Chapter Five. The Baptism of Fire..
BEFORE the memorable July lst the Battalion defended the line at Colincamps on four occasions, the periods being
In addition, " B " and- "D " Companies each acted as support companies to other battalions of the 94th Infantry Brigade. Compared with what happened afterwards, these periods may now be classed as " quiet times " and merely spells of training in trench warfare; from a battalion standpoint there were several outstanding events which affected both officers and men and created a great impression. There was the first battle casualty; the baptism of fire on the night of April the 6th; the " C " Company misfortune of the 4th of May; the bombardment and raid of the 16th of May; and the traversing of the front line with H. E. shells by the enemy batteries in the Gommecourt salient on the 17th June.
It must not be thought that the above-named were the only occasions on which the men went near the trenches. When the Battalion was out of the line large working parties were continuously provided both day and night for work on trench-digging and for improving communications, &c., and often hard labour was executed under harassing shell and machine-gun fire.
The battle casualties for the months of April, May, and June were as under: Officers: Wounded: Lieut. C. H. Woodhouse (afterwards rejoined), 2nd Lieut. H. S. Lumb. Other ranks:
On Sunday, April 2nd, the Battalion marched from Bertrancourt to Colincamps. The move was interesting from two points of view. First, the Battalion was actually on its way to man the trenches, where their long training would be tested, and, secondly, on the previous afternoon Colincamps had been shelled by German " heavies," which searched in vain for two 9.2in. guns in an orchard a little distance from the church. The square church tower received a direct hit, and the Royal Engineers' wooden canteen was swept away. A shell fell in the brigade grenade store without exploding, and another whizzed through the BrigadierGeneral's bedroom without causing a casualty.
The relief of the 18th Battalion Durham Light Infantry and the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment (T.F.) on April 3rd was completed without any loss, and the front1,300 yards in length, the right section of the Colincamps sector~was garrisoned. Battalion headquarters Were situated in Bow Street, off Cheero Avenue, which was reached via Taupin Avenue and Roman Road, passing Ellis Square on the right!
It is impossible to describe the mixed feelings of everyone on the first night in the line. Men thought of all the gruesome stories ” veterans ” had told them, and wondered if —Suicide Corner ” was such an awful spot as its name suggested. They heard shells piercing the air, and knew not whether they were our own or those of the enemy. Everybody spoke in whispers and peeped ” over the lid ” with awe, owing to the skill of German snipers. Yet it must be plainly said $hot oil enjoyed the satisfaction of being in the line at Rant. The spirit was excellent.
The night was very dark and uneventful, though I would not go no far as to say that no sentry mistook as Germans the wooden posts supporting the wire entanglements; or that men did ‘not feel that machine-gunners were firing at them individually as they walked along the trenches. Soon, however, they became accustomed to death-dealing missiles send learnt to gauge the course of a shell or rifle grenade.
The dawn of April 4th was a welcome one, and, with no casualties to report, Major T. Carter Clough, V. D., who was In command of the Battalion owing to the absence of Colonel Crosthwaite on leave, was well pleased. The spell of good fortune was, however, soon broken, for during the morning Private McKenzie, of “D ” Company, was killed by a rifle grenade. The news rapidly spread through the battalion, and there was a feeling of sympathy in all. Sincere tribute was paid to this quiet lad, the first of many brave citizens to make the supreme sacrifice in action against the enemy. In the evening he was reverently buried in the little military cemetery in the rear of the line and close to the famous sugar factory called the Sucrerie.
The Sucrerie, for the possession of which the French fought so valiantly in 1915, was merely a blasted heap of ruins, but it was a useful asset in that it was an important water main and had capacious underground accommodation. It was shelled intermittently and was always under observation. The trenches the Battalion occupied were old enemy trenches, and considerable attention was paid to the many telephone wires he had left on the sides and his fine dugouts. But no one ever imagined the palatial ” shelters ” the Germans had built beyond No Man’s Land.
There was a great deal of very necessary work to be (lone in the way of deepening communication trenches, connecting up posts, and making the front line continuous; opening up many trenches between front line and support lint. which had been allowed to fall into disuse, and making more dug-outs for the accommodation of the men. Work was commenced with a will, and at the end of the nine days’ tour a vast improvement was noticeable.
