Sheffield City Battalion:

Chapter Eight. Strange Incidents and a Winter's Tale.

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Neuve Chapelle: A Raid: Death of Lieut. -Colonel Fisher: Tanks: Back to the Somme: Nightmare of mud: A terrible agony: The winter's tale.
FROM July 15th to September 16th, 1916, the division held the Neuve Chapelle sector. The remnants of the battalions were amalgamated for the time being, but eventually, as reinforcements arrived, each battalion resumed its own responsibilities as a complete unit. On the famous battleground of the 1915 fights our men had a quiet, happy time. The enemy was only occasionally aggressive, though his " minnies " were disastrous more than once. In the strong points in the cornfields, where, by the way, there were crosses and muskets galore denoting the graves of unknown British and German soldiers, they gradually recovered their spirit. They lived well, and we recall the zest with which we once ate stewed plums (obtained from the orchard near Pont Logy) in the pioneers' billet. The joys of Merville, Lestrem, Croix Barbee, Vieille Chapelle, La Fosse, and other little villages will never be forgotten. There are those who will never forget the belles of the village, the eggs, and the chips, and the red and white wines, above all the sparkling champagne. As Major Allen, used to say, it was "a jolly old war." Neuve Chapelle was quiet then, and one remembers looking calmly at the Mystery Wood and the famous little sewing machine in the ruin on the La Bass& Road. But one also remembers that no time was ever wasted in Richebourg St. Vaast, where the skeletons peeped out of the broken tombs, or in Lacouture. What desolation and scars these places possessed! Near by was a mound, and on it a sign, " Here lie 30 German soldiers." From a literary point of view this area was interesting, as it was supposed to be the scene described in " The Three Musketeers " where the famous chase of Milady took place. Whilst in this sector the late Lieut. -Col. H. B. Fisher and Major C. H. Gurney, D.S.O., joined the Battalion for duty. Col. Fisher had been brigade major of the 92nd Infantry Brigade, whilst Major Gurney was the popular officer of the 13th (Barnsley) Batt. York and Lancaster Regiment. So long as the Battalion existed no officers were more popular than these. The men were devoted to them. Other notable officers who joined the Battalion were the intrepid Captain G. C. M. L. Pirkis and the late Captain V. S. Simpson, M.C. The bravery of these officers in later months became a feature of the Battalion's activities. On August 1st, General Sir Charles Munro, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., G.O.C. First Army, who afterwards proceeded to take charge of the evacuation operations at Gallipoli, inspected the Battalion while training. Rumania entered the war in August, 1916, and one smiles at the recollection of Lieut. E. L. Moxey taking out the notice board to the German wire, informing the enemy of our new Ally. On September 10th the Battalion made a successful raid on the enemy trenches at Neuve Chapelle. Valuable information was gained, though no prisoners fell into our hands. The Germans had a dummy front-line trench, and naturally this had drawn all our preliminary artillery fire. The Battalion losses were four killed, one died of wounds, twenty wounded, four prisoners of war. At least thirty of the enemy were killed. It was in this raid that the late Captain V. S. Simpson, M.C., then a subaltern, first distinguished himself, and he was recommended for honour; also Captain D. E. Grant and 2nd Lieut. Thompson. The Army Commander forwarded his congratulations to the regiment. Several of the men performed good work, and were brought to the notice of the higher authorities. Sgt. C. Loxley led a bombing party in the face of an unexpected and heavy retaliation by concealed Germans armed with grenades.He collected his men, organized bombing from the occupied trench, and eventually assisted in the skilful retirement of the men against superior numbers., When his supply of bombs ran out he entered a German dug-out, seized the enemy bombs, which were then thrown back at the Germans. Before the retirement he exploded the German bomb store. Sgt. F. G. Earle was specially good in organizing small parties in No Man's Land. Pte. A. Thompson-This man carried Pte. Blenkarn, who was fatally wounded by a bomb, from the German wire and stayed with him in a shell-hole until he died. Heavy fire prevented him bringing his comrade to our lines. Pte. Raynes.