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Q.6.a and Other places Part 10

When I returned to Ypres on February 8, 1918, I found that some very drastic changes had taken place in the grouping of battalions. Instead of four battalions to a brigade, there were now to be three; and every division was to be provided with a Pioneer battalion. This meant that the 50th Division, who already possessed a battalion of pioneers, had to part with a battalion from each brigade. And these battalions would have to be attached as pioneer battalions to other divisions who possessed no pioneer battalion. As the junior battalion in the Northumberlands, the 7th N.F. were selected to go from the 149th Infantry Brigade; and their companions in misfortune were the 9th D.L.I. and the 5th Border Regiment. Major-General Sir P.S. Wilkinson, K.C.M.G., our Divisional Commander, was good enough to say that he was parting with three of his best battalions.

Although I had been attached to the Staff of the 149th Infantry Brigade since May 1916 I was included in the General Order that all detached officers should join their respective battalions before they left the Division. At the time this looked very hard. I had been a specialist for over two years and had got completely out of touch with company work. But I have no doubt now that in the events which happened I was very lucky to leave the 50th Division at this juncture.

In six weeks' time I was, through the good offices of the Battalion H.Q., given an Intelligence job with our new Division; and the experience I had gained with the 50th Division was not wasted as I had feared it might be. Also there went with me from the 149th Infantry Brigade four highly-trained observers who formed the nucleus and backbone of the 42nd Divisional observers. On returning to the 7th N.F. I lost my acting-captaincy and became second in command to C Company. Also I had to part with many good friends in the old Brigade: some of them I was destined never to meet again. Lieut. E.W. Styles who was attached to the 149th Trench-Mortar Battery was unhappily killed during the German offensive; a great friend whom I shall always miss. My bombing orderly, L.-C. Fairclough, was also killed during the same operations.

When I joined the 7th N.F. they were stationed at St. Jean--in Alnwick Camp. And here the battalion said good-bye to the Brigade.

It was a singular turn of fate that this should occur here. The 7th N.F. had fought their first battle with the Brigade on this spot in April 1915, and the name of the camp was of course taken from the town where their H.Q. were stationed at home. When he came to say farewell to the battalion, General Riddell referred to this curious coincidence and also bade us remember the regimental motto 'Quo Fata Vocant' (' Whither the Fates call'). So we left the Ypres Salient for the last time. And although I went into Belgium again with the Army of Occupation, I have never set foot in Flanders again. Of all countries on earth it is surely the most dismal and unhappy. At least so it appeared to me.

XXX

DIGGING TRENCHES ABOUT LOOS

Before we left the 50th Division we learnt that we were to join the 42nd (East Lancashire) Territorial Division, commanded at this time by Major-General A. Solly-Flood, C.M.G., D.S.O. The latter Division had seen service in Egypt and Gallipoli before coming to France, and they were now resting in the Bethune area, having just left the trenches between Cambrin and Loos. This was in the I Corps area of the First Army. As pioneers to the 42nd Division the 7th N.F. became Divisional troops, directly under the command of the Divisional Staff and no longer in a brigade. The three brigades of our new division were the 125th (Lancs. Fusiliers), 126th (East Lancashire), and 127th (Manchester)--all Territorial brigades. The Staff of the 42nd Division treated their new pioneer battalion with kindness and consideration; and I believe we were called on occasion 'Solly-Flood's Pets.' On the other hand there was friction at times between the men of the 42nd Division and the men of the 7th N.F.

The whole Division had hitherto been drawn from the East Lancashire area--Manchester, Oldham, Bury, &c., and they looked upon us rather as intruders. The Northumberlands were of course not the people to let slip so admirable an opportunity of accepting a feud: and in October 1918 they committed the unforgivable sin of winning the Divisional Association Football Cup, which completed their unpopularity.

And for a battalion which had seen the hard service of the 7th N.F., the stock jests generally levelled at a pioneer battalion were a little out of place. The 42nd Division proved themselves a hard fighting division in 1918, and lived up to their motto 'Go one better.'

