On the 4th October the Battalion entrained on a light railway, and soon reached Poperinghe, where it remained until darkness and then entrained on a broad gauge train at Poperinghe Station for Ypres. It was a new experience for the men to be in a train and yet within range of the enemy's artillery. The personnel detrained just by the railway station at Ypres and went into billets close by. Little could be seen of the city in the dark. Stillness pervaded the area that night, and after the Somme Battle the quietness was uncanny.
The next day the men had an opportunity of seeing the city that had suffered so much in the war. It must have been subjected to many a tornado of shells, for there was not a single house untouched and very few had roofs. A few shells fell in the Square during the morning, but that was all. To the men it was a great relief to be in a quiet area after such a place as the Somme. Ypres was not as bad as had been expected.
The trenches were to be taken over at once. The officers reconnoitred the line during the afternoon, and towards evening the Battalion paraded and marched along the Rue de Stuers, the Rue an Beurre, past the Cloth Hall, through the Square, and the Menin Gate towards Potijze. Afterwards it took over the sector from the Roulers Railway to Duke Street with Headquarters in Potijze Wood. Four days only had elapsed since it had left the Somme railhead. This area was to be the Battalion's battle station for several months to come, and many times were the companies to repeat the journey they had just completed. It was to take part in two big battles in the vicinity and add greatly to its honours and leave many of its members entombed in soldiers' graves in what was to be perhaps the biggest graveyard of its kind in the world.
The Ypres sector was very quiet, but there was every danger of a gas attack, and the Battalion received the strictest warnings from the relieved unit, which had lost many men two months before through inattention to precautionary measures. The first night that the Battalion went into the line there was an alarm, but as the wind at the moment was in a safe quarter its falsity was immediately recognised. The men at this time had only the then out of date P.H. helmet. These helmets were changed in the course of a week or two for the more efficacious box respirators, which remained with slight modifications until the end of the war as the soldiers' protection against enemy gas. The enemy artillery was very quiet, and obviously the British had the artillery ascendancy, and it was surmised that this was attributable to the fact that he had removed his artillery to the Somme. The minenwerfers were active and so were the enemy snipers. After a tour in the line the Battalion repaired to Ypres. A few days afterwards it went to take over the "L" defences at Brielen, with Headquarters in Elverdinghe Chateau. Only one tour was done here and the Battalion then returned to Ypres. Until January it did three tours of duty in the line, either in Ypres itself or the front line to one in reserve at Brandhoek.
While in the front line the routine was practically the same as at Wailly, but the conditions were different. In the Salient it was not possible to dig deep trenches as the land was so low lying that water was met on reaching a depth of about two feet. Trenches were not feasible, so it '.vas a case of breastworks. The defences therefore consisted of sand bag revetments held in position by wooden frames over which expanded metal had been spread. These frames were called "A" frames or "Z" frames. The former were used for preventing narrow ways from staving in, and the latter were to face sand bag walls. They were not easy to use and the men had to learn how to fix them, and their employment entailed many long and tedious carrying parties. The breastworks were divided into fire bays by traverses which were situated every few yards. These fire bays, which were all numbered, had firing platforms made of wood or well revetted sandbags. The parapet was sufficiently high to give good command over the ground in front. During the winter it silted down and in many places it became not even bullet proof. The parados was fairly good, though in many places there was none at all. For shelter the men had small recesses like dog kennels in the parapet or parados; these were usually roofed by a sheet of corrugated iron and were very small, uncomfortable, and infested with rats. There were not sufficient shelters to accommodate all the men, and the surplus had to sleep as best they could on the firing platform with only greatcoats as coverings.
The men had endured much and many were war weary. They were tired of fighting, and their former enthusiasm had cooled, especially as there was no immediate prospect of a rapid termination of the war. Among those who stood to arms in the whizz banged trench in the cold raw hour of dawn were many who had given up assured positions - skilled mechanics, master printers, clerks, university men, solicitors, and others of several professions and callings who had sacrificed their various situations and appointments, and whose wives struggled on a very meagre separation allowance. Fully aware were they also that while they were manning the trench as infantrymen and receiving as remuneration a miserable pittance, munition workers in England were receiving excessively high wages for congenial work and enjoying freedom from all discomfort and danger of the trenches.
