1915. TRENCH WARFARE IN FLANDERS AND NORTHERN FRANCE.
Based on extracts from the Regimental Chronicles of The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Vol 24 1914-1915
NARRATIVE So far the fighting had not become restricted to siege or trench warfare. The defenders had, of course, entrenched themselves deeply and heavily, but they left their trenches and advanced in the open whenever opportunity offered for a bold stroke, and such encounters as that with the Prussian Guard at Nonne Bosschen were after the manner of the old-fashioned open warfare. These methods, however, soon came to an end, and, except for rare occasions, operations settled down to the new order of things, with opposing lines of trenches, assaults on which were preceded by heavy bombardments.
The Germans, finding that their plans for smashing through the Allied line had hopelessly broken down, dug themselves in on their advanced positions, doubtless with the intention of renewing their attempt when the winter should have passed. In this way there grew up on both sides a marvellous system of trenches, replete with every modern contrivance; and these trenches, facing each other at varying distances apart, became from time to time objectives of fierce attack. But the wet and cold of winter prevented for some weeks any movements on a large scale; the trenches themselves were often knee-deep in water, the country around was water-logged and impassable, and both Germans and Allies suffered severely from the resultant sickness.
During the opening weeks of the year no operations of any importance took place, and all that the Regiment did was to take its turn in the trenches in different parts—mostly on the extreme right of the British portion of the line. On the 25th January the Germans commenced to shell Bethune, and then pressed forward with some success against the La Bassee position and the village of Givenchy. Severe fighting lasted for several days, but in the end the 1st Division recovered practically all the lost ground.
Early in February the British line extended from Vermelles (south-east of Bethune) to Gheluvelt (southeast of Ypres), the troops being disposed approximately as follows :-- Ist ARMY (HA1G). Ist Army Corps : Vermelles to Givenchy. Indian Army Corps : Givenchy to Neuve Chapelle. IVth Army Corps . Neuve Chapelle to Bois Grenier.
2ND ARMY (SMITH-DORRIEN). IIIrd Army Corps : Bois Grenier to Messines. IInd Army Corps : Messines to Wytschaete. Vth Army Corps : St. Eloi to Gheluvelt.
Desultory fighting took place throughout the month, but with little result, and on the 10th March the British Commander-in-Chief launched the great spring offensive, for which he decided the time was now ripe. This has become known as the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, during which the 52nd was occupied in holding trenches elsewhere, and did not take part in the actual attack. Nor did the Regiment see further fighting until the middle of May, the interval being spent in the dull but necessary duty of holding different portions of the trench line, with periods of rest between each tour of duty. As the diaries which follow show, the trenches were wet and uncomfortable; much labour was required to keep them in repair; they were shelled frequently, and "sniped" constantly; and casualties, though not numerous, occurred almost daily.
COMMANDING OFFICERS (Lieut.-Colonel H. K. Davies's) Diary
January 1st, 1915 —Trenches near Richebourg L'Avoue.) In the morning I moved from Brigade Headquarters to Regimental Headquarters in a little farmhouse (S.8.d.7.2.Map 1/40,000 Bethune Sheet)—not at all uncomfortable compared with the places usually occupied by headquarters near Ypres. The Brigade front is now divided into two sectors, the Regiment taking the right sector, with two companies in the trenches, one company in support in billets in the Rue du Bois, and one in reserve their headquarters.
Some of the trenches are very wet—about knee-deep in water — and fresh trenches had to be dug in front; but digging is practically useless, as everything fills with water at once. It is, therefore, impossible to keep good communication trenches open to the front line, and I have to wait until it is getting dark in the evening to go my rounds.
Information reached us that the following have been awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals :-- 7380 Sergeant H. Edwards. 8545 Sergeant G. Ashby. 4654 Private A. Tyrell.
January 2nd-4th.—We remained in the trenches during these days, companies relieving each other. No shelling on our part of the line, but one man was wounded, on the 4th, by rifle fire from the enemy's trenches, the average distance of which from our trenches is 300 to 400 yards.
January 5th.—(To Richebourg St. Vaast.) We dug a bit of new front-line trench this evening, and got through it without hindrance. At night we were relieved by the Glasgow Highlanders (9th H.L.I.), a Territorial Battalion, and we went into Brigade Reserve in billets in Richebourg St. Vaast, with Regimental Headquarters in the Mairie.
January 6th.-- (Richebourg St. Vaast.) Brigade Reserve.
January 7th.--Richebourg St. Vaast.
January 8th.—The Brigade moved into Corps Reserve about Locon. A reinforcement of 1 sergeant and 19 men arrived today.
