Part 2

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Into Battle: Neuve Chapelle

How do you feel as you stand in a trench
Awaiting the whistle to blow?
Are you frightened, anxious, shaking with fear,
Or are you ready to go?
All men react in a different way
But few to heroics aspire
But should a man boast that he never felt fear
Then, in my book, that man is a liar.

Sgt. Harry Fellowes
12th Northumberland Fusiliers

Chapter 6

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The sixteen thousand men of the 46th North Midland Territorial Division did not share the qualms of the Commander-in-Chief with regard to their ability to fight. They had been ready, willing and waiting for months, weary of training and itching to get into the real war.

But they were not all so experienced as the Terriers who had been rushed to France in the early days. When war broke out not many Territorial battalions were up to full strength and some in country districts had been nowhere near it. In the first weeks of the war they had been forced to enrol new volunteers to make up their numbers and so far as the new recruits were concerned the Territorials were a popular choice. For one thing they were issued with uniforms and rifles right away and for months now they had been swanking over their khaki-less comrades of Kitchener’s Mob in cloth caps and civilian clothes. The trouble was that as many as two in ten of the Territorials were as raw and inexperienced as the masses that flooded into the ranks of Kitchener’s New Armies. In the early days, this had caused difficulties in many Territorial battalions, not least in the 6th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. They still remembered one embarrassing incident which, although amusing in retrospect, had not impressed the Colonel at the time.

It had been unfortunate for the Battalion that when the Commander of the North Midland Brigade arrived unexpectedly to confer with Lieutenant-Colonel Waterhouse he was not greeted with the ‘military compliments’ which a full colonel of the regular army was entitled to receive. The soldier enjoying the sun outside the guard-room merely glanced at him with no apparent interest. It was 12 August, the ‘guard-room’ was the gate-house of a brewery in Burton-on-Trent, where the South Staffs had been ordered to concentrate, and ten days ago the soldier leaning against the wall had been a tram-driver. Today, by some fluke of authority, he had been told off for guard-duty, and he had only the haziest notion of what this entailed. He couldn’t recognise a Brigadier when he saw one and, since the sentry was correctly attired in the uniform of a Territorial, Colonel Bromilow did not recognise a raw recruit. Turn out the Guard!’ he snapped. The only response was, ‘Eh?’ ‘Where is the Guard?’ ‘I don’t know.’

The Colonel twigged at once and changed his approach. ‘Where are the other fellows?’ The sentry jerked his head at the guard-room ‘In there.’ Bromilow made for the door but the sentry had gleaned from somewhere that the purpose of a sentry was to guardsomething which might well be the guard-room itself, and he sprang to life bellowing, ‘‘ERE YOU! You can’t go in there!’ He even went so far as to shove his superior officer out of the way.

Colonel Bromilow was an old soldier. It was thirty years since he had been commissioned into his parent regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He had fought in the South African War at the battle of Ladysmith and been in the legendary charge of the Irish Brigade at Colenso. He had served in Egypt, in India, in the Sudan. And he knew when he was beaten. He turned on his heel and strode off to exchange a few curt words with Lieutenant-Colonel Waterhouse. Next day, for the benefit of newcomers, the regulations governing the duties of the guard were reproduced in Battalion Orders, with the rider that platoon officers must see to it that newly enlisted men were trained to carry them out.

Most Territorial officers in the 6th South Staffs had at least one or two years’ service, but this did not mean that they encountered no difficulties. They were perfectly familiar with duties of Orderly Officer of the day but it was natural that in the course of afternoon or evening drills they had never been called upon to perform the routine task of ‘inspecting men’s dinners’, and it had seldom fallen to their lot during annual camps. ‘Inspecting dinners’ was simply a matter of visiting the cookhouse while the food was being prepared and going to the mess halls when the meal had been served to ask ‘Any complaints?’ It was at the cookhouse that Lieutenant Langley had come to grief, for when the sergeant-cook ordered the lid of a huge dixie to be lifted for his inspection, he realised that he had not the faintest idea what he was supposed to do next. He peered into the bubbling brew, playing for time and racking his brains. ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘Boiled beef, sir.’ All that occurred to Lieutenant Langley were the queries ‘Is it beef?’ and ‘Is it boiled?’ – and he could see that that was ridiculous. The expected response – and universal escape-route in awkward situations – was a laconic ‘Very good. Carry on, Sergeant’, but these words completely escaped him. The cooks were waiting expectantly. Langley, now uncomfortably enveloped in steam, went on earnestly scrutinising the contents of the dixie. How was he meant to ‘inspect’ the food? He was finally driven by heat and desperation to prodding the beef gingerly with the end of his short Malacca cane. And then, at last, the blessed formula came to mind. ‘Very good. Carry on, Sergeant.’ The cooks sportingly showed no sign of astonishment. Later a few scornful words from the Adjutant, who had happened to be passing the open cookhouse door (and also happened to be Langley’s elder brother), put the over-zealous inspector right.

