On 10th April, 1918, we embarked on H.M.T. Omrah at Alexandria and set sail for France on the following day. Many were sorry to leave the Palestine front, where in between the battles the life was often very pleasant, and no regimental officer was ever heard to say leave in Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor was unpleasant; but going to France meant a chance of home leave, and it was a change. We were not so sure of home leave being open, however, as the German spring offensive was
still going strong, the first word of which we got from a patrol bringing in a written message by the Turks giving an accurate report of its initial success. The Division, less the gunners who remained in Palestine, came over in a convoy of seven ships escorted by Japanese T.B.D.'s. The voyage was without incident, for which we were thankful, as those who had not been already torpedoed in the Mediterranean did not wish to be, and those who had been were not anxious for a
second performance. So Marseilles was reached safely on the 17th, the good ship Omrah leading the convoy up the channel.
Two days at Marseilles gave one the chance of seeing the place, finding Cox's, and discovering that the restaurants there were much more expensive than in Cairo. On the 19th we entrained, in spite of an R.T.O., and started for the north to a destination unknown. We knew little of the situation and the reports picked up on the journey were not very encouraging. Once we were told we were for Versailles, to defend Paris we surmised; however, Versailles was passed, and then we
were told Amiens had fallen. Still, when the train slowly crawled through that city we knew things were not so bad. It was a cold journey, but the railway people were obliging, and no matter how late the train got, when we had a halt for a meal they gave us enough time. It was our introduction to the amazing system of troop transport by rail in France.
In the end we arrived at Noyelle-sur-Mer, the "mer" was out of sight, but a march of five miles or so brought us on the 22nd to St. Valery Sur Somme, which is on the sea. There we went into billets, under command of Lieut.-Colonel Neilson who rejoined from home leave.
Having spent some time at Ludd, handing in every article of ordnance stores we possessed, except the clothes and equipment on the man, we now were kept busy collecting it all again. In five days we had everything, horses, limbers, field-cookers, Lewis guns, etc., the horses comparing unfavourably with those left behind. The establishment for France was much the same as for Palestine, the main difference being in the transport supplied for Lewis guns and their ammunition. In
France no special mules are supplied; the whole load is carried in one limber per company. This sounds simpler than a mixture of limbers and pack animals, but experience in Palestine had proved the value of pack animals, and subsequent experiences in France proved the danger of all the eggs in one basket, or the limber method of carrying these guns.
Life at St. Valery was rather pleasant, though it was very cold and much depended on the billet. Our cooks were introduced to the mysteries of the omelette, and they learned by experience that these delicacies, even though by being kept in an oven for an hour or so remain hot, yet their virtue departs. A group of the officers was taken by the local photographer and one appreciated then how many new faces there were.
Whenever we had got our ordnance issues distributed we entrained for Bourguette on the 28th and from there marched a few miles to a hutment camp at La Lacque. Here we lived comfortably for a little in what had been a fine camp, but it had rather a deserted air, as the German offensive had brought it rather near the line, though that was some six miles away. Our tactical job was to look after a third line, and this line was studied by the companies. A water-logged,
uninteresting part it was.
There was much talk about defence in depth, which we in our innocence had thought had been universally adopted since the famous defence of Verdun by the French in 1916. The last side show at La Lacque was a lecture and demonstration given by Colonel Campbell in bayonet fighting. Most regiments in France had heard it, and we were lucky to have the chance. Apart from the lecture itself, it was a striking lesson of how to talk to troops. One of his stories was of a Jock after a
charge finding himself opposite a large Hun who put up his hands saying, "Me never fight, me shoot minnenwerfer." "Oh, you do, do you," was the reply, "you're the —— I've been looking for for two years." Followed by the necessary action.
When at La Lacque we received our gas training. It took the form of a route march to a place six miles away, where the whole Division being assembled as at sports, various demonstrations were made, including the firing of projectors—tabloid gas training.
Nothing more exciting happened. The Bosche offensive was over, and entraining at Aire on 7th May we were taken to Maroeuil and marched to Hills Camp in the back area behind Vimy ridge. We took over from the 54th Canadian Infantry on the night 7/8th May in the third line, which included the village of Vimy. The whole area from Neuville St. Vaast, across the ridge and down to the village, was a depressing sight; villages and fields ravaged by the fire, not of one, but of many
battles. Neuville St. Vaast had once been a town of some size; now one looked in vain for even one standing wall. There was more of Vimy left and under collapsed houses were deep dug-outs of German origin. At this time the army of Prince Ruprecht was somewhere opposite and an attack was expected. In fact some details were given. There was to be a three hours' preparatory bombardment, commencing at 22:30 on the 9th, but it was merely one of these periodical alarms that one had
got fairly well accustomed to. It is a curious fact that as a rule when in the line one does not expect to be attacked, hence when anything was expected the wires were busy with "vigilance," etc. About this time leave opened and many a well-earned leave was granted.
On night of 14/15th we took over part of front line from 7th H.L.I. Having been regularly supplied in the East with all the military publications, including books of plans of beautiful trenches, we were surprised to find what a difference there was between theory and practice. The explanation was fairly simple, however, as each battalion had a few miles of trenches in their sector and it was impossible to have them all dug to a plan. Still, as had always been our lot, there
was any amount of digging to be done and we had to get down to it. Night patrols here found little. The Bosche front line was only held by a few posts. Patrolling was found to be very different from Palestine; there the ground was smooth, except for nullahs, and the stars were always out to guide one, here shell holes threw one's direction out and the stars were rarely seen. The result was that the first patrol was a little late in returning, as it came back the night after
it started, having spent a quiet day sitting in a shell hole and noting the route they should have taken home the night before.
To give in detail our life in the Vimy sector would not make interesting reading as it was a quiet time. The enemy shelling was not heavy and was confined to a few favourite spots. At night he sent over a few gas shells, but never in great numbers, and the damage done was trifling. On the other hand, night after night he received thousands of shells of all sizes from our gunners, especially from 6-inch howitzers, and none envied the Bosche.
We were in the line in most parts of the Vimy sector, gradually working our way to the right towards Arras by Willerval and Bailleul. When out of the line the various camps about Neuville St. Vaast and Mont St. Eloy housed us. The latter place received some attention from a high velocity gun, whose shell approached in a most alarming manner. The noise was the worst part as the effects were generally local; but one night a hut containing 2nd L.F.A. personnel was hit and twelve
killed and sixteen wounded. A few shells landed on our parade ground but did no damage.
