THE SEVENTH MANCHESTERS
July 1916 to March 1919
CAPTAIN S. J. WILSON, M.C.
With a Preface by the Hon. Anthony M. Henley, C.M.G., D.S.O. (Brigadier-General (retired), late Commanding 127th Infantry Brigade)
And an Introduction by Gerald B. Hurst, T.D., K.C., M.P. (Lieut.-Col. Commanding the 7th Bn. Manchester Regiment)
Published by the University of Manchester at The University Press (H. M. Mckechnie, Secretary) 12, Lime Grove, Oxford Road, Manchester
Longmans, Green & Co. London: 39, Paternoster Row New York: 443-449, Fourth Avenue and Thirtieth Street Chicago: Prairie Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street Bombay: 8, Hornby Road Calcutta: 6, Old Court House Street Madras: 167, Mount Road
The Seventh Manchesters
Manchester at the University Press Longmans, Green & Co. London, New York, Bombay, Etc. 1920
Preface by Brigadier-General A. M. Henley, C.M.G., D.S.O. vii
Introduction by Lieut.-Col. G. B. Hurst, K.C., M.P. xi
List of Illustrations xv
List of Sketch Maps xvi
Chapter I.—Holding up the Turk 1
" II.—Desert Life 16
" III.—For France 30
" IV.—Holding the Line 34
" V.—Belgium 47
" VI.—An Interlude 65
" VII.—Stopping the Hun 75
" VIII.—Worrying the Hun 94
" IX.—Hammering the Hun 113
" X.—Pursuing the Hun 134
" XI.—Aftermath and Home 142
Appendix I.—Honours and Awards to Members of the Battalion 144
" II.—Members of the Battalion Killed in Action, Died of Wounds, Missing, etc. 148
I first met the 7th Manchesters early in May, 1917, when they were gaining new experiences of warfare on the Western front, not far from Epehy in the north of France. They, with the rest of the 127th Infantry Brigade, and in fact the whole of the 42nd Division had already had a long war experience in Gallipoli and Egypt, but they had only recently been transferred to France. I was taking up the command of an Infantry Brigade for the first time. I did not know then what a lucky man I was, but it did not take me long to find out, and we worked together without a break from that time until the armistice.
The writer of this book passes over with considerable sang froid a certain operation which took place on a June night in 1917. If the 7th Manchesters, and not only the 7th, but the 5th, 6th and 8th as well will allow me to say so, I did not enjoy the same complete confidence as to the result before and during the night in question. The operation consisted of digging a complete new front line trench, a mile long, on the whole Brigade Sector, five hundred yards in advance of the existing front line, and half way across No Man's Land. June nights are short and it needed practically the whole brigade to get the job done in time. We had to find not only the diggers, but the covering troops and strong parties for carrying and wiring. Now four battalions digging on a bare hillside within point blank range of the enemy's rifles and machine guns are not well placed to meet attack or even to avoid fire if they are caught. So everything possible had to be done to avoid raising any suspicion of what was on foot in the minds of the watchful Germans. The troops had to work at high pressure and in absolute silence. The R.E. who were to lay the tapes were the first to go forward after the covering troops; then came the wire carriers, and, as soon as the R.E. had had time to get the tapes into position, out went the diggers, who, after reaching the line, had to be spaced out at working distances along the whole front. We who stayed behind spent some anxious hours. However complete the arrangements and however perfectly executed there was yet a chance that some enterprising and inquisitive German patrol might find out what was happening in time to give one of their local commanders an opportunity of hindering our work. We had to make such arrangements as would give the appearance that we were doing nothing unusual, that we were in fact excruciatingly normal. There must be neither more noise nor less than on an ordinary night, and so the artillery and machine guns must fire their accustomed bursts into the likely places in the German lines.
It was a great success. By dawn there was a trench, continuous at least in appearance along the whole front, at intervals there were rifle and Lewis gun posts in it; and if there were places where it was preferable to pass along in the attitude of the serpent after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden and ever since, there was nothing to show the Germans which they were. There was wire in front, and the troops got back without more casualties than averaged as a result of the ordinary nightly strafes.
Though we took on many tougher jobs later I was never again anxious as to the result.
Our great days were:—
Stopping the Germans East of BUCQUOY— March 23rd to 29th, 1918.
The advance West of MIRAUMONT— 21st August, 1918.
The Capture of MIRAUMONT and PYS— 24th August, 1918.
The Capture of VILLERS AU FLOS— 2nd September, 1918.
The Battle of the HINDENBURG LINE— 27th September, 1918.
The Battle of the SELLE RIVER— 20th October, 1918.
In every one of these the 7th Manchesters were called upon to play a part. Whether their original role in the plan of battle had been to lead the attack or to act in support they were always in the picture before the end of the fight. I am not going to pick out this or that as their finest performances. The reader can choose for himself when he has finished the book. It is enough for me to say that, whatever task was given them, they took on cheerfully and carried through magnificently. Not only that, but they were anxious to go beyond what was demanded of them, as is well shown by the fighting at La Signy Farm which they attacked and captured on their own initiative.
I can only wish them individually the same success in peace as they won as a battalion in war. I think they will have it. For it takes first-class men to make a first-class fighting unit. Perhaps many of them will join again under the old colours. I hope so, and I congratulate in advance any commander whose good luck it may be to lead them.
A. M. HENLEY, Brig. Gen. (retired) late Commanding 127th Infantry Brigade.
21st February; 1920.
Captain Wilson's book continues the story of the 7th (1st 7th) Manchesters, which is recorded in my own book "With Manchesters in the East," from July, 1916 until November, 1918. It is written with intimate knowledge and much understanding, and will be enjoyed by all his comrades. It was the good fortune of the Manchester Territorials (127th Brigade) to belong to the first Territorial Division (the 42nd), that ever left these islands for active service, and this active service eventually took place on three fronts. The 7th Battalion garrisoned the Sudan and fought through the Gallipoli campaign. It recruited its strength at Suez, and then helped to clear the Sinai Peninsula of the Turks. Finally it served for two and a half years in Flanders. It translated its motto, "We never sleep" into its daily life.
This volume will be a useful supplement to any general history of the War. It is based on the diary of a Regimental Officer, who won considerable distinction in the field, and whose eyes missed little of consequence. It is of even more value as evidence of what men of essentially civilian habits and traditions can achieve as soldiers. The numbers of the 7th Manchesters were never fully up to strength after April, 1915, and for many months at a time while in the East they fell to vanishing point. Yet from the day in September, 1914, when the original first-line Battalion sailed from Southampton for Port Sudan in the "Grantully Castle," each successive draft was of the same mould. The men came from the same neighbourhood, were of the same capacity, and had been bred with the same ideas. Their devotion was founded on a sense of duty. They were personally utterly remote from what is called militarism, and saw little fascination in its pomp. The survivors are now absorbed once more in the undramatic industry of Lancashire. There is nothing to indicate to an observer that they have ever left it. The last time you saw your tramway conductor may have been as a bomber in "the western birdcage" on Cape Helles; your fellow passenger may have last talked to you as your "runner," when you tramped along the duckboards from Windy Corner to Givenchy. What such men did for England will therefore illustrate for all time the potentialities of a Territorial Force.
Captain Wilson's style of expression and cast of thought are, in my view, true to type. He is the Lancashire man of action, who affects no literary arts. These pages are bare of heroics. There is a soldierly brevity in his account of even of the bravest exploit. There is also plenty of quiet humour. The reader will search vainly for any "villain of the piece." The "Hun" is to Captain Wilson, as to the normal British officer, just a "Boche" and no more; to the rank and file he was simply "Jerry." If you want adjectives, you will have to look for them in John Bull or listen to speeches in the House of Commons.
For all who were in authority over him, whether Corps Commanders or Divisional Generals, Brigadiers or temporary Commanding Officers, Captain Wilson has a good word. A reader unfamiliar with soldiers' psychology might deduce that all his superior officers had been invariably models of judgment and efficiency. He would possibly be quite wrong; but it is most fitting that this book should be framed on such lines, for they are the lines which our soldiers have never failed to accept. The rough is taken with the smooth. If ever there has been incompetence men have simply blamed the system and cursed the War Office. If they happened to have been five minutes in France they might have philosophically added "c'est la guerre." The actual individual responsible has not been worth worrying about. Thus even with regard to this mere side issue, the author's story reflects a cardinal attribute of the national character, and therefore in its essence conveys the truth.