The waterlogged ground between the British and German lines was pitted with shell holes and overgrown with rank grass and weeds. Numerous trees lopped of their branches were still standing, while many others were lying on the ground. Exactly half way across to the enemy lines were the remains of what had been a moated farm, which was a favourite objective of patrols. Railway Wood, which was situated on slightly higher ground on the right of the Battalion's sector, was a minehead and in consequence the scene of much activity. At one time there had been a wood, but so intense had been the artillery fire that not a single tree or trunk higher than three or four feet was left standing. Almost every afternoon, about 4 30 p.m., the usual trench mortar "strafe" would commence, and would last for an hour or so. A few months later Railway Wood became a scene of much mining activity, and mines and camouflets were sprung either by the British or the Germans almost daily. In the Battalion area there was situated what was known as Number 6 Crater, a deep mine crater half full of water, and said to be then one of the largest in France. In the vicinity of this crater there were some overhead traverses to prevent the enemy snipers from enfilading the trench, probably constructed after several casualties had been incurred.
Company headquarters were close to the front line, and never consisted of anything more than a small shelter. The cooking was done in cook houses in the company areas, fatigue parties being detailed to bring up rations and water in petrol tins. Battalion headquarters were housed in dugouts in the wood adjoining the White Chateau at Potijze, in front of which was a large cemetery. While in Ypres itself three companies were billeted in the cellars of the gutted houses in the neighbourhood of the Boulevard Malon, which was a better class district once inhabited by the more wealthy citizens. Headquarters and one company were housed in the cellars of the Ecole Moyenne, which was erroneously called the Convent. These billets were not bad, though in many cases damp.
For the companies there was a parade in the morning, and every evening several working parties paraded at the Convent, and marched out afterwards through the Menin Gate for work in the Brigade area. The biggest working party numbered 100. It moved off at 5 30 p.m., drew shovels, picks, and gum boots at Potijze Dump, and then worked until almost midnight in constructing Cambridge Trench. The work was inadequately supervised by the Royal Engineers, who left the task to a second corporal and a few sappers, and consequently little progress was made and most probably the trench was never properly completed. The men had their last meal at 4 30 p.m., and as a consequence they could not work with proper efficiency right up to midnight. After a while they became very tired and were unable to continue. As a considerable quantity of material was requisite to keep the trenches in repair, large carrying parties were necessary. These could have been to a large extent obviated had light Decauville railways been constructed, such as the Germans were discovered later to have been using.
For the comfort of the men there was a Divisional canteen near the billets in Ypres, and another in the Infantry Barracks. There was a recreation room in the Prison, where Church parades were held later. There were also baths in the Rue d'Elverdinghe, so that the men were able to keep clean.
During the day there was very little movement at Ypres, but at night this was different, as the transport lorries had to bring up stores and ammunition for the guns. They used to go through the city at a great pace for fear of being caught by the enemy shell fire, and it is interesting to record that on one occasion a complaint was made by the Battalion to the effect that the streets were unsafe at night on this account. This of course was in addition to the unsafety resulting from enemy fire.
When in reserve the Battalion was stationed at "B" Camp at Brandhoek, on the Poperinghe Ypres Road. Here the officers and men were accommodated in very comfortable wooden huts, from which Poperinghe, with its shops and cafe's, could easily be reached. Attention should be directed to the rigorous sanitary measures which obtained in this Corps, chiefly due to the insistence of the Corps Commander. Great progress had been made in this direction since the beginning of the war. Latrines and ablution places were kept scrupulously clean. All rubbish was cast into the incinerators, and billets had to be kept clean and tidy. On relief each unit had to obtain a certificate from the relieving unit to the effect that the billets had been left in a clean and sanitary condition. These measures, though rigid, were beneficial and kept down sickness to a large extent.