In the course of our wanderings in this part of the line Battalion Headquarters had a spell in the Thelus chalk caves. They are said to have once connected with Mont St. Eloy, some three or four miles away. Now these tunnels are blocked, but they are very extensive and cold; even in the hot weather cardigans had to be worn below. Electricity supplied the light for our one and only globe until it got smashed, when the law of "might" supplied another.
The old German dug-outs in other parts excited our interest, rows of beds in tiers of wooden frames and rabbit wire reminded one of a lodging-house, but the latter type of residence is probably fresher. The beds were delightful for sleeping on, and clean, but one restless sleeper would make the row oscillate in harmony.
At this time we were in the Eighth Corps, and our corps commander, Lieut.-General Hunter Weston, paid us a visit in July and made a complete tour at a high rate of speed, and finished fresh at the head of an exhausted staff.
One spell out of the line was spent at Villiers au Bois, where some training was expected, as we had had none worth speaking of in France. Instead of that we became the village road sweepers and scavengers and so fitted ourselves for our return to the line.
Lieut. Carmichael, D.S.O., supplied the one thrill in the way of patrols. The two lines near Arleux lay some 600 yards or so apart and the Bosche was very inactive. He did not seem to be so keen on roaming about in the dark as the Turk. One night in July Lieut. Carmichael set out with two battalion scouts, Ptes. Pirie and Kinniburgh, to reconnoitre a part of the Bosche wire. The men were armed in the usual way for those adventures, i.e. with bayonet and a few bombs only and
dressed in burberry suits, which made them look more like deep-sea divers than soldiers. A covering party accompanied them part of the way and took up a position; the three had examined the wire and were commencing to withdraw when they were attacked. As the sergeant left in charge of the covering party reported, the first he heard was a revolver shot followed by a "D—— it." This relapse to the colloquial we afterwards heard was owing to a jamb in the revolver. Pirie was
seized by the throat by a Hun, but he put his bayonet through his assailant's neck and left it there; the Bosche fell dead as Kinniburgh came to the rescue. A few bombs into the enemy patrol completed their demoralisation and the three got back safely, though Carmichael got detached and came in through another unit's lines, getting a couple of bombs to himself from one of our posts; however, as a miss is as good as a mile, no harm was done. While the patrol were having their
little engagement, a stretcher bearer, Pte. J. Lamb, thought he might be of use, so on his own left the covering party to see if anyone was wounded. Nearly stumbling into a shell hole where six Germans were lying quietly, he halted on the edge, not knowing whether he was going to be shot or taken prisoner; then they said, "we your friends," at which he hurled his stretcher at them and bolted back, falling immediately into another shell hole, but the Bosche remained talking
excitedly and Pte. Lamb returned safely.
About this time a number of gas beam attacks were made from our line. These were from the infantry point of view a great advance on the old system, which meant man-handling innumerable heavy gas cylinders up the trench system to the firing-line. By the new system a light railway was run forward to the front line and all the infantry had to do was to push the bogeys forward. When all were in position the gas expert turned a handle and a poisonous mixture hissed off towards the
enemy. What casualties, if any, were inflicted we never heard; we certainly had a number as the result of enemy retaliation by shell fire.
Towards the end of July we moved out of the line and spent ten days at Lozingham, some miles behind Bethune, while there forming part of G.H.Q. Reserve. The weather was good and the training much needed. The grounds of the local chateau had huts in them and there we lived. A charming countryside it was. But these good times could not last very long, so we were soon marching back to the area we had left, bivouacking one night in a large forest near Barlin, the next night at
Roclincourt, and the day following in the line again to the right of our last sector. Here we saw the S.O.S. signal go up on our right one night early in August and we had a good view of the pyrotechnics that follow such a signal. It must have been an expensive evening as thousands of rounds fell in barrage, but we never heard if there had been a raid by the enemy; sometimes these signals are sent up, the reason being "wind up." And one has a certain amount of sympathy for
the sentry in a small post in front of the line who makes a mistake. He knows if an attack is coming he may only have a few seconds in which to act. His rifle is loaded with the S.O.S. grenade and all he has to do to let it off is to press the trigger. All varieties of temperament are represented in these lonely sentries, hence occasionally a mistake is made.
Our experiences of holding the line as it had been since the enemy reached the limit of his advance in Spring, finished on 16th August, when we were relieved by the 8th Division and moved back to Roclincourt, and thence a ten mile march brought us to a camp in a thick wood near the Chateau de la Haie. We now began to suspect something would be doing soon as all surplus baggage was sent to a dump at Aubigny. One may send much to a dump, but little ever seems to be got back.
Four days were spent near this chateau and then on 21st August a march was made to a camp at Agnes les Duisans near Arras. Enemy planes were very active at night dropping bombs wherever they thought there was movement, but a thick mist obscured the full moon and we moved with a feeling of security that would have been absent on a clear night. Our own planes at this time were we knew at least as active behind the German lines. In addition, our scouts patrolled above us looking
for enemy raiders, and if the latter became caught in the beams of searchlights the scouts soon shot down the heavier machines.
The camp at Agnes les Duisans was conspicuous by its cleanliness and by a most beautiful bathing pool near, rising from numerous springs out of a chalky soil. The pool was clear, cold and deep and set among meadows and trees—a striking contrast to the dusty road.
On the night 22/23rd we moved further south to Bellecourt and could hear that we were approaching the battle area. On the 23rd we moved nearer the line to a rendezvous near Ficheux, arriving about 11 p.m.