In my opinion, it is not, however, the whole truth. There is no reason why England in her reconstruction should forget that want of sympathy with the Territorials, which far too often marked men, to whose hands their fortunes were from time to time entrusted. This vice should be borne in mind not because the memory is bitter; but because by remembrance we may make its repetition in later wars impossible. Territorials ought never to be ousted from the command of their own units, or to be excluded from staff appointments, merely because they are not Regulars or because they fail to comply with needlessly drastic and therefore non-essential codes of discipline. Discipline is, in fact, degraded into servitude when it becomes a mere fetish. How fallaciously it may be construed could often be seen in the tendency among powerful martinets to "drive a coach and four" through the law and procedure which regulate trials by Court Martial. The need for the "standardisation" of all infantry units in France was quite genuine; but unimaginative men in authority could make "standardisation" a burden to the spirit, and the picture of some men of this class, which is painted in A. P. Herbert's novel. The Secret Battle, is founded on the truth. We have all seen such cases. The grinding necessities of the Western front ended the joyous amateurism, which a Territorial unit was able to preserve through all its vicissitudes in Eastern warfare, but they did not require the prevailing banishment of individuality and of the exercise of intellect from Regimental life.
After landing in France the 42nd Division had to make a new reputation by rising from the ruck, and it is very notable that the personnel of the 7th Manchesters, as of the other units in the Division, although almost completely changed from the personnel of the Battalion when in Gallipoli and drawn from a later generation of recruits, achieved equal distinction and much greater technical efficiency. This fact points to the wonderful resourcefulness of the English people. Historically it shows how thoroughly our Army of 1917-18 was professionalised.
The later chapters of Captain Wilson's book detail very brilliant fighting by our men, which it would be idle and impertinent to praise. Such "crowded hours" are not, however, and never have been the most typical of a soldier's life. Infinitely more numerous were the hours of endurance and privation, which the 7th spent among the broken ravines of Gallipoli, among the dreary mud flats on either bank of the Yser, among the desolate craters in front of Cuinchy and Le Plantin. In their patience and fortitude amid these wastes lies their strongest title to the gratitude of Christendom.
Peace is already dimming men's memories of the War as effectually as the grass is covering the ruins of devastated France. The Manchester Territorial is back at his job. The broken home no longer feels the same first poignancy of grief. "Man goeth forth unto his work and unto his labour until the evening," and it is a good thing for the world that he does. Nevertheless, all men and women who cherish associations with the 7th Manchesters will, I think, read and re-read Captain Wilson's work for many years to come. From amid all the hardships and miseries of soldiering which the Englishman readily forgets, the light of self-sacrifice shines upon the human race with a never fading beauty. Herein lies the true romance of war. As the reader turns over the ensuing pages he cannot but realise something of the cumulative drudgery and hardships which these men endured for their country.
To the 7th Manchesters themselves they mean much more. The very place names of our warfare recall the memory of the comrades whom we have loved and lost, the early enthusiasms which we shall never feel again:—Khartoumn, Gallipoli, Shallufa, Suez, Ashton-in-Sinai, Coxyde, Nieuport, Aire, Bethune, Ypres, Bucquoy, Havrincourt. When we are very old, many of us will still conjure up the tune of "Keep the Home Fires Burning" on the lips of tired men beneath the stars on Geoghegan's Bluff; the thud of the shovel falling upon the sand ridges of Sinai while a blazing sun rose over Asia; the refrain of "Annie Laurie" sung by candle-light in some high roofed barn behind the lines in Belgium.
I hear them now.
GERALD B. HURST.
List of Illustrations.
PLATE I. Frontispiece Brigadier-General Anthony M. Henley.
PLATE II. facing 8 1. Group of Officers. N.B. Fleur de Lys. 2. Ridge occupied on August 5th, 1916. 3. Issue of Water: Morning of August 5th, 1916. 4. In Katia: August 6th, 1916.
PLATE III. facing 18 1. Bivouac Shelters on the Desert. 2. Making the Railway over the Desert. 3. At El Mazar. 4. Digging a Well.
List of Sketch Maps.
The Sinai Desert 21
Nieuport and Coast Sector 57
Round about Bapaume 78
Attack on the Hindenburg Line, September 27th, 1918 125
Area covered during advance of 42nd Division, 1918, facing 143
Holding up the Turk.
In September, 1914, the 7th Bn. Manchester Regiment set out for active service in the East in goodly company, for they were a part of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, the first territorials to leave these shores during the Great War. After many interesting days spent on garrison duty in the Sudan and Lower Egypt they journeyed to Gallipoli soon after the landing had been effected, and took a continuous part in that ill-fated campaign until the final evacuation. The beginning of 1916 thus found them back in Egypt, where they were taking part in General Maxwell's scheme for the defence of the Suez Canal. The things that befell the battalion during this long period have been admirably described in Major Hurst's book With Manchesters in the East, and this short history will attempt to continue the narrative from the point where it left off.
At the end of June, 1916, the 7th Manchesters made a short trip by rail along the Suez Canal, the last railway journey they were to make as a battalion for many a long day. The 42nd Division left the defence of the southern half of the Canal in the able hands of the East Anglian Territorials, and journeyed north to the Kantara region. It was not definitely known why we made this move, but there were persistent rumours that we were destined for France, where events were speeding towards a big battle. However, the 7th detrained at Kantara and there met, for the first time since Gallipoli, the 52nd (Lowland Scottish) Division. We knew very little of this coastal region of the desert. Occasional stories had floated down to us to supplement the very meagre official communiques as to events there, but it was recognised as a place where opportunities of getting in touch with our invisible enemy were rather better than in the south. So it was felt that, even if we did not go to France, life would lose a certain amount of that deadly monotony which we had experienced for six months.
It transpired that the 127th Brigade were to relieve detachments of the 11th Division, who, it was openly whispered, were definitely to sail for France to try their luck in the more vigorous scene of this great adventure. Most interesting to us was the discovery that we were to take over posts occupied by the 11th Manchesters, the first Kitchener battalion of our own regiment. Our astonishment and delight can be imagined when we saw that they wore the good old Fleur de Lys for a battalion flash on the puggarees of their helmets—just as we wore it, but yellow instead of green.
The battalion marched east along a good road recently made for military purposes, and eventually reached Hill 70, where the headquarters were established. Early next morning, garrisons marched out before the heat of the day to occupy a series of posts arranged in semi-circular formation between two inundations about three miles apart. "B" Company took over Turk Top and No. 1 Post. Capt. Smedley, Capt. Brian Norbury, 2nd-Lt. C. B. Douglas, 2nd-Lt. Pell-Ilderton being at the former, while Capt. J. R. Creagh, 2nd-Lt. Hacker, and later 2nd-Lt. Gresty took charge of the latter. "C" Company were divided between Nos. 2 and 3 posts, with Lt. Nasmith and 2nd-Lt. S. J. Wilson at No. 2, and Lt. Nidd and Lt. Marshall at No. 3. "A" Company, who were responsible for Hill 70, was commanded by Capt. Tinker assisted by 2nd-Lt's. Kay, Woodward, Wood and Wilkinson. The officers comprising headquarters were Lt.-Col. Canning, C.M.G., Capt. Cyril Norbury (second in command), Major Scott (Quartermaster), Capt. Farrow, M.C. (Medical Officer), Lt. H. C. Franklin, M.C., Adjutant and 2nd-Lt. Bateman (Signal Officer), while 2nd-Lt. J. Baker was in charge of the Lewis guns of the battalion. "D" Company were at Hill 40 in a reserve position under the command of Capt. Higham supported by Capt. Townson, 2nd-Lt's. Grey Burn, G. W. F. Franklin, Ross-Bain, Gresty, Morten, and R. J. R. Baker. The work of the transport was divided between Capt. Ward-Jones, and 2nd-Lt. M. Norbury.
The posts consisted of self-contained redoubts which were capable of holding out in the matter of food and water for about three days. They had been constructed at the cost of great labour by the 52nd Division. Routine was simple, our only duties being to man our posts before dawn, then improve and maintain the trenches and wire until about 7 when the sun entered his impossible stage. The same thing happened in the evening. During the night patrols were executed from one post to the next. All this carried a certain interest because we knew that the Turk might come near at any time in the shape of a flying raiding column to reach the canal. Rumours were frequent of his proximity, and when Turk Top one night frantically reported mysterious green lights, out towards the enemy, serious preparations were made for his reception. The climax came, however, about noon one day at Hill 70 when those who were not asleep heard, with a mixed feeling of old familiarity, "s-s-s-sh-sh-SH—flop." Most of us, after cringing in the usual manner, said, with a relieved air, "Dud." Then followed commotion. They had arrived and were shelling the post. The shimmering desert was eagerly scanned by the officers' field glasses, and all kinds of things were seen and not seen. Meanwhile someone went to look at the "Dud," and found not a shell but a large stone, still quite hot. It finally dawned upon everyone that we were bombarded from the heavens, and not by the Turk. It was a meteorite, still preserved amongst the battalion's war souvenirs, which had upset our composure.
