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

[p83]

Trench Warfare Again

The Battalion rested on July 12th, and on the 13th marched to Saulty for inspection by Major-General W. Thwaites, the new Commander of the 46th Division, who had succeeded Major-General Stuart-Wortley, and after the inspection the O.C. Battalion had the gratification of receiving the Divisional Commander's opinion of his command, viz., "a very fine Battalion."

On July 15th the Battalion changed billets, and marched by Platoons to Pommier, the road between Bazincourt and La Cauchie being shelled at the time, but no casualties were sustained. On the 16th and 17th Company training was carried out, and the Officers visited the new trench sector N. of Monchy, which was to be taken over from the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment next day.

On the 18th the Battalion proceeded by Platoons to Berles, thence by communication trenches to the line, and relief was completed by 7.15 p.m. The new sector consisted of a line of trenches opposite and to the N. of Monchy, the distance from the enemy lines varying from 80 on the right to 300 yards on the left. Three Companies were distributed in trenches, and one Company with Battalion Headquarters in dug-outs in the Ravine at Nobody's Bottom, 800 yards in front of Berles. No special incident occurred during this tour with the exception of an enemy bombardment of the communication trenches with gas shells on the 22nd—the first [p84] occasion on which the Battalion experienced gas shells, although these had been used by the enemy at Fonquevillers on July 1st, but had not on that occasion fallen in the area we occupied. On the evening of July 24th we were relieved by 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment by 7.15 p.m., and returned by Platoons to Bienvillers, where we were billeted as Brigade Reserve, Brigade Headquarters being situated in the village. Next day the Battalion rested, while the officers inspected the Bienvillers Defences and their Alarm Posts; the area was being rather heavily shelled and the party consisting of the Battalion Headquarters Officers and Company Commanders had a very narrow escape on one occasion. During the next few days at least three Companies were detailed for working parties daily on communication trenches and dug-outs, and only the specialists were able to carry out any training, while one Company carried out musketry on a range between La Cauchie and Bailleulment.

On July 30th we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in trenches at 7.30 p.m., and were rather heavily shelled next morning, considerable material damage being done, but no casualties caused. The enemy were also very active during this and subsequent days with trench mortars, which as usual caused much destruction of trenches but very few casualties. We were relieved on the evening of August 3rd, but owing to heavy shelling of the usual communication trenches, an alternative route had to be used to reach the billets at Pommier in Divisional Reserve. Three Companies carried out training daily during the next week, the other Company being struck off duty for inoculation, and on August 9th we returned to trenches, relief being completed at 8.30 p.m. During this tour gas cylinders were installed in a large number of our [p85] front trenches to the great disgust of the garrisons, as they were a constant source of annoyance owing to leakage, and an ever-present danger in case of enemy shelling, as damage to a cylinder involved an instantaneous gas cloud in the trench, and gave the men no time to put on gas masks; naturally all ranks looked eagerly forward to the day, which was unfortunately somewhat distant, when the wind would be favourable, and the cylinders discharged to distribute the gas in the enemy trenches instead of our own. The enemy remained very quiet, and the tour passed without incident until our relief on the 15th, when the Battalion returned to Bienvillers as Brigade Reserve. The usual routine of one Company training and three Companies working on communication trenches was observed until August 21st without incident except on the 16th, when Bienvillers was rather heavily shelled with the usual retaliation by our artillery.

On the 21st we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in trenches at 7 p.m., having been joined earlier in the day by two officers, 2nd Lieutenants E. Vandyk and F. Johnson from the Reserve Battalion. Next day our front line was shelled by the enemy with heavy howitzers, and six of the cylinders of gas installed in the trenches were burst, 2nd Lieut. Coles and 14 Other Ranks being badly gassed, one dying later at Berles Dressing Station. Lance-Corporal A. Hill, who was in the next bay of the trench in which the cylinders burst, immediately realised the danger, and although severely gassed himself, remained in the trench, and rapidly warned all men in the neighbourhood to put on their gas helmets, rousing up the men asleep in the dug-outs for the same purpose. This prompt action and disregard for his personal safety undoubtedly saved several lives and prevented more numerous casualties, [p86] and he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallantry and devotion to duty. The difficulty in preventing casualties on such an occasion as this was enhanced by the fact that no alarm could be given by sound, as it was most important that the enemy should not know that gas was installed in our trenches, or that any unusual damage had been done by his bombardment.