The Battalion underwent its first heavy bombardment on the night of April 6th, 1916, and behaved so well that the Corps Commander (Lieut.-General Sir AyImer Hunter Weston, K.C.B., D.S.O., M.P., VIII. Corps) expressed his ” appreciation of the splendid spirit in which the baptism of fire was taken.” At 8.0 p.m. the enemy commenced to bombard the British line to the south of the Battalion section, and gradually crept nearer until at 8.55 p.m. a hot fire was being concentrated on the Colincamps sector. Canister bombs, minenwerfer, rifle grenades, all classes of shells were flung on to our line, not so much the actual front line as the support line and a particular spot known as the Redan. The artillery replied to the challenge, and for three hours there was a heavy duel. The gun flashes quivered in the sky for miles, and, combined with the rapid succession of Verey lights and rockets, a remarkable scene was imprinted on the mind.
The troops became greatly excited and the men of one of the front-line companies jumped on to the firestep opening rapid fire on the enemy with huge delight. “Wash out,” ” Wash out, ” was yelled repeatedly when enemy shells proved to be ” duds ” or failed in their object. An old soldier, Sergeant Clay, of “A” Company, provided one of the most amusing incidents. He smelt gas. Donning his anti-gas helmet, he ran along the trench crying ” Put yer gas helmets on. They’re sending gas shells o’er. Put your helmets on.” The sergeant did not realize that one of the eye pieces of his own helmet was broken and, consequently, his helmet rendered useless.
Comparatively speaking, little damage was done to our trenches, and there were no serious casualties.
On April 8th a German minenwerfer, one of the most devastating instruments of death ever invented, fell squarely into one of our posts-No. 10, to be precise-killing two men and wounding seven others. All were of ” B” Company, who, under the inter-company relief system, had gone into the front line the previous day. After this it was decided to hold the post with small parties at either end, leaving the centre clear, as this particular point appeared to have been well registered by the enemy.
On April 9th Lieut. C. H. Woodhouse was slightly wounded, bring the first officer casualty. He soon rejoined the Battalion, however, to obtain a reputation for good, conscientious work.
From the last-named date to the day of relief by the 13th (S.) Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment there was nothing but discomfort for everybody. There was a continuous downpour of rain, which could not be effectively drained away in several of the trenches, and all trenches were sludgy and slimy. The nights were cold and the men got soaked to the skin. The nights of the 12th-13th April saw the relief completed and the Battalion encamped in huts on the Bus side of Bertrancourt.
A disturbing event occurred during the Battalion’s second period of duty in the line. On May 2nd the Battalion relieved the 14th (S.) Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment in the left section of the sector, and ” C ” Company was in the left half of the front line. Throughout the next morning there was considerable activity on both sides, and in the afternoon the enemy constantly shelled our positions in and near John Copse-the left of the four copses named after the Gospels. Three wounded men were being attended to when a minenwerfer was hurled into the company telephone dugout, killing six men, including Company Sergeant-Major J. W. Ellis, and wounding one so badly that he died on the way to the Field Ambulance. Five men were wounded in addition.
Stiff, sturdy, and manly, the sergeant-major was one of the best-liked men in the Battalion, and always was a notable figure. He represented the best type of the British soldier, and the traditions of the British Army were matters of great moment to him. He was also well known in the Hallamshires. A Sheffielder by birth, he joined the 2nd Battalion of the York and Lancasters over a quarter of a century ago, and was in South Africa from 1891 to 1897, serving as a section sergeant with the Mounted Infantry in the Matabele war. In January, 1897, whilst proceeding with the troops to India, he was on the Warren Hastings when she was wrecked. He stayed with the regiment in India until the end of 1898, when he went on the Indian 38 History of The Sheffield City Battalion.
Volunteer Staff. At the outbreak of the South African war he volunteered for service, and went out with Lumsden’s Horse and saw the fighting in and about Johannesburg. Afterwards he stayed on in South Africa with the 14th Battalion Mounted Infantry, with the rank of Sergeant-Major. In 1901 he was specially selected to go to Australia with a number of Colonial troops, returning with a fresh lot of recruits. At the end of the war he returned borne, and joined the Battalion in Dover.
From 1904 to 1906 he was sergeant-major of the Mounted Infantry staff in Malta, ultimately rejoining his own regiment with the rank of colour-sergeant. He had four medals—the Matabele 1896, the King’s and Queen’s South Africa (six bars), and the Long Service Medal. He. joined the permanent staff of the Hallamshires in 1909, and held the position of instructor for about two years. He was in civil employment tip to the time of the European War.
The trenches continued to be far from comfortable. One post, No. 4, was blown in three times within four days, and Battalion headquarters, at a dug-out called the Monastery, in Monk Trench, were none too safe, as bullets consistently pitched into the trench side near the entrance. ” Bloodspuds,” the Adjutant called them. A few weeks later this dug-out was destroyed.
