THE BATTLE OF AUBERS RIDGE
The disastrous enterprise of the 9th May was the first major action of the war in which the "Ninth" took part. Shattered at its inception, the whole attack soon came to an end. The lack of high explosive shells and the consequent failure of the British artillery to destroy the enemy wire entanglements were probably the main causes of the holocaust that took place on that day. Though one of the biggest disasters the British arms sustained throughout the war, it was scarcely noted in the newspapers, and would seem to a casual observer quite insignificant compared with the sinking of the "Lusitania," which had taken place some days before, although in the battle it is believed that the 2nd Infantry Brigade lost a bigger proportion of men than had ever been previously known in warfare.
On the 8th May, the Battalion took up its battle position in rear of the Rue du Bois at Richebourg l'Avoue, and there awaited the attack on the morrow. The detail that obtained in battle orders of later dates was wanting, in view of the fact that greater responsibility was in the early days placed upon Commanding Officers. The Battalion was to support the attack as the third wave. The flanks were given and in the event of an advance the Battalion was to keep Chocolat Menier Corner on its immediate right. The fight commenced with an ordinary bombardment of forty minutes chiefly by field pieces, which according to the text book are primarily intended not for bombardment but for use against personnel. A battery of heavy howitzers was also in action. The ordinary bombardment was followed by an intense bombardment of ten minutes.
At 5 30 a.m. the Battalion advanced to the third line of trenches immediately in rear of the Rue du Bois, and several losses attributable to machine guns and shells were sustained. At 6 0 a.m. the Battalion was continuing the advance to the support line when the 2nd King's Royal Rifles asked for immediate support in the attack. The Battalion therefore passed over the support line and quickly reached the front line. The advent of a fresh unit made confusion the worse confounded. The trenches which afforded little shelter were filled with men and the enemy was using his artillery freely. Machine guns in profusion were disgorging their several streams of bullets. Communication trenches had been blotted out. Despite the lessons of Neuve Chapelle there was no effective liaison between artillery and infantry as the telephone wires were soon cut and as a consequence the inferno was intensified by the short firing of the British artillery a battery of 6 inch howitzers being the chief offender.
Numerous casualties had been suffered and among them was the Commanding Officer: who was killed. The command then passed to Major J. W. B. Hunt, who decided that it was useless to attempt to assault the enemy position without further artillery preparation, as the enemy's barbed wire was practically intact, and the only two gaps that were available were covered by enemy machine guns. A report on the situation was made to Brigadier General Thesiger, and instructions were received that on no account was the Battalion to leave the front line, and it was to hold the same against a possible and probable counter attack by the enemy.
At 10.00 a.m. the Battalion was ordered to Prepare to take part in a second attack to be launched at 11 15 a.m. Half an hour later a further order postponed the second attack until 12 30 p.m. Thousands had failed to take the objectives in the early morning, and it was unlikely that hundreds would succeed in the afternoon. This attack was ultimately cancelled, and at 4 0 p.m. the Battalion was withdrawn. A further attack was delivered in vain at 4 30 p.m. by other regiments in the Division. Though the Battalion unfortunately accomplished little, it sustained almost a hundred casualties, but it was fortunate in that it escaped the same fate as befell four of the Battalions in the Brigade which were almost annihilated. The battle from almost every point of view was a dismal failure, and the rate of casualties was perhaps the highest then recorded. It was during the 4 30 p.m. attack that the men were privileged to witness one of the most magnificent episodes of the war; which was the advance made by the 1st Battalion Black Watch and the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders. This was carried out with parade like precision in face of a most withering rifle and machine gun fire, out of which scarcely half a dozen of those brave fellows returned.
Relieved in the evening, the "Ninth" marched to Essars and the next day to billets at Bethune, and it was not until the 20th day of the month that the Battalion was again in line, this time at Cambrin. It had now come under the command of Major F. W. Ramsay, a regular officer from the Middlesex Regiment. The remainder of the month of May and the month of June were spent at Cambrin and Cuinchy, this latter place being renowned even in those days for its minenwerfer activity. The Cambrin sector had good deep trenches made by the French pioneers, which were strong, well timbered and comfortable. This was the first occasion the Battalion occupied trenches as distinguished from breast works. Hitherto the nature of the ground had made trenches impossible. The trenches at Cuinchy were in front of a row of brick stacks, and in consequence of the water logged nature of a portion of the front were only dug three feet down, and a sandbag parapet was built; the trenches were not duckboarded, and were in consequence wet. Around each brick stack was built a keep, and this was garrisoned by a platoon in each case. Every time an enemy projectile hit a brick stack large quantities of broken bricks were scattered as splinters which multiplied the killing effect of the shell. In this sector there was considerable mining activity. The mine shafts, of which there were about three per company frontage, were each manned by two men who acted as listeners. As the front lines were only about twenty five yards apart there was a considerable exchange of grenades.
No cooking was allowed in the trenches, as the smoke which would have been occasioned by cooking would only have encouraged enemy fire. Therefore ration and hot food parties had to go four times a day along a communication trench called Boyan Maison Rouge, one and a half miles long, and which was not duckboarded. After heavy rain it became very muddy, and the men cut down their trousers which led to the adoption of shorts throughout. Hosetops were improvised by cutting the feet off socks and later they were bought. The colour ranged at first from light heliotrope to flatman's blue, but later was standardized as salmon pink. The expense of providing these hosetops was a heavy drain on any available funds, but fortunately friends of the Battalion came to the rescue.
On relief from the Cambrin trenches on the 7th July the Battalion spent a little over a fortnight in Brigade and Divisional Reserves at Sailly Labourse and the Faubourg d'Arras in Bethune respectively. On the 25th it was in line at Vermelles. This sector was quiet except in that portion which was opposite the Hohenzollern Redoubt, from which hugh aerial torpedoes were fired.
August was spent doing tours of duty in Annequin and Vermelles. During the last tour in Vermelles the whole Battalion assembled every night in no man's land and successfully dug under fire jumping off trenches for the forthcoming operations, the casualties being comparatively few, owing to the speed with which the men dug.
During the first three weeks in September, the Battalion was out of the line and spent most of the time at Burbure, a quiet little village outside Lillers, where the men enjoyed a period of peace well removed from the battle zone. The training was devoted almost entirely to the practice of the attack preparatory to the impending fight.
During the summer a horse show took place in the First Division, and the "Ninth" secured all tile prizes for mules, the first prize for a field kitchen and two jumping prizes, thus obtaining the second place in the Division for the total number of marks gained. This was a signal honour for a Territorial unit, and perhaps came as a surprise to some of the Regular soldiers, who thought that they were "the people." This demonstrated the fact that though the Battalion had but a few months' experience of active service, it had soon accustomed itself to the rigours of warfare, and that the transport section at any rate had attained a high pitch of efficiency. The horse shows which were held from time to time as occasion permitted provided diversions and did much to maintain a high standard of efficiency in the first line transport.
Improvements had been effected in the organisation of the Regiment since its advent to France. Clothing and food became more plentiful and the latter was better cooked. Efforts were made to improve the comfort of the men in billets. Proper sanitation was rigorously observed. Officers were encouraged to display the greatest solicitude for the welfare of the men, and the cumulative effect of these measures resulted in improved morale.