[Transcriber's note: Punctuation normalised, spelling normalised.]
The Story of the "9th King's" in France.
BY ENOS HERBERT GLYNNE ROBERTS.
LIVERPOOL: THE NORTHERN PUBLISHING CO. LTD., 17 GOREE PIAZZAS, AND 11, BRUNSWICK STREET. 1922.
CHAPTER I. ENGLAND.
CHAPTER II. THE 1ST DIVISION.
CHAPTER III. THE 55TH DIVISION.
CHAPTER IV. THE 57TH DIVISION.
APPENDIX LIST OF DECORATIONS.
Shortly after the commencement of the Volunteer Movement in 1859, many members of the newspaper and printing trades in Liverpool were desirous of forming a regiment composed of men connected with those businesses. A meeting was held in the Liverpool Town Hall, and the scheme was so well received that steps were taken towards the formation of a corps. Sanction was obtained, and on the 21st February, 1861, the officers and men of the new unit took the oath of allegiance at St. George's Hall. Thus came into being the 80th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers, and on the 2nd April, 1863, the 73rd Battalion of the Lancashire Rifle Volunteers was amalgamated with it. In the early days of its existence the new unit attended reviews and inspections at Mount Vernon, Newton-le-Willows and Aintree. Some time afterwards it was renumbered the 19th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers. Later—in 1888—it became the 6th Volunteer Battalion of The King's (Liverpool Regiment).
The early parades of the Regiment took place at Rose Hill Police Station, and the Corn Exchange, Brunswick Street, until Headquarters were established at 16, Soho Street.
To those who took part in these parades great credit and thanks are due. Through their efforts an organised battalion came into being, men were trained for the bearing of arms and the defence of their country should the occasion ever arise, and the soldierly spirit was inculcated in many who followed a civilian occupation. Those who survived until the Great War, though not privileged to lead on the battlefield, had at any rate the satisfaction of realising that their work was not in vain. Directly attributable to the efforts of the early volunteers is the fact that in 1915 the Territorial Force was ready for the reinforcement of the Regular Army in the Western Theatre of the War, and this afforded the New Armies which Lord Kitchener had formed ample time for the completion of their training.
In 1884 the Headquarters in Soho Street were changed for more commodious and better equipped premises at 59, Everton Road, where the Battalion remained domiciled until 1914. During the South African War the Battalion sent out a company, and the experience the men gained there proved very useful at the annual camps. Several of the men who went to South Africa were privileged to serve in the next war. On the formation of the Territorial Force the Battalion was once again renumbered and henceforth it was known as the 9th Battalion of The King's (Liverpool Regiment) Territorial Force.
The recruiting area of the Battalion embraced the Everton district of Liverpool, a locality inhabited chiefly by members of the tradesmen and artisan classes, which furnished the Regiment with the bulk of its recruits. There was a detachment located in the country at Ormskirk, from which the Battalion drew some of its finest fighting material. Agriculturalists make good soldiers, and this was evidenced on many occasions later by the behaviour and ability of the men from this town. In the ranks there was a sprinkling of sailors and miners, whose several callings equipped them with knowledge which proved useful in their new profession. The officers for the most part were drawn from the professional class and business houses of the city.
There came on the 4th August, 1914, a telegram to Headquarters containing only the one word "Mobilize." On that day Great Britain declared war on Germany. Notices were sent out ordering the men to report, and at 2-0 p.m. on the 6th there was only one man unaccounted for. The mobilization was satisfactory.
Difficulties immediately presented themselves, for the men had to be housed and fed. The first night the men spent in the Hippodrome Theatre, where the artists gave them a special performance in addition to the public performances. Afterwards sleeping accommodation was found in the Liverpool College. Through the kindness of the committee of the Newsboys' Home in Everton Road arrangements were made to feed the men. There were too many for them to be fed all at once, so that meals had to be taken in relays. At Headquarters there was a certain amount of congestion, for equipment, picks, shovels and other mobilization stores took up a considerable amount of room. Besides this there were collected at Headquarters civilian milk floats, lorries, spring carts and other vehicles which had been pressed into service as regimental transport. Horses with patched civilian harness gave the transport the appearance of a "haywire outfit." After the officers had gone to the trouble of collecting this transport it was taken away by the Higher Command and given to another unit. The same fate befell the second set of horses and waggons. The third was retained.
According to orders the Battalion entrained under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Luther Watts, V.D., on the 13th August, at Lime Street Station, Liverpool. It was not known at the time whither the Battalion was bound. In the afternoon Edinburgh was reached, where there was considerable bustle on account of the departure of some regular regiments for the front. Crossing the Firth of Forth, the men saw with what activities the Naval Authorities were preparing for the reception of further warships. Dunfermline proved to be the destination of the Regiment, and on arrival supper was provided by some ladies of the town. The men were accommodated first in tents at Transy, and afterwards in billets in the Carnegie Institute, St. Leonard's and the Technical Schools and the Workhouse. The inhabitants of Dunfermline and district were extremely kind to all members of the Battalion, and almost every man had an invitation to visit newly formed friends nightly.
There were at this time not enough blankets in the possession of the authorities, so that an appeal was made which brought forth an ample supply of civilian blankets. Colonel Hall Walker, T.D., the Honorary Colonel, gave the Battalion L500 when it was at Dunfermline, which was expended on extra clothing and other comforts for the men. It was a very generous sum and proved of great value.
The usual training took place, and considering the circumstances a high standard of efficiency was attained. In October the Regiment proceeded by train to Tunbridge Wells, where it remained until it proceeded overseas.
The training here consisted of an early morning run followed later by a Battalion route march or field practice. Judged from later standards the training was not as intensive as it might have been owing chiefly to the facts that, unfortunately, no parade ground was available, and little, if any, assistance was afforded by higher formations. An occasional night alarm also ordered by higher authorities discomforted everyone and did little good. Recruits were sent to Sandwich for musketry, and the Battalion assisted in digging trenches, machine gun emplacements and other defensive works on the inland side of the canal, originally constructed by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, and which skirted Romney Marsh. Half the Battalion—that is four companies—was sent to assist with the London Defences near Ashford, where the men learnt to construct what the Royal Engineers were pleased to call "Low Command Redoubts," and which were badly sited on forward slopes. The experience gained, however, proved very useful afterwards in France.
Parades at Tunbridge Wells finished early in the afternoon which afforded ample time for recreation. The townspeople were very hospitable and extended cordial invitations to the men, who availed themselves freely of them. At Christmas time the men fared sumptuously through the generosity and kindness of their hosts.
In January a company was sent to guard cables and vulnerable points at Birling Gap, Cuckmere Haven and Dungeness. Several other similar duties afforded diversions from the usual training programme.
While at Tunbridge Wells the greatest keenness was displayed by all. Officers were jealous of anyone who was lucky enough to be sent on a course of instruction. There were voluntary classes for the study of tactics at which the younger officers sedulously studied the principles of out-posts, advance guards, rear guards and so on. Everyone wanted to know more of his new profession. The thirst for knowledge was not adequately quenched as there were unfortunately, too few courses and too few instructors available.
Such an ardour possessed the men for the fight that in some it reached the pitch of fear lest they should arrive too late upon the battlefield and receive only a barless medal. Some actually wished to transfer to another unit so as to ensure getting out at once. When at last the anxiously awaited order came that the Battalion was to go "over there" one officer was overcome with exultation. His intense joy at being allowed to serve his King and country on fields more stricken than parade grounds was clearly marked. After many months of distinguished service in the field, he now rests peacefully at Montauban.
The few days immediately preceding the exodus of the Regiment were days of great activity and preparation. The affairs of the Battalion had to be completely wound up. The mysterious pay and mess books were completed and company cash accounts closed. New equipment was given out to officers and men, as well as wirecutters, revolvers and other necessities of active service. Field dressings were handed out—dark omens of what was now to be anticipated. The transport section received its full complement of waggons and limbers, together with its full number of mules, which proved to be equal to any which proceeded to France.
Under the impression that active service meant the end of the comforts of civilisation, officers provided themselves with supplies of patent medicine, bought small first-aid outfits and elaborate pannikins containing numerous small receptacles, which did not prove useful and were ultimately lost. Spare kit including Sam Browne belts was packed and consigned to the Depot. In anticipation of an early death many of the officers and men made their wills. This was encouraged by a rumour that the War Office had ordered a further 76,000 hospital beds to be prepared.
At the end of December, 1914, Lieut.-Colonel Luther Watts, V.D. took over the command of the Reserve Battalion at Blackpool, which had been formed late in 1914, and Lieut.-Colonel J.E. Lloyd, V.D., was gazetted to the foreign service Battalion.
