Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (The 2/4th Battalion)

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The Ablaincourt Sector, February 1917

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

EARLY in 1917 it became known to our intelligence service that the enemy was contemplating retirement on a large scale from the Somme battle-front. Reports from prisoners and aeroplane photographs of a new line, famous afterwards as the Hindenburg line, running from west of Cambrai to St. Quentin, left in doubt only the date and manner of the withdrawal. To the latter question some answer was possible by reference to our mentors or from a text-book appreciation of the situation, though no one guessed until the movement had in reality started with what
circumstances the Germans would see fit to invest it. The date was a more difficult problem. For its solution recourse must be had by commanders, staff officers and experts to the infantry A competition open to all battalions holding the line (and without other entrance fee) thereupon commenced. To whom should fall the laurels of a correct diagnosis of the march-table of the German rearguards, who be the first to scatter them by the
relentless pursuit of out victorious arms? To out higher staff the question whether the enemy was still manning with normal garrisons the front opposite out armies seemed relatively simple.
Readers, however, with experience of trench warfare will remember that in the line by day it was impossible to surmise correctly one item of what was happening a hundred yards away in hostile trenches- certainly one knew well enough when shells were falling, and ‘minnies,’ rifle-grenades and snipers’ bullets argued that a pernicious, almost verminous, form of life was extant not far away” but despite all this, stared a sentry never so vigilantlv.through his periscope he could hardly, predict whether two, ten, or a hundred of the enemy tribe were hidden below earth almost within a stone’s throw. At night it seemed probable that a patrol of a few brave men could crawl right up to the
German wire and listen, or by setting foot in them enquire whether ‘Fritz’ was at home in his trenches or no and so our patrols could, and did. In practice, however, out most active patrols were frequently deceived. Shots and Verey lights, which
came from several directions, might be discharged by a solitary German, whose function it was to go the round of the enemy posts and fire from each spasmodically in turn. A trench entered and found empty might be a disused sap or bar habituallv unoccupied. To maintain the normal semblance of trench-warfare was an easy task for the German, and one that he never failed in.

Repeatedly in his retirements during the war he removed his real forces, his artillery and stores unbeknown to our watching infantry and their questioning staff. The screen of a retreating enemy is not easily caught up and pierced by an advaneed guard not superior to it in strength and inferior in mobility. On the Somme in 1917 and from the Lys salient in 1918 the Germans retired from wide to narrower divisional fronts (giving themselves greater ‘depth’ in the process), which fact, coupled with destruction of bridges and roads, prevented us from forcing an issue with their main bodv on the move. There were exceptions, as when the 32nd Division captured guns near Savy, but the enemy, in retiring, played for safety and denied much opportunity to our troops, despite their zeal in keeping touch, to deal him damage. Such was the tactical situation when the 184th lnfantry Brigade relieved the French in the Ablaincourt sector.

The Berks, who first held the left subsector, had an uneventful tour. Trenches taken over from the French were usually quiet at first owing to the different methods employed by us and our allies in the conduct of trench-warfare. Within a day or two of the relief the frost had finally broken and the trenches everywhere started to fall in, making the outlook in this respect ominous.

On the afternoon of Februar 23, we marched up to relieve the Berks. Near Foucaucourt the cookers gave us tea. There also we changed into gumboots. Guides met us at Estrées cross-roads,
a trysting place possible only when dusk had fallen and the lugubrious procession started along a tram-way track among whose iron sleepers the men floundered considerably, partly from their precau- tion of choosing gumboots several sizes too large.
On this occasion the usual stoppages and checks were multiplied by a brisk artillery ‘strafe’ upon the front, accompanied by all manner of coloured lights and rockets. The noise soon dying down we were able to continue a bad journey” with men frequently becoming stuck and a few lost. The relief was not over until nearly dawn, by when the last Berks had left and our worst stragglers been collected.

