Obvious printer's errors have been corrected. All other inconsistencies are as in the original. The author's spelling has been maintained.
The original book used for this file did not contain a table of contents, and one has been added for the convenience of the reader.
THE WAR SERVICE OF THE 1/4 ROYAL BERKSHIRE REGIMENT (T.F.)
C. R. M. F. CRUTTWELL
Late Captain 1/4 Royal Berks. Regt., Fellow Of Hertford College, And Formerly Fellow Of All Souls College, Oxford
Oxford Basil Blackwell MCMXXII
Oxford Fox, Jones & Co., Kemp Hall Press, High Street.
TABLE OF CONTENTS.
Chapter I Mobilisation and training.
Chapter II First Days on Active Service.
Chapter III Holding the Line at 'Plugstreet'.
Chapter IV On the Move and in Corps Reserve.
Chapter V Relieving the French at Hebuterne.
Chapter VI Summer and Autumn in Artois.
Chapter VII Winter in the Trenches.
Chapter VIII The new Trench and the Raid.
Chapter IX Before the Battle.
Chapter X The July Fighting at Pozieres.
Chapter XI Rest and Battle.
Chapter XII Uneventful Days.
Chapter XIII In the Slough of Despond.
Chapter XIV The Winter and the German Retreat.
Chapter XV Ronssoy.
Chapter XVI Towards the Hindenburg Line.
Chapter XVII The Renewal of Trench Warfare.
Chapter XVIII The Third Battle of Ypres.
Chapter XIX Last Days in France and the Journey to Italy.
Chapter XX The Italian Winter.
Chapter XXI Mountain Warfare.
Chapter XXII The Last Summer.
Chapter XXIII Victory.
This little work was undertaken at the request of Lieut.-Col. R. J. Clarke, C.M.G., D.S.O., while the war was still in progress. The Editor of the Berkshire Chronicle kindly gave it the hospitality of his columns in 1920. Its republication in book form is due to the generous support of Berkshire people; and I have been very fortunate in persuading Mr. Basil Blackwell to act as its publisher. The earlier portion is based on my own personal recollections, the latter on the war diary of the Battalion, which was admirably kept, and on information supplied by officers and men.
I have to thank Lieut.-Col. Ewen and Capt. Goodenough, M.C., for the trouble which they have taken to supply me with all available documents: and, among many others, Major G. A. Battcock, Captains W. E. H. Blandy, O. B. Challenor, M.C., G. H. W. Cruttwell, and Sergts. Page and Riddell for giving me personal details, and thereby clearing up many points which must otherwise have remained obscure.
The fortunes in battle of a small unit, like a Battalion, in the late war, can never make easy reading, but I hope that with the aid of the large-scale maps inserted in the text they may prove fairly intelligible. The Appendices are due to the present Adjutant, Capt. L. Goodenough, M.C.
MOBILISATION AND TRAINING
Late in the afternoon of August 2nd, 1914, the 4th Royal Berks Regiment joined the remainder of the South Midland Infantry Brigade for their annual camp on a hill above Marlow. War had broken out on the previous day between Germany and Russia, and few expected that the 15 days' training would run its normal course. It was not, therefore, a complete surprise when in the twilight of the next morning the battalion re-entered the same trains which had brought them, and returned to Reading. Soon after arrival, in accordance with orders received, the battalion proceeded to disband; but many of the men, unwilling to return to the distant parts of the county when further developments were confidently expected, remained at their respective armouries throughout that famous Bank Holiday. At last, at 7.20 p.m. on the next day, August 4th, the order for mobilisation was received, and conveyed throughout the county that night by the police and eager parties of volunteers. The plan of mobilisation had been closely studied in all its details, and worked with complete smoothness. By 2 p.m. on the 5th the assemblage at Reading was complete, and after a laborious day spent in medical inspection, drawing of equipment and of ammunition, 28 officers and 800 other ranks entrained in the evening for their war station at Portsmouth, while 2 officers and 65 other ranks remained at Reading to receive the transport from the remount depot. At Portsmouth three days were spent mainly in digging, until a new move on the 9th brought the whole of the South Midland Division together at Swindon. Here on the 14th the battalion was invited by telegram from the War Office to volunteer immediately for foreign service. At this date the formation of the new service units had scarcely begun, and few realised how widely the common burden of responsibility would be shouldered in the next few weeks. The question, therefore, arose naturally in many minds, why those whose patriotism had led them without encouragement and sometimes with derision to qualify for the defence of the country in peace, should be the first called upon to extend their statutory obligation when emergency arose. None the less, within a few days a large majority of the men, and practically all the officers, had volunteered. History will, I believe, honour this prompt decision and recognise its value.
On August 16th, the division entrained for Leighton Buzzard, and the battalion spent four days in billets at Dunstable, 8 miles away, before setting out on the 20th on a 70-mile trek to its final destination at Chelmsford. In spite of the heat, the dusty roads and the small opportunities afforded since mobilisation for practice in marching, the journey was successfully accomplished in four days. The inhabitants of Stevenage, Hoddesden, Waltham Abbey and Fyfield, where we billeted in succession, to whom the passage of troops was still a pleasing novelty, and the provision of billets more than a business transaction, received us with every kindness. Thus Chelmsford became the adopted home and theatre of training for the battalion, except for the period September 24th-October 16th, which was spent in three adjacent villages, Broomfield and Great and Little Waltham. The relations between the town and the soldiers were excellent throughout, and many warm friendships were made; while in the surrounding country the landowners and farmers made the troops free of their land, thereby greatly assisting the field training, which was carried on uninterruptedly through a fine autumn and a wet winter. We lost in September for duty with the New Armies the permanent sergeant-instructors, one of whom had been attached to each company in peace time, but were fortunately allowed to retain our regular adjutant, Captain G. M. Sharpe, and the R.S.-M. (afterwards Lieut. Hanney, M.C.). About the close of the year the double-company system was adopted, under which the two headquarter companies became 'A' Company, under the command of Major Hedges, while Captain Battcock commanded B Company, composed of the men from Wallingford, Wantage and Newbury, Captain Lewis C Company, from Windsor and Maidenhead, and Captain Thorne D Company, from Abingdon and Wokingham. Many memories will remain with us of the laborious days and nights spent throughout those seven months, of company training in Highlands, fights on Galleywood Common, route marches up the long slope of Danbury Hill, journeys to Boreham Range in the darkness of a winter dawn, returning after dusk with a day's firing behind, and long hours spent in guarding the Marconi station in rain, snow and mist. All ranks were very keen and eager, especially before illness, the monotony of routine and disappointment at receiving no orders for overseas, produced some inevitable reaction. Colonel Serocold has indeed expressed his opinion that the battalion, while under his command, was never better trained than at the end of November, 1914.
At last, however, on the evening of March 30th, 1915, amidst many expressions of goodwill and regret from the townsfolk, who thronged the streets, the battalion entrained for France, and left Folkestone in the S.E.R. packet boat Onward at 11 p.m.
FIRST DAYS ON ACTIVE SERVICE
The night was calm and bright with stars as, with an escorting destroyer, we crossed rapidly to Boulogne. After disembarking we marched to the Blue Base above the town, clattering over the cobbles, and drawing the heads of the curious to their bedroom windows. Here we lay down in tents and endured with the mitigation of one blanket a bitter frost. That evening we continued our journey towards the unknown from Pont des Briques station, where we found our train already contained the transport from Havre, two of whose number had been deposited on the line en route by the activities of a restive horse. The men were crowded into those forbidding trucks labelled "Hommes, 40, chevaux, 8," and suffered much discomfort as the train crept through a frozen night, whose full moon illuminated a succession of dykes and water meadows stiff with hoarfrost, and bearded French Territorials with flaming braziers guarding the line. As dawn was breaking we detrained on the long platform of Cassel, and after the transport was unloaded moved up that steep hill which is so well known a landmark in Flanders. When we reached the summit, leaving the town on our left, we looked over the great Flemish plain, and heard for the first time the faint pulsing of the guns. The sun had now fully risen, and dissipated the thin morning mist; the level country parcelled out into innumerable farms and clumps of trees stretched endlessly to the east. Only to the northward the steep outline of the Mont des Cats with the long ridge of the Mont Noir behind broke the plain. We descended, and made our way wearily to Winnezeele, a straggling village of outlying farms, close to the Belgian frontier. Here we remained three days, and with the zeal of new troops obeyed every letter of the law. Orderly sergeants descended into the village in marching order with full packs, no officer was ever seen without his revolver, while every billet was guarded as if at any moment it might be taken by assault.
On April 2nd we marched to Steenvoorde, where Lieut.-General Sir H. Smith-Dorrien, commanding 2nd Army, inspected the 145th Brigade. He congratulated them on their smart appearance, and spoke most warmly of the work already done by Territorials in the war. He also cheered us greatly by his anticipation of the fall of Budapest and of the forcing of the Dardanelles within the next few weeks.