Mention should here be made of the fact that shortly before leaving England the old eight company organisation was abandoned, and the new four company organisation adopted, and each new company was divided into four platoons. The change was exceedingly beneficial, as it would have been difficult in the field for a battalion commander to give orders to eight company commanders. More responsibility was thrown on the company commanders, who were at the time senior enough to assume it, and for the first time the subaltern was given a command. For the future he had his platoon which carried much greater responsibility than that previously attached to a half company. It was a fighting unit, and a separate body in which was reflected the work of a good commander.
The 12th March, 1915, was the day destined for the departure from Tunbridge Wells. One by one the companies, headed by a band kindly lent by one of the other units quartered in the town, marched through the streets for the last time. The greatest excitement prevailed when "D" Company, which was the last, passed through the streets just as the shops were opening. Farewells were waved, the troops were cheered, and for many this was their last look at the town which had afforded them every hospitality for the past few months.
Arrived at the station, the men entrained for an unknown destination, and there was some speculation as to which seaport it would be. It proved to be Southampton, from whence the men embarked later in the day for France. The excitement had to some extent worn off in the cool of the evening, and as the men had their last glimpse of England by means of the beam of the search-light, many thought of the happy homes they were leaving behind to which they would perhaps never return. The journey to France was uneventful, which circumstance was due largely to the protection afforded by the torpedo-boat destroyers and other units of the Navy.
THE 1ST DIVISION.
Next morning the Battalion disembarked at Le Havre and marched to a camp at Sanvic. It was not to remain here long, and on the 14th the Battalion entrained to join the First Army. The train journey was long, and the men experienced for the first time the inconveniences of travelling in French troop trains, being crowded fifty-six at a time into trucks labelled "Hommes 48: Chevaux en long 8." Chocques was reached on the 15th and the men marched therefrom to billets in a village close by called Oblinghem. The Battalion was soon incorporated in the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Division, a mixed brigade consisting of four Regular battalions reinforced by two Territorial battalions. A few days were spent in Divisional Reserve at Oblinghem during which time all the officers and several non-commissioned officers were sent to the trenches at Festubert or Richebourg for instruction by the Regular battalions which were holding the line.
At Oblinghem the men learnt for the first time what French billets were like and experienced the insanitary conditions prevailing on the small farms and the draughty and dirty barns. Looking around the countryside all seemed quiet and peaceful. The ploughman ploughed the fields, others sowed and the miners went to their daily tasks as usual. At times it was difficult to realise that the firing line was within a few miles, but the boom of the distant guns and the laden Red Cross motors indicated the proximity of the fighting. A lot of old ideas as to the rigours of a campaign were lost, and warfare in some respects was found not to be so bad as had been expected. Wine and beer at any rate were plentiful, though the potency of the beer was not quite sufficient for the taste of the older men. Other regiments, lent officers to give a helping hand in organisation and training. Company messes for officers were formed, as anything in the nature of a battalion mess was impracticable.
The men soon learnt that the estaminets were the equivalent in France of the public houses at home, and thither they repaired in the evening to spend their time. Many good young men who had never taken a drop of the more invigorating liquors learnt that soldiers drank them, and the cause of teetotalism began to wane.
On the 24th a move was made to Les Facons, a straggling village outside Bethune. Here on quiet nights one could easily hear the fusillade in the trenches while the distant gun flashes lit up the night sky. The terrors of the trenches were coming nearer.
Early in April the various companies were attached each in turn to another battalion in the Brigade, and went into the line for instruction in trench duty at Port Arthur by Neuve Chapelle, and it was here that the first casualties were sustained. It is claimed that the first shot fired by the Battalion killed an enemy sniper. The men soon learnt the duties that fell upon them as a consequence of trench warfare: the early morning stand-to, the constant vigil of the neutral ground between the lines, and the imperative necessity of keeping one's head low. Hitherto the men knew little of the nature or use of guns, but now glimmerings of the mystery surrounding artillery fire soon dawned. The men learnt the natures of German shell, and the difference between shrapnel and high explosives and what targets the enemy generally selected. Facts like these were explained to them by the "real soldiers" of the Regular units to which they were attached. On relief the Battalion marched back to Oblinghem once more, where it stayed a week or two, and later in the month took over a portion of the line at Richebourg St. Vaast where it was subjected to a very heavy artillery bombardment on the 1st May.
The military training of the men can be said to have been complete as regards pre-war standard, but the war had introduced the use of two new instruments of death. One was gas, the other the bomb. A primitive form of respirator was given out in consequence of the use by the Germans of chlorine at the Second Battle of Ypres. Instruction was given in the use of bombs, of which the men had hitherto no knowledge. In those days the bomb first in use was the jam-tin bomb. The men were taught how to cut fuses, fix them into the detonator, attach the lighter and wire the whole together preparatory for use against the enemy. Jam-tin bombs were soon discarded for the Bethune bomb, and there was no regular bomb until much later, when the use of the Mills bomb became universal. The Hairbrush and Hales bombs were also studied in addition to the Bethune. A few also received some instruction in a rather primitive form of trench mortar.
In April, Lieut.-Colonel Lloyd, V.D., was invalided home, and in his stead Major T.J. Bolland took over the command of the Battalion.
THE BATTLE OF AUBERS RIDGE
The disastrous enterprise of the 9th May was the first major action of the war in which the "Ninth" took part. Shattered at its inception, the whole attack soon came to an end. The lack of high explosive shells and the consequent failure of the British artillery to destroy the enemy wire entanglements were probably the main causes of the holocaust that took place on that day. Though one of the biggest disasters the British arms sustained throughout the war, it was scarcely noted in the newspapers, and would seem to a casual observer quite insignificant compared with the sinking of the "Lusitania," which had taken place some days before, although in the battle it is believed that the 2nd Infantry Brigade lost a bigger proportion of men than had ever been previously known in warfare.
On the 8th May, the Battalion took up its battle position in rear of the Rue du Bois at Richebourg l'Avoue, and there awaited the attack on the morrow. The detail that obtained in battle orders of later dates was wanting, in view of the fact that greater responsibility was in the early days placed upon Commanding Officers. The Battalion was to support the attack as the third wave. The flanks were given and in the event of an advance the Battalion was to keep Chocolat Menier Corner on its immediate right. The fight commenced with an ordinary bombardment of forty minutes chiefly by field pieces, which according to the text book are primarily intended not for bombardment but for use against personnel. A battery of heavy howitzers was also in action. The ordinary bombardment was followed by an intense bombardment of ten minutes.
At 5-30 a.m. the Battalion advanced to the third line of trenches immediately in rear of the Rue du Bois, and several losses attributable to machine guns and shells were sustained. At 6-0 a.m. the Battalion was continuing the advance to the support line when the 2nd King's Royal Rifles asked for immediate support in the attack. The Battalion therefore passed over the support line and quickly reached the front line. The advent of a fresh unit made confusion the worse confounded. The trenches which afforded little shelter were filled with men, and the enemy was using his artillery freely. Machine guns in profusion were disgorging their several streams of bullets. Communication trenches had been blotted out. Despite the lessons of Neuve Chapelle there was no effective liaison between artillery and infantry as the telephone wires were soon cut, and as a consequence the inferno was intensified by the short firing of the British artillery, a battery of 6-inch howitzers being the chief offender.
Numerous casualties had been suffered, and among them was the Commanding Officer, who was killed. The command then passed to Major J.W.B. Hunt, who decided that it was useless to attempt to assault the enemy position without further artillery preparation, as the enemy's barbed wire was practically intact, and the only two gaps that were available were covered by enemy machine guns. A report on the situation was made to Brigadier-General Thesiger, and instructions were received that on no account was the Battalion to leave the front line, and it was to hold the same against a possible and probable counter attack by the enemy.
At 10-0 a.m. the Battalion was ordered to prepare to take part in a second attack to be launched at 11-15 a.m. Half an hour later a further order postponed the second attack until 12-30 p.m. Thousands had failed to take the objectives in the early morning, and it was unlikely that hundreds would succeed in the afternoon. This attack was ultimately cancelled, and at 4-0 p.m. the Battalion was withdrawn. A further attack was delivered in vain at 4-30 p.m. by other regiments in the Division. Though the Battalion unfortunately accomplished little, it sustained almost a hundred casualties, but it was fortunate in that it escaped the same fate as befell four of the Battalions in the Brigade which were almost annihilated. The battle from almost every point of view was a dismal failure, and the rate of casualties was perhaps the highest then recorded. It was during the 4-30 p.m. attack that the men were privileged to witness one of the most magnificent episodes of the war, which was the advance made by the 1st Battalion Black Watch and the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders. This was carried out with parade-like precision in face of a most withering rifle and machine-gun fire, out of which scarcely half a dozen of those brave fellows returned.
