THE 57th DIVISION
The second line Battalion was formed at Blackpool in 1914, and on the departure of the first Battalion from Tunbridge Wells for France its place was taken by the second Battalion. For a considerable time it carried out training at Tunbridge Wells, Ashford, Oxted, Maidstone, Canterbury and Blackdown, from which place it departed on the 17th February, 1917, for France.
It was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt, and formed part of Brigadier General Paynter's 172nd Infantry Brigade of the 57th Division, which was a Division composed entirely of Lancashire troops, and a sister Division to the 55th.
After being delayed for three days at Folkestone, it crossed to Boulogne on the 20th. The next day it was moved by train to the neighbourhood of Bailleul, and from there by stages to the village of Erquinghem, south of Armentieres. After a week spent in training, completing equipment, and reconnoitring the sector to be taken over, it went into the Bois Grenier sector. During the first tour in the trenches, the front held was twice extended and eventually it held a front of one and three quarter miles. Here the Battalion remained for nearly seven months. The sector had been held by the New Zealanders, and was one of the quietest on the whole British front, but orders were now given to liven things up in order to keep as many enemy troops opposite the sector as possible, and distract their attention from the impending operations at Messines on the left. This object was achieved by considerable activity, patrols, and artillery bombardments. The extent of the front held entailed a good deal of exertion in the way of working parties, both to prevent the breastworks from falling into complete decay and to keep the trenches drained; and though the Battalion was very fortunate and suffered comparatively few casualties, the numbers steadily dwindled as no drafts were forthcoming. The enemy had very little artillery opposite this sector, and relied mainly for his defence on minenwerfers which he used liberally and skilfully, harassing the Battalion with an exceedingly heavy bombardment about once a fortnight.
In August, the Commanding Officer left the Regiment and the command was taken over by Lieutenant Colonel Manger. The following month the Battalion was taken out of the line for a rest, and was billeted in the village of Febvin Palfart. Here it remained for a month reorganising and practising the attack, special attention being paid to the method of taking "pill boxes" by encirclement.
In October the "Second Ninth" set out for the Ypres salient, and on arriving at Proven was accommodated in tents. There it was told that the Division was about to take part in an attack on Passchendaele, but the weather conditions were so bad that, after an attack by one of the other brigades in the Division, the offensive was finally abandoned. The Battalion then held the shell crater line in front of Langemarck for a few days at the beginning of November, sustaining a considerable number of casualties. The Division was then withdrawn and the Battalion was put into rest billets at Nielles. After about a month spent there in re organisation and training for the attack, it moved up to Emile Camp, just outside Elverdinghe. The weather was bitterly cold and the ground frozen hard. On Christmas Day the Battalion went into the shell crater line at Poelcappelle, and spent four days there. The weather conditions were very severe, snow had fallen, the ground was wet and the machine gun fire very active. The first week in January the Regiment was once again in its original sector at Armentieres. Here things were comparatively quiet, though the trenches were in a very bad condition, and the danger of trench feet was considerable. The Battalion carried out a very successful raid on the 1st February. Several patrols had been sent out to locate the best place of entry into the enemy line. After an intense bombardment on the selected spot, a party was able to enter and secure a few prisoners. This was the most successful raid the Division had accomplished.
The remnants of the first Battalion left Lisbourg for Steenwerck, where they spent a few days awaiting the return of the second Battalion from the trenches. The two units met at Waterlands Camp outside Armentieres, and were united to form one battalion. The union, though imperative, was distasteful to some, as many officers and non commissioned officers had to relinquish acting ranks which they had held for some time, and it perhaps gave rise to some jealousy which fortunately disappeared in time.
After a few days spent at Waterlands, the Battalion moved into support at Erquinghem, with one company in the Lunatic Asylum at Armentieres, and after a short stay it did one tour in the line near Houplines, and then went to Estaires, where it was in support to the Portuguese Army.
This was then a quiet country town in which the shops were still open, and incidentally doing a very good trade, and it had suffered little from the effects of artillery. During the next three months it was to be reduced to ruins. The Battalion was accommodated in a Nissen hut camp just outside the town, where the company commanders had an opportunity of completing the re organisation of their companies.
