Q.6.a and Other places Part 8



We were now able to settle down to training and manoeuvres. The country round Monchy was well suited for this, for there were many old German trenches about, and the villages were all smashed to bits, giving a realistic touch to field training. B.H.Q. were under canvas, but I selected an old German dugout which I thought would be drier when the rains set in. It was also cooler in the hot weather, and its only drawback was rats. I kept them in check, however, with a small trap that the Germans left behind; they were always good at inventing killing machines. My own job was now to train as many infantry men as possible in the use of the rifle-grenade. And between May 29 and June 16, 190 men went through the course. Also Lieut. Odell brought his signal company of twenty-nine men one evening to be shown the working of the rifle-grenade, as it was thought that the rifle-grenade (empty) might be used as a message carrier.

The course of instruction was somewhat as follows. In the first place I gave a short lecture on the mechanism of the grenade and methods of firing it. Then the party of ten was split into two squads and firing practice took place. The men were trained to fire kneeling and lying, behind cover and without, and also out of a deep fire-trench. I was greatly assisted by Sergt. T. Matthewson, who was a really expert bomber, and by my orderly--L.-C. Fairclough. This training took all morning, and as far as I could judge the men were interested in the course and did their best to learn the intricacies of this new weapon.

In the afternoon I was free to wander round and examine the surrounding country. It was of considerable interest, for it was part of the ground evacuated by the enemy when he retreated to the Hindenburg Line. The trenches were magnificently built, and revetted with wood or wattle-work, and provided with deep dugouts and concrete machine-gun emplacements. The latter were not only wonderfully strong, the forerunners of the German 'pill-box'--but sometimes wonderfully decorated with coats of arms and mottoes.

Very little equipment was left behind, and many of the dugouts were blown in before leaving. Some of the gun emplacements, too, were very cleverly concealed. The guns were kept in shelters in a line of reserve trenches and a set of dummy emplacements was dug out a little distance away for the benefit of our aeroplane observers.

It was an education in military engineering and fortification to walk round these wonderful defences. The wiring too was most ingenious and often carefully concealed in the hedges or ditches. Inside the gun shelters, you found that the gun was fixed on a central pivot and worked round a wooden platform with every degree carefully marked.

Whilst on the walls stood a painted board with every barrage line and target carefully worked out, and the range and code call set out as well. The O.P. was sometimes in a high tree, with the ladders to get up and the telephone wires still remaining. It had been a quiet part of the line, and consequently the patient industry of the German had had full scope.

The 50th Division began to take over the line west of Cherisy and Vis about the middle of June; but only two brigades were in the front trenches together, and it was our turn to remain behind. On June 18 the Brigade moved from Monchy-au-Bois to Boisleux-au-Mont, where B.H.Q. were in a canvas camp. From June 20 to 23 I continued the rifle-grenade training. The recruit training was now practically over and these days were given to showing the handling of a rifle-grenade section in open warfare. Forty-one officers, nine N.C.O.'s and sixty-two men took part in these schemes. I had also two or three rather important court-martial cases to attend to during the evenings.

Before going back into the line I was given nine men to act as Brigade observers; the 6th N.F. sent L.-C. Chappell and Ptes. Wright and Hume; the 7th N.F. Ptes. Fail and Ewart; the 4th N.F. Pte. Brook and another; the 5th N.F. L.-C. Roxburgh, who had once been in the 7th N.F. and Pte. Garnett. Pte. Brook I found came from Meltham, only seven or eight miles from my own home. He was a typical lad from these parts, with the bright red face and the speech that I knew so well.

Naturally I took an interest in him and I was sorry when he left us about the end of November 1917. He has come through the war safely, I am glad to say. Ptes. Fail and Ewart were destined to act as my observers both with this brigade and in the 42nd Division in 1918. And I cannot speak too highly of the excellent work done by Pte. Fail.

Owing to exceptional eyesight he was a first-class counter-battery observer, and later on his skill with the pencil did the Germans a lot of damage. On this front he spotted the flash of a 4-inch gun battery that used to shell B.H.Q., with the result that the heavy gunners fired on this battery and silenced it completely.

I had also the services of L.-C. J. Cowen and Pte. J. King (both 7th N.F.) when the 50th Divisional observers were disbanded. Pte. King went shortly afterwards back to the battalion. But both these men did magnificent service in collecting intelligence during the remainder of the war.