On June 6th the Battalion was relieved, and moved to a new rest camp which was being erected in Bois de Warnimont, near Authie. ” D ” Company, which, it should be here stated, was at this time a permanent working party and had not, in consequence, been doing actual garrison work in the trenches, stayed on at Colincamps. Bois de Warnimont is a place to be remembered. It was a beautiful resting-place for the Battalion after its stress; all men living who made its acquaintance on this day will ever recall the lovely wild flowers and magnificent trees, so tall and proud. It was from this haven that the Battalion marched to the fatal assault of July 1st.
The courage and coolness of the City Battalion was proved on the night of May 15th-16th, when the Germans raided the Hebuterne sector. At 12.30 a.m. the enemy commenced to bombard the line with minenwerfer and shells 77, 10.5 c.m., and 15 c.m.-and simply poured them in on the whole of the Hebuterne sector’s fire trenches and some of the communication trenches. So intense was the bombardment that some of the trenches were quite obliterated, while others were reduced to a deplorable state. The wire in many places was completely shot away. There was no cessation of the bombardment until 2.45 a.m.
At 1.0 a.m. a party of Germans was seen in the front trenches, and, as the hostile fire lifted a little, a bombing party was formed to bomb them out. After some fifteen minutes’ fighting the raiders were driven out, suffering heavy casualties. Other Germans, however, had passed between the front line and support line, coming in on the front-line posts from the rear. On one of the posts most of the rifles had been smashed by direct hits. The lance-corporal in charge fearlessly attacked a German officer with his fists, but it cost him his life. On two other isolated posts no one could afterwards be found, and it was presumed the men had been buried. Some of the Germans wore khaki, with white armlets.
The 12th had practically completed the relief of the 18th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment when the trouble began. ” C ” Company was in the left half of the Battalion front line and ” B ” Company in the right half, their respective commanders being Captain (then 2nd Lieut.) D. E. Grant and Captain (then Lieut.) J. L. Middleton. These young officers, who were only in command temporarily, performed their duties with marked ability under disconcerting circumstances.
The terrific barrage of the enemy was not solely confined to the Hebuterne sector. To cover his actual operations and to create uncertainty he placed a curtain of fire on the Battalion front, and in achieving his object inflicted considerable casualties on us. When it was reported, by the battalion on the left that the Germans had succeeded in getting into our lines, guards Were rushed up to each of the entrances to the Colincamps sector, and these were rein~ forced by servants and runners.
Writing about the bombardment a few hours later Captain Grant said:
I asked for a couple of volunteers from each of the posts, 14, 13, and 12, to help to dig out the dead in No. 11 post. After I left, a number of the sappers in the mine gave efficient help. 1 went back along the line and along Nairne to Rob Roy to find out the extent of the damage. The men stood to until dawn, when we removed the casualties. Rations were buried, but we salvaged them all. The men behaved splendidly, and showed fine spirit.
The trenches chiefly damaged were Excema, in the vicinity of Observation Wood, Le Cateau, Rob Roy near the junction with Nairne, and Nairne to front line. The front line was levelled in places, particularly near Luke Copse. The Battalion casualties amounted to fifteen killed and forty-six wounded, all men of the ranks. Of course, it is impossible to mention the valour of everyone, but the exceptional devotion to duty of some of the brave fellows deserves mention.
One incident is best described in the clear and circumstantial account of the late Pte. Leonard McIver, who wrote to Dr. R. H. Mathews concerning the death of Pte. R. H. B. Mathews. McIver wrote:
“It was my first time in the trenches, and Mathews took me in hand and gave me cheery advice, promising to keep an eye on me and answer any questions. Later, when the bombardment commenced, he got me at his side. The parapet was blown in and buried me completely, but I found that I was getting air through a small hole, and so called for help. Mathews was surprised to find I was alive, 1 think, and set about to try and extricate me. He found the weight too great, so discovered my air-hole and scraped at it for some time. This gave me more scope for breathing. To this act I think 1 owe my life. The hole supplied me with air for about an hour and a half, when a working party found me on hearing me call.
While your son was clearing out the hole his hand found mine, and, with a strong grip on it, he assured me that he would get me out somehow. At this moment I heard a loud bang, and the hand went limp in mine. I cannot express how sorry I am at being the cause of this sad accident, but, believe me, I shall always think with gratitude of my one-time comrade and his noble sacrifice on my behalf. ”
12/742 Pte. R. T. Owen.-Although wounded in the hands and face, this soldier continued to use his rifle until it became so clogged with his blood that it would no longer work.