The Battalion took over a three-company front. Brown with A Company guarded the left. Robin- son with C (containing a large proportion of a recent draft now paying its first visit to the trenches) was in the centre, and D Company on the right. Some
500 vards behind our front lay the Ablaincourt Sucrerie, a dismal heap of polluted ruins, like all sugar factories the site of desperate fighting.

Ablaincourt itself, a village freely mentioned in French dispatches during the Somme battle, was the very symbol of depressing desolation. Péronne, eight mlles to the north-east, was out of view.

Save for the low ridge of Chaulnes, whence the German gunners watched, and the shattered barn-roofs of Marchélepot–the former on our right, the latter directly to our front–the scene was mud, always mud, stretching appallingly to the horizon.

Students of music are familiar with the rival motifs that run through operas. In an earlier paragraph I have indicated one such motif, and if in this opera of war a curtain be lifted to shew the
future act which this motif dominates, you would see the German staff busy with maps over its re- treat, planning the time-table of explosion and burning, and designating the several duties of
fouling wells and laying booby-traps.

Another scene, in which the rival motif is heard, shews a strong body of ugly-looking Germans at practice over some shallow trenches some distance behind their line. By a quaint coincidence these trenches are a facsimile of those just taken over
by the Battalion. The ugly Germans are members of a ‘travelling circus.’ For long past they have lived in the best billets and been receiving extra rations. They play no part in the retreat house-
wrecking, the flooding of cellars, the hacking through of young fruit trees and throwing over of sundials and garden ornaments, much as they might enjoy it, is not their function.

They are a professional raiding party, with two successful raids at Loos, one at Ypres and one near Hébuterne to their credit. Wherever the English have just relieved the French they are sent for to perform. They are accompanied by two 8-inch howitzers and several batteries of 5-9s and 4-2s belonging to the ‘circus’ and by a Minen- Werfer Abteilung. Their raid upon the Oxfords
is fixed for February 28, when the moon will be a third full. The last aeroplane photograph admir- ably shews the Sucrerie, communication trenches leading forward and the whereabouts of all dug-outs. The pioneer detachment–whose thoughts are turned only to the retreat, of which rumours have been plentiful – must move from its comfortable dug-outs in the railway embankment to make room for H.Q. of the raiding party.

The front held by the Battalion was tacticallv not satisfactory. Being three on a front, with B Company placed nearly 1,000 yards in rear, companies had to find their own supports, which, owing to absence of other dug-out accommodation, were disposed in positions not only too far back but inadequately covering those portions of the front which they were engaged to defend. Moreover, practical means of communication to and by
these support platoons were likely to prove, in event of need, negligible. They were, in fact, isolated in places themselves not defensible and equally remote from company and battalion commanders. This situation was bad enough as point d’appui for an advance; to resist a counter-attack
or raid it was deplorable. Like many similar situations, it was due to the lack of habitable trenches on the ground that should have been occupied and defended. It could be no one’s fault either high up or low down that the line was held in this way, though perhaps had fewer men been allowed to crowd into trenches and dug-outs in the forward line, casualties in killed and prisoners might have been spared to the Battalion.

A few hours after the relief was complete orders came up for patrols to go out to see if the enemy had or had not gone back yet. Our artillery, which was not vet strongly represented behind this sector, also began to fire at extreme ranges on the German back area east of Marchélepot and Chaulnes. The enemy, on his part, sniped at and bombed our patrols at night. The behaviour of his guns and aeroplanes by day suggested no passive retreat in
the near future. While BAB 1 code messages, providing mingled toil and excitement, announced the impending departure of the enemy and asserted the necessity for keeping touch, aeroplanes flew a thousand feet overhead and directed the fire of fresh batteries of 5.9 s and 4-2s upon our trenches. No doubt the Germans had stocks of ammunition they preferred to fire off rather than cart backwards.

