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


The Great German Retreat in 1917

It was common knowledge at the end of February 1917, that the Germans were preparing to retire to their new defensive position, the Hindenburg Line; increased artillery activity, frequent fires and explosions during the night and increased movement by day were all observed from our front trenches, and battalions holding the line were instructed to push patrols boldly forward, and if possible penetrate the old German front line. On becoming Brigade Reserve, we were warned to be ready to move at short notice, and all preparations were made. On the 25th Fonquevillers was heavily shelled during the morning, and orders were received warning the Battalion to be ready to move up at once in support, if our patrols were able to occupy any portion of the enemy line in the evening, but this was not found possible, and at 2 a.m., we were notified accordingly. The 26th was spent in constant expectation of an order to move, but again we were disappointed. Captain A. L. Binns rejoined the Battalion, and resumed his appointment as Adjutant, Lieut. Schiller , who had worthily filled his place since October, becoming Intelligence Officer. On the 27th we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in our sector during the morning, and in the evening we pushed forward strong patrols on the Essarts Road and to the Z trench, but these points were found to be strongly held by the enemy. However, on the morning of the 28th we received information [p106] that the battalion on our right, the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, had occupied Gommecourt during the night without opposition, and in the afternoon two of our support platoons were detailed to dig a communication trench from our front line to Gommecourt, south of the Fonquevillers-Gommecourt road. At dark a strong patrol under Lieut. Schiller was again sent forward to the Z trench, but while endeavouring to pass through the German wire, heavy rifle fire was opened by the enemy, and Lieut. Schiller was wounded, and the patrol compelled to retire. On March 1st three platoons were detailed to carry ammunition up to the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, who were now occupying Gommecourt, and every other available man to complete the new communication trench south of the Fonquevillers-Gommecourt road. A strong patrol under Lieut. Perrott, which was supported by a platoon with a Lewis Gun, was again sent forward at dark, but found the Z trench still strongly held by the enemy, and patrols at 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. returned with the same information.

On March 2nd the weather was very misty and the enemy line invisible, but patrols reported the position unchanged. In the evening detachments from two Companies were detailed to repair the road from Fonquevillers to Gommecourt, and next morning we were relieved by the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters, and marched back to billets at St. Amand, where the huts were very good, and the officers' billets also comfortable, a great contrast to Souastre. As no further advance of the Division appeared likely in the immediate future, a course of training was arranged especially in open warfare, night marching on compass bearing, trench attacks and so on, preparatory to our expected future operations, but a heavy fall of snow on March [p107] 4th and 5th suspended training for a day or two, the Battalion being held in readiness to move at three hours' notice. The weather continued very cold but fine after the 6th, and training was steadily carried out until the 10th, a draft of 40 men reaching us on the 8th. On the 11th the whole Battalion were detailed for work under R.E. in front of Gommecourt, and Major F. E. Tetley, who had done invaluable work for the Battalion as 2nd-in-Command, left us to take command of the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment. During the next few days large fatigue parties were required, two half Companies being left at work from 4 p.m. on the 12th to 3 a.m. on the 13th, a proceeding which led the O.C. to protest to Brigade Headquarters against men being over-worked.

The enemy's retreat had steadily proceeded, and on the 14th, after a warning that the Battalion would shortly relieve a Battalion of the 139th Brigade, the officers reconnoitred the newly occupied territory up to Biez Wood. Training continued until the 17th, when we received orders to relieve the 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment in what was now our front line at 9 a.m. on the 18th. Accordingly at 3 a.m. the Battalion marched out from Souastre in fighting order, via Fonquevillers, where bombs were drawn, and Rettemoy Farm, where flares and other stores were issued, to Battalion Headquarters in the old German gun pits 500 yards S.E. of Essarts. Relief was completed at 10 a.m., three companies being on a line from Daervillers Farm N. of Bucquoy to 500 yards S.E. of Quesnoy Farm. As Ayette, the village in our front, was reported unoccupied, two platoons of A Company pushed forward and occupied it, the line advanced, and Battalion Headquarters established on hill 155. At 1.30 p.m. orders were received to push forward and hold [p108] a line from N. of Ayette to N. of Douchy, the movement being completed at 5 p.m. and Battalion Headquarters established in Ayette without any opposition from the enemy, touch being obtained with the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment at Douchy on our left, and with the 7th Division at Bucquoy on our right. The advance over open country, although there was no actual fighting was a source of much excitement, and all ranks felt in the highest spirits at the first experience of open warfare after two years in the Field.

