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

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1916, JULY – IN THE LAVENTIE SECTOR

Winchester Trench Company HQ Front Trenches, Picantin (Laventie),  October 28 1916 Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)  A view along a section of trench immediately before a badly bomb damaged building. The trench has duckboards along the bottom and the walls are supported by a structure of wooden planks.

Winchester Trench
Company HQ Front Trenches, Picantin (Laventie),
October 28 1916
Rose, Geoffrey K (MC)
A view along a section of trench immediately before a badly bomb damaged building. The trench has duckboards along the bottom and the walls are supported by a structure of wooden planks.

 

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose M.C. (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

During July 1916 the Battalion was in and out of the breastworks between Fauquissart and Neuve Chapelle. When the 184th Infantry Brigade went  back to rest the Battalion had billets on the outskirts of Merville, a friendly little town, since levelled in ruins; and, when reserve to the Brigade, in Laventie. Brigade Headquarters were at the latter and also the quartermasters’ stores and transport of battalions in the line.

Some favourite spots were the defensive ‘posts,’ placed a mile behind the front line and known as Tilleloy, Winchester, Dead End, Picantin. Reserve companies garrisoned these posts. No arduous duties spoilt the days; night work consisted chiefly in pushing trolley-loads of rations to the front line. Of these posts the best remembered would be Winchester, where existed a board bearing the names of Wykhamists, whom chance had led that way. Battalion Headquarters were there for a long time and were comfortable enough with many ‘elephant’ dug-outs and half a farm-house for a mess–the latter ludicrouslv decorated by some predecessors with cuttings from La Vie Parisienne and other picture papers.

Though conditions were never quiet in the front line, during the summer of 1916 back area shelling was infrequent. Shells fell near Laventie cross-roads on most days and, when a 12 inch howitzer established itself behind the village, the Germans retaliated upon it with 5.9s, but otherwise shops and estaminets flourished with national nonchalance. The railway, which ran from La Gorgue to Armentières, was used by night as far as Bac St. Maur–an instance of unenterprise on the part of German gunners. Despite official repudiation, on our side the principle of ‘live and let live’ was still applied to back areas. Trench warfare, which in the words of a 1915 pamphlet ‘could and must cease’ had managed to survive that pamphlet and the abortive strategy of the battle of Loos. Until trench warfare ended divisional headquarters were not shelled.

Meanwhile the comparative deadlock in the Somme fighting rendered necessary vigorous measures against the enemy elsewhere on the front. A gas attack from the Fauquissart sector was planned but never carried out. Trench mortars and rifle grenades were continuously employed to make life as unpleasant as possible for the enemy, whose trenches soon became, to all appearances, a rubbish heap. All day and much of the night the ‘mediums’ fell in and about the German trenches and, it must be confessed, occasionally in our own as well. Whilst endeavouring to annihilate the Wick salient or some such target, one of our heaviest of heavy trench mortars dropped short (perhaps that is too much of a compliment to the particular shot) in our trenches near a company headquarters and almost upon a new concrete refuge, which the R.E. had just completed and not yet shown to the Brigadier. Though sometimes supplied, the co-operation of this arm was never asked for.

NOTE: I believe the term Wykhamists refers to former students of Winchester College.

Although the 184th Infantry Brigade, to which belonged both the 2/4th Battalion and the 2/1st Bucks Battalion of the Regiment, took no part in the actual battle of the Somme, its task of making demonstrations to assist the Somme operations was arduous in the extreme, and its casualties heavy.At the commencement of the Somme offensive the 2/4th Battalion was at Laventie, holding the trenches and front posts

 

1918, MARCH 21st – ENGHIEN REDOUBT ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE GERMAN SPRING OFFENSIVE