On Easter Sunday, April 9th, we marched to Fletre, a village on the great paved road to Lille, 3 miles short of Bailleul. Here long lines of lorries attested the importance of this main artery of the Army; while the effects of war were plainly seen in the bullet-riddled houses, the random little trenches and crosses dotted around, which recalled the successful fighting of the 4th Division on October 14th. The chateau which Headquarters occupied was said to have been similarly used for eight days by General von Kluck. Here for three days we enjoyed the rain of Flanders, and a foretaste of its eternal mud, before moving a stage nearer to the battle line, the flares of which had been an object of much interest at nights. Our next journey, on the 7th, led through Bailleul, where the band of the Artists' Rifles played in the great square, and the Warwicks of the 143rd Brigade viewed us with the superior air of men who had already been in the trenches with the 6th Division; then between the poplars along the Armentieres road, until we turned to the left at Rabot, and soon arrived at our destination, a small village called Romarin. It lies just within the Belgian frontier, a bare 3 miles behind the firing line, whence the crackle of rifle fire was plainly audible, whilst from the coppiced slopes of Neuve Eglise, which bounded the northward view, intermittent flashes denoted the presence of the field batteries. The battalion was now attached to the 10th Brigade of the 4th Division, who were still holding the same ground where their victorious advance had come to a standstill in October in front of Ploegsteert Wood and northward round the base of Messines Hill. The four Companies were divided for their period of 48 hours in the line between 1st Warwicks, 2nd Seaforths, Royal Irish, Dublin Fusiliers, and 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (T.F.). The time passed without casualties or special incident, except for the shelling of a night working party under Lieut. Challoner, which escaped disaster only by good fortune. All will remember with gratitude the good comradeship and helpfulness of this Regular brigade, from whom we learnt much during our short period of attachment. On its conclusion we marched back to billets at Steenwerck, a station on the Lille line midway between Bailleul and Armentieres. Here we endeavoured unsuccessfully, with the aid of a French officer, to locate a chain of signalling lamps impudently displayed from Bailleul right away towards the German lines.
On April 13th a Rugger match was played at Pont de Nieppe between teams representing the 4th and 48th Divisions, and resulted in a victory for the latter. Here Lieut. Ronald Poulton-Palmer, who captained the side, played his last game. On April 15th we moved up again, and took over for the first time our own line from the 2nd Hants at Le Gheer. The trenches ran here with singular angles and salients along the east face of Ploegsteert Wood; many disconnected posts, which could only be relieved by night, strong points in ruined houses with such suggestive names as First and Second German House were reminiscent rather of outposts than orthodox trench warfare. The weather was bright, the enemy entirely inactive, and the wood, with its oxlips and other spring flowers, its budding branches unscarred by shell fire, was a picture of charm rare in modern warfare. Forty-eight hours only were spent in this idyllic spot before we returned to Romarin to the accompaniment of the roar of mines, artillery, and concentrated rifle fire and machine gun fire, which heralded the sudden outbreak of the Battle of Hill 60, 4 miles to the north, just before sunset on April 17th. Our relief of the 4th Division was now complete, and our instructors marched to billets in Bailleul, only to be thrown within a few days into the furnace of the second Battle of Ypres. Before leaving they placed a great board just outside the Regent Street entrance to the wood, stating that it had been taken by the 4th Division on October, 1914, and handed over intact to us.
HOLDING THE LINE AT 'PLUGSTREET'
The line held by the Division for the next two months was wholly within Belgian territory, with a frontage of about 5,000 yards, which stretched from a point about 500 yards south-east of Wulverghem on the north to just below Le Gheer. The 143rd Brigade were on the left, 145th in the centre, and the 144th on the right. We were on the left of the 145th, and worked on a self-relieving system by which two Companies spent alternate periods of four days in the trenches and in local reserve. B and C Companies on the right shared trenches 37 and 38, also named Berkshire and Argyll; A and D in turn inhabited trenches 39 and 40, or Sutherland and Oxford, with a total frontage of 700 yards. The trenches ran along low ground between the wood and the River Douve; on the left the famous hill of Messines peered into our positions, and though itself barely 200 feet above sea-level loomed like a mountain among the mole-heaps of Flanders. The distance between the opposing lines varied from 450 to 250 yards. Reliefs could be carried out by day across the open on the right to Prowse Point (called after Major Prowse, of the Somerset L.I., who here organised a successful counter-attack in November, 1914, and afterwards was killed as a brigadier in the Somme battles); but the left was much in the air, as the only communication trench led up to some reserve breastworks near the Messines road, barely shoulder high, and themselves incapable of secure daylight approach, and all rations, stores, etc., had to be brought up overland by night over bullet-swept ground, but with negligible casualties.
The amenities of trench life depend almost wholly on the enemy and the weather. In both these respects we were fortunate. The Saxons who faced us lived up to their reputation, and apart from some accurate sniping which did more damage to periscopes than to human life, made no attempt to annoy us. No gas was ever emitted against us, though but a few miles to the north the enemy was using this new weapon incessantly. Throughout the end of April and for many days in May the wind blew steadily out of a cloudless sky from the north-east, and every morning we anxiously sniffed the breeze as we fingered the inadequate and clumsy respirators of those times. Every day a new pattern arrived with a new set of instructions. Then our sappers were ordered to make boxes of gun-powder which were to be fired by fuse and thrown over the parapet to dissipate the gas. In doing this they succeeded in blowing up several of their own number in their infernal den at Doo-Doo Farm. Scarcely, however, were these boxes ensconced in their weather-proof niches in each traverse than they were condemned, and the sweating infantry who had brought them up returned them with many curses to store.
The guns also left our sector in peace, which was the more fortunate as our artillery was not in a position to reply effectively to even a modest bombardment. Every now and then a little gun, apparently mounted on an armoured car which ran along the avenue just behind the German lines at dusk, would loose off half a dozen shells which burst without any warning, like a pair of gigantic hands clapping. Sometimes a few 'Little Willies' would strike Anton's Farm, which was included in our trench line, but no attempt was made to level this valuable ruin, which concealed patient and boastful snipers. The Warwicks on our left expiated the sins of the whole Division, and on most days it was possible to watch with a feeling of complete security a variety of shells bursting among them a few hundred yards away; while overhead flew the liberal daily ration expended on the Chateau de la Hutte on Hill 63 behind. From the lovely garden which surrounded it, luxuriant with lilac, Judas trees, tamarisk, wygelia and guelder-rose in full bloom, you could view, like Moses, the unapproachable land of promise, Lille and Roubaix, lying afar in the plain, with the smoke of enemy activity rising from their numerous tall chimneys.
We had our little excitements, as on May 9th, when the French attacked at Souchez, which was long remembered as 'the day of hate.' An elaborate demonstration was prepared by the brigade, of which the chief items were the exposure of trench-bridges 'obviously concealed,' and the firing throughout the day of long bursts of rapid fire. These interesting devices failed to deceive the enemy, who took little notice beyond shelling the unhappy Warwicks and the town of Ploegsteert with unusual severity. My company was in the wood that day in reserve, and lay about pretending to be in readiness. It was, in fact, the only day in which we had nothing to do.
We also had our mine, which was exploded opposite the Oxfords after two false starts with much pomp and ceremony. A green rocket was sent up one mile west of Ploegsteert 'to deceive the enemy,' as the Staff memorandum hopefully remarked. Captain Hadden, of the 1st/4th Oxfords, opposite whose trench the explosion was to occur, was ordered to keep half his company in the fire trench with the rifles and bayonets of the other half. These were to be ostentatiously waved above the parapet. The other half company spent some time marching up and down the corduroy paths in the wood, that the sound of their feet might suggest the arrival of large reinforcements. When the Brigade invited further suggestions of the same deceptive nature Hadden declared that he indented for magic mirrors a la Maskelyne and Devant, which would show the Oxfords not only in front but in rear of their enemy.
There was also the occasion when the gunners promised to destroy a new work erected by the Huns in front of their lines. They were heavily handicapped at the outset by the necessity of employing percussion shrapnel against a strong breastwork. But even when allowances were made, it seemed unnecessary that their first shell, a premature, should burst in the trees far behind on the Messines road, that the second should fall in our trenches, and the third damage our wire. The fourth, however, it is fair to say, reached if it did not seriously disturb its objective.
The ground between the lines offered many opportunities for patrolling; a belt of clover and rank weeds, knee-deep, in which our wire was enclosed, was succeeded by a deep watery ditch, also festooned with wire, and, beyond a fringe of willows on the further side, ran a wide field of rye able to conceal the tallest man. Each side cleared the ground immediately in front of their wire, and at nights the sickle of the enemy reaper could be plainly heard cutting swathes. More than once ambushes were laid in the daytime under cover of the rye, which waited for an opportunity against him till late at night, but without success. Lieut. Gathorne-Hardy, who was the pioneer of these daylight patrols, on one occasion, stayed out from noon till 4 p.m. with his faithful follower, Sergt. Westall, examining the German wire, for which exploit the former received the M.C. and the latter the D.C.M. (to which was added a bar next year during the fighting at Pozieres for devotion to the wounded). Our losses during these ten weeks were very light, but included Lieut. Ronald Poulton-Palmer, who was shot through the heart by a random bullet while superintending the building of a dugout just after midnight, May 4th, 1915. He had been nearly four years with the Battalion and was greatly beloved by all ranks; as I went down the line at stand-to that morning many of the men of old F Company, which he commanded at Chelmsford, were crying. He was the first officer to fall, and was buried by the Bishop of Pretoria in the Battalion cemetery in the wood on the east side of the Messines road, about 200 yards short of Hyde Park Corner.