12/825 Pte. R. Wilson-Wounded in the back somewhat severely, Pte. Wilson lay in the bottom of the trench filling clips with loose ammunition until evacuated by stretcher-bearers.
12/822 Pte. B. C. Wilkinson, 12/785 Pte. E. Spencer.These two men brought up fresh supplies of S.A.A. from Company Reserve in Rob Roy when that trench and Nairne Communication trench were being heavily shelled. They had to climb out of the trench in several places where it was blown in, and in doing so Pte. Wilkinson was stunned for several minutes by shrapnel hitting his helmet. They persuccessful in their attempt tosevered, however, and were bring up ammunition.
12/1358 Pte. 6. Hanson-After being extricated with difficulty from a dug-out in which he had been buried with others, he displayed exceptional coolness, lighting a cigarette and immediately assisting to dig out the remaining men under heavy shell fire.
12/392 Corpl. M. C. P. Headeach.-This N.C.O., though blown off his feet repeatedly by concussion, visited several destroyed posts on the right of the Battalion line during the bombardment. He showed splendid coolness in aiding the wounded and removing the dead.
12/548 Lce..Cpl. F. E. Watkins.-Lce.-Cpl. Watkins remained at his post when all his men were killed or wounded until ordered to leave it by Cpl. Headeach. Several times he was thrown to the ground.
The undermentioned dug out several comrades despite the falling shells:
Cpl. J. H. Marsden also rendered very distinguished services.
Of the above Sgt. Crozier, Lee.-Cpl. Watkins, Pte. Wilson, Pte. Wlilkinson, Pte. Spencer, Pte. Hanson, Cpl. Headeach received the Military Medal as a reward for their gallant conduct.
It is pathetic to note that nearly all those just mentioned died on July 1st.
The 16th May was quiet, but there were two or three additional casualties. One was a particularly sad case. A young draft soldier of ” D ” Company,, for some unknown reason, proceeded to the trenches with the Battalion instead of staying with two platoons (working party) of the Company billeted at Colincamps. On the night of the 16th a shell burst over him and killed him while he was assisting to convey the bodies of slain comrades to the cemetery.
The 17th, 18th, and 19th May passed without further momentous happenings, but at this period it became apparent that the British had achieved superiority in aircraft. British aviators were constantly reconnoitring enemy territory, taking photographs, noting new trench work, and spotting battery positions. The bravery of these intrepid airmen as they flouted the hostile anti-aircraft gunners called forth general admiration. Over 200 shots were noted as having burst round one aviator alone on 19th May.
The 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment relieved the Battalion on the 20th, and billets at Courcelles-au-Bols were taken over. The two platoons of ” D ” Company continued to stay at Colincamps.
There were stirring times when the Battalion defended the divisional sector in June. The game was afoot, and the enemy knew it. In spite of precautions it was impossible to hide from him all traces of the enormous preparations which were being made for the coming offensive. His observation balloons naturally noted the increased activity behind the line and the large working parties which never ceased their labours; also it was impossible always to drive back his airmen before they had taken photographs-which showed accurately new trench work completed and in progress.
His battery positions and lines of communication testified to the growing volume of British gun-fire. He was fidgety. He was disturbed at the relentlessness of his opponents and the silent thoroughness of their work on a long front. He knew not when the actual blow would fall. At varying times he dropped heavy concentrated fire on the line and harassed back areas, displaying considerable nervousness.
As soon as the relief of the 10th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment had been completed, the Battalion commenced deepening and repairing the trenches, and, with the enemy in such a nervous state of mind, the men were kept exceedingly busy. On the 15th June Le Cateau and Rob Roy trenches were knocked in in parts, and the next day Le Cateau was again badly damaged,. On the 17th, from 8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., enemy heavy batteries shelled the front line consistently with high explosives, and created havoc with it and the traffic trench. Company-Sergeant-Major W. Marsden, of ‘W’ Company, one of the old soldiers who had joined the Battalion on its formation and had done much valuable work, was killed in his dug-out in the afternoon whilst sleeping. One H.E. shell landed on top of the dug-out at Post 35, and before the sergeant-major could escape three more fell in exactly the same spot, wrecking the place entirely. Volunteers soon endeavoured to dig him out, despite 77mm. shells and rifle grenades, but, after many hours of laborious work, the attempt had to be given up.
“A” Company also received another blow the same day, Sergeant Clay being killed whilst touring the front line.
