Q.6.a and Other places Part 5
Austin, and many more wounded, including Capt. G.F. Ball. During the attack thirty-seven out of the eighty bombers of the 7th N.F. were killed or wounded, and the bombers of the 4th N.F. paid a still heavier price, including their gallant officer killed.
At 4 P.M. the 151st Infantry Brigade took over the operations on our front and continued the attack at night. Next day B.H.Q. returned to Mametz Wood. I had to pay a visit to the nearest large dressing-station to get the anti-teta.n.u.s inoculation. This proved more troublesome than the small cut I received, and it made me feel fairly weak for the next ten days. On September 20 I went with Capt. D. Hill to select a place for a dump near High Wood, and we pa.s.sed over the first captured German trench. There were few of our men lying about, for the burial parties had been hard at work. But farther back around Intermediate Trench there were piles of British and German soldiers still lying where they had fallen weeks before. We had now to get a number of sandbag carriers made for taking more grenades up the line, and I was given a small party from the 5th N.F. to get this done.
About September 22 we returned to the line, and B.H.Q. to the Chalk Quarry at Bazentin-le-Pet.i.t. I have but a confused recollection of the period from now to the end of our stay in this locality. My servant had a lucky escape in the Quarry. He was sitting outside my dugout with two others making some tea, when a small sh.e.l.l fell right in the middle of their feet. All were thrown over by the explosion, but only one was really hurt--Capt. Bloomer's servant. We brought the poor fellow into the dugout, with his right arm almost severed at the elbow; and we spent the next ten minutes tying him up as best we could. He died about a week later. I also remember paying two visits to a most unpleasant spot selected as the Brigade ammunition dump, at the junction of Crescent Alley and Spence Trench. The German artillery never seemed to leave it alone.
About October 3 the 5th N.F., commanded by Lieut.-Col. N.I. Wright attacked the Flers Line, and took two trenches. Before this attack started a huge howitzer was brought up and placed on the west side of Mametz Wood. And during the one and a half hours preceding the attack, it fired sixty 15-inch sh.e.l.ls into Le Sars, of which only two failed to burst. On October 5 the 50th Division was relieved, and B.H.Q.
moved back to a doctor's house in Albert. That night General Ovens gave a dinner to the officers of the Staff at a restaurant in the town, where a good repast was served by some French civilians. Next day we moved farther back to Millencourt, and we were billeted in a nice house.
 The two other Company Commanders of the 7th N.F., Capt. V.
Merivale, M.C., and Capt. E.F. Clennell, M.C., got safely through the action.
 At this place I first had the opportunity of speaking to our Divisional Commander, Major-General Sir P.S. Wilkinson, K.C.M.G., C.B., who was beloved by every one in the Division.
I went off to Millencourt, on October 6, in front of the rest of Brigade in order to look for a bombing ground. I found one all right, but I cannot say that it was altogether safe or in very good condition. The firing-trench was a square emplacement cut into the ground and there was no easy exit in case of trouble; also our predecessors there obviously had had an accident on the spot, for I found a box of Mills grenades lying there, half buried, two or three of the grenades exploded and the rest more or less damaged and in a dangerous condition. However, the mess was cleared up at last, and I had to make the best of the place, such as it was. I had now only Sergt. P. Flannigan to help me, but Lieut.-Col. Scott Jackson, D.S.O., my colonel, kindly allowed L.-Sergt. Piercy of the 7th N.F. to come and a.s.sist in the training at the Brigade Bombing School. After the heavy fighting the Brigade was supplied with large drafts of new men.
They came chiefly from the Fen country and were only partially trained. I found them far more difficult to instruct in bombing than the Northumberland miners. I had between forty and fifty of these men each day, and they had to throw two live grenades before they left.
One exciting event happened during this training. One of the drafts was about to throw his grenade, when he dropped it and of course it started to burn. With great quickness and resolution Sergt. Flannigan picked it up and got it out of the trench before it burst--and his action undoubtedly averted a tragedy. Many men have received decorations for similar acts in the trenches, but the Brigade decided that nothing could be done in this case except mentioning it in Divisional Orders and recording it in the Sergeant's pay book. After this I arranged with the Sergeant to keep an undetonated grenade handy, and if any man seemed too nervous to throw his first grenade safely, we supplied him with this. He went through all the emotions of throwing a live grenade, and endangered neither himself nor us. The empty grenade was then picked up and treated as a 'dud,' i.e. one that had misfired. Between October 7 and October 21, 477 new men went through the bombing course, and nearly a thousand grenades were fired.