On the 13th March the non commissioned officers celebrated the anniversary of the Battalion's first arrival in France by arranging a kind of concert in one of the estaminets in Estaires. This was the last occasion before the Armistice on which such a celebration took place, and it has developed into an annual reunion of the senior non commissioned officers.
Towards the end of the month the Battalion left Estaires for the Armentieres front, and on the 21st March Ludendorff's advance commenced on the 5th Army front, at which time the Battalion was in line in the Fleurbaix sector. Ten days later the unit was relieved and marched to Estaires, where it arrived on the morning of the 1st April. Leaving this town later in the day, it made Haverskerque that night, left there the next day for Steenwerck, and entrained for Doullens. Detraining at Doullens at 1 a.m. on the 3rd, the Battalion proceeded by night march to Sus St. Leger. The night was dark and the roads were in bad condition and a few men fell out, but on the whole, the march discipline was good. On the 5th the Battalion moved to Warluzel, where it remained for three days and then proceeded to Thievres, staying there four days. These moves meant a great strain on everyone. To march in full pack on bad roads with motor lorries splashing mud, day after day, is an ordeal. In each village a fresh start had to be made. Billets had to be found and allotted, fire orders put up and billet guards mounted. Latrines and cook houses had to be improvised, and the usual foot inspections were made. Besides this the usual routine returns had to be rendered to people that sat in comfortable offices, and the men had to do ration fatigues and guards. Though the difficulties of the companies were great, the difficulties of the Quartermaster's department and that of the Transport Officer were much greater. The Quartermaster had not enough room to take the stores he wished, and the Transport Officer had as much as he could do to carry all the stores there were.
On the 12th a move was made to Sombrin, and the next day the Battalion left Sombrin late in the afternoon for an unknown destination. Even the Colonel did not know, and there was a vague rumour that the Brigade staff were to look after the unit. The men marched over bad roads and in the dark, and ultimately they were turned into a wood and told there were no billets, and they could bivouac for the night. Officers and men lay down on the damp earth where they were and slept. Fortunately it did not rain. A few tents came up very late, and in the darkness they could not be pitched, but they were spread out and thrown over the men as they lay sleeping on the ground. Fires could not be lighted as the enemy aeroplanes would have used them as aiming marks. In the morning the Battalion on awaking found it was just outside Pas, in what was called Beaucamp Ravine. Here it remained for two days, and then moved to Henu, where the men pitched a camp in a field, and there the Battalion remained for a little over a fortnight. But it was no rest camp. The weather was very bad and the ground became wet and sodden. Every alternate day large working parties, which consumed almost all the available men, were detailed for work on the rear lines of defence, that were being hastily constructed, in view of the imminence of a fresh enemy offensive. On the intervening days training took place. There was a thirty yards' range in a ravine just in the rear of the camp, where some very interesting competitions took place. Rifle sections were pitted against Lewis gun sections and it was found that, in some platoons a rifle section of eight men was able to get as many shots on the target as the Lewis gun, and it was noticed incidentally that after two hundred rounds the Lewis gun became far too hot to handle. It was a much overrated weapon, and was only effective in the hands of highly trained men.
Several reconnaissances were made by the officers while at Henu. The forward area was visited again and again. Defence schemes were studied and prepared, but these tended to become a little too complex, and had it been necessary to put them into operation something would surely have gone wrong. The morale at this time was low. The extent of the losses on the 5th and 2nd Army fronts were known. The enemy was using British 60 pounder guns against the area occupied by the Battalion, but as the enemy gunners did not thoroughly understand how to set the fuses, the shells were all blind. The Germans seemed to be able to advance whenever they wished, whereas the British had miserably failed at Ypres the last year. The men were not in very good fettle owing to the several recent marches, and the chance of complete victory seemed to be remote. Nevertheless there were many who kept cheerful and intended like game cocks to fight to the last.
