BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND THE FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
A week was spent at Bus, before taking over trenches in front of Beaumont-Hamel. The Battalion held these trenches for four days, without any incident worthy of mention. The line here had not moved forward during the Somme fighting, as the attack on July 1 had failed in that sector, and no subsequent one had been delivered.
To the battalions delight, after spending a night or two in Mailly-Maillet and a day in the Bois de Warnimont, we were moved back to Beauval on September 11.
It was not the first time the battalion had been in Beauval, and the Battalion was becoming increasingly popular in that part of the town in which our billets lay. As a billeting area, it was an ideally proportioned place, holding without much difficulty an entire Brigade of Infantry. There were good billets, good mess-rooms and a few shops, and the town lay within easy reach of Doullens, where the shops were good. But the training facilities were bad, as the land was a mass of crops, which we had strict orders not to damage.
During the week spent there, in addition to considerable drafts of men, the battalion received a reinforcement of no less than thirteen officers of the Essex Regiment.
After the week at Beauval, on September 19 the Battalion moved to Berneuil, some nine miles distant, where the training area was decidedly better, though the billets were not so good. Intensive training was the order of the day, to such an extent indeed that many were only too glad to be inoculated and get forty-eight hours off duty.
On September 30 a twenty-mile march took the battalion to Coullemont, and, after another move two days later to St. Amand, it found its self once again in the Hebuterne trenches on October 5. They had changed but little, though to the Bucks disappointment all the old familiar names of trenches in the K sector had been scrapped and new ones, all starting with the letter Y, substituted.
Rumour was rife that an attack was to be made on Gommecourt. Orders for the attack soon made their appearance, and on October 7 the Bucks were taken out of the line and sent back to Souastre, about three miles behind, for a final “fatten up.” The road on which the battalion marched was one endless stream of horse and motor transport, moving up with every imaginable article on board. But, after all this material had been brought up, and everything appeared to be in readiness, the attack was postponed, and the battalion were sent still farther back to the village of Warlencourt. Here practice attacks of all kinds were exercised until about the middle of the month, when the Gommecourt attack was definitely given up and all orders cancelled.
The battalion spent the remainder of October in Warluzel, Talmas and La Houssoye.
The Bucks were back in the line at the beginning of November around Martinpuich and Le Sars, which proved, anything but pleasant; for a sector which was not taking part in active operations, it was the most miserable one the Battalion ever occupied.
From all sides, the line was under the complete observation by the enemy—from Loupart Wood, Irles, the Butte de Warlencourt and other places, and this observation extended several miles behind the line. The trenches themselves were full of water and falling in; the ground all round them was pitted with shell-holes, which also had filled with water, whilst every track was deep in glutinous mud. Movement in the dark was a nightmare, for it was impossible to struggle twenty yards without falling into a shell-hole, getting soaked through and plastered with mud. Ration-carrying parties, which had to manhandle the rations for almost a mile over this kind of ground, had the most bitter experiences; there were no landmarks, and men frequently lost themselves for a whole night. To add to our difficulties, the enemy shelling, particularly at night, was extremely heavy. His opportunities for observation by day enabled him to mark down all the tracks which our reliefs and carrying parties were in the habit of using by night, and to shell them accordingly. He succeeded in making Le Sars quite uninhabitable, by shelling it for the greater part of the day and night, so that, as the place was of no tactical importance (the line running some half-mile in front), it was left alone. Destremont Farm, or rather the remains of it, which lay behind Le Sars, received the same attention; but it contained two large cellars which no shells could touch, and in these we quartered two platoons by day. This was the only semblance of accommodation in the sector, and even Battalion Headquarters had to be content with eight steps of a shaft of an incomplete mined dugout, started by the Germans and consequently facing the wrong way.
Reliefs varied, but on average the Battalion were in the habit of doing three days in the front trenches, three days in support trenches and three days “at rest.” Rest, so called, but which one never found. The camps lay round Contalmaison, and most unpleasant they were. The enemy knew their location exactly, and shot at them with unerring precision, usually having his greatest “hate” between midnight and 2 a.m. A camp of huts known as Acid Drop Camp used to catch the worst of the shelllng, and two huts received direct hits at night whilst the Bucks were in occupation. In the other camps they were under canvas, chilled to the marrow in cold November nights.