Gas shelling became common for the first rime in the Battalion’s experience. In the front line masks had often to be worn. Headquarters also were gassed more than once and suffered much inconvenience. This activity by the enemy was reasonably regarded as his normal policy with which to impede our preparations for advance, so that complaints of registration coming from the front line received no special attention from the authorities, who were themselves tossed to and fro and kept quite occupied by the man conflicting prophecies of the enemy’s retreat.
On the morning of February 27 German howitzer batteries commenced some heavy shelling on the Battalion sector, especially on the communication trenches passing under the former French titles of B.C.4 and B.C.5. Working parties who were busy digging out mud from those trenches were compelled to desist.
(A secret trench code, intended for use in operations.
Deliberate shelling to ascertain exact range of targets for a future bombardment.
B.C. = Boyau de commmunicatione, communication trench.)

At 10 o’clock I heard that Fry, the commander of No. I6 Platoon, had been hit by shrapnel on his way from Company H.Q. to the Sucrerie. To get him to the nearest shelter (C Company H.Q.) was difficult through the mud, and uncomfortable enough with 5.9s coming down close to the trench, but the men, as always, played up splendidly to assist a comrade. Soon afterwards, the doctor, in answer to a telephonic summons, appeared at my H.Q. On our way to reach Frv we were both knocked down in the trench by a 4″-‘, which also wounded Corporal Rockall in the shoulder-blade. I regret that Fry, though safely moved from the trenches the same night, had received a mortal wound. In him died a fine example of the platoon officer. He met his wound in the course of a trivial duty which, had I guessed that he would do it under heavy shelling, I should have forbidden him to undertake. His type of
bravery, though it wears no decorations, is distinguished, more than all other, by the unwritten admiration of the Infantry.

During that night I had a peculiar and interesting task. It was to report on the condition of all roads leading through our front line across No- Man’s-Land. Mud, battle and frost had so combined to disguise all former roads and tracks, that to decide their whereabouts it was often necessary to follow them forward from behind by means of map and compass. Seen by pale moonlight, these derelict roads, in places pitted with huge craters or flanked by shattered trees, wore a mysterious charm. More eloquent of catastrophe than those thrown down by gale or struck by lightning are trees which shells have hit direct and sent, splintered, in headlong crash from the ranks of an avenue. If wood and earth could speak, what tales the sunken roads of France could find to tell!

Morning and afternoon of the next day, February 28, were fine and ominously quiet. Excessive quietness was often no good sign.
Presentiments could have been justified. At 4.15 p.m. a strong barrage of trench mortars and rifle grenades began to beat upon the front line, accompanied by heavy artillery fire against communication and support trenches and the back area. This sequel to the previous registration clearly indicated some form of attack by the enemy. The rhythmic pounding of the heavy howitzers, whose shells were arriving with the regular persistency of a barrage table, suggested that a long bombardment, probably until after dusk, was intended. Under such circumstances it was the part of the Company Commander to ‘stand to’ and await events with the utmost vigilance. This never meant that the men should be ordered out into the trenches and the fire-steps manned, for to do so would have invited heavy casualties and demoralised the garrison before the opportunity for active resistance had arrived. To keep look-out by sentries, to watch for any lifting in the barrage, and to maintain communication with H.Q. and with the flanks were the measures required. Otherwise, except to destroy maps and papers, there was nothing to do but wait, for only in the most clumsily organised shows did the other
side know zero. On this occasion, at the moment the German raiding party came over, a patrol consisting of Corporal Coles and Timms had onlv just returned from D Company front line. They
said that though the shelling was heavy immediately behind and on the flanks, the wire was intact and there was no sign of attack. At dusk, therefore, there was nothing save the heavy shelling to report to Cuthbert over my telephone, which by luck held until cut by German wire-cutters.

Within a few minutes, shouts and a few rifle shots were heard, and the next moment bombs were being thrown into my dug-out.
The lights went out and the interior became filled with fumes, groans, and confusion. A German raiding party had penetrated
C Company, seized the front line, which” ‘was a bare 80 yards from my H.Q., and, without touching my own front (which indeed was 200 yards distant and to the flank), had picketed my dug-out, and awaited their haul of prisoners.

