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1918 Armistice : The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War - Vimy Ridge


March 6th, 1916.— April 21st, 1916.

Vimy Ridge will always bring up in the minds of those of the 8th Sherwood Foresters, who were with us at that time the word "Mines." Everyone seemed somehow or other to have heard that that part of the line was famous for mining warfare, and as the news was passed on from one to another that Vimy Ridge was our destination, a kind of whisper of "Mines" passed with it. The area proved to be a mass of mines, and we found that mining warfare was extremely unpleasant, though most of our own experience was confined to the latter part of our stay there.

The front line in this sector, in the early part of 1915 had run through the East end of the Lorette Ridge to Carency, and thence to La Targette, but on September 25th of that year, the French had driven the enemy back nearly a mile, practically to the foot of the Vimy Ridge itself. In this area were portions of the front having such well-known names as "The Labyrinth," and Souchez Sugar Refinery—reminders of the fact that some of the most savage fighting of the whole war took place there, owing to the struggle of the enemy to retain a footing on that splendid line of observation, the Lorette Ridge. The Arras-Béthune Road, known as the Route de Béthune, and bordered by a few scraggy trees, ran through the sector more or less from North to South—about a mile behind the front line, and two miles in front of Mont St. Eloy. The forward area was a scene of desolation—trenches and wire, shell-holes everywhere, mine craters here and there, shewing more or less where No Man's Land was, and beyond them the gently sloping ridge, with little variation except a few shattered trees marking the site of La Folie Wood.

Such was the sector that our advance party of Officers went up to reconnoitre on March 5th. The French were holding the line, and this was the Battalion's only experience of taking over from them. We were not let into the secret of the why and wherefore of the move, but doubtless we relieved in order to allow them to send much wanted help to their friends at Verdun, who were now so hard pressed owing to the enemy's continued attacks. It was hoped that the fact of our taking over this part of the line could be kept from the Boche, at least until relief was complete, and to further this object the advance party were given French "tin hats" to wear so as to maintain the deception. We fear that despite our efforts, the enemy knew just about as much of the relief as we did, and rumour says that a Boche scout, on getting across to the French front line two days before we relieved them, openly expressed his surprise to the French sentry that the English had not already arrived! We were shewn the greatest kindness by the French when we went up to reconnoitre, and they did all they could to explain the situation, and many an Officer drank confusion to the enemy in a glass of sweet sparkling wine. Those who were there will doubtless well remember the group of Officers being assembled just behind the Arras-Béthune road, in full view of the German lines, under the French Brigade Major, who was acting as guide, when the Hun gunners, not being able to let such an opportunity slip, at once put over a few "pip-squeaks," and we discovered with a considerable amount of pleasure, that our gallant Allies were just about as good in getting to ground as ourselves, if not a trifle better. It was, however, a rude awakening to the fact that a war was still on, which we had rather forgotten during our stay in the South of France, and in the back areas.

Leaving Candas on March 6th, we marched on a very snowy day, via Doullens, to Iverny, moving on the 8th to Maizières, and on the 9th to Acq, where we had to make the best of most uncomfortable billets, the whole village being a seething mass of troops, French and English, and every billet crowded to its utmost limit. On the occasion of this move we marched, in accordance with instructions, in column of three's. This system was tried owing to the narrow roads, but only lasted a few months.

On the following day we moved up into support trenches, just in front of the Route de Béthune, where we stayed for four days cleaning trenches, carrying out general trench repairs, and improving dug-outs. There were a certain number of deep dug-outs in this sector—our first experience of them—proof against all but the heaviest shells, though in every other respect a bad invention. Further behind, at Berthonval Farm, were huge caverns hewn out of the chalk, fitted up with wire beds, absolutely shell-proof, and having accommodation for about two Companies. The dug-outs in the front line trenches, however, were mere shelters. Later on we were told to make our shelters in this area of a uniform pattern in small saps running back from the trenches, and when men could be spared from other more pressing work, a certain amount of progress was made in this respect.

The French dug-outs possessed one unique quality; they were decorated as only a Frenchman could decorate them, with most wonderful designs in pokerwork, which were always objects of the greatest interest to our visitors.

On March 15th, we were relieved by the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, and withdrew for four days to rest billets, which consisted of some French huts partly in the wood, and partly in the open, just behind Mont St. Eloy. We are afraid we could not have given our predecessors a "billet clean" certificate in respect of these huts, many of which were a foot or more deep with accumulated rubbish of every description. There were no baths, and we had to rig up home-made ones with ground sheets and other means, using the cookers for providing the necessary hot water. We managed, however, to get clean clothing from time to time from the Staff Captain, Major Wordsworth, who got together a fascinating crowd of French ladies, and did much useful work as Officer Commanding Laundry, at Mont St. Eloy.