January 9th.—(In Corps Reserve at Locon.) Men had baths.
January 10th.—The Bishop of Khartoum held a service in our farmyard at 11.15 a.m. Prevented from going out in the afternoon, as we had to stand by, ready to move at half an hour's notice, because the 1st Division were retaking a lost trench preceded by an artillery bombardment, which it was thought might bring on a general action. January 13th.—(Locon.)
January 14th-20th.—(In trenches near Festubert.) On the evening of the 14th we relieved the Meerut Cavalry Brigade (dismounted) in trenches in the southern part of Festubert, at the village of Le Plantin. The original trenches here had had to be abandoned, as they were full of water. The line now held was a line of breastworks, close in front of the village of Le Plantin (A. 8. a. 6. 8. to A. 1. b. 3. 8.), several hundred yards behind the original line.
Two companies were in front line; headquarters and two companies billeted in empty houses behind (F. 6. a. and c.). Even the front-line companies were chiefly in houses, and during the daytime a few sentries were able to watch the whole front, while the remaining men worked or rested. At night we manned the breastworks. The enemy's trenches were nearly half a mile away, and the intervening country was a swamp ; consequently we had a very quiet time, with very little sniping, and though the Germans fired a few shells at times, our artillery shelled them a great deal more.
During the six days we occupied these trenches the Regiment lost only 1 man killed and 2 men wounded.
The Regiment occupied the right sector of the Brigade front, having the Worcestershire on our left and the South Wales Borderers (3rd Brigade) on our right. The weather during this period was not very cold, but was excessively damp, as the surrounding country was nothing more than a swamp. Snow fell on the 18th, and lay two or three inches deep until the 20th, when it disappeared.
On the evening of the 20th we were relieved by the Glasgow Highlanders, and went into billets at Essars, as part of the Brigade Reserve.
January 25th.—(Essars.) About 7.30 a.m. we heard a heavy bombardment going on. which turned out to be the Germans attacking the 1st and 3rd Brigade at Cuinchy and Givenchy respectively. We were called out, as reserve, and left at 11.5 a.m. for the 3rd Brigade Headquarters, on the canal bank in the wood south of Marais (F.10. b.). We stayed there all day (very cold and raw), but were not wanted, as the 3rd Brigade were able to hold their own well, and recaptured their trenches which had been taken. Besides ourselves there were the Highland Light Infantry, two battalions of the Coldstream, and the North Lancashire Regiment, all ready to be used if required—a very different state of things to what used to happen at Ypres, where reserves only consisted of some tired regiment taken out of another part of the line. At 7.30 p.m. we marched back to billets at Essars. Brett (rejoining from being wounded) arrived with the eleventh reinforcement of 153 men.
January 26th.--The 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers joined the 5th Brigade.
January 27th and 28th.—Still in Divisional Reserve at Essars held ready to move at 15 minutes' notice.
January 29th to February 6th.—(Trenches near Festubert.) On the 29th we relieved the Glasgow Highlanders in our old trenches, where we remained until the 6th February. Things pretty quiet. Occasional shells on the front line and a little sniping, our casualties for the 8 days amounting to 2 killed and 8 wounded.
We were at work every night making a new line of breastworks in front of our present line, and near the original line of trenches, which had been abandoned on account of the water. The weather was pretty good, with little rain and not very cold.
On the evening of the 6th we were relieved by the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and returned to our billets in Essars.
February 7th-13th.—(In Brigade Reserve at Essars.) Route-marching, drills, road-mending, etc. Nearly the whole Regiment got baths and a change of clothing at the Divisional bathing place in Bethune, where also a large laundry has been established, and many women are employed in washing clothes, as well as in cleaning and ironing uniforms.
February 14th-22nd.—(In trenches near Festubert.) Back again in the same trenches, relieving the Inniskillings on the 14th, and being relieved by them on the 22nd. A very quiet period, the casualties being 2 men killed and 3 wounded—all by chance bullets. Weather not very cold, and fairly fine.Work continued every night, principally in improving small redoubts in the breastwork line, and constructing larger and self-contained redoubts in the second line, on the outskirts of the village of Le Plantin, the breastwork line being 400 to 600 yards in front of the village.
February 2lst.—2nd Lieut. J. L. Johnston and the twelfth reinforcement (1 sergeant and 29 others) joined the Regiment.
February 22nd.—(Trenches near Festubert to Les Choquaux.) Information received that Brevet-Colonel H. R. Davies has been selected for the command of the 3rd Infantry Brigade.
In the evening the Regiment was relieved by the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and marched into Divisional Reserve at Les Choquaux. about one mile from Essars.