The actual routine of life in the trenches was pleasant enough. The men knew exactly where they were. There was a time to eat, a time to sleep, a time for fatigues, and a time for sentry-go. There was little rain, and no bitter nights. The shelters, which held two or three men a-piece, though mere flimsy shell-traps, were comfortable, and either boarded or lined with straw, which was frequently renewed. When the Warwicks took over from us they exclaimed in admiring surprise, 'Why, they're all officers' dugouts.' Each section had its little oven made of a biscuit tin built round with clay. For the officers' mess in D Company we had the kitchen range from Anton's Farm, and a large zinc-covered erection in which six people could eat or play cards at once. The domestic element was supplied by two cats, who safely reared their offspring among us. Indeed, the calm of that placid series of days was such that it was difficult to realise that the second Battle of Ypres was raging with unbroken ferocity a few miles to the north, until we listened to the unwearied rumble of the guns and saw by night the great light in the sky where the doomed city blazed.
When in reserve our days were mainly spent in or close to the famous wood, which was at that time regarded as the show-place, par excellence, of the British front. Its natural glories have long since departed under the devastating shell fire of the latter days of the war, but in the spring and summer of 1915 it was a beautiful place, where one might fancy that the many British dead rested more easily beneath oaks and among familiar flowers than in most of the cemeteries of this dreary land. The wood was about 1-1/2 miles long, with a maximum depth of 1,400 yards, and its undergrowth, where not cut away, was densely intertwined with alder, hazel, ash, and blackthorn, with water standing in large pools on parts of its boggy surface. In one corner was the picturesque Fosse Labarre, a wide horseshoe moat enclosing a little garden, now a machine-gun emplacement, where grew the cumfrey, teazle and yellow flag. Everywhere the dog violet and blue veronica flourished in enormous clumps, and near the Strand was a great patch of Solomon's seal. It was a continual pleasure to see the wood clothe itself from the nakedness of early April and increase in fulness of life until we left at midsummer. The nightingale sang there unwearingly, but other birds were few, and I never noticed a nest in the wood. The few pheasants which survived a winter with the 4th Division were, I fear, exterminated by us. Rabbits continued plentiful in spite of rifles and snares, and every now and then a hare was started in the deserted fields.
Our predecessors had spent much labour and ingenuity in fitting up the wood for comfortable military habitation. It was everywhere intersected by corduroy paths, which though tiring to the feet, completely saved one from the horrors of the mud, and enabled rations and engineering stores to be brought up with ease in even the worst weather. Near the centre of the wood was Piccadilly Circus, whence many of these paths radiated; Regent Street and the Strand were the two great lateral highways; Bunhill Row preserved the memory of the London Rifle Brigade; Mud Lane served to remind us of those days when corduroy was still non-existent, whilst Spy Corner hinted at some grim and secret episode in the wood's history.
Meanwhile, screened from aeroplane observation by the dense foliage, the reserve Companies of the Brigade, lived in canvas tents fantastically daubed or in log huts. Some of the more elaborate of these latter served the double purpose of mess and bedroom for the Company Officers, the sides being taken up by two tiers of bunks made of wire and filled with straw. Outside the devices of the various regiments which had built or occupied them were carved or painted. Around them were little gardens, some of which with happy forethought had been planted in the winter. The most elaborate of all boasted a clump of Madonna lilies, and a red rose. We sowed vegetable seeds also, and ate our own mustard and cress, lettuces and radishes. In this connection, too, I should mention the 4,000 cabbages sent by Messrs. Sutton & Sons, which, planted in the transport lines at Rabot, were left for the consumption of the 5th Battalion when we moved south. These sylvan billets we generally shared with the 4th Oxfords, Hunterston North and South, peaceful spots, seldom visited by shells or stray bullets; less fortunate were the Bucks and 5th Gloucesters at Somerset House, further to the east. Here by night a steady drizzle of lead descended, and on one occasion 70 incendiary shells fell close to Headquarters. One of these was a dud, and the Bucks, determined to omit no precaution, sprinkled its resting place with chloride of lime! On the west side of the Messines road, just outside the wood, our Headquarters, with one reserve Company, inhabited the Piggeries, the enormous bricked and covered sties of which easily accommodated 200 men. The owner had only just completed his venture before war began, and the place was unmarked on the map, which possibly accounted for its immunity from shell fire.
Life in the wood would have been wholly pleasant but for two things, fatigues and lack of sleep. There is little doubt that if the war had gone on for fifty years, its last month would have found the men as strenuously employed in improving and strengthening the defences as in those early days. Soldiers are naturally inclined to think when depressed that (like the persons mentioned in the Bible) when 'they have done all that is required of them they are but unprofitable servants.' But at Plugstreet at least there was much which cried out urgently to be done. A great gap in the trench line just east of Prowse Point called for attention on our arrival. The work might, of course, have been highly dangerous, for it was carried on within 200 yards of the enemy. But no attempt was made to interfere with our labours. Presumably the mild Hun who faced us was afraid that he would be called upon to attack through the gap and rejoiced to see it filled. Every night the picks and shovels of 300 or 400 men could be heard merrily at work with the inevitable undercurrent of conversation as familiarity increased security. When the moon was bright the enemy could be seen peacefully attending to his own wire, while sometimes we were reminded that the hour had come to break off by a voice from opposite calling out, 'Time to pack up, sappers; go to bed.' Every morning a new length of enormous breastwork invited shells, which never came. On such occasions the thought arose that we must be taking part in the most expensive farce in the history of the world.
The lack of sleep was a more serious hardship, especially as it appeared avoidable. Owing, presumably, to the thinness with which the line was held, and to the lack of potential reinforcements behind, we were not allowed to sleep in the wood. Every night we made our way either to the lower or higher breastworks. The former were just off Mud Lane, and were consequently protected by the ridge from view, and to a certain extent from bullets. Here you could bivouac in the open under waterproof sheets, and except when the weather was very wet, enjoy a tolerable night. The latter, however, were on the forward slope, freely exposed to the continual fire with which the Huns replied to the provocation of the Warwicks. It was therefore necessary to lie at the bottom of a narrow and stinking trench on a 9-inch board. You had hardly fallen into an insecure doze when you were awakened and had to move out, for these breastworks, being barely shoulder high, were always evacuated at dawn, and dawn comes very early in June. The men naturally preferred the regular hours and the clean and comfortable shelters of the fire trench. Whenever any of the men desired to get rid of their pay quickly they had only to walk a few hundred yards to Ploegsteert village, where, within a mile of the firing line, some hundreds of the inhabitants still remaining sold bad beer, tinned fruit, and gaudy postcards at Flemish rates, which are the highest in the world. When shelling was severe they locked up their houses and disappeared mysteriously for a day or two until a renewed lull enabled them to restart their profitable shop-keeping. Many alleged spies lived here unharassed, especially in the outlying farms; and credibility was lent to the current tales by the number of carrier pigeons seen passing over the lines, or by the incident of the two dogs which suddenly appeared early one dawn from the German lines, leapt our trenches, and were lost in the darkness behind, in spite of Challoner's frenzied attempts to shoot them.
Besides its inhabitants Ploegsteert offered little of interest. The church, in spite of a dozen holes in the roof, and a great chip out of the east end, still reared its tall red-brick spire. On to the square outside the Huns directed a short afternoon hate at 3.30 punctually every day, reaching their target with wonderful precision, but doing little harm except when, as on May 9th, they employed incendiary shells. When baths and the disinfecting of trench-soiled clothing were required, the men marched to Nieppe, and wallowed in the famous vats, where Mr. Asquith, one day arriving unexpectedly, found himself cheered by a multitude of naked and steaming soldiers. From there it was but a short walk to Armentieres, that centre of the great world, where Perrier water champagne and other delights could be obtained, where in a luxurious tea-room you were waited upon by female attendants of seductive aspect, and where two variety entertainments, the "Follies" and "Frivolities," were on view most nights. The ugly industrial town had then been little injured by shells, though every now and then it received its share. The Huns sometimes playfully directed against it French 220's captured at Maubeuge, and to point the witticism sent over a few duds inscribed 'Un Souvenir de Maubeuge.'
So passed seven weeks during which we learned the routine of war under singularly favourable conditions.