Whilst on duty at these posts we had a visit from the Marquis of Tullibardine, now Duke of Atholl, of the Scottish Horse, who was responsible for this section of the Canal defences. Lieut.-Gen. Lawrence, afterwards Chief of Staff in France, who was in command of the northern section of the Canal defences also paid a visit, and remembered us as part of the brigade which he had commanded on Gallipoli. Important changes took place in the battalion at this time. Lt.-Col. Canning, C.M.G., relinquished the command, and returned home for duty in the Cork district. His departure was sorely regretted by all ranks, for during the twelve months he had been with the 7th, his capabilities as a commander had only been surpassed by his solicitude for the men's welfare, so that he had made his way into our hearts as a popular soldier. Major Cronshaw of the 5th Manchesters succeeded him and was soon afterwards made Lt.-Colonel. Captain Farrow, M.C., R.A.M.C., was also invalided home, after having had almost unbroken active service with the battalion since September, 1914.
About the middle of July a fairly large column of Turks began to make their way across the desert from El Arish, intending to strike once more for the possession of the Suez Canal. They moved with surprising rapidity and wonderful concealment, and some excitement was caused when a large enemy force was located by air reconnaissance, so near as Oghratina Hod, within five miles of Romani, then held by the 52nd Division. A battle seemed imminent, and this at the worst possible time in the Egyptian year. A Brigade of the 53rd Division, consisting of Royal Welsh Fusiliers and Herefords, spent a night at Hill 70 on their way to occupy a defensive line between Romani and Mahamadiyeh on the coast. There was an obvious increase in aerial activity on both sides, and camel and other traffic on the Romani road became more feverish.
On July 23rd, the 7th Lancashire Fusiliers relieved the battalion in all the posts and we marched back to Hill 40, where we found the whole brigade was concentrating. There was much to be done in equipping the men, and teaching them the correct method of carrying their belongings on "Mobile Column," for that was what we were destined to become. The equipment was worn in the usual "fighting kit" manner, with the haversack on the back and under the haversack the drill tunic, folded in four. This also served as a pad to protect the spine from the sun. Near Hill 40 there was a large patch of hard sand which the Scottish Horse, who were in the neighbourhood, had converted into a football pitch. Small wonder then that we challenged the owners to a game, and a great game it was. The Scotsmen had an unbeaten record in Egypt, which they maintained, but only after a ding-dong game which the battalion never forgot.
The next day the Brigade marched forward and made camp at Gilban, about 3-1/2 miles N.E. of Hill 70. An indefinite stay was to be made here, and defensive precautions were taken, a ring of posts being placed all round the camp. It was soon found that the principal difficulty was that of patrolling by night from post to post. On a desert such as this there were no landmarks of any sort, and as a belt of wire such as we had been used to at Hill 70 had not been placed between the posts it was by no means easy to preserve the right direction. As we had reached a scrub-covered desert, however, this difficulty was easily overcome by making a sort of track from one post to the next by clearing away the scrub, and using this to make a clear edge to the track. The battalion was augmented about this time by drafts from home, and the following officers rejoined after having been invalided to England in 1915: Lt. Douglas Norbury, 2nd-Lt. Bryan and 2nd-Lt. L. G. Harris, while a week previous Major Allan had been posted to us from the 8th Manchesters as second in command.
In the army coming events often cast their shadow before them; and this shadow frequently takes the form of a visit by the Higher Command to the troops who are to go into action. Hence, when the Divisional Commander, Major-General Sir W. Douglas, had the 127th Brigade paraded for him at Gilban, and when he complimented Brigadier-General Ormsby upon the fine turn out, we gathered that our long period of waiting for the Turk was over. He told us to husband our water, and these words I am sure rang through many an officer's head in the following days. The 42nd Division, he said, were expected to make a great coup, and many prisoners were to be taken. Two days later the preliminary rumbles of the Battle of Romani were heard, for the Turk had commenced an artillery and bombing attack upon the garrisons there.
ROMANI AND KATIA.
The Turkish force, estimated at about 16,000, and much better equipped than the flying column which had made the first attempt to cross the canal in March the previous year, had been promised that they should overwhelm the "small" British garrisons before the Feast of Ramadan. They would then meet with no resistance and would enter victoriously into Egypt, a sort of promised land after their hardships across the desert. Many of them did enter Egypt and reached Cairo, but not in the way they wished. They were marched through the city as prisoners, and their presence as such undoubtedly created a profound impression upon disloyal Egyptians.
Inspired by a number of German officers, however, they fought well and vigorously in the early stages of the attack upon Romani. They had been told that once they got on the hills in the neighbourhood of the British positions they would see the Suez Canal stretched out below them, and this probably urged them on to make almost superhuman efforts. In front of Romani, in the region of the Katia oasis, mobile outposts furnished by the Australian Light Horse were driven in after hard fighting, and they fell back to other positions on the high sand hills to the south of Romani, covering the right flank of the 52nd Division. Meanwhile a frontal attack was delivered upon the redoubts occupied by the latter, and the enemy made many brave attempts to reach the summit of Katib Gannit, a high hill, in shape similar to the Matterhorn, which dominated the whole desert. He gained a footing nowhere, however, and exposed to merciless rifle and machine gun fire from the Scotsmen, suffered heavy casualties. A similar reception was afforded him by the Welshmen of 158th Brigade further north towards Mahamadiyeh.
It was apparent, however, that the enemy's intention was to force his way around the southern side and cut the railway and water pipe near Pelusium behind Romani, and in this part of the battle the Australian and New Zealand Light Horse, who had had to discard their horses and fight as infantry, found it difficult to hold their own against repeated assaults. More terrible than the Turk was the heat and the lack of water.
Such is a rough outline of the situation when the 7th Manchesters along with the remainder of the 127th Brigade were suddenly ordered to concentrate at Pelusium. The morning of August 4th opened quietly for us, although gunfire could be heard, and bursting shrapnel could be seen in the direction of Duedar. We had settled down to ordinary routine, one company setting out for a short march, and others preparing for kit inspections and other camp duties, when suddenly, "B" Company received orders to fall in and move off, and in a short space of time they were entrained during the heat of the day for Pelusium. Before noon the whole battalion was collected on what was supposed to be a bivouac area at the new destination. But we had seen General Douglas going along the train at Gilban and he said: "Well, good luck lads, make a good bag," so we were not surprised when we found that settling down for bivouac was not to be our fate.
The 5th Manchesters had arrived with us, and the 8th were following on, while the 6th were already here, having been sent up the previous day. Our task was to go to the assistance of the Colonials and attack the Turk on the flank along with the 5th, the 6th and 8th being in support and reserve. We marched out about 4 o'clock, moving first south and then south-east. Meanwhile the battle was obviously increasing in intensity, and when we halted previous to extending, we could see the Turk shrapnel severely peppering a high ridge in front where a detachment of the Australian Light Horse, having resumed their horses, were gradually massing for a charge.
With the 5th on our right we extended into lines about 2,000 yards from what appeared to be the Turkish position on a ridge to our front. As we swept into view the enemy opened fire at long range, but very soon it was evident that they had no stomach left for a further fight. They were extremely exhausted with their exertions of the previous days, particularly of the past twenty-four hours, and the sight of lines of fresh British Infantry moving steadily toward them was more than their jaded bodies and nerves could stand. As our men climbed the enemy's ridge white flags began to appear. They were the long white sandbags carried by every Turk, and very convenient for their purpose. Large bodies surrendered and they were collected and sent to the rear. Meanwhile the Colonials had swept round the hill away to the right, and in a comparatively short space of time about six hundred Turks were seen being marched back by a few Australian troopers. The enemy's artillery had ceased fire and were obviously making attempts to escape eastwards, so with the exception of a few rifle shots from the direction of the 5th the battle in our sector was over for the day.
This was the death blow to Turkey's and Germany's hopes of ever getting within striking distance of the Suez Canal, and a vindication of Kitchener's principle that British soldiers should get out on the desert to defend the canal, and not allow the canal to defend them. But more important still, it was the beginning of that forward move so slow and weary in its early stages, which later developed into General Allenby's wonderful sweep through Palestine.
Before nightfall "C" and "D" Companies established themselves in support to the 5th Manchesters, who had now joined up with the Australians on the left, but there was very little possibility of the Turk attacking again that day, so all the troops were rested, in preparation for a strenuous attack on the morrow. Sentry groups were posted, and the battalion sat down and made a scanty meal of bread accompanied where possible with a mouthful of water. This was the first meal most men had had since breakfast. Numbers of prisoners came in during the night, each of them carrying a full water bottle. The Turk knew how to preserve a water supply, and what was of greater interest to us, he knew where to get it. It speaks well, however, for the chivalry of the British soldier that none deprived their prisoners of their water, although they were probably almost without themselves. This sporting attitude towards the enemy, the spirit of "play the game" whether fighting the clean Turk or the not so reputable German, I never failed to observe throughout the war.