Relieved in the evening, the "Ninth" marched to Essars and the next day to billets at Bethune, and it was not until the 20th day of the month that the Battalion was again in line, this time at Cambrin. It had now come under the command of Major F.W. Ramsay, a regular officer from the Middlesex Regiment. The remainder of the month of May and the month of June were spent at Cambrin and Cuinchy, this latter place being renowned even in those days for its minenwerfer activity. The Cambrin sector had good deep trenches made by the French pioneers, which were strong, well timbered and comfortable. This was the first occasion the Battalion occupied trenches as distinguished from breast-works. Hitherto the nature of the ground had made trenches impossible. The trenches at Cuinchy were in front of a row of brickstacks, and in consequence of the water-logged nature of a portion of the front were only dug three feet down, and a sand-bag parapet was built; the trenches were not duckboarded, and were in consequence wet. Around each brickstack was built a keep, and this was garrisoned by a platoon in each case. Every time an enemy projectile hit a brickstack large quantities of broken bricks were scattered as splinters which multiplied the killing effect of the shell. In this sector there was considerable mining activity. The mine shafts, of which there were about three per company frontage, were each manned by two men who acted as listeners. As the front lines were only about twenty-five yards apart there was a considerable exchange of grenades.
No cooking was allowed in the trenches, as the smoke which would have been occasioned by cooking would only have encouraged enemy fire. Therefore ration and hot food parties had to go four times a day along a communication trench called Boyau Maison Rouge, one and a half miles long, and which was not duckboarded. After heavy rain it became very muddy, and the men cut down their trousers which led to the adoption of shorts throughout. Hosetops were improvised by cutting the feet off socks and later they were bought. The colour ranged at first from light heliotrope to flatman's blue, but later was standardized as salmon pink. The expense of providing these hosetops was a heavy drain on any available funds, but fortunately friends of the Battalion came to the rescue.
On relief from the Cambrin trenches on the 7th July the Battalion spent a little over a fortnight in Brigade and Divisional Reserves at Sailly Labourse and the Faubourg d'Arras in Bethune respectively. On the 25th it was in line at Vermelles. This sector was quiet except in that portion which was opposite the Hohenzollern Redoubt, from which huge aerial torpedoes were fired.
August was spent doing tours of duty in Annequin and Vermelles. During the last tour in Vermelles the whole Battalion assembled every night in no man's land and successfully dug under fire jumping-off trenches for the forthcoming operations, the casualties being comparatively few, owing to the speed with which the men dug.
During the first three weeks in September, the Battalion was out of the line and spent most of the time at Burbure, a quiet little village outside Lillers, where the men enjoyed a period of peace well removed from the battle zone. The training was devoted almost entirely to the practice of the attack preparatory to the impending fight.
During the summer a horse show took place in the First Division, and the "Ninth" secured all the prizes for mules, the first prize for a field kitchen and two jumping prizes, thus obtaining the second place in the Division for the total number of marks gained. This was a signal honour for a Territorial unit, and perhaps came as a surprise to some of the Regular soldiers, who thought that they were "the people." This demonstrated the fact that though the Battalion had but a few months' experience of active service, it had soon accustomed itself to the rigours of warfare, and that the transport section at any rate had attained a high pitch of efficiency. The horse shows which were held from time to time as occasion permitted provided diversions and did much to maintain a high standard of efficiency in the first line transport.
Improvements had been effected in the organisation of the Regiment since its advent to France. Clothing and food became more plentiful and the latter was better cooked. Efforts were made to improve the comfort of the men in billets. Proper sanitation was rigorously observed. Officers were encouraged to display the greatest solicitude for the welfare of the men, and the cumulative effect of these measures resulted in improved morale.
THE BATTLE OF LOOS.
For three weeks in September the Battalion practised the attack in Burbure, which it left on the 20th. Before leaving Burbure an amusing incident took place. The Battalion had paraded and was ready to move off. Suddenly two young women who were watching dashed into the ranks, embraced two of the men, kissed them with resounding smacks, and then disappeared in the gloom. The consternation of the two men caused great amusement to all. The "Ninth" moved up by stages, marching via Lapugnoy and Verquin, to its battle position in trenches by Le Rutoire Farm, which it reached on the 24th. The Battalion and the London Scottish formed a body called "Green's Force," to which was given as a first objective the German front line trenches in the vicinity of Lone Tree, as this objective was left uncovered by the diverging advance of the 1st Brigade on the right and the 2nd Brigade on the left.
In the grey light of the morning on the 25th September the British guns opened with a furious fire after many days of artillery preparation. The great battle had begun. For some time, and according to orders, the Battalion remained in its position. It was not to advance before 8-0 a.m. At this time the men left the assembly trench to move over the open to the front line. The enemy machine gunners had the range, and several were wounded almost on leaving the trench. The advance was made by sectional rushes, each section seeking what cover there was. Those who were wounded while actually advancing in many cases received slight wounds, but those that were hit while lying down were generally killed, as the bullets struck them in the head or traversed the vital organs for the length of the body. It required a courageous heart to advance seeing one's comrades thus desperately wounded or lying dead. The shell fire was not heavy, and few casualties were attributable to it. Lieutenant-Colonel Ramsay led the attack in person, and he was easily recognisable by the wand which he carried. One of the Battalion machine guns was pushed forward about 2-0 p.m. and under the covering fire it afforded the advance was continued. The advance had been slow and losses were severe, but at 3-30 p.m. the men had succeeded in establishing themselves in one line about a hundred yards from the German trenches. A few minutes afterwards the Germans surrendered, and between three and four hundred prisoners were taken. They chiefly belonged to the 59th and 157th Infantry Regiments. A harvest of souvenirs was reaped by the men, many of whom secured the then coveted Pickelhaube helmet. The prisoners were sent to the rear, and the Battalion continued the advance and ultimately established a line on the Lens-Hulluch Road. It is to be observed that the Battalion was the only one that got its field kitchens up to the village of Loos on the first day of the battle. At 4-0 a.m. next morning the Battalion was withdrawn to the old British line. Later in the day it moved forward to the old German trench system as reserve in the continued operations, sustaining several gas and shell casualties. On the 28th September the Battalion moved back to Mazingarbe, as the men thought, for a rest. They were soon disappointed. At 7 p.m. on the same day orders were received to take up a position at the Slag Heap or Fosse at Loos, known as London Bridge. At 9-0 p.m. the Battalion left its billets in a deluge of rain and marched back to the line in splendid spirits in spite of the fatigue resulting from the recent fighting. It was relieved from the trenches on the 30th September, and after one night spent in the ruined houses of Loos went to Noeux-les-Mines for a few days to re-organise and re-equip.
On the 7th October the Battalion returned to the front line which was alongside the Lens-Hulluch Road to the north of Loos. The trench had evidently once been the ditch on the side of the road. It was very shallow, and it was decided to deepen it the next night as the men were too tired after their long march. This was a good resolution, but it was not carried out. The enemy commenced next morning about half-past ten with heavy shell fire. In the afternoon it became intense and an attack seemed imminent. There was no shelter in the shallow trench, as there had not been sufficient time to make any dugouts. The men could do nothing but wait. Minutes seemed hours. The shelling appeared endless. So terrific was the enemy fire that it was doubted by the artillery observers in rear whether any of the front line garrison was left alive. All who might be lucky enough to escape physical destruction would at any rate be morally broken. The Germans who had concentrated in the Bois Hugo attacked about 4-30 p.m. They were repulsed by rifle and machine gun fire, and it is gratifying to know that two of the Battalion machine guns caught the enemy in enfilade and executed great havoc. So exhausted were the men that the Battalion was relieved that night and taken to the neighbourhood of Le Rutoire Farm.
Acquitting themselves with a noble fortitude, the stretcher bearers—whose task was, perhaps, the worst of all—remained and toiled all night in evacuating the trenches of the wounded. To stretcher bearers fall the most trying duties in war, but in accounts of battles little mention is made of their efforts. While the fight is on they share all the dangers of the private soldier, and often they have to remain when the others are relieved to finish their duty. The terrible sights of open wounds, bodies that have been minced by shell splinters, torn off limbs, dying men uttering their last requests, are enough to unnerve the bravest men. The stretcher bearers nevertheless continue with their task, well knowing what fate may soon befall them.
For the second time in a fortnight the 9th King's had been called upon to play an important part, and worthily had the men acquitted themselves on each occasion.
The following letters were received by the Battalion and show the value of the good work done:—
To G.O.C., IV. Corps.
This was a fine performance and reflects the greatest credit on all ranks.
I particularly admire the splendid tenacity displayed by our infantry in holding on to their trenches during so many long hours of heavy shell fire, and the skill with which they so gloriously repulsed with bomb and rifle the enemy's most determined onslaught.
Our gunners, too, must be complimented on their timely and accurate shooting. And lastly the Commanders, from General Davies downward, deserve praise for the successful combination of the two arms, for the handling of their units, and for the well-judged advance of the supports to the aid of those in the fire trenches.