ON THE MOVE AND IN CORPS RESERVE
During the first week in June the three Brigades left their own quarters and exchanged trench sections. The 145th moved from the centre to the left, to the joy of the Warwicks, whose losses had been considerable. While this move was in process the Battalion was taken out of the wood, and marched to huts at Korte Pyp, on a plateau with a wide prospect on the southern slopes of Neuve Eglise Hill. The site was admirable, the huts well-built and commodious, and (rarest of sights in the rich cultivation of Flanders) a good-sized grass field was at hand sufficiently level to make a decent cricket pitch. Here for four days we were free of fatigues, were inspected by the new G.O.C. of the Division, Major-General Fanshawe, enjoyed the sun, and endured a violent thunderstorm. Thence returning to the wood we sampled White Lodge, the Warwick's home under the steep wooded bluff of Hill 63, where the rats made merry among the dirt and unburied food; also La Plus Douce, a pastoral but dangerous spot, where the Douve flowed muddily amidst neglected water-meadows stretching along to Wulverghem with its battered church tower showing among the trees. On the opposite slope were two broken farms called St. Quentin and South Midland, wherein lay great quantities of abandoned tobacco, while all around were the tarnished scabbards thrown away by De Lisle's cavalry during the fighting at Messines of the previous October.
On June 15th the whole Battalion returned to the trenches, and held a total length of 1,450 yards, stretching from our old right, Trench 37, across the Messines road to a ruined cottage, close by which our trenches were carried over the Douve by a wooden bridge. Our line was thus drawn in a curve right round the south of Messines Hill, which twinkled with points of fire at every morning 'stand-to' from the tiers of trenches which honeycombed its face. Contrary to expectations, the centenary of Waterloo passed without incident during this tour, in spite of the Huns' reputed fondness for such celebrations.
At this time we were fortunate in having with us our 5th Battalion for instruction, who had come out about a fortnight before with the 12th Division, and there were many meetings of friends, both among the officers and the men.
We then returned for the last time to our familiar haunts in the wood, where we found the wild strawberries, which we had watched creeping timidly out of the earth, ripening everywhere in countless numbers. Meanwhile the 12th Division abode in billets in Armentieres and Nieppe, and rumours grew strong that they would take over from us. The secret was well kept, but on Thursday morning, June 24th, as the Company Commanders were on their way to visit the Worcester trenches they were recalled by orderly with the news that the Battalion was moving to Bailleul that night. The evening was hot and steamy, the men soft from lack of exercise and sleep, and the 8 miles seemed interminable. We arrived at Bailleul about 1 a.m., and billeted in the quarter adjoining the railway station. For the first time since leaving England I slept in a bed with sheets in a room to myself.
A fierce thunderstorm next day had failed to clear the air, when we set out again about 9.30 p.m. in an atmosphere of clinging dampness. The whole brigade marched together with our faces turned south towards unfamiliar country, and just before daybreak we arrived at Vieux Berquin, a village of detached farmhouses with gardens full of all manner of fruit and vegetables. Here a dozen crosses with a smaller black cross painted on the wood testified to the presence of the Bavarians last autumn. That night, with the moon about the full, though often obscured by clouds, the brigade made a long and weary march south-west, edging gradually away from the flares and the distant rifle shots. Towards midnight we had a long check at Merville, a placid little town with tree-planted boulevards along the banks of the Lys, while Canadian guns and transport passed us going north from their second great fight at Festubert and Givenchy. Day had broken and the sun was climbing an eastern sky ribbed with red and gold, when we reached our destination, the village of Gonnehem, which boasts an ancient and beautiful church decorated with a quiet simplicity not often found in these parts. No enemy had entered here since the beginning of the war. It stands at the southern limit of the great plain; beyond are the low wooded hills of Artois, and away to the west the great slag heaps of Marles-les-Mines loomed through the thunder clouds like pyramids. That Sunday evening we completed our last stage of 4 miles by daylight, moving south-west again to the large industrial village of Lapugnoy, with a station on the St. Pol railway 5 miles west of Bethune, lying in a valley overlooked on either side by densely-timbered hills.
Here, withdrawn 10 miles behind the line and comfortably housed, we spent 17 days in a succession of drills, route marches and wood fighting. We were now in the 1st Army and behind the southern extremity of the then British line. From the calvary above the village the eye rested on many famous landmarks: the great cathedral of Bethune, untouched by the Hun, the church of Givenchy, the slag heaps of La Bassee, and the low ridge of Aubers, which barred the road to Lille, a dim frame in the background. We visited Bethune, a gracious little city girdled about with poplars, limes and chestnuts, where most things could be bought, including the latest English novels. The Guards had their Headquarters in the town, and impressed everyone with their physical fitness and splendid discipline. We consumed a morning waiting on the Lillers-Bethune road to see Lord Kitchener drive past in a motor; we watched the Indians going up to the trenches in motor 'buses, and a motley crew of picturesque French Colonials going by train to Souchez: Zouaves, turbaned and bearded, Algerians, with thick-lipped niggers from Congo and Senegal, who ran along the open trucks shouting and gesticulating. On July 11th a memorable meeting took place between the 1st and 4th Battalions in a field near Fouquieres-les-Bethune, where they spent the day together. This momentary gathering of so many brothers, relatives and friends on active service gave the greatest pleasure to all. In the improvised sports which ensued the men of the 1st Battalion beat the 4th at a tug-of-war, while in the officers' tug the result was reversed. The 1st Battalion were at this time commanded by Captain Bird, as their late C.O., Major Hill, had been killed not many days before by a shell which demolished the Headquarters' mess at Cuinchy.
The next evening found the brigade on the move again, through the mining villages of Marles-les-Mines and Bruay, to a wretched hamlet called Houchin, where the only accommodation provided for the battalion was a field of standing rye ripe for the scythe. When day broke we found ourselves in a desolate country with the high naked ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette shutting out the southern horizon. Here in shelter of boughs and waterproof sheets we spent three days of great discomfort under pouring rain and wind, employed day and night in digging a reserve line some 4 miles away. As we worked near Sailly-Labourse we gazed with curiosity at an arid gentle slope some 2 miles away, pitted by trenches and crowned by an elaborate iron structure with two towers. This ground was the scene of the main British attack on Loos two months later, and the building was the famous Tower Bridge. The squalid little town between Houchin and Sailly, at whose busy coal-mine the enemy intermittently threw shells, was Noeux-les-Mines, where Lord French had his forward headquarters during the fighting. But even then there was an abundance of the sound of battle, for on the second evening a furious cannonade burst out to the south-east, which signalled the recapture by the enemy of Souchez Cemetery: the last scene in that terrific fight which had endured almost incessantly since May 9th.
The day on which we went on the trek again (July 16th) was long remembered. We had expected in due course to go into the trenches somewhere near Grenay, but it suddenly became known that the brigade was to march back to the neighbourhood of Lillers preparatory to entraining for an unknown destination. Half the battalion that day had done their daily trip to Sailly and came back about 4 p.m., after marching 8 miles and digging for four hours. At 9 p.m. we moved off in driving rain for an all-night march of 15 miles. The brigade transport was in front, and checks were naturally frequent as we retraced our steps through Bruay and Marles, thence on to Burbure, where our guide misled us through a narrow inky lane, in which most of the Brigade lost touch. Just as the dawn was breaking and our troubles seemed nearly over our guide again mistook the way, and we found ourselves bogged in a cart track at the top of a down. The rain and hail descended in a sudden most violent squall and wetted us to the skin; while far away in the east the morning flares twinkled for 30 miles in a great arc. One of the signallers was heard plaintively to remark as we waited, 'What 'ave we done to deserve all this?' Finally we descended into Lieres, a pleasant remote village in a fold of the chalk, full of cherry trees, and slept peaceably till noon.
After a day's rest we marched on Sunday afternoon, July 18th, to La Berguette station, on the Hazebrouck line west of Lillers. Here we met detachments of our old friends of the wood, the L.R.B., who, reduced in strength to 70 men during the Ypres fighting, had been put on lines of communication. We knew by now that our journey would take us to Doullens, a sub-prefecture of the Somme, and that we were to take over a portion of the French line. So back again in the cattle trucks and second-class carriages, the Battalion moved off south under far more pleasant circumstances. The rate of speed, too, was comparatively high and can hardly have fallen short of 15 miles an hour.
We reached our destination as usual in the early hours of the morning, and after unloading drew out of the town, passing on the right the old Citadelle with its red ramparts high upon a hill, and the point of elderly Territorials at the junction of the great Amiens road. Thence we followed the south bank of the Authie River, enclosed on either side by rounded chalk hills 400 or 500 feet high. We breakfasted by the road opposite the Chateau of Autheuille, where Major Barron and his M.T. lived luxuriously for many months 11 miles behind the firing line; then plodded on past Sarton, where the 5th Gloucesters watched us from their billets, and finally bivouacked in the beech woods of Marieux. Close by was the site of the French aerodrome, now deserted save for empty petrol tins; down in the valley, Mon Plaisir, an enormous country house was being prepared for the Headquarters of the 7th Corps; in the orchards were parked two batteries of long French 155's. The roads were encumbered with the impedimenta of two armies. We were starting on another stage of the great adventure, and felt again to a lesser degree the uncertainty of essaying the unknown.