-Made several journeys for wounded comrades; also slew with a bomb a German officer who was directing heavy fire on our forces. Pte. Stevenson.-On the occasion of a gas alarm he rallied his section, which was somewhat disconcerted, and performed other useful work. About this time, from German intelligence, it was learnt that the 31st Division was---The Hellish 31st," and that the enemy knew that the " proud yet sullen and rough York and Lancasters were in the line. Tributes of appreciation, surely! A day or so later there occurred another interesting incident. One of our patrols discovered a batch of letters halfway across No Man's Land. On the brown paper wrapping there was an address of a German reserve regiment and a note in English, which had evidently been written in the hope that an English patrol would come across the parcel. Attached to it also were two or three labels, and it was evident that the letters, which had been taken off English dead in 1915, had been sent to a German base for examination, and then returned to the regiment in the line for transmission to the British Forces. I have heard of no other similar occurrence. The division suddenly received orders to move into the adjoining Festubert sector-the sector of the Islands Posts where the snipers made merry. Snipers were very deadly here, and the Battalion knew it pretty soon, for on taking over on September 16th one of the men was killed. The tragedy of this sector, however, occurred on practically the last day in this area, October 3rd, 1916, when, at 3.45 a.m., whilst trying to visit the Island Posts, Col. Fisher was sniped through the head. He died instantly. It was very sad, for it was only at 2 p. m. on October 2nd that the colonel had returned from a course at an Army school in Boulogne. He was buried on October 3rd in the large military cemetery at Le Touret. The Pioneers made the cross and a Battalion artist painted the memorial. The artist was killed by a shell in the German advance in March, 1918. No wonder all soldiers are fatalists! The late colonel belonged to the Wiltshire Regiment, and was the eldest son of the late Col. William Fisher, of Cardiff. He was thirty-eight years of age, and obtained his commission in the Wiltshire Regiment in 1899. Promotion came to him in February, 1900. In 1905 he was given his captaincy, and in February, 1915, received his majority, having the year before been gazetted to the Staff as brigade major. He was adjutant of the 2nd Wilts for three years. In the South African War he saw a good deal of service, and was present at the actions of Bethlehem, Wittebergin, and Colesberg. He was mentioned in dispatches, and received the Queen's Medal with four clasps. It was on September 24th that Captain Grant was wounded in the forearm, in the course of a relief. In the old Redmires days he may have said, " Who's polished this stove? It's not been touched," and aroused mirth accordingly; but in France he accomplished much valuable work. The death of Lieut.-Col. Fisher proved to be the dramatic ending of the Battalion's stay in this area, for within two or three days the Ist Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment and Ist Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers took over the sector, and the Battalion proceeded to the Somme district, where the fighting was still heavy. The West Kents and the Borderers had just come from the Combles battlefield, and they told many stories of the performances of the Tanks, which had taken a part in the recent battles. They vastly excited our troops, and incidentally showed what a great moral support a Tank was in an attack. For comfort and jolly times the old Somme areas could not compare with this, neither would the future sectors be such quiet ones as Festubert; but our men were anxious to see the Tanks in action. The Scots were particularly enthusiastic. " Tanks are diamond-shape, and built like the turret of a battleship," said one. " They simply bristle with guns, and they have 9in. armour-plate and can stand up to all fire except a direct hit from a 9.2, " declared another. " They're fine. Once in an advance we were tackled by a ' Jerry ' bombing party 300 to 400 strong. A Tank came up and wiped out the lot. Really, it was hellish, but the enemy asked for it." " Do you know," he