But, like other battalions of the 46th Division, the 6th South Staffs had been licked into shape and trained for war service. Now they were to have the honour of being the first division composed entirely of Territorials to go to the front and the Commanding Officer of the 6th South Staffs was determined that their arrival should not go unnoticed. He had issued orders to the company officers to ensure that every man was familiar with the tune of the French national anthem and, although he was not so ambitious as to expect them to learn the words, he insisted that they should practise whistling it. The Battalion enthusiastically took to the idea, were encouraged by the officers to rehearse it on route marches and picked it up in no time. They were whistle perfect long before they embarked for France. It was not easy to fit English words to the tune of ‘The Marseillaise’ but, as the weeks passed, a few wags were moved to vary the eternal whistling by warbling When are we go-ing, when are we go-o-ing, When are we go-ing to the front? But they could get no further. Neither, it seemed, could the battalion.

Their departure was delayed so long, and every man had been home on his ‘last’ forty-eight-hour pass so often that his family, who had bidden him an emotional goodbye on the first occasion, became blasé, if not downright bored, by numerous repeat performances of ‘The Soldier’s Farewell’. Even the men got fed up with it and it was a relief to all when they finally embarked on 5 March. The departure from Southampton was thrilling.

2nd Lt. F. Best, Army Service Corps, 46 Div. Supply Column.

The sea was absolutely calm. I counted fourteen searchlights looking aimlessly for aircraft and the water was raked by as many horizontal ones on the lookout for submarines while we were gliding down the Solent. The water looked a dazzling blue green in the zone of light. A more gorgeous sight you couldn’t imagine – the coloured lights and signals, the still water and the misty land disappearing gradually into the haze. Further south a couple of destroyers escorted us – little black streaks ploughing along in the dull light. That made us feel very secure. It suddenly occurred to me that we were performing the famous tableau I’d seen so often as a lad at Hamilton’s Panorama – it was called Troopship Leaving Southampton.

We anchored among several other vessels outside the harbour of Le Havre, with French and English destroyers flitting round us all the time. Then the pilot led us in. We took a short time to land and proceeded to a large shed at the side of the line a mile and a half from the dock. We were joined later by masses of others. The troops and citizens in Le Havre were startled by the spectacle of an officer charging through the town at break-neck speed, taking no notice of tram lines or level crossings – sparks flying from the granite setts. This was Eric Milner on a stylish looking charger he’d selected from the Remount Depot at Southampton when his own horse Jingly Geordie died there of cold. He was some miles on the other side of town before he managed to stop the beast!

Lieutenant Milner narrowly escaped being the very first casualty of the entire division and, compared to his dramatic entrance into the field of war, the arrival of the 6th South Staffs was something of an anti-climax. It was also a deep disappointment to Colonel Water-house. His men played their part to perfection, marching smartly through the streets to the transit camp, lustily whistling The Marseillaise’ in compliment to their French allies. But the allies, as represented by the civilian population of le Havre, took not the slightest notice. The 46th Divisional supply column had been longer on the way for it was a laborious job to pack up and move the 200 wagons, 600 men and as many as 550 horses that made up the Divisional train. The men who had reached France before the supply column got there were more than pleased to see it when it finally arrived. No one was happier than Captain Ashwell of the 8th Battalion, Notts and Derby, known to the army as the Sherwood Foresters. Ashwell had drawn what turned out to be the short straw, for he had been sent to France in charge of the advance guard, and if the fifty men who made up this vanguard had been inclined to crow over the laggards who were left behind, they very soon regretted it.

Advance guards were nobody’s children. Even at le Havre, while waiting for space in a train going north, no one seemed inclined to find them billets. They were obliged to shift for themselves and bed down in empty trucks and, when they finally did reach their destination, with no transport, and with no Divisional, Brigade or Battalion headquarters to issue orders or to turn to in case of difficulty, they felt more than ever like lost sheep. There were naturally no battalion postal arrangements and one new arrival, anxious to let his family know his whereabouts, scribbled a hasty note and posted it in a village post-box. No one had told him that troops in France were forbidden to use the civilian postal service and the question of censorship had not entered his head: ‘Dear Mum and Dad, Well, we got away all right. At the moment I am at a place near Cassel with a few other fellows. I expect the rest will arrive soon. I am in the pink, and hope this finds you as it leaves me…’This letter caused consternation, first in his family and later in the Battalion, for his parents looked up Cassel on a small-scale map of Europe, found only Kassel in Germany, and made the natural assumption that their son had been taken prisoner the moment he set foot in France. They wrote straight off to the War Office for information. Later, after the arrival of his Battalion, when the wrath of Whitehall eventually descended on the head of his Commanding Officer, the unfortunate soldier received a wigging he was unlikely to forget.