RELIEVING THE FRENCH AT HEBUTERNE
After 36 hours in the wood we packed up again and moved by night through Authie, afterwards most familiar and welcome of rest billets, passing Coignieux, where the French gunners, sitting by their fires in the horse lines, called out greetings, and ascended the northern hill to Bayencourt, a stinking little village full of flies and odours.
By now the enemy had apparently got wind of the coming of the English (which was first confirmed, according to prisoners, by the discovery of English bullets fired at their trenches), for during the next few days aeroplanes flew constantly over the village at a great height. In a field close by a French 75, which moved with a circular traverse round a platform of greased wood let into a small pit, endeavoured to arrest their progress with a wonderfully rapid barrage, and to throw them back into the area covered by the next gun. Its adjutant had spent several years in a solicitor's office at Ealing, and spoke excellent English.
Our ultimate destination was now the sector of Hebuterne, which had leapt into prominence on the occasion of the successful French attack on Touvent Farm, June 12th, but was now, from all accounts, peaceful enough. The 5th Gloucesters and 4th Oxfords were the two first to go into the trenches, where the French received them with enthusiasm, putting fresh flowers in all the dugouts, and writing up everywhere greetings of welcome.
My brother (Captain G. H. W. Cruttwell) went before us into Hebuterne with part of B Company to relieve the guards of the 93rd Regiment posted round the village, a ceremony more interesting and impressive than the relief of the trenches by reason of its greater formality. He dined with their officers afterwards, and was presented, as a farewell gift, with the best mattress in the village. The rest of the battalion started after sunset on July 22nd, passing a battalion of Frenchmen returning by half platoons from the trenches, and marched into Hebuterne, a most interesting example of the ruined village organised for defence, situated 600 yards only behind the front line trenches. It was destined to be our forward billet for many months, and to become as familiar to us in the smallest details as our own homes. A somewhat detailed description will therefore perhaps not be without interest.
Hebuterne was a good-sized village of about 1,000 inhabitants, on no highway but the converging point of many small roads, lying in a very slight pocket of the rolling chalk plateaux of Artois, surrounded on every side by the orchards of the local bitter cider apple, with a village green in the centre, and a pond surrounded by tall poplars. The length of the village was about 900 yards, and its average breadth about 500 yards. Almost every house was a one-storied farm of three to four rooms, with considerable outbuildings of mud and plaster, capable of accommodating in close billets one or two platoons. There were no large houses, the so-called chateau on the Bucquoy road being a very moderate mansion, and, apart from it, the rectory, mairie, the mill by the pond used as Brigade Headquarters, and the pleasant villa called Poste Cambronne, alone stood out in modest prominence. There were very few inns, the largest of which bore the touching and appropriate sign, 'A la Renaissance.'
At the south end of the village stood the church, a broken gaping shell of red brick with imitation marble pillars; it was afterwards razed to the ground by the sappers, who required its bricks and perhaps thought it too good a range-mark to exist so near their store.
When we arrived we found, to our surprise, two civil inhabitants clinging to their ruinous homes; one who held some vague post of authority called himself a Garde Champetre; another, an aged crone, suddenly emerged cursing from her hovel to expostulate with me for unwittingly stealing her peas and young carrots. They were cleared out immediately after our arrival. The flight of the remainder had been evidently precipitate. Not only had beds, tables, and all bulkier pieces of furniture been abandoned, but knives, forks, crockery and many little china ornaments. The village had been reoccupied after a stubborn fight in October, 1914, and the enemy pushed well beyond its uttermost limits. In the western orchards was the large French cemetery, and hard by that of our own division, adjoining a cricket pitch, where we had many spirited games of tip and run.
Though naturally much broken up, with perhaps a dozen houses left intact, the village had never been so populous in days of peace. Not less then 3,000 troops lived there above or below ground, including the brigadier and at least three battalion commanders. That portion of the village which lies north of the pond had been made into a fortified redoubt known as the Keep, the garrison of which was the equivalent of one battalion, whose O.C. lived in the Poste Cambronne, a much desired residence until an 8.2 shell demolished its upper story in December. Very few shells indeed ever fell in the Keep until the beginning of 1916, the chief targets being the pond and the area round the church. The village was fortunate in being practically screened from direct observation by a slight rise in ground between it and the enemy, and the indirect machine gun fire which raked the streets at odd intervals was curiously ineffective, for the majority of shots went high, though on occasions one had to abandon respect and lie flat in the mud, until the shower was overpast.
We sampled all corners of the village—the Serre Cross Roads, where the rain came through the roof and the machine gun bullets through the wall of our crazy billet; the chateau, with its broken conservatory, its fig tree, Christmas roses, and what we believed to be the only arm-chair in Northern France; 'D' Farm, where Private Meads, our first casualty in the village, was killed by a 4.2-inch just outside the window; and 'B' Farm, with its collection of plates and ornaments amassed on the first morning before most of the village was out of bed. Battalion Headquarters were first in the house on the Mailly-Maillet road, afterwards appropriated by the Brigade, who hollowed out for themselves great caverns in the earth: then in the little house by Serre Cross Roads, where the owners had chalked up an appeal to the French to take care of their newly-weaned calf; and finally in the factory by the pond, where shells through Q.M. Payne's bedroom and the gate posts drove them, too, underground, and led to the erection of an enormous bulwark of sandbags 15 feet high, to protect the mess.
The defences of the village were formidable, and when one got to know them, simple, in spite of the bewilderment caused by a first inspection of what appeared to be a mere labyrinth. The Keep, as has been mentioned, was simply a redoubt with trenches facing all points of the compass, its two points of chief tactical importance being the Mound, eminently suited for enfilade machine gun fire, and the barricades which closed the Keep to any enemy already in possession of the village to the south of the pond. It will be seen, by studying the map, that the whole of the eastern face of Hebuterne was protected by two lines of defences, outer and inner. The former were 200 to 300 yards beyond the edge of the houses, and were excellently sited along a hedge for almost the whole of their length. They were connected with the first line fire trench by communication trenches about every 100 yards. The inner defence, running through the orchards, just covered the village, and was connected both with the outer line and with the cellars of the houses by numerous communication trenches. Finally the western exits of the village were commanded by a group of trenches astride the Sailly road on rising ground. All this scheme had been completed by the French before our arrival, and reflected great credit on both their tactical skill and the energy required in construction.
When we turned from the village to the trenches we found also many points of interest and contrast. In Artois, unlike Flanders, you can dig to your heart's content, or, to speak more accurately, you can get a surfeit of digging. The soil is either a light manageable clay, or more frequently chalk. Here, then, we met with none of the conspicuous breastworks of our old home, but fire trenches more than 6 feet deep, and communicators whose bottoms were 8 or 9 feet below ground level. Many of the dugouts, moreover, were elaborate caves, large enough to accommodate 25 men, and capable, with their roofs of logs heaped over with many feet of earth, of resisting the direct impact of a 5.9-inch shell. The increase in security was naturally great, and bombardments which would have destroyed whole trench sections at Ploegsteert were almost ineffective. In the winter, however, under stress of rain and snow, the dugouts fell in, together with the sides of the trench, which, from lack of material, could not be efficiently revetted. Then men sighed for Trench 40, and the little sandbag shelters too small to collect such quantities of water. But as we viewed them then the dugouts seemed the last word in luxury; one of those which I inhabited contained a mattress, two chairs, a table, a large gilt-framed mirror, some artificial flowers, a portrait of the Czar and his wife, and an engraving called 'Le Repos du Marin,' which depicted an old sailor drinking peacefully under a tree. All would have been well but for the small game; lice, a legacy from the French, enormous red slugs, which ate any food which lay about, and left a viscous trail behind every movement, countless swarms of mice and gigantic rats, some of which were so bold as to gnaw through the men's haversacks, as they slept, in search of the food contained therein.
We naturally examined every detail of these new trenches with minute interest, and compared English and French models. The first sensation was of bewilderment. For at Ploegsteert we had been content with a very simple system; wayfaring men, though fools, could scarcely err therein. But here we had to learn our way about a perfect maze of trench, where it was easy, or rather inevitable, at first to go wrong, and, finding yourself enclosed by earth walls towering above your head, to lose all sense of direction. This difficulty was not lessened for the men by our retention of all the French names for the trenches, most of which were christened after their Generals. Such names as Bugeaud, Poniatowski, Bataille, and the like, were so many pieces of gibberish which it was hardly possible for a self-respecting English soldier to pronounce, while Boyau, Abri, Feuillee and Puisard were not helpful forms of identification. But anyone who had become familiar with the labyrinth would at once admit that for purposes of relief and inter-communication it was far superior to anything he had yet seen.
Another useful novelty was the systematic use of saps for night-posts. A sentry in the fire trench will always find his attention distracted to a certain degree, especially when he is 500 yards from the enemy, but put him in a sap-head with only a few yards of wire to protect him, and the acuteness of his vision and hearing will be marvellously increased.