On Christmas day the Battalion was in Ypres, and one of the Churches in the Boulevard Malon was decorated, and proved a useful dining room, in which the men partook of a good Christmas dinner which was thoroughly enjoyed. After the meal the Commanding Officer ascended into the pulpit and treated the soldiers to an inspiring address, but it can be safely assumed that the men enjoyed the meal much more than the lecture.
The New Year was heralded by an intense bombardment by the British, and in anticipation of the enemy retaliation the front line was cleared, except for the officer on watch, and Lewis gun teams. The line was badly knocked about by the enemy fire, but was built up again by the Battalion in one night.
In January the first Divisional rest for ten months commenced, and it was spent by the Battalion first at "Z" Camp and then at Proven. The weather at this time was intensely cold, and as the men in "Z" Camp had only Nissen huts they suffered greatly in consequence. These huts were made of unseasoned timber, and large gaps appeared in the floors through which the cold east wind entered, reducing the temperature to a figure well below zero.
The first week or so was devoted to training. There was a fear at this time that the principles of open warfare might easily be forgotten during the long periods of stagnation in the trenches. Consequently exercises in open warfare were ordered by the Higher Command, and the Battalion carried out several tactical schemes, and also some night operations. These latter struck the men as rather unnecessary, as they had all been on night patrols in the neutral ground between the lines, which after all was what might be called the real thing. The other exercises were very beneficial, as were also the attack practices which took place.
At Proven the men discovered that the term Divisional rest was a misnomer. Reveille was before six, and in the dim light of the early morning, the men had to wash and shave in icy cold water in the teeth of a bitter east wind. There followed a meagre breakfast cooked on an unsheltered field kitchen in the dark, and often in the rain. The men paraded at seven, and went out on a working party for the rest of the day. Their tasks were to load earth on railway trucks and then off load it after a short train journey, to serve as ballast for another portion of line that was in course of construction. The earth was frozen several inches deep and it was necessary to loosen it by means of a pick before it could be shovelled on to the trucks. Towards the evening the men returned, cold, weary and tired, to a draughty barn, with the dismal prospect of a similar day on the morrow.
For the officers there was a lecture by the Commanding Officer on a pamphlet recently brought out called "The Division in the Attack." The lecture took place every evening at 5 p.m. in the village school, and this meant that in many cases the officers were on duty for twelve hours continuously. During the day time there was also a Lewis gun class for the officers who were not on the working party, and they studied the weapon assiduously. While at Proven the Battalion was visited, while working on the railway, by Lord Wavertree, then Colonel Hall Walker, the Honorary Colonel, to whom the officers were presented. It seemed a long time since they had seen him last at Sailly Labourse, and his presence was very welcome to all the old members.