We were at this time called upon to provide a contribution towards the Brigade Mining Section, which was re-formed to help the French Miners in the sector, and on March 17th, we had to part temporarily with Lieut. R. V. Harvey, Corpl. Boot and 12 men, who joined the Brigade Section under Lieut. Webster, of the Robin Hoods. The arrival of 140 reinforcements the previous day had, however, swelled our numbers considerably, amongst several old friends in the draft being Sergt. G. Powell, who shortly became Comp. Sergt.-Major of A Company, Sergts. I. B. Bell, S. Foster, Collins and Beniston, and Corpl. A. B. North. We thus had a reasonable trench strength when we relieved the 7th Battalion in the left sub-sector on March 19th.

In this area we always kept to the same sub-sector, relieving as on many other occasions with the Robin Hoods. The 5th and 6th Battalions shared the right sub-sector, whilst the 138th Brigade were on our left. Each Company, too, had its own section of trench, finding its own supports. From right to left they ran in order: D (Capt. Hill), B (Capt. Turner), C (Major G. S. Heathcote), A (Capt. Vann, who had recently rejoined; during his absence on a course at 3rd Army School, his place was taken by Capt. Lawson). Battalion Headquarters was in a delightful spot just under the steep side of the Talus des Zouaves, and well nigh out of reach of everything but aeroplane bombs. Second Lieut. Cox was Signalling Officer, 2nd Lieut. Simonet, Lewis Gun Officer, 2nd Lieut. Peerless, Grenade Officer, and 2nd Lieut. Marshall, Intelligence Officer. The last-named was the first Officer in the Battalion to hold that newly created appointment.

The enemy front line was close to ours, in most parts about 70 yards away, but bombing posts in saps were in several cases not more than 10 to 15 yards apart. Talking and movement in the front line could often be heard quite plainly, whilst our Bombers in the posts used to indulge sometimes in lobbing practice, and spent their odd moments in erecting or repairing wire netting to catch the Boche "potato mashers."

Our two communication trenches running forward—"Boyau Central" and "Avenue Lassale"—though well cared for and kept up by the French, were almost straight, and hardly traversed at all, particularly the former, and movement along them was precarious. The fire and support trenches, bearing such names as "Schiller," "Grange," "Broadmarsh," "Duffield," and "Bertrand," were in very bad order, and work was at once concentrated in an effort to make a good line of resistance along "Guerin Trench," practically the support line. Some work was also done on a reserve trench, known as "Blanchetière." We felt this all the more necessary, as just before we took over from the French, the Boche had driven them out of their front line, and it seemed quite within the range of possibility that he might try to make a further advance. Our fears turned out to be correct, for later he did make an onslaught, though luckily not whilst we were there.

Unfortunately the enemy in capturing the trenches, had secured the shafts of all the French mines, and had consequently got a good start at various points along the front before the French could begin again. The result was that practically all the French mines were defensive, and intended merely to try and blow the Germans, before they could get under our lines. No doubt each side knew almost exactly where the other side was working, and at what approximate time any particular mine would go up. These were all shewn to us on a plan, and carefully explained by the Officer in charge of the French Miners, who were still at work in the sector. Each Company had a cut-and-dried scheme for carrying out the instant a mine went up in its own or adjoining sectors. Anticipating the mine, parties were kept available to seize the near lip of the crater formed, with covering parties of Lewis gunners, riflemen, and bombers to go out on each flank, and working parties behind them to begin at once to dig a trench to join up the broken front line across the lip of the crater, wire the front and establish observation posts on the lip. All this work had to be started the instant the mine was exploded, in order to make certain that the Boche did not get possession of our lip of the crater, as well as his own. This entailed constant readiness and considerable anxiety on the part of those holding the front line.

The enemy shewed no special activity, though on several occasions our front and support lines were badly knocked about, both by shells and trench mortars, which necessitated a vast amount of repairs, and caused us considerable casualties. In addition to high explosive he now began to send over for the first time "lachrymatory" gas shells, having a sweet smell and doing little harm except to make our eyes water. In the later stages of the war, they became, as we shall see, much more disagreeable.