The first week in May the Battalion went into line at Gommecourt. The other two units in the Brigade were in the outpost line, and the 9th King's was in close support in Gommecourt Park. It was accommodated in what were formerly the front line enemy positions in 1916. It was an education in military engineering to examine them. The trenches were deep and wide, and there were traverses every few yards. They were revetted with hurdles and planks of timber which were kept in position by iron pickets, which were securely wired to anchor pickets driven sideways into the walls of the trench. So well anchored were the revetments that in spite of the continuous bombardments of the Somme Battle they were still in position. The whole line was stellated with concrete machine-gun emplacements which gave a perfect command over the former' British front line trenches. Armoured lookout posts for sentries were at the top of all the dugout stairs. The dugouts were deeply mined and well timbered, and would provide shelter for a large garrison.
In front of the trenches was a dense wire entanglement at least twenty yards broad, and although it had suffered much from artillery fire it was still an obstacle which was only passable by infantry in certain places where lanes had been made. Anyone who saw this entanglement did not wonder why the British attack on the Somme on the 1st July, 1916, failed. Several graves of the fallen could be seen here and there in the wire.
It was very interesting to walk through the Park. Despite the bombardments it had undergone, the rides were clearly marked, and several trees were still alive, including one or two fine copper beeches. Wild hyacinths and other flowers were blooming in profusion, and a cuckoo, with doubtful wisdom; persisted in remaining in its usual haunts.
While in this position the whole Battalion was engaged in reclaiming old trenches, digging new ones, and putting the area in a position of defence and establishing a central keep.
On the 11th May the enemy shelled Foncquevillers, a village immediately in rear of the Battalion's position, with gas shells, most of which were charged with mustard gas, and some of the gas being inhaled by the men of the Battalion twenty-four casualties were sustained.
Three days later the Battalion took over the front line, the Headquarters still remaining at Gommecourt, but in another part of the village. The trenches were very wet, and reminded one of the Loos trenches in 1915. It was a time of great patrol activity. No one was quite sure where the Germans were and in what force. Daylight and night fighting patrols constantly left the British lines, and almost invariably came across parties of the enemy, but as the enemy was caged in by wire prisoners could not be obtained.
In this sector the enemy had full observation of the village from Rossignol Wood, and men from other units were in the habit of betraying the location of dumps and headquarters by walking along the roads in daylight instead of through the communication trenches. This enabled the enemy to note ways of approach which he could shell after nightfall, and so inflict casualties on working parties. To prevent this, two snipers were told off to lie in the grass and fire above the head of anyone who did not keep in the communication trenches. The scheme was efficacious; the men respected the snipers more than the enemy, and little trouble was given afterwards by the casual visitor to the sector.
One fine morning the enemy elected to shell Battalion headquarters, to the great amusement of the companies in the front line. Two out of the three mine entrances to the dugout occupied by the headquarters' personnel received direct hits and were blocked. The Second in Command then had the unpleasant duty of crawling out of the third entrance to see if all was well. Fortunately nothing untoward had taken place except three slight casualties.
On relief two companies went to the Chateau de la Haie, and the two other companies and Headquarters to Rossignol Farm, a large monastic farm of considerable age. There was an enormous byre partitioned off into several pig styes, and this was allotted to the officers, one pig stye for each officer. The War Diary for the next three weeks gives an interesting and accurate account of what took place, so the following extract is included
May 27th to 29th
In May and June the Gommecourt sector was active, and the artillery fire on both sides was severe. The enemy employed a shell with an instantaneous fuse called the E.K.Z. fuse, which functioned before the shell buried itself and so gave the shell a very great splinter effect. It was usual for the enemy to fire on cross roads and similar targets in salvoes of four. The British artillery replied and kept up a lively fire most of the time, and it appeared to have the ascendancy. Gas shells were frequently used on both sides.
Early in July the Battalion came out to rest at Authie, where it was accommodated under canvas. Here it was that Lieutenant Colonel Lord Henry Seymour, D.S.O., of the Grenadier Guards, took command. Training for the attack took place in some cornfields near to the camp, and particular attention was paid to the keeping of direction in the advance, the tactical employment of Lewis guns and the envelopment of machine gun nests. The fighting had become more open this year than it had been in 1917, and consequently the men had to be kept up to date. To consolidate a position the men were taught to form platoon strong points with the flanks refused or bent back so as to be able to meet an attack from any direction. Unfortunately the corn crops were spoilt by the training of the troops.