Shortly after this Sergt. P. Flannigan went to the Corps School, first as a bomber and afterwards as a Lewis gun instructor; and I never had his services again.
Brigadier-General Ovens was a pleasant, genial Irishman, who tried to make us all feel at home in his mess. But I doubt whether the Irish really understand the Northumbrians or vice versa. At this time John Coates, the famous tenor singer, came out as a lieutenant in the Yorkshire Regiment. He was attached to us for a time. It was a sporting thing for him to do, but he was neither young enough nor hard enough to stand the severities of the campaign. He acted as General's Orderly-Officer for a time and afterwards became Town Major of Becourt, not an easy or a very pleasant job. He sang several times for the men, once in the open air, and his singing was certainly top hole.
During this stay at Millencourt I paid a flying visit to Amiens with Lieut. A.E. Odell. We went there and back in a Divisional Signal car and stopped only a few hours, in fact for dinner.
About October 24 we went to Albert, stopping one night at the same house as before, and next day we went back to the line.
On October 25, 1916, we took over from a brigade of the 1st Division at the ruined sugar factory at Bazentin-le-Grand. The sleeping apartments were in a dugout below ground, but the mess room and offices were in the building on the ground floor. After arriving I went with a bombing sergeant of the Black Watch to have a look at the Brigade Dump, which was a good way from B.H.Q. You got at it by walking across country to the west end of High Wood, and then along a trench tramway till it ended rather abruptly at the Flers Switch. Like most dumps, it was at the end of the tramway and none too healthy a spot. It was afterwards moved forward to a sunken road called 'Hexham Road,' where the boxes of ammunition were just piled in the open.
The position in front was now as follows. The 1st Division had pushed the enemy back to a line along the top of a ridge running from the b.u.t.te of Warlencourt practically due east. This ridge prevented our seeing the enemy's approaches and support positions in Le Barque. On the other hand from Loupart Wood the whole of our approaches and support trenches were in full view of the enemy, as far back as High Wood. Across those two miles no one could move in daylight without being seen by the enemy, and there was practically no position to put our field guns forward of High Wood. The enemy's front line consisted of two trenches--Gird Line and Gird Support--with a forward trench on the top of the ridge, called on the left 'b.u.t.te Trench' on the right 'Hook Sap.' Our front line Snag Trench and Maxwell Trench lay this side the ridge and about two hundred yards away from the German forward trench.
The b.u.t.te of Warlencourt, an old Gallic burial place, was a round chalk hill, rising about 100 feet above ground level; and had been mined with deep dugouts and made into a formidable strong point. From the b.u.t.te machine-guns defended the approaches to Hook Sap, and from Hook Sap and the Gird Line machine-guns defended the approaches to the b.u.t.te. The ground between and around the opposing trenches had been ploughed up with innumerable sh.e.l.ls, some of huge calibre, and it was now a spongy mora.s.s, difficult to cross at a walk and impossible at a run. As events proved, unless both the b.u.t.te and the Gird Line could be taken at the same time, the one would render the other impossible to hold. This then was the problem that faced the 50th Division, a problem that would have been difficult enough in the driest of weather, but rendered four times more so by the rain which fell in deluges on three days out of four during the whole of October and November. I have dealt with these details rather fully, because this phase of the Somme battle has been pa.s.sed over as a thing of no account. The eyes of the public have been directed to the successful operations at Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt. They have not been directed to the misery and horror that were endured heroically but unavailingly on the slopes between Eaucourt L'Abbaye and Le Barque.
Never have the soldiers of the 50th Division deserved more and won less praise than they did during the operations between October 25 and November 15. I have no pen to describe the conditions that were faced by the brave men, who, after labouring unceasingly in the slimy horrors and rain for three weeks without rest or relief, stormed and took Hook Sap, only to be cut off and killed to the last man by successive counter-attacks. It is a sorrowful page in the history of the 7th N.F., but for stark grim courage and devotion to duty it cannot be surpa.s.sed by anything in the history of the battalion.