February 23rd.—Colonel H. R. Davies left the Regiment to take over the command of the 3rd Infantry Brigade. The following appeared in Regimental Orders :--
"Colonel H. R. Davies, on giving up the command, wishes to again thank all ranks for the splendid manner in which they have maintained the good name of the Regiment during this war. He is quite confident that they will continue to fight with the same courage and coolness that they have already shown, and to remember always the great traditions of the 52nd and of the Light Division, which it is the duty of all of us to keep up."
Major A. J. F. Eden assumed command of the Regiment.
February 22nd-24th.—(At Les Choquaux.) Drills carried out daily.
February 25th.—(Les Choquaux to Bethune.) In the afternoon the Regiment moved into Bethune, where the men are billeted in the " Ecole de Jeunes Filles," a fine, commodious building, forming three sides of a square, and the officers are billeted in private houses near at hand. The mess is in the school dining-hall, and there is an excellent kitchen, so altogether we are living in luxury.
February 26th and 27th.—(Bethune.) The 5th Brigade had a capital concert on the 27th in the Municipal Theatre, which is close to our school billets, and a very capacious building. We used it daily for various purposes, and for Parade Service on Sunday.
February 28th.—(To Beuvry.) In the afternoon the Regiment marched to Beuvry, in relief of the 1st Irish Guards (4th Guards Brigade). Very fair billets. Weather fine, though it has been unpleasantly cold lately.
March lst-3rd.—(Beuvry, in Brigade Reserve.) On the 2nd the whole Regiment had baths in Bethune, all the blankets being washed at the same time. The 13th reinforcement of 15 men arrived.
March 4th-8th.—(Trenches at Cuinchy.) On the afternoon of the 4th the Regiment relieved the Inniskilling Fusiliers in the trenches at Cuinchy, and remained there until the 8th. The 4th (Guards) Brigade had done wonders with this area during their stay here last month, and everything was well planned and excellent. Here, for the first time, we came across the system of naming all the trenches after well-known roads and streets. Thus, our main routes in and out were the Old Kent Road and Coldstream Lane, while other important highways were Oxford Street, Praed Street, Regent Street, etc. The road through Cambrin Village (running north and south) was called Harley Street, and No. 1 Harley Strest was the most advanced Dressing Station in the area (though, of course, the Regimental Aid-posts were still farther forward).
The Germans were very vigilant; a great deal of sniping took place at dusk and dawn; and not a few casualties occurred amongst the sentries, who had to watch over the top at night. We lost altogether during this period 1 man killed and 8 men wounded, and we had the bad luck to have two of our machine-guns placed hors de combat by enemy fire, as they dropped "whizbangs" into us in the daytime.
Our right flank joined the left of the French on the La Bassee road, and the Inniskillings were on our left. All four companies were in the trenches, two in the fire-line, and two in support, very close up; while Regimental Headquarters were in the cellars of a most prominent house, officially known as Kingsclere, but called by us the Dovecote, on account of its pigeon-loft, which was still there.
The weather was distinctly bad, and on one of the days it rained without ceasing, which made the trenches very muddy and sticky.
March 9th-11th.—(Beuvry.) Very glad to be back to our comfortable billets again. These intervals of so-called rest are not altogether a holiday, as, besides drill, route marches, etc., there is much business to be attended to. The first day "back" is always spent by companies in cleaning both themselves and their equipment, and in a regular overhaul of everything at kit inspections. Headquarters are fully occupied in the Orderly Room in working off arrears of correspondence, writing up the War Diary etc.
March 13th-15th.—(In Trenches at Cuinchy.) On the first night frequent bursts of fire, by order, were made. On all days the enemy shelled us at odd hours, but never severely. Sniping brisk at night. By day many periscopes were destroyed by enemy's snipers, who are, undoubtedly, very good shots.
Enemy's trenches 200 to 100 yards distant opposite our right, but only 120 to 60 yards opposite the left. Enemy very vigilant, though possibly not in great strength.
March 16th.—From Cuinchy Trenches to Beuvry (Brigade Reserve) on relief, in the afternoon, by the 2nd R. Inniskilling Fusiliers.
March 17th-20th.—(Beuvry.) This turned out to be a very peaceful rest, and we were able to get on with some training. I do not think that I have mentioned how we get our rations up when we are in the trenches. The transport remains in Beuvry, and each morning the Quartermaster takes his little convoy to the refilling point in the Marche des Chevaux in Bethune, thence going straight through to Harley Street, where companies take over their rations and fuel. In this part of the line water is fairly easily obtained in the trench area.
