BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM CITIZEN SOLDIERS OF BUCKS BY JC SWANN AND THE FIRST BUCKINGHAMSHIRE BATTALION 1914-1919 BY PL WRIGHT
At Mons-en-Chaussee the battalion had ten days’ strenuous training, though this was partly interfered with by large working parties, which had to be provided about every other day for road-mending and filling up craters.
The battalion ration strength at this time had fallen to 570 other ranks, and though hoping to receive reinforcements here, none arrived. Officers numbered twenty-five, but many of them were always attending courses, of which a large number were held continuously.
On May 11 the Battalion started on the first of a series of daily marches up to a part of the line which it had not yet visited. These marches, which took us through Flamicourt (one night), Clery Maurepas (one night), Combles, Sailly-Saillisel, and Le Transloy (one night), were of exceptional interest, embracing as they did such a large part of the old Somme battlefields. The roads had been entirely remade by the British Army and were excellent, but with this exception the whole country was one great stretch of shell-craters.
Over all these acres and acres of ground there was hardly a yard into which a shell had not fallen. The sites of the villages through which the Bucks passed were marked only by heaps of rubble, with a few charred tree-trunks standing like weary sentinels over them. A smell of dead pervaded the whole atmosphere.
On the night of May 14 the Bucks relieved the 7th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment, 33rd Infantry Brigade, 11th Division, in the line between Hermies and Demicourt, the 143rd Brigade taking over the line on the left and the 1/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment on the right.
The Division spent nearly two months in this sector, the 143rd Brigade and 144th Brigade relieving each other on the left, and the 145th Brigade carrying out its own reliefs on the right. In the 145 Brigade two battalions held the line a third was in support round the village of Beaumetz, while the fourth battalion was in reserve in Velu Wood. The line held by the Bucks Battalion ran for the most part just in front of the village of Hermies, and consisted of a series of disconnected strong posts, separated from the enemy trenches by fifty yards on the right and some 300 yards on the left. The Germans were occupying the Hindenburg Line, their front trenches running mostly along the eastern side of the Canal du Nord, just in front of the village of Havrincourt, while opposite on the left their line ran forward so as to include a large spoil-heap. This mound formed a magnificent stronghold for them and was a source of continual annoyance the battalion, harbouring as it did several machine-gun nests with splendid observation over our lines.
The right post, known as R3 was situated on either side of the Hermies-Havrincourt road, behind an old prisoners’ cage which had been erected by the Germans before their retirement. Parties were at work nearly every night during the whole period in this area, digging trenches through and around this cage, to the intense displeasure of the platoon commander in charge of the post, who always had the most harrowing tales to tell in the evening of the hell which the garrison had endured in R3 during the day! The post certainly caught the bulk of the enemy trench-mortar and grenade fire, largely because of the close proximity of the two front trenches, which were practically separated only by the canal.
Artillery fire on points behind the lines was active on both sides, the chief targets for the enemy being the villages of Hermies, Demicourt and Beaumetz.
Aeroplane bombing, chiefly by night, was becoming increasingly popular with the enemy, and one bomb, which fell on the quarters of a field ambulance in Beaumetz, caused a number of casualties.
Only one operation was undertaken by the Battalion during its tenure of these trenches. It had become apparent at the beginning of June that the enemy had established a night post amongst a cluster of bushes on our bank of the canal. The sniping from this post caused us considerable annoyance and some casualties to our working parties. It was therefore decided to capture it, and to dig a trench along the bank of the canal with a communicator running back to our present post. Two platoons of B Company were detailed to make the attack, forming up on a line parallel to the canal bank, each platoon being in two lines at fifteen yards’ distance and on a frontage of fifty yards. Zero was fixed for midnight June 7/8, at which time a barrage from one section of field guns was placed on the enemy trenches. At zero plus five this barrage lifted, and the assaulting platoons charged with the bayonet. The enemy opened rifle fire before the assault, but was most effectually silenced by a Lewis gun posted on the right bank for the purpose of providing covering fire. After the assaulting platoons got in there ensued a bombing fight which lasted for a few minutes, but the enemy soon gave in. No attempt at a counter-attack was made, but rifle grenades were fired from the opposite bank at intervals throughout the remainder of the night.
Bucks casualties were two killed and nine wounded. Eleven prisoners were taken and several of the enemy killed. The prisoners belonged to the 41st Infantry Regiment and stated that the previous artillery activity had led the picquet to expect an attack, and they had been ordered to maintain the greatest vigilance. They believed that the post in question was to have been finally withdrawn the following day as being tactically unsound.
On July 3 the Division was withdrawn from the line, the Battalion being relieved by the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 9th Brigade, 3rd Division. After a halt or one night at Velu it marched the two following days via Bihucourt, Achiet-le-Grand, Adinfer and Ransart to Bailleulval, where the most strenuous training was undertaken.
Rumours of an offensive to be started by the British Army in the Ypres area had for some time been persistent, and it became increasingly evident during the first few days of the stay in this village that the Battalion was earmarked to take part in it.
Two drafts were received on July 12 and 15, one of 196 other ranks and the other of 43 other ranks, which brought the Battalion ration strength up to about twenty-five officers and 920 other ranks.