Chapter Four. France at last!.
THE voyage from Port Said to France occupied five days, the Battalion arriving at Marseilles on the afternoon of March 15th. The trip was a very pleasant one, as the weather was fine practically the whole of the time. There was plenty of sport, and, to add the necessary spice of danger, rumour spoke of impending naval actions by the German Fleet and of the fact that the German Government had offered a reward of £4,000 to the crew of the U-boat successful in sinking the Briton, one of the fastest transports afloat. As the vessel approached the port, great interest was evinced in the fine rock studies seen ahead. Then appeared the noble cathedral, Ste. Marie Majettre, erected on the site where once stood a temple of Diana and overlooking the harbour of La Joliette. Later one admired the fine chateaux and picturesque villas on the woodland hills of the' bay and the magnificent buildings on the lower slopes. The ship passed through the Gulf of Lyons, and the troops were so keen on noting the striking points of the city and massive harbour, with its wharves, quays, and jetties, that they almost overlooked Cap Martin and the wonderful Chateau d'If. One cannot adequately describe the scene or the impressions of those who saw the gradually unfolding picturewonderful breakwaters; the mass of shipping from all parts of the world; the remarkable suspension bridge; the vast concentrated activity of all; the seamen and dockhands in their rough coloured garb, wearing the gay caps of the Revolution. The ship anchored at 3 p.m., but the landing was not made until the next morning, when, at 11.30, to the strains of the regimental band, the Battalion marched off from the quay to the entraining point. The strength of the Battalion was: Officers, 30; other ranks, 986. The decrease of eight other ranks in the number which left England in December was due to sickness in Egypt. With the exception of one, all rejoined the unit at different times later. The exception was No. 12/987 Private H. Marshall (Rotherham), who died in hospital after the Battalion had set sail. The short march to the railbead was full of interest. First noticed, perhaps, were small groups of German prisoners labouring in the dockyards. They were closely scrutinized as the men stepped light-heartedly by, and the prisoners ceased their work to gaze at the Britons. Most of the captives were well-built men of unprepossessing appearance and very sullen. Maybe the continued sight of the Allies' might being gathered in from all lands chilled their hearts. This passing glimpse was the only sight of the enemy which a good many men of the Battalion obtained, as, later, several were killed and wounded in the deadly monotony of trench warfare without ever coming to close grips with him. The quaint veteran guards of these aforementioned prisoners aroused much mirth, and many a jest was made at their expense. But through all the pathos was felt, and the sentimental vein was touched when women in odd alleys shed tears; they knew what lay ahead. And maybe some personal loss was keenly felt. Further on, citizens urged themselves into ecstasy of delight as the gallant big drummer twirled his drumsticks to emphasize the beat. To them the man of the moment was the big drummer. The train, made up of coaches, cattle trucks, and horseboxes, accommodated over 2,000 troops, in addition to baggage. The Battalion now commenced its memorable journey through the heart of France, and it is interesting to note that within eighteen days of disembarkation the unit had taken over a part of the British Front Line. As the train slowly moved off round hillsides and over occasional viaducts another magnificent view of the port was obtained. Too soon did the train plunge into the bowels of the mountain. It took twenty minutes to pass through the tunnel, and still the sea was in sight; but this time a different bay was seen. The rolling water on the one hand and mountainous scenery on the other occupied attention. All was delightful. White red-capped cottages and budding verdure lent the land additional colour, and France, indeed, rivalled some of England's proud scenes. Pleasures deepened as the panorama suggested favourite haunts at home. The imposing Lower Alps, with snow-covered tips, some scintillating in the sunshine, some shrouded in mist, were visible for many miles. Later came the plains, the home of the market gardeners of France. Every inch of the ground seemed to be utilized. Arles, with its Roman splendour, was the first stoppingpoint, and it also provided the first glimpse of the Rhone. The journey continued; many picturesque towns and villages were passed, noticeable features being