On the other hand, in certain points the French trenches fell below the standards to which we had accustomed ourselves. Owing to their superiority in artillery, and to the thinness with which they held their front line, they did not bother to build strong traverses between the inordinately long fire bays, which were, in consequence, seriously exposed to oblique gun fire. Again, no attempt had been made to provide any flooring for the trenches, and the Battalion spent many happy hours working under the August sun as amateur bricklayers, with the material ready to hand from the village, in the hope, which the winter was to bring utterly to naught, of thereby providing a solid bottom.
SUMMER AND AUTUMN IN ARTOIS
During the six weeks after our arrival the weather was very broken, with many violent thunderstorms and very little heat. Except for eight days at Sailly, where fear of aeroplanes was fortunately sufficient to prevent parades, but not cricket in the orchards, we spent all our time at Hebuterne. The Battalion, for the most part, relieved itself as at Plugstreet, but had no fixed dwelling-place, sometimes extending as far to the right as Trench Bugeaud, half way up the north slope of the hill of Serre, where the ground was littered with the debris and decomposing bodies of the June fighting, sometimes as far to the left as Trench Morand, about 300 yards north of where the Bucquoy road crossed the trenches. From Morand to Hoche the lie of the land was all in our favour; the trenches were sited just in front of the gentle rise which covered Hebuterne; 500 to 600 yards away, at the bottom of the dip lay the enemy, about 40 feet below us, and behind him the ground again rose leisurely and showed its slope towards us for 3,000 yards, with the hand of the Hun writ large in chalk, revealing his second and third line with the great covered communication trenches which connected them. The left of the picture was closed by Gommecourt Wood, of sinister memory, with its pretty little red-roofed village encased therein, and its gaping cemetery sticking out from the south-east corner. On the skyline appeared several battered farms, La Brayelle, Les Essarts, and Rettemoy, each surrounded by copses and orchards, and on their right the Bois de Biez, which provided a home for those thorns in our flesh, the 5.9-inch howitzers. On its right flank again running down the hill towards us was the Bois Rossignol, where an active battery of field guns made music less tuneful than that of the bird whence the wood was named.
Straight in front of Trench Bataille, about 900 yards away, stood the skeleton of the little farm called by the French Sans Nom. It was the favourite point on which every type of gun registered, and the Germans attached great importance to its bowels, for night after night hand-carts unloaded there, and men could be heard by patrols talking and hammering. Much interest and amusement could be obtained from this panorama with field glasses and telescope. Along the road which ran obliquely from Les Essarts to Gommecourt came cyclists, fatigue men, and occasionally formed bodies of troops, who, when assailed with long range machine gun fire, extended and advanced in short rushes. One day two fat Huns carrying a dixie walked along the side of the great chalk communication trench, who, when Sergeant Daniels fired a shot at 1,200 yards, dropped their burden and leapt nimbly into the trench. One morning when Goolden and I were looking through a telescope we noticed a trestle table being put up near Rettemoy Farm: this was followed by half a dozen German officers accompanied by two ladies dressed in white, who, after surveying the view, sat down to lunch. We thought this too good an opportunity to miss, and informed the F.O.O. By describing this little gathering as a working party, he obtained the major's permission to fire, and the ladies' meal was soon interrupted by four rounds of shrapnel.
Opposite Lassalle a shoulder ran out towards the German lines with its steep northern face covered with dense thickets of thorn, apt cover for night adventures; this shoulder so restricted our view that from one trench the field of fire amounted to no more than 10 yards. If you walked south you passed the Puisieux road, opposite which and some 500 yards away was a clump of tall poplars between the lines generally known as the Seven Sisters. There was a superstition that this was held by the enemy, but when explored by a daylight patrol of the 5th Gloucesters nothing was discovered in the nature of defences. South of the road the line curved south-west into lower ground and became separated from the opposing trench by 900 yards. From here another wide prospect unfolded itself, with Puisieux 2 miles away, lifting its white spire from a knoll enclosed on three sides by beech woods. Behind an occasional wisp of smoke showed that a train was making its way between Achiet and Miraumont, whose supply depots were frequently visited by our bombarding squadrons. A mile to the south the hamlet of Serre, twice fruitlessly attacked next year, topped a barren and shell-blown ridge. About this point, notorious for frequent visits from the earth-shelling aerial torpedo, began the lines of the 4th Division, once again our neighbours. They were our sister division in the 7th Corps, which was completed by the arrival at the end of August of the 37th Division, who after spending some days with us for instruction relieved the French on our left at Fonquevillers and Hannescamps. The commander of the 3rd Army, which was gradually increased until its line extended to the southern marshes of the Somme, was at this time Sir C. Monro, afterwards Commander-in-chief in India.
The month of August passed quietly with us, though rendered notable by the great German successes in Russia. The fate of Warsaw moved the enemy to put up notice-boards announcing the event, one of which had on one side 'Warschau Gefallen,' and on the other, apparently reversable by a string, 'Gott Strafe England.' With commendable caution, however, they were planted so near their own trench that it required a field glass to read them. A few days later, when the German Fleet met with misfortune in the Gulf of Riga, Sergt. Tester posted a board with details of that reverse just in front of their barbed wire. The French batteries remained with us for a month, while our gunners were registering, and given a free hand in accordance with the British custom of annoying the enemy incessantly, showed a complete mastery over him.
Throughout the night at uncertain intervals their guns threw shells into Gommecourt. It was difficult to believe that the terrible explosions which resulted were caused by a shell lighter than our 18 pounders, whose shrapnel burst with an almost inaudible 'pip.' Practically the only retaliation indulged in by the Germans was to shell our batteries as they were getting into their gun-pits, though without serious damage. About the end of the month, however, a serious misfortune befell A Company, one of whose platoons was half destroyed by a 4.2-inch, which struck the Brickfields, a dangerous and conspicuous supporting point. The men had just returned from bathing in the village, when the shell fell among them, killing five and wounding nine. At the same spot also Lance-Corpl. Boston, of B Company, was blown to pieces while gallantly remaining out to see that the working party under his charge had taken cover safely.
On September 3rd, Captain (now Major, O.B.E.) Porter, Secretary of the County Association, spent a night with the Battalion in the trenches, and was thus able to assure the people of Berkshire, if such assurance was needed, that its Territorial Battalion was doing its fair share of the laborious task of holding the British front line. Next day, after a month's continuous residence in Hebuterne or the trenches, we were relieved by the 144th Brigade. The relief was carried out in daylight, both Brigades marching boldly along the Sailly road, the crest of which was in clear distant view of the enemy. The two intermediate communication trenches, Larrey and Jena, some 2,500 yards long, were not yet sufficiently repaired for our passage. This labour of love was accomplished by the 5th Sussex, who were attached to the Brigade as Pioneer Battalion, and lived at Sailly. We marched to Authie, 7 miles back, and remained there 12 days; this village was until January to be the rest billets of ourselves and the 4th Gloucesters for alternate periods. It lies in the valley of the Authie River, between downs of chalk, beech-covered, which put on beautiful colours as soon as the first frosts of autumn touched them. The whole countryside is indeed strangely reminiscent of the Chiltern Hills of Oxfordshire and Bucks. Battalion Headquarters were at the Chateau, a substantially-built, comfortable house under the southern slopes of the hills, belonging to a widow, Madame De Wailly, who lived there with her two daughters. Most of the best billets were occupied by the elderly heroes of the A.O.D. and the Ammunition Column, but it is a roomy village, and accommodated us without difficulty. The measure of its prosperity may be gauged by the fact that whereas before the war there were three shops, there were now 27. Our principal work was to make thousands of hurdles in the Bois de Warnimont, which greatly to the men's disgust mysteriously disappeared as soon as made; for when we indented for them in the trenches we received no more than 17 for the whole Brigade. Presumably they went to beautify the corps line, which was such a model of perfected trench artistry that it seemed almost a pity that it was never likely to be used. In this wood in company with a few fallow deer, a Navvies' Battalion lived under canvas, who performed most useful work in digging flints and repairing the roads. In age they ranged from 40 to 70, and were a cheery crew, mainly from Wales. Their notions of military discipline were, as may be imagined, singular, and it is credibly reported that on one occasion, when General Fanshawe rebuked a navvy for not saluting him, the offender beckoned with his thumb towards a pal and exclaimed, ''Ere, Bill, come and 'ave a look at this.'
On September 7th General Monro, G.O.C. 3rd Army, inspected the Battalion, who were drawn up in old quarter-column formation with 12 paces interval in the Berkshire field on the west outskirts of the village. He was greatly pleased with the appearance of the Battalion, and in his subsequent address thus expressed his satisfaction:—
'After hearing what your Divisional General has said of you, I expected to see a very fine body of men on parade to-day, and I can assure you—I say so straight out—that I am not in the very least disappointed. Your bearing as well as your order and steadiness in the ranks, and the way in which you put your equipment on, all go to show that you know the right thing, and prove the high standard which you set before you. I am well acquainted with your 1st Battalion, and have served with them in this present war. They have lived up to the high traditions which attach to the regiment, and to the good name which they have won in the past. You are proud to belong to such a regiment; you have already reached a high standard, and I hope and believe you will continue to retain that high standard.... I hear from your Divisional Commander that you have conscientiously carried out all the work allotted to you. In the sentry line your vigilance has been beyond all criticism. You have done good work in all that pertains to the work of the trenches, digging and so on. Moreover, your conduct in the village and in billets has been uniformly good.'
