T.E. Sandall, History of the 5th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment (1922)


Egypt and the Vimy Ridge

The journey of the Battalion from the N. to the S. of France is difficult to describe, and still more so to appreciate correctly. The immediate future was very obscure; rumour said the Battalion was bound for Serbia! The journey was as thoroughly uncomfortable in every small detail as the disorganised railway service of France could make it. But as the murkiness and mud of the North gave place to the brilliant sunshine, dazzling white roofs, and olives of the South, the spirits of all defied uncertainty, and rose against reason. During the first day the men huddled together for warmth in their cattle-trucks, and peered through the mist at the shell-stricken villages they passed; on the second they lounged at the open doorways; on the third they sat on the roofs in their shirt sleeves, reduced to silence in their appreciation of the turbulent Rhone in the foreground on the right, and the snow clad Alps seen over a long vista of terraced vineyards on the left.

We arrived at Marseilles at 8.15 p.m. on January 7th, and a hurried march through the deserted streets was followed by embarkation at the docks at 2 p.m. on the 8th.

The voyage was uneventful, the weather monotonously pleasant, and from the time that the rocky coast of Southern France was lost to view until the sunburnt looking coast of Malta appeared, the normal routine was an unvaried succession of meals, sleep, [p59] and submarine alarms, which fortunately did not materialise. Probably on account of the last mentioned, when off Malta, our vessel turned and steamed hurriedly back for 12 hours, then as suddenly turned again, and finally arrived off Alexandria at 10 a.m. on January 13th.

The town appeared as a white spot on a desert shore from a distance, but on closer acquaintance the prospect was somewhat marred by dirt and a dust storm. However, the suburbs appeared very beautiful but the Battalion was hurriedly entrained on the quay at 2 a.m. on the 14th, and there was little rest for anyone until next day the train stopped at Mahsana, where the engine apparently broke down; at any rate, we stopped for 18 hours, which afforded a full day's rest for quiet reflection and the opportunity of inspecting a native village. The destination of the Battalion, El Shalufa, a few mud huts on the Suez Canal, two miles S. of the Bitter Lakes, was reached at 11 a.m. on January 15th. We detrained, crossed the Canal by ferry, and proceeded to bivouac; tents for officers and men arrived a few hours later, but no drinking water or rations until the next day.

The Camp at Shalufa, occupied by the Staffordshire Brigade and the two Lincolnshire Battalions, was was situated on the East bank of the Suez Canal, only separated from it by a single line of low sand-dunes. To the east of the men's lines were a few shallow trenches, and then about 60 miles of gently undulating rock strewn desert, ending on the horizon in a range of mountains of which every detail stood out with surprising clearness. To the west of the Canal another range about five miles away seemed only about as many hundred yards, rising very steeply from the desert, and apparently absolutely sterile and arid. The days were very hot, the nights [p60] equally cold, and any wind that blew raised clouds of sand, but nevertheless a fortnight passed very pleasantly. The defensive trenches were worked at on the first day, and subsequently open warfare training was carried out daily, varied by close order drill, and musketry. By day the desert to the E. was patrolled for many miles by squadrons of Indian Lancers, but by night each of the Battalions furnished an outpost line round the camp in turn; we occupied the outpost line on the nights of 20th and 26th January.

This peaceful existence, was rudely disturbed by the news that the Division was to return immediately to France, and January 29th was spent in hurriedly packing and handing over to units of the 42nd Division; at 6.15 p.m., the Battalion entrained, arriving at 7 a.m. on January 30th at Sid Gabaeh, close to Alexandria, and situated almost on the beach. Here we drew tents and pitched camp, the work for the next two days consisting of Battalion drill, and the relaxation of trips to Alexandria, either on small donkeys or by very efficient trams. On February 2nd, we received orders to stand-by ready to move at any time, but it was not until the next day that we proceeded to Alexandria, and re-embarked at 1.30 p.m. on S.S. Megantic to return to France. The vessel belonged to the White Star Line, and was most comfortably and admirably managed in all ways. We sailed at 12 noon on February 4th, and had an uneventful voyage, passing Malta on the 6th, arriving at Marseilles on February 9th, disembarking and entraining within a few hours. The reverse change to that on the outward journey, from sunlight and Peace to gloom and squalor and War was experienced, and we detrained at 11.30 a.m. on February 11th at Pont Remy station in a cold drizzle, marching thence [p61] to Gorenflos, where we arrived wet through and somewhat depressed, to find billets of the old familiar type.

Battalion life was arranged for the next few weeks with the one object of re-acclimatising the men to the mist and cold of Flanders, and re-accustoming all ranks to the tactics and conditions of trench warfare, training in which had been entirely neglected during the past three months. The weather was uniformly bad, snow, thaw, and rain succeeding each other, but training was carried on as far as weather conditions allowed. The Battalion remained in the same billets till February 20th, when we marched to Autheux where training continued on the same lines. On February 22nd, the Machine Gun Section of the Battalion came to an end, the gunners being transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, while the machine guns were replaced in the Battalion by Lewis Guns, and for the next few weeks the training of men in Lewis Gun work was made the most important part of the programme. On February 24th we again moved billets to Bonneville, each change bringing us nearer to the battle zone, and on the 29th we marched via Beauval to Gelincourt. On March 1st the Brigade marched in heavy snow to Doullens, where we remained for a week, the usual training being varied by long route marches in the snow, and on March 5th the C.O. and a number of officers were motored up to Mount St. Eloi, and from there proceeded on foot to inspect a line of trenches just W. of the Crest of Vimy Ridge, S. of Souchez, which the Battalion was destined shortly to take over from the French. The communication trenches were entered soon after passing the famous village of Carency, captured by the French in May, 1915, at a frightful cost of life, and the party advanced slowly knee-deep in mud with the spur of Notre [p62] Dame de Lorette standing at the N. end of Souchez on the left. After two miles of trenches the party emerged into the open in the Talus des Zouaves, a valley deep and narrow enough to afford protection from shell fire, though within 500 yards of the front line. From the Talus a main communication trench, the Boyau Vincent, brought them to the support line, and Battalion Headquarters, where they were hospitably received by their French hosts, by whom they were shown round the trenches.

