Sheffield City Battalion:

Chapter Nine. The Advance to Puisieux.

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A gallant Sergeant-Major: Officer's sad fate: Nights of revelry: Towards Puisieux: A German's anguish: Land crammed with horror: Enemy ruses: An inferno: Happy Merville.
THERE were few outstanding incidents during the period under review. There were raids by other units, and rumours of raids by us. On November 27th, 1916, the Battalion's first prisoner was taken. He was an 8th Bavarian Infantryman, who gave himself up in front of our wire. From December 3rd to January 5th Major F. J. Courteney Hood, of the 14th Service Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, commanded the unit in the absence of Lieut-Col. C. P. B. Riall, on leave. Christmas Day was a moving day, and the celebrations on Boxing Day were spirit less affairs for the most part, particularly so far as the men were concerned. On January 9th Major C. H. Gurney rejoined the Battalion, but within a few days took over command of an East Yorkshire, Regiment Battalion. There were several recommendations for honours, including the late Captain V. S. Simpson, M.C., who showed an excellent example of cheeriness under depressing conditions, and always gave encouragement to his men. During a relief attempted whilst a fog prevailed, the fog suddenly lifted and the enemy opened fire. One man was wounded and left behind by some mischance. Captain Simpson immediately went back to find him and, on doing so, helped to carry him to safety. R.S.M. C. Polden was recommended for his courage in the streets of Hebuterne. When shells were falling and carrying-parties were suffering casualties and apt to become disorganized, the sergeant-major personally took charge and led the parties himself. His strolls in the town were a feature of the times. 12/520 Cpl. E. F. Squires was conspicuous for gallantry and devotion to duty when a shell burst on the post of which he was in charge. All the garrison, except himself and one man, were buried or wounded. Cpl. Squires immediately took over the duties of sentry and set the one man to dig the others out, afterwards sending him back while he remained a sentry at the post. The last night in the sector-January 11th, when the 9th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers relieved the Battalionwas unique. Owing to lack of billets, "A" and " C " Companies, who came out of the line during the afternoon, rested in the almost roofless Sailly Church. Weary and grey with their trying experiences, they clustered round the many brazier fires in the church, and as darkness fell (and with it the snow) they burst into song, singing melodies of the homeland. Sentimental and comic songs were followed by church choir anthems and ancient hymns. The ruddy glow of the fires and the noise of flying shells created an impressive atmosphere. At 2 a.m., January 12th, the Battalion " embused near Coigneux for Beauval. The division was out on rest in the Bernaville area from January 13th to February 7th, and a cold winterly period it was, with snow -and ice on the ground for most of the time. The Battalion billeted as under: Beauval ... ... .......January 12th to January 21st. Candas ... .......... January 22nd to January 29th. Bonneville ........ January 20th to February 7th. Whilst at Beauval. the Battalion heard of the death of its first commanding officer, Col. H. Hughes, and an expression of sympathy was wired to those bereaved. A few days before, other sad news had arrived. A promising young officer, 2nd Lieutenant D. R. Hinckley, who had proceeded to the R.F.C. for a course of instruction, was reported " missing " under extraordinary circumstances. " On 13th January (so wrote the officer commanding No. 5 Squadron, R.F.C.) a machine landed in No Man's Land, and it is believed that it was the machine from this squadron on which Lieut. Hinckley was flying. The machine left the aerodrome at 2.30 p.m. on the 13th, with orders to do contact patrol practice over the aerodrome, and although the clouds were 1,500 feet here, the pilot must have got lost in the lower clouds near by, and eventually came down through the clouds, to find himself on the German trenches to the north-east of Hebuterne. " The enemy immediately opened very heavy fire with rifles and machine-guns, and for ten minutes the machine was played upon. The Germans then came into the open and proceeded to carry away objects from the machine. These objects were supposed to be the bodies of the two officers. Our infantry did not open fire on the enemy for fear of killing our pilot and observer, who might only have been wounded. " Nothing more has been heard of the officer. In spite of the very irksome and distasteful calls of discipline and training, the Battallion had a good time in this area. The men usually trained until about 3 p.m. (the hour 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. being devoted to sport), the remainder of the day being free. The local estaminets, with their flowing wines, &c., did a roaring trade. There were joyous nights of revelry, when the soldiers cried:
Ah, my Beloved, fill the cup that clears To-day of past regrets and future Fears To-morrow? Why, To-morrow 1 may be Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years."