The first attack on the b.u.t.te and b.u.t.te Trench took place about the beginning of November and was made by the 151st Infantry Brigade. On the right the attack did not succeed; but on the left the troops reached the b.u.t.te and took or killed many Germans. Unfortunately the machine-guns behind the b.u.t.te prevented the Brigade from consolidating the ground won, and the troops eventually retired to their original line. During this operation the men of the 149th Infantry Brigade were employed in carrying up stores and as stretcher parties. Eventually, about November 12, the Brigade took over the front line, with a view to renewing the attack whenever the weather should permit. Our H.Q. were established at Seven Elms, about a mile from the front line, with rear H.Q. at the sugar factory. At dawn on November 14 the Brigade attacked the Hook Sap and Gird Line, the 5th N.F. on the right, the 7th N.F. on the left opposite the sap. At the same time an Australian Corps attacked farther to the right, but no attack was made on the b.u.t.te itself. An officer, who was in the trenches south-west of the b.u.t.te and saw the Northumberlands go forward, told me that he had never seen such a strange sight. The men staggered forward a few yards, tumbled into sh.e.l.l-holes or stopped to pull out less fortunate comrades, forward a few more yards, and the same again and again. All the while the machine-guns from the German trenches poured a pitiless hail into the slowly advancing line; and the German guns opened out a heavy barrage on the trenches and on the ground outside. In spite of mud, in spite of heavy casualties, the survivors of two companies of the 7th N.F. struggled across that spongy swamp and gained the German line. What happened after that can only be conjectured, for they never kept touch with the 5th N.F., who reached and took the Gird Line. But it is known that the 7th N.F. got a footing both in Hook Sap and in the Gird Line behind. The Germans barraged the captured trenches twice or three times during the day, and are thought to have attacked them in force with fresh reserves each time. Owing to the heavy and continuous barrage across No Man's Land no news could be got back and no supports could be sent forward.
Finally, at night, the remnants of the shattered brigade were collected, and another attempt made to reach the trenches; but the Germans had evidently now got back to their old position and in the mud and darkness the fresh attack had little chance of success.
Nothing more has been seen or heard of the two companies that reached Hook Sap. It is believed that they perished to the last man, overwhelmed by successive German counter-attacks. Second-Lieut. E.G.
Lawson fell at Hook Sap, also 2nd-Lieut. R.H.F. Woods, both Bombing Officers of the 7th N.F.; also Bombing Sergts. J.R. Richardson and J.
The 5th N.F. did well indeed, for they succeeded in holding their ground in the Gird Line and handed it over next day to the troops that relieved them. But that also had to be abandoned at last, owing to its isolated position.
The only consolation that can be drawn from this heroic but tragic affair is that it may have created a diversion to our successful operations at Beaucourt. As an isolated operation it was doomed from the start owing to the state of the ground and the exhaustion of the men who took part in it.
My own part in the sufferings of the Brigade at this time was so insignificant that it is not worth giving many details of my experiences. I found walking over the muddy ground most terribly exhausting, especially in a trench coat dripping with rain and mud.
And it was a long way, over three miles, from rear H.Q. to the dump at Hexham Road. One morning I went with Major Anderson to the ruins of Eaucourt L'Abbaye on a visit of inspection. For months this was a terribly sh.e.l.led place, and it was now nothing but a pile of broken sticks and brickdust. We were lucky to get clear of it before the morning hate began. There were still large numbers of British and German dead lying in heaps round the Flers Line; and two broken down tanks completed the picture of muddy desolation. On November 14, the day of the battle, I went up to advanced B.H.Q. at Seven Elms, where quarters were very crowded. I remember being so tired out that night that I fell asleep standing in one of the pa.s.sages, propped against one of the walls. Next day I returned to the sugar factory. And on November 17 B.H.Q. moved back to a billet in Albert. Here, on November 19, I attended the Battalion Church Parade in a barn. A mere handful of men, gaunt, hollow-cheeked, and exhausted, their faces dead white and their clothes almost in rags, it was one of the saddest parades I can remember.
During this visit to the line I first had the services of Pte.
Fairclough of the 5th N.F. as my Brigade Bombing Orderly, and he remained with me in that capacity till I left the Brigade in 1918. I found him a most useful, willing man, and he soon gained his lance stripe. On November 19, owing to the kindness of Major Anderson, I was granted leave to England for ten days. He told the General that I was looking rather war-worn and that I should be needed for further grenade training on my return.
It was during this visit to Bazentin-le-Grand that I first started studying Intelligence work. The Brigade-Major asked me to spend my spare time in a.s.sisting him with some aeroplane photographs. I had to go over the daily series that came in from the Corps, and note anything new on our own part of the front. Major Anderson was an expert reader of these photographs, and he taught me all I know about the subject. I found it an interesting subject, and it was to have a great influence over my future career.
My journey from Albert to England was remarkable for the hardships that occurred. It should be remembered that every one was desperately tired and worn out already. We were told to appear at Albert station at midnight. When we got there we were told to expect the train at 2.15 A.M. This meant walking about the platform to keep warm, for there was no shelter for officers at the station. Capt. J.O. Aglionby, C.F., our padre, and Capt. Lidderdale, R.A.M.C, our battalion doctor, were both going by the same train, so I was not without company. When 2.15 A.M. came there was no train, and we kept walking about till dawn broke, but still no train. The R.T.O. then told us that there had been a breakdown and that the train could not be expected for a long time.