continued, " the Tanks have been on the boards for nine months, and tremendous precautions were taken to prevent the Germans getting a knowledge of them. The chaps who made them were guarded by sentries, and the sentries were guarded by mounted troops, and airmen flew about over the works." The Battalion left Le Touret on October 5th, billeted the night in Vendin-Lez-Bethune, and next day marched to Robecq, which was more than usually " alive " owing to a prevailing rumour to the effect that the Kaiser had hanged himself. On October 8th the Battalion entrained at Berquette for Doullens, which was reached at 4 p.m. Then followed a long march through sludge and splashing lorries to Marieux, the final resting-place. The air at Marieux seemed full of mystery. There were strong rumours about a big attack on the old front, and the Battalion trained with considerable vigour. There were tactical exercises day and night, and brigade practice operations. There was another contact aeroplane rehearsal, and all Battalion specialists received special attention, the respective sections being brought up to strength. Officers began to interest themselves in Tanks and studied the signal codes and methods of communication and co-operation between Tanks and infantry. The Tank's red disc meant " Danger or Wire Uncut," the Green disc, " Come on or Wire Cut "; Red and Green discs, " Wait a bit "; Red, Red, Red, meant " Broken Down," and so on. 80 History of The Sheffield City Battalion. The men enjoyed the fruit and chickens of Marieux immensely, as well as the wines. Little need, indeed, to mention the episode of the two men who were found in the Frenchman's cellar having a royal feast. On October 12th Lieut-Col. C. P. Riall, East Yorkshire Regiment, temporarily attached to the 13th (S.) Batt. York and Lancaster Regiment as second-in-command, assumed command of the Battalion in place of Major C. H. Gurney, D.S.O., who proceeded to the Senior Officers' School, Aldershot, for a course of instruction. The departure of Major Gurney was much regretted both by officers and men, for in the short time he had been with the unit he had proved an able and considerate leader, and had made himself very popular. Lieut.-Col. Riall was a Regular officer who had served eighteen years in the East Yorkshire Regiment and had come out to France as adjutant to a Pioneer battalion of the New Army in 1915. On October 15th the Battalion received a second draft of " Derby " men-ninety-four men formerly intended for the 1/6th North Staffs Regiment and hailing from Burton-onTrent and district. This draft, in addition to the 100 Northamptonshire men who joined on the 2nd of the month, considerably restored the strength of the Battalion, which had been run practically on a minimum strength since July 1st. A further draft of forty-eight men from South Lancashire arrived on October 17th, just as the troops were setting off for the village of Famechon. These reinforcements, though composed of elderly men possessing comparatively little military training, displayed " the mettle of their pasture " in the trying times of winter. This can also be said of the fifty men from the South of England who reported for duty on October 23rd. Back to the everlasting roar of the guns and Warnimont Wood the Battalion trudged on October 18th, and there were hearty curses hurled at the German prisoners, who smiled evilly and played at work on the muddy roads. So handicapping was the mud on the hillside of Warnimont that every bit of the Battalion baggage had to be man-handled to the camp at the top of the wood. For three or four hours the work was carried on by the aid of hurricane lamps. Two companies (" C " and " D ") were detached for work with the 93rd Infantry Brigade on October 21st, and moved down to Courcelles-au-Bois, living in trench shelters and bivouacs on a field of mud until October 27th, when "A" and " C " Companies relieved them. The work was done in conjunction with the Royal Anglesey R.E.'s. In spite of the rain and the mud, the cold, and the working parties, the troops were still expected to have a zeal for training. But, then, it is a truth that it was only by reason of generals, colonels, and captains expecting impossibilities of men that the British Army achieved half of its successes. Some of the new-comers to the Battalion suffered on October 28th. A working party, 100 strong, came pnder hot shell fire at Hebuterne, and one man