I am very glad to hear of the great deeds of the 9th Battalion Liverpool Regiment on the 8th October. They have proved themselves most worthy comrades of the 1st Liverpools who started with me from Aldershot and have consistently fought like heroes all through the campaign.
Please convey my very hearty congratulation to all concerned and to the 1st Division, in which I am proud to see the determined fighting spirit is as strong as ever, in spite of heavy losses.
D. HAIG, General, Commanding 1st Army. 10th October, 1915.
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To 1st Division.
In forwarding Sir Douglas Haig's remarks, I desire to endorse every word he says, and to congratulate the Division on the well deserved praise it has received from the Army Commander. I hope before long to see them personally and to speak to them on parade.
H.S. RAWLINSON, Lieut.-General, Commanding IV. Corps. 11th October, 1915.
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1st Div. No. 604/2 (G). To 2nd Infantry Brigade.
The General Officer Commanding wishes to place on record his appreciation of the steady defence made by the 2nd Infantry Brigade against the German attack yesterday afternoon. He especially wishes to commend the soldierly qualities and discipline displayed by the 9th Liverpool Regiment and the 1st Gloucesters, which enabled them to endure the heavy shelling to which our front trenches were subjected, and there to meet and repulse with great loss the German infantry attack.
The result of yesterday's attack again proves how powerless the enemy's artillery is against good infantry, properly entrenched and the superiority of our own infantry over that of the enemy at close quarters.
The General Officer Commanding wishes to record his appreciation of the good work done by the artillery in support of the infantry.
H. LONGRIDGE, Lieut.-Colonel, General Staff, 1st Division. 9th October, 1915.
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The above remarks were communicated to the men, and they were all very proud of the achievement of their unit and that it had so highly distinguished itself in the defence of their country. For a few days the Battalion remained in support, sending forth working parties each night for the battle that was still continuing.
On the 13th October the 1st Division attacked the village of Hulluch. An intense barrage was directed against the enemy trenches in the early part of the afternoon, and after a discharge of cloud gas an attempt was made in vain to reach the enemy trenches. The 9th was held in close support, ready to exploit any success that was gained, but, unfortunately, the attack was a total failure. The Battalion came in for some very heavy retaliatory shell fire.
On the 14th October the Battalion was taken out of the line and marched to Noeux-les-Mines, where it entrained for Lillers. Here the men were accommodated in houses in the centre of the town in the vicinity of the Church and the Rue Fanien. The billets were good, the parades not severe, and several of the officers who were well quartered felt to some extent the comforts of a home. The training area was near Burbure, where the Battalion had trained for the battle. Many faces were missing that had been present at the jovial little gatherings that had taken place before the battle, and the survivors wondered at times who would be wanting at the next divisional rest.
As the parades were not onerous, there was plenty of time for recreation. Concerts were arranged in the local concert hall at which the latent talent of the Battalion came into evidence. Leave opened, and the prospect of a trip to England was cheering to those who expected one. The rest at Lillers was pleasantly spent and it was a long time before the men enjoyed a similar holiday.
On the 15th November the Battalion paraded on the Church Square and then marched to Houchin, a particularly dirty little village, where a week was spent. From there it went to Brigade Reserve in the mining village of Philosophe, in which, though very close to the line, a few civilians still remained. Butter, milk and other articles of food could be obtained from the French shop-keepers, and English newspapers could be bought in the streets the day after publication. It was a fairly quiet place, though one's hours were punctuated by the intermittent firing of a battery of 4.7 guns in the colliery in rear, which fired over the billets.
One of the Regular battalions of the 3rd Infantry Brigade was too weak in numbers to do trench duty, and the 9th had the honour of replacing it, and on the 26th November the Battalion found itself once more in the front line and in exactly the same position as the one in which it had so signally distinguished itself on the 8th October.
Snow was lying on the ground and it was freezing hard. Henceforth the men were to know the hardships of a winter campaign. There were no deep dugouts and there were not sufficient shelters for the men to sleep in. During the course of the winter, exposure alone killed some. Ever since the battle the Loos sector had been very active, especially on Sundays, and the trenches and alleys which led up to them were in a very wet condition. The numbers lost in the recent fighting had not been made up, and "C" Company, the weakest, had a trench strength all told of only 67 officers and men.
The relief from the front line on the night of the 29th November was particularly severe. Following the frost came rain on that particular day, and the relief was carried out on a very black night in a steady downpour, and everyone was quickly wet through. The trenches filled with water and the men had first to wade through deep sludge and then over rain-sodden ground ankle-deep in mud. The men's clothes became caked with the mud from the sides of the trench, which increased the weight to be carried.
During the tours of duty in this sector the paucity of the numbers and the length of the communication trenches made the difficulties of food supply very great. Behind the front line in the Loos sector was a devastated region extending backwards for over two miles. There seemed a big gap between the front line and any form of civilisation. Usable roads were wanting, so that the transport could not approach near to the Battalion. Consequently each company had to detail its own ration party of twenty to twenty-five men, and these would assemble just after dusk and wander along Posen or Hay Alley back to the vicinity of Lone Tree, and there pick up the rations and water from the transport wagons. The communication trenches contained a lot of water and caused great hardship to those men who were not fortunate enough to possess gum boots. These ration fatigues lasted from three to five hours, after which the men had to continue their trench duties. Each man cooked his rations as best he could, in his own mess tin; this meant that he did not get a hot meal which was so badly needed in the intensely cold weather.
In this sector there was a great shortage of water. Washing and shaving were impossible, and at times there was not enough to drink. On one occasion a man was known to have scraped the hoar frost off the sandbags to assuage his thirst, and some drank the dirty water that was to be found in shell craters.
At this time there was a great danger of a gas attack, and it was customary to have a bugler on duty in the front line to sound the alarm when gas was seen coming over—a scheme which was scarcely likely to be efficacious, for in a few moments he would have been gassed himself. Each man had two anti-gas helmets—one with a mica window, and the other with glass eyepieces and a tube through which to breathe out, and which was known later as a P.H. helmet. There were Vermorel Sprayers here and there in the trench, which were entrusted to the care of the sanitary men. Instruction was given from time to time in anti-gas precautions, but viewed from a subsequent standpoint these defensive measures were not good.
Steel helmets were in possession of the bombers, who were then called "Grenadiers," and wore little red cloth grenades on their arms. These helmets were called "bombing hats," and regarded as a nuisance. Each man of the Battalion had a leather jerkin and a water-proof cape, and the majority had a pair of long gum boots.
There was only one Verey light pistol in each company, and this was carried by the officer on duty. There was no special S.O.S. signal to the artillery. Telephonic communication from the front line existed, and this was freely used. It was not known at the time that the enemy had evolved a means whereby he could hear these conversations. To prevent an illness known as "trench feet" each man had to grease his feet daily with whale oil, which was an ordeal on a bitterly cold day in wet, muddy trenches. With such meticulous care was this done that the Battalion had not more than three cases of trench feet during the whole of that winter—a circumstance which reflects much credit on the men. The defence scheme at this time was to hold the front line in the greatest strength available, and the supports were rather far away. The system of echeloned posts had not yet been developed. Machine guns were kept in the first trench and on account of the intense cold had to be dismounted and kept by lighted braziers to keep the lubricating oil and water in their jackets from freezing. The entanglement in front was very poor and consisted only of one fence.
When not in the line the Battalion rested at Noeux-les-Mines or Mazingarbe. At this latter village Christmas Day was spent. Companies were told to make their own arrangements for providing the men with a good dinner on this day. The officers provided the funds and the difficulties of supply were overcome through the aid of Monsieur Levacon, the French interpreter attached to the Battalion. Pigs and extra vegetables were bought; apples and oranges came from somewhere. After great exertions a few barrels of beer came on the scene. Christmas puddings came from England. The school at Mazingarbe made an excellent dining room for two of the companies and through the kindness of a Royal Engineer company in the village the officers were able to secure the necessary timber to improvise tables and chairs. The dinner was a great success and contributed not a little to the good feeling which existed between officers and men.
The next day the Battalion returned to the line. Though not known at the time this was to be the last tour of duty with the 1st Division. Early in January the truth became known that the Battalion was to leave the Division, and on the 7th it proceeded by train to Hocquincourt.
In the 1st Division it had had the honour of serving alongside some of the most illustrious regiments of the Regular Army. The example set by these famous regiments was readily copied, and in some respects emulated, and it is not untrue to say that none of these Regular battalions assumed an air of superiority, but displayed a sense of admiration that Territorial soldiers could have so quickly learnt the profession of war. So good was the human material in the Battalion that, in the space of a few months spent on active service, a body of men picked in a desultory fashion from various trades and occupations was quickly formed into an entity which was able to take its place alongside experienced units of the Army.