The task of the advance guard was to pave the way for the Battalion, to find billets for a thousand weary men at the end of their long journey, to select premises suitable for Battalion Headquarters and orderly rooms, places nearby where the cookers could set up, and suitable fields for the wagon lines. Finding billets in the scattered hamlets north of Cassel, Ashwell discovered, was a simple task compared to that of feeding his fifty men. Iron rations were soon exhausted, they had to forage further and further afield for supplies and, in the three days before the Battalion arrived, Ashwell reckoned that he had personally trudged no less than forty-five miles in search of food. They arrived on the evening of 4 March. Ashwell was heartily pleased to see them and even more pleased, when the next move came, to be back in the fold and travelling as one of the crowd.

It had taken ten days for the whole division to congregate. There had been time – but only just – to give a few of the earliest arrivals a brief stint in some quiet sector of the trench-line but soon after the last straggling unit arrived and the division was complete, the order came to move south. This time it was the real thing for they were moving into general reserve for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Untried though the 46th Division was, the Commander-in-Chief was forced to use it. There was no other to use.

But neither Sir John French, his staff, nor Sir Douglas Haig, the architect of the battle, was unduly concerned about this lack of experience. As reserves the Territorials of the 46th Division would not be in the thick of the attack. When the Regulars, assisted by their own attached Territorial Battalions, had smashed the line, when the cavalry had thrust ahead through the gap, only then would the soldiers in reserve be brought forward to support the troops who had broken through and to follow behind as they advanced.

It was twenty kilometres from the la Bassée Canal in the south to Bois Grenier further north and Haig’s First Army now held this front with six divisions. The Germans facing them held it with two – and those were greatly under strength. Six Battalions had just been

transferred to the front in Champagne, and they had been withdrawn from the precise sector of the line on which the first and most fearsome British attack would fall. Fifteen British Battalions were poised to attack the line held by just one and a half Battalions of German troops. In front of the Indian Corps, where nine Battalions of the Meerut Division were waiting to strike, there were just three German Battalions, and all of them were strung out by companies along the vulnerable length of their ill-manned front. The nearest reserves, a mere two companies, were at Halpegarbe just over two kilometres from the German front line.

It was true that the Germans had local reserves in stronger formations, but they were at least ten kilometres away. Sir Douglas Haig had taken them into account and had impressed on his Corps Commanders the vital importance of getting ahead as quickly as possible before German reserves could get there. Everything hinged on speed. The infantry must not hesitate but must push on as fast as possible. This order was handed down the line and there was no Brigadier, no Battalion Commanding Officer and, eventually, no Company Commander who was not fully aware of its importance.

As Commander of the First Army, General Haig had given a good deal of thought to the disposition of his troops and his plans had been approved by the Commander-in-Chief. He proposed to attack in depth. The attack would be narrow, but at the centre, where it mattered, it would be deep. Everything depended on the capture of Neuve Chapelle and the system of German trenches that formed the salient around it. Once the village had been captured and the line straightened, the troops on either side of it could advance in line with the victors and the battle would be as good as won. With one more push, long before the enemy was able to bring up his reserves, they would be on top of Aubers Ridge. The two essentials were that they should be the very best troops available and that there should be enough of them in close support to pass speedily through the first successful waves and continue the assault. Neuve Chapelle was the crux.

In normal circumstances, with the enemy ranged in a semi-circle around it, a salient is an awkward place to occupy and the men defending it can be harassed by rifle and shellfire coming from two sides as well as from their front. But on the British side there had been neither bullets nor shells to spare. In the months they had been holding it, the Germans had got off so lightly that it was they who had been able to harass the 8th Division who had the misfortune to surround them in this sector of the line. Neuve Chapelle was a sniper’s paradise. Its houses, still mostly intact, were full of them and, firing in all directions from behind stout walls, their long-range rifles fitted with telescopic sights had been giving the men of the 8th Division an uncomfortable time and they looked forward to squaring the accounts.