The 7th N.F. left the Ypres area about February 11, 1918, and after spending a few days at Brandhock they were conveyed in motor-buses to the small village of Fouquereuil, west of Bethune.

Here the battalion was instructed to help the pioneers of the 6th Division, who were holding the front line trenches between Cambrin and Loos. Accordingly three companies of the 7th N.F. were detached from the battalion and sent to the forward area. I went with C Company (Capt. Herriott) to Philosophe, a small colliery village still partly inhabited by civilians, though fairly close to the front line.

Our daily work was making reserve defences, trenches, deep dugouts, and machine-gun emplacements between Vermelles and Loos. During our stay of about a week at Philosophe the village was quiet. But one night the enemy's guns sent a perfect stream of shells just over the tops of the cottages for about twenty minutes. About a week after we left the village it was completely knocked to bits by the enemy's 10-inch howitzer shells.

Our next visit was to some reserve trenches at Cambrin, where we stayed for about a week, improving the defences. It was a quiet, easy time, though not far behind the front line. After this the four companies of the 7th N.F. were reduced to three, and I was transferred to A Company at Sailly-Labourse. Here we were some distance behind the front line, but working-parties were taken up to the forward area, and I used to go and inspect them. Shortly after our arrival at Sailly the enemy began to shell the back areas, causing great annoyance and some casualties to the civilian population, generally to children. They had been allowed to live here many months in peace, although not five miles away from the enemy's trenches. Even Sailly-Labourse received almost daily salvoes from long-range guns.

I had a very unpleasant experience myself in my billet, a brick cottage, one night about March 12. I was in bed on the first floor--the only person in the cottage except monsieur and madame who slept in the cellar. About midnight the enemy's 4-inch naval guns started shelling the place. Three shells in succession passed just over the roof of my cottage, one smashed the next house to pieces; the next fell into our little back garden, eight yards from the cottage; and the third struck the road on the other side. After that I got up and joined monsieur and madame for ten minutes in the cellar, until the shelling had ceased. Then back to bed. But next day I took the precaution of changing my billet--going to the cellar of the broken house next door.

It was a piteous sight to see the poor French folk as they fled from their homes, with their most cherished belongings packed on to small carts.

About this time the 42nd Division decided to form a party of observers, known as 'Divisional Observers,' who were intended to keep a watch on the enemy during a battle and to report all sudden movements to the Division. They were really intended to collect information for D.H.Q. at times when the ordinary avenues of information had broken down. At first the party consisted of one officer and nine trained observers: but later on it was increased by the inclusion of signallers and one or two additional men.

On March 15, 1918, I was instructed to return to Lapugnoy to Battalion H.Q. in order to organise and command this new party of men. I obtained this job through the kind recommendation of the Colonel and Adjutant of the 7th N.F. Although this side of Intelligence was not perhaps the one that I had most experience of, yet I hailed my return to an Intelligence job with delight.

When I reached Lapugnoy no observers had yet arrived, but next day I went to interview Capt. E.C.B. Kirsopp, M.C., the G.S.O. III, who was the officer on the Staff directly responsible for the equipment and movements of the observers. Capt. Kirsopp was, I believe, the father of the observers, i.e. responsible for their formation, and he showed at all times an interest and a kindness which were fully appreciated.

His faith in the possibilities of the party never wavered, although for some time it was difficult to know how to make their information quick and effective. However, he never lost hope in us, and he never ceased to try to improve the means of communication between the observers and D.H.Q. Amongst other things he got for the observers two very powerful telescopes, with a magnification of forty-five times.

And although these glasses could not, owing to their size and the weight of their fittings, be used during the moving warfare, at a later stage they proved simply invaluable for making target sketches of the enemy's defences. Another officer who did us good service was Lieut. C.R. Stride, the Q.M. of the 7th N.F. Without his aid the heavy telescopes would never have gone into action, and the observers would often have been without rations. He always took an interest in the little party, and provided us with many welcome comforts from his store.[16]

On March 19 the following observers reported to me. From the 7th N.F.