From June till October 1917 the 50th Division held the line of trenches running from the Hindenburg Line west of Fontaine-lez-Croisilles to Cavalry Farm on the Arras-Cambrai Road. With heavy fighting going on in Flanders this was a comparatively quiet part of the front. Our trenches were good and got better every week, and the high ground about Wancourt Tower Hill gave us excellent observation on the enemy's country, especially towards the left. This part of the front was divided into two sectors, and they were held by two out of the three brigades. So that each brigade spent sixteen days in the line, and then eight days in the rest area about Neuville Vitasse. Also each brigade held in turn the trenches on the right, known as the Cherisy sector, and then the trenches on the left, known as the Vis sector.

My time was given to Intelligence in the line and to Salvage when out of the line.

Intelligence work included, selecting a convenient O.P. for the Brigade observers and arranging and supervising the method of holding it; making panoramic sketches for the observers; writing out the Brigade Intelligence Report between 10 A.M. and noon every day; supervising the work of the Battalion Intelligence Officers[14]; marking the Brigade Intelligence maps with all features of interest; studying and cataloguing the aeroplane photographs which came in large numbers every few days; destroying obsolete and useless documents (not a small part of my job either!); and sending to the Machine-Gun Officer, Major Morris, every week the targets for indirect machine-gun fire at nights. Field work, i.e. actual observation and sketching, formed really a comparatively small part of my duties, though I tried to get up to the observation post once every day. The most important part was office work--and I had a fair-sized shelter at each Head-quarters, the walls covered with maps and the table loaded with aeroplane photographs and reports of all kinds.

Besides the Corps and Divisional Intelligence Reports which came in daily, there were Daily Reports from the two adjoining brigades, and generally a goodly sheaf of miscellaneous papers from the Army Intelligence Department. In this way a great deal of interesting information came into my hands, as to how things were going on; and I have never before or since been so well supplied with information as to what was going on and what was intended to take place. When out of the line, in a camp near Neuville Vitasse, I had to give the observers a certain amount of practical training in the use of the compass and protractor, and map reading. But after that I was free to do what I liked within reason, and I generally devoted my spare time to salvage.

The observers often turned out to assist me in this, and Lieut. Odell on several occasions gave me most valuable assistance with his signallers and orderlies.

Salvage was left very much at this time to the discretion of the commanders of infantry units. Naturally when the soldier man got out of the line, he was not much inclined to do much salvaging on Army Account. Some of the transport officers made a specialty of it, and Capt. B. Neville of the 7th N.F., the prince of quartermasters, rescued tons of salvage of all kinds. I dare say, however, a good many things found their way into his own stores as well, for I never knew a quartermaster so well supplied as he. There were certain small parties of men employed at Divisional and Corps Salvage dumps, but they never seemed to me to take the job very seriously. Perhaps the officers in charge were not exactly the sort of men to hustle, or to see that their men got busy. Every one knows that there was a vast amount of waste, and that the Germans had this matter much better organised than we.

The Germans were particularly active against our field artillery on this front. Although we had the advantage of ground for most purposes, and could carry out infantry reliefs in daylight, there were few places satisfactory for concealing our field guns. They were mostly concentrated about Wancourt and Heninel, and these two places consequently received frequent and heavy punishment from the German heavies. It was well to keep your eyes and ears open when passing through these villages and not to linger there unnecessarily. The pieces from the German 8-inch shell carried a long way, and I had L.-C. Chappell wounded through the hand and sent down to hospital through a splinter that carried over a quarter of a mile. We saw a lot of the 50th Divisional R.F.A. about this time and a fine lot of fellows they were. On the left our H.Q. were next door to the B.H.Q.

of the 251st Artillery Brigade, commanded by Lieut.-Col. Moss Blundell. I got to know and like him well, and he did everything he could to assist our brigade, and especially in matters of intelligence. Any news that he got he sent on to us at once and vice versa. I have never known the liaison between Field Artillery and Infantry more close or more effective than at this time.

One of the most important operations carried out by the 50th Division was a double raid and gas projection on September 15, 1917, and the following night. It was carried out by the 151st Infantry Brigade in the right sector, and at the time the 140th Infantry Brigade was holding the trenches on the left. I believe the 9th D.L.I, supplied the raiding parties. It was such a novel and effective raid that some account ought to be given of it. The scheme was to deceive the enemy as to the exact extent and nature of the attack. For this purpose a great many smoke-shells were fired to screen the operations from the enemy's observation. Also along the flanks of the actual raid a number of dummy figures were arranged to represent an attacking force and so to draw the enemy's fire away from the actual raiding parties. The dummies were put out in No Man's Land the night before, face downwards, and at the right moment they could be raised or lowered by means of ropes worked by the men in the trenches. Also a dummy tank was prepared and hauled forward 200 yards by means of ropes. The combination of smoke-shells and dummies was wonderfully effective, and the enemy reported that he had been attacked in great force and with tanks along a large part of this front.

