The first bombardment: "C" Company's misfortune: The raid of May 16th, 1916:
What men did: Billets and training: Wonderful organization : Phases of an
BEFORE the memorable July lst the Battalion defended the line at Colincamps
on four occasions, the periods being
April 3rd to 12th.
May 2nd to 6th.
May 15th to 20th.
June 1 4th to 1 9th.
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:
Wounded: Lieut. C. H. Woodhouse (afterwards rejoined), 2nd Lieut. H. S.
C.S.M.s. Sgts. Cpls. L-Cpls. Ptes.
Killed ... ... 2 ... 2 ... 0 ... 4 ... 25
Died of wounds 0 ... 1 ... 0 ... 1 ... 7
Wounded ... 0 ... 2 ... 7 ... 5 ... 54
Totals ... 2 ... 5 ... 7 ... 10 ... 86---110
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
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
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
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 was not disturbed about the "X " retiring. 1 felt confident the Boche
could not get in to my line. 1 went along my line and found everything in order
to ward off an attack. 1 stopped for a while at No. 12 post and observed the
fire. A continual rain of H.E. and shrapnel was falling in No. 11 post, and the
line of the barrage was at that time from No. 11, behind No. 12 to Rob Roy,
where it joined Nairne, and then to our left front.
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
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
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:
2nd Lieut. J. Thompson.
Cpl. J. H. Marsden also rendered very distinguished services.
12/755 Sgt. B. J. Register, killed whilst at work.
121/628 Sgt. H. C. Crozier.
12/1069 Sgt. W. Thompson.
12/851 Pte. F. 0. Appleby.
12/744 Pte. J. 0. Schofield.
12/758 Pte. F. 0. Rideout.
12/615 Pte. N. W. G. Chandler.
12/608 Pte. S. Brown.
12/747 Pte. F. J. Pennington.
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
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
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;
(2) Working Parties;
but before proceeding directly to deal with these phases a few broad
outlines of billet Iife in France would perhaps be of interest.
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.