Later in the evening we were ordered to push forward, one Company to hold the spur between Ayette and Moyenvillers, and touch having been obtained at the latter village with the 7th Division, an out-post line was formed by two Companies for the night, the other two Companies and Battalion Headquarters being in Ayette. Next morning we continued to hold the line, while the 58th Division, on our left, advanced across our front to Boiry and Boisleux, and the 7th Division on our right advanced to Boyelles, thus squeezing us out of the front line; the position was maintained, however, until 3 p.m. when we were relieved by the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment, and returned to billets for the night in the old German dug-outs in Essarts village. Great credit is due to the Transport under Lieut. H. B. Linley for getting up rations and water during these two nights, as no wheeled traffic was possible, and everything was brought up on pack ponies.

On March 20th the Battalion left Essarts and returned to Souastre, where a day's rest was enjoyed. The news that the 46th Division was to be temporarily withdrawn from the line, which in the ordinary way would have been greeted with enthusiasm, was on this occasion received with feelings [p109] of great disappointment by all ranks, who were keenly anxious to take part in the British advance. However, we could only look forward to making good in an advance in another area, and the Battalion left Souastre on March 22nd, marching in cold and wet weather to Bertrancourt, where huts were available for the night: on the 23rd, to Bousquesne, and on the 24th to Mulliens-au-Bois, at both of which villages very comfortable billets were found. On March 25th we left Mulliens-au-Bois at 1 p.m., marching nine miles to the Doulens-Amiens road, where we found motor-'buses in which we were carried via Amiens to Longeau, the Transport following by ordinary march route. We remained in fairly comfortable billets at Longeau for three days, and as officers and 20 per cent of men were daily given leave for Amiens, a large portion of the Battalion again enjoyed the sweets of civilization for a day.

At 10.30 p.m. on the 27th the Battalion left Longeau, and marched via the outer boulevards of Amiens to Saleux station, where we entrained for Lillers, at which station we were due to arrive at 7.30 a.m. on the 28th. This programme however did not allow for the disorganization of traffic on the French railways at this period; progress was at a walking pace, with halts of uncertain duration about every quarter of a mile; near Doullens on one occasion we could count five trains ahead of us and three behind, with only about 50 yards interval between each train; we finally arrived at Lillers at 11 p.m., a large proportion of the men having walked by the side of the train for a considerable portion of the journey, and marched to Bourecq, where good billets were found for the night, moving next day to Febrin-Palfart. We had now arrived in another training area, the Division forming part of [p110] the II Corps in the First Army, and the Corps Commander, Lieut.-General Sir J. Jacob, met all officers at Brigade Headquarters next day, when a redistribution of billets was made, one Company having to move to Pippemont, 1½ miles away, to make room in the village for Brigade Headquarters who coveted and subsequently took as their own, as was the way of superior authorities, the chateau which had been selected as Battalion Headquarters.

