21st Battalion History

VI.

Winter in the Line.

 

Until the 3rd of September we stayed at Bonneville having reached there by a three days march from Albert via Warley and Herissart. The Battalion at this time numbered 11 officers and 491 other ranks all told, our casualties during the Poziers-Mouquet Farm operation being:-

Officers: Killed 9; wounded, 14; missing, 1 (P.O.W.); total 24.

Other ranks: Killed 61; wounded 459; missing, 131; total 651.

We never again in France regained our full strength of 970 odd, the nearest we got being before the Ypres offensive in September 1917 after a summer out of the line. On September the 3rd we marched to Ghezincourt and on the 5th entrained at Doullens South to Provin in Belgium, marching thence to St. Lawrence Camp via Poperinghe the same evening. On the 14th we moved to Toronto Camp where ensued a months rest and training. Sports between units were inaugurated for the first time and the troops picked up wonderfully after the gruelling of the previous month.

On the 14th October we relieved the 22nd Battalion in the front line at Hill 60, the move up being by train to Ypres and then via Lille Gate. The tour of duty was quiet but we had our first taste of mud as rain fell continuously for 36 hours. The position at Ypres is too well known to need further explanation than to say that to walk to the line at night gave one the impression that the Huns completely encircled us as their flares seemed to come from all round.

Relieved on the 19th October by the 24th London Regt we entrained at Ypres for Godewarsvelde and marched to Watou. The succeeding days we marched to Arneke, Quest Mont (21 miles, mentioned previously) and St. Omer where we entrained for the South (Longpre, near Amiens), finally billeting at L’Etoile at 11 pm on the 22nd. The troops were foot sore and rested till the 26th when we marched to Mouflers and thence by buses to Heilly, billeting at Buiresur-Ancre.

From Buire on the 3rd November we pushed out into the sea of mud which was the Somme battlefield of a month before. The rains during the previous month had made conditions indescribable. The photographs published give no idea of the sodden, cheerless and filthy trenches and shell holes in which the British army on the Somme fought and worked in the winter of 1916-17. Neither have we space in this short account to describe the battle with the mud in any detail. Honours are divided between our first trip to Flers in November and the Christmas tour at Guedecourt with a slight shade of odds in favour of Flers as the roughest trip; mainly because it lasted longer without any relaxation, even the Nissen Hut variety. Except during the 7th Brigade stunt on November 5th at Bayonet Trench, there was little enemy activity. The mud evidently had him worried too. It will suffice to enumerate our movements for the next four months, as they were all similar each day being as dreary as the day before. We were in the front line at Flers from 3rd to 7th and 15th to 19th November and finally the Brigade was withdrawn from the front area on the 22nd after a very sticky month of which Carton Camp, Cobham Trench and Factory Corner are sufficient reminders. After a few days at Meaulte and Dernancourt, the Division moved by train to the Vignacourt area on the 1st December for a fortnight’s spell. We were billeted in Flesselles with the rest of our Brigade where we enjoyed comparative comfort and also saw our first snow. Moving up by train on the 17th we took over the supports via Ribemont and Mametz from the 57th Battalion, 15th Infantry Brigade on the 21st and the front line from the 59th Battalion the following night. The sector was in front of Guedecourt and Les Bocufs and looked across a valley to Le Transloy and Beaulencourt. We spent Christmas day in the line being relieved by the 22nd Battalion and stayed in the area until the 16th January 1917. Our time was evenly divided between the front line, Needle Trench supports and the camps at Trones and Bernafay Woods near Montauban, spending four days in turn in each place. We did three front line tours, being finally relieved by the 8th Infantry Brigade.

On the 17th the Division moved by train to Ribemont area where we were in reserve till 1st February. During the latter half of January heavy frost set in which lasted till the end of February. Roads became bad and most of our time was spent mending them. If fact, Battalion HQ was moved to Cinque Ports Camp, Bazentin to be nearer the scene of operations.

On the 5th February the Division took over the line astride the Albert-Bapaume road at the Butte de Warlencourt, our Battalion first being reserve at Pioneer Camp and then took over the front line in the right sector at Le Sars from the 8th to 13th February. After a stay as reserve Brigade at Scotts Redoubt we went forward to Bazentin area, Acid Drop Camp. On the 22nd we relieved the 24th Battalion in the left sector at Le Sars and were in the front line when the German retirement commenced on the night 24/25th February.

During this period we had our first introduction to gum boots and "trench foot". The gumboots became battalion stores on moving into the line and many arguments occurred when it came to claiming one’s own leather boots when we moved out. "Trench Foot" is an ailment caused by the combined effects of cold, wet, and dirt and results in a swelling of the feet, which is very painful and some times necessitates amputation. Various antidotes such as rubbing and bathing the feet were instituted with good results, but "trench foot" was no means eliminated.

The frost broke up in the last week in Feburary and conditions of transport became worse than ever. This synchronising with the German retirement greatly hampered our movements and in the great part explains how the Hun managed to do such a clean get away. This retirement, which led up to Bullecourt, will be dealt with in the following chapter.

VII  Fron the Butte to Bullecourt