L.-C. J. Cowen and Ptes. J. King, W. Fail, and R. Ewart--all of whom were old friends and observers of the 149th Infantry Brigade; from the 125th Infantry Brigade L.-C. J. Flynn; from the 126th Infantry Brigade Ptes. F. Dunkerley and F. Turner; from the 127th Infantry Brigade Corp. Walker and Pte. A. Morris. Owing to casualties and to the observers being recalled to their battalions the personnel of the party was always changing. But of the above, the four men of the 7th N.F. and Pte. F. Turner practically remained with the observers from first to last.

For about a week I stayed at Lapugnoy, giving lectures to the observers and carrying out some field training with the compass and protractor. But our peaceful existence in the back area was not destined to last long. On Friday, March 22, I was instructed to take the observers to the 42nd Division Signal School at Bethune, in order that the men might go through a course of signalling. We reached the Signal School at 4 P.M. on Friday, and at 10 P.M. the same night, we received orders that all officers and men at the school were to be ready to move at 6 A.M. next morning. The long expected blow had fallen at last. The enemy had already launched the first wave of his great offensive.

FOOTNOTES:

[16] Lieut.-Col. H. Liddell, D.S.O., M.C., was most generous in providing men to replace casualties and in sending us four signallers from the 7th N.F. H.Q.

XXXI

THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE 1918--SECOND BATTLE OF ARRAS

March 23, 1918 was a fine day: and that was lucky for us, for we had a long day in the open before us. We got a hurried breakfast about six o'clock, and were soon marching by road to the place of assembly on the road from Bethune to Hesdigneul. Here we had a wait of several hours on the roadside, whilst an unending stream of motor-buses hurried past all going southwards. It was rumoured that our destination was Basseux, five miles S.W. of Arras; and I hoped it was true, for I knew the district better than any other in France. At last the buses allotted to the Divisional troops drew up and we got aboard and set off on our journey to the south. We went through Labuissiere to St. Pol, and thence through Frevent to Doullens, and then north-east along the road towards Arras. Except for a few large and recent shell-holes by the roadside we saw little unusual until we began to get near Arras. We stopped for a few minutes near the C.C.S.

at Laherliere, and I got off and asked one of the hospital orderlies how things were going on. We were told that our fellows had had a bad day on the 22nd, but that to-day far fewer casualties had passed through the station. Soon after that we met a number of French civilians with carts streaming back from Arras, guarded by French soldiers. We knew then that things were not going too well in front.

When we reached Basseux about 6 P.M. the buses were turned round and we went on in an easterly direction till we reached Ayette. Here we got down and marched in the darkness to the ruined village of Adinfer. Continual flashes in the direction of Monchy-le-Preux and an intermittent roar from our long-range guns near at hand showed that fighting was still going on. But no shells arrived to add to our discomfort. The observers had to bivouac in Adinfer Wood, a cheerless proceeding after our long journey down, for we had no blankets and no chance of getting a hot meal. Some artillerymen gave me a drink of water, which I remember with gratitude, for I had had no chance of a drink since 6 A.M., and the roads had been choked with dust. There was a keen frost that night, and I could not sleep for long. When daylight came I managed to light a small fire and to heat up a tin of 'Machonchie'; and this put a little more life into me. After that I went to Adinfer where the Divisional Staff were quartered in wooden huts. Here I got a cup of coffee and had a chat with the Divisional Intelligence Officer, Lieut. G.F. Doble, M.C. I found that D.H.Q.

were moving back to Monchy-au-Bois. My instructions were to reconnoitre the roads from Ayette towards Bucquoy, Ablainzevelle, and Courcelles-le-Comte. So after getting quarters for my party at a ruined cottage in the wood, I set out with most of my men and spent the whole afternoon tramping the roads as far as Ablainzevelle and back again towards Moyenneville. Unfortunately as events proved this was time and labour lost. For when I reported to Capt. Kirsopp at Monchy-au-Bois I found that the 42nd Division had received orders from the IV Corps to hold the line farther south, towards Behagnies and Sapignies. D.H.Q. were to move next day to a camp between Logeast Wood and Bucquoy. I was told to send a party of observers to the east end of Logeast Wood and to pay a visit myself to the H.Q. near Bucquoy. The night was again spent in Adinfer Wood; but it was more comfortable for we had collected some rations and blankets and were less exposed to the weather.