As it was so difficult in this sector for our Gunners to be able to identify our front line, we had to mark it with "artillery boards,"—white boards about 3 ft. by 2 ft., marked with different letters denoting the different sections of the front. These were stuck up by the Infantry at night, in such a position that they could be seen by our Gunners but be invisible to the enemy. Whether they were any real help or not is doubtful. Later on we were given a smaller portable type of board, coloured brown and marked with a black cross, a number of which were issued to each Battalion, and carried with us as part of our equipment. They were intended for use in moving warfare to mark our advanced positions, but were eventually discarded as unsuitable.

We now began seriously to try and harass the enemy with trench mortars, for which purpose Trench Mortar Batteries were formed. The medium batteries fired a fairly heavy shell with a long tail (known as "Footballs" or "Toffee Apples"), and the Stokes batteries a light shell, which could be fired at the rate of 20 or more per minute. We had recently sent 2nd Lieut. Kebblewhite and five men to a school for a course in this work. It is feared, however, that the first efforts of the trench mortar experts in the trenches were not fully appreciated. A very nervous Officer would go to his emplacement, fire off a few shells, and then gracefully, but rapidly retire, leaving the people on the spot to put up with any retaliation. And we well remember Capt. Lawson being so annoyed at this going on, that on one occasion the bed plate mysteriously disappeared. On another occasion an emplacement was made one night with much care on D Company's front, ready for a big bombardment, but when completed was found to be in full view of six enemy sniper plates, about 100 yards away!

At sniping we more than held our own, though the enemy were very keen, and used to fire from steel plates fixed round the mine craters. We were unfortunate in losing at this period Sergt.-Drummer Clewes, who went home for discharge. He had done much excellent work in charge of the Brigade Snipers, his own "bag" being stated to amount to considerably over 100. As some recognition of his good work he was later awarded the D.C.M. His son, Corpl. G. W. Clewes, another excellent sniper, left at the same time. L.-Corpl. Hagues took over the duties of N.C.O. in charge of Snipers, and with 2nd Lieut. Marshall, did some splendid work, including the blowing-in of several loophole plates with Col. Fowler's Elephant Gun, which was now brought into use again.

Marshall's "pet," however, was the "dummy tree" on the Route de Béthune. This was a hollow tree about 20 feet high, formed of steel casing, and covered with imitation bark. Inside there were ledges to climb up by, and from it a most excellent view for a very long distance around, could be obtained. It had been erected by the enemy before they had been driven back.

Another item in the "Intelligence Department" which now came into use, was that extraordinary instrument known as the "I-Tok," intended for picking up enemy telegraphic and telephonic messages. We never were supposed to know where its operators performed, and rarely did know, but more often than not they placed themselves near Battalion Headquarters, and the sheaves of papers they sent to Brigade were mostly filled with scraps of our own messages. It is doubtful if much of value was picked up from enemy messages, but they certainly did good in keeping a check on our own conversations over the telephone, and were regularly used from now onwards. The "Fullerphone," which was introduced a little later, and largely superseded the ordinary telephone, was reputed to be capable of transmitting messages in such a way that they could not be picked up.

Our Firework Artistes, too, decided that they ought to have a show, and accordingly arranged for us one night to have a display of red rockets in the front line. These rockets had been issued for use for night S.O.S. When the time came for them to be let off, the only visible result to those behind watching, was one feeble rocket which made a short lob, and fell to the earth. Only one other went off at all, and it had a great tussle with John Turner, nearly knocking him through a traverse, and then fizzing itself out in the bottom of the trench.

Another brainy person, one of our German scholars, decided one day to try the result of putting up a placard to give the Boche the news that the L.15 had been sunk in the Thames. This was on April 2nd. Two days later a notice was put up opposite B Company's front, which said "Thanks for your news: you are all mad"—shewing, we thought, a lack of originality on his part. This was one of the very few occasions upon which we either sent or received a message in this way.

Regtl.-sergt.-major A. Westerman. Comp. Sergt.-major J. T. Slater And N.C.O.'s Of
'A' Company, 1917.
Regtl.-sergt.-major A. Westerman. Comp. Sergt.-major J. T. Slater And N.C.O.'s Of 'A' Company, 1917.
Just about the same time, we had the pleasure of seeing a Hun plane brought down by one of our own, after a short sharp scrap in mid-air. Our man dived at the Hun and opened with Lewis gun fire, killing both the pilot and observer. The plane took charge of itself, and after a brief wild career, crashed near our Battalion Headquarters. It was no sooner down than it was shelled by the enemy and eventually set on fire. Various useful documents, however, were secured from it including some maps and a signalling code. The bodies of the pilot, Lieut. Ziemssen, and the observer were buried at Mont St. Eloy by Padre Hales, who a little later received an appreciative letter from the pilot's widow.