At 2 a.m. on the 24th August orders were received for an attack to be made by the Brigade that morning. On the previous day the 156th Brigade had advanced the line some distance and the general plan of our attack was passing through the 156th Brigade to attack eastwards, finally assaulting and consolidating a portion of the Hindenburg Line front and support system. The attack was to be delivered by ourselves (on the left) and 6th H.L.I. (on the right), the 7th being in
reserve. At 4.45 the Battalion moved in artillery formation ("A" and "D" Companies forming the first line, and "B" and "C" the second) to the position of assembly at the railway embankment. This move sounds simple on paper, but at night over unknown country the difficulties may be appreciated by giving the experiences in this early part of the battle of the O.C. "D" Company. Shortly after 3 a.m. he received a message by orderly to report at Headquarters for instructions. His
company was lying in an old disused trench, where it had arrived in the dark. The ground all around was broken up with large and old shell holes, covered with grass and weeds and in addition high and low wire entanglements, which alone would have made negotiating this part a difficult task even by daylight. He receives his orders in an old dug-out lit by a flickering candle, and is referred to a map of small scale and told to move his company independently and at once to a
rendezvous about 1 or 1-1/2 miles away. There is no time to explain matters fully to his platoon commanders and N.C.O.'s. No one has been within miles of this ground before. The company falls in—into this network of holes and wire—in the dark, and the harassed company commander wonders if it ever can possibly move in any direction at all. Finally, with the aid of a luminous compass, he moves his company in single file in approximately the right direction, arriving finally at
the railway embankment.
At 5.30 a.m. the advance was continued, our bombardment opening at 7 a.m., when we came under shell-fire. The river Cojeul was successfully crossed, a river only by name, and on crossing the sunken road beyond, the companies extended. Soon after Colonel Neilson was severely wounded and Captain Fyfe took command until Captain Parr, the next senior, could be informed. The advance continued to about 300 yards of the wire in front of the first objective. Here it was held up by
our own barrage which was falling in some cases behind our front line. This was about 9 a.m. At 9.15 a.m. the right company ("A") was withdrawn about 50 yards to clear our barrage; at the same time small parties of the enemy were seen withdrawing from his front line. At this stage of the attack there was a gap of some 1500 yards between our left and the nearest troops on their outer flank. At 10 a.m. our barrage still fell, entirely from heavy artillery. Captain Fyfe then
consulted the O.C. 6th H.L.I. (Colonel James Anderson, D.S.O.) as to the advisability of pushing on through it. They decided to remain in the present position. By this time numerous wires had been sent asking the guns to stop. At 10.30 a.m. Captain Parr took over command. At 11.15 a.m. our heavies stopped and two platoons of "A" Company and two platoons of "D" Company under Captain L.H. Watson advanced against the Hindenburg Line. The wire was exceptionally thick and strong
and had not been destroyed by our fire and on it the enemy concentrated heavy machine-gun and trench-mortar fire. Casualties were heavy and at 12.15 p.m. the assaulting platoons, being unable to get through the wire, withdrew to their old line to allow the trench-mortar and machine-gun fire to be neutralised. At 1.15 p.m. the Brigade commander came to Headquarters and an assault with the 6th H.L.I. was arranged to follow a fifteen minute bombardment on the Hindenburg front
and support lines. Zero time for the assault was fixed at 3.45 p.m. No bombardment took place till 3.43 p.m. At 3.46 p.m. the same assaulting platoons again advanced. The wire again caused a serious check, but by 5 p.m. was penetrated, but there was still 300 yards to be traversed before reaching the enemy's front trenches, and when crossing this part continuous trench-mortar and machine-gun fire came from the enemy's left flank, which was not being attacked. A platoon of "C"
Company was sent up to prolong the left flank, taking up reserve S.A.A. At 5.30 p.m. the enemy opened a heavy bombardment, but a quarter of an hour later an assault had been made and a footing obtained in the first objective. This was all, however, as there was no support on the left. Touch had been lost on the right and from both sides and the front a counter attack had commenced. This might have been successfully dealt with had casualties not been so heavy. As it was the
officers in the trench rightly ordered the men back and the small part of the Hindenburg Line captured was evacuated, a few of our men being unfortunately captured. Only two German prisoners were brought back, but from the nature of the operation to bring back even two was no small achievement. A line was organised as before the assault and at 8 p.m. the line was retired two hundred yards to conform with the line formed on our right. This line consisted mainly of odd shell
holes and ditches, a most uncomfortable place, but suitable for meeting the heavy bombardment put down by the enemy between 8 p.m. and 9.30 p.m. and at 4 a.m. next morning. The enemy appeared to be well shaken as our defensive patrols observed no signs of activity in front of his line.
In this operation Sec.-Lieut. E.D. Turner was killed. Lieut. A.H. Malcolm died of wounds, Lieut.-Colonel J.B. Neilson, D.S.O., Captain L.H. Watson, Sec.-Lieut. E.T. Williamson, Sec.-Lieut. C.M. Sanderson, Lieut. J. Girvan, and Lieut. G.S. Barr were wounded, and Captain R.M. Miller, Lieut. J.W. Parr (wounded), and Sec.-Lieut. J. M'Kie were captured. In other ranks 13 were killed, 162 wounded.
On the morning of the 25th Major Brand arrived and took over command, the Battalion lying in the dispositions of the previous night. All movement was open to direct machine-gun fire, and this, mixed with desultory shelling and a very hot day, was very trying. Low flying enemy planes repeatedly had a good look at us, and at night we were glad to get an order to withdraw to Brigade reserve in a convenient sunken road leading from Henin to St. Leger, "A" and "B" Companies under
Captain Fyfe holding Henin Hill on our right until withdrawn at 3 a.m. on the 26th.
Lying in this road gave the companies a chance to pull themselves together, as reorganisation would have been impossible in the exposed place we had just left. Here we had a good example of the effect of one gas shell. Lieut. Cumming and some scouts had been out all day reconnoitring Henin Hill and reporting on the enemies' dispositions. A patrol consisting of a small platoon was sent to relieve him. One shell gassed the whole platoon, but fortunately not badly, still they
were utterly unfit for further work and were evacuated.
Going back to the attack on the 24th, Lieut. J.W. Parr was one of the officers who got into the Hindenburg Line. After the decision to withdraw and having seen his few men start for our line he started to make a bolt himself but got hit in the ankle, tumbling into a shell hole on the top of a German who surrendered to him. A conversation was carried on in French, and the German was told to go back to our line and report his position. This the Bosche would not do as there were
too many bullets flying about. Later the Germans were seen advancing and Lt. Parr tried to get the German to move into another shell hole in the hope that he himself might not be discovered. This also the German refused, preferring the comparative safety of a hole to the risk of the open. Finally the advancing enemy reached the shell hole and would have bayoneted Lt. Parr had not his prisoner protected him. The friend turned out to be a corporal, carried Lt. Parr's pack back
for him and saw him into hospital and in possession of an unlooted pack—an example of the vicissitudes of war. While going through the casualty clearing station he got a glimpse of the brutality of the Hun; not that he saw our men being treated worse than their own, but all were handled in a manner unknown in our corresponding casualty clearing stations.
