"The Story of the 9th King's in France"


Having sent an advance party to General Xardel's headquarters at Beaumetz to effect liaison, and to meet French guides, the Battalion paraded towards evening, left Monchiet, picked up the guides en route and marched to Wailly. The day had been one of blizzards and the night of the relief was black and wet. Added to these circumstances was the difficulty of understanding the directions of the Frenchmen, the Battalion's knowledge of their language being not very extensive. Towards midnight, thoroughly drenched, hungry and weary after a heavy day, the men were ultimately put in their proper stations, some in the village and others in the trenches.

From the appearance of the houses Wailly had been a prosperous farming village lying within a short distance of Arras. Agricultural implements of the latest manufacture were in evidence, and these could only have been bought by peasants with some capital. This village was to be the Battalion's home for the next five months. The Battalion first did a month alternating in position between the front line and the village. For some days while in the front line the Battalion was in touch with the 27ième Regiment d'Infanterie, which had a sentry post in its area composed of men from one of the companies who readily fraternised with the fantassins. This regiment belonged to a division of the French Active Army, and in consequence its efficiency was of a very high order. Nowhere had anyone seen trenches so well revetted and so neatly constructed as those occupied by this French regiment. The trenches stood out in marked contrast to those actually taken over by the Battalion, whose former occupants, the French Territorials, had left them in a very bad condition.

The trenches had not been revetted or duckboarded, and during the first month of the Battalion's occupation there was a good deal of snow, and when this melted the sides of the trenches commenced to crumble, making them very muddy at the bottom. In consequence of this mud they became almost impassable. For the men doing trench duty the conditions were bad enough. The man on post had to stand on the fire step for hours in damp clothes, shivering in the freezing cold, knowing that when his tour of duty was over all he could look forward to was the cold damp floor of a dugout on which to rest his weary body. For the ration parties the conditions were almost worse. The meals were cooked in the field kitchens in the village, and fatigue parties to carry up the meals were found by the support company which was in a trench called by the French the Parallèle des Territoriaux. Many of the men will never forget the innumerable times they trudged heavily laden with a dixie of tea or stew through the mud in the tortuous communication trenches Boyan Eck, Sape 7, and the Boyan des Mitrailleuses. At times these trenches became so muddy that on one or two occasions reliefs had to be carried out over the top under cover of darkness. It was risking a good deal to line up a whole company outside the trench a few yards in rear of the front line, knowing that an enemy machine gun was located about a hundred yards away, and that the machine gunner might fire an illuminating flare at any moment, and so expose the men to his view.

It was during the first tour at Wailly that Major C. G. Bradley, D.S.O., assumed command on the 29th February.

After having done a month in the Wailly sector, the Battalion was taken on the 14th March for a week in Brigade Reserve. Though the Battalion only got into billets at 1 a.m., after a four mile march, a working party had to be found at 8 30 a.m. for work on a Divisional show ground, which was a place where model trenches were dug to show the uninitiated how things ought to be done. Tasks like these were regarded as onerous by the men, who were led to expect some period of rest when not in the advanced positions.

After a few days in Beaumetz the Battalion returned to Wailly, and until June continued to do three tours of duty at Wailly, two in the front line and one in the village, to one in Brigade Reserve at Beaumetz, the whole cycle lasting a month.

The enemy having in line opposite the 78th Landwehr Regiment, the sector was very quiet, though the British did what they could to liven things up in the way of artillery shoots and indirect machine gun fire at night on the roads behind the enemy lines.

The general defence scheme at first was not very elaborate. Three companies manned the front line with one in support. Great attention was paid to bombing posts, and the defence scheme always contained a plan for a counter attack by the bombers, who were organised as a separate section, working directly under the orders of the Commanding Officer. They were given simple schemes and exercises in counter attack while in the trenches. For example the non commissioned officer in command of a squad would be told that the enemy had entered a particular sector of the trench. He would then block the trench or deliver an imaginary counter attack along the trench with the object of dislodging the fictitious enemy, as the case might require. The companies were trained to take shelter in the dugouts m the event of a heavy bombardment and immediately on its cessation to re man the front line. In the village when the Battalion was in support it held three centres of resistance known from right to left as Petit Moulin, Wailly Keep, and Petit Chateau. Wailly Keep was a fortified farm on the fringe of the village, with loop holed walls and the adjacent roads barricaded. It was a relic of the French defence scheme and was sound.