With these and sundry other excitements, we got through two six-day tours in the line, and also spent two periods of similar length at our rest huts cleaning, training, and reorganising, for we were continually losing Officers and men in various ways, and fresh ones were joining. Amongst the former we lost 2nd Lieuts. G. G. Elliott and Pitt, invalided to England, and the following Warrant Officers and N.C.O.'s who left us on completion of their term of service: Regimental Quarter-Master Sergt. Tomlin, Comp. Sergt.-Major Haywood, Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. Shelton, and Sergts. Murden, Handford and Kettle. Arrivals included Major Ashwell, Capt. H. Kirby, Lieut. G. Wright, 2nd Lieut. W. P. Duff, and about 70 men, many of whom were returned casualties, and in some cases anything but fit to resume active service. Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. Dench became Regimental Quarter-Master Sergt., Sergt. Bee Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. of B Company, and Sergt. Hotson Comp. Quarter-Master Sergt. of C Company.

We were able to offer very little in the way of amusement just at this period, entertainers either being more or less non-existent, or somewhat shy. One afternoon, however, we succeeded in rousing sufficient enthusiasm to organise a boxing contest, one of the very few ever carried through by the Battalion. In the heavy-weight contest between those two stalwarts, Sergt. Slater and Corpl. Bryan, the latter retired after the third round with an injured hand. The middle-weight competition was won by Sergt. L. Green, and the lightweight by Sergt. Attenborough. The same evening, we managed an impromptu concert in one of the huts.

Our Transport Lines and Quarter-Master's stores during this period were back at Acq, and were fairly comfortable. Here for the first time we had the experience of taking rations and stores up to the line on the light railways, already constructed by the French, a system of transport in which both they and the Germans were much ahead of us. Stores were unloaded from the limbers at Ecoivres on to flat trucks, each of which was pulled by three mules. The "Decauville Track" ran past "Berthonval Farm," across the Béthune road, branching there right and left for the various Battalion dumps, ours being in the Talus des Zouaves, near Battalion Headquarters. At first, the system did not work well, and there was much confusion, but later it was properly organised so that rations went up first, and Royal Engineers' stores about midnight. When we first took over the sector, the French caused much alarm to our men by carrying their stores to and from the Béthune Road by electric trucks, actually the chassis and platforms of trains from Paris Plage, to which the bells used for warning pedestrians were still attached. One brakesman, Alphonse by name, like a wise person, usually went about his own business on arrival at the Béthune Road Dump, which was often a warm spot. The driver meanwhile got his load to take back, and anxious as all were who ever had a job of work at that particular spot, to get it done and be off, he adopted the practice which seemed to us rather foolish, of vigorously sounding his gong time after time, at the same time shouting "Alphonse, Alphonse," with the result that all our men vanished "tout-de-suite," leaving him and the errant Alphonse to face any whizz-bangs which might result. Truly, the French are a remarkable race!

We must, however, congratulate them on that excellent institution in the Vimy sector, Trench Coffee Shops. Where cooking for the trenches was a matter of some difficulty, as in this sector, it was a great boon to be able to get such excellent supplies of hot tea and other comforts as they provided. They were run by the French for some time after our arrival, but later were taken over by our own Brigade, and put under the care of Capt. E. M. Hacking, who was attached to Brigade Headquarters. We feel, however, we must attribute to the somewhat casual sanitary measures adopted by the French, the presence of so many rats in this sector. One often met them in droves in the trenches, and never before or after did we come across such numbers of the beasts, and such colossal specimens as we found during our stay in the Vimy trenches.