The Regiment had already won its laurels at the Battle of Loos. Its glorious achievements were known in Liverpool. It was a Battalion to which all its members were proud to belong. The fame of a military body is a bond of unity which those who have not been soldiers can scarcely understand. The reputation of one's regiment is a matter of personal pride. It is a kind of cement which holds it together at all times. The old spirit soon permeates the newcomers, the recruits become imbued with the spirit which led the veterans to victory, and so it was with this Battalion.
THE 55TH DIVISION.
The West Lancashire Division was formed in the Hallencourt area under the command of Major-General H.S. Jeudwine, and given the number 55. The Battalion entered the 165th Infantry Brigade in this Division. This brigade which was commanded by Brigadier-General F.J. Duncan, was entirely composed of Liverpool battalions, namely, the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th King's. In the Brigade the officers and men had the pleasure of meeting friends they had known at home in Liverpool, comrades with whom they were destined to serve for the next two years, principally in Artois and Ypres. Friendly rivalry soon sprang up between the various battalions in the Brigade which made for efficiency and put all on their "mettle." Everyone naturally believed that his was the battalion par excellence, not only in the Brigade but in the whole Division.
The 9th was first billeted in Hocquincourt, a little French village near Hallencourt. Viewed from a distance the village looked picturesque, with the red tiled roofs of the houses contrasted against the sombre winter sky, but a closer inspection revealed a different picture. The houses were rickety, the billets poor, and the conditions insanitary. So backward were the peasants in agriculture that they still adhered to the use of the old-fashioned flails for thrashing corn. The Battalion moved on the 20th January to Merelessart about two miles away, where better quarters were found particularly for the Battalion headquarters, which occupied a somewhat pretentious chateau replete with all modern conveniences including baths, which were very unusual in private houses in the war area.
Here the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ramsay, D.S.O., left the Battalion on his promotion to the rank of Brigadier-General. Before he left he made a speech to the men and published the following "Farewell Order":—
On relinquishing command of the Battalion to take over command of the 48th Infantry Brigade, the Commanding Officer wishes to express his regret at leaving the Regiment, which he has had the honour of commanding for the last eight months, and his gratitude for the loyal way in which all ranks have supported him.
The Commanding Officer is very sensible of the fact that the excellent work done by the Regiment has gained for him his decoration and promotion.
Later in the war he received promotion and commanded the 58th (London) Division as Major General.
While at Merelessart the usual training took place. There was little work done as a complete unit not much attention being paid to tactical work. A rifle range was at the disposal of the Battalion on which the companies were able to fire a few practices and so keep up their musketry.
It is worthy of remark that of the officers serving with the companies at this time approximately two-thirds were subsequently killed during the course of the war, while the survivors were almost all wounded at some time or other.
Early in February orders came along to the effect that the Division was to go into line, and on the 6th February the Battalion left Merelessart and marched to Longpre where the night was spent, and the next day it reached Berteaucourt-les-Dames. A few days were spent here, during which Major C.P. James took over the command of the Battalion, and afterwards it marched via Doullens to Amplier, and after a night's rest in some huts there it reached Berles-au-Bois the next day. En route it passed through Pas, where there was a steep hill which presented such difficulties to the transport section that they remembered it when they returned in two year's time. At Berles-au-Bois the men were billeted in the ruined village. This was the first experience the Battalion had of a really tranquil front.
This village lay within a mile of the front line, and it seemed uncanny to be so near the enemy and yet to hear so few shots fired. Indeed it was almost too good to be true. The unit did not take over the defence of this area, and orders came soon that on the 15th the Battalion was to take over a sector on the Wailly front, where it was to relieve a battalion of the 81ieme Regiment Territoriale. Accordingly very early in the morning of that day the Battalion marched to Monchiet in sleet and rain under cover of darkness along roads which in daylight were exposed to the view of the enemy, and on arrival the short day was spent in endeavouring to get dry. Monchiet later became the location of the transport lines and Quartermaster's store.
Having sent an advance party to General Xardel's headquarters at Beaumetz to effect liaison, and to meet French guides, the Battalion paraded towards evening, left Monchiet, picked up the guides en route and marched to Wailly. The day had been one of blizzards and the night of the relief was black and wet. Added to these circumstances was the difficulty of understanding the directions of the Frenchmen, the Battalion's knowledge of their language being not very extensive. Towards midnight, thoroughly drenched, hungry and weary after a heavy day, the men were ultimately put in their proper stations, some in the village and others in the trenches.
From the appearance of the houses Wailly had been a prosperous farming village lying within a short distance of Arras. Agricultural implements of the latest manufacture were in evidence, and these could only have been bought by peasants with some capital. This village was to be the Battalion's home for the next five months. The Battalion first did a month alternating in position between the front line and the village. For some days while in the front line the Battalion was in touch with the 27ieme Regiment d'Infanterie, which had a sentry post in its area composed of men from one of the companies who readily fraternised with the fantassins. This regiment belonged to a division of the French Active Army, and in consequence its efficiency was of a very high order. Nowhere had anyone seen trenches so well revetted and so neatly constructed as those occupied by this French regiment. The trenches stood out in marked contrast to those actually taken over by the Battalion, whose former occupants, the French Territorials, had left them in a very bad condition.
The trenches had not been revetted or duckboarded, and during the first month of the Battalion's occupation there was a good deal of snow, and when this melted the sides of the trenches commenced to crumble, making them very muddy at the bottom. In consequence of this mud they became almost impassable. For the men doing trench duty the conditions were bad enough. The man on post had to stand on the fire step for hours in damp clothes, shivering in the freezing cold, knowing that when his tour of duty was over all he could look forward to was the cold damp floor of a dugout on which to rest his weary body. For the ration parties the conditions were almost worse. The meals were cooked in the field kitchens in the village, and fatigue parties to carry up the meals were found by the support company which was in a trench called by the French the Parallele des Territoriaux. Many of the men will never forget the innumerable times they trudged heavily laden with a dixie of tea or stew through the mud in the tortuous communication trenches Boyau Eck, Sape 7, and the Boyau des Mitrailleuses. At times these trenches became so muddy that on one or two occasions reliefs had to be carried out over the top under cover of darkness. It was risking a good deal to line up a whole company outside the trench a few yards in rear of the front line, knowing that an enemy machine gun was located about a hundred yards away, and that the machine gunner might fire an illuminating flare at any moment, and so expose the men to his view.
It was during the first tour at Wailly that Major C.G. Bradley, D.S.O., assumed command on the 29th February.
After having done a month in the Wailly sector, the Battalion was taken on the 14th March for a week in Brigade Reserve. Though the Battalion only got into billets at 1 a.m., after a four mile march, a working party had to be found at 8-30 a.m. for work on a Divisional show ground, which was a place where model trenches were dug to show the uninitiated how things ought to be done. Tasks like these were regarded as onerous by the men, who were led to expect some period of rest when not in the advanced positions.
After a few days in Beaumetz the Battalion returned to Wailly, and until June continued to do three tours of duty at Wailly, two in the front line and one in the village, to one in Brigade Reserve at Beaumetz, the whole cycle lasting a month.
The enemy having in line opposite the 78th Landwehr Regiment, the sector was very quiet, though the British did what they could to liven things up in the way of artillery shoots and indirect machine gun fire at night on the roads behind the enemy lines.
The general defence scheme at first was not very elaborate. Three companies manned the front line with one in support. Great attention was paid to bombing posts, and the defence scheme always contained a plan for a counter attack by the bombers, who were organised as a separate section, working directly under the orders of the Commanding Officer. They were given simple schemes and exercises in counter-attack while in the trenches. For example the non-commissioned officer in command of a squad would be told that the enemy had entered a particular sector of the trench. He would then block the trench or deliver an imaginary counter attack along the trench with the object of dislodging the fictitious enemy, as the case might require. The companies were trained to take shelter in the dugouts in the event of a heavy bombardment and immediately on its cessation to re-man the front line. In the village when the Battalion was in support it held three centres of resistance known from right to left as Petit Moulin, Wailly Keep, and Petit Chateau. Wailly Keep was a fortified farm on the fringe of the village, with loop-holed walls and the adjacent roads barricaded. It was a relic of the French defence scheme and was sound.
The strictest precautions were taken against a gas attack. Each man had two P.H. helmets which he had to keep with him at all times. Moreover, sentries were instructed how to recognise gas and sound the alarm immediately they noticed enemy gas. Large cartridge cases from the guns were used as gas gongs, and Strombos horns were installed so as to spread the alarm quickly should occasion arise. This was a much better scheme than the one in which the bugler was to sound the alarm. As the lines were near there was some danger of a flammenwerfer attack, so the whole Battalion was taken on the 17th March to a demonstration, and shown what to do should such an attack take place. One Lewis gun was given to each company in place of the machine guns which were taken away from the Battalion, and the Stokes mortar made its appearance in the trenches. This was an over-rated weapon. Its range was very limited and it was soon out-distanced by similar German weapons. Its bombs were essentially for use against personnel at a range when rifles would have been cheaper and more efficacious. Its bombs were not heavy enough for use against earthworks, and wrought little damage on trenches. Its use and its ammunition supply entailed large carrying parties which robbed the companies of the men and sapped their energy.