Next morning (March 25) I moved across country with L.-C. Flynn to the camp between Logeast Wood and Bucquoy. The country-side seemed deserted and no sound of firing could be heard. L.-C. Cowen took two observers to the east end of Logeast Wood and spent the day there, but nothing of importance could be seen. They were, however, shelled by the enemy for a time in the afternoon. Later on in the day there were more signs of the enemy's activity. A large dump exploded at Courcelles, but it may have been done by our own R.E.'s. And it was reported that the Germans were advancing towards Achiet-le-Grand. I found out that evening that D.H.Q. had moved back to the village of Fonquevillers; so I decided to move my men more in that direction; and after nightfall the observers marched along the road through Monchy-au-Bois to Bienvillers.

On this road we saw guns and transport in large numbers, mostly going south. It was fairly evident to my mind that the enemy had made another advance during the day, but definite news was hard to get.

Hundreds of shells from the German 4-inch naval guns fell about the roads all night, but I heard not one of them explode. They must have been a rotten lot of ammunition. On arriving at Bienvillers the observers got a billet in the cellars of a shattered house at the north end of the village. A little later I went to Fonquevillers to get news from D.H.Q.--and instructions for next day. The Divisional Staff were quartered in some Nissen huts. When I arrived they had no particular news, but I was asked to send a post of observers again, if possible, to the east end of Logeast Wood, which was thought to be still in our hands. After this I returned to Bienvillers about midnight and arranged for an early start next day.

In the morning (March 26) we were cooking tea and bacon about 3.45 A.M. when a very tired and draggled officer came in. He said he had just ridden over from Bapaume on a motor-cycle and he told us a sorry tale. He evidently thought that the Germans had broken right through on the Fifth Army front (i.e. on our right), and that the British forces were about to be surrounded. Bapaume was on fire, and the British Army defeated and broken in the south. This was the first definite news I had of the misfortunes in the Somme area. It was disquieting enough and I determined to approach Logeast Wood with caution and to keep a sharp look-out for unusual movement as we went forward. Accompanied by Ptes. Fail and Ewart I went across country towards Bucquoy as the light was beginning to break. We noticed that the large trees on the road to Hannescamps had been prepared by the R.E.'s for felling with gun cotton--the charges being ready and tied to the trunks so as to throw them across the road. The roads were already full, mostly horse transport pouring rapidly through Bienvillers towards Souastre. Transport from the south-east coming in our direction through Hannescamps appeared to be in a panic and expecting pursuit by the German cavalry. Once we got away from the road and reached Le Quesnoy Farm there was little movement to be seen.

A few small parties of our men moving towards us across the open and here and there a limber. Nothing in a hurry, nothing at all to indicate a retreat on our own front, though it was actually taking place at the time. There was no sound of firing, and no shells. A battery of field guns still lay in a hollow just west of Bucquoy, and this sight rather reassured me; so I decided to push on a bit. Leaving my two observers on the ridge west of Dierville Farm I approached the ruined buildings of the farm which lie a little west of the road between Bucquoy and Ayette. While I was here I saw some of our infantry marching along this road out of Bucquoy and forming a line along it. One of them asked me where they could get in touch with our troops on the left. Though I had been told to expect them east of Logeast Wood they had in fact fallen back during the night and were even now about to leave Ablainzevelle. The troops I saw on the road were in fact taking up a line of resistance, for they were the British front line. After this I decided that Dierville Farm could be held as an O.P. for the time being; and so sending my two observers on, I returned to Bienvillers to get a little much needed rest. As I went back there was still no shelling and no sound of rifle fire. Yet it afterwards transpired that the enemy had already pushed his outposts forward into Ablainzevelle and west of Logeast Wood. Surely it was on this part of the front one of the most silent advances made in the war. When they returned my observers reported all quiet at Dierville Farm, but the two observers that relieved them at 10 A.M. found the enemy guns more active. After midday a number of shells were sent into the village of Bucquoy and not far from the farm.