As far as weather permitted, a strenuous training programme was now begun, but frequent blizzards caused a good deal of interference. A Brigade inter-Company football competition for a cup given by the Brigadier was arranged, and on the 7th, A Company beat B in the Battalion final, which was played late in the afternoon after a strenuous day's training lasting from breakfast at 7.30 a.m. till 4 p.m., the G.O.C. Division having chosen this particular day to supervise our performance personally, and insisting on a repetition at 1.30 p.m. when we had planned to return to billets. On the 9th a Divisional route march was carried out, units being inspected on the march by the Corps Commander. On April 13th we began our return to the line, the Battalion marching via St. Hilaire and Lillers to Hollanderie and La Pierriere, where we billeted for the next three days, carrying out light training, and on the 16th moving via Chocques to Vendin and Oblinghem, near Bethune, where we found good but very scattered billets. A warning order was issued on the 17th and definite orders at 3 a.m. on the 18th, that the Battalion would relieve the 8th Royal West Surrey Regiment then in support in the line opposite Lens. The C.O. and Company Commanders started at 9 a.m. to reconnoitre, and the Battalion marched at 1 p.m. via Bethune, Noeux les Mines, and Bully Grenay to Brigade [p111] Headquarters in Meroc, and thence into positions in the old German front and support line, opposite Cité St. Pierre, N.W. of Lens. The relief was completed by 2 a.m. on the 19th, and during the day the C.O. and Company Commanders went forward to reconnoitre the positions to be occupied in the evening, when the Battalion relieved the 9th East Surrey Regiment. The line taken over consisted of a series of posts on the outskirts of Lens, some in trenches, others in houses, all lately vacated by the enemy, who held a line approximately 400 yards away: two Companies were distributed in these posts, each with one platoon in support, and the other two Companies with Battalion Headquarters in cellars in Cité St. Pierre.

On the 20th our positions were very heavily shelled, one of our trenches in the front line, garrisoned by a platoon under Lieut. M. Robinson, suffering very severely. Lieut. Robinson although buried by a shell explosion, and severely shaken, remained on duty encouraging his men, until he had assured himself that the trench was clear and all his men under cover. Sergeant T. W. Huddleston also exhibited high courage and devotion to duty on this occasion, when a heavy barrage was opened on his trench in which there was no cover; he continually moved up and down the trench encouraging his men by his personal example and bearing. Lieut. Robinson was subsequently awarded the Croix de Guerre, and Sergeant Huddleston the Military Medal.

Heavy shelling at intervals during the next two days and nights was experienced, the neighbourhood of Battalion Headquarters, which was in an old German Brigade Headquarters, the exact position being therefore well known to the enemy artillery, suffering especially severely. Telephonic communication with the front Companies was maintained with [p112] difficulty, as the lines were being constantly cut. Two of our linesmen, Privates A. Ward and A. Reed, greatly distinguished themselves, frequently going out by day and night under heavy shell fire, to restore the interrupted communications, and won the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Lance-Corporal N. Ironmonger also exhibited conspicuous bravery in the same way during the period of the 19th-23rd of April, especially on the 20th, when, having carried in a wounded comrade, he went out again under a heavy barrage and succeeded in repairing a broken line. The Military Medal was also awarded to Lance-Corporal C. Gill, who was in charge of the stretcher bearers during this period; he continually exposed himself to heavy fire, while attending to wounded, and showed great coolness and resource in his skilful handling of his section in bringing in wounded from the line to the Aid Post by the best route in the shortest possible time.

In the early morning of April 23rd, in order to support an attack by the 139th Brigade on Hill 65 on our right, the Battalion was ordered to push forward strong patrols towards Cité St. Elizabeth, and three patrols, each consisting of a bombing section supported by the remainder of the platoon, went forward at 4.45 a.m. but were all met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire from houses in front, and compelled to retire. One patrol under Corporal J. Major when 50 yards from our line was heavily fired on from a flank, and was compelled to take refuge in a house; one man was severely wounded while in the open and Private W. H. Bateman was awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous bravery in going out under heavy rifle and machine gun fire and carrying him for 35 yards into safety. They were unable to return to our lines till dark, when [p113] Corporal Major succeeded in retiring without further casualties. Private H. Cockayne, one of this patrol, also won the Military Medal for gallantry, volunteering to carry a message to our lines during the day, which involved crossing two roads which were swept by machine gun fire; he succeeded in doing so, and moreover returned to his patrol with an answer.

Sergeant A. A. Mann, who was in command of a platoon supporting another patrol, also exhibited great personal courage, skill and initiative by arranging covering fire for the withdrawal of the patrol, and succeeded by skilful leadership and keeping firm control of his command in getting the whole back to our line without casualty, and was also awarded the Military Medal.