was killed and seven others wounded. It was the first time any of them had been to the trenches. Fate! Of course, all soldiers now realized the all-important role which chance, or hazard, or luck-call it what you willplayed in war. The element of chance was so strongly marked in the war that anybody who fought at the front inevitably became a fatalist. " If the bullet or shell bears your name and number," said the old soldier, " you're for it. What's the use of worrying? " Yet there was a case at Neuve Chapelle (Lansdowne Post)-and it is the only one I have ever heard of-where one of the 12th Battalion men received his shell and escaped. A shell bearing the number 285 fell on the parapet, squirmed into the bottom of the trench, and stopped near the feet of No. 285 Private E. Austin, who immediately jumped on to the firestep. The shell failed to explode, and everyone then declared that Austin would never be killed. But on June 19th, 1917, on Vimy Ridge, whilst ration carrying, Austin was fatally wounded, dying the following day in No. 8 C.C.S. There was only one rule of life for the man who was in a fighting unit at the Front. That was-to be ready to die. Then one could safely leave the rest to fate. At this time there began to be an increase in sickness, and during the last twenty days of October forty-eight officers and men were evacuated, including Lieut. S. W. Maunder, the Quartermaster, Lieut. S. J. Atkinson (Transport Officer), and Captain A. N. Cousin (who was Intelligence Officer for the 94th Infantry Brigade). These officers could ill be spared as the Battalion was very much understaffed. 2nd Lieut. C. C. Cloud took over the combined duties of Quartermaster and Transport Officer. It was with mixed feelings that the heavily-laden men moved off from Warnimont Wood and Courcelles at 4 a.m. on October 31st to take over the left section of the Hebuterne sector from the 18th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. The stores and transport moved to Couin. The way was long and muddy. The approaches to the front line were very limited. The only road communication passed through Sailly and led to Hebuterne, and was subjected to much hostile fire from Sailly, inclusive, to the east. It was exposed to view from the enemy's position in Gommecourt Park for about 600 yards, half-way between Sailly and Hebuterne, and suffered accordingly. The road leading to Sailly from the west ran up the Authie Valley, through Authie and Coigneux, and was fairly sheltered; but its position in the bottom of the valley made it almost an impossible road to keep in a state of good repair during the winter. The road between Courcelles and Sailly was often under enemy fire, especially about 500 yards south of Sailly. The other roads and tracks were well nigh impossible for the most part for traffic in winter. There were a lot of communication trenches leading to the front line, nearly all radiating from Hebuterne; but in the winter they became water-logged, and it was with the greatest difficulty that even a reduced number of selected trenches could be kept open in wet weather. Although the walls of the church only stood about two yards high, Hebuterne had not been levelled to the ground exactly, and one could easily conclude that in pre-war days it had been a prosperous town. The buildings and dwellinghouses were superior to those of the villages in the rear, and the Hebuterne Square boasted an oval village green and pond surrounded by trees. The Colincamps Plain was crammed with guns, including many naval guns, and the whole sector was, to put it mildly, 1. very hot. " It was not an unusual sight to see men, wagons, horses, and guns put out of action on the Plain, on the Sailly-Hebuterne Road, and in Hebuterne. When alone men said their prayers when passing the old church at Sailly before turning up the long road to Hebuterne. At this period the eyes of the twenty-eight enemy observation balloons were very disconcerting. However, owing to the elements, no attack was yet possible. The conditions of the line at Hebuterne from October 31 st to November 3rd were similar to those of periods which will be described collectively later. The Battalion had one big struggle with mud and shells. The enemy was now using ,gas shells on a much larger scale than previously. The patrols in No Man's Land had an awful time. On the morning of the 2nd November Battalion Headquarters had a nasty mishap. The enemy, in the course of searching fire, dropped a shell on the mess kitchen at " Kensington House," in Hebuterne. Everything was reduced to chaos. Two old boys-Lce.