During this stay at Authie rumours began to be active. It was persistently reported that the 'great offensive' would be in full swing before September was out. Some of the A.S.C., who had been buying coal at Marles-les-Mines, reported that the country round Bethune was incredibly thick with guns, while a similar and more detailed forecast was brought back by officers who had dined with the 4th Divisional Headquarters. Then leave, which had been on more or less regularly since the beginning of June, was indefinitely stopped. Thus, though no one yet knew the date arranged for the opening of the battle, expectations were abroad, and each morning the significance of any unusual cannonade was eagerly discussed. Amidst such an atmosphere of uncertainty we relieved the 4th Gloucesters at Hebuterne on September 17th, making the passage from Sailly over the brow of the hill for the first time by the congested Boyau Larrey.
For a few days we lived our ordinary trench life, and helped to instruct a company of the 13th Manchesters; but on September 21st the bombardment from the sea to the Vosges opened in our sector, with short fierce bursts of fire on the enemy villages and roads. On September 23rd, at 7.30 a.m., a squadron of 21 aeroplanes, spread loosely over the sky, flew over Hebuterne to attack the station of Valenciennes; throughout this day the roar of the guns to north and south was continuous; as the sun set a fierce thunderstorm came up, and the rival rumblings and flashes of nature and machinery in the dusk made a sufficiently lurid prelude for battle. On the 24th it became generally known that in certain contingent events, carefully kept secret, the Brigade would attack between Gommecourt Wood and the Puisieux road, with the Berks and the Bucks in the leading waves. Accordingly, the gunners got to work, and the 18-pounders cut three narrow lanes in the enemy wire (which each night the patient Hun carefully repaired), while the howitzers played on the forts and beehive structures in Gommecourt Wood and near Ferme Sans Nom. It was far and away their biggest show up to date, but the number of rounds fired by the Divisional Artillery in the three hottest days was only 5,000, an amount which, by present-day standards, appears ludicrously small. Meanwhile, two platoons of 5th Sussex, cursing the fortune which had brought them up again to the trenches, were packed into the battalion sector to look after our belongings, if we went over.
Saturday, the 25th, broke wet and misty; the lovely autumn weather of the past fortnight had gone for good. The gunners were unable clearly to see their targets, or to mark by the spurt of dry earth the exact strike of their wire-cutting shrapnel. Through the mist on that most inappropriate morning appeared a herd of cows and men harvesting between Rossignol and Puisieux, not much more than a mile from our lines.
During the day a notable series of messages came through from G.H.Q., and it seemed at first as if the attack had broken the German lines, as we identified on our maps those names then unfamiliar—Loos, Hill 70, Hulluch, Cite St. Elie, and Cite St. Auguste—which successive messages announced as having passed into our hands. Then came the reports from Champagne with their impressive and ever-growing lists of guns and prisoners. The men were in high spirits, and some of B Company were heard making bets as to who would take the first German prisoner. Towards evening, however, the messages spoke only of violent counter-attacks and ground lost, while it was announced that the attack of the French Corps on our immediate left had failed completely. When this message reached Major Hedges in the Keep just as he was turning in, he summed up our general feeling by his remark: 'Well, I think I can take my boots off now.' Throughout the whole of Sunday expectation was at its highest pitch, for all believed that if the general advance was coming it would come quickly. But there was little positive news beyond the short French statement: 'We have taken Souchez.' Yet in the evening all the last preparations for attack were hastily carried through. A Berks and a Bucks dump were dug in the trenches, in which were collected all the engineering material required for an assault—tools, sandbags, trench bridges and flags for marking out positions in the captured line. The Brigade Signallers were busy putting up directions everywhere for the Bucks, who were to take over the left of our line: and new maps were issued to come into use at midnight. The night was very disturbed with bursts of rapid fire, and once a great cheer from the Warwicks at Fonquevillers, who were simulating an attack; while thousands of spent bullets from the 37th Division in the loop north of Gommecourt came wearily to rest in our trenches, several of which struck sentries in the sap-heads without doing them any harm. Early next morning a British aeroplane flew very low over the enemy trenches and, as desired, drew heavy fire, thereby proving them to be full of men, a matter in doubt before, as they had not responded to our attempts at provocation. But during the day it became increasingly clear that the great scheme had failed; for, although a message came from 3rd Army saying 'that in view of the great Allied successes both north and south it is possible that the Germans may evacuate their trenches, and in that case you must be prepared to slip quietly into them at a moment's notice,' its effect was more than discounted by a simple message which read: 'Work may now be resumed as usual in the trenches.' The enemy, meanwhile, appeared to be well acquainted with our plans, for voices were heard calling out, 'Come on, Bucks, come on, Berks!' 'The Royal Berks will lead the attack,' while a humorist shouted from the fort at Gommecourt, 'Run away, English; go away home.' The enemy had indeed good reason to be confident in the strength of these positions, which twice next year were to defy capture after the most elaborate preparation. The turmoil of the last few days was now succeeded by a complete calm in which scarcely a gun spoke.
On September 30th we were relieved in due course by the 6th Gloucesters, but went not to Authie, which was considered too far away, but to Souastre, a village in the area of the 37th Division, five kilometres west of Fonquevillers. As we approached we were played into the village by our band of drums and fifes, which had just arrived from England. Here the Battalion remained for six days in readiness to move at half an hour's notice, with baggage and transport reduced to a minimum, before we returned to Authie and resumed for many months to come our customary alternation of trench duty and rest, though the respective periods were in future lessened from 12 days to 8.
By our next return to the trenches autumn was already merging into early winter in this chilly tableland, with sharp night frosts and thick white mists. For days on end it was almost impossible to distinguish the hostile lines: and so the guns maintained their silence, for it was unprofitable to fire where you could not observe, and our own people had the strictest orders to economise rigorously until the expenditure of the Loos battles had been again made good. Such weather gave the finest opportunity for patrols, whose wanderings were made easier by the apparent indifference of the enemy. His saps and barbed wire were examined more than once, but though hares were started constantly in the thick tangled grass, only once were his patrols encountered. On this occasion a party of ten, moving in a dense fog and pitch darkness along the enemy wire, was challenged, and a lively fight ensued for a few minutes with rifles, revolvers and bombs, in the course of which Private A. Gibbs, of D Company, a huge, stout-hearted soldier, specially distinguished himself. As generally happens in these blind affrays, there was more noise than damage, and our patrol, which was considerably outnumbered, made its way safely back. One man who became separated from his comrades remained, uncertain of his direction, in No Man's Land for eight hours, until sunrise showed him his bearings. An officer and sergeant of the 10th Royal Irish Rifles, who formed part of the patrol, were spending their first tour of instruction with us in the trenches.
On October 17th-18th the general calm was rudely broken by the performance of the Bavarian Circus, a travelling siege train of 5.9's with a few heavier pieces, which retaliated effectively from the Bois de Biez for our September bombardments. The first day's firing was directed on the forward billets, Hebuterne, Sailly and Colincamps, with short fierce bursts from six or seven batteries firing simultaneously. Next day it was the turn of the Trenches. On the left of the battalion sector part of D Company held a little salient position which enclosed a thicket standing steeply some 12 feet above the Bucquoy road. The enemy apparently believed it to be used for observation purposes, and frequently directed fire upon it, but in point of fact it was untenanted by day. On this salient and on its approaches, a total trench line of about 150 yards, the Bavarians threw during an hour about 400 5.9's, not to mention smaller shells, while two field guns galloped into Gommecourt Park and unlimbering in full view fired obliquely at the wire from point-blank range. They were harassed and eventually forced to retire by the action of Lieut. Coombes, of the Bucks, on our left, who gallantly got a machine gun into the open and took them in the flank. Our own guns were not available at the time, as they were themselves engaged in a 'shoot' and busy on pre-arranged targets. Although the trenches were cut to pieces and the thicket levelled by the fire, which was of extreme accuracy, not a single serious casualty was incurred. Captain Thorne had his Company Headquarters just behind the salient, and his dugout received several hits, and bulged ominously, but did not give way. All wires were cut, but were promptly repaired by the Company Signallers in the heat of the bombardment. Meanwhile, the Oxfords had been assailed with much greater violence, and over 2,000 shells fell in their lines; while their communication trenches were barraged with lachrymatory shells. It almost seemed as if an infantry attack might be imminent, and colour was lent to this theory by an aeroplane message saying that what appeared to be gas cylinders were observed along the enemy trenches between Gommecourt and Serre. Accordingly we stood-to all night repairing the shattered trenches and re-erecting the wire. The hostile infantry who probably disapproved of their artillery's activity as likely to bring future trouble upon themselves, made no attempt to hinder with rifle or machine-gun fire our all-night task. This was by far the heaviest and most concentrated bombardment which the Battalion had yet sustained.