What really happened was this. After a preliminary bombardment of great intensity by our guns and trench-mortars (including many thermite or flame-shells), about 2 P.M. three companies of the 9th D.L.I, dashed across and captured the German front and support lines covering Cherisy. They killed and captured a number of Germans without suffering many casualties themselves, and then returned at once to our own trenches. At the same time the dummies in No Man's Land were lowered again. After waiting five or six hours, another short bombardment started, the dummies were again raised and one company of the 9th D.L.I, dashed across into the same trenches and killed or captured more Germans. They then returned to our trenches and the dummies were again lowered. After dark our men went out and removed the dummies, so that the Germans never had a chance of discovering the ruse. The same night at 3 A.M. fifty cylinders of gas were projected over the German lines. This gas attack cost the Germans dear, probably more than the two raids, for the next day they were seen burying or removing large numbers of the men caught in the gas cloud. My own observers reported 200 gas casualties and the total number reported reached a figure between 300 and 400. Gas casualties were easily distinguished, as the Germans removed them in blankets slung between two men on a pole. Besides, as it happened, the gas cloud drifted north and caught the Germans during a relief nearly half a mile away from the scene of the two raids. For example, the Germans were burying dead all day in the neighbourhood of St. Roharts Factory, which is some distance from Cherisy. The German report of this operation showed that they had failed entirely to realise the nature of the attack. And a similar raid was repeated shortly afterwards near Monchy-le-Preux with great success. Our aeroplanes swooped down to 300 feet and took photographs of the first raid from that height. And I was lucky enough to secure some very interesting copies of these photographs, which showed our men crossing No Man's Land and entering the German trenches.

I got my fourth leave, ten days, about August 30 and travelled home via Boulogne and Folkestone. It was the first leave that took me out of the line, which it did for about four days. All the previous leaves had occurred during Divisional rests.

We were relieved in these trenches by the 51st Division about the beginning of October, and the 50th Division moved out of the line to the neighbourhood of Courcelles-le-Compte for a short rest.

Before the relief took place Brigadier-General Rees had to leave us much to every one's regret. He was taken ill with a distressing internal complaint, which necessitated his return for a while to England. He was succeeded by Brigadier-General E.P.A. Riddell, C.M.G., D.S.O.

General Riddell had at one time been Adjutant of the 7th N.F., that is to say, long before the war; and he knew all about Alnwick and the people there. During the war he had been instructing officers at Sandhurst for a time, and later on he commanded a battalion of the Cambridgeshires at the Battle of the Somme. This battalion succeeded in capturing the Schwaben Redoubt, near Thiepval. Later on he had seen service in the battle still raging in Flanders. When he came to command the 149th Infantry Brigade at the end of September 1917 he had already won the D.S.O. and Bar. To this he subsequently added another Bar during the German offensive in March 1918. He was said to be a typical Northumbrian. A leader, gallant and war-wise, of whom Northumberland is justly proud.