-Sgt. Wood and Pte. Chamberlain-were killed, together with an orderly-roorn corporal of 1/5th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment who was on a visit. Two other servants were wounded. The only thing unharmed by the crash was a plate bearing ten eggs. Not a single egg-shell was cracked. The next day the Battalion came back to Sailly, being billeted mostly on the side of the hill towards Colincamps. The stay at Sailly was a period of alarms, for intermittently screaming shells fell into the village and usually someone was hit, particularly at the cross-roads at the bottom of the hill. Four days of this, and then, on as evil a morning as one could imagine, the Battalion " embused 'I at Sailly Dell (with emphasis on the Dell) for a rest at Thievres, beyond Authic. The loads were thirty-eight men per lorry, with a few spare inches for breathing. At Thievres the men had an easy time, though there was the " refresher " training to do. 84 History of The Sheffield City Battalion. The big attack of which so much has been spoken opened at an early hour on November 13th, the final objective of the 13th Corps (only one of several corps taking part in the operation) 'being Puisieux. It was thought a wonderful opportunity for giving a smashing blow to the enemy, who was showing signs of being very greatly shaken. It is true that good progress was made on the right of the attack, Beaumont Hamel falling. But Serre held out. The East Yorkshire Regiment, of the 92nd Infantry Brigade, 31st Division, heroically held an advanced position for many hours; but the troops on their right flank could make no impression, and they had to come back, after suffering heavy losses. The result of the severe fighting, which lasted three or four days, was not up to general expectations, and it was believed that the enemy had obtained some inkling of the blow and had prepared against surprise. Another instance of the working of fate was that of 2nd Lieut. F. L. Faker, a former A-C.S.M. and sergeant of " C " Company. This N.C.O., who had a splendid reputation, was granted a commission in France some little time before the battle. He marched through Thievres with the troops of an assaulting division, and fell at Serre; a fate which he escaped in the battle of July 1st. The Battalion was not called upon to take a leading part in the operations of November 13th. On November 12th it followed in the wake of attacking troops, billeted in the old camp at Warnimont Wood, and was under orders to turn out in battle order within half an hour. The 13th November was a misty day of suspense and little authentic news. The next morning the Battalion went into the Hebuterne sector, and had a lively time, though merely holding the line. The movements of the Battalion from, November 14th to January 11th were:
IN THE LINE, HEBUTERNE. Nov. 14 to Nov. 18. Nov. 22 to Nov. 29. Dec. 5 to Dec. 9. Dec. 17 to Dec. 21. Dec. 21 to Dec. 24-" B " and D " Coys. Jan. 1 to Jan. 6. Jan. 7 to Jan. 11 -"A" and " C " Coys. IN RESERVE. Nov. 19 to Nov. 24---Sailly Dell. Nov. 30 to Dec. 4-Sailly Dell. Dec. 10 to Dec. 16-Rossignol Farm, Coigneux. Dec. .22 to Dec. 24--Sailly-au-Bois ("A" and "C,'). Dec. 25 to Dec. 31-Sailly Dell. Jan. 6 to Jan. 11-Sailly-au-Bois (Headqrs.,"B " and " D ").
Somewhere in " Les Miserables " is a passage telling of a man who is swallowed in the quicksands. Sometimes in Hebuterne soldiers have realized to the full the sensations of Hugo's poor victim. With him they have gazed for the last time at the distant land with the sun shining on the hills and the seagulls swerving white overhead. With him they have struggled against the solid flood that creeps past the chin, mouth, and nose. . . . The nightmare of the mud is as terrible as the quicksand. As one of our soldiers said: Can you conceive it, you people who have never seen worse mud than one finds around the gates of 'fields in winter? Can you imagine what happened when the men struggled through the slough, their haversacks rubbing damply against their sides, their dripping rifles grasped firmly in their muddied hands? When the rain streamed down and the clouds hung low, the deeds done were miraculous. In No Man's Land the shellholes were filled with water, the mud stretch hid the empty tins, the old