When I got back the roads through Bienvillers became more crowded than ever with horse transport, and many guns were being moved on the road from Monchy-au-Bois. The sides of the road, too, became crowded with infantry, who were apparently awaiting orders to move forward. In spite of the congestion on the roads the enemy made only one attempt that day to harass them. A 10-inch shell from a long-range gun fell in an open field about 100 yards short of Bienvillers Church, but it did no damage except to the field. The stream of traffic through the village continued without ceasing all that day. At 4 P.M. I received orders from the Division to join the 7th N.F. near Essarts and to come under the command of the O.C. 7th N.F. It was found impossible to make any direct use of the observers at the time owing to the disorganisation and uncertainty that prevailed; so they were added temporarily as a reinforcement to the battalion. It was indeed a crisis in the fate of the right wing of the Third Army, though at the time we did not realise it. At 6 p.m. the observers left Bienvillers and went forward along the road to Hannescamps, meeting many wounded on the road and a few other parties of troops returning. We found the battalion in a hollow west of Essarts. They were just preparing to move. On reporting to Major McLeod, who was in temporary command of the battalion, I was told to attach the observers to the H.Q. Company.

The battalion had already had a brush with the enemy. On the preceding day, March 25, about midday they had advanced in artillery formation from Logeast Wood towards Achiet-le-Grand.

Near that village they had come under direct fire from the enemy's field artillery and they had been shelled also with 5.9-inch howitzers. One company suffered rather severe casualties, but the battalion succeeded in passing through the village and filling a gap in the line. Later on in the day they had been relieved by the neighbouring Brigade and received orders to fall back first to Logeast Wood and later on to Ablainzevelle. The latter place they were ordered to leave at 8 A.M. that morning. Eventually they reached the place where I found them. The men were all in good spirits and evidently pleased with their part in the rearguard action. Very soon after I joined them the battalion was moved again, this time about a quarter of a mile to the south across the Bucquoy-Bienvillers Road. Here we waited till further orders should arrive, and meantime some hot soup and rum were served out. Then we all lay down in the open, with blankets it is true, but the air was so frosty that little sleep was possible. About midnight we got orders to go to some trenches just east of the village of Essarts. We marched forward to this place, about a mile, without any interference from the enemy. H.Q. were established in a small tin hut in the village. Although there were still many trees about the place, all trace of the buildings had disappeared except one or two cellars and some piles of rubbish. We found our field batteries stationed quite close to us, to the west and north of Essarts, and one in a small hollow to the east. These batteries kept up a pretty constant fire during the night; but so far the enemy did not reply. All our heavy guns seem to have been taken away, except possibly one battery of 60-pounder guns near Hannescamps.

The two following days, March 27 and 28, were memorable for a continuous series of attacks by the enemy along the whole of our front.

On the morning of the 27th I went to the east side of the Essarts Wood to note what was going on, and I sent a party of observers farther north to the high ground at Le Quesnoy Farm. About 10.30 A.M. the enemy's artillery opened a scattered fire on the neighbourhood of Essarts, apparently searching the hollows for our battery positions.