On 27th August at 4 a.m. we received a warning order that the Brigade would attack and to be ready to move at 8 a.m. The general orders were to pierce the Hindenburg Line, capture Fontaine Crosilles and continue the advance in a south-easterly direction and take Riencourt. 6th and 7th H.L.I. were to be the assaulting battalions, ourselves in Brigade reserve, two of our companies having the special task of mopping up Fontaine Crosilles. We were to move about a mile in rear of
the assaulting battalions. The advance commenced covered by a powerful barrage, and when on the rising ground other barrages covering other advances could be clearly seen. Against this overwhelming artillery fire the enemy did not stand in numbers, but his machine-guns, light and heavy, were bravely manned and caused many casualties. As the advance progressed great numbers of these guns were passed, as a rule with at least one dead German beside each gun. A belt of country
had to be passed through on which a hostile heavy artillery barrage had been put down. It was extraordinary how few casualties were incurred in going through it. The formation of "blobs" adopted proved most suitable and elastic, if difficult to direct. The left of the assaulting battalions was to have touched Fontaine Crosilles but swung away to the right. This left an unprotected flank to them, as the nearest troops on that flank were the Canadians near Cherisy. Our leading
companies ("B" and "C") keeping on our original line of advance came under heavy fire as they crossed the valley of the Sensee river. Captain Fyfe was in command and at once decided to attack the enemy, who were entrenched on the slope facing him behind the Fontaine Crosilles—Crosilles road. Between the road and the river was a line of wire entanglements, and in addition a field-gun was in action against us at point blank range. Having examined the wire, Captain Fyfe led the
companies through and found the enemy holding a communication trench running obliquely from the road. This was at once attacked and five machine-guns captured. At this point a Bosche coming out of a dug-out raised his rifle and shot Captain Fyfe, who subsequently died of wounds. The Hun was at once despatched but little satisfaction did that give for the death of one of our bravest and most gallant officers. In front of the communication trench a further enemy post was
discovered in trenches. This was bringing machine-gun fire to bear on the captured position. Lieut. Legate accordingly with four men attempted to rush this post by advancing from shell hole to shell hole. But in this gallant attempt he was killed, and the two companies, now left without a single officer, decided to hold on to what they had gained. This action, however, made the enemy on our front withdraw and the left flank of the assaulting battalions was protected.
The remainder of the Battalion which had swung to the left now joined "B" and "C" Companies, and the whole Battalion moved to the right flank of the Brigade and formed up on the road in rear of the 6th H.L.I. to support them in the attack on Riencourt. This was timed for 4 p.m., then 4.30 p.m. Then orders were received that the advance would be against a limited objective, but that also was cancelled, and the welcome news came that we would be relieved by the 57th Division.
Prior to this we had to send two companies to hold Fontaine Crosilles, to cover the gap between ourselves and the Canadians. "A" and "C" Companies were sent there under command of Acting R.S.M. Jones, as by this time there was only one company officer left with the Battalion—Lieut. W.H. Milne. The relief took place and we moved out on the morning of 28th August.
During the night our Headquarters were in a captured pill box, where files of papers and maps dealing with defence schemes were collected. It appears that this pill box had been a last obstacle to our attacks in this part in 1917, but had not been taken then.
The total casualties in the operations from 24th to 28th August were: Officers killed, 2, died of wounds, 2, missing, 3, wounded, 8; other ranks killed, 18, died of wounds, 1, wounded and missing, 9, wounded, 247. Total officers, 15; other ranks, 275.
There is a great reaction after a battle. Soon after we left our position we found our field-kitchens and had a good breakfast, preceded by a tot of rum, and as we continued our march to Mercatel songs and jokes filled the air. Arriving at Mercatel dog tired we slept for long. When we awakened it was to reorganise into four companies of two platoons each, indent for damaged and lost equipment and generally get ready to carry on.
On the 1st of September we again were on the move forward, arriving at Bullecourt on the following day. From there on the 3rd we moved by Riencourt to a jumping-off point in the Hindenburg Support Line. Here a bloodless battle was engaged in. The Brigade received orders to attack Queant and Pronville, taking up a line beyond these places and linking up with the Guards Division on the right. We along with the 7th H.L.I. were the leading battalions. As Queant and Pronville were
found to be unoccupied the barrage was cancelled and these places were occupied without a fight and a section of the Hindenburg Line near Tadpole Copse was held. This line was held until the 7th when we were relieved and went into a bivouac area near St. Leger. The day we came out we got heavily shelled with gas and had a number of casualties. We had a good rest at St. Leger, where the ingenuity of the man was tested in erecting shelters, the conditions of Palestine being
reproduced as we lay in an open valley devoid of cover, but here the bivouac was required not as a shelter from the sun, but from the rain and cold, a more severe test to the architect. As always happened, the Battalion was very soon housed, the degree of comfort varying with the skill of the craftsman. The villages round about were not nearly so badly smashed up as the ones further back; there were certainly very few roofs to be seen, but most of the walls stood.
AREA OF OPERATIONS.
24/27th AUGUST, 1918.
The Bosche airmen were by no means reduced to impotency. On the 15th September we saw them shoot down in flames six of our sausage balloons, all on the sector in front of us and apparently without loss to himself. On other days we saw more of our balloons coming down in flames, but it never seemed to make any difference, as soon after fresh balloons rose in their places and these solitary eyes of the gunners had recommenced their harrying work.
While at St. Leger our Corps commander, Lieut.-General Sir Charles Ferguson, addressed the Brigade and complimented it on the work done. He said our Division had made a name for itself in France, but warned us that reputations made by Divisions in France did not always last. The Divisional Commander, Major-General John Hill, also visited us and presented a number of military medals.
On 13th September a party of officers were taken by motor lorry to Pronville, and after a two-mile tramp across country reached the part of the Hindenburg Support Line in which the Headquarters of the battalion we were to relieve were situated. Before, however, these Headquarters were reached, a miscellaneous assortment of gas shells landed in the neighbourhood of the trench, and the gas-masks were donned. It was accordingly an extremely breathless and hot group of officers
who finally arrived at the Headquarters dug-out, and their tempers were not at all improved by being greeted with shrieks of laughter and told that the situation was perfectly normal, that gas was put over night and day, that masks were quite unnecessary, and that with an ample supply of stout and Irish whiskey the gas actually was good for one and gave one a better appetite.