In May steel helmets were made part of every man's equipment, and a square green patch on the back of the tunic became the Battalion distinguishing mark. The steel helmets were the means of saving many lives, and were covered with the same material as the sandbags were made of, for purposes of camouflage.
One night early in April a patrol consisting of a corporal and a private was sent to examine and report on the enemy wire in front of a particular sap head. At this point there were only seventy yards or so between the British trench and the enemy sap heads, which were swathed in a dense mesh of barbed wire. There were but few shell craters, little artillery fire being directed on the front line when the lines were close owing to the danger of short firing; and the grass being short there was little or no cover. The night had been very quiet. Scarcely a rifle shot had broken the silence. The patrol must have made some noise, and so aroused the attention of the enemy sentry in the sap head who fired an illuminating flare. The light betrayed the presence of the patrol to the enemy, who opened fire and wounded both of the men. Afterwards the enemy kept firing illuminating flares and maintained a lively rifle and machine gun fire, so that any attempt at rescue was impossible. At dawn the enemy put up a flag of truce and a party of them came out and gently lifted the wounded into their own trench. It was noticed that the enemy were wearing the old blue uniform of the German Army instead of the feldgrau uniform, and that they carried tin canisters in which they had their gas masks. This rescue was accomplished at great risk to the enemy as they did not know that the British would refrain from firing; and the incident proves that at any rate there were some among the Germans who would do the honourable thing. When the Battalion was at Ypres about a year afterwards a letter came saying that the graves of the two men had been found with an appropriate inscription in the German language.
In this sector there was much work to be done. The trenches, which were in a state of decay after the frosts and rains of the winter, had to be duckboarded and revetted. Besides sandbagging the front line the Battalion, in conjunction with the relieving unit, the 7th King's, constructed a new support line known as Parallel B., in which was accommodated, when it was complete, a portion of the front line garrison. The wire needed attention as well. The French had covered the front with a chain of chevaux de frise, but this was not considered a sufficient obstacle, so that concertina wire and "gooseberries" had to be put out in front of the chevaux de frise. The wiring parties had a very difficult task, as they had to work about forty yards away from the enemy, who were often engaged on similar work. Also the men had to work in front of the chevaux de frise, and they would have had great difficulty in getting back to their own lines should they have been surprised by the enemy. Besides this, innumerable rifle racks, bomb stores, machine gun emplacements and other works of a similar nature were completed. In addition to this the men had to form large carrying parties to carry large elephant sections and other material to the Quarry for use by dugout construction parties of the Royal Engineers.
At this period the trench discipline attained a high standard as the men had been together for some months and free from heavy casualties, and it is well here to digress for a while and record what trench duty really meant. "Stand to" would be at say 3-30 a.m., shortly before dawn. At this time all would man the parapet and wait until it became daylight. The rifles, ammunition, gas helmets, and feet of the men would be inspected by the platoon officer. This generally took about an hour and a half. Afterwards the men not actually on duty would wash and shave. Shaving in the trenches was made compulsory in March, as it was thought that it kept the men from deteriorating and would prevent any tendency to slovenliness. There was little water for such a purpose, and consequently it was particularly arduous in a muddy trench, and it is doubtful whether the benefits derived were worth it. Breakfast would take place between six and seven. Afterwards the men got what sleep they could during the day, but they were constantly interrupted by sentry duty, meals, shell fire, and occasionally a fatigue. The activity of night replaced little by little the tranquility of the day. Towards sunset came evening "stand to" and more inspections. After nightfall patrols would go out, and wiring parties for the renovation and repair of the wire, ration parties for the food, and working parties to keep the trenches in good condition would be detailed. The men got no sleep at night, and in fact very little at all. Trench duty was exacting and exhausting from a physical point of view alone, but to this was added the continual attrition of numbers on account of shell and rifle fire.
In May the weather was glorious and the face of the countryside assumed a pleasant aspect. The trees were in full leaf. Wild flowers in profusion adorned the trenches, and larks in numbers hovered in the clear blue skies above the trenches and sang sweetly in the early mornings. The sunsets viewed from the front line were particularly beautiful. The lines of trees on the Beaumetz-Arras road became silhouetted black against the skyline, reddened by the setting sun, which produced a wonderful effect.
As the summer advanced the front became more active. Shell fire increased, and the British artillery, having a more liberal supply of ammunition, expended it more lavishly than had been formerly the case. In July the Battalion left the sector immediately in front of Wailly and took over that in front of Blaireville Wood, which was held by the enemy.
On the 28th June a series of raids took place on the Divisional front, which were covered by a discharge of cloud gas. A party from the Battalion took part in the raid, and two officers were able to enter an enemy sap but they did not manage to secure any prisoners. The junior of the two officers was unfortunately killed, being shot through the head. In retaliation for the raids the enemy brought up, on the 2nd July, what was called a "Circus" consisting of several 150 m.m. and 210 m.m. howitzers on railway mountings, with which he utterly destroyed the front line trenches for a distance of two hundred yards, blew in several mined dugouts, and inflicted heavy casualties on "D" Company. In some respects this was the heaviest and most destructive bombardment that had been endured by the Battalion up to this time, though it was not so prolonged as that of the 8th October, 1915.
On the 8th July, after five months continuous duty in the forward zone, the Battalion went into Divisional Reserve at Gouy-en-Artois, where the Battalion was housed in hutments close by the Divisional School.
The Somme Battle had commenced, and there was every likelihood of the Division being called upon either to attack on the front it already held or as reinforcements. In consequence the Battalion, which had had very little training for the past five months, turned its attention to practising the attack in some cornfields near the hutments it occupied.
The attack was henceforth to be made by successive waves of men and to each wave was assigned a particular objective. Following these attacking waves there came what were called "moppers up," whose task was to deal with any of the enemy who might have hidden in dugouts and so escaped the attention of the attackers. Recent lessons of the Somme Battle costing many lives had brought about the necessity for the institution of moppers up. The rear waves were also to act as carrying parties. One man had to carry a coil of wire, another a spade, another a screw picket, and so on. The reason for this was, that when the enemy trenches had been captured, the enemy might cut off all supplies by means of an intense barrage on no man's land, and it was necessary for the attacking troops to have sufficient material at hand to enable them to put the captured positions into a state of defence immediately, and thus be able to resist a counter-attack. Model trenches were marked out and much good work was done in the attack practices that took place. Large drafts arrived and the Battalion was soon in excellent form. The cleanliness and smart appearance of the men while in the village drew forth the special praise of the Divisional Commander.
At Gouy a Battalion concert party was formed, and a concert was given in a large barn which formed part of the Divisional Canteen. The doctor composed some verses for the occasion in which there was plenty of local colour.
In June a Divisional horse show had taken place at which the Battalion again distinguished itself. "C" Company cooker again took first prize in the Division, and the Battalion secured the second place for the total number of marks gained.
The days spent in this sector were comparatively pleasant. The front had been quiet, and although the work was arduous casualties were few, and leave was regular. In the light of later experience the time spent in Wailly was very comfortable indeed, and during the next two months many wished they could return.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME.
About the 20th July the Battalion left Gouy-en-Artois for the scene of battle. To begin with this meant a three days' march to the entraining locality. The first day the Battalion got to Sus St. Leger where the night was spent, and by the end of the second day the Battalion was at Halloy. On the third day, after a long tiring march in hot weather along dusty roads, the Regiment marched into Autheux. After a few days here the Battalion entrained late one evening for the front, and next morning it detrained at Mericourt. The first sight that the men beheld on quitting the train was a prisoners' camp, in which were many Germans, living evidence of the activity a few miles in front. The Battalion was billeted in Mericourt for two days. Here there was every indication of activity. Having been on a quiet front for several months the men were not used to the whir of a busy railhead. All manner of vehicles, guns, and other impedimenta of war were in evidence, and everyone was surprised to see some of Merryweather's fire engines, which were probably required for pumping purposes.
On the 29th the Battalion left Mericourt for what was known as "The Happy Valley," outside Bray. During the march the soldiers saw a mile or two away an enormous column of smoke ascend. Something terrible had taken place. An ammunition dump must surely have been blown up. It was not a very pleasant prospect for those who were new to that kind of thing. The mystery of the column of smoke was never clearly elucidated. The Happy Valley was scarcely correctly named. The weather was exceedingly hot, there were no billets, and consequently the men had to bivouac. The Valley had one great drawback; there were no wells in the vicinity from which water could be drawn. Owing to this shortage, the water-men had a very onerous task as water was obtainable only at Bray, and thither the water carts had to go, making as many journeys as possible during the day, to obtain water for the thirsty troops. The Battalion in this locality was in touch with the French, from whom the officers managed to secure some of the French ration wine which proved very acceptable.