But a salient is also an awkward place to attack. The original plan had been for two brigades of the 8th Division to attack it in the flank from the north, but the Army had had second thoughts. So crucial was the position, so vital was its capture to the success of the whole plan, that it must be hit so fast and so hard at a single blow that there could not be the smallest possibility of delay or hold-up. To stiffen and deepen the attack, the Indian Corps, the immediate neighbours of the 8th Division on its right, was squeezed up to bring its Garhwal Brigade in front of Neuve Chapelle. The 8th Division squeezed up and moved left to make room. It was just one stage of a wholesale reshuffle.

The thirteen-mile front that ran from Neuve Chapelle north to Bois Grenier was held by IV Corps. It comprised the two Regular divisions that together represented the ace in the British hand – the 7th Division, which had borne the brunt of the Battle of Ypres in October, and the 8th Division composed of Regular Battalions brought back from foreign stations. Now there was the Canadian Division, newly arrived in France, but as willing and enthusiastic as any Commander could desire. They were to take over a quiet sector at the northern end of the corps front to allow the 7th Division to double its strength in front of Aubers Ridge. The reshuffling was complete twelve days before the battle. It was a large concentration of troops to compress into an area of a few thousand yards, and although, in principle, the process was much like ordering a single line of soldiers to form fours, to perform the same drill with some twenty thousand men – and in the face of the enemy – was no easy matter. But it had been done, and the troops were in position. Now the IV Corps, with the 23rd Brigade of the 8th Division on its right, joined hands with the Garhwal Brigade on the left of the Indian Corps. Together they formed a rough V-shape round the apex of the salient in front of Neuve Chapelle and when the battle began they would attack it simultaneously from both sides, linking up triumphantly when it had been captured to pursue the advance. This fateful arrangement was the flaw in a well-laid plan. The two brigades, each from a separate Corps, came under two different commands and this factor, in the place where the attack should be strongest, was destined to be the Achilles heel that would trip it up.

The supporting brigades of divisions in the line stretched far back into the rural hinterland for it had been impossible to find billets for so many in nearby farms and hamlets. They could be moved close up as the battle approached. In any event, it would be injudicious to run the risk of their being spotted by inquisitive enemy aircraft before the preparations were complete.

There was little enough time to prepare for the battle, but miracles were accomplished in a few days. For one thing there was the question of forming up trenches and jump-off positions that would give the infantry the all-important head start that would take the enemy by surprise. They could hardly be expected to climb laboriously across the high sandbagged breastworks that had sheltered them since the appalling weather had forced them out of the trenches. But the weather had improved and the ground had dried out – not so much as had been hoped, but enough to dig new trenches and to reclaim old ones, to pump out water, shore up crumbling walls. There would still be an inch or so of sloppy mud underfoot, but heavy planks could be laid to give reasonably dry standing while the men were waiting, and it was a foregone conclusion that they would be up and away in no time, and streaming far ahead. There were bridges to be constructed – scores of them – to lay across the ditches and culverts the troops would have to cross as they moved to the assault. Miles of telephone wire had to be laid, along the ground, festooned along communication trenches and, further back, strung between newly erected poles. The telephones and buzzers would keep Battalions in touch with Divisional Headquarters, link each Division to its Brigade Headquarters, connect Brigades with Corps, and Corps with First Army Headquarters at Merville where Sir Douglas Haig and his staff would be coordinating the offensive and issuing orders. Most important of all, telephones and buzzers would be the vital link between all of them and the guns.

There was the material to be carried up to dumps close to the line – large quantities of food and water, boxes of small arms ammunition for the rifles, shells for the guns, spades and pickaxes, bales of barbed wire, iron pickets, and the hundred and one items that the army would need to dig itself in as it advanced. None of the preparations could be carried out by day and, in the ten nights before the battle, the groans and curses of a thousand working parties might have been heard in Berlin.

L/cpl. W. L. Andrews, 1/4 Bn., Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) (TF), Bareilly Brig., Meerut Div.

We knew, of course, that we’d have to fight our way across fields so sodden with the winter rain that they were like morasses. Before the battle we had to throw bridges across drains and watercourses running through our own front so that the troops could concentrate quickly. We dragged our way up with ammunition, bombs, rations, sandbags, barbed wire, spare bridges, planks, hurdles and iron pickets, and stored them at dumps in the fields. We were carrying all through the hours of darkness night after night. It took a tremendous time to do this but it never occurred to us to wonder what to expect when we crossed to the fields the Germans were holding where we wouldn’t have hundreds of bridges to help us over the watery parts, and we would still have all our fighting material to carry forward.

Soldiers? We were more like sweating coolies. How we came to loathe the sodden tracks, with wire overhead, wire underfoot, every few yards! And we still had to carry our rifles and ammunition with us. That was the military way, although there was no danger of our being suddenly attacked and we’d have been a lot more useful as coolies without them!