By a curious coincidence the battalion we were to relieve were the 1st Munster Fusiliers, the battalion who had given us our first lesson in trench warfare, when we had been attached to them for a few days after our arrival at Gallipoli. We found them now the same cheery fellows, but we were sorry that they had with them now only one officer who had served on the Peninsula.
The line here was held in a way we had not encountered yet, although the general principles of the defence were the same as ever. The main line of resistance was in the second line of the old Hindenburg Support Line, and our portion lay between the shattered villages of Inchy and Moeuvres. In front of this line there were a series of posts in No-Man's Land, each held by ten or twelve men. The support line was the main Hindenburg Support Line.
The Munsters had three companies in the line, and one in support. In the case of the left and centre companies it was fairly simple to get an idea of the dispositions and make the necessary arrangements for the relief, although it was impossible to visit the posts outside the line. The right company, however, was not so simple. There was considerable doubt as to what ground was held in the neighbourhood of Moeuvres. There had been continual scrapping. One night we pushed out
a new post near the cemetery, and the next night the enemy drove it in again. It was a very nasty spot, and it so happened that we had called on the day that it was our turn to do the pushing, and the Munsters were very busy making arrangements for the discomfiture of the enemy.
For these reasons it was impossible to find out the dispositions of that company, and we had to return home with the promise that the situation would be cleared up before we arrived, and all would be well.
Before we actually went up to the line, we were informed that there was to be a slight alteration of battalion and brigade boundaries. The dispositions of our battalion were "D" Company on the right, "C" in the centre, "B" on the left, and "A" in support. When we did reach the line to take over on the night of 16th, the redistribution of boundaries cut out "D" Company's bit of the line altogether, so that they came in as a second support company, and incidentally they were in
the other brigade's area, as they could not find accommodation in our own sector.
"B" Company were all outside the main trench, and were disposed with two posts in front and a support with their headquarters in No-Man's Land. There was no wire on the enemy's side of our position, though there was a perfect labyrinth of very heavy wire behind us.
"C" Company, which was only thirty-five strong at this time, had their headquarters in a deep dug-out in the line of resistance, along with a very small support. The remainder of the company was occupying two posts, one about 500 yards up a trench which ran straight towards the enemy, and in which the enemy had a post just over the road beyond ours: the other was about 250 yards to the right of this, on the far side of the road and absolutely in the open. This was the post
which was held by Corporal Hunter and six men, and it was merely a small pit dug in the ground.
"D" Company for that night were housed in a deep dug-out in the main support line, with their headquarters in a concrete faced shelter in the back wall of the trench, excellently sited if we had been fighting the other way, but well-known to the enemy, and getting hit by about three out of every five shells aimed at it, as did all the other dug-outs and shelters in the line.
"A" Company were in support on the left flank.
The night of the relief was quiet, and except for continual desultory gas shelling nothing of note occurred. Early on the 18th it was decided that "D" Company should relieve "C" Company that night, partly because the company was outside our Brigade area, but principally because "C" Company was far too weak numerically for the extent of front it had to hold, and even the posts were not sufficiently strongly garrisoned. During the day "D" Company lent "C" Corpl. I. Ross and
three men to form a connecting link between the forward posts and their headquarters, and these were posted about midway up the communication trench. The relief was to be carried out as soon as it was dark enough to cover the movement.
The enemy decreed otherwise. Just as we were about to "Stand To" in the evening, a barrage of gas shell and high explosive came down on the whole line. For three quarters of an hour it was impossible to enter the main Hindenburg support trench. We could only sit in our dug-outs and wonder what was happening. The stories we had heard of the Bosches being in the third and fourth lines of our systems in the March advance, before it was known that an attack was taking place, came
vividly into our minds, and our great anxiety was that we should not be caught like rats in a trap.
Every telephone line in the system went "dis" in the first three minutes, and it was quite impossible to find out what was happening until the shelling should have moderated a little. We had just to rest our souls in patience, and relight the candles as they were put out by the concussion every time a shell struck the dug-out. This was the constant occupation, both in the deep dug-outs and in the concrete faced shelters in the main support line, and not for the first time we
blessed the Germans for the good solid workmanship of these dug-outs.
Shortly after the barrage came down details of the battalion on our right began to pass the dug-out where "D" Company was located, and Sergt. Meiklejohn, who was in charge there, at once got two platoons out of their shelter, and formed a flank facing Moeuvres, reporting his action. Beyond this movement, there was no information of any kind, but from it we were able to judge that an attack had been made at least on the right.
As soon as the shelling moderated, it was determined to carry through the relief of "C" Company. Two platoons of "D" Company were ordered to move to the relief at once; the remaining two were instructed to hold the flank position they had taken up, until the situation became a little clearer, and meantime they were to try to get someone, whose job it was to hold that part of the line, to take over from them; if they succeeded in this they were to rejoin their company in "C"
The first thing to be done was to ascertain what had really taken place. There was a strong suspicion that an attack had been made on the right. Had it developed on our own front? Were our posts in front still intact? "C" Company, like everyone else, had had a most uncomfortable time, and they had not sufficient men to send out patrols to visit their posts. It was, therefore, determined that as soon as "D" Company arrived, strong patrols should be sent along the trench to
gain touch with the battalion on our right, if there was one; and forward to find out how the posts had fared. As soon as this information was obtained, the relief was to take place, with any new dispositions the information obtained rendered desirable.
Our first bit of news arrived from a curious quarter. In the general excitement, Stretcher-Bearer Chester of "C" Company had not been noticed for some time, although he had not been missed, and now while the arrangements were being made he arrived at the Company Headquarters. On being asked where he had been, he told us that he had been out at the post at the end of the communication trench to see if there was anything doing in his line. He had found the post and everything
was all right. This information was most reassuring, but it was decided that the patrol must be sent in spite of it, and with instructions that it was to find out about the other post as well.
