BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND THE FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
Shortly before the Battalion moved from Ploegsteert Major-General Heath was compelled by ill-health to vacate the Command of the 48th Division, and Major-General R. Fanshawe, C.B., D.S.O. (52nd Light Infantry) was appointed to succeed him.
There followed a series of three night marches, via Vieux-Berquin, Merville, Busnettes, to Allouagne, which lies five miles west of Bethune
The billets at Allouagne were the best the battalion had seen, and a happy fortnight was spent here. Training was strenuous and carried out mostly in a neighbouring wood, called the Bois de Maraquet.
On the 12th July, the Battalion was moved in to bivouacs close to Noeux-les-Mines, every man available during the two succeeding days being put on to digging a new rear line. It was thought that the Division was to take over new trenches in this area but on July 16 the battalion suddenly got orders to move, and marched the whole of that night, in a deluge of rain, to billets in Lieres, passing within a stone’s throw of Allouagne.
On the 18th the battalion were put into a train at Berguette, which slowly proceeded to Doullens. A two hours’ march from there took the battalion to some woods at Marieux, where it arrived at 4 a.m. to bivouac.
On July 20, the 48th Division started to relieve the French in the line in front of the village of Hebuterne, the Bucks Battalion being in reserve, with two companies at Sailly-au-Bois and two companies at Bayencourt. Both these villages were then a mass of flies, owing to the general filth everywhere, and, as the weather was extremely hot, life in these billets was none too pleasant.
The trenches, which the Battalion took over on July 24, lay some 100 to 300 yards east of Hebuterne and were at this time good and quiet. Unlike the front line at Ploegsteert, where the trenches consisted of sandbagged barricades, these trenches were dug down about 6 feet deep all along.
The enemy’s trenches were from 300 to 1,000 yards distant, instead of being within 100 to 200 yards as at Ploegsteert. For about a fortnight the Division was supported by French guns, with apparently no shortage of ammunition. They were always able to send back three times as many shells as the enemy had given to our front trenches, and they were much missed by the Infantry when they were relieved by our own artillery, still bound to economy in the matter of ammunition.
The dugouts had the outward appearance of real luxury, owing to a large portion of the furniture of Hebuterne having been imported into them. Four-poster beds existed in quite a number, but owing to the quantities of small vermin and mice which had made their homes in them, they proved to be most undesirable, and were almost all scrapped before the battalion had been a week in the line.
Brigade and Battalion headquarters were both in the village, and for some time occupied quarters above ground, though they were compelled eventually, when the shelling of the village became more frequent, to take to cellars and dugouts.
Company cookers were housed in the village, and from them all food was carried up to the front line through communication trenches.
The Battalion in Brigade reserve occupied billets above ground in Hebuterne, and of this one company was detailed as garrison of a large portion of the village defences, in case of attack. This company had considerably the best of the billets, living in what was known as the “keep,”a really charming spot amongst orchards and trees.
When the battalion first arrived at Hebuterne the sector was fairly quiet, there being a tacit agreement, with the Germans opposite, that provided they would leave Hebuterne quiet, we would not entirely destroy Gommecourt, and again, if they decided to leave Sailly alone, we in our turn would keep our hands off Bucquoy and Puisieux. What actually occurred was a gradual warming up of artillery fire on the villages by both sides, and it became just as gradually evident that life above ground was not only unwise, but exceedingly foolish, with the result that, after several months’ work, dugouts had been constructed for the entire garrison of Hebuterne.
During the first six weeks, reliefs of this sector of the front line, by the 5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and the battalion, took place every eight days.
Throughout the six months during which the Battalion held K sector, patrolling was most active; this was very necessary to prevent the enemy establishing control of the extensive “No Man’s Lands’ which lay between us. With the exception of a Z-shaped hedge, known as the Z hedge, which lay out in front of the left company, “No Man’s Land” was very featureless. This hedge, however, provided no end of excitement, for it was most difficult at night for either side to locate and dislodge a party which had got out first and taken up a position in it. But the enemy were seldom, if ever, permitted to do this owing to the battalions constant patrolling, and after some months they gave up all except periodical visits.
About September, the 5th Gloucesters took over the trenches on the right, and from then onwards to December were relieved by the 6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment (144th Infantry Brigade) every eight days.
Each Battalion on relief went back some four miles to the village of Couin.
On the way back to these billets from the trenches during the evening of January 27, 1916, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel C. P. Doig, D.S.O., sustained severe injuries through a fall from his horse, and Major L. C. Hawkins assumed command.
In January the Command of the 145 Brigade was taken over by Brigadier-General H. R. Done.
Towards the middle of the month the Battalion had to bid good-bye to K sector. It had done so much work on it in the way of defence and comfort that the order came as a bitter blow, the more so as the trenches they were to take over were in the last state of decay and were rapidly falling in everywhere. They lay more to the S.E. of Hebuterne, in very much lower ground than K sector.
They were warned that a bad state of affairs existed in this, G sector, and were told that the Battalion had been singled out for bettering it. The result was that every man was out to do his utmost with the spade and show some substantial improvement, and it was not long before a very marked change had been effected, and life was made a little more possible. Efforts to keep open the communication trenches Jena, Jean-Bart and Vercingetorix were positively heart-rending, and the results achieved, even in good weather, were in no way proportionate to the amount of work put on to them.
In addition, the enemy artillery became daily more active, and their shooting, which was most exceptionally good, accounted for quite a number of casualties.
During the period that the Battalion held G sector, the enemy undertook several raids, though on no occasion did he succeed in entering the Battalion’s trenches. All these raids were preceded by extremely heavy bombardments, usually of about an hour’s duration.
In all these bombardments our trenches invariably suffered considerably, the more so when Minenwerfers were employed in large numbers, as these shells made the most gigantic craters, which completely obliterated all traces of dugouts and trench.
At the beginning of April 1916 the Battalion was relieved in G sector, and took over trenches between G and K sectors. These were better but by no means good.
Fighting patrols, with the coming of better weather, were now sent out more frequently, and brisk fighting in “No Man’s Land " resulted.
In May 1916, the Battalion was withdrawn from the front area, and sent back to rest at Beauval, where a fortnight was spent before moving to Agenvillers for a week. The most strenuous training was undertaken at these two places, and all manner of attacks practised, with a view to the coming British offensive.
During the march from Beauval to Agenvillers on June 2, the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel L. C. Hawkins, was unfortunate enough to meet with a similar accident to that which befell Lieutenant-Colonel Doig, being thrown from his horse and seriously damaging his shoulder. Major L. L. C. Reynolds then assumed command, Captain A. B. Lloyd-Baker being appointed second in command.
On June 9, the battalion moved back to the line, and held the Hebuterne trenches during the preparations for the coming big offensive. But for these operations it had been decreed that the 48th Division was to be in VII. Corps reserve, with the result that zero day (July 1, 1916) found the battalion no nearer to the line than Couin Woods.
The casualties for this period were: OFFICERS Killed: 2 Wounded: 3
OTHER RANKS Killed: 15. Wounded: 156. Missing: 1.
The First Buckinghamshire Battalion 1914-1919
P. L, Wright. Hazell Watson & Viney. 1920