The gunners, too, had been hard at it, labouring with whatever material was available – planks and bricks and hurdles – to build platforms strong enough to anchor the guns to the muddy earth. Every gun that could be begged or borrowed had been sited behind the front, and the combined field artillery of the IV and Indian Corps, augmented by light thirteen-pounders borrowed from the cavalry, was positioned in a deep horseshoe mostly in front of Neuve Chapelle. For days now they had been ranging on the enemy’s line, taking care not to arouse his suspicion and taking care also to expend as little as possible of the precious ammunition. At the start of the offensive they would fire the hurricane bombardment that would smash the German wire and blow open a path for the infantry to advance. Behind them were the heavy guns that would pulverise the trenches and destroy strong-points in the line – but there were not nearly enough of them. Of the two mammoth 15-inch Howitzers on which Sir John French had depended only one had arrived. It had brought little ammunition, and what it had was faulty.

As the days passed the Commander-in-Chief fumed and fretted. Two batteries of heavy guns were still missing and their eight 6-inch Howitzers would constitute a third of all the siege guns that had been faithfully promised weeks earlier. Far from being in position where they ought to be, they had not even embarked for France. They were the 59th and 81st Siege Batteries, but their high numbers gave a false impression for they did not indicate the number of siege guns at the disposal of the British Army. They were Indian numbers and although the gunners were not ready to embark they had arrived from India three months earlier.

Bdr. W. Kemp, A sub-section, 59 Siege Bty., RGA.

We were at Roorkee when the war broke out. At first it didn’t upset the routine in our battery at all, and that really annoyed us because we’d expected to be away to France on the next boat. But we didn’t get away until the middle of November and we landed in Devonport about Christmas and marched to Portsmouth barracks. What a reception we got from the crowd! We were heroes already, in their opinion. All we were thinking about was getting a feed of fish and chips, and to hell with the cheers! My last taste of them was in February 1909, before we sailed for India, so all I thought about was getting to the nearest chip shop.

We’d left our 25-hundredweight guns behind, but we kept our pre-war numbers and 59th and 81st Batteries kept their old Garrison Artillery numbers, so when we finally did get to France in March this caused some confusion to people who didn’t know owt about the Royal Garrison Artillery. Other batteries that came out later couldn’t understand why the number of our battery was higher than theirs. We went to Fort Fareham at the beginning of January to be equipped with 6-inch 30-hundredweight Howitzers and started to work with them. It was a different cup of tea from India!

For one thing the battery was horse-drawn. Out there we had bullocks, great hefty beasts, and when we went to camp we had elephants to pull the guns out when they managed to slide into a ditch – which was often! Compared to them these horses were ruddy devils! Now when we got stuck in a ditch or the mud it was a case of ‘Take out the ‘osses and put on the drag ropes.’ It was some change, because you could say we’d lived in luxury in India. Everything was done for us – we even got shaved in bed by the Nappi. He came round every morning and we paid him about fourpence a month. We didn’t know we were born!

Of course we worked hard too. I’d started on the old 4-inch gun mounted on an elephant carriage – no buffers, so when it fired it went back about ten yards and had to be wheeled forward to its correct position. We did gun-drill, we did some rifle exercises, a little semaphore, practice in observation, a guard now and again – and that was our life.

One of the things we had to do now was practise firing by the map at targets we couldn’t see, and that was absolutely new to us. In India we went to Battery Practice Camp once a year. A nice wide area was selected where the ‘enemy’ guns could be seen from the observation of fire instruments. The enemy very kindly fired powder puffs twice so that we could correct our line. We brought our instrument on to the centre line of the enemy’s battery, and when we fired we were able to record the fall of our shots easily, because the enemy always stopped firing so that the observers on our instrument wouldn’t get mixed up with the fall of shot and the gun-fire of the very obliging Enemy!

This was a wonderful system where the gunners ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds! Even we gunners on the instrument used to laugh at it, but to no avail. Fancy intelligent officers of the Royal Artillery falling for this daft idea which could onlybe carried out in practice camp!

Since mid-February a series of urgent telegrams had been flying between Staff Headquarters at St Omer and Ordnance Headquarters in England, and they grew more and more fiery as the weeks passed and there was no sign of the two missing batteries. First came the assurance that they would sail on 26 February, then without fail on 1 March. On the 3rd Sir John French was cast down by the news that the batteries had not yet left England. Time was running out. If they did not arrive soon they would hardly have time to dig in the guns or to range on targets before the battle began. Their targets had already been allotted, and both of them were crucial. The particular task of 59th Battery was to smash the German strongpoints around Mauquissart on the front of the 22nd Brigade who would attack it.

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