When we left the line at Cherisy we had a good idea what our destination was to be. But first of all we moved a short way back in the direction of Miraumont. The 149th Infantry Brigade was quartered at Courcelles-le-Comte, a shattered village in the area vacated by the Germans after the battle on the Somme. Here we stayed for about ten days, and the battalions resumed training their men for offensive operations. One field day was particularly remarkable for a demonstration by the Air Squadron stationed at Moyenneville. We commenced operations before dawn, and I was in charge of the messages at a spot representing battle H.Q. Just before I left at the conclusion of the operations, about 9 A.M., an aeroplane swooped down over our improvised H.Q. and left a message saying 'Expect a report at B.H.Q. in an hour's time.' We returned to B.H.Q. and, sure enough, about 9.40 A.M. an aeroplane again swooped down and dropped a small packet. On opening it I was amazed to find a roll of about a dozen photographs, taken about an hour before, of the final position reached by the Infantry during the sham attack. How they managed to develop and print these photographs in the short space of time is almost a mystery. But I imagine they must have had some electrical machine for drying the negatives and prints. During this short stay out of the line I paid two visits to the old Somme battlefield. The first in company with Capt. H. Liddell, who had for some time been acting as Assistant-Brigade-Major. We rode to Grevillers and went on from there on foot to Hexham Road and Eaucourt L'Abbaye. I had visited the ground before with Lieut. Odell in June, when we were staying at Monchy-au-Bois. A good deal of salvage had been done since then, and there were fewer dead men lying about. But the scene of the fighting at Hook Sap and round the Butte of Warlencourt was still littered with helmets, rifles, and broken equipment of all sorts. Of course by this time the trenches had largely fallen in and were covered with rough rank herbage. But the wire belts and the duck-board tracks were still there. When we approached the entrance to the cellars under the ruined abbey at Eaucourt, we noticed traces of men living there. Smoke was rising out of the ruins and there were recent footmarks about, and some tins of soapy water. The story was, and I believe it was quite true, that small parties of deserters dwelt in these old deep cellars and dugouts, living on the bully beef which still covered the battlefield and on the money received for 'Souvenirs' sold at neighbouring canteens. I know of one deserter who lived there from November 1916 to June or July 1917. Apart from these slight traces of occupation, the battle-field seemed quite deserted from one end to the other.

On another occasion I went with General Riddell by car to Thiepval and we rode back through Bucquoy. This was a very interesting visit, for the General explained on the spot exactly how the Schwaben Redoubt was stormed, and how the troops were brought forward and disposed for the attack. We went over a lot of the neighbouring ground, and I was able to see how the Germans were forced out of St. Pierre Divion, Miraumont, and Beaumont Hamel. I little thought as I rode home that night through Bucquoy that I should in little more than five months'

time be commanding a company in the front line in a muddy ditch outside Bucquoy. However this stay at Courcelles was invaluable later on, for it gave me a general idea of the lie of the land on the enemy side, when we were pressed back to Gommecourt and Colincamps.

We left Courcelles about October 18, and entrained at Miraumont station. We left the train near Cassel and marched to the village of Arneke, where I spent two nights at the house of the cure--a kind hospitable old man. After that we marched out of France and arrived at a camp about a mile west of Proven, in Belgium.


[14] Lieuts. O. Young (5th N.F.), Jessop (6th N.F.), and Richardson (7th N.F.).



I wish I could omit all reference to the operations in Flanders 1917.

Surely no one can be found to take much pride in the results of this part of the campaign. Judged by the map alone between May 1, 1917, and May 1, 1918, it will be found that we actually lost ground in Flanders, and that we were at the last hard put to it to retain any footing there at all.

It is difficult to know what motives, political or military, led to our pressing an attack with such colossal fury on this part of the line. Perhaps the Channel ports at Ostend and Zeebrugge were the prize we hoped to gain. Be that as it may, the result of our attack was to bring about a conflict of unparalleled intensity. The bulk of the English heavy artillery seemed to be concentrated on the one side and the bulk of the enemy's heavy artillery on the other. In a country like Flanders the ground is bad enough in foul weather; but where it is churned up for miles with the heaviest of shells, it becomes impossible to use tanks and next to impossible to use infantry.

Moreover, the Germans had superiority in the air. They had concentrated on aircraft the effort which we had expended on perfecting the tank. The one can be used effectively in wet weather, but the other cannot. The German had another defensive surprise for us. Owing to the nature of the ground the deep dugout was practically an impossibility. In the place, therefore, of this the German devised the concrete blockhouse or 'pill-box' as it was called. For miles behind their front line the country was dotted with pill-boxes, which could defy the tank and all but the largest kinds of shells. As soon as our operations started the rain streamed down, making conditions ten times worse for the attacking force.

All honour to those that gallantly stormed the muddy slopes of Passchendaele; to the wonderful engineers that conquered the squalid quagmires of Langemarck and Zonnebeke; to the gunners that stuck to their guns under a rain of bombs and shells, and to the transport drivers that fed them. It is a tale of wonderful gallantry and heroic endeavour. But when all is said and done, one is bound to look at the result.