The system of training upon which the 1917 offensives were to be based was practically on the same principles as heretofore, except that far greater attention was paid to the organization of platoons. The theory of this organization was that each platoon should consist of a combination of all the weapons with which the infantry were armed. The platoon was recognized as the smallest complete unit in the field, and it was desired that each platoon should possess a section of bombers, a section of Lewis gunners, a section of riflemen, and a section of rifle grenadiers, each section to comprise one N. C. 0. and eight men. Owing to the continual fluctuations in strengths of battalions this was never possible for long periods. Troops were taught to realize the possibilities of their weapons. They began to feel that the rifle and bayonet really were the most efficient offensive weapons of the soldier for assault, for repelling attack, or for obtaining superiority of fire. They began to learn that the bomb was the second weapon of every# man, and that the " howitzer " of the infantry was the rifle bomb. They understood that the Lewis gun was the weapon of opportunity; that its chief uses were to kill the enemy above ground and to obtain superiority of fire; that its mobility and the small target it and its team presented rendered it peculiarly suitable for working round an enemy's flank or for guarding their own flank. The problems of battle were studied minutely by all officers, and the lessons of the Somme offensive and facts given in captured German documents taken to heart. During the winter the transportation section of the British Army was thoroughly overhauled, and, owing to this and forthcoming offensive operations, the Battalion left Bonneville for rail work in conjunction with a Canadian railway company. On February 8th the Battalion marched to Terramesnil, completing the journey to Courcelles-au-Bois the following day. Courcelles was a very different place from what it had been when the Battalion last saw it. The major portion of the village was in ruins, and the civilians had long ago departed to safer regions. It was miserable, dirty, and sludgy, and every day the enemy dropped a few shells into it. If he put gas over, the old church bell tolled out a warning. The advance of the railways, under these splendid Canadian workers, had transformed the whole area, and the countryside was threaded with lines and dotted here and there with huge dumps. Even Colincamps had become a prospective railhead. 92 History of The Sheffield City Battalion. The Battalion, which did little else 'but railway work, received further additions to strength. The undermentioned officers reported for duty, in addition to a draft of sixty other ranks: 2nd Lieuts. J. Buckland, E. N. Taylor, H. Booth, F. Tonge, M. M., G. H. Wood, and N. H. Malkin. Incidentally, one might add that Captain V. S. Simpson, M.C., took over the duties of adjutant to the Battalion, in the middle of the month, owing to Captain T. L. Ward proceeding to a staff course at General Headquarters, and afterwards at 94th Infantry Brigade Headquarters. The air was full of rumours concerning a general retirement of the enemy on this front, and accordingly there was considerable excitement. Whether or not the rumours affected our artillery one cannot say, but it became more and more aggressive. A man of the 31st German Infantry Regiment, in a letter which he had intended to send home, said:
In the beginning, in 1914, 1 had courage, but now I have none. If you were here with me for half an hour 1 would ask you if you had any courage. You have no conception what it is like when these terrible shells are shrieking, and tear away a man's feet here, his hands there. So it goes on, and you must stand by with the expectation of being hit yourself. On the right and left your best friends fall and cry for help, but you can render no help. At the present time our rations are bad and we have very little to eat, no meat and no fatty substances, and nothing to smoke. You cannot buy anything. Under these circumstances one must still keep a good heart. We live here worse than pigs. For seven days 1 have not washed nor taken my boots off. Night and day you remain in your uniform, and the lice devour you. Heaven knows when we shall be clean again. 1 must stop describing my lovely life to you, otherwise, if 1 were to describe all to you, 1 should need many pages. To-day the English are mad. They're sending us comforts in the shape of one shell after another. It is terrible. I hope I shall not be hit. I wish this awful war were over.
The enemy retaliated occasionally on Courcelles, and on February 15th he smashed a billet, killing two men and wounding five others. At 10 a.m. on February 25th we heard that Serre had fallen at last. The Warwicks had gone over at 5 a.m. and the enemy had flown. At 2 p.m. the news came that Miraumont had also been evacuated by the enemy and that he was retiring some distance on a large front. Our cavalry were rumoured to be at Mailly-Maillet. The 31st Division was immediately placed in the line and took over at Hebuterne. The troops peered into the mysteries of Gommecourt Park-"A, hiding-place for the devils of hell," as one man called it. Columns of smoke from distant fires were seen and cars caught the sounds of big explosions. The 12th Battalion left Courcelles at short notice on the morning of March Ist, and on the 2nd went to relieve the 16th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in the line at Hebuterne with considerable enthusiasm, despite the mud. What a " Promised Land " they found as they followed the enemy up! The scenes were indeed terrible, and I doubt whether there has since been any stretch of land so crammed with horror as the stretch of No Man's Land from Gommecourt to below Beaumont Hamel. Numerous skeletons lay there in long rows, with their equipment on just as they had fallen in their waves in the fights of July Ist and after. Dead " Boche " were around, and here and there remnants of bewildered cattle shot in the early days. All spelt
The hideous wonder of a moment-Death; So swift that he who passes nothingsaith, But mutely falls and mute misshapen lies."