The connecting post half-way up the communication trench had been a particularly warm corner, and Corpl. I. Ross had been wounded in several places early in the barrage. In spite of this he had refused to go back, and had carried on for over an hour, visiting the various posts and doing invaluable work. It was only now that under a direct order he consented to leave the line, taking with him to Battalion Headquarters the first report of the situation. For his plucky conduct
he was awarded the Military Medal.
The patrol sent to "C" Company's posts in front, found that in the trench intact. After a consultation with the N.C.O. in charge, he and Sergt. Glover got out of the trench, and went to visit Corpl. Hunter's post. The two N.C.O.'s had not gone more than 30 yards when they were met with a shower of stick-grenades thrown from a position between the posts. They had to beat a hasty retreat, and were lucky to get back to the trench with no more damage than a wound to "C" Company's
As soon as this was known, Corpl. M'Ewing and Pte. J. Adams made the second attempt to reach the post. This time it was an effort to reach the post across country and unseen, but when M'Ewing and Adams were just short of the Moeuvres-Inchy Road, a couple of Verey lights were fired from the far side of the road and a considerable number of Bosches were seen. A blatter of musketry was opened on them, and they too had to give up the attempt and return.
A third attempt was made later, but it fared no better than the previous ones, and we were reluctantly compelled to assume that the post had been scuppered. The patrol along the trench to the right went as far as the junction of the shallow trench leading round the cemetery, and did not get touch with anyone.
It was now determined to carry out the relief at once, and as no information could be obtained as to what had happened on the right, it was decided to relieve "C.'s" remaining advanced post, and to form a defensive flank along the communication trench. The remainder of "D" Company arrived at this time after handing over to another battalion, and the new dispositions were made, "C" Company, now reduced to seventeen men, taking up "D's" old headquarters about 10 p.m.
The remainder of the night was normal, but the situation was most uncomfortable. Our own patrols had located a considerable number of the enemy round the posts. We guessed the situation fairly correctly, but it was not till the 19th that we learned definitely what had happened. The enemy had made a determined effort to retake Moeuvres, and our right flank was just on the edge of his attack. Owing to the determined defence of two companies of the right Brigade, the enemy had
not got much for his pains, but he had succeeded in driving in nearly all the advanced posts to the right of our sector.
Nothing further occurred till 4 p.m. on the 18th, when a bombing attack was made on our post at the end of the communication trench. The post was driven back a short distance, but managed to regain its position without loss. Meanwhile the S.O.S. had been sent, and for half an hour we had an excellent daylight firework display, right along the road in front, and incidentally on Corpl. Hunter's post. The enemy started retaliation at once, and cut our telephone wires as usual,
so that once we had got the barrage on we could not turn it off without considerable delay.
At dark on the night of 18th "A" Company relieved "D," who now retired for a space. Just before dawn on the 19th one man of "C" Company came in through "B" Company's right post. He was one of Corpl. Hunter's devoted band, and along with another had been sent to see about rations, and give information about the post. Unfortunately his pal was killed by an enemy grenade, and he was the first person to let us know that the post was still gamely holding out. It was too late,
however, to do anything that night.
In the early afternoon of the 19th we were informed that we were to be relieved by the Canadians that night, and about 4 p.m. we were told that the Brigade on our right was going to re-establish all the lost ground under a barrage at 5 p.m. The barrage was to extend along the whole front, and our "A" Company was to push forward the post in the communication trench and to re-occupy Hunter's post, on the assumption that it was lost, but we hoped otherwise. The 7th H.L.I.,
acting on our right flank, were to re-establish the posts round the cemetery, and form a link between us and the battalion on our right.
Lieut. W.H. Milne, with one half of "A" Company, endeavoured to push forward in the communication trench, but failed to get beyond the road. Meanwhile Captain Donald, with the other half of the company, jumping off from the centre of the communication trench, followed hard on the barrage. But Captain Donald was killed, and his party had heavy casualties and rather lost direction.
Between 7 and 8 o'clock "D" Company was sent up to support "A." The situation was extremely obscure. We knew what had happened in the trench, but no reports had been received yet from either Captain Donald's party or the 7th H.L.I., who had jumped off from the same place. Some of the men who had gone over, came in about 8 o'clock, and from various reports we were able to piece together the fact that 7th H.L.I. had got their objectives. A little later two men of "C" Company
came in to Advanced Company Headquarters, and told us that they belonged to Hunter's post, and that he was still holding the post with two men, and had sent them in to try to find out what was happening. A platoon was at once told off to relieve them, and a few minutes later we were able to welcome them back.
MOEUVRES, sept. 1918.
SCALE, 1: 20,000.
These men had gamely stuck to their post for 96 hours. They had no food or water other than what they had taken with them, namely, what is technically known as "the unexpired portion of the day's ration," and an iron ration each and a water bottle full of water. They had been continually surrounded by enemies and had beaten off every attack. They had yielded not a foot of ground, in spite of the fact that our own barrage had twice passed over them. They had no information,
and no orders beyond those given when they were mounted, and yet they remained at their post until they were covered by our own troops in front of them. For this deed Corpl. Hunter got the V.C. and was promoted Sergeant: the other six men of his post each got the D.C.M.
Between ten and eleven a full strength battalion of the Canadians relieved us, and they found that their first job was to dig shelters for their men, as the three or four dug-outs which had served to protect our small battalion were quite insufficient for them. By midnight we were on our way home to Queant.
Our four days at Moeuvres were among the most trying we spent in the war, and we have the presumption to think we did well. Three companies received a special message from the Brigadier. The fourth company would have got it also, but by the luck of the war it was out of all the scrapping. "B" Company were occupying a most uncomfortable position for four days in No-Man's Land, but the enemy did not think it worth while visiting them. Consequently this company, owing to the
fact that they had no opposition, had to hold the front for four days unrelieved, and were through no fault of their own omitted.
The telephones were never working when they were most required, but that was no fault of the signallers. The incessant enemy shelling was continually cutting the wires, and it was as a rule only for odd intervals of half an hour at a time when things were quiet that Headquarters was through to companies. In spite, however, of the heaviest shelling the signallers never allowed a break to go unmended, and they were continually out under heavy fire repairing the damage. The
state of the telephone service forced us to rely on a sadly depleted staff of runners, and right well did they do their job. All companies were so weak that two men was the most they could spare for this most important service, yet these men, without a grouse and with no rest for four days, were continually carrying messages between the different headquarters, and that too in record time. From "C" Company Headquarters to Battalion Headquarters was a good seventeen minutes
hard walking, yet runners from these Headquarters frequently delivered messages within ten minutes of the time they were written, and were back with a reply in twenty minutes. The good work of at least three runners was recognised with the award of the Military Medal.