On reaching the area round Proven the 50th Division was allocated to the Fifth Army (General Gough), and received orders to prepare to take part in an attack on the enemy's line between the Houthulst Forest and Passchendaele. On October 21, the day after our arrival at Proven, I went to the Fifth Army H.Q. to get all the maps and information I could relating to the new front. The Army H.Q. were in a large chateau north of Poperinghe, and when I got there I was received by the Colonel in charge of Intelligence with every kindness. He got me several maps, gave me the files of intelligence to glance over, and advised me to visit the Air Squadron at Proven for aeroplane photographs. He also offered to turn out a Staff car to take me back, but this kind offer I declined. My next visit was to the office of the Air Squadron, where they had a file of all photographs relating to our front. I was able to secure several useful copies, and the promise of some more. After this I returned to our camp to work on the air photos. On October 23 we marched to Proven and entrained there, getting out at Elverdinghe. A short march took us to a camp of wooden huts a little south of the chateau, where the 50th Division had their battle H.Q. When we arrived the huts were quite empty of all furniture; but in a short time the Brigade pioneers had made a table and forms to use in the mess. It was decided that only the General, Brigade-Major, and Signalling Officer should go forward to battle H.Q., an old German pill-box called Martin's Mill, between Widjendrift and Langemarck. The rest of the Brigade Staff were to remain at rear H.Q. at Huddersfield Dugouts on the Yser Canal close to Bard's Causeway. At this time I was much worried by what appeared to me to be an attempt to tap the information of the Brigade as to the details of the forthcoming attack. Naturally an Intelligence Officer has to be discreet at all times, but especially so at times like this. I simply record my impression although I cannot give any details.

On October 24 I went to the rear B.H.Q. at Huddersfield Dugouts. They were in the northern bank of the Yser Canal about half a mile south of Boesinghe. The front was approached by means of several long duck-board tracks, in places more like wooden bridges than the ordinary trench footboards. In the morning I did my best to investigate where these tracks started, not altogether an easy matter in an entirely strange country. In the afternoon I was asked by the Staff-Captain to see that the hot food and tea and rum for the use of the troops next morning were ready for delivery to the carrying-parties, and that the O.C.

carrying-party knew exactly what to do. I found that the food &c. was ready packed up in the hot food containers by the four transport officers, but I had great difficulty in finding the officer in charge of the carrying-parties. After waiting about for over two hours I did get in touch with him. And by nightfall I had the satisfaction of seeing the hot food set off with this carrying-party up one of the tracks leading to the front. We obtained guides for this party from the 50th Divisional Signals, who gave us every assistance in their power.

The attack took place next morning about dawn, after a heavy artillery bombardment, and in the rain. Of this attack the Brigade has no need to be ashamed, although by the afternoon of the same day the remnants of its brave soldiers were withdrawn to the starting point. The 7th N.F. on the left had a shorter distance to go than the rest, but on their left flank was the Forest of Houthulst full of German snipers.

On the right were the 4th N.F. and in the centre the 5th N.F.

Each battalion had to attack across a treacherous swamp, and each was confronted by a row of unbroken concrete pill-boxes, carefully concealed from aerial observation. Each battalion made ground, but each battalion was mowed down in heaps by the machine-guns in the pill-boxes. I have nothing now to give as an estimate of the casualties, except the officer casualties of the 7th N.F. Twelve officers of the 7th N.F. went over the top that morning, and one returned alive, Lieut Affleck. The others were all killed. It gives some idea of the spirit of these gallant fellows, when I relate that Lieut Affleck was preparing a further attack on the German pill-boxes at the time he was ordered to return with the remnants of the shattered brigade. The three battalions all suffered the heaviest losses, but I have now no details except those I have given above.

Lieut. Odell, the Brigade Signalling Officer, and his men did wonders in keeping the battalions in touch with B.H.Q. during the battle, and for his great personal gallantry on this occasion he received a Bar to his M.C. The shattered remnants of the battalions were drawn out of the fighting zone and given billets not far from the Yser Canal. Even here bad luck followed the 5th N.F., for a long-range shell crashed into one of the huts at Rose Camp and caused forty more casualties.

In the transport lines on the west side of the Yser Canal Capt.

Neville, the Q.M. of the 7th N.F., was killed by a bomb next day. An old soldier with a wonderful record of service, he had preferred to stick to his battalion instead of taking promotion. I have already called him the prince of quarter masters. I had also to lament him as a very kind and generous friend.

We now received orders to retire to the rest area about Ondank, and on October 26 I was sent to take over a camp for B.H.Q. On the way I called at D.H.Q. at Elverdinghe Chateau, where I was very courteously received by the 'Q' Staff--Col. Cartwright and Major McCracken--who made many sympathetic inquiries after the officers in the Brigade.

Chapter end

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