Stand to at 3.30 the following morning indicated that work was still to be done, for in the half light, troops of Light Horse could be seen collecting behind a hill preparatory to a sweep forward. When they emerged in the increasing light, the enemy could be seen fleeing from a trench about 1,200 yards away. Very soon word came through that we were to go in pursuit, and while we were exercised in mind as to what we should do for water, we were greatly relieved when we were ordered back to the ridge to fill our bottles. There the welcome sight of camels loaded with water fantassies met our eyes and the men eagerly assisted in the work of distribution. Three-quarters of a bottle and a "buckshee" drink was the ration, and this obtained, men felt more fit for their labours. Food, however, there was none, and we had to be content with what remained of yesterday's rations. But it was felt that food was not so important if only the water would not fail.
By seven o'clock the whole Brigade were on the move, and in tropical countries in the hot season, the sun's heat is considerable at this time. After we had travelled some distance the hardship of desert marching under these conditions began to really hit us, and undoubtedly the exertions of the previous day were having their effect. Every moment the heat increased, the sand seemed to become softer and softer, and the whole ground sloped gradually upwards. Men dropped and officers had to use all the powers they possessed to get them on, but many had to be left behind to struggle along afterwards in their own time. Meanwhile another long column of prisoners could be seen streaming away towards Romani, which we were now leaving well to our left rear. The battalion proceeded over the desert in this manner in artillery formation with platoons as units, and halting as frequently as possible. After a great physical effort we reached the base of a hill with a steep soft slope, and a sort of knife-edge ridge at the top, where an Australian outpost had been surrounded a few days before. Australian and Turkish dead still lay as evidence of the fight, and the stench from their bodies produced by the sweltering heat did not diminish the grimness of the scene.
This ridge was the battalion's position for the day, so after a short rest we scrambled to the top and surveyed the desert on the other side, lying thoroughly exhausted under the almost vertical rays of the sun, for it was now mid-day. The other side of the hill was exceptionally steep and dropped into a large hod (plantation of date palms), the first we had met on our desert travels. In this there appeared to be a well, and the temptation to go down for water was great, but how could one struggle up again? An occasional trooper visited this place but none could persuade their horses to drink, which seemed to indicate that the water was not good. Out over the desert the cavalry could still be seen pursuing the enemy, and our guns were occasionally flinging shrapnel amongst them.
Strange sights were seen. A captured convoy of Turkish camel transport was captured, and they presented a very motley appearance. They were evidently collected from the desert lands of the Turkish Empire. They had come to the war dressed as for their more peaceful habits, so that no two men were alike. Several wore brilliantly coloured garments and head gear. Occasionally a German officer would be seen amongst the batch of weary prisoners. The navy's assistance in this fighting was marked by a monitor, miles away, standing as close to the shore as possible, although to us she appeared like a tiny toy ship. Suddenly a big flash belched forth, followed a long time afterwards by a roar, which in turn was followed by a terrific explosion over the desert to the right where the shell had arrived in the wake of the retreating Turks. One of these shots at least had been an O.K. as we afterwards discovered, for it had destroyed a large part of a Turkish camel convoy. At four in the afternoon the battalion received orders to move on and occupy another ridge about one and a half miles in front, and "A" Company immediately set out, moving round the shoulder of our present hill. "C" Company dropped down the steep slope and waited in the hod for further instructions. They found there a batch of wounded Turks waiting to be carried off by the ambulance. It was with some astonishment that they heard Major Allan shouting to them from above to get back to their former position, so they struggled up the hill again with a very ill grace. However, plans had been changed and it transpired that the Lancashire Fusiliers had arrived and they were to take over our position while we went back a few yards to bivouac for the night.
It was now much cooler and men felt disposed to eat their very scanty meal. Those who had water were fortunate. Just as we were settling down for the night word came through that Katia was to be taken next day, and that we should move out at four in the morning. The enemy were believed to be holding the oasis basin fairly strongly. In our extraordinarily tired condition, brought about by strenuous exertions and lack of nourishment, we did not view the prospect with too much confidence, but hoping that a few hours' sleep might refresh us we rolled into the shallow scoops we had made in the sand, and lay down to a rather chilly night, our only extra cover being the khaki drill tunic whose weight we had roundly cursed during the day.
At 3 a.m. we prepared to move. In the dim light the eternally-blessed water camels could be seen wending their way towards our bivouac. As before there was abundance of volunteers for this vital fatigue, but most hearts drooped when it was found that the ration worked out to a pint per man! Officers and N.C.O's. sadly but vigorously emphasised the extreme urgency of preserving the water supply. Some resorted to drastic action and insisted that no man should drink at all without first obtaining permission of his officer, and on the day's business I am inclined to think that these officers obtained the best results. The Brigadier came to tell us we had done magnificently, but he said we should have a worse day to-day; water was to be had at Katia—when we got there. The men were also warned that it would probably be of little use to drop out, in fact it might be extremely dangerous, for the chances of being picked up were rather slight.
The cheery soul of the British Tommy, however, is proof against all things, and he started out on this day's trip in the same spirit with which he tackled all jobs during the war: "It has to be done, so do your best and put the best face on it." The Fleur de Lys led out the Brigade and trudged steadily through the soft sand in artillery formation. The 6th gradually got up into a position on our right, while the 5th and 8th followed in support. The march forward proceeded monotonously in the increasing heat, the men becoming more and more taciturn as the sun's power gathered. Allowance of course had to be made for the weariness of the men and the heavy going. Then a halt was called and we waited for an hour. It appeared that the L.F's., who formed the left of the 42nd Divisional front, had been rather late in starting, and it was necessary to wait for them. Then the forward movement commenced again, and after some time another long halt was necessary. Our men were now in a great hollow in the sand in which there was not a breath of wind, and the sun now at the height of its fury beat down mercilessly.
There is little doubt that this lying unprotected in the heat simply sapped our energy, and everyone wished that we could have pushed on ahead. General Douglas came to cheer the men up, and announced that over 3,000 Turkish prisoners and a large quantity of material had been captured to date. For the moment, however, men had lost their grip of interest in such matters, and were chiefly concerned with their own personal affairs. They behaved splendidly and with great physical effort resisted the need to drink. Officers were grateful to one or two men in their platoons who proved a moral support to their comrades by keeping a cheerful countenance, interposing a ribald remark when things looked black, and explaining to their weakest pals the rigours of the necessity in a rougher but more intelligible manner than their leaders could have done. Such men are invaluable and are always to be found on these occasions.
Reconnoitring patrols of Australian Light Horse and Yeomanry passed through, and from remarks dropped by returning troopers it soon became apparent that little if any resistance would be met with. A detachment of Ayrshire and Inverness Horse Artillery were keeping pace with our column and occasionally they opened fire, obviously upon fleeting targets of retreating Turks. A thick wood of date palms in the distance indicated Katia, and all men gazed upon this as the Mecca in which water was to be found. Some eight hundred yards from this, however, was another hod which had to be traversed by the 127th Brigade, and as we were leading, it devolved upon us to make quite sure that it was not occupied. The 6th and 7th therefore extended and assumed attack formation to pass through the hod. This was a difficult moment and tested the fibre of men and the battalion as a whole to the utmost. The extra physical exertion and the loss of companionship which one gets in the close formation served almost as a breaking point to endurance. Perhaps the best summary of the psychology of this period is found in the words from the diary of one of the officers:—
"Then it was that my energy gave out. I moved about along the line shouting at the men to preserve their dressing and correct intervals. Much had to be done. We inclined first to the left and then to the right and it was very trying. Men began to drop and I could not help them now that I had lost touch with them. Then I began to lose all interest. I had become purely self-centred—if the whole platoon had collapsed I am afraid I should not have been concerned. I had almost got to such a state that if the Turks had suddenly appeared from the wood I should not have cared what the consequences were. Yet I was determined not to touch water for I recognised that that was required for the last extremity. My head dropped and my knees would not straighten. The load on my shoulders was ten times its weight. The haversack and tunic on my back seemed to pull me down, but the greatest weight was an extra haversack which I had attached to my equipment on the left. It contained all manner of necessaries and comforts, and ties with home. I was determined not to part with it, although I confess I was almost impelled to fling it away. In other words I think I had got to the limit of my endurance, when a halt was called in the hod. I dropped under a palm tree with a group of men, slipped off my load, and then lay quite still for a long time. After a while I had my first drink of water for that day. We stayed there some time, and one or two of the men had found a well. But it was brackish and the men should not have touched it, for it made them worse. Several were knocked out altogether by it."
Word had come through that Katia was unoccupied by the enemy, and although it required a tremendous effort the battalion got together and proceeded to the final destination in column of route. Although not much over half a mile those last yards seemed interminable, but in course of time we were all settled in the cool shade of the hod and were speculating about water; a problem which seemed to be solved by the arrival of the camels. When it was found that no fantassie was full and many were empty it required the utmost exertion of a British soldier's good temper to prevent him from killing some of the Gyppies who had accompanied them, for it was obvious that they had been selling water to men who had dropped out of the column. Then we reflected that these poor devils needed it badly, so it was hard to apportion the blame. We wondered, nevertheless, why other camels had been detailed to carry on an occasion like this, flour, fresh meat (once fresh but now unfit for consumption) and candles, when they might have been better employed carrying water! Still, we were thankful to have achieved our task and although we had lost more than seventy men en route, we were proud to know that we had arrived the strongest battalion, some having left more than half their effectives on the desert.