March 20th.—We relieved the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in Cuinchy trenches today, but at night we received orders that the Brigade will be relieved tomorrow, so we shall come out again.
March 21st.—We were relieved by the 1st K.R.R.C. (6th Brigade), and marched back to our billets in Beuvry for the night. One of our men was wounded today.
March 22nd.—Moved across to our old breastwork line near Festubert, in relief of the 2nd K.R.R.C. (2nd Brigade), and found the line much improved, principally owing to the recent dry weather.
The Regiment, as before, is in sub-section C 1-Festubert-Le Plantin.
Two companies in breastworks, one company in support of the village, and one in reserve near Regimental Headquarters.
March 23rd.—(Trenches near Festubert.)
March 24th.— Less shelling today.
March 25th.—Wet day. Still impossible to dig deeper than 6 inches without encountering water. Working parties busy every night lengthening and completing new arms of breastworks
March 26th-27th.—Some shelling on the right of the breastworks. Two platoons of A Company of the 17th London Regiment (T.F.) were attached to the Regiment for 24 hours' instruction in trench duties on these days.
March 28th — The Regiment was relieved by the Inniskillings, and went into billets at Gorre.
April 1st-4th.—(Gorre.) In Brigade Reserve. Companies employed in route marching, musketry training, bomb-throwing, negotiating obstacles across country, etc.
On the 1st April the 15th reinforcement (26 men) and on the 4th the 16th reinforcement (30 men) arrived.
This period in the trenches (5th-13th April) was very quiet. On two whole days there was no shelling whatever by the enemy. Some successful sniping on our part.
The new line of trenches towards Section B 3 was completed by hurdle work.
From the 8th to 10th April three companies of the 19th London Regiment(T.F.) shared duties with us in the breastworks; small parties of officers and N.C.O.'s came at first, than whole companies, and on the 11th-12th a complete company of theirs relieved one of ours in breastworks, our relieving company going into Reserve near Regimental Headquarters.
On the 7th April the 17th reinforcement (30 men), under Captain H. M. Dillon, arrived.
Casualties :-- 6th April, 2 killed, 1 wounded. 8th April, 1 wounded. 10th April, 2 wounded. 12th April, 2 wounded.
April 13th.--From trenches near Festubert into Divisional Reserve, at Les Choquaux and Essars, on relief, in the evening, by the 2nd R. Inniskilling Fusiliers.
April 14th-22nd.—(Les Choquaux and Essars, in billets.) Route marching, drills, and musketry carried out daily.
April 21st.--The 18th reinforcement (3 sergeants and 57 men) arrived.
April 23rd.—During this rest period a most successful inter-platoon football tournament was played off. The Headquarters' Company produced two teams, so that 18 in all entered. We were fortunate in having three grounds going at one time, but they were needed, for there were some extremely closely contested games—in fact, one match was played three times before a result could be obtained. The final today was between No. 12 Platoon and No. 3, and the former won from the only goal scored—obtained by a good rush in the first two minutes. We have a good many officers now, and nearly every team had a subaltern playing for it.
In the afternoon we relieved the 17th Battalion London Regiment (T.F.) in the trenches near Festubert.
April 24th.—We had a quiet twenty-four hours, without casualties, and were relieved by the 19th Londons, when we proceeded to billets in the Rue d'Aire quarter of Bethune—a very poor billeting area.
April 25th-30th.—(In billets in Bethune.) The whole Brigade now here in reserve. Rumours of a coming spring offensive began to circulate, and it soon became evident that we were undergoing the special, fattening-up process preparatory to such. Company training was in full swing, and suitable ground, though limited in area, was available between the town and Beuvry, so much good work was put in. At night we furnished occasional working parties. Delightful warm weather now.
On the 27th the 19th reinforcement (2 sergeants and 43 men) arrived, and on the 30th the Regiment gave a capital concert in the Theatre.
Major Eden's Diary continued. May lst.—(Bethune.) Took the Regiment out to some specially prepared trenches about six miles away, to practise getting out of and attacking from them. On the way back General Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the 1st Army, met us. He was pleased to say that the Regiment looked splendid, and called to mind how well they had fought in the woods near Ypres last November.
May 3rd.—We changed our billets today, the whole Regiment being now accommodated in the Tobacco Factory, which is an improvement on the Rue d'Aire area.
May 4th.-(Bethune.) Took the Regiment out for a "peacetime" field-day near the Bois des Dames, and worked in combination with Cotton's 18-pr. battery in practising some of the lessons taught by the recent fighting at Neuve Chapelle. Weather now very close, with some rain.