WINTER IN THE TRENCHES
In spite of many rumours of a rest the 48th Division remained in the line throughout the whole of the winter, and, indeed, as we shall see, until the spring of 1916 was far spent. Meanwhile, the wastage of the Battalion was considerable, and was not made good by drafts, whose total number up to March 1st, 1916, amounted only to 103 men. Companies, therefore, with a fighting strength of from 90 to 110 men had to hold (under far more trying conditions) the same frontage (about 1,400 yards as a rule) which had been allotted to them when at practically full strength in the summer. It is true that a company of some New Army battalion was constantly arriving for instruction, but during the two or three days of their visit they could not relieve our men of any of the burden. On the contrary, the work and responsibility, especially for officers and N.C.O.'s was considerably increased, and the difficulty of finding accommodation in the teeming hive of Hebuterne for an extra 250 men added to the general discomfort. A certain amount of change, however, from trench routine was afforded by the courses now established at the various schools of instruction behind the line; for instance, one officer and 30 men went every fortnight to the Brigade Bomb School at Sailly, and in spite of constant shelling found reasonably comfortable billets.
Although casualties still, happily, remained light, and no officer had been killed since Lieut. Poulton-Palmer, considerable changes took place during the winter which it is convenient to summarise here. Colonel Serocold left the Battalion on February 14th, 1916. He had served with the regiment for 32 years, and had commanded it for 11-1/2. All Berkshire people know of the affection and respect with which he was regarded by the regiment, which alone can fully appreciate the debt they owe to his training and personal example. He was succeeded by Major (now Lieut.-Colonel) R. J. Clarke, C.M.G., D.S.O. The adjutant, Captain G. M. Sharpe, had already left in the previous October, and was afterwards to command his first Battalion. In losing him we all felt that we were losing not only an ideal adjutant, but a personal friend. He was succeeded by Lieut. L. E. Ridley, who was killed next August, near Pozieres. The two commanders of A and D Companies, Major F. R. Hedges and Captain H. U. H. Thorne, came home through sickness about the end of 1915. Captain Thorne afterwards won distinction in command of the 12th Royal Scots, and was killed in the Battle of Arras, April 9th, 1917, leading the first wave of assault 'in the old chivalrous way,' as his Brigadier wrote. Captains W. E. M. Blandy and R. G. Attride assumed command of A and D Companies respectively. R.S.-M. Hanney also left, to our great regret, and received a commission in the 1st Battalion, where he afterwards won an M.C. His place was filled by the C.S.-M. (now Q.M.) Hogarth, of A Company. In fact, after a year abroad, the Battalion lost just a third of its original officers, and about 400 N.C.O.'s and men.
Winter set in early and in its most unpleasant form. During November there was only one day on which neither rain nor snow fell. The trenches began collapsing at once; after each heavy storm the unrevetted sides fell in, and liquid mud, reaching as high as the thighs, made movement almost impossible; the sump-hole covers floated away, and in the darkness it sometimes happened that a man would be plunged in water up to his neck. Many of the saps were entirely blocked, and at one time it became necessary temporarily to abandon a portion of the front line. Things would have been better if the floor of the trenches had consisted of duckboards (for the bricks so elaborately laid proved mere labour lost), while a proper supply of revetting hurdles could, by the exercise of a little foresight by Corps staff, have been made available. The thigh boots, which gradually arrived in numbers sufficient for men actually in the front line, went far towards preventing wet feet; whale oil was rubbed in, and arrangements made in the village for drying 400 pairs of socks every 24 hours, while the R.A.M.C. provided hot baths in the factory by the pond. Unfortunately, most of the dugouts, after a short resistance, succumbed to the alternations of frost and torrential rain. Sometimes the roof and sides collapsed, as the Oxfords found to their cost when an iron girder killed four men. Sometimes the pressure of water merely caused leakage, but in either case the result was eventually the same. The plight of the men without shelter was often extremely wretched. They lived in water and liquid mud, which mingled with their food and with the fabric of their clothes. However, it was found possible to hold the line more thinly, and during the eight days at Hebuterne no man (except the Machine Gunners) normally spent more than 48 hours in the front line, as only two platoons of each of the two Companies holding the line composed the trench garrison; the remainder stayed in the support dugouts. Platoons were relieved every 24 hours and companies every 48. But the spirit of the men remained unabated, and the rate of sickness surprisingly low; while the mild open weather of January and February brought about a considerable improvement in trench conditions. On the other hand, as the winter drew on the hours of duty in the trenches grew longer and the rests shorter. For instance, during February the Battalion spent 25 days in the trenches and only 4 in reserve. Moreover, the former period was unusually exacting, as we held a more extended front, and the enemy's guns showed violent and continuous activity; while the rest billets, Sailly and Courcelles, were uncomfortable and frequently shelled.
It might have been expected that fighting activity would diminish during this period, but this was far from being the case. Both sides gradually brought up and permanently established in this sector large numbers of big guns; the 9.2-inch and 8-inch howitzers, whose first advent was signalled in the autumn, fired with increasing frequency as stocks of ammunition accumulated. For several consecutive days in February, Hebuterne received a ration of several thousand shells, and cases of shell shock made their appearance. During one of these bombardments Company-Sergt.-Major Lawrence, of B Company, was blown to pieces as he came up from the cellar of the sergeants' mess in the Keep. Although a man of nearly 45 he made light of every hardship; his constant cheerfulness and devotion to duty were an inspiration to all. Intense bombardments of short trench sections also became more common, as the art of raiding, first practised by the Canadians at Messines, developed. The 6th Gloucesters were the first Battalion in our division to indulge in this amusement in November, 1915, when they successfully penetrated the German lines at south-east of Gommecourt Wood. Our Battalion took neither an active nor a passive part in such operations during the winter; their turn was to come, as will be related, on May 16th.
Small encounters between patrols, however, were not infrequent, as the enemy showed increased enterprise, and was no longer willing to surrender tamely command of No-man's Land. On December 14th a patrol of seven men, on reaching the east end of M hedge, were received with bombs and machine-gun fire from the sunken road which ran diagonally between the lines, losing one killed and three wounded. A search party was organised by Captain Blandy, which succeeded in recovering the body of the dead man. Lance-Corpl. Clayton (afterwards 2nd Lieutenant, killed on the Somme), a member of the patrol, though wounded, most gallantly volunteered to lead the search party and covered their withdrawal by throwing bombs. On March 17th, 1916, Lieut. Goolden and Corpl. V. H. Taylor had the satisfaction of shooting two Germans in a mist, who were trying to get back through their own wire; and on returning the patrol picked up an odd assortment of articles, which sound like an extract from some mad auctioneer's catalogue: (1) a glass globe full of liquid with a string net round it; (2) a strong case with powder inside it; (3) six hand grenades; (4) a shoulder strap, silver braid on red cloth, 169 in gilt; (5) a pair of gloves. Scarcely a night passed without fresh ground being covered and new information acquired, which was sometimes of a whimsical character. Once, for instance, an enemy working was heard conversing entirely in English, with such phrases as 'Dig that hole deeper,' 'Bring those stakes along'; one would imagine them to have been a waiters' battalion. Among the most active patrol leaders were Lieuts. Gathorne-Hardy, Lund, Downs, Calder and Teed; the two last-named distinguished themselves by a daylight reconnaissance lasting 3-1/4 hours in the course of which much information of value was collected.
Nor must we fail to remember with gratitude the three cavalry officers who were attached to us during the winter for periods of one month: Captain A. L. Friend and Lieut. Ansell, of the 7th Dragoon Guards, and Captain M. Simmonds, Indian Cavalry. All did their best to relieve the short-handed company officers, while Captain Simmonds, although a senior captain, took charge of a platoon, and shared all fatigue duties with the subalterns of the Battalion.
When we were back in reserve the various amusements and relaxations, which a stationary warfare permits, were elaborated for the benefit of the men.
Christmas Day was fortunately spent at Authie, and the various companies sat down in comfort in the estaminets to a splendid dinner. Three pigs had been killed for the Battalion's consumption, a plum pudding was presented to each N.C.O. and man by the C.O., and others arrived from the Daily News Fund. A tin of cigarettes came from Messrs. H. and G. Simonds', a packet of cigars from the Maidenhead Fund. Each man received a shirt, muffler, socks and chocolate, the produce of a fund most energetically collected from Berkshire by Mrs. Serocold and Mrs. Hedges. The officers spent an equally happy evening at the chateau, whose owner, Madame De Wailly, kindly provided a room and all other requisites.
A Divisional Football Cup was given by the G.O.C., which was competed for by all units of the 48th Division under Association rules. We were beaten in the first round by the 5th Gloucesters, who scored the winning goal just on time, after an exciting game, in which Sergt. Hedges distinguished himself. The 'Varlets' of the 1st/1st South Midland Field Ambulance, and the Divisional Variety Troupe, of which Private Cooter (B Company) was a well-known member, performed for our benefit, and perhaps most attractive of all was Major Barron's cinematograph entertainment, which was always sure of the warmest reception.