved by another Company after 24 hours' duty. During this preliminary tour, when much valuable experience was gained, the first casualties were suffered, one N.C.O. being killed and three men wounded. On March 31st the Battalion returned to their former billets at Steenwercke, where the next few days were spent, during which instruction was given in bombs and bomb-throwing, then a complete novelty. The conversion of the Machine Guns for Mark vii. ammunition had been found very defective during the tour in the Ploegsteert sector, and the necessary alterations and repairs to make the guns serviceable were carried out by the O.C. of a convenient Ordnance Depôt. It is interesting to record that the 2nd Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment was at the same time billeted at Bac St. Maur, three miles away, when out of trenches, the C.O. being Major S. F. Cox, a former Adjutant of the 3rd Volunteer Battalion, so on the afternoon of April 1st the band was sent over to play for the 2nd Battalion who heard to their great delight the strains of the Lincolnshire Poacher for the first time [p25] since their landing in France, bands for regular units not being sanctioned at this time.

The time had now come for the North Midland Division to take its place in the line, and on April 5th, the Battalion left Steenwercke for Bailleul, where it billeted for the night, marching next morning to Dranoutre near Kemmel, where billets were occupied preparatory to taking over a line of trenches on the 8th. During these three days the Officers were sent up to make themselves acquainted with the trenches to be held, and on the evening of April 8th, the Battalion relieved the 4th Leicestershire Regiment who had taken over the trenches four days previously. The relief, owing to the inexperience of both Battalions, was a lengthy proceeding, and was not completed until nearly 3 a.m., when the Battalion realised the first of its ambitions and took its place as a responsible unit holding a sector of the line.

The position held was an unfavourable one, facing the Messines-Wychaete Ridge, the German trenches being on higher ground, and to a great extent commanding a view over our own. The "trenches" here were really breastworks only, built of sandbags with very little depth of excavated trench—sometimes with none. The one communication trench was shallow, practically undrained, very wet and only used by day, as by night ration parties and reliefs preferred to move direct to the front line over the open to struggling along a communication trench knee-deep in mud and water. The first casualty to an officer occurred from this cause, when Captain J. H. Hadfield was wounded seriously on April 19th by a stray bullet when leaving the trenches after relief. The trenches were an irregular line roughly 200 yards from the enemy's, but two trenches, E 1 Right and E 1 Left, were really isolated posts [p26] pushed forward close to the German Line, E 1 Left only 25 yards from the enemy parapet, with no communication trench, so that it could only be reached by night across the open, but this was remedied by the construction of a communication trench within a few weeks. An intermittent line of support trenches existed but these were shallow and neglected, with no communication trenches to the front line, and therefore useless, and unoccupied. The only real defensive positions behind the front line were two strong points, which were garrisoned by half a Company. The Battalion was distributed with two Companies holding the front line and strong points immediately in rear, while two Companies were held in support in dug-outs about a mile behind, close to Battalion Headquarters at One-Tree Farm. The tour in trenches was four days, the Battalion and the 4th Leicester Regiment relieving each other alternately, returning to rest in the same billets in Dranoutre. During the tours in trenches we worked very hard to improve the position, draining the trenches, making the communication trenches passable, strengthening parapets, constructing loop-holes and firing positions, and building bomb-proof shelters; deep dug-outs were unknown in the Spring of 1915.

In order to strengthen the defence, after the first tour in the trenches it was arranged that all the machine guns of both Battalions should remain in position in the trenches, and be manned in turn by detachments of machine gunners of the Battalion in the line.

This routine continued until May 2nd, when a slight change was made in the distribution of the trenches allotted to the Division and the Battalion "side-slipped" to the left, Battalion Headquarters being moved to Lindenhoek Chateau about a mile [p27] north of their former position. On next relieving the 4th Leicestershire Regiment on May 10th a further change was made in distribution, one of the support Companies being moved forward to the newly constructed "Regent Street" dug-outs under cover of a ridge about 800 yards behind the front line.

An important change in the nomenclature of the Division and Brigade took effect on May 12th, when the titles of the North Midland Division and Lincoln and Leicester Brigade were officially discarded and those of the 46th Division and the 138th Brigade adopted in their place. At the same time the official designation of the Battalion became the 1/5th Lincolnshire, the Reserve Battalion in England being henceforth designated the 2/5th Battalion, and the Reserve Division being known as the 59th Division.