While at Authie, sports took place, and in the Brigade sports the Battalion secured seven first, eight second, and one third prize. The Army Rifle Competitions took place here, and No. 6 platoon of "B" Company won the eliminating competition in the Brigade, but unfortunately failed to win the Divisional competition.
Then followed a period of meanderings which lasted for a month, and which at the time were difficult to understand. On the 29th July the Battalion left Authie and marched to billets at Warluzel by the following route: Pas, Grincourt, and Couterelle. The march was rather severe as the weather was very hot, and it needed the greatest firmness on the part of the officers to prevent the men from falling out. The next day the Battalion paraded at 6 15 a.m., and marched to Agnez les Duisans via Hermaville, where it arrived in the afternoon.
In the evening of the following day the Battalion paraded and marched to Arras, entering the city by the Baudimont Gate, and the men were billeted for the night in the Spanish houses in the Grande Place. In the evening of the next day the Battalion paraded in the Square and marched to Wakefield Camp by Roclincourt. While in Arras the troops found an old hat shop and great amusement was caused by the soldiers arraying themselves in ladies' hats, which gave them a very strange appearance. A tall silk hat very much out of fashion was reserved for the officers, which they tried on in turn.
A week or so was spent in training at Roclincourt, and on the 9th the Battalion took over the outpost zone in the Gavrelle Fampoux sector. The companies were taken up to the forward area by a light railway, and this was the only occasion on which the Battalion was taken to the forward area in such a manner.
The positions occupied gave a good view over the enemy hinterland. From the Battalion headquarters at the Point du Jour, factory chimneys could be seen smoking in several villages behind the German line, and the clock on Douai Church was clearly visible. Occasionally a train was seen moving, and now and then a party of Germans was observed. Behind the British line lay the rolling Artois country which was fundamentally agricultural, and in front there loomed in the distance an industrial manufacturing district, which seemed a far off civilization in contrast to the devastation behind. It was a time of great aerial activity on both sides. Battles were fought at high altitudes, of which one was scarcely conscious except when one of the combatant machines fell headlong to earth. As a means of self protection Lewis guns were placed on aerial mountings, and a sharp look out was kept for any daring Halberstadter that should venture too low. The weather at the time was fine, and the tour was regarded as one of the easiest the men had been called upon to do.
On the 17th August the Battalion was relieved just before midnight, and marched to Anzin, where it arrived at 4 30 a.m. the next morning, and the men had breakfast. Later it entrained for Bailleul aux Cornailles, where four days were spent. On the 21st an order was received about 10 p.m., (after the men had bedded down) to move at once. The move was quite unexpected as everyone believed the Battalion was to stay in the village for several days longer. Kits were hastily packed in the darkness, and in an hour the Battalion was ready to move. Fosseux was reached in the early morning, breakfast taken, and the men rested until 1 p.m. In the evening another sudden message ordered a night march to Boucquemaison, which was reached early on the 23rd, and the men rested during the day time, paraded at nightfall and marched to Barly.
These marches were perhaps rather fatiguing, but as they took place at night and the weather was very pleasant, they were not as bad as they might have been. The march discipline was excellent and scarcely any men fell out. The companies as day was breaking presented nevertheless a worn out appearance. The men were dusty and tired out as they trudged in the mist of the morning, with the field kitchen and Lewis gun cart in the rear. The cooks were doing their best to get the fire lighted to boil the water for breakfast. The pack animals seemed to wonder what necessity there could be for all this marching, and the company charger, generally a very dejected jade, feeling as proud of his position as his mean station in the equine world would permit, persistently refused to keep his proper position when a halt was called.
It was during the march to Barly that the men were told, during a halt at midnight, that victory was certain, and that Marshal Foch had ordered everyone to advance. This news instantly raised the morale of every one, and the rest of the journey seemed more pleasant than usual.