The day's work was complete when the battalion had formed an outpost line well in front of the wood, and had dug short section trenches. Through the night desultory rifle fire could be heard in front where the mounted troops were still in touch with the retiring enemy. Next day a serious conflict took place between the cavalry and the Turkish rearguard at Oghratina, and rumours were prevalent that we had to continue the forward movement. We were not sorry, however, when it was found that we were to remain in Katia. During the succeeding days hostile aircraft were very busy, and dropped several bombs in the vicinity of the wood, the 52nd Division, who were north of us, suffering more severely than ourselves.
Those not on outpost duty took advantage of the rest and made themselves as comfortable as possible. Stakes sent up by the R.E. were used for constructing bivouacs, but perhaps the palm trees provided as much assistance as anything else. Although we had not yet learnt to use the word "camouflage" we knew its meaning, and whenever we settled down on the desert we put it into use as a protection against inquisitive aircraft. At Katia the palm trees gave us all the protection we required in this way.
On August 14th the 42nd Division moved back to Romani, a further advance across the Sinai Desert being deemed inadvisable until the railway and water pipe, which stopped a few kilometres beyond Romani, had been pushed further ahead. A system of training was started, but as the men had not recovered from the fatigue of the Katia operations, and the weather was very trying, vigorous forms of exercise were given up. A number of men went to hospital with a weakening form of diarrhoea almost akin to dysentery, while the medical authorities were in a highly nervous state about cholera of which a few cases had been reported. It was presumed that this had been contracted from the Turkish prisoners and their old camping grounds.
The battalion was augmented slightly at this stage by a draft from England, while 2nd-Lt's. W. H. Barratt and W. Thorp returned from leave. Lt. H. C. Franklin, M.C., one-time R.S.M., went into hospital and was invalided to England, and his place as Adjutant was taken by Capt. J. R. Creagh, a position he filled admirably for more than two years. Captains C. Norbury and B. Norbury left the battalion about this time to obtain appointments in England and France and this entailed a change in Company Commanders. Captains Tinker and Higham continued to command "A" and "D" Companies, Lt. H. H. Nidd was given "B" Company, and Captain Chadwick "C" Company. 2nd-Lt. G. W. Franklin assisted the Adjutant in the Orderly Room, while 2nd-Lt. F. Grey Burn was employed as "Camel Officer;" new work brought about by the substitution of camel for wheeled transport. The bulk of the latter remained at Kantara under 2nd-Lt. M. Norbury, with Capt. Ward Jones in charge of the Brigade transport; their duties consisting chiefly in bringing rations, etc., across the canal from the main station on the E.S.R. and loading them on the trains which ran over the desert. Wheeled transport could not be employed in the desert stations as roads had not been constructed.
We came to know the camel fairly well during the succeeding months, and he proved a study, perhaps more interesting than his caretaker, a member of the Egyptian Camel Corps' distinctive in his long blue garrabea. When a company was on duty at a distant outpost the time for the arrival of the ration camels was also the signal for the ration fatigue to fall in. Then the string of animals would leisurely wend their way through the gaps in the barb wire, their noses held high in an aristocratic leer, each led with a head rope by a blue smocked Gyppie. The Q.M.S. would appear: "'Tala Henna, Walad. Barrac Henna'" and so forth. A wonderful flow of British-Arabic, grinningly comprehended by the natives, always produces the desired result. The camel gets down in a series of bumps and not without cautious glances at his head, the men unfasten the complication of ropes and commence the work of unloading. Somebody shouts: "Mail up!" and this brings out a number of interested faces from the entrances to "bivvies." After the rations have been sorted out, word quickly goes round, "Six to a loaf again, and no fresh meat to-day," so everyone looks gloomily ahead to the prospect of swallowing quantities of bully beef and biscuits. Other camels have carried up trench and wiring materials, and when all are off-loaded they get up wearily and solemnly depart leaving the outpost to its solitary existence. If there is only one officer he feels his solitude very much, for in spite of the camaraderie with the men and particularly the senior N.C.O's. there is a feeling of restraint due to the requirements of military discipline, and he misses the value of perfectly free intercourse.
[Footnote 1: Quoted from an Officer's Diary]
It soon became apparent that an advance across the desert in the direction of El Arish was contemplated, and that the speed of such an advance would depend upon the rate at which the railway and water pipe line could be constructed. The function of the troops was to protect it from raiders so that work could proceed in comfort, a duty shared by the mounted troops and the 52nd and 42nd Divisions. In September, therefore, the 7th Manchesters left Romani for garrison duty at Negiliat, about twenty kilos. further east. About this time Capt. Chadwick, who along with Lt.-Col. Cronshaw, had been decorated with the Serbian Order of the White Eagle in long delayed recognition of their magnificent work in Gallipoli, left the battalion to join the R.F.C. in England and France. Capt. Townson succeeded him in the command of "C" Company.
As the health of the desert troops was not good after their long strain under the tropical sun, a system of rest and holiday cure, suggested by the medical authorities, was begun. Batches of men and officers were sent off to Alexandria and encamped at Sidi Bishr, just outside the town for a week, during which time they were free to do more or less as they pleased, a concession highly relished by everyone. The sight of civilisation alone was in itself almost a cure, but the change of the surroundings, the lack of military duties, the sea bathing, and the enjoyment of everything that dear old "Alex." could offer worked wonders. Further, the hot season was drawing to a close and men began to feel more normal, so that by the end of October the troops were as fit as they had ever been in their lives. The 127th Brigade were withdrawn to Romani whilst this work of recuperation was in progress, and the beginning of November saw us back again at Negiliat.
Meanwhile, the mounted troops, closely supported by the infantry, kept constant touch with the Turk. When the railhead reached the outpost line it was necessary to move the enemy by force and to this end engagements were fought at Bir el Abd, and at El Mazar, both of which resulted in the Turk withdrawing upon El Arish. His aircraft was always busy, but the bombing was not often effective. Even the natives in the E.L.C. (Egyptian Labour Corps) began to grow accustomed to these raids and steadily resisted their impulse to dash back along the line when a taube was sighted.
The return from hospital of 2nd-Lt. Jimmy Baker and of 2nd-Lt. Joe Chatterton at this time was greeted with pleasure by the battalion, and all were interested in the arrival of the new Padre, the Rev. E. C. Hoskyns. It was not long, however, before he had made himself thoroughly well-known to every man who wore the Fleur de Lys, and his cheery face was eagerly welcomed in every "bivvy." During unbroken service with us until July, 1918, he maintained a proud record of spontaneous popularity with all ranks, and especially with his brother officers.
On the night of November 3rd the eastern climate displayed a side to its character not often revealed. During the previous twenty-four hours we had witnessed extraordinary flashes of lightning, and this was followed by a distinct coldness and a few showers of rain in the afternoon, a new experience which caused much amusement amongst the men. In the evening, however, matters ripened, and after a joyous display of heavenly pyrotechnics and thunder all round the blackening, heavy sky, we were subjected to a violent downpour, accompanied by lurid lightning flashes. Tremendous hailstones came down, smashing through the few remaining flimsy blanket shelters that were still standing, so that we were left in our nakedness to bear the full fury of the storm. We felt that God's spectacular display on the mountains for Elijah's benefit had been at least emulated, but it was the still, small voice that was best appreciated again, when it remarked that it was a good job the cooks had just finished making "gunfire" or we should never have had a dixie of hot tea to cheer us up in our discomfort. Although the men had to stand all night on sentry in the outposts in their wet things they took it very good-humouredly.
A fortnight later the battalion moved forward again a few kilometres and constructed new outpost positions at Khirba, covering a cavalry post some distance to the south. This was necessitated by the fact that the Turk was still holding Nekhl in the heart of the Sinai, from whence a raiding party could easily strike north to cut our communications, for the railway Was now well beyond Bir el Abd. When not actually on the outpost line we did a good deal of training, and a range having been constructed, some useful field firing was accomplished. An exciting football competition resulted in "C" Company defeating the Sergeants' team and carrying off the battalion championship.