On April 12th, after a brief inspection near our huts by Major-General Stuart-Wortley, we went up to the trenches for our last and most eventful tour, which was destined to last eight days. Owing to falls of snow and rain, the trenches were in a deplorable state, and gumboots were in great demand, and our only means of keeping the men at all dry. At this time we had no such luxuries as drying-rooms. Heavy shelling by the enemy during the first three days made things still more uncomfortable. The real business of the tour, however, began on April 16th, on which night the French had arranged to blow one mine on our front, and another on the front of the 6th Battalion. Combined with this we had arranged for a small raid to be carried out by Lieut. A. Bedford and 12 other ranks, who immediately the mines were exploded were to rush forward round the left edge of our crater, and endeavour to capture any Germans found in a small forward trench they had recently dug there. The mines were to go up at midnight, and at the same time our guns and trench mortars were to put down a barrage on the Boche trenches, which was to be augmented by rifle grenades and showers of grenades thrown from West Spring Throwers, under the arrangement of our Grenade Officer. Unfortunately, there had evidently been some bad synchronisation somewhere, for at five minutes before zero two Frenchmen suddenly came rushing towards Bedford, who was waiting in a communication trench with his party, shouting "Tout-de-suite! Tout-de-suite!" and almost at the same instant the mines went up. This was very unfortunate, as it enabled the Boche, who evidently knew all about it, to get their barrage down before our own Gunners, who were waiting for zero. Bedford at once pushed on with his party with much dash in face of heavy fire from machine guns, rifles, trench mortars and bombs. He got as far as the advanced trench, which, however, was held in considerable strength, and finding himself bombed on both sides, he had to withdraw without getting a prisoner. His party got back alright, but unfortunately Bedford himself was knocked down by a bomb, and although only slightly wounded had to leave us, and a few days later was invalided to England. Capt. Hill meanwhile carried out the consolidation with much success. As soon as the mass of débris, chalk and stones had stopped falling, parties at once got to work digging a new trench across the crater which was something like 30 yards wide by 30 feet deep, to connect the broken front line, establishing observation posts and putting out fresh wire. In spite of intense fire a sufficient trench had been dug by dawn, and the position made good. Great assistance was rendered by Capt. Gray and the N.C.O.'s of D Company. Unfortunately Sergt. Markham, after most gallantly controlling the fire of his platoon for nearly two hours, under very heavy fire, was shot through the head and killed instantly. Another excellent piece of work was performed by Pvte. E. Dobb, who leapt out of the trench on seeing a party of Huns trying to get round the crater, and hurled two bombs right amongst them. If they had had any doubts as to the possibility of getting round, this made up their minds, and they retired hurriedly.

The following night at midnight, the enemy sprang a mine on the front of our left Company (A), which caused considerable trouble and heavy loss before the position was finally made good. A portion of our front line was blown up, and owing to the heavy state of the ground, which was much water-logged, and to the intense hostile bomb, rifle and machine gun fire, it was impossible to get a trench dug round our lip of the crater. It was not until three nights after that the situation was cleared, and our lip of the crater finally occupied, after some of the most difficult and miserable nights that it was ever our misfortune to experience. During these days there was little rest for anyone, and much excellent work was done by all ranks. Marshall carried out some splendid patrols, ably assisted by L.-Corpl. Hinchley, going out nightly through mud and filth, to ascertain the position around the crater. Duff did almost superhuman work with bombs and rifle grenades, being at it practically the whole night, for three nights in succession, and this was only his second tour in the trenches. The Stretcher Bearers too, as always, did most notable work, particularly Pvtes. Holbery and Thomas, who fetched in our wounded from the slopes of the crater only a few yards below and in full view of the German sentry post, whilst Sergts. Deverall and Collins, and L.-Corpl. Ostick also did very gallant work, and L.-Corpl. J. T. Templeman throughout carried out his work of repairing telephone wires, with his usual skill and courage. So uncanny was the work of this period, that Lieut. Peerless was able on one occasion to take deliberate aim, at 30 yards range, at a German digging hard in the bright moonlight, on the top of a crater.

On April 19th, the French sprang another mine, just to the left of our Battalion front, as a result of which we got a certain amount of hostile shelling, whilst on the 20th, the enemy put up another, slightly to our left, which also brought its share of shelling on us. This, however, was our last, for much to our relief, and at comparatively short notice, the 10th Cheshires (25th Division) took over our sector on the night of the 20th, and after a weary trudge over that never-ending duck-board track, we got to Ecoivres by 1 a.m. on the 21st. Having done full justice to the excellent tea which the Quarter-Master and his followers had ready for us, we were taken in 'buses to Tincques, where we arrived about 6 a.m., and found that we were to be billeted partly there, and partly in the neighbouring village of Bethencourt. We fear we did not present a happy sight at that early hour to the ladies just going to church on a lovely Good Friday morning. Dawn is not an ideal time for seeing a Battalion at its best, especially after an exceptionally hard eight days in water-logged trenches. Our total casualties in the Vimy sector amounted to 17 killed or died of wounds, 69 wounded and five missing.

It was a matter of great regret to us to hear later that the 25th Division suffered very heavily shortly after we left, when the enemy made a determined attack on the front recently held by us, and recaptured several trenches.