21st Battalion History

IV.

Early Days in France.

 

Our first front line tour in France lasted six days when we were relieved by the 22nd. The Battalion held the line about 3 miles east of Fleurbaix with Head Quarters at Wye Farm. The "trenches" were not trenches but breastworks and in bad repair. The sector was quiet; in fact it had been quiet ever since the line had finally settled there early in 1915. The Germans had a great preponderance of guns and ammunition or so it seemed to us. Luckily shelling was not violent and it always took place according to plan, so that with a little knowledge of the ways of the wily Hun, danger could be easily avoided.

The Brigade was in the line for a month, during which time we did a second front line trip, spending the time out as left support Battalion. In the month of duty we left our mark on the sector in the way of engineering work, new support and reserve lines being constructed and the front line repaired and wired.

The Brigade spent May as Divisional reserve, the 21st Battalion being billeted in and near Jesus Farm on the River Lys just behind Erquinghem. Our work consisted of cable burying in the forward area at night and mild training during the day. Most of the training was in the improved Bayonet fighting and physical "jerks" which were introduced at this time. The weather was perfect and the country looked beautiful. On the whole we voted that the war in France was a good war, particularly in the month of May 1916.

On 29th May we moved to Rue Marle to be nearer our cable burying work and the 11th June found us in the front row again relieving the 25th Battalion of the 7th Brigade. Our sector this time was from Bois Grenier on the right to the Lille-Armentiere road on the left. This sector was a little more noisy than Fleurbaix, our patrols being more active and our artillery having been given much more ammunition started to strafe in real earnest. All activity was preparatory to the Somme push on the 1st July though we did not know this at the time, not, in fact until we read it in the Continental "Daily Mail" on 3rd July.

June saw the start of the Australian raids Modelled on the Canadian system, the 7th Brigade carried out a single point entry raid on 6th June at the Rue de Bois salient. They were completely successful and the 5th and 6th Brigades immediately commenced training special parties to carry on the good work. The 6th Brigade had next turn and the 21st was given the job of providing covering parties in No Man’s Land for the three other Battalions, each of which was to make an entry into the enemy trench. After a fortnight’s training, the party consisting of about 250 all told (the first big raid by us in France) carried out their stunt at midnight of 29/30 June. The barrage was and all three paries reached the enemy trenches. The left party consisting of 24t h and 21st Battalion men were most successful and bought back seven prisoners. In this action, Sgt, H. Edwards won the Military Medal, the first one awarded to the unit. Our casualties were 2 killed and 3 or 4 wounded.

The Battalion had been relived from the front line on the 20th June by the 24th and was back in Rue Marle again when the Division was relieved by New Zealanders on 4th July and marched to La Creche (7 miles) near Steenwerck. Here we billeted till the 8th reorganising and equipping for our next move, which we knew, was to be a momentous one but which was very vague. Rumours had it that we were to make a new landing on the Belgian Coast to attack at Ypres and to be used as shock troops on the Somme. Why "shock" troops we don’t know to this day as when we did get into heavy action, most of the shock was to our own nervous systems.

During the three months, April, May and June 1916 we had received a good breaking in to warfare as practised on the Western Front. Our 9th Reinforcements joined us and the unit kept well up to strength, not being depleted by any disastrous actions or suffering from bad weather or conditions.

At Fleurbaix and Armentiers the precedent of the 21st and 22nd working together was established. Although all the units of the 6th Brigade have always been in closest sympathy with one another it has nearly always been our lot to be relieved by the 22nd Battalion and vice versa. In out years in France, though repeatedly changing over with the same unit both officers and men came to know and appreciate our sister Battalion and it is not out of place to record here our admiration and affection for our good friends whose only fault was that they wore a red and purple diamond instead of a red and black one.

Four days march during which we stayed at Strazeele (10 miles), Eblington (11 miles) and Campagne (5 miles) brought us to the railway at St. Omer (5 miles) on the 11th July. We crowded into the train "40 hommes" to a truck and at 11 am left in the highest spirits for a destination unknown.

V  The First Battle of the Somme