So we decided to go and get breakfast at our billets and then to go to Amiens by motor-lorry, and catch the train there. At least there would be less chance of being sh.e.l.led there, and some food and shelter.
So we set off about 10 o'clock and eventually got to Amiens, where we had a decent lunch. We had to keep hanging about the station, however, inquiring for the train. It arrived about 9 P.M., about eighteen hours late, and we were glad enough to get on board. It is difficult enough to sleep sitting in a train, but I think I managed a few hours of troubled sleep. And next morning we arrived in Le Havre.
The first thing there was to march the men down to a rest camp a long way from the town, and a good way from the docks. We were told to report back at the same place at 2.30 P.M. So we trudged back to Le Havre and got shaved and fed. On returning to the Rest Camp we were told that the boat would leave in twenty minutes and that, as it was a good thirty minutes walk, we had better be quick. Fortunately we got hold of a motor-car and got a lift part of the way and hurried along after that as fast as we could. When we reached the dock we found the boat would not leave for another two hours. The organisation here was rotten just at this time, but it improved later. _The Viper_, a fast packet-boat, took us across to Southampton. And next morning I proceeded to Weston-super-Mare, having taken nearly three days on the journey. Most of that leave I spent in bed in the hands of the doctor.
I was utterly worn out, not only with exhaustion, but with the depression naturally caused by losing so many friends and comrades in a manner apparently so fruitless.
The company of recruits I had at Alnwick, was practically wiped out, I found about two of them with the battalion when I returned. Only eleven were left of the battalion bombers, my good comrades of the Salient. The Bombing Officers of the four battalions were all casualties, four of them killed. There were few trained bombers left in the whole brigade. I went back to France on December 2 in anything but buoyant spirits.
On returning to Albert I found that the Brigade were billeted at the small village of Bresle. And I got there without much difficulty. The weather was wet and cold, as it generally is in December; but active preparations were soon started for getting the Bombing School open. We found a fairly good bombing-pit for the Brigade School, but we had to make one for the battalions. I was now without trained instructors and I had no Brigade Bombing Sergeant, but I was lent Corp. Munro, a bomber from the 6th N.F., and I made what use I could of Pte.
Fairclough, my orderly. The result was that I had not only to attend to all the live firing, but I had to do the sergeants' work as well.
Afterwards there were the grenades to be sorted out for next day and a friendly hand given to the Bombing Officers of the battalions, most of whom were new to their work.
During our stay at Bresle 477 fresh men went through the recruits'
bombing course. And on December 26 and 27 the tests were carried out with the battalion bombers, for the purpose of granting the Bombers'
Badge. These tests were now made much more difficult to pa.s.s, and only seven men pa.s.sed the throwing and firing tests. After this period I never carried out any further instruction in the hand-grenade. The drafts later on came out more fully trained and the Battalion Bombing Officers carried on any further instruction that was required. During and in preparation for the operations on the Somme 16 officers and 2106 men went through the course; and at least 5000 live grenades were thrown. I was lucky to have no accident with the Mills grenade, and no fatal ones even with the rifle-grenade.
General Ovens went on leave at Bresle, and Lieut.-Col. G. Scott Jackson, O.C. 7th N.F., came as Brigade Commander to our H.Q. We had him several times again in that capacity, and he was always a favourite in our mess. His fine record and services are well known; a D.S.O. and Bar, he probably commanded a fighting battalion as long as any officer in France. From the time when the battalion landed in France in April 1915 till he left the battalion for the R.A.M.C. at the latter end of 1917, he was only off duty for about three days, in a quiet part of the line. He always looked a picture of robust strength, never missed his cold bath even with the temperature near zero, and was one of the most optimistic men in the whole Brigade. He was a most pleasant kindly Brigade Commander, with the supreme virtue of leaving the specialists to do their work in their own way.
Before we left Bresle I got a Brigade Bombing Sergeant--Sergeant T.
Matthewson of the 5th N.F., who had had long experience as Battalion Bombing Sergeant, and was a thoroughly trained and reliable man. I found him most useful in his new office and I am glad to know that he got safely through the war. Amongst other accomplishments he was a good wicket-keeper, as I found later on.
On Christmas Day I went to dinner with the 7th N.F. at their H.Q., and was very hospitably entertained. The Brigade moved from Bresle to a camp at Becourt on November 28, and stayed there two days; and then took over from a Brigade of the 1st Division at Bazentin-le-Pet.i.t.
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