the Gallic ruins and splendid avenues of trees. Shortly historical Avignon was reached. Here, as at all other places, the troops met with a cordial reception. This, of course, is not the place wherein to describe the beauties of Avignon, so many centuries the possession of the Holy See; but reference must be made to the old ruined bridge over the Rhone, the town's ramparts, and, above all, its Papal Palace. The ramparts and the gigantic palace, which was once the fairest and strongest dwelling in the world, were built in the thirteenth century. The English onlooker calls Avignon a combination of York and Conway, and rejoices in the various legends concerning the religious houses, with their belfries and bells, and the gloomy Notredame-les-Dome, founded, it is said, in honour of the Virgin, on the site of a temple of Hercules. Beautifully cultivated land and more castles was the general run of things to the next sojourn ----Orange, where pretty Red Cross nurses served out rum and tea, which warmed all hearts for the coming night. In the station the hubbub was great, and here the Battalion felt for the first time the Frenchmen's fierce passionate anger against the Germans. The old porters spat, drew their hands across their throats, and plunged imaginary bayonets into the listeners' breasts; the words " Allemand " and ---Verdun pierced the air. After half an hour the journey recommenced, and then the night. It needs a Dickens to do justice to the interior of one of the horseboxes at this time. A horsebox billeted forty-two men. What need to say more? Few people troubled about Lyons or any other of the many stations passed through during the night; but there was a general clamouring for tea at 6 a.m., when the train pulled up at Macon. Many called, but few were satisfied. Soon all were aboard and off again along the side of the River Saone as far as Chalon; and then to Beaune, of the vines. Pausing on the way to Dijon, a French Red Cross train full of wounded drew up, and many curious conversations followed. One fellow, wishing to see some real fighting Frenchmen, but being crushed out, went to the other side of a horsebox crying, "Aye, lads, there's a waggon-load of men wi'out legs here." He did not gain his object, and, en passant, one sorrowfully adds that this jovial chap four months later had his legs riddled almost from off his body by machine-gun bullets in No Man's Land. Dijon was reached at 12.30 p.m., and Les Laumes, where tea was issued, at 5.0 p.m. The absence of male labour had seemed more conspicuous this day, and the men had waved sympathetically to many an old weather-beaten dame toiling in her white bonnet; also had laughed with the children carrying water from the wells by aid of the yoke. It had been pleasant to see the oxen pulling the plough; the quaint villages in the heart of valleys and on hillsides; the romantic ruins; the statues on lonely hills; the towns and mosaic roofs of the churches. In the night Tonnerre, Joigny, Sens, Fontainebleau, the fringe of Paris, Versailles were passed through, and by the morning light St. Germain was distinguished. Amiens was reached about noon, and Within a short time the detraining point, Pont Remy, situated a few miles south-east of Abbevifle. The detrainment was complete by 10 p.m. The first billet was the old-world village of Huppy, where many pleasing associations were made. Outstanding features of this pretty village were the womenfolk with their white bonnets, the whitewashed cottages with thatched or red-tiled roofs, the long narrow windows, the tall ornamental crucifixes (the little wooden crosses at the foot), the old wells -their log hoods green with age-and the treadmill threshers. The Battalion stayed there from the night of March 18th to the morning of March 26th, the period being devoted to steady training. It was known that the 31st Division would soon be called upon for duty, and so an early order to move to the line was not unexpected. A four days' march was commenced in a heavy rain on Sunday, March 26th, the Battalion marching to Longpre. The next day the Battalion moved to Vignacourt. On the same day a party of ten officers and forty N.C.O.'s proceeded to the Colincamps sector of trenches for seventy-two hours duty with the 8th (T.F.) Battalion Worcestershire Regiment. They were taken to the Front in motor-'buses via Flixecourt and Doullens, the latter a most important centre of the British Fourth Army at that time. The party was billeted in Courcelles-au-Bois about midnight, and early the next morning marched to the trenches through the gloomy village of Colincamps. Only occasionally was the sound of firing heard, and little did the officers and men, under the