Now, a bombed dug-out is the last word in ‘unhealthiness.’ It ranks next to a rammed sub- marine or burning aeroplane. For severaI minutes I awaited death or wounds with a degree of certaintv no soldier ever felt in an attack. But in such emergencies instinct, which, more than the artificial training of the mind, asserts itself, arms human beings with a natural cunning for which civilization provides no scope. Life proverbially is not cheap to its owner.

That evervone inside was not killed instantly was due, no doubt, both to the sloping character of the stairs, which made some bombs explode before they reached the bottom, and to the small
size of the bombs themselves. A gas bomb finished the German side of the argument. Hunt’s useful knowledge of German commenced the answer. We ‘surrendered.’ I went upstairs at
once and saw three Germans almost at touching distance. In place of a docile prisoner they received four revolver shots, after which I left as soon as possible under a shower of bombs and liquid fire. Shortly afterwards, but too late to follow me, Hunt also came forth and round the enemv had vanished Afterwards the Sergeant Major and Uzzell, sanitary lance-corporal, who on this occasion showed the genius of a fieId marshal, emerged and prevented the return of our late visitors.

After an hour’s struggle through mud and barrage I reached the two platoons in Trench Roumains, who (I mention this as a good paradox of trench discipline) were engaged in sock-changing and foot-rubbing according to time table! From there the counter-attack described in Sir Douglas Haig’s dispatch of Match 1st was carried out. Ifear this ‘counter-attack’ was better in his telling
than in the doing, for the Germans had already decamped an hour before, taking with them Lieutenant Guildford and some 20 prisoners from C Company, several Lewis guns, and their own

Against a front line crowded with untried troops (I refer to the new draft of which the platoons holding C Company front line were principally composed) a well-planned raid powerfully pressed home under a severe box barrage and assisted by gas and liquid fire, was almost bound to succeed. The mud, strange trenches and weak artillery support were other factors for which allowance might have been made before such degree of blame was laid upon the Battalion as was seen fit for it to receive. The only cure for being raided is to raid back. That was happily done exactly two months later against the very regiment to which the German raiding party on this occasion belonged. Nor was it true that the enemy was not fought with. Some parties which attacked
Brown’s front were, under the able example of that officer, driven off with Lewis guns, and D Company, whose loss in prisoners was nil, also maintained its front intact. Casualties were inflicted
on the enemy, but these mostly regained their own lines or were carried back by stretcher parties. Our loss in killed that night amounted to some twenty.

The story of this raid I should not have allowed to reach this length but for the fact that the affair created some stir at the time, and correspondence raged on the subject till long afterwards

Hunt, who was with me during the bombardment and the bombing of my H..Q., was not captured on emerging from the dug-out, but himself, some hour or more afterwards, while wandering among the blown-in trenches in an effort to follow me, entered a German listening post and became a prisoner. As a prisoner he was present at a German H.Q. when the details of an exactly similar raid upon a neighbouring division were being arranged ; which raid proved for the enemy an equal success.

The aftermath of this fighting proved a trying experience. The dug-out to which I returned to spend the remainder of the tour was a shambles.
The stairs were drenched with blood. Of my companions, Thompson, a signaller, Timms, Smith (Hunt’s servant, a fine lad) and Corporal Coles one of the bravest and most devoted N.CO.’s the Battalion ever had were dead or died soon afterwards. Longford and Bugler Wright were severely wounded. Longley and Short had escaped before the first bombs exploded in the dug-out, but the remaining survivors, the Sergeant-Maior, Lance
Corporal Rowbotham, Roberts and myself were all partially gassed and hardly responsible for further action. Under these circumstances the task of carrying-on involved a strain, lessened, as always on such occasions, by management of everything for the best by Battalion Headquarters.

On the night of March 2nd the Battalion was relieved by the Berks, now under the command of Colonel Beaman, and moved back about 2,000 yards to some support trenches near Bovent Copse. From here companies were employed ration-carrying to the front line and cleaning the trenches. Considerable activity continued to be displayed by the German artillery and aeroplanes, in each of
which respect we lacked superiority. The enemy retreat appeared postponed or cancelled.

