21st Battalion History
Winter in the Ploegsteert Sector.
On the 18th November we left the Ypres Area for the last time and marched to Doncaster Huts, Locre, where we stayed for a month. The weather was as fair as could be expected for this time of the year and training and sports occupied our time. We moved to Bulford Camp, near Neuve Eglise on the 15th December, two companies having proceeded the rest of the battalion to take over the Nucleus Garrisons in the Ploegsteert Area on the same day.
On the 20th, Battalion Headquarters moved to the Catacombs in Hill 63, just north-west of Ploegsteert Wood. We were here in reserve till the 12th January, the 2nd Division having relieved the 3rd Division in the sector. Work consisted of improving the reserve lines of defence from Hill 63 forward and entailed the handling of much barbed wire. Snow fell daily and just before Christmas a frost set in. It was not as severe as the frost of the previous January and we were living in the Catacombs, there was a chance to get warm in bed, if no where else. The Catacombs were a series of tunnels under Hill 63, which had been constructed to hold two battalions before the Messines show in June 1917. There were double tiers of bunks throughout also cubicles for officers, stores etc. Christmas and New Year passed uneventfully and a thaw set in on 6th January 1918, which made conditions underfoot much worse than they had previously been. The 23rd Battalion relieved us on the 12th January when we entrained at Hyde Park corner for Romarin, a few miles further back. We worked on engineering parties when the snow permitted until the 21st when we were taken up by train again to relieve the 22nd Battalion in the front line. We were holding Le Basse Ville while the enemy in front of us was well dug-in in Warneton. The River Lys covered our right flank, where things were quiet.
This sector was mainly notable for mud and Minenwerfers. The official photographer has done us the honour of publishing the portrait of one of the Battalion struggling in the support trench during our tour of duty. Our front line consisted of shell hole posts. The supports lived in cellars in Le Basse Ville and in trenches behind the village. We were relieved by the 37th Battalion (3rd Division) on the night 27-28th January and moved back to billets in Neuve Eglise. The Division was withdrawn and on the 30th we travelled by train to the Bulescamp area 20 miles east of Boulogne. We were billeted over the three villages of Bulescamp, Harlettes and Fromentels. During our month here, leave to Boulogne was granted and troops travelled in by motor lorry. We were situated at a high altitude and when the sun shone had an excellent view of the surrounding country. The rest was a welcome one and was occupied as usual with training and sports. We built a rifle range on which we had good musketry practice.
March opened with more snow and this as usual was the signal for us to move to the line again which we did by train on the 6th. The following day we marched from Romarin and took over the Catacombs once more from the 3rd Division. Engineering parties occupied our time in reserve, most of the work consisting of duck-boarding the forward trenches. On the night 15-16th we relieved the 22nd Battalion in the old sector at Le Basse Ville which had not got less muddy in our absence. The C.T. (communication trench), Ultimo Avenue, how ever had been improved so that conditions were better than in January, though the "minnie" fire had increased. The cellars in Warneton must of each held at least one of these infernal bomb throwers. They were too close for our artillery to deal with and the field guns could only silence them temporarily. Their activity culminated at 3.15 am on the 22nd March in a raid on our left Companys front line posts, which was preceded by a quarter of an hours intense bombardment. The Hun scuppers our three left posts taking a few prisoners from No 8 post, but were prevented from entering Le Basse Ville by No 6 post, which inflicted casualties on the attacking party.
As soon as it was realised what was happening a party from Le Basse Ville went forward, recaptured one prisoner from the enemy as he was being taken across "No Mans Land and restabilised our front line positions. Nos 7, 8, and 9 posts were obliterated by "Minnie" fire, Lieut. OBrien being found half buried and with a revolver shot through his head. In casualties, both sides came out about even, which, considering that the enemy used 150 men in his raid (information from a prisoner taken) and worked under a exceedingly heavy artillery barrage, we came out rather well. We retaliated next night by gassing Warneton till there was not a flare fired from it, and the following day stretcher-bearers were seen working for several hours.
All this was part of the Huns great Spring offensive of 1918. We had been expecting it to come for weeks, but only when we were relieved by the 22nd Battalion on the night 23-24th March did we learn of the great magnitude of his attack on the Somme. We certainly felt uneasy as we heard of retirement after retirement and when the 4th Australian Division moved from reserve, followed by the 3rd and 5th Division, we just gritted our teeth and decided that what ever happened it would not be our fault if the Huns broke line.
We left the Catacombs on the 2nd April and embussed at Neuve Eglis for Meteren, where we stayed till the morning of the 4th. The 3rd was a beautiful day, and was spent in inspection parades and discussions on the situation down south. The writer has never known the Battalion to be so resolutely determined to give a good account of itself. As an instance, in one Company, at any rate, when an inspection of iron rations was held, every man produced 24 hours rations complete. Where they had got them from, being just out of the line is a mystery, but the fact remains and is a testimony to the earnestness with which the ranks approached their next job.
Though it did not look like it, as we lay in the sun at Meteren, out time of triumph had come. We were on the threshold of the "final campaign", the story of which is told so ably by Mr. F. M. Cutlack, in his book on the 1918 operations. In 1915, 1916 and 1917 we had been fighting at a deadlock. Certainly we had gained many moral victories and a certain amount of ground but in our last year we were to know the satisfaction of beating the Hun, company to company, platoon to platoon and man to man. It entailed heavy fighting but it was worth it. Those who saw the Australian campaign from start to finish can never forget the last Spring and Summer. As we have said earlier in our story, it was what we had come for, lived for and if necessity arose were prepared to die for.
Mr. Cutlack has told the story truthfully and in much detail, so again our aim will be merely to enumerate our movements in the Australians final campaign.