The strictest precautions were taken against a gas attack. Each man had two P.H. helmets which he had to keep with him at all times. Moreover, sentries were instructed how to recognise gas and sound the alarm immediately they noticed enemy gas. Large cartridge cases from the guns were used as gas gongs, and Strombos horns were installed so as to spread the alarm quickly should occasion arise. This was a much better scheme than the one in which the bugler was to sound the alarm. As the lines were near there was some danger of a flammenwerfer attack, so the whole Battalion was taken on the 17th March to a demonstration, and shown what to do should such an attack take place. One Lewis gun was given to each company in place of the machine guns which were taken away from the Battalion, and the Stokes mortar made its appearance in the trenches. This was an overrated weapon. Its range was very limited and it was soon out distanced by similar German weapons. Its bombs were essentially for use against personnel at a range when rifles would have been cheaper and more efficacious. Its bombs were not heavy enough for use against earthworks, and wrought little damage on trenches. Its use and its ammunition supply entailed large carrying parties which robbed the companies of the men and sapped their energy.

In May steel helmets were made part of every man's equipment, and a square green patch on the back of the tunic became the Battalion distinguishing mark. The steel helmets were the means of saving many lives, and were covered with the same material as the sandbags were made of, for purposes of camouflage.

One night early in April a patrol consisting of a corporal and a Private was sent to examine and report on the enemy wire in front of a particular sap head. At this point there were only seventy yards or so between the British trench and the enemy sap heads, which were swathed in a dense mesh of barbed wire. There were but few shell craters, little artillery fire being directed on the front line when the lines were close owing to the danger of short firing; and the grass being short there was little or no cover. The night had been very quiet. Scarcely a rifle shot had broken the silence. The patrol must have made some noise, and so aroused the attention of the enemy sentry in the saphead who fired an illuminating flare. The light betrayed the presence of the patrol to the enemy, who opened fire and wounded both of the men. Afterwards the enemy kept firing illuminating flares and maintained a lively rifle and machine gun fire, so that any attempt at rescue was impossible. At dawn the enemy put up a flag of truce and a party of them came out and gently lifted the wounded into their own trench. It was noticed that the enemy were wearing the old blue uniform of the German Army instead of the feldgrau uniform, and that they carried tin canisters in which they had their gas masks. This rescue was accomplished at great risk to the enemy as they did not know that the British would refrain from firing; and the incident proves that at any rate there were some among the Germans who would do the honourable thing. When the Battalion was at Ypres about a year afterwards a letter came saying that the graves of the two men had been found with an appropriate inscription in the German language.

In this sector there was much work to be done. The trenches, which were in a state of decay after the frosts and rains of the winter, had to be duckboarded and revetted. Besides sandbagging the front line the Battalion, in conjunction with the relieving unit, the 7th King's, constructed a new support line known as Parallel B., in which was accommodated, when it was complete, a portion of the front line garrison. The wire needed attention as well. The French had covered the front with a chain of chevaux de frise, but this was not considered a sufficient obstacle, so that concertina wire and "gooseberries" had to be put out in front of the chevaux de frise. The wiring parties had a very difficult task, as they had to work about forty yards away from the enemy, who were often engaged on similar work. Also the men had to work in front of the chevaux de frise, and they would have had great difficulty in getting back to their own lines should they have been surprised by the enemy. Besides this, innumerable rifle racks, bomb stores, machine gun emplacements and other works of a similar nature were completed. In addition to this the men had to form large carrying parties to carry large elephant sections and other material to the Quarry for use by dug out construction parties of the Royal Engineers.