On the 30th the Battalion moved to a place by Fricourt, and pitched a camp which it left two days later for a bivouac area by Bronfay Farm, near Carnoy. From this place the officers went forward on reconnaissance. They saw for the first time Bernafay and Trones Woods, which then had achieved great notoriety. To the neighbourhood of these woods the Battalion sent forward night working parties. Only with the greatest difficulty did these parties get to their rendezvous, and little work was done on account of the intensity of the enemy shell fire.
In the evening of the 3rd August the Battalion paraded and marched towards the fighting, leaving behind a small percentage to form a nucleus should all its fighting personnel perish. The march was wearying. The enemy guns were active, the weather hot, and packs heavy. After a long trudge the Briqueterie was reached, a dangerous and dreaded spot, for it was periodically swept with shell fire. At last the companies got to their allotted stations in the reserve trenches. Many had not yet experienced the terrors of heavy shell fire, which by its very nature was intended to produce an unnerving effect. The next day started fairly quietly. On the right the men could see what was known as Death Valley. This was rightly so called. Being obscured from the enemy's view, it was a covered means of approach to the infantry positions in front, and afforded at the same time cover for the guns. On this account it was never free from shell fire, and was littered with corpses of men and horses.
In the afternoon the Battalion had to take over the front line in the neighbourhood of Arrow Head Copse in front of Guillemont. Passing along Death Valley the Battalion got caught in heavy shell fire, and sixty casualties took place almost immediately. It required a stout heart to march cheerfully forward when seeing one's companions who had gone a little in front coming back on stretchers, or lying dead alongside the path.
When the two leading companies arrived at Arrow Head Copse they manned trenches varying in depth from a few inches to three feet, which afforded little protection against shell fire. The dead, many of whom belonged to the Liverpool Pals Brigade, were visible lying stark and numerous on the battlefield. The weary desolation, and the unmitigated waste of equipment, clothing, and life passes all description. This was the Somme battlefield, of which one had heard so much. To those who had seen much of the war, the thought came that nothing could be worse than this.
The next day was a day of incessant shell fire on both sides. On the British side it was the bombardment prior to the attack on Guillemont. The fire was terrific. The terrible concussions of the high explosive shells assailed both ears and nerves, and kept up a pall of dust over the trenches. The whizzing and swirling of the shells was incessant. Some whined, others moaned, and others roared like express trains. Light shells passed with an unearthly shriek. It was useless taking any notice of the lighter shells. They had come and burst before one realised what had happened. The heavier shells, particularly those that were timed to burst in the air, were very trying, and when they burst over Trones Wood the noise reverberated through what remained of the trees, and so became extraordinarily intensified. To expect the explosions of the shells knowing they were on their way and to hear them coming, not knowing whether they would be fatal or not, was the worst part of the ordeal. Such a condition of turmoil and torment must have been meant by the words of Dante in his description of Hell.
"La bufera infernal che mai non resta."
Every now and then a man was hit. Those killed outright were perhaps spared much agony, and the wounded were lucky if they reached the aid post alive. Many got shell shock which affected men in different ways. One would be struck dumb, another would gibber like a maniac, while a third would retain possession of his reason but lose control of his limbs.
For two days in the sultry heat the Battalion endured the terrible strain of this awful shell fire, the men receiving no proper food and water being unprocurable. Then the Battalion was relieved and taken into support, where three or four days were spent, and on the 10th two companies moved to the Maltz Horn position. The next night the two remaining companies moved up. The devastation in the neighbourhood of Cockrane Alley was worse than at Guillemont. Here the men witnessed the full terrors of the stricken field. Living men dwelt among the unburied dead. Booted feet of killed soldiers protruded from the side of the trench. Here and there a face or a hand was visible. Corpses of dead soldiers with blackening faces covered with flies were rotting in the sun, and the reek of putrifying flesh was nauseating. Added to this the heat was overpowering, the artillery was firing short, and there was little or no water obtainable.
The Battalion was in touch with the French, and there were a few Frenchmen in the trenches with the men. On the 12th August the French attacked with great success and captured the village of Maurepas.
Between the two armies there was a wide broken-in trench running from the Allied towards the German lines. For some time before zero the Allied artillery kept up an incessant barrage on the German lines. The shells fired by the French were noticeable by a much sharper report. At zero the French attacked on the right of Cockrane Alley, advancing at a run in small groups of from eight to twelve men, and they got a good distance without any casualties. Then one by one the Frenchmen commenced to fall, and on reaching the enemy line the French company immediately on the right of the Battalion met with strong resistance. None came back and it is thought that almost every man perished. Meanwhile the two companies of the Battalion attacked in waves on the left of Cockrane Alley. They got eighty or ninety yards without difficulty, when the enemy opened a heavy machine gun fire, and the ground being convex the attackers formed a good target. The Commander of the right company who led his company from the right so as to be in touch with the bombers in Cockrane Alley, though twice wounded, still continued the advance until he was shot dead. His example was emulated by the Company Sergeant Major who perished in similar circumstances. Meanwhile the bombers were endeavouring to work their way down Cockrane Alley. The trench became shallower, and on reaching a road it disappeared. As the bombers emerged on to the road they were shot down one by one. The enemy then turned their machine guns on to Cockrane Alley, and raked it with fire until it became a shambles. Most of the men of the two companies were casualties, and many were killed. A few stragglers who were able to take cover in shell craters managed to return later under cover of darkness.
What became of the wounded lying out between the lines was never known, as any attempt at rescue was impossible. As most of the stretcher bearers with the companies were themselves incapacitated through wounds the rapid evacuation of the wounded even in the trenches was impossible, and moreover the aid post at Headquarters was under heavy artillery fire, so that it was only at great risk to the bearers that the wounded could be cleared at all from the trenches.
For the French the day had been very successful. They had captured Maurepas, but for the Battalion it was a total failure. However, the work done earned for the Battalion the praise of the Corps Commander, expressed in an order published the next day, which was as follows:—
The Corps Commander wishes you to express to the Companies engaged last night his admiration, and that of the French who saw them, for the gallant and strenuous fight they put up.
Had the ravine been captured by the French, there is no doubt our objective could have been realised.
13th August, 1916.
On the 13th the Battalion was relieved and the men, tired out, slowly wended their way down Death Valley to Maricourt, passing many corpses, and then to the bivouac area near Bronfay Farm they had left about ten days before. Many who had marched away in the fullness of their health and strength did not return. The next day a short move was made to Ville-sur-Ancre, one of the few villages which contained a shop. Shortly afterwards the Battalion moved by train to Ramburelles, not far from the coast. Of all the villages the Battalion had ever visited, this was perhaps the most insanitary. The men lived in barns almost on top of manure heaps, and in consequence of the heat the number of flies was great. Baths of late had been very few and consequently the men suffered considerably from lice.
Arduous training was the order of the day. Seven or eight hours each day were devoted to work, while what the men most needed was rest. They were exhausted after their late experience, and they were overworked by the excessive training. Many were further weakened by the fact that septic sores were very prevalent owing to the insanitary conditions among which the men lived.
At this period the Battalion routine orders, which were supposed to be issued early in the afternoon were, for some unknown reason, always received very late in the day and sometimes after ten o'clock at night. As the Company Commanders had then to issue orders it meant that much unnecessary waiting and work was caused.
At Ramburelles so as to evade the heat of the day the Battalion paraded at 7 a.m. for a four-hours' parade, and then left off until late in the afternoon. This scheme worked well only in theory. A lot had to be done out of parade hours, which meant that the officers and men were very much overworked. Sunday brought no respite. The Sunday previous to leaving the place, the men were engaged on a work of supererogation until 8-30 p.m., digging bombing trenches which were never used.
While at Ramburelles seaside leave was granted to some of the officers, who were able to spend two or three days away from the Battalion and enjoy for a while the comforts of a seaside town. One or two, acting in the belief that the Battalion would not return to the fight for some time, postponed their trip, and on the very day that they arrived at Delville Wood they remembered that that was the day they should have been basking in the sun at Le Treport. Such is the folly of procrastination. On the 28th August the command devolved on Major P.G.A. Lederer, M.C., as the Commanding Officer had been evacuated sick. On the 30th August the Battalion marched by a tortuous route to Pont Remy, where it entrained and arrived next day at Mericourt. It eventually was installed in close billets at Dernancourt for a few days.
On the 4th September the Battalion marched to Montauban. On the march Major H.K.S. Woodhouse took over the command, and the officers were introduced to him during the dinner halt. Montauban was not a very pleasant place, particularly as the weather was rainy, and as the companies were distributed among the field guns they came in for considerable shell fire.