At Maison Ponthieu, January – February 1917

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

“I cannot often treat my readers to a ride by motor car. Jump into this staff car that is waiting–it will not take you to the trenches! You will have distinguished company. Colonel A. and Major Q. have decided to pay a visit to the Battalion. It is at Maison Ponthieu, nearly 50 miles behind the line, whither it marched two days since to undergo a period of rest.
Arrived there, you learn that the Commanding Officer is out, placating with the assistance of the Brigade interpreter the wrath of the village hunchback, a portion of whose wood-stack was reported missing last night. This is not the first time that A. and Q. have visited the village (their lives are martyred to the study of regimental comfort), so our journey opens with an inspection of the two Nissen huts on the village ‘green.’

‘Disgraceful! At least two planks, which helped to line the roof of this hut, have beenburnt. Stoves? One was sent to each battalion
onl yesterday, and ten more have been promised by Corps. Fuel? I am astounded to hear that the supply is inadequate. Quartermaster! How many pounds of dripping did you send to the Base last week? The A.S.C. sent twice that quantities. Who is cooking on that field kitchen? It will be impossible to make the war last if things are abused in this way. Your men have no rifle racks, more ablution benches must be provided and the sanitary
arrangements made up to date …. ‘

This little parable has made me outstrip my narrative. You must come another day and see what Sergeant Parsons is doing with the vast quantities of timber, corrugated iron, and other stores
supplied to make the billets staff-proof for the future.

The end of the last chapter left the Battalion complaining of our guns and otherwise merrymaking in the front line. A day or two before the New Year, companies marched back to huts near
Pioneer Station and the next morning reached Hedauville. Here, shortly afterwards, Christmas dinners, consisting of pigs and plum-pudding, were consumed. It was believed that we had left
Regina and Desire for good, were leaving the Corps and likely to do training in a back area for several weeks. Colonel Bellamy went on leave, and Bennett, amid many offers to accompany him as batman, departed for three months’ instruction at Aldershot as a senior officer. A new Major, W. L. Ruthven, arrived in January and temporarily was in command. Loewe and John Stockton returned from hospital and Jones from a Divisional working party, which had been engaged for a month on the wholesale manufacture of duck-boards. Lyon, an officer equally popular in and out of the line, had found egress from the Somme dug-outs trouble- some and withdrew for a time to easier spheres. Men’s leave was now going well and frequent parties left Acheux Station for ‘ Blighty.’

This list of changes is, of course, incomplete, and I only give it to show how constantly the wheel of alteration was turning. Comparatively few officers or men stayed very long with one battalion. ‘Average lives’ used to be quoted for all cases, ranging from a few weeks for a platoon officer to the duration for R.T.O’s and quartermaster-sergeants! Old soldiers may never die, but I think our new soldiers ‘faded away.,’ not the old, who grew fat and craft!