On March 6th, the Brigade marched to Houvin, and after a day spent in Company training, the Battalion marched on the 8th via Aubigny to Villers Chatel, where the next day was spent, the Officers and some N.C.O.'s going up to reconnoitre the trench sector to be taken over. On March 10th, the Battalion marched to Villers-au-Bois, the trench Brigade Headquarters, and thence by Platoons into the trenches, relieving the 90th Regiment of French Infantry.

The sector now occupied was one in which the trenches were very sketchy, consisting mainly of isolated posts, which could only be reached at night, and over the open, as communication trenches to some did not exist and to others were so shallow and exposed as to be useless. All the trenches were shallow, and any effort to deepen them usually resulted in the shelling of the points worked at, as the chalky soil of the Vimy Ridge made newly thrown up soil stand up clearly as a white line, which provided an excellent object on which enemy artillery could range. Three Companies were distributed in the front line, of which one could be reached by day, and one Company in support round Battalion Headquarters. On the night of the 12th, the Germans exploded a small mine close to the parapet of one of our trenches, and followed it by a bombing attack. [p63] Sergeant F. Warren showed great coolness and resource under heavy fire in organising the defence at the threatened point and repelling the bombing attack, and was subsequently awarded the Military Medal for his conduct on this occasion. On the evening of the 13th an inter-Company relief was effected, the two isolated Companies being relieved by the other two. A certain amount of work was done on improvement and repair of trenches, as far as the weather allowed, and on the 15th we were relieved by the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, and became Brigade Reserve, with Battalion Headquarters and three Companies in dug-outs in the Talus de Zouaves, and one Company in dug- outs on the road by the Cabaret Rouge. Strong working parties were supplied daily for work on the communication trenches, and on the 21st we returned to the front line. The weather during the next week was cold with frequent falls of snow, the usual inter-Company relief was effected on the night of the 24th, and on the 27th the Battalion was relieved by the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, and proceeded back to the huts at Camblain l'Abbé as Divisional Reserve.

The condition of the Battalion at this time was unfortunately not very satisfactory; casualties and sickness had reduced our strength to less than half our establishment, especially in officers, the men appeared somewhat dispirited and depressed, and the execrable weather added to the difficulties; a certain amount of general slackness prevailed, and on April 1st, when the Divisional Commander inspected the Battalion, while the C.O., Lieut.-Colonel Westmorland was in England on leave, he decided to place Major F. E. Tetley, 4th Lincolnshire Regiment, in temporary command, and the Battalion returned to the trenches on April 2nd, accompanied [p64] by four officers and 62 other ranks of 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, as only eight officers of the Battalion were available, and the rifle strength was much below the minimum necessary to hold the position safely. During the tour the improvement of the trenches was steadily pushed forward, and a new defence line of trenches was laid out, and partially constructed, interfered with at intervals by enemy trench mortar bombardments. On April 8th, the Battalion was relieved and returned to the Talus des Zouaves as Brigade Reserve.

Meanwhile Lieut.-Colonel T. E. Sandall, C.M.G., who had been wounded on October 13th and had now recovered, was recalled from England by desire of the Divisional Commander, and resumed command of the Battalion on April 6th, Major Tetley returning to his own Battalion. Major H. G. Wilson, who had done excellent work as a Company Commander and had also been wounded on October 13th, took over the duties of 2nd-in-Command; changes were made in the command and organization of Companies; a new Regimental Sergeant-Major, C.S.M. F. Credland was appointed; and on April 9th a strong draft of 127 other ranks arrived, which brought the Battalion strength to 14 officers and 640 other ranks, weak enough still in all conscience but yet strong enough to enable us to hold our sector in the line without assistance from other Battalions in the Brigade. No effort was spared in the attempt to restore to the Battalion the discipline, morale, and efficiency of the old Battalion, which had been cut to pieces at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and in due time this was effected with complete success.

On April 13th the Talus des Zouaves was very heavily shelled by enemy Howitzers, the only type of artillery that could reach it, and a considerable amount of material damage was done to R.E. [p65] stores, but no casualties were caused, as the dug-outs were situated on the reverse slope of the valley, the sides of which were so steep as to afford them almost complete protection. On the 14th, we returned to the trenches for our last tour in the front line on the Vimy Ridge, and were subjected as usual to considerable trench mortar bombardment, which caused much material damage and entailed endless work, but inflicted very few casualties, although on the 18th Lieut. Hoff was dangerously wounded. On the evening of this day we were relieved by 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, and slowly wended our way back to our quarters in Divisional Reserve in the huts at Camblain l'Abée, quite contented to have finished our tour of duty at Vimy.

During the time the Brigade held it, the sector was immensely improved and strengthened; the trenches were deepened and drained, a certain amount of shelter provided, and an entirely new defensive position prepared behind the front line. More important still all the isolated posts had been connected with the defence line by communication trenches, which rendered communication possible by day with all portions of the line to the great advantage of everyone. The C.O., Adjutant and others, whose duties entailed nightly visits across the open to isolated posts, particularly appreciated this last improvement, as it was not always possible in the darkness to be sure, whether the post that one saw was our own or the enemy's, and the strain of listening to hear what language was spoken by the garrison before approaching too near was considerable.