Casualties fortunately were few during the early days in the trenches, but on May 13th Lieut. H. Sheel was severely wounded while out on patrol. Up to May 20th, no event of particular importance occurred to break the monotony of the usual trench warfare except that on May 10th just as the Battalion reached Trench Headquarters, at One Tree Farm for the usual relief of the 4th Leicestershire Regiment, a message was received that Trench E 1 Left had been attacked and occupied by the enemy. The Battalion immediately advanced in two lines of Companies in the darkness across the open to support the Leicesters, but before the trench line was reached, information was received that E 1 Left, which had been rushed by an enemy bombing party, had been reoccupied without assistance; the relief was then completed in the usual way. The sector held at this period was a very quiet one, shells were comparatively rare visitors, practically [p28] all casualties being from rifle or machine gun fire. For some time, however, suspicious sounds had been heard underground near Trench E 1 Left, garrisoned by a platoon under an officer, and it was realised that the Germans were mining in this direction and that the position was dangerous. On May 20th at 3 p.m. the mine was exploded under the parapet of the trench, which was practically destroyed, many of the garrison being buried and the remainder being killed or wounded. The C.O., Lieut.-Colonel T. E. Sandall and the 2nd-in-Command, Major H. Stephenson, had a narrow escape, being on their way to visit the trench and at the moment of the explosion were approaching in the communication trench not many yards behind. The enemy made no attempt to attack, but opened heavy fire on the position, which rendered rescue work very difficult, but this was immediately begun together with the construction of a temporary parapet under the superintendence of Lieut. Gosling, R.E., who was killed during the performance of this duty. Lieut. E. Dyson, the Officer in Command of the trench, was not rescued until 3 a.m., having been buried for twelve hours and the casualties in the garrison and rescue parties during the operation amounted to 16 killed and 24 wounded; however, during the night the trench was reconstructed and occupied as usual next day. The circumstances were reported in due course to the Divisional Commander and the following complimentary memorandum was subsequently issued from Divisional Headquarters:

Headquarters, 138TH Infantry Brigade.

The G.O.C. has read with much satisfaction the report by the O.C. 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment on the action taken when E 1 Left Trench was [p29] blown up by the enemy's mine on May 20th. The promptitude with which the O.C. gave orders to meet the situation, and the manner in which his orders were carried out by Major Stephenson and Captain Robinson reflects the greatest credit upon them. The conduct of all ranks was worthy of great praise.

The G.O.C. thanks all those concerned for the initiative and energy which they displayed on this occasion.

(Signed) Edward Allen, Lieut.-Colonel. A.A. and Q.M.G. 46th (North Midland) Division. 22/5/15.

On being relieved on May 22nd, the Battalion did not return to their old billets, but bivouacked in fields on the Eastern slopes of Kemmel Hill. Bivouac sheets, supported on wooden frames, were provided each affording shelter to eight men in the form of a tent d'abri with open ends, a wooden hut being erected to serve as an Orderly Room and Officers' Mess. During the perfect summer weather which prevailed during May and June of 1915, the bivouacs were far preferable to crowded billets, and the days spent in these bivouacs remain a very happy memory. During the next tour in the trenches, from May 26th to 29th, the 7th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade were attached for instruction to the Battalion, who were in consequence elated to consider themselves veterans, and competent to instruct a unit of the New Armies then coming out, from England. During the relief on the evening of May 30th, Lieut. O. Dixon, the Machine Gun Officer, was wounded, and the command of the Section devolved on 2nd Lieut. R. E. W. Sandall, who had been acting as Assistant Machine Gun Officer for the previous six months.

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The King's birthday on June 3rd was commemorated by a burst of rapid fire on the German line by each trench garrison at morning "stand to" but was not acknowledged by any reply. On June 6th our miners detected another German gallery being pushed out towards E 1 Left, and a counter mine was successfully prepared and the enemy gallery destroyed, our own gallery remaining intact and being maintained as a defensive measure. During the tour from June 10th to 14th, the 5th Battalion Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry were attached for instruction from the same Division as the 7th Rifle Brigade, and gave valuable help in providing working parties for improvement of the trenches.

On June 18th the Battalion relieved the 4th Leicestershire Regiment and entered on their last tour in the Kemmel sector, finally leaving it on the 21st, when they were relieved by a composite Battalion of the 50th Division, who had suffered severely during the second Battle of Ypres, the 6th and 8th Durham Light Infantry, who now took over our comparatively quiet sector opposite the Messines Ridge. During our occupation our casualties, apart from those caused by the mine explosion in E 1 Left on May 20th, were comparatively few, nearly all being bullet wounds, although Lieut. S. C. W. Disney was wounded on the 19th by a rifle grenade, a weapon just then coming into use. The line was shelled occasionally, but never severely, and then only by shrapnel or H.E. of small calibre, which did little harm. The weather was perfect and, as the ground dried, enabled the position to be greatly improved and strengthened. An immense amount of work was done in strengthening parapets; the trenches were properly drained and floored, and the two communication trenches known as Piccadilly and Regent Street, the latter [p31] being a new trench constructed by the Battalion, were made into deep and safe trenches, so that during the latter part of the time, communication with the front line was as easy by day as by night. The strong points immediately in the rear of the front line were improved and a new one constructed, and the Battalion had the satisfaction of knowing that they left the position to their successors far stronger for defence, and far more comfortable for habitation, than they found it.

The bivouacs were reached at 1.30 a.m. on June 22nd, after the relief from the trenches, and were occupied for a few hours for the last time; at reveillé they were packed and the ground cleared, and in the afternoon the Battalion was inspected by the Corps Commander, General Fergusson, who in a farewell speech regretting the departure of the 46th Division from his Corps, highly complimented the Battalion on the excellent work done in the trenches, expressed great satisfaction with the parade and his confidence that the Battalion would, when their chance came, prove themselves as good in open warfare as they had done in trenches. At 8.15 p.m. the Battalion paraded and marched to the North, through Locre and Zevecoten, bivouacking at Ouderdom at 11 p.m., but a very heavy thunder storm, which flooded the ground made rest impossible and the first night in the Ypres Salient an unpleasant memory.