During this tour we lost four valuable officers. Captain W.F. Donald, M.C., who had been with us rather less than a fortnight, was killed while leading his company to retake Hunter's post. In the late days of the war we had felt fortunate in having an experienced officer of his calibre posted and had welcomed him as a company commander, an officer very difficult to replace. Lieut. A. Bryson, another newcomer, was dangerously wounded on the night of 19th September while acting
as Liaison Officer between 7th H.L.I. and ourselves, and died three days later. On the 17th our M.O., Captain K. Ross, was killed by a shell while visiting the companies, and Lieut. T.B. Clerk, the Adjutant, was wounded at the same time.
Lieut. R. Turnbull was blown down one of the shafts of "C" Company's Headquarters by the concussion of a shell on the night of 17th but fortunately no damage was done. Lieut. Hillson met a gas shell in the entrance passage of Battalion Headquarters, and had an extraordinarily jaundiced appearance for days, but otherwise was neither physically nor mentally upset. Lieut. W.H. Milne was struck on the back by a grenade on the last night, but he too was unhurt.
On the 24th we relieved the 6th H.L.I. in a sector to the right of Moeuvres and little happened there, a contrast to our last tour in the line. A few deserters came over, a convenient road being by a communication trench which led from one line to the other. One deserter had been an Orderly Room Clerk at Cologne; he forged a railway pass for himself to Cambrai, walked from there to the German front line until he came to the Bosche block in this communication trench opposite
ours. He then told the corporal he was going to desert, and far from being discouraged was told by the corporal that had it not been for a wife and family in Germany he would have joined him. Later on one of the post also came over. The Division opposite was a cavalry one and they were poor fighters and were practically all captured later on.
On the 27th a general attack was made on the Canal du Nord and continuing to the right of Bourlon Wood. In this attack our Brigade had to clear up the Hindenburg front line between Moeuvres and the Bapaume-Cambrai road. We were in reserve to the Brigade and for a change were spectators of the battle, the only active operations falling to us in the plan of battle being to rush two posts in a communication trench just in front of our line when the barrage commenced. This was
successfully done and we remained in our old front line. Some tanks came up over night and made good tracks through the dense wire in front of us. As only a hurried reconnaissance had been made on the previous afternoon it spoke much for their eye for country that they were led to the exact spots arranged. The barrage opened just before daybreak and as the light increased we saw that the tanks had got across the canal and were labouring up the hill beyond, all very busy
shooting and none knocked out. As the result of this attack, Bourlon Wood was evacuated by the enemy and positions established by our troops beyond and on both flanks of the wood. Soon after daylight the stream of prisoners began to pass through us and continued all day. It was a good sight to see them being made to carry our wounded. They seemed very ready to volunteer, though certainly for no philanthropic reasons. Unwounded prisoners were not allowed to go back without
assisting our casualties, hence the volunteers.
After a successful battle one was always struck with the altered conditions of the old front line. What one morning may have been a very hot spot, in the afternoon becomes quiet and pleasant. No-Man's Land is explored and the various problems about the enemy's posts and trenches are solved. The enemy wire was extraordinary thick but the tank tracks excellent. Here and there had been made tank traps—large pits with vertical sides—but they had been avoided.
On the night after this battle we settled for a few days in our old front line, to the left of the Cambrai-Bapaume road, not sleeping much owing to the cold. Some salving was done round about Moeuvres. Meanwhile other Divisions were continuing the advance and the outskirts of Cambrai had been reached, and following the usual practice both flanks were pushing on, leaving the town itself in a salient. On the 1st of October we moved forward again, crossing the St. Quentin canal
and going into a line in support of the front line. Our transport lines were established at Cantaing, beside the field-guns. This shows the change that had taken place in our dispositions; it was now approaching a war of movement. While it was handy to have transport lines close up, it was costly in horse-flesh, the gunners having heavy losses, mostly from high velocity shells. "C" Company Headquarters, which was merely an uncovered cut in a trench, got a shell into it and
four officers were wounded and C.S.M. Jones, who had acted as R.S.M. for some time, was killed. He was a very brave soldier and had been with us since early in 1916. Our area in front of Cambrai was constantly being shelled; probably the enemy was getting rid of his ammunition dumps in this way, preferring to send his shells over at us to blowing them up later on. Whatever the reason was, it was a lively spot, the bridges on the St. Quentin canal among the woods and his old
ammunition dumps in these woods being favourite targets, the sound of the bursting shells and exploding dumps being intensified by the trees and hollows.
On the night 4/5th October we took over the line from the 5th Royal Scots Fusiliers and elements of the 4th K.O.S.B. They had been in action in an attack against a suburb of Cambrai called the Fauberg de Paris. We were informed that the line consisted of posts and a redoubt and that these could not be visited by day, as no communication trenches led up to them and the ground was under direct machine-gun fire from the enemy. "D" Company was sent to take over the redoubt;
Headquarters was established in a pill box on a road leading towards Cambrai. This became a popular rendezvous for tourists in the disguise of gunners and others, and resulted in some brisk shelling from the enemy, but these pill boxes were well made and no damage was done. At night we nearly lost our Quartermaster and rations, as speeding up the road he passed the pill box, and was only stopped by a forward post from going over to the enemy by mistake. These discoveries
cannot be pleasant and one can imagine the rations came back even quicker than they went up. "D" Company found the redoubt they were supposed to be taking over to be a myth. There was no redoubt, only a maze of trenches a foot or so in depth, sufficient to appear on air photos and so inserted on our maps of the enemy's trenches. They had a hard time patrolling to send back correct dispositions; they were more or less in the air. In addition to the work on hand "D" Company
received orders to make an attack along a trench to their right; this, however, was cancelled, as we got word that the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers would relieve us on the night of the 5/6th. This relief was completed by 2.30 on the morning of the 6th and we marched back to the area recently left by us near the Canal du Nord. As we crossed the bridge of the St. Quentin Canal not a shot was fired at us, a very remarkable thing, as intermittent shelling there had been going on
all night. A few high velocity shells chased us through Cantaing, and then no interruption to a weary march finishing for the different companies at various hours after daybreak. The spell in the line at Cambrai was very short but as breezy a 24 hours as one could want, considering there was no special battle on.