Redoubts 21st March 1918 The Fifth Army in March 1918 Walter Shaw Sparrow

Redoubts 21st March 1918
The Fifth Army in March 1918
Walter Shaw Sparrow

The British Campaign in France and Flanders, January – July 1918, A. Conan Doyle

As it is impossible to give the experiences of each redoubt in detail, the story of one may be told as being fairly typical of the rest. This particular one is chosen because some facts are available, whereas in most of them a deadly silence, more eloquent than words, covers their fate. The Enghien redoubt was held by Colonel Wetherall with a company of the 2/4 Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry upon the front of the Sixty-first Division. The redoubt formed the battalion headquarters, and was connected to brigade headquarters by a cable buried Battle eight feet deep. In front were two companies of the battalion in the outpost line; behind was the fourth company ready for counter-attack. Early in the morning heavy trench-mortar fire was raining bombs upon the redoubt, and the wire was flying in all directions. At 6 the redoubt was so full of gas that even the masks could not hold it out, so the men were ordered below and put up gas blankets to fend it off. This could be safely done, as when gas is so thick it is not possible for the stormers to advance. At 6.15,what with fog and gas and blurred respirators, it was hardly possible to see anything at all. At 7.30 the gas cleared and there was a shower of high explosive shells with shattering effect. At 9.30 the barrage lifted and the garrison rushed up from their shelters and manned their posts, but the fog rolled white and thick across their vision. The cloud banked right up to their wire, while from behind it came all the noises of the pit. So nerve-shaking was the effect that some of the outlying men came creeping into the redoubt for human company. At 9.40 the whizzing of bullets all around showed that the infantry was on the move. The garrison fired back into the mist, whence came vague shoutings and tramplings. A request was cabled back for a protective barrage, but the inadequate reply showed that the British guns had suffered in the shelling. Suddenly the mist darkened at one point; it broke into running figures, and a wave of men rushed forward, scrambled through the broken wire, and clambered into the redoubt. The Oxfords rushed across and bombed them back into the mist again. There was a pause, during which the attack was reorganised, and then at 11 o’clock the German stormers poured suddenly in from three sides at once. The garrison stood to it stoutly and drove them out, leaving many bodies on the broken wire. The fort was now entirely surrounded, and there was a fresh attack from the rear which added fifty or sixty more to the German losses. At 11.45 there was some lifting of the fog, and Colonel Wetherall endeavoured to get across to the village, 300 yards behind him, to see if help could be obtained. He found it deserted. Stealing back to his fort he was covered suddenly by German rifles, was dragged away as a prisoner, but finally, late in the evening, escaped and rejoined the main body of his own battalion. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cunningham had taken over the defence of Enghien redoubt, assisted by Lieutenant Richards with the machine-guns. Hour after hour fresh attacks were repelled, but showers of bombs fell in the confined space, and the garrison were continually thinned out. Despairing messages—” What shall we do? What shall we do? “—were sent back over the cable, but nothing could be done, for these outliers are the enfants perdus of the army, marked from the first for destruction. Finally, at 4.30, the great deep all around them sent one heavy wave to submerge them, and the cable was for ever silent.

Such is the typical history of a redoubt. Some succumbed more readily, some survived until the afternoon of the next day ; but the difference may sometimes have depended upon the various degrees of severity of attack, which was by no means the same upon all sectors. The total effect was the complete destruction of the eleven gallant battalions which held the advanced line of the Fifth Army, and the loss of all material therein. One can but hope that the enemy paid a full price. Occasionally a sudden rise of the mist gave the defence a splendid opening for their machine-guns. On one occasion such a chance exposed a German officer standing with a large map in his hand within thirty yards of the fort, his company awaiting his directions beside him. Few of them escaped.

1917, FEBRUARY 22nd – RECONNOITRING THE NEW FRONT LINE AT ABLAINCOURT

Ablaincourt Sector

From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose KC (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920)

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 rendez-vous_ 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, rise 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.

From the War Diary of the 2/4th Royal Berkshire Regiment

1917-02-22
Regiment. 2/4th Royal Berkshire
Location France, Trenches Deniecourt
Entry Greater artillery activity. 1 OR wounded (gas).

Description of a German Gas Attack

From: Over the top, by and American Soldier who went, by Arthur Guy Empey.

“Three days after we had silenced Fritz, the Germans sent over gas. It did not catch us unawares, because the wind had been made to order, that is, it was blowing from the German trenches towards ours at the rate of about five miles per hour.

Warnings had been passed down the trench to keep a sharp lookout for gas. We had a new man at the periscope, on this afternoon in question; I was sitting on the fire step, cleaning my rifle, when he called out to me:

”There’s a sort of greenish, yellow cloud rolling along the ground out in front, it’s coming”. But I waited for no more, grabbing my bayonet, which was detached from the rifle, I gave the alarm by banging an empty shell case, which was hanging near the periscope. At the same instant, gongs started ringing down the trench, the signal for Tommy to don his respirator, or smoke helmet, as we call it.

Gas travels quickly, so you must not lose any time ; you generally have about eighteen or twenty seconds in which to adjust your gas helmet.

A gas helmet is made of cloth, treated with chemicals. There are two windows, or glass eyes, in it, through which you can see. Inside there is a rubber-covered tube, which goes in the mouth. You breathe through your nose; the gas, passing through the cloth helmet, is neutralized by the action of the chemicals. The foul air is exhaled through the tube in the mouth, this tube being so constructed that it prevents the inhaling of the outside air or gas. One helmet is good for five hours of the strongest gas. Each Tommy carries two of them slung around his shoulder in a waterproof canvas bag. He must wear this bag at all times, even while sleeping. To change a defective helmet, you take out the new one, hold your breath, pull the old one off, placing the new one over your head, tucking in the loose ends under the collar of your tunic.