2nd Lieut. R. Squire joined the Battalion on the 23rd, and the remainder of the tour passed quietly, work on improvement of the trenches being steadily carried on; on the 27th we were relieved, and arrived at Pommier billets at 8.30 p.m., acting as Divisional Reserve, where 2nd Lieuts. H. Street and R. M. Turner joined for duty. Company training, especially close order drill, was practised during the next three days, and on September 1st the Battalion marched to La Bazeque, and was inspected by the G.O.C. 46th Division in Ceremonial and Battalion Drill, and was congratulated by him on an excellent turn-out and march past. In the evening a boxing competition aroused great interest, and on the next evening we returned to the trenches. On the 4th the usual monotony was relieved by the unusual incident of a deserter coming over to our trenches at 8.30 p.m., a private in the 63rd Regiment of Prussian Infantry, who expressed himself as "fed up" with the war; he was brought to Battalion Headquarters and handed over in due course to the Corps Intelligence branch. The weather generally had been wet for the last few days, and much hard work was expended on draining and revetting trenches.

On the evening of the 8th, as a preparatory step for a subsequent raid, it was arranged to blow two gaps in the enemy wire. Two gas pipes 24 feet long and 1½ inches in diameter were filled with ammonal, and fitted with detonators and Nobel lighters, and [p87] were placed in position by a party of 20 specially selected men under Lieuts. Schiller and Goodall, who lighted the fuses and returned. Lieut. Goodall found that his lighter would not burn, and ordered his men to retire, while he himself struck a match in the darkness, igniting the fuse, and successfully exploding the charge. The parties got back to our trenches without casualty, and the operation was quite successful, two practicable gaps being created in the enemy wire. Meanwhile the Battalion had been relieved earlier in the evening to become Brigade Reserve at Bienvillers for the next six days.

September 11th was a holiday on the occasion of the Brigade Sports at La Bezeque Farm, which 50 per cent of the Battalion were allowed to attend. Inter-Battalion competitions were arranged for the best turn-out of a limber, a field kitchen, and a pair of pack ponies, various flat races, a mule race, and a steeplechase, but the event which caused the greatest excitement was the Inter-Battalion tug-of-war, which we won after a great struggle. A "knife and fork" tea was provided for the men, and the whole event was a great success. A pleasant day was closed by the whole Battalion carrying gas cylinders from Bienvillers up to the front line trenches, a fatigue which was repeated on the next evening.

On the 14th we returned to the trenches for a very quiet but very wet tour, during which the usual trench improvement and strengthening of our wire was carried on. On our relief on the 20th we proceeded to fresh billets at La Cauchie, the men being in very good and comfortable huts, and the officers in better billets than usual. Training was conducted on the usual lines, while A Company, who had been selected to carry out a raid in the near future, received special training for the purpose. [p88] The Corps race meeting at La Bezeque Farm on the afternoon of the 25th provided most of the officers with a pleasant afternoon's amusement, expensive or profitable as the case might be, dependent on their success or otherwise with a book-making firm, who appeared in the garb and with the paraphernalia usual on an English racecourse. It subsequently transpired that the "book-makers" were two officers of the Battalion, who received later a severe official reprimand which was greatly tempered by the smiling countenance of our Brigadier, who was directed to administer it.

On September 26th we began another tour in the trenches, which was more unpleasant than usual partly from bad weather and partly from repeated enemy bombardment with heavy shells and trench mortars. The latter was a serious matter, with the gas cylinders still installed in our front line, a number of them being damaged on the 29th causing slight gassing of two officers as well as several men. On the 30th more cylinders were damaged, but on this occasion a fairly strong wind was blowing directly from our trenches to the enemy's, and although we had no casualties, the noise of gongs and bells and a great display of fireworks from the enemy front line was evidence that they must have realised the fact that gas cylinders were in our trenches. On the night of October 1st-2nd a patrol in front of our right sector discovered a tape laid by the enemy leading from their line to a gap, which had been cut in our wire. Preparations were accordingly made to repel the expected raid, but nothing abnormal occurred. On the 2nd we were relieved by the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and returned to our former billets at Bienvillers. It was decided by the higher authorities that the projected gas attack from our trenches, delayed as it had been for [p89] weeks by unfavourable wind and weather, should be abandoned, as the enemy probably had discovered the menace, and for the next three nights carrying parties were detailed to remove the cylinders, and to the great relief of our sister Battalion, the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and ourselves, the task was completed on the night of October 4th. The former Battalion carried out a raid on the night of the 5th from our trench sector, but found the enemy trenches empty! On the 8th we again relieved them, and passed a quiet tour, although the village of Berles immediately in our rear was heavily shelled; on the 14th we were relieved and went back to Divisional Reserve at La Cauchie.