During the periods spent “at rest,” working parties were practically continuous as many as 200 men had often to be found by day and the same number by night. Casualties were abnormally heavy, considering the fact that no active operations were undertaken, but the Battalion dealt most successfully with the trench-foot problem, having only one case up to the end of December.
On December 28 the Battalion moved about six miles west to the village of Bresle, where the Brigade was inspected on January 6, 1917, by Lieutenant-General Pulteney, commanding the IIIrd Corps.
A further move to Heilly took place on January 9, where the battalion entrained at 8.80 a.m. for Oisemont, arriving there at 12 noon. Here the Bucks were billeted in two small country villages, half a mile apart, A and B Companies being in Forceville, and Battalion Headquarters, C and D Companies, and the transport in Neuville. For three weeks most valuable training was carried out, and sports and games greatly encouraged. The weather was good during the whole of this time, though a certain amount of snow fell.
On January 29 the Battalion entrained at Oisemont, preparatory to taking over a new area from the French south of the Somme. The detrainment was carried out at Cerisy, after nearly twelve hours’ travelling in icy cold trucks. After spending three days at Hamel, it marched on February 2 to Cappy, taking over what was known as Camp 56, on the Cappy-Eclusier road, from a reserve battalion of the French. The few days here were occupied in reconnoitring the new forward area, and endeavouring to extract a little heat from the French stoves which had been left in the huts.
So long as the frost lasted the trenches in this area were excellent, probably the best yet seen, but with the thaw, which made its appearance towards the end of February, their condition became very bad. The greatest possible precautions had once more to be taken to prevent“trench-foot.” The Bucks had only one further case of trench-foot during the remainder of the winter, whereas many battalions suffered severely from this disease.
The trenches held by the Division crossed the river Somme and faced Peronne, half of the little village of Biaches being just included in the line. The sector was a quiet one, and the only missile used by the enemy which caused any great inconvenience was known as a “blue pigeon.” It was a particularly effective form of mortar, which made a sort of shrill whistle as it proceeded through the air and caused us a considerable number of casualties.
Duration of tours in the trenches here were irregular, and the varying portions of the line held by the Battalion are well illustrated by the different elements of the whole of the 143rd Brigade to whom the battalion handed over when relieved on February 9. Two left platoons on the Somme handed over to 1/8th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Two right platoons on the Somme to 1/7th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Garrison of Tr. Iglau and Battalion Headquarters to 1/5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment; Two platoons in Tr. Desiree to 1/6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
This relief occupied the whole night and did not proceed too smoothly, with the result that it was an irritated Commanding Officer who ordered Battalion Headquarters to move off just as daylight was appearing.
Towards the middle of February the Brigade took over the right of the Divisional line, north-east of the village of Barleux, which lay just inside the German lines. During the month that the Battalion took turns with the 7th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment in holding these trenches, patrolling was very active, especially when it became known that the enemy was evacuating his trenches farther north and effecting an organised retreat to some line in rear.
Shelling was heavy on both sides, and on March 10 occurred one of the most unlucky events that had yet befallen the Bucks Battalion. About 4 a.m. a gas shell, fired from a German Minenwerfer, landed and exploded inside the entrance of the A Company Headquarters’ dugout. There were at the time inside the dugout three officers (Captain J. D. B. Warwick,2/Lieutenant S. Wiseman, 2/Lieutenant R. B. Cooper-Smith), C.S.M. Watts, two corporals, five orderlies, three signallers and four batmen. The first impression of those inside (presumably caused by the flash of the shell) appears to have been that the dugout was on fire, and a large dose of poison was inhaled before they adjusted their box respirators, while those who were asleep were killed without waking.
Two days after this D Company were severely shelled in Flaucourt, which was the position of the reserve company, and suffered a number of casualties.
The rest billets were usually Camp 56 at Cappy; this occasioned a long and weary march, usually taking place in the middle of the night, after a six days’ tour in the line with a very inadequate ration of sleep. It was in this camp that the battalion received news—about March 17—that patrols sent out by the Brigades holding the line had reported the enemy trenches opposite to be unoccupied. The retirement on our front had begun.
During this period the Battalion was very successful in dealing with the trench-foot problem, having only two cases throughout the whole winter.
Casualties, however, were abnormally heavy for ordinary trench holding, and up to the 19th March, 1917, when the German retirement from the Somme began, and the Battalion moved, included: OFFICERS Killed: 3 Wounded: 2