The gaunt, spiritless trees of Gommecourt Wood on the left had been silent witnesses of slaughter. The bodies lay in all kinds of positions-some very straight, some doubled up, some with arms folded, some with legs doubled under them, some with legs crossed. Heads were loose, and some had rolled from their trunks. It was strange how we soldiers looked on with a callous, detached air. Probably no one blenched at such a mass of disaster and suffering. In his diary one of the men wrote thus :
I visited the old No Man's Land to-day, and after wards was alarmed at my callousness. 1 found that my mind had noted the fact of rats having fed on the bodies without the slightest feeling of sentiment. 1 found I had noticed that the teeth in the skulls gleamed in the sunshine. I found 1 had noticed that some of the skulls still had patches of hair, red hair and black hair, adhering to them. So matter of fact! 1 had remarked how the trousers and boots looked as if packed with sawdust, and how one man's crumbling thigh-bone resembled the brown, musty edges of a century-old volume. Such is the effect of war.
There were men of many regiments there, including the York and Lancaster Regiment, Suffolk Regiment, L.R.B., Queen Victoria Rifles, City of London Rifles, London Rifles, West Yorkshire Regiment, and East Yorkshire Regiment. In exploring Gommecourt Wood the troops had to be very careful owing to enemy ruses, some of which were typical of his nature. The following were some of the traps he set: (a) A shovel stuck into the side of a dug-out between the timbers; when the shovel was removed it pulled a wire which exploded a mine. (b) A French stove with stove-pipe dismantled; one wire attached to leg of stove and the other to stove-pipe near by. When the stove-pipe was picked up a mine was fired. (c) A charge of 2,0001b. perdite in a seemingly dead-end of the gallery of a dug-out and connected to ordinary telephone wires. Face of the gallery made to look like undisturbed ground with pick marks on it. (d) A window weight suspended by flue cord stretched across the entrance of a dug-out. On a man entering the cord was broken and the weight fell into a box of detonators connected to a charge of explosives. (e) Cap badges, artificial flowers, bits of evergreen, pieces of shell, and other articles likely to be picked up as " souvenirs " left in dug-outs and attached to charges. (f) Hand-rails on the steps of dug-outs attached by wires to a charge. (g) One of the timbers on the side of the staircase of a dug-out was noticed to be projecting slightly inwards at the top, though it was in place at the bottom. A nail had been driven through its lower end, the point of which was placed against the cap of the cartridge, which had a charge of explosive behind it. Thus, when driven home, the nail would strike the cap and explode the charge. (h) In dug-outs constructed with casing, mortise and tenon jointed, the position of the charge was sometimes indicated by the wedging of the timber where the sides had been cut and removed. (i) A dozen stick grenades to be fired by means of a wire attached to a sandbag which had to be moved before the door of the dug-out could be opened. (j) Charge in a chimney, with length of fuse attached, which ignited if a fire were lighted. (k) Detonators in lumps of coal. (i) Book on table, with wire down leg of table. Charge fired if book were lifted. (m) A blown-in entrance to a dug-out was not always a safety sign. Charges were probably concealed in the unblown portions. They were generally crudely arranged contact charges. (n) A branch placed over the entrance of a dug-out as if to conceal it; on moving the branch an explosion occurred two minutes later, the dug-out being completely destroyed. In trenches the enemy left hand grenades which immediately exploded when kicked or trodden on. He placed new trench boards on fire steps with grenades underneath. They exploded as soon as the boards were trodden on. Barricades were interlaced with wires attached to stick grenades. The way to Puisieux, which the Battalion reached on March 9th on taking over front-line duties in front of Bucquoy, was a nightmare of mud. It was a quagmire of clinging filth, in which soldiers frequently saw dead horses and mules gradually swallowed up. How the enemy had existed and held the line during the winter in such terrible country no one can imagine, even taking into consideration his fine system of dug-outs. All the roads had been destroyed and the light railway lines bent up like scrap iron by our shells; in fact, as far as eye could see there did not appear to be a single square yard of land untouched. The earth spoke of misery and iron. In some of the craters whole houses could have been concealed. La Louvi6re Farm consisted of an artillery dug-out and two tottering walls; Box Wood a few stumps of stark poles. The whole area must have been an inferno. And now through it all rations and ammunition, shells and guns were being brought up nearer the Germans. All night long and all day long frail men and animals were accomplishing miracles. Each minute, in spite of water that reached to the thighs or mud