But it was not until 11 A.M. that the enemy started to shell our forward positions. From 11 A.M. to 11.25 A.M. a heavy barrage of flame-shells was put down about Dierville Farm and along the road leading from Bucquoy to Ayette. I am told that they did not do much damage, but they were certainly a terrible sight. The flames that burst from these shells when they reached the ground rose up thirty or forty feet in the air, flared on for a few moments, and then disappeared into a dirty black smoke. For twenty-five minutes they came over fast, and they did not finally cease till 11.45 A.M. At the same time Biez Wood on our right was heavily shelled and the area to the south of Bucquoy. Our field batteries at Essarts made a gallant reply, pouring in an unceasing rain of shrapnel wherever the enemy was suspected to be concentrating. This in turn drew a very unpleasant fire on to Essarts, which went on without break till 2 P.M. After that the enemy's counter-battery guns must have run out of ammunition, for they gave little more trouble for the rest of the day. Our field guns however continued to fire all that day and through the greater part of the night; their fire did not slacken whether shells were bursting around them or not. And great credit must be given to these gunners for their share in dispersing five enemy attacks. The battery on the east side of the wood, belonging to the 41st Division, came in for some very severe shelling, but the gunners never ceased to fire or to carry ammunition forward to the guns in full view of the enemy. As things had become rather hot around our tin hut, H.Q. were moved to a cellar, used as a dressing-station, where the doctor, Capt. C.F.

Lidderdale, made room for us.

During the evening the battalion got orders to be prepared to form a defensive flank between Le Quesnoy Farm and Adinfer Wood. The enemy's attacks had made progress on our left towards Ayette, and it was feared that he might break through in that direction. Next morning, however, March 28, still found us at Essarts. The battalion was ordered to leave the trenches and to fall back behind the line of batteries on the west of the wood. In order to get a view of what was going on in front, I was sent by the Adjutant with two observers[17]

to a point east of the wood, and we dug ourselves in in some partly-formed trenches there. In these trenches we stayed till well on into the afternoon, sending in reports every half-hour of what we could see to the H.Q. of the Infantry Brigade in Essarts. Evidently the enemy had renewed his attacks, for there was heavy shelling all along the front, and a number of shells again came in amongst the batteries about Essarts. During the afternoon the 7th N.F. moved forward to some trenches in support, on the ridge east of Essarts. And there the observers joined them after dark. The firing had been hot all day, but it now died down. And it really looked as if the enemy's attacks had become exhausted for the time being.

This forward move by the battalion was, I found, preliminary to taking over the front line trenches to the north and east of Bucquoy. And shortly before midnight we moved out through the darkness and took over these trenches.[18] The front line lay on the high ground beyond the village. The H.Q. which we took over were in a mined dugout to the west of the village. This dugout had been made by the Germans before the end of 1916, and it was small but very deep. It soon became unconscionably stuffy, as there was only one entrance. But it was better than being in the open.

Next day the enemy kept fairly quiet, but the village was shelled occasionally with heavy howitzers. I went out with two observers to the high ground west of Dierville Farm. But we saw no movement by the enemy's troops. Later on the enemy's guns became more active on the roads, and the road leading back to Essarts received salvoes all day.

Orders came for our relief which was to start after dark. It was not until 10 P.M. that the companies in the front line were relieved and the H.Q. Company was free to move off. The journey to Fonquevillers, where we were going, was not without interference from the enemy.

Hitherto I had had great luck in escaping being shelled on the roads at night, but to-night my luck was out. As we moved back along the road to Essarts--the doctor and I at the end of the column--a number of gas-shells were dropped on the windward side of the road. They were not thick enough to stop us, but they smelt very bad. As we approached the cross-roads east of Essarts a 5.9-inch shell fell close by the roadside. We had a shower of mud thrown over us by this shell, and three more came in quick succession, but not quite so unpleasantly close.

An incident also of a disagreeable kind occurred near the end of our journey. Between Gommecourt and Fonquevillers we had to halt, until the trenches allotted to us had been located. At this point the road was packed with troops returning from the line; and some battalions brought their cookers here, so that the road was crammed almost tight with men and transport. For a long time nothing happened, but eventually a German field battery fired several rapid salvoes of shells enfilading the road. Fortunately the greater number fell slightly wide of the road, but a few men in one of the Manchester battalions were hit. It was however a lucky escape. After this the road cleared quickly and we moved on into Fonquevillers. This village had been badly knocked about in the early days of the war, and few houses were in anything but ruins.

But there were still many cellars intact, and also a number of tin huts built for the French refugees in 1917. Officers of Battalion H.Q.

Chapter end

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