command of Major A. R. Hoette, think that this sector, on the advent of the 31st Division, was to become a perfect hell and the graveyard of hundreds of brave comrades. But of this more anon. In the meantime the regiment had spent the night at Vignacourt, and was on the way to Beauquesne. On March 29th a final halt was made at Bertrancourt. The Battalion encamped in canvas huts, where we will leave it while describing the Colincamps sector, a short length of the Front, wherein the Sheffield " Pals " lived, worked, and died in the cause of Empire and freedom. Near the southern extremity of the British Line at that time, from the historic mass of debris known as Hebuterne there stretched to the town of Mailly-Maillet an undulating common called the Colincamps Plain. Midway there stood the village from which it derived its name, and in a slight depression to the East there were the Allied defences-an interminable city with " streets," " lanes," " alleys," woods," " copses ... .. avenues," and the like. Colincamps, situated some two miles from the front line, was representative of Picardy villageslamentably poor and cheerless. Deserted, save for a roughly-garbed young woman, whose existence appeared to depend upon the number of " oeufs " she sold to the troops, the place was a symbol of change and decay. The yellow peasant dwellings of warped beams and baked mud were falling to pieces and the few better-class houses were in a sad way. The church had been battered. The only place undisturbed for a considerable time was Battalion Headquarters, an oblong schoolroom built of chalk and boasting a slate roof. But this also fell a victim to German bombardment in the end. As a matter of fact, in July, 1918, there was not one stone upon another in the whole village. In early 1916, troops in Brigade Reserve were generally stationed at Colincamps and accommodated for the most part in barns wherein wire beds had been erected for the comfort of the men. The objective of all operations on this sector was the village of Serre, which nestled on the other side of the valley and was guarded and fortified with all the ingenious and devilish devices at the command of the enemy. It was a field fort of wonderful strength, and one of the many which marked the German line at this particular time and up to July lst, 1916. Division after division were led to the assault on Serre's powerful defences, but without success. Constant hammering, however, reduced the place to a pulp, and on the evacuation in February, 1917, it was seen that there was not a square yard of ground untouched by shell. The earth wept in misery and desolation. Actually, the village faced Hebuterne on the left of the Colincamps sector. The Hebuterne and Colincamps sectors were of great tactical importance, for in a large measure they commanded the valleys and spurs which ran from Hebuterne in the south and south-east directions along which both sides made their lines of defences and in which they both placed their artillery. At the time in question, a very short advance by the enemy against Hebuterne from his lines in Gommecourt Park would not only have enabled him to outflank a large portion of the line to the south and to cut communications leading to the whole of the divisional front, but it would have put out of action all the battery positions, heavy and field, which were situated in large numbers in the Hebuterne-Colincamps Plain. It would also have given the enemy observation over a large area behind the line held by us. This was, therefore, a very important point of the British defensive line, and was bound to be held at all costs. The enemy spared no pains to secure his hold on the Gommecourt salient, and massed a large number of guns for its defence, which guns were vigorously employed against our lines and Hebuterne and Colincamps. Except on the HebuterneGornmecourt Ridge, where the enemy was on equal terms with us, the ground sloped down towards the enemy's lines, which to some extent were commanded by us; but the Rossignol Wood spur and the high-standing village of Serre afforded him good points of observation of our line and thus obviated in a degree the disadvantage of his own inferior position. He was also able to bring a very oblique artillery fire from his position between Gommecourt and Rossignol Wood on any troops attacking from our front. The position at Hebuterne has been somewhat fully described at this point to enable the reader to realize the position of the Colincamps sector more clearly, and partly because on the Battalion's second visit to the Somme in October, 1916, the Hebuterne portion of the line was taken over and occupied by the 31st Division for over three months.