An outbreak of scarlet fever prolonged the Battalion's stay for a few days, but on the 23rd February it left Proven, detrained at the Asylum at Ypres and moved into billets at the Prison, with two of the companies in the Magazine. While in the Prison one of the officers facetiously remarked that it was a much better gaol than he had been used to, and observed that it was built on the panopticon principle. The next day the Battalion moved to its old haunts at Potijze, and resumed duties as before. During this tour Lieutenant Colonel F.W.M. Drew took over the command in succession to Lieutenant Colonel Woodhouse. At this time so short was the Battalion of officers that "D" Company had only one officer, who was the Company Commander, and as his company was disposed partly in a sector of trench known as X3, Potijze Defences, St. James' Trench and the Garden of Eden, he had a good deal to do. On the 4th March a successful raid took place on an enemy post opposite to Number 5 Crater, in the vicinity of the Railway. The sentry post was in a sap head around which the wire had been cut up by shell fire. A shrapnel barrage was directed against the post for a few minutes, while the raiding party was waiting in no man's land. The barrage lifted suddenly, and the small raiding party rushed in and, taking the sentries by surprise, secured them as prisoners. On the 19th March the enemy successfully raided the Battalion, and unfortunately captured about ten prisoners. The plan adopted was ingenious. The night had been exceptionally quiet, when suddenly about half an hour before dawn the enemy opened with a barrage of all calibres on the sector immediately on the left of the Battalion, with the intention of diverting the attention of the British artillery to that sector. The enemy raiding party meanwhile was lying in no man's land. The enemy suddenly opened with a devastating fire on the Battalion's trenches for a few minutes, lengthened the range, and under cover of this barrage the raiding party entered and surprised the men in the front line. Orders had lately been received that the officer on watch was not to fire the S.O.S. signal to the artillery until he was sure that the enemy had left their trenches. But as it was dark he could not ascertain this, and consequently the signal was not fired. The Company Commander sent back the S.O.S. signal, but the message was not delivered through the foolishness of a signaller who was afraid to use the power buzzer, fearing that the enemy might intercept the message. The Germans left one of their men dead in the trench and another just in front of the parapet. This was an incident which had to be avenged, and soon the Battalion by means of two successful raids secured enough prisoners to equalize.
Towards the end of the month another raid was expected. To frustrate this the Commanding Officer decided to have a body of about sixty men lying in the middle of no man's land, in such a position that they would escape the enemy barrage and intercept the raiding party and take them by surprise. This was a sound scheme, but it was very exhausting for the men who had to lie for four or five hours on the frozen ground. Moreover, the anticipated raid did not eventualise.
The 13th March was the anniversary of the advent of the Battalion to France, and as the Battalion was then at Brandhoek, the sergeants invited the Commanding Officer and the remaining original officers who had landed at Le Havre with the Battalion to attend a smoking concert. The officers spent a short time at the concert, during which the usual eulogistic speeches were made.
About this time the platoons were reorganised in accordance with a training pamphlet that had lately been issued. Henceforth they were to consist of a Lewis gun section, a section of bombers, another of rifle grenadiers, and a fourth of riflemen, and the men were taught the new formation to be adopted for the attack which was known as the "Normal Formation," one consisting of lines and waves of attackers.
In April, when the Battalion's turn came for a period in reserve, two companies had to remain in Ypres to assist the Royal Engineers with working parties, so that the personnel of these companies missed their period of rest. At this time one of these companies had its headquarters in a house in a terrace called the Place d' Amour. In the gardens of the houses a battery of field guns was installed, and there was another just close by. The headquarters of these two batteries were also in the Place d' Amour one on each side of the infantry company headquarters. One morning the enemy decided to annihilate one of the batteries and commenced to fire ranging shots over the terrace. The artillerymen knew what was coming, and told everyone to leave the billets, but to uphold the honour of the infantry, the men refused to leave the billets until after the gunners had evacuated the position. They got away just in time.
On the 17th April the Battalion moved to the Ecole, a place outside the city on the east, which had apparently been a large technical school, and after a few days here it moved to Railway Wood sector where things were very active. After a tour here and a few days in reserve it returned to Potijze sector once more. On the 11th May a very successful night raid was carried out by two officers and forty other ranks on Oskar Farm. Under cover of a barrage two parties entered the enemy positions. Some Germans were found in a dugout, which was then bombed and six Germans surrendered. A small bombing party was counter attacked by six Germans, and the sergeant in command shot three and bayoneted one, while the other two escaped. The War Diary states that on the way back some of the prisoners became unruly and were effectively dealt with, which means that they were killed. At least ten Germans were killed besides those in the dugout that was bombed. The prisoners belonged to the 1st Matrosen Regiment of the German Naval Division.
On the 17th May the Battalion went to Bollezeele, where it remained for a month. This was a clean, well built village, where the men were very comfortable. The training ground was about an hour's march away, and so the Battalion paraded in the main street every morning with the drummers in the centre, and marched to the training ground where the companies were placed at the disposal of their commanders for drill and instruction. A meal was taken at noon and when the afternoon's work was done the Battalion reformed and marched back to billets. The weather at this time was very fine. Never had the men witnessed such beautiful blue skies, and scarcely a drop of rain marred the stay in the village. The Brigade sports were held early in June, and the Battalion did very well in the military contests, winning three out of four events, but unfortunately not quite so well in the others.
