Chapter 4

Sheffield City Battalion:

Chapter Four. France at last!.

 

 

Marseilles: The Heart of France: Incidents of a long journey.. Huppy: The Sectors of Colincamps and Hebuterne Their importance.



	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.

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