A more elaborate forward move commenced about this time, the railway having reached El Mazar, and when a Brigade of the 53rd Division arrived to relieve us, we began to gird up our loins and prepare for a stiff march. We knew, however, that endurance would not be tested as in the "Katia Stunt" for the weather was so much more favourable. On the morning of December 3rd, having reduced our stores to mobile column dimensions, we loaded up the long suffering, but grousing camels, and marched forth to the cheery strains of a drum and fife band, kindly provided by the 10th Middlesex. We plugged steadily on through the soft sand and finally camped for the night inside the outpost line in front of Bir el Abd. Next day the march continued and we reached Salmana. We enjoyed nothing better than this new activity, and possibly the most delightful part of it was the construction of temporary shelters at the end of the day's work. Perhaps the most trying part was the provision of the usual protection for a column such as we were, that is the advance, rear, and flank guards, for this often entailed covering a greater distance and enjoying less frequent halts. The day following provided a new interest. We proceeded through a region of sabkhets, which are large flat stretches of hard ground, the remains of dried up lagoons, for by this time we were marching almost along the coast. These sabkhets were a very welcome change from the difficult soft desert sand. Tillul was our destination and we settled down amongst Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of the 52nd Division, who had arrived a few days previously. Next morning they played us out of the camp with their bagpipes and we had a good stiff march to El Mazar, and there we fell in with elements of the other two Brigades. After two days' rest we marched out again and occupied a position just inside the defensive line, which was then being held by the 6th and 8th.
The battalion remained a few days in this district, and when not actually in the outpost line and digging trenches, we were taken out in front, a company at a time, to act as a protection to the E.L.C. who were engaged upon railway construction. Whilst on this work we got our first glimpse of El Arish, the goal to be gained after this heavy striving across the desert. The Turks were supposed to be holding a strong position between ourselves and the town, and the idea seemed to be to push the railway as far as possible, and then eject the enemy so that work could proceed. Our men were thoroughly impressed with the wonderful rapidity with which these "Gyppies" accomplished their task. They were divided up into gangs, each in charge of another native who had been raised to the dignity of two stripes and a stick. The stick he used freely on the men who failed to keep up his standard of work. Using their curious adze-like shovels they pulled the sand into baskets and ran away with it to where it was required, and whilst they toiled a simple but noisy refrain was sung to the leadership of the "Ganger." The whole spectacle presented a seething mass of rapidly-moving, blue smocked, brown figures, busily working on the bright yellow sand. The result of four hours of this sort of thing would produce about 500 yards of good level track including shallow cuttings and embankments. Then the train would arrive with more sleepers and rails and these would be carefully but quickly laid in position.
Another job we had to do in this neighbourhood was digging wells. When "C" Company went off for a couple of days to do this they discovered what a formidable business it was. It was necessary to go down to a depth of about twenty feet, and as the well was sited in very soft sand the task can be imagined. A huge hole, about forty feet square had to be made to allow for the slope of the sand, and the deeper we went, the higher grew the mountains of sand all round the hole, so that the men had to be arranged on tiers above one another. In this way a shovel full of sand from the bottom travelled up through various pairs of hands before it was finally thrown clear. This tedious business continued until water was struck, and then a corrugated iron frame was sunk at the bottom, and the tall sides of the well built upon it. After this all the sand that had been so laboriously chucked out, was heaved back again. A pump was fixed by the R.E. and troughs made along side, to be filled as often as the well could furnish sufficient water (in this case twice a day) for the use of camels or horses.
At El Maadan an important railhead was being constructed for the storage of water, which was kept in large and small canvas tanks. We took a great personal interest in those tanks with our thoughts resting securely on Katia. Matters were gradually developing towards an engagement of some magnitude, and it was now known that the general scheme was for the mounted troops to make a detour in order to turn the enemy's left flank, whilst the 42nd and 52nd Divisions would make an advance parallel to the coast. That is to say in effect the infantry would deliver a frontal attack upon the Turkish troops covering El Arish.
It had been further decided that the 127th Brigade together with the 5th East Lancashires would execute the first shock of the 42nd's effort, so we had a feeling that once again the Fleur de Lys would be "in the limelight." During the evening of December 29th there was a rapid and wonderful concentration of troops of all arms in the hollow ground near the railhead. The two infantry Divisions were there in force, whilst the Australian L.H., and N.Z.M.R., together with the Yeomanry were simply waiting for dusk to move off to their appointed stations. Behind all this preparation there was a curious feeling that there was no enemy to fight at all, and betting ran high as to whether we should find any Turks near El Arish or not. It was suspected in high quarters that the enemy had got quietly away a few hours before. However, we slept peacefully until 3 a.m. and then Company Commanders were summoned to a Conference with the C.O. to receive orders to get ready at once to march—backwards not forwards! The Anzacs carefully reconnoitring in the night had finally entered El Arish, and saw no one there except the native villagers. So "the stunt was a wash-out," the bird had flown.
The 42nd marched back on December 21st to El Mazar, and faint rumours began to drift about that day that we were to leave Egypt. General Douglas commiserated with us for not having had the pleasure of a good scrap! "But," he said, "never mind lads, you will get more than you want very soon." Now, what did that mean? Profound speculation as to the probabilities can easily be imagined. France, Salonica, trouble in India, Mesopotamia and even an advance into Palestine (scouted as absurd by most people) were freely discussed. The main consideration just at present, however, was that the Christmas of 1916 was going to be spent under much pleasanter conditions than the previous one on Gallipoli, and concurrent with rumours about fighting there were more substantial rumours about turkeys, plum puddings and beer. I am glad to say all three materialised, and these together with Christmas Carols by the divisional band contrived to produce a Yuletide feeling. In fact everyone had as good a time as could possibly have been expected in the desert. Luckily the parcels from home, including comforts from various institutions, etc., also arrived in time. El Mazar was our abode for more than three weeks, and we heartily wished a cleaner piece of ground could have been selected to live upon. In past days the Turk had been stationed here in force, and he, not being of a sanitary disposition, had bequeathed to us a store of body lice of new and large dimensions. I don't think the fighting strength of the 7th, including all live stock, had ever been so large in its history. A delousing apparatus made from an old engine and truck was sent up on the railway to cope with the problem, and perhaps it had some little effect—in helping the young ones to grow quicker. Most men were agreed that there was nothing to equal the double thumb action for certain results. Another scourge here, probably also due to the filthy sand, was the alarming development of septic sores. These unpleasant things did not require a wound or scratch to start them, but they broke out themselves as a small blister on any part of the body. In the case of a good many men it took the form of impetigo, an extremely uncomfortable sore rash on the face, and both officers and men appeared day after day on parade with appallingly unshaven sore chins, and bandages visible on arms or knees, etc.
During our stay here the news continued to be good. On Christmas Eve the mounted troops, not satisfied with the Turkish escape from El Arish, suddenly pounced upon Maghdaba, about twelve miles further south, up the Wadi, and after a short fierce fight destroyed the garrison, only a few making their way out of Africa. A more brilliant affair, however, was the lightning raid upon Rafa, on the border between Sinai and Palestine, and about thirty miles beyond El Arish, the starting point of the raid. In a few hours a large mounted column, consisting chiefly of Anzacs had covered this distance and had taken the Turk completely by surprise. The enemy put up a stern fight, however, and after his reinforcements had been destroyed on the road from Gaza he gave in. The prisoners from these engagements continued to have the desired effect upon the dissaffected natives in Cairo on their arrival there.
Less was heard about our leaving Egypt after the New Year, and rumours received a mortal wound when the Division turned its face to the east once more and marched up, a Brigade at a time, to El Arish. The 7th accomplished this march in three easy stages, the first day taking us to Maadan, and the next to Bitia. A few days' stay here helped us to appreciate its natural advantages, and as far as the desert went, it almost had pretensions to beauty. There were glorious palm groves, bright clean sand to live in, hard flat stretches for football (greatly appreciated), and a roaring sea close at hand on a wonderful beach for bathing. If El Arish were in Belgium, Bitia would be "El Arish Bains." The return of British power to this corner of the earth was epitomised one day in the sight of a Bedouin caravan pursuing its peaceful purpose. The old sheik stalked proudly in front, while his family and goods were disposed on various camels, and a small flock of pretty black goats pattered along behind in charge of a sturdy brown lad. Surely they at least had witnessed the Turkish retirement with satisfaction.
EL ARISH AND AFTER.
On January 22nd, 1917, the 7th Manchesters reached their "farthest east" in the final stage of the march to El Arish. Most of the day's labours had to be accomplished in a blinding sandstorm, which fortunately had subsided when we arrived at our destination. As we reached El Arish one had a curious feeling that the canal zone was being left well behind, and as far as mileage was concerned it certainly was, since the Suez was one hundred miles away. Nevertheless, up to now one had felt that really we were on canal defence, and however far we went out there had been little change in the country so that one hardly seemed to progress. Now, all that had been left behind, and we were amongst new scenes.
This growing impression was completed on our arrival. We pitched camp on a hill north-west of the town and about six hundred yards from it, so that we had a perfect view of the place, which resembled a picture out of the Bible, and was not quite like anything seen in Egypt. It was obvious we were in a new country—in fact we were knocking at the gates of Palestine, but no one amongst us knew that an entry was to be made into that country. The affair at Rafa, for instance, had only been a raid, and the Turks had once more strengthened the place. British territory had been cleared of the enemy and it was felt that a system of frontier defence would be constructed, and small garrisons left to maintain the boundary.