At 1.40 a.m. on the night of 17th-18th June the enemy blew up a land mine at John Tunnel (afterwards “sap”) causing casualties.
The 19th June saw more heavy shelling on the same positions as on the 17th. Our artillery retaliated, but did not succeed in silencing the enemy until 3 p.m., at which hour the Battalion commenced to be relieved by the East Lancashires. This day’s casualties included 2nd Lieut. H. S. Lumb, who joined the Battalion for duty on 23rd April. “A” Company suffered chiefly.
Altogether, this time four men had been killed and twenty-one wounded, twelve of the wounded cases being ” Shell shock.— Many people are inclined to smile at the term ” Shell shock,” but often they do sufferers a great injustice. For instance, one of the shell shock cases was an unfortunate man who had been driven insane by concussion. Seizing a tin of jam, this soldier juggled with it perpetually and refused to part with it. Occasionally he vowed it was a German bomb. Some victims lost all sense of hearing and faculty of speech.
It is worth recording that at this time the trenches were outlined with gay flowers-brilliant poppies, charlock, blue cornflowers, and scabious-and many wondered what truth resided in the very deep-rooted belief that the blood of the slain affects the colour of the flowers, and that special flowers spring up to commemorate special deeds.
It is now advisable to look upon two other phases of the Battalion life during the months April, May, and June (1) Training for Offensive Action;
The billeting area allotted to the 31st Division centred on Bus-les-Artois and its boundaries. It had experienced war’s alarms like every place in Northern France. During the retreat of Napoleon Bonaparte, and at the time of his abdication in 1814, the district was occupied by Cossacks, who incessantly clamoured for “Cognac, Cognac “-the only French they knew. In the Franco-German war of 1870-1 the villages, after the battle of Bapaume, were overrun by companies of the Bavarian Infantry, and in August, 1914, the Germans passed through. In June, 1915, the French Divisional Staff temporarily took up their residence at Courcelles-au-Bois whilst directing the advance movement in the direction of Hebuterne. All the villages at one time or another were shelled by the enemy, and all bore the scars of war. At Courcelles, while the Battalion was billeted there, there lived an old lady, the daughter of one of Napoleon’s Grenadiers who took part in the battle of Waterloo.
The principal industry appeared to have been agriculture, and this fact probably was responsible for a certain uncouthness and lack of progressive spirit on the part of the people in this area.
Billets usually were either hutments or barns, and both, in varying degrees, were as comfortable as weather and porous dwellings permitted. If the weather was fine, all was bright. If not, it was a matter of dodging raindrops and avoiding pools. There were no complaints about insufficient ventilation. Feather beds, of course, were left in England; but the substitutes-straw, wire-beds, and Mother Earthalways provided a restful couch for the tired body. Give a soldier a blanket and a great coat and he will sleep on blocks of stone as soundly as on flocks and cushions.
Is there any need to dwell on the uses of the soldier’s billy-can “-wash-bowl, teapot, stewpot, shaving-pot?
One of the greatest troubles was the plague of lice. The authorities did their best to combat this evil, but it was impossible for the men to keep clean for many days together. Lice preyed on the minds of some men to such an extent that they dreamed of vermin as big as Bermuda centipedes crawling over them.
One pleasant and redeeming feature was the relaxation in the evenings (when there were no working parties), estaminets, canteens, and Y.M.C.A. huts each providing enjoyment and rest.
The training of troops for offensive action was at this time in full progress, and few people in the United Kingdom realized the greatness of the work nor its importance. It was almost a colossal task for the High Authorities, and called for perfect organization, tutorship, and discipline.
At General Headquarters there was a school for the training of officers for staff appointments; another for advanced teaching of machine gun work to officers and men of machine-gun companies; a third for the benefit of musketry instructors. A Lewis Gun School was established for the instruction of both officers and men. Officers’ classes were chiefly devoted to organization and tactical subjects but the men were well trained in the mechanical side of the Lewis gun, and enabled to realize the properties and limitations of the weapon. There were schools for the teaching of bridging, wireless telegraphy, transport duties, all kinds of field engineering; and then came the Army schools. All the armies, corps, divisions, brigades had their schools, wherein all phases of fighting were taught. The result was ‘that the line units were able to have a continual supply of efficient instructors in the various branches of Army activity. The instructors on their return to the units imparted their knowledge to company officers and N. C. 0.’s, so that every individual in the end was taught the latest development in his particular employment. The British armies were trained as they fought. There were attack rehearsals by divisions, brigades, and battalions over land in rest areas.