sandbags, the strands of barbed wire that tripped the infantrymen, and the mud itself clogged their steps, so that they walked slowly and painfully, dragging their feet like old men. In the trenches-wet ditches that could not be properly drained-men crouched down in the rain among boxes of bombs and ammunition. They whispered or ate, or fell into uneasy doze, waking suddenly with startled expression-waiting for the time when they would be relieved. Along the roads the great weapons of war passed each other in the streaming nights. The flare from a match lit up the sweating horses and wet-faced men and was reflected dully by the grey guns. In one place a huge tractor had slipped off the side of the " pave " into the mass of mud, and the traffic was blocked for a mile each way. One by one, lorries crawled round it, while men tried to heave the great engine on to the road again, finally pushing it down altogether into the mud, where it wallowed without delay to the current of traffic. Through the awful days the men worked on the trenches, the parties brought their boxes of ammunition up sticky communication trenches, the guns poured forth their death on the battered dug-outs and shell-pitted roads. There were times at Hebuterne when men fell into sumps and were almost drowned. They had to be rescued by ropes slung underneath their arms. One sergeant was only saved after one and a half hour's exertions. In their misery elderly men, on more than one occasion, flung themselves down and refused to move, crying " Let me die. I'm done in. For God's sake leave me alone." The late Captain V. S. Simpson, M.C., had two or three experiences of this nature, and used to tell the story how on one occasion he ordered the men of his company to take off their boots, socks, trousers, and pants, and wade through the flooded trenches. Regularly men had to pull their legs along with the aid of their bands, and left boots and gumboots in the mire and clay. Yet there was humour of a sort at times, as the following incident shows. Two men came across a dead German, and both wanted to search him for souvenirs. They let the toss of a coin decide who should search the top half and who the bottom half of the body. The one who won selected the top half and netted 400 marks. The conditions of the billets when the Battalion was in reserve were far from satisfactory. Everything was cheerless and tainted with mud. Sailly-au-Bois was composed of skeleton dwellings, and Sailly Dell consisted of tents and trench shelters, jerry-built cabins, and dug-outs. Coal and firewood, for the men, were as scarce as candles. No wonder, then, that the Battalion lost a lot of men through sickness and that excruciating malady " trench feet "-feet that became as dead, swollen to thrice their normal size and in which the placing of a finger left a ghastly hole. The ill-effects of this sector were felt for some considerable time. The actual number of officers and men in the Battalion evacuated to hospital during the winter months were:
October ... ... ... ............ 48 November ... ... ... ...........125 December ... ...................114 January 1 to February 7 ... ... 200 February 8 to February 28 ......90 March ... ......................181 April ..........................129 Total ....................887
Of course, over 50 per cent. of the sick rejoined at various times, and drafts amounting to 764 other ranks, together with the undermentioned officers, were received:
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2nd Lieut. D. R. Hinckley. 2nd Lieut. W. Meakin.
2nd Lieut. A. R. Steven. 2nd Lieut. M. B. Wallace.
2nd Lieut. S. Crawford. 2nd Lieut. N. H. Malkin
2nd Lieut. F. G. Morris. Lieut. E. G. Halpin (T.O.).
2nd Lieut. L. R. Bethel. 2nd Lieut. A. E. Cole.
2nd Lieut. A. W. Laidlaw. 2nd Lieut. J. M. Sinclair.
2nd Lieut. A. L. Taylor. 2nd Lieut. G. H. Jarvis.
2nd Lieut. J. BuckIand 2nd. Lieut. F. Tonge.
2nd Lieut. E. N. Taylor. 2nd Lieut. G. H. Wood.
2nd Lieut. H. Booth. 2nd Lieut. F. H. Westby.
2nd Lieut. H. G. Mann.2nd Lieut C. W. Pimm,
Sick officers who were evacuated were: 2nd Lieut. W. H. Rowlands, Lieut. and Q.M. S. W. Maunder, Lieut. and Transport Officer S. J. Atkinson, 2nd Lieut. F. H. Westby, Captain A. N. Cousin, Captain E. G. G. Woolhouse, 2nd Lieut. C. C. Cloud, 2nd Lieut. J. C. Cowen, 2nd Lieut. A. W. Laidlaw.
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Last modified on: Wednesday, 23 January 2002