Eight months had passed since the battalion left the vicinity of peaceful civilisation, so to meet it again, crude though it was amidst the mud huts of El Arish, filled our men with extreme curiosity. The town was placed out of bounds because of the fear of cholera, small pox, etc., but there was much of interest to be seen. Groves of fig trees surrounded the place on the edge of the Wadi, and it was a matter for speculation as to where they obtained their sustenance for it was apparently just bare desert. Vines and date palms were also grown, and I presume these, with fishing, constitute the main source of life to the inhabitants. The natives, incidentally, had a most pleasing appearance, and their older men reminded one forcibly of the patriarchs. They had a strikingly manly and independent carriage, quite different from the lack of respectability of the lower class Egyptian. There is probably a good deal of Arab blood in them, which may account for the fearless manner with which they look the foreigner straight in the face.
We were not surprised when definite orders arrived to prepare ourselves for a return to the canal. The transport started first for they were to trek the distance, while the personnel were to have the pleasure of riding on a train. The men accepted this statement rather warily for such a thing had seldom been known during their experience with the battalion. On January 30th all the animals in the Division assembled near our camp preparatory to commencing the trek when the aircraft alarm was sounded. This was immediately followed by eight bombs in quick succession. One of these unfortunately dropped amidst our transport column killing two favourite riders, "Bighead" and "Jester" and destroying two or three mules. Fortunately only one man was injured, and more luckily still, no bombs dropped in the camp, although they were near enough to be unpleasant. The day's excitement was later heightened by a camel going "macknoon" in the middle of the camp. Attacking his native keeper he broke loose and our men had to "run for it." By an ingenious manipulation of ropes round his legs, and a well-aimed blow behind his ear from a tent mallet flung by one of the men, he was subdued and brought to earth, but not before he had destroyed a "bivvy" and some tents. Even this did not complete the incidents of the day, for evening found us clinging with might and main to tent poles, tent curtains, "bivvy" shelters, etc., while a furious sand storm did its utmost to fling them down.
The next day something of a sensation was caused by a sudden order to furnish one officer and two N.C.O's. per company as advance party to journey at once to Port Said, there to embark on February 2nd for an unknown destination. Two days later the battalion entrained in "trucks de luxe," and after a nine hours' extremely lumpy journey we reached Kantara. There was a feeling that having helped to escort the railway to its present destination we had really earned that ride. On the journey down we met elements of the 53rd Division marching up to take our places at El Arish, and we shouted greetings and expressions of goodwill to them. At Kantara a draft from England with 2nd-Lt. G. Norbury in command joined the battalion. A pleasing feature about this draft was that it was largely composed of old members of the original 7th who had been wounded or invalided from Gallipoli, such men as C.S.M. Lyth, Sergeant McHugh, Q.M.S's. Andrews and Houghton, being amongst its numbers.
The 42nd Division crossed the Suez Canal for the last time on February 5th, twelve months to the day after the 7th Manchesters had crossed over to the east side at Shallufa for the first time. The first days march ended at El Ferdan, very much to the relief of everyone. We had been, all the way, on a good hard road—a new experience after the life on the desert—and this brought into play muscles of the leg, not used on the soft sand. Everyone suffered badly from aching shins and thighs and very sore feet, so that next day, when the trek was completed to Ismailia on hot, dusty roads many men fell out, and we were a weary crew on arrival at Moascar Camp.
Our three weeks' stay here was occupied chiefly in preparing for our new scene of activities, now definitely known to be France. Eastern kit was handed in—helmets, shorts and drill tunics—and the battalion seemed to have been exchanged for a new one dressed in khaki serge and caps. With our helmets we lost our flashes, or at least the characteristic Fleur de Lys, but they were replaced by a divisional flash to be worn on the upper arm of the sleeve of the jacket. This was a diamond in shape, each Brigade having its own colour, the Manchesters being orange yellow, with the number of the battalion indicated on it by a red figure. Being close to Lake Timsa, we frequently indulged in bathing parades under ideal conditions, for after all Ismailia is really one of the beauty spots of Egypt. Complimentary farewell parades were held, one on the occasion of the visit of General Dobell, and the other a march past the C.-in-C, Sir Archibald Murray, down the Quai Mehemet Ali in the town. Altogether the 7th enjoyed themselves during these days and made the most of the end of their long sojourn in the East. We were seasoned troops and were well conversant with the customs of the country. A few pangs of regret at leaving these things behind can easily be understood, although an important consideration, and one that weighed heavily with the men, was the possibility of getting leave from France, a thing unknown in this place. Hence it was with mixed feelings that the battalion boarded the train at Ismailia on the evening of March 1st for a rapid journey to Alexandria. No time was lost here for we detrained on the quay side and embarked at once.
Wearers of the Fleur de Lys gazed their last upon one of the countries of their toils from the deck of the ship "Kalyan" as they steamed out of Alexandria harbour on March 3rd, 1917. There were many present who had accompanied the battalion on their venture from this same harbour nearly two years before, to try their fortunes upon ill-starred Gallipoli, and I have no doubt they wondered what these new experiences would bring them. One thing is certain, however, and that is no one imagined we should be compelled to continue our wanderings for full two more years before the last journey home could be made. And yet, so it was. The Fleur de Lys, for the first time since it had been adopted by the Manchester Regiment, was borne to the soil of France, the country that gave it birth, and whose kings wore it proudly for hundreds of years, by Englishmen who had pledged themselves to fight in and for that fair land. "Fair Land!" I hear someone scornfully mutter. However much we were destined in the days to come, when wallowing to our waists amidst the soil and water of France, to think very much the reverse, it would be impossible to forget the glory of our Southern entrance to this sad country.
The battalion made the trip across the Mediterranean in good company, for the ship was shared by ourselves and the 8th Manchesters (the Gallant Ardwicks) commanded by Lt.-Col. Morrough. We had an opportunity of renewing our acquaintance with Malta, so vivid in its intense colouring, whilst our escort of torpedo boats was changed. Perhaps the following extract from an officer's diary will suffice to epitomise whatever incident there was in the journey:—
"... It was more or less boisterous all the way, and on occasion decidedly so—a vastly different voyage from my journey out. The much-vaunted German submarine 'blockade' was not conspicuous, for we neither saw nor heard of a submarine. Undoubtedly, of course, one is conscious of the menace, and a good deal of what might be enjoyment of the sea is spoiled by this horror. One thinks not of the sea as inspiration of sublime thoughts and all things the poets tell us of, but as a receptacle for submarines ... and for us if we are hit. It was decidedly disconcerting to contemplate a dip during the heavy weather. There would be little chance of being picked up I should imagine. Still, we were able to appreciate the colours of Malta, the grand snow-capped mountains of Corsica and the neighbouring islands, while the entrance to Marseilles is a sight I shall never forget. For colour and form I think it is perfect. In a sense Plymouth resembles it, but as a cat the tiger. Here the rocks run down in their limy whiteness sheer to the sea, with chateaux and churches on impossible peaks, backed by tremendous stern giants. Why will they not allow us on shore to get a closer view?... Just above my head the men are concluding a concert with the 'King,' the 'Marseillaise' (I wonder do they appreciate that here it was first sung in its grandeur under Rouget de Lisle), and then with what should be our national song, 'Rule Britannia.' Well might they sing that with zest after the voyage we have concluded to-day."
After standing out in the harbour at Marseilles for 24 hours, we first set foot in France on March 10th. No time was wasted at Marseilles, and we were soon entrained for a long journey northward. In the first hours before dark we were able to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the coast region near Marseilles. At Orange we halted for a meal at midnight. Next day was a glorious journey up the Rhone Valley, passing through Lyons, Chalons-sur-Saone and Dijon. Wherever the train stopped crowds of enthusiastic French people collected to greet us and the news of the fall of Bagdad made us doubly important to them, for not only were we British but they knew we had come from somewhere in the East.
The following morning we arrived at the environs of Paris, and after a stay at Juvissy continued our journey past Versailles and on through Amiens to our destination at Pont Remy, a few miles from Abbeville. It was pitch dark and raining. Imagine the shock to troops straight from Egypt, where they had left a beautiful dry climate, when they jumped out of the carriages into four inches of squelching mud. Then we were told we had to march six or seven miles through the cold rain to our billeting area at Merelissart. However, we were amongst new surroundings and new modes of doing things, and conditions were vastly different from those we had just left, so the sooner we became accustomed to them the better.
Despite the midnight hour everyone found subject for fun in the French barns and shippons which were to be our temporary homes. Lt. Hodge and Lt. Taylor who had worked hard allotting the billets for us joined the battalion here. Lt. Sievewright had rejoined us at Alexandria on the boat, he having been invalided to England from Gallipoli. Lt. G. Harris left to take charge of a Divisional Bombing School, and ended his service with the battalion, although later he became the Brigade Intelligence Officer, when we saw a good deal of him again.
After three days the battalion moved back to Liercourt and there the work of refitting commenced. We had much to learn about organisation and methods of warfare as practised in France, and vigorous training was commenced at once.