For a minute, pandemonium reigned in our trench, — Tommies adjusting their helmets, bombers running here and there, and men turning out of the dugouts with fixed bayonets’, to man the fire step.

Reinforcements were pouring out of the communication trenches.

Our gun crews were busy mounting the machine gun on the parapet and bringing up extra ammunition from the dugout.

German gas is heavier than air and soon fills the trenches and dugouts, where it has been known to lurk for two or three days, until the air is purified by means of large chemical sprayers.

We had to work quickly, as Fritz generally follows the gas with an infantry attack.

A company man on our right was too slow in getting on his helmet; he sank to the ground, clutching at his throat, and after a few spasmodic twistings, went West (died). It was horrible to see him die, but we were powerless to help him. In the corner of a traverse, a little, muddy dog, one of the company’s pets, was lying dead, with his two paws over his nose.

It’s the animals that suffer the most, the horses, mules, cattle, dogs, cats, and rats, they having no helmets to save them. Tommy does not sympathize with rats in a gas attack.

At times, gas has been known to travel, with dire results, fifteen miles behind the lines.

A gas, or smoke helmet, as it is called, at the best is a vile-smelling thing, and it is not long before one gets a violent headache from wearing it.

Our eighteen-pounders were bursting in No Man’s Land, in an effort, by the artillery, to disperse the gas clouds.

The fire step was lined with crouching men, bayonets fixed, and bombs near at hand to repel the expected attack.

Our artillery had put a barrage of curtain fire on the German lines, to try and break up their attack and keep back reinforcements.

I trained my machine gun on their trench and its bullets were raking the parapet.

Then over they came, bayonets glistening. In their respirators, which have a large snout in front, they looked like some horrible nightmare.

All along our trench, rifles and machine guns spoke, our shrapnel was bursting over their heads. They went down in heaps, but new ones took the place of the fallen. Nothing could stop that mad rush. The Germans reached our barbed wire, which had previously been demolished by their shells, then it was bomb against bomb, and the
devil for all.

Suddenly, my head seemed to burst from a loud ”crack” in my ear. Then my head began to swim, throat got dry, and a heavy pressure on
the lungs warned me that my helmet was leaking. Turning my gun over to No. 2, 1 changed helmets.

The trench started to wind like a snake, and sandbags appeared to be floating in the air. The noise was horrible; I sank onto the fire step,
needles seemed to be pricking my flesh, then blackness.

I was awakened by one of my mates removing my smoke helmet. How delicious that cool, fresh air felt in my lungs.

A strong wind had arisen and dispersed the gas.

They told me that I had been ** out “for three hours; they thought I was dead.

The attack had been repulsed after a hard fight. Twice the Germans had gained a foothold in our trench, but had been driven out by counter attacks. The trench was filled with their dead and ours. Through a periscope, I counted eighteen dead Germans in our wire; they were a ghastly sight in their horrible -looking respirators.

I examined my first smoke helmet, a bullet had gone through it on the left side, just grazing my ear, the gas had penetrated through the hole made in the cloth.

Out of our crew of six, we lost two killed and two wounded.

That night we buried all of the dead, excepting those in No Man’s Land. In death there is not much distinction, friend and foe are treated alike.

After the wind had dispersed the gas, the R. A. M. C. got busy with their chemical sprayers, spraying out the dugouts and low parts of the trenches to dissipate any fumes of the German gas which may have been lurking in same.”

GLOSSARY

Gas: Poisonous fumes which the Germans send over to our trenches. When the wind is favorable this gas is discharged
into the air from huge cylinders. The wind carries it over toward our lines. It appears like a huge yellowish-green cloud rolling along the ground. The alarm is sounded and Tommy promptly puts on his gas helmet and laughs at the Boche.

Gas Gong. An empty shell case hung up in the trenches and In billets. A sentry is posted near it, so that in case German poison gas comes over, he can give the alarm by striking this gong with an iron bar. If the sentry happens to be asleep we get “gassed.”

Gassed. A soldier who has been overcome from the fumes of German poison gas, or the hot air of a comrade.”

British Small Box Respirator

One of the most noteworthy gas masks used during WWI was the British Small Box Respirator or SBR designed in 1916. It was probably the most reliable and heavily used gas mask of the war.

The mask was made of thinly rubberized canvas with a canvas-covered rubber hose connecting the mask to a canister, which was all contained in a square bag. The SBR worked by filtering dangerous gases through a canister of charcoal and gauze impregnated with neutralizing chemical agents.

The British small box respirator was first introduced to British soldiers in April 1916, a few months before the Battle of the Somme. By January 1917, it had become the standard issue gas mask for all British soldiers.

When the U.S entered the war in April 1917, they did not have a standard issue gas mask. After evaluating several masks being used by the Allies it was decided to adopt the British small box respirator. It was issued to the first American troops to arrive in France in 1917.

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