We were now sent away from the battle area for a rest and on the 8th October arrived at Lignereuil, where we remained for ten days. Here for some unaccountable reason we had a first class chateau to ourselves. The estaminet attached sold very bad red wine at twelve francs a bottle. Only troops just out of the line would have bought it. Lignereuil lies near Avesne le Compte in very pretty country, and we were much the better of the rest in a place not churned up with shell
On 19th October we moved back to our old quarters in Mont St. Eloy, finding there no trace of our previous labours at improvement; beds and tables all gone west. The next day the march to Henin Lietard was most interesting, though the rain fell in torrents. Our route was by Neuville St. Vaast, Vimy Ridge, Willerval, through the area we had been in for some months; now the ridge was miles behind the line. The roads leading up to the old enemy line were execrable. After getting
about four miles behind the old line the villages were not so shattered and at Henin Lietard some houses were almost intact; the coal mines, however, had been ruined, and into some canals had been turned. Booby traps were numerous, and special companies were hunting for them. Their presence gave us confidence in living in the houses chosen for billets; but a few days later, we afterwards heard, a number of these were blown up by mines with delayed action. We continued our
march in the direction of Douai, reaching Planque on the 21st and stopping there for three days. The further we went the better the condition of the villages became. At Planque the houses looked intact, though the interiors were strewn with rubbish; still after some cleaning up it looked quite well and by a little selection the billets became quite well furnished. The only place the enemy had blown up was his bathing establishment and delousing plant, a fine place built of
From Flines we marched to Landas, and after one night there we moved to Lecelles. We were gradually overtaking the Hun, and this village received unwelcome attentions from his guns and aeroplanes. The civilians had been sent away, but many of them visited their homes by day to collect the produce of their gardens and to salve odd pieces of furniture. Part of the village seemed to disappear daily, and one could see that a comparatively short time was required to produce such
sad sights as we had seen around Vimy. During our week at Lecelles we did some useful training. The Corps Commander announced his intention of inspecting the Battalion at work; and, having made the most minute preparations for this event, including the engaging at great risk of a L.T.M. Battery to give a vivid touch to our company schemes, we got orders to move to St. Amand, being now in Brigade reserve. Once more we were fortunate in our billets, but at this stage of the war
even the front line was not without its comforts.
On our Divisional front the enemy was holding a line fortified by the River Escaut, the Jard Canal, and a flooded area. It was not intended that we should attack him here. The plan was to push him on both flanks and thus force his withdrawal from a position, a frontal assault upon which would have involved heavy loss, even granted that his numbers were few. Very close touch was maintained by means of patrols, which had to employ somewhat primitive rafts to negotiate the
intervening water. The Hun's withdrawal was clearly a matter of hours, and on the morning of the 8th November we moved forward to Odomez in readiness for the chase. The same day we received the code word which set in motion the machinery of pursuit.
The following morning, with the aid of a very temporary bridge, we continued our advance. The retreating enemy had made a thorough job of the cross-roads, and guns and transport had to make wide detours. But before we arrived the civilians were busy, some with shovels, others with their hands, filling in the enormous craters. The people seemed to be dazed with excitement. The sudden relief after four years of misery proved too much for one poor woman, who in her sheer joy
lost the kindly light of reason. We halted for a few hours at Chene Raoul, but time was precious, and by night we were in comfortable billets across the Belgian border.
At dawn on the 10th November we set out for our last taste of the war, little thinking that our hours of danger and discomfort were now numbered. The Battalion was advanced guard to the Brigade, which was moving forward via Pommeroeul, Hautrage, and the Bois de Baudour.
In the advance from Vimy we had so far been only among the first friendly troops to enter the villages deserted by the Hun; now we were the first, and we shall not readily forget the enthusiasm with which we were greeted. We were bombarded with flowers, coffee, and cigars. The generosity of these kind people was much greater than their knowledge of the enemy's dispositions, with the result that our approach was well advertised. The latter part of our advance was along the
north edge of the Bois de Baudour. Immediately east of Garenne we had to cross a wide gap, and here the enemy machine-guns, which were cunningly sited and carefully concealed, got busy. As our van-guard closed with him, one Hun, whose gun was mounted at the top window of a house, waved the white flag. The ruse, however, was transparent, and the last shot of the war, as far as we were concerned, silenced him.
At 17.00 we got orders to relieve the cavalry outposts; but, as this would have involved a considerable march in an anti-Bosche direction, the spirit, rather than the letter, of this order was obeyed. At about midnight the shelling, which had been fairly heavy, ceased, and some hours later there was not a sound to be heard. Patrols sent out before dawn reported that all was clear for over a mile. It had been a bitterly cold night, and we were quite glad when it was time to
At 07.00 on the 11th November we set out for our last attack, our objective being the Mons-Jurbise road. There was no opposition of any kind and by 09.00 we had reached the objective. Our job had proved an easy one, and we quite expected to get orders to continue the pursuit. But of a sudden there arose a clatter of hoofs and an obviously excited transport officer dashed up to the Commanding Officer, brandishing one of the pink forms we had learned to hate. But never before
had an Army Form borne such a message as this: "Hostilities will cease at 11.00; until further orders units will not move beyond the position occupied at that time." At last there had dawned the day for which we had lived—and so many had died. Strange to relate there was no tremendous excitement. Perhaps the philosopher spoke truly when he said that one always has a feeling of regret on doing a thing for the last time. Perhaps we had been fed on rumours so often that we took
this for one. Perhaps we were too weary in mind and body to grasp the significance of the stupendous news. Or was it that our thoughts turned at this time to those grand men who had given their lives for this great end? Whatever the reason, the fact remains that there was no enthusiasm in keeping with the event.
We had a short spell of outpost duty, and then moved to Erbisoeul a village about five miles from Mons. Little need be said regarding our life after the Armistice. On the whole it was quite a pleasant blend of training, inspections, dances, concerts, football and leave. Erbisoeul was an attractive village, and there we remained until, thinned by demobilisation, we were reduced to cadré strength. The last remnant of the Battalion reached Gailes in May, 1919.
The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry
The Fifth Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in the War 1914-1918