On the 11th June the Battalion left Bollezeele, and early the next morning arrived at Ypres, and immediately went to the usual sector at Potijze. As the shell fire in this area had become much more severe of late, to move troops through Ypres or even around it was done at great risk, and all were glad when the move was over.
By a chain of unfortunate circumstances, leave for officers had been very slow. In January it had been stopped as it was considered necessary for the officers to be with their men during training while out of line. Difficulties of transport brought about the closing of leave from January to June. It opened again in June, but as all could not go at once it happened that some officers did not get leave for nine or ten months.
After a few days in Potijze sector the Battalion sidestepped to the Wieltje sector. The tour here was characterised by intense enemy artillery activity. Heavy batteries constantly countered each other, and day and night were punctuated by cannonades of varying intensity. Ypres itself was shelled by the celebrated 420 m.m. Skoda howitzer. The enemy drenched the area with the old lachrymatory gas shells, as well as a new gas he had lately introduced known as "Yellow Cross" or "Mustard" gas. Bilge Trench came in for special attention, and on one day it was estimated that 1,200 heavy shells fell in its vicinity.
It was a time of great aerial activity also. Richthofen and his squadron visited the sector quite frequently generally in the early morning and fired machine guns at the men in the trenches. His squadron could be easily distinguished, as the bodies of the aeroplanes were painted red. Also they flew very low, and the anti aircraft gunners did not dare to fire, leaving it to the infantrymen to defend themselves with Lewis guns as best they could.
During the tour in Wieltje the Battalion dug Hopkin's Trench in no man's land, under machine gun, granatenwerfer and rifle grenade fire, which were the cause of several casualties. Fortunately there was a very good mined dugout at Wieltje containing many rooms which were lighted by electricity. The shelter it afforded reduced considerably the number of casualties that would otherwise have taken place, and it was a pity that there were not more like it.
Though very good work was done by the companies during these months of trench duty, it should be remembered that perhaps the most dangerous task was the bringing up of rations and water. Ypres was approachable from Poperinghe by one road only, along which came almost all the supplies for the troops in the Salient. From a point on the road called Shrapnel Crossing to the city it was within convenient range of the enemy artillery, and being well aware that the road was much used at night, the enemy subjected it to considerable fire, and caused casualties nightly. Once arrived in Ypres the Battalion transport had to pass the Square and the Menin Gate, which were well known danger points, where there was no cover, and then proceed to Potijze along a road that could easily be enfiladed by the enemy gunners. No matter how heavy was the enemy shelling there was no night on which the transport section failed to deliver the rations.
At the beginning of July the Battalion went to Moringhem to prepare for the great battle. This was a very small hamlet, and there must have been a great concentration of troops in the Pas de Calais, as this little place had to accommodate two battalions. The men were placed under canvas, and some of the officers lived in tents, while the remainder were accommodated in billets. The training was mainly devoted to the attack. The British and the enemy trenches were taped out on some cornfields, in propinquity to the hamlet, and the forthcoming attack was rehearsed time and time again by all the battalions in the Brigade. Great attention was paid to synchronisation of watches, and the immediate reporting of all information. Maps and aeroplane photographs of the ground were studied with meticulous care, and a model of the Battalion's sector over which it was to attack, showing Uhlan Farm, Jasper and Plum Farms, Pommern Castle, and Pommern Redoubt, was constructed outside the camp to explain the lie of the ground to the men. Tanks were represented by half limbers during these practices, and the shrapnel barrage by drums.
During the stay at Moringhem the officers were able to ride into St. Omer on one or two occasions, and there dine at the restaurants, where a welcome change in their usual menu was obtainable.