At this period the trench discipline attained a high standard as the men had been together for some months and free from heavy casualties, and it is well here to digress for a while and record what trench duty really meant. "Stand to" would be at say 3 30 a.m., shortly before dawn. At this time all would man the parapet and wait until it became daylight. The rifles, ammunition, gas helmets, and feet of the men would be inspected by the platoon officer. This generally took about an hour and a half. Afterwards the men not actually on duty would wash and shave. Shaving in the trenches was made compulsory in March, as it was thought that it kept the men from deteriorating and would prevent any tendency to slovenliness. There was little water for such a purpose, and consequently it was particularly arduous in a muddy trench, and it is doubtful whether the benefits derived were worth it. Breakfast would take place between six and seven. Afterwards the men got what sleep they could during the day, but they were constantly interrupted by sentry duty, meals, shell fire, and occasionally a fatigue. The activity of night replaced little by little the tranquillity of the day. Towards sunset came evening "stand to" and more inspections. After nightfall patrols would go out, and wiring parties for the renovation and repair of the wire, ration parties for the food, and working parties to keep the trenches in good condition would be detailed. The men got no sleep at night, and in fact very little at all. Trench duty was exacting and exhausting from a physical point of view alone, but to this was added the continual attrition of numbers on account of shell and rifle fire.

In May the weather was glorious and the face of the countryside assumed a pleasant aspect. The trees were in full leaf. Wild flowers in profusion adorned the trenches, and larks in numbers hovered in the clear blue skies above the trenches and sang sweetly in the early mornings. The sunsets viewed from the front line were particularly beautiful. The lines of trees on the Beaumetz Arras road became silhouetted black against the skyline, reddened by the setting sun, which produced a wonderful effect.

As the summer advanced the front became more active. Shell fire increased, and the British artillery, having a more liberal supply of ammunition, expended it more lavishly than had been formerly the case. In July the Battalion left the sector immediately in front of Wailly and took over that in front of Blaireville Wood, which was held by the enemy.

On the 28th June a series of raids took place on the Divisional front, which were covered by a discharge of cloud gas. A party from the Battalion took part in the raid, and two officers were able to enter an enemy sap but they did not manage to secure any prisoners. The junior of the two officers was unfortunately killed, being shot through the head. In retaliation for the raids the enemy brought up, on the 2nd July, what was called a "Circus" consisting of several 150 m.m. and 210 m.m. howitzers on railway mountings, with which he utterly destroyed the front line trenches for a distance of two hundred yards, blew in several mined dugouts, and inflicted heavy casualties on "D" Company. In some respects this was the heaviest and most destructive bombardment that had been endured by the Battalion up to this time, though it was not so prolonged as that of the 8th October, 1915.

On the 8th July, after five months continuous duty in the forward zone, the Battalion went into Divisional Reserve at Gouy en Artois, where the Battalion was housed in hutments close by the Divisional School.

The Somme Battle had commenced, and there was every likelihood of the Division being called upon either to attack on the front it already held or as reinforcements. In consequence the Battalion, which had had very little training for the past five months, turned its attention to practising the attack in some cornfields near the hutments it occupied.

The attack was henceforth to be made by successive waves of men and to each wave was assigned a particular objective. Following these attacking waves there came what were called "moppers up," whose task was to deal with any of the enemy who might have hidden in dugouts and so escaped the attention of the attackers. Recent lessons of the Somme Battle costing many lives had brought about the necessity for the institution of moppers up. The rear waves were also to act as carrying parties. One man had to carry a coil of wire, another a spade, another a screw picket, and so on. The reason for this was, that when the enemy trenches had been captured, the enemy might cut off all supplies by means of an intense barrage on no man's land, and it was necessary for the attacking troops to have sufficient material at hand to enable them to put the captured positions into a state of defence immediately, and thus be able to resist a counter attack. Model trenches were marked out and much good work was done in the attack practices that took place. Large drafts arrived and the Battalion was soon in excellent form. The cleanliness and smart appearance of the men while in the village drew forth the special praise of the Divisional Commander.

At Gouy a Battalion concert party was formed, and a concert was given in a large barn which formed part of the Divisional Canteen. The doctor composed some verses for the occasion in which there was plenty of local colour.

In June a Divisional horse show had taken place at which the Battalion again distinguished itself. "C" Company cooker again took first prize in the Division, and the Battalion secured the second place for the total number of marks gained.

The days spent in this sector were comparatively pleasant. The front had been quiet, and although the work was arduous casualties were few, and leave was regular. In the light of later experience the time spent in Wailly was very comfortable indeed, and during the next two months many wished they could return.