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:
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
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
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
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
" 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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.