The Battalion marched away from Pioneer Huts – whither it had returned after its rest at Hedauville – on January 15. The first stage on the rearward journey carried us to Puchevillers, a
village full of shell dumps and now bisected by a new R.O.D. line from Candas to Colincamps. Snow, which had fallen heavily before we left Puchevillers, made the ensuing march through Beauval and Gézaincourt to Longuevillette a trying one. The going was quite slippery and the Transport experienced difficulty in keeping up with the Battalion, especially for the last two miles. The road marked on the map had by that time degenerated, in characteristic fashion, to a mere farm track across country. The Battalion was in its billets at Longuevillette bv 6 o’clock, but
blankets arrived so late that it was midnight before Hobbs could issue them. On the next day, January 18, the march was continued through Ber-naville to Domqueur, a distance of 11 miles, on frost-bound roads. No man fell out. The 2/4th
Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry was one of the best marching battalions in France. On January 19 we reached the promised destination, Maison Ponthieu, of whose billets glowing accounts had been received; which, as often, were hardly realised.
At Maison Ponthieu the Battalion remained for nearly three weeks. Brigade Headquarters, the Machine-gun Company, and some A.S.C. were alreadv in the village–ominous news tor a billeting party. Now much snow had already fallen throughout the countryside, and the weather since the New Year had been growing steadily more cold. In the middle of January, 1917, an iron frost seized Northern France till ponds were solid and the fields hard as steel. This spell, which lasted a month, was proclaimed by the villagers to be the coldest since 1890. As day succeeded day the sun still rose from a clear horizon upon a landscape sparkling with snow and icicles, and each evening sank
in a veil of purple haze. Similar frost was experienced in England, but the wind swept keener across the fiat plains of Ponthieu than over our own Midlands. This turn of the weather was a military
surprise. It produced conditions novel in trench warfare. Severe cold was a commonplace, but now for three weeks and more the ground everywhere had been hard as concrete, digging and wiring
were quite impossible, and movement in our front area easier than ever before. It almost seemed as if our opportunity for open warfare had arrived. Certainly at this moment in the military situation the enemy could not have availed himself of his old tactics as guarantee against a break through, nor could he, as formerly during the Somme Battle, have protected himself from gradual defeat by digging fresh trenches and switch lines and putting out new wire in rear wherever his front line was threatened. No doubt there were reasons prohibiting an attempt to rush the enemy on a grand scale from his precarious salient between Arras and Péronne other than fear of being ‘let down’ by the weather; though perhaps the latter consideration alone, from a Supply standpoint, constituted sufficient veto.

At all events the tactics of the Battalion were in quite another order. How to shave, how to wash, how to put on boots frozen hard during the night, above all, how to keep warm–these were the problems presented. I doubt if there was much washing in cold water beforee parade, and, as for shaving, I know a portion of the breakfast tea was often used for this purpose. Sponge and
shaving brush froze stiff as matters of habit. To secure fuel provided constant occupation and frequent stumbling-blocks. On our arrival most rigid orders had been issued not to burn our neighbours’ fences and I am able to say that the fences survived our stay. Temptation grew, nevertheless, in orchards and rows of small pollards (usually of ash), which formed the hedges in this part of France, not to mention a wood at the lower end of
the village. That ancient trick of covering tree stumps with earth needed little learning, Each night for such as had ears, if not official ones, wood and thicket rang with the blows of entrenching tool on bole and sapling, till past the very door of Sergeant-Major sipping his rum, or company officers seated around sirloin and baked potatoes would be dragged trunk and branches of a young tree, that in peace time and warmer weather might have lived to grace an avenue. There should be variety in story telling; here was one told very much out of school.

From contemplation of this illicit forestry I pass to sterner matters. The first alarms of the ‘spring offensive’ were in the air, urging us infantry to deeds of arms in the back area. Pamphlets proclaimed the creed of open warfare and bade perish the thought of gumboot or of trench. Hence daily practices in attack formation, the following of barrages to first, second, and final objectives, the making of Z shaped posts and sending forward of patrols and scouts.

The Brigadier was an enthusiastic spectator of the work, and woe betide the platoon officer whose men gave reckless answers to the General’s questions. The ‘Platoon Test’ was introduced.’ Soldier’s catechism did hot yet reach the perfection it afterwards acquired, when all who took part in an attack knew beforehand every practical detail assigned to them. While knowledge of the complexities of the war became steadily more important, individual training of the man helped to make good his deficiency in pre-war discipline. Morale was never learnt from sack-stabbing at home, but in France this education of each soldier to use his intellect and become a positive agent instead of a member of a herd proved a potent factor towards the final superiority of the Englishman over his enemy.

Cross-examination of the men in their duties. They were asked what they would do in various emergencies. Their powers of recognition were also tested. I recollect a humorous incident when General White and Colonel Wake (G.S.O.I., 61st Division) both passed incognito. The situation was well seized by the former, who slapped his chest and declared, ‘ Such is fame ‘ ! Lay readers will find in later chapters some attempt to explain the technical expressions used in the text.