The raid to be carried out by A Company was fixed for October 18th, while the Battalion was out of trenches. The Company was carefully trained, and the exact details assiduously practised for the few days before. A description of this raid in some detail may be interesting as more or less typical of raids constantly carried out at this period by other units as well as our own.

On the afternoon of the 18th two gaps were cut in the enemy wire by artillery and trench mortar bombardment, and known enemy machine gun emplacements were also bombarded by our howitzers A feint bombardment of two other points in the enemy front line on each flank of the selected points for the raid was also arranged immediately before the hour fixed, 8.30 p.m. At 6.30 p.m. patrols, under 2nd Lieuts. Vandyk and Wellsted, went out to reconnoitre the gaps in the enemy wire, and reported both practicable, and at the same time laid tapes to them from gaps prepared in our own wire. The Company was organized into two parties, one under the Company Commander, Captain O. Dixon, for the left gap, and one under Lieut. M. Robinson [p90] for the right gap, each party being sub-divided into forcing, blocking, clearing, parapet, and flanking parties with specially selected leaders. At 8.15 the parties left our trenches, and took up their position in No Man's Land, preparatory to rushing the enemy trenches at the zero hour, 8.30, when an artillery bombardment of the enemy second line, and communication trenches, and various trench junctions was arranged, to continue for 30 minutes. The co-operation with the artillery was very good; punctually at 8.30 the artillery bombardment opened, and the parties rushed to the gaps. On the left the raiding party entered the German trench, the blocking party turned to the left and blocked the trench when they were beyond bombing distance of the point of entrance. The forcing party, moving to the right, shot the German sentry at the entrance to a dug-out, and bombed the occupants, passing along to a second dug-out, which was also bombed. Identifications of the German garrison were obtained, the chief object of the raid, showing them to be the 180th Infantry Regiment. The O.C. now received a message from his blocking party that they were being heavily bombed, and were running short of bombs, and therefore ordered his party to retire; the retirement was conducted very skilfully and the party returned to our trenches at 8.55 p.m., the only casualty being one man slightly wounded. The experience of the right party was not so successful, as, although they reached the German parapet, they found themselves unable to enter the trench, as a row of knife-rests heavily wired, and pegged to the ground, extended both ways for a considerable distance. Attempts were made for 15 minutes to remove the obstruction without success, and Lieut. Robinson, recognising that time would not permit any useful object to be attained by persisting, as the [p91] enemy started bombing heavily from their support line wounding two of our men, very wisely ordered his party to retire to our own trenches.

Captain Dixon and Lieut. Robinson deserve great credit for the careful training of their parties and good leadership; Corporal White, Lance-Corporal P. Bullock, and Private C. Boulton all did excellent work, and showed courage and dash, and the conduct of all ranks was excellent. A report of the operation was forwarded next day to Divisional Headquarters, and the G.O.C. sent us a message—"Well done 5th Lincolns"—by wire and next day inspected the raiding party and congratulated them, expressing great satisfaction with the organisation and execution of the raid.

We returned to trenches on October 20th, the tour being marked by very bad weather and increased enemy artillery and trench mortar activity, necessitating incessant work on repair of trenches, and we were pleased to be relieved on the 25th, a day before we expected, and to return to Bienvillers billets, more especially as we had been informed that the Division was to be withdrawn from the line for a rest. For the next day or two careful inspection of boots, clothing, equipment and transport were made preparatory to the move, and on the 30th we were relieved by the 19th Liverpool Regiment as Brigade Reserve, and marched to Halloy to billet for the night, a few enemy shells, to speed the parting guest, dropping into Bienvillers as we left it and wounding one man.

The prospect of a rest was very welcome; although the trench warfare for the last four months had not been especially strenuous or exciting, yet the strain on all ranks had been considerable, a good many casualties from wounds, gas poisoning, and sickness had been sustained, the weather as a whole had been [p92] very bad, necessitating very hard work on upkeep of trenches, and after six months continuous service in the line we looked forward eagerly to a short period of rest outside the shell fire zone, in more or less comfortable billets.