On the 7th September the Battalion moved up to the front positions between Delville Wood and High Wood. The shell fire in this area was terrific. The enemy guns never stopped firing day or night at the means of approach to the Battalion's position along the side of Delville Wood. At night the Battalion had to send working parties into the neutral ground between the lines to dig what were somewhat incorrectly known as strong points. When these were finished they were garrisoned by a platoon in each case. The small garrisons of these strong points were quite cut off during the day as no movement was possible on account of snipers. Food and water could only be brought up at night, and were a man wounded he would have to remain without attention until darkness. A prisoner was taken belonging to the 5th Bavarian Regiment, which showed that the Bavarians were in line opposite.
On the 9th there was a big attack by the British. The 16th Division attacked on the right in front of Delville Wood, and the 1st Division on the left, and consequently the Battalion was in the very centre of the fight. The garrisons of the strong points being cut off as they were, did not receive news of the attack. Suddenly in the afternoon after a comparatively quiet morning the artillery on both sides became very active, both the British and German artillery developing intense barrages. To the men in the strong points this presaged an enemy attack, and the order was given to be ready to fire the moment the enemy should come into view. The members of these small garrisons knew there would be no hope for them, as they would soon have been surrounded and annihilated, and most probably all of them bayoneted. Fortunately the attack was by the British and these eventualities did not arise. The Battalion was relieved during the next two days and went into reserve at Buire-sur-Ancre. After a few days here it moved to a bivouac area at E. 15 a., outside Dernancourt. Though this was some considerable distance behind the front line the enemy forced the Battalion to evacuate this area by firing at it with a long-ranged gun. In the evening there was a cinema show in the open, at which were shown pictures of the Somme Battle. It was very strange to see the soldiers keenly interested in the pictures of what shell fire was like when there were actual shells falling about half a mile away, and they had been shelled out of their camp that very afternoon. The British Army had made a successful attack on the 15th September, and on the 17th the Battalion went into line again at Flers, where two miserable days were spent in an incessant downpour of rain and very heavy shell fire. On relief it came back to the transport lines at Pommier Redoubt.
On the 23rd the Battalion paraded, leaving behind its surplus personnel and moved up to Flers for the attack. Orders were received the next day that the attack was to take place on the 25th, and that zero was to be at 12-35 p.m. The objective allotted to the "Ninth" was from Seven Dials to Factory Corner, which meant an advance of 1,000 yards. At 7-30 a.m. the barrage commenced and lasted for hours, and increased in intensity as the moment for the advance drew nearer. At zero the Battalion advanced in four waves, the distance between the waves being 100 yards. The first wave had to keep close to the creeping barrage of shrapnel. Of the last wave scarcely a man survived, as it came in for the enemy barrage which the leading waves had escaped. The bombers took an enemy strong point and fought their way along Grove Alley and got to work with the bayonet, inflicting many casualties on the enemy and taking several prisoners. This was the first experience the men had of advancing under cover of a creeping barrage of shrapnel and the first occasion that they saw tanks in action. The attack was a great success and reflected no little credit on the Battalion. Everyone of the Headquarters personnel present will remember the Advanced Headquarters being blown up and the signallers and runners sustaining many casualties. During the same evening two companies of another unit came to the trench occupied by Headquarters. They tried to enter the trench at the same spot and crowded close on each other. At this time the enemy suddenly dropped four 5.9 shells among the crowded men. Next morning forty-seven dead were counted.
The next day the Battalion was relieved, and by small stages the remnants of the companies made their way to Buire-sur-Ancre. This was the Battalion's last time in action on the Somme, and it presented a very changed aspect to its first arrival on this battlefield. Companies were reduced to the size of platoons, and platoons to sections or less. During the battle about 650 casualties had been sustained, including fifteen officers dead. This was a large incision into the fighting strength, and it was a long time before these losses were made up.
For the Battalion the Somme Battle with its terrible holocausts, incessant shell fire and continuous slaughter, was at an end, but there was no respite for the weary soldier. There was to be no rest or period for recuperation. The Regiment was ordered to Ypres immediately. Tired and exhausted, the men were taken out of the Somme inferno, having lost many of their comrades, and with weary bodies and heavy hearts they faced the prospect of the untold terrors of the fatal city of Ypres.
The journey to Ypres was long. First the Battalion entrained at Mericourt in the afternoon of Sunday the 1st October. At midnight the men detrained at Longpre and marched to Cocquerel, arriving at 3 a.m. the next day. The men then bivouacked until reveille at 6-30 a.m. At 8-30 a.m. the Regiment was again on the march to Pont Remy, where it entrained for Esquelbecq, where it arrived at 9-30 p.m., and marched to billets at Wormhoudt. Two days were spent here, and this afforded the men the rest they so badly needed. The state of the Battalion can be gauged from the fact that at Wormhoudt only one company commander had a subaltern.
On the 4th October the Battalion entrained on a light railway, and soon reached Poperinghe, where it remained until darkness and then entrained on a broad gauge train at Poperinghe Station for Ypres. It was a new experience for the men to be in a train and yet within range of the enemy's artillery. The personnel detrained just by the railway station at Ypres and went into billets close by. Little could be seen of the city in the dark. Stillness pervaded the area that night, and after the Somme Battle the quietness was uncanny.
The next day the men had an opportunity of seeing the city that had suffered so much in the war. It must have been subjected to many a tornado of shells, for there was not a single house untouched and very few had roofs. A few shells fell in the Square during the morning, but that was all. To the men it was a great relief to be in a quiet area after such a place as the Somme. Ypres was not as bad as had been expected.
The trenches were to be taken over at once. The officers reconnoitred the line during the afternoon, and towards evening the Battalion paraded and marched along the Rue de Stuers, the Rue au Beurre, past the Cloth Hall, through the Square, and the Menin Gate towards Potijze. Afterwards it took over the sector from the Roulers Railway to Duke Street with Headquarters in Potijze Wood. Four days only had elapsed since it had left the Somme railhead. This area was to be the Battalion's battle station for several months to come, and many times were the companies to repeat the journey they had just completed. It was to take part in two big battles in the vicinity and add greatly to its honours and leave many of its members entombed in soldiers' graves in what was to be perhaps the biggest graveyard of its kind in the world.
The Ypres sector was very quiet, but there was every danger of a gas attack, and the Battalion received the strictest warnings from the relieved unit, which had lost many men two months before through inattention to precautionary measures. The first night that the Battalion went into the line there was an alarm, but as the wind at the moment was in a safe quarter its falsity was immediately recognised. The men at this time had only the then out-of-date P.H. helmet. These helmets were changed in the course of a week or two for the more efficacious box respirators, which remained with slight modifications until the end of the war as the soldiers' protection against enemy gas. The enemy artillery was very quiet, and obviously the British had the artillery ascendancy, and it was surmised that this was attributable to the fact that he had removed his artillery to the Somme. The minenwerfers were active and so were the enemy snipers. After a tour in the line the Battalion repaired to Ypres. A few days afterwards it went to take over the "L" defences at Brielen, with Headquarters in Elverdinghe Chateau. Only one tour was done here and the Battalion then returned to Ypres. Until January it did three tours of duty in the line, either in Ypres itself or the front line to one in reserve at Brandhoek.
While in the front line the routine was practically the same as at Wailly, but the conditions were different. In the Salient it was not possible to dig deep trenches as the land was so low lying that water was met on reaching a depth of about two feet. Trenches were not feasible, so it was a case of breast-works. The defences therefore consisted of sand-bag revetments held in position by wooden frames over which expanded metal had been spread. These frames were called "A" frames or "Z" frames. The former were used for preventing narrow ways from staving in, and the latter were to face sand-bag walls. They were not easy to use and the men had to learn how to fix them, and their employment entailed many long and tedious carrying parties. The breast-works were divided into fire bays by traverses which were situated every few yards. These fire bays, which were all numbered, had firing platforms made of wood or well-revetted sandbags. The parapet was sufficiently high to give good command over the ground in front. During the winter it silted down and in many places it became not even bullet-proof. The parados was fairly good, though in many places there was none at all. For shelter the men had small recesses like dog kennels in the parapet or parados; these were usually roofed by a sheet of corrugated iron and were very small, uncomfortable, and infested with rats. There were not sufficient shelters to accommodate all the men, and the surplus had to sleep as best they could on the firing platform with only greatcoats as coverings.
The men had endured much and many were war weary. They were tired of fighting, and their former enthusiasm had cooled, especially as there was no immediate prospect of a rapid termination of the war. Among those who stood to arms in the whizz-banged trench in the cold raw hour of dawn were many who had given up assured positions—skilled mechanics, master printers, clerks, university men, solicitors, and others of several professions and callings who had sacrificed their various situations and appointments, and whose wives struggled on a very meagre separation allowance. Fully aware were they also that while they were manning the trench as infantrymen and receiving as remuneration a miserable pittance, munition workers in England were receiving excessively high wages for congenial work and enjoying freedom from all discomfort and danger of the trenches.