On the morning of February 4, I917, the Battalion has said good-bye to Maison Ponthieu and is marching to Brucamps. Another week and we see it on the move again, this time partly bv train. Orders for that move were as follows :–

Reveille, 5 a.m.
Breakfast, 6 a.m.
Blankets rolled in tens and valises to be dumped outside the Q.M. stores by 6.30 a.m.
Mess boxes, 7 a.m.
Parade, 7.30 a.m.

The march was through Vauchelles-les-Domart to Longpré. Thence we were dragged by train through Amiens to Marcelçave, where we detrained and marched to huts at Wiencourt. We were about to relieve the French in the line near Chaulnes.

On February 15 the Battalion marched through Harbonnières, where the Maior-General, Colin Mackenzie (now Sir Colin, K.C.B.) was standing with a French General to see us pass, and on to Rainecourt. The latter village, where the Battalion was billeted, improved on acquaintance. It had lain some 3½ miles behind the old Somme front and had suffered a good deal from German
shells. French industry and French materials had, since the advance, converted damaged barns and houses into quite good billets.

Several days were spent in Rainecourt in rather dismal weather, for the prolonged frost had broken and mist and mud followed. Into the little church were now dragged 6,400 pairs of gumboots, representing about 10,000 pounds sterling. It was the Divisional
gumboot store, phrase of awful significance ! I feel that the very mention of the word gumboot, whenever it occurs, is lending a smile to certain of my readers and, perchance, a frown to others. O gum- boots, what reputations have you hot jeopardised, what hairs brought down with sorrow to the Base!

The Battalion was divided before it left Rainecourt, orders being given for C and D Companies to move forward to Herleville and occupy some huts and dug-outs there.

It is morning of February _22, 1917- Colonel Bellamy and his four company commanders are setting out to reconnoitre the new front line. Guides are to meet us at Deniécourt Château, a heap of chalk slabs and old bricks, beneath which are Brigade Headquarters. To reach this rendesvous we pass through Foucaucourt and then along a corduroy road through Deniécourt Wood to the village of that name. The wood has been fought through and but few branches remain on the trees, whose trunks, like so many” untidy telegraph poles, risee to various heights from the upheaval of shell- holes and undergrowth. Dismal surroundings on a dismal morning, for the frost has relented for several days and already sides of trenches are collapsing (flop go the chunks into the water !) and on top the ground is loading one’s boots at every step.

We change into gumboots in an old cellar and our journey commences. See the Colonel, Cuthbert, Marcon, Brown, Stockton, Robinson and myself lead off down a communication trench behind a guide, pledged to take us to the Berks Headquarters. The going is desperate–water up to our knees; however, each hundred yards brings our goal nearer, and it can hardly be like this all the way. We come to a trench junction, and our guide turns left-handed; presently another–the guide knows the way and again turns to the left. Confound the mud! If we do not get there soon we shall never be home for lunch …. but we do
not get there soon. The guide, always protesting that he knows the way, has led us in a circle and here we are whence we started an hour ago!

After such well-meaning mockery of our efforts, a route ‘over the top’ is tried. Soon we are outside Battalion Headquarters of the Berks. Whilst we are there, German gas shelling starts–a few
rounds of phosgene–and helmets require to be adjusted. It is not everybody’s helmet that fits, this being the first real occasion on which some officers have worn them. There is some laughing to
see the strictest censor of a gas helmet (or its absence) in difficulties with his own, when the moment for its adjustment has arrived.

The company commanders duly separate to go up to their own sections of the front. They see the ‘posts,’ or any of them that can be visited in daylight, make notes of local details affecting the relief, and so home independently.

Billets never seemed so comfortable or attractive as on the night preceding a relief. Perhaps they would have seemed more so had the Battalion known, what luckily it could not, that an unpleasant
tour was in store, and that afterwards, with the enemy in retreat, there would be no more billets until the summer.

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