to the knees, the work went on. Through the murky night came the flashes of guns, the lurid glare of explosions, the sickly whiteness of the starshells. Ammunition limbers overturned on the lips of shellholes and mules fell in confusion. What anxiety! Working parties of men struggled in the darkness to get the teams going again-or, shooting the mules and leaving the limbers, proceeded to more urgent tasks. It was on the 9th March that R.S.M. Charles Polden gained his M.C. for conspicuous gallantry and personal example under heavy shell fire. He had proceeded in advance of the Battalion to Puisieux during the relief, and, while waiting for the Battalion to arrive, the spot where he was came under heavy fire. Several men of other units and some horses were killed or wounded, and there was some little confusion. Sgt-Major Polden immediately went to help the wounded men and turned out others to assist, shouting out, " If everyone was to take cover for a few shells, the war would soon be over. " It was not the first time the sergeant-major had set a fine example to the men under shell fire. The same day there was a disconcerting incident. The enemy had sent out a patrol and routed one of our posts held by a Barnsley garrison. The enemy lay in wait and ambushed our relieving garrison. There was a stiff tussle, in which the enemy succeeded in gaining his object (i.e., identifications). We had four men "missing, believed killed," and five men wounded. Puisieux was formerly a large village of some thirteen hundred inhabitants, and formed part of the Germans' main second line of defence till they retired. There were many trenches and many fortified cellars. The village had not been levelled to the ground, but looked as if an earthquake had given it two or three severe shakings. It possessed an unusually large number of trees. Battalion Headquarters were in German dug-outs in a disused quarry behind the first house on the north-east side of the road on entering the village from Hebuterne. This particular 'area was honeycombed with a series of extensive quarries. Numerous galleries connected one with another and penetrated for considerable distances. Both the inhabitants and the enemy made great use of them to escape the effects of our fire. The Battalion remained in the line until the night of March 12th, the work consisting chiefly of sending out strong fighting patrols to find out the further intentions of the enemy. The exchanges with the German rearguards were very lively. Withdrawing from Puisieux to the White City trenches near to Serre on the night of March 12th, 1917, the Battalion did not go into action again until May Ist, when the 31st Division relieved the 63rd (R.N.) Division in the battle of Arras. In the interim the division was in G.H.Q. and Army Reserve, in varying areas, and battalions were strictly trained in musketry and open-warfare tactics. On March 13th the battalion moved back to Bus-les-Artois, and for five days was under " stand-to " orders, in view of a probable operation against the enemy at Puisieux and Miraumont. It was not called upon, however, and on the 19th of March a six days march from the Somme area to the First Army area was commenced. The Battalion billeted in the places named below:
March 19-Beauval 11 miles. ' 20-Grand Bouret 11 1/4 " 21-Valhoun 14 1/4 " 22-Aumerval 6 " 24-Ecquedecques 5 1/2 " 25-Merville 11 Total... 59
The bright change and general hospitality of the people on the line of march was thoroughly enjoyed, but there were many men who suffered untold agony with bad feet, owing to recent hardships in the Somme mudfields. At this time ,the Merville area was delightful. It had scarcely been touched by the blast of war, and Merville itself, so anxious to cater for the troops, was distinctly homely. Often since have the men referred to the glorious times spent in Merville. Unfortunately, in April, 1918, the town was razed to the ground whilst the Germans were advancing from the Lys. A few 12th Battalion men (then serving with the 13th Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment) tell thrilling stories of the dash through the blazing and half-ruined town in one of the last lorry convoys to escape from the enemy; houses and shells crashing amid a frantic, confused populace and an alarmed soldiery. Reverting to 1917, Battalion Headquarters were stationed at " Les Lauriers "-a fine white chateau and farm on the Merville-Hazebrouck road and on the fringe of Bois Moyen. It was an interesting home, in that the residents claimed to be descendants from the family of Joan of Are, and also maintained their own priest and private chapel. From March 25th to April 8th the Battalion stayed in this district, the training being very keen. A draft of over 100 men arrived. It was obvious to everyone that severe fighting lay ahead and that open warfare was expected. As in January and February, the troops were specially trained in musketry and open-warfare fighting, companies, platoons, and sections being made to realize their values as selfcontained units.
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Last modified on: Saturday, 26 January 2002