Major-General Sir W. Douglas left the division, and his successor, Major-General Mitford, lost no time in getting us ready for the line. Just at this time, and whilst Col. Cronshaw and other officers and N.C.O's. were up in the line for instruction, the German retirement on the Somme and the Ancre to the Hindenburg line took place. As soon as brigades were fitted out they lost no time in moving forward into the war zone, commencing with the Lancs. Fusiliers. At the end of March the 127th brigade entrained for Chuignes and from there the 7th marched forward to Dompierre, which had been the scene of such heavy fighting by the French in 1916. We thus got our first impressions of the devastated area of France, and I am sure there was not a mind in the battalion into which these impressions did not sink deep. The misery of it was by no means diminished when we arrived at our destination, for accommodation had to be found amidst impossible ruins and in the scattered half-destroyed dug-outs amongst the trenches which criss-crossed the village. All this had to be done in pouring rain. When at last we settled down it was found that our new homes were also shared by huge rats who capered about in a most homely manner.
Dompierre was our abode for a few days whilst the battalion made daily excursions through the mud in the direction of Villers Carbonel to execute road making fatigues. Major Scott concluded his long period of active service with the battalion about this time, being invalided to England. His place at the Q.M. Stores was later filled by Lt. Rose of the R.W.F's. After this period we moved into Peronne, and were installed in more comfortable dwellings, for although the town had been badly knocked about, it was possible to find more or less good cover for troops. The great boon here was the plentiful supply of timber from the destroyed houses, and every group of men had its roaring fire. The battalion and indeed the brigade was still on fatigue, repairing roads, railways, bridges, etc. Meanwhile the division had made its debut in France, the 125th and 126th brigades having taken over part of the line during the pursuit of the Hun.
The 7th suffered their first casualty in the new theatre of war at Peronne in a rather unfortunate manner. Whilst on a fatigue of salving telephone wire on the battle-swept ground of Biaches, just outside the town, Pte. Gibson of "C" company was accidentally killed by a bomb, whose explosive mechanism he had unwittingly set in action when pulling up the wire.
Holding the Line.
On April 27th, our period of fatigues ended, the 7th Manchesters marched out of Peronne in the full panoply of war, not gaudy, but serviceable for modern requirements and not lacking the element of weight, with the certain knowledge that their next deeds would be accomplished "in the presence of the enemy." The enemy of 1917 and after was not so elusive as the Turk of the Sinai, so there was no possibility of marching on and on and never feeling his force! That night was spent at Villers Faucon, and next day preparations were completed for relieving the 4th East Lancs. in the front line trenches east of Epehy. An advance party of an officer and a few N.C.O's. per company had been sent forward to learn dispositions and other information about the line, and the thousand and one minute details about rations, tools, Lewis guns, water, guides, intervals between platoons and sections, etc., etc., had all been dealt with when we got on the move once more in the early evening.
Everyone expected to take over trenches such as we had in Gallipoli or had read about, but we were rather staggered to find that the battalion front was not vastly different from the outpost positions we had made on the desert. This is explained by the fact that the front was just in process of solidifying from the liquid state as a result of the German recent retirement to a safe position. The enemy therefore looked calmly down upon us from his elaborate Hindenburg system of trenches beyond Vendhuile whilst we expanded our isolated outposts into organised continuous lines. He himself, however, was also busy digging a sort of outpost work in advance of the main line of defence, for he had held up any further British advance principally from a bulwark of land mass called the Knoll on the western side of the canal, while his main line was really on the eastern side.
Because of the disjointed condition of the front there was always a danger, when going from one company to another, of men wandering into the Boche lines. This unfortunately did occur one night to a couple of men of the 7th who had to make their way with L. G. ammunition from the Quarry to the Diamond (a forward isolated redoubt) for they struck a wrong direction and walked into a hail of enemy bullets. One was killed and the other wounded. Pte. (afterwards L.-Cpl.) Summers and Pte. Johns distinguished themselves on this occasion, for, realising what had happened, they volunteered to go out and recover the men. After being away for more than two hours, constantly sniped by an obviously-startled enemy they found them and were able to bring back the wounded man. Unfortunately this deed was not recognised by the higher authorities or they would have been the first to have won distinction for the battalion in France.
Little Priel Farm came in for a good deal of hatred by the Boche, and the variations in its contour was a daily source of interest to the troops in the vicinity. The battalion observers in the innocence of their hearts and the zeal born of the new opportunities to put their training into practice, selected the corner of the garden for an O.P. and just as things were growing interesting in the field of view of the telescope, the Hun instituted a "certain liveliness" of a different sort. Repetitions of this sort of thing convinced the observers that no useful purpose could be served by staying there, so they left—fortunately without mishap—and they were eager to inform the I.O. that their new position was infinitely superior to Little Priel Farm! It was in this vicinity that Pte. Wilbraham was killed by a shell. This news saddened the whole battalion, for he was our champion lightweight boxer, and we had been entertained many a time on the desert by his clever exhibitions.
There was naturally a good deal of digging to be done in this sector, and although relieved eventually in the front positions by the 5th, the battalion found itself up in the line each night making continuous trenches. It was in connection with this work that we lost our brigadier, General Ormsby. On the night of May 1st, he, with a number of R.E. officers, was examining the position near Catelet Copse when the Boche suddenly started a short hurricane bombardment. The trench he was in was only waist deep, and soldier and leader to the end he disdained to take full advantage of the scanty shelter, preferring to set an example of calmness and steadiness under fire to his men. A piece of shell struck him in the head and he died almost immediately. This was a great blow to the brigade, just at the commencement of their adventure in the new warfare. It was sadly remarkable, too, that he himself was the first officer casualty in his brigade. A few days later, during which time Lt.-Col. Darlington of the 5th assumed command, the new brigadier arrived—General Henley, D.S.O.—and we were fortunate to keep him as our Commander until the end of the war. The brilliant record of the 127th brigade in France is testimony to his qualities as a leader, and it was not very long before every man and officer in the Manchesters was proud of him. General Ormsby always remained, however, as a tender memory to those who had served under him.
Villers Faucon, which had been the rear H.Q. and transport lines was invaded by battalion H.Q. and two companies when the battalion moved back into reserve, but we did not stay long here, because the 126th brigade required assistance in the completion of their trench system in front of Templeux, and to do this we had to move into the quarries in that district. The other two companies carried out similar work in the vicinity of Lempire and Ronssoy. There was very little of interest during the succeeding days after which the brigade moved out to Roisel prior to accompanying the division to the Havrincourt sector of the front.
At the end of May the battalion marched out with the remainder of the brigade from Roisel and in one day reached their destination behind the Havrincourt Wood sector. We there remained for a short period in the region of Ytres and Fins. Little time was lost in the necessary preliminaries and we relieved a battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's L.I. of the 21st division in support in the wood. "D" company were early unfortunate and suffered a number of casualties from heavy shelling on the shallow trenches which they manned near the western edge of the Wood. The enemy had noted the continued movement in this vicinity, and suddenly decided to pay attention to it in the usual manner. This spot was always remembered afterwards as "Where 'D' Company were shelled."
Conditions at Havrincourt were rather different from those at Epehy, although the same characteristics due to recent consolidation still prevailed. It was more interesting, however, and in many senses more "livable," a word of deep meaning on the Western front! In the British lines—the canal, the slag-heap (or more correctly slag-heaps) and the wood dominated all other landmarks. The canal, a portion of the Canal du Nord, was in course of construction at the outbreak of war, and its deep, well-laid bed is one of the engineering wonders of this part of France. At Havrincourt it first runs west to east and then sharply bends to the north towards Moeuvres past Hermies. The left of the 42nd divisional front rested on the bend, after running over a huge chalk and limestone slag-heap which stands at the corner. Going southwards the line roughly skirted the eastern edge of the wood which lies upon a slope facing the east.
Before their retirement, the Germans had cut down all trees on this forward slope, some said in order to make use of the timber, others for tactical reasons, so as to leave us exposed to view. I should say both reasons weighed heavily with them, but principally the latter, for it was noticeable that the woods in their own lines had not been so denuded. Havrincourt village lay behind the enemy's front line on a ridge that dominated our own positions. Further beyond were Flesquieres, Marcoing, Premy Chapel and Ribecourt, where the main line of resistance of the Hindenburg system could be plainly seen, while further over to the left on the highest ground was Bourlon Wood, which was to become so famous in the history of the British army. Every day the battalion observers watched parties of Germans, large and small, working on these rear trenches apparently quite unconcerned about the fact that they could be plainly seen. Periodically our air service issued aeroplane photographs showing the extraordinary development of these trenches, their elaborate construction, the concrete dug-outs, and solid rows of heavy barbed wire, until it almost came to be recognised that an assault upon them would only be attempted by the maddest of leaders, and the prospect of having to take part in it took one's breath away.