On the night of the 23rd, after a very strenuous four days in the unaccustomed circumstances of fighting among houses and streets which concealed nests of enemy machine guns, a very different proposition to trenches in open country, the Battalion was relieved by the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and withdrew as Brigade Reserve to cellars in Cité St. Pierre. Next morning, however, sudden orders were received to relieve the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment in the sector on our right, the same evening; relief was completed at 2 a.m. on the 25th, our dispositions being one Company in a series of posts in Cité St. Theodore, a W. suburb of Lens, with one Company in immediate support in Crimson trench and Crook redoubt, Battalion Headquarters and two Companies in reserve in Lievin. On the evening of the 26th, the two front line Companies were relieved by two Companies of the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and the whole Battalion were then quartered in cellars in Lievin. The 27th and 28th were spent in interior economy, [p114] and cleaning, and tubs collected from various cellars abandoned by the Germans were utilised as baths by the majority of the men. The area was shelled occasionally, but good cover was available, and there were no casualties.

On the evening of the 29th we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in the line, and during the night pushed forward patrols up to the railway junction east of Cité St. Theodore, the whole of which was thus occupied by us. The night was quiet on our immediate front, although there was heavy shelling on our right, and Battalion Headquarters suffered heavily at noon next day.

On May 1st the Battalion was withdrawn to occupy another sector in front of Loos, Battalion Headquarters being in Harrison's Crater, with two Companies in the line, and two in support; the Germans had not withdrawn on this part of the line, and consequently we were once again in a definite trench system, which had been rendered very indefinite, however, by long continued mine warfare.

On May 2nd Lieut.-Colonel T. E. Sandall, C.M.G., relinquished the command of the Battalion, which he had held since May, 1912 (except for his temporary absence from October, 1915, to March, 1916, on sick leave after being wounded at the Hohenzollern Redoubt), on his appointment to the command of the First Army Rest Camp: Major H. G. Wilson took over temporary command. Heavy shelling was experienced both by day and night, and on the evening of May 3rd, when Battalion Headquarters were moved to Hart's Crater, a considerable number of casualties were sustained. On the night of May 4th, after a heavy trench mortar bombardment, an enemy party about 30 strong attempted to rush an advanced bombing post; the N.C.O. in charge having been killed, and one man seriously wounded, [p115] Private A. E. Forster took charge of the post, ordered it to retire a short distance with the dead N.C.O. and wounded man, while he himself covered the retirement by vigorous bombing. Having thus disorganised the enemy rush, and prevented the dead N.C.O. and wounded man falling into enemy hands, he obtained support from Lewis guns, and the raid was repulsed with considerable loss to the enemy, and Private Forster was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On the same night the Military Medal was won by Private F. Blakey, who was one of a Lewis Gun post, when a shell buried the whole team, killing or wounding all except one man. Private Blakey and this man got the gun into action, and held the post in spite of heavy shelling, and it was only when the Battalion was relieved that it transpired that he was wounded, a fact he had concealed in order that he might remain at his post— a fine example to other men.

The sector was heavily shelled and trench mortared during the whole day on the 5th, and it was decided to raid an enemy post at night in Netley trench. At 3.30 a.m. on the 6th, two parties, under Lieut. G. H. Quantrill, advanced under cover of an artillery barrage, the northern party to attack the post in front, and the southern party in the rear. The southern party was held up but the northern party got through, bombed the post and inflicted several casualties on the enemy. Lieut. Quantrill, who had previously made an accurate and skilful reconnaisance of the position, led the northern party, and the success of the operation was largely due to his skilful leadership and personal example and courage, and he succeeded in bringing his party back without casualties through the enemy barrage, except that he himself was slightly wounded; his gallantry was rewarded by the bestowal of the Military Cross.


On the evening of May 6th, the Battalion was relieved by the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters, and went back to good billets at Petite Sains, which were reached at 4 a.m. on the 7th. On May 8th, Major H. A. Waring, Royal West Kent Regiment, took over command of the Battalion, and the usual interior economy and Platoon training continued for the next few days. On the 10th, in the Brigade Inter-Company Football Competition, A Company beat C Company of the 1/4-th Leicestershire Regiment in the semi-final round, and at night the whole Battalion was employed in wiring the Divisional line west of Lievin and Angres, which it was intended to hold in case of a German counter-attack. On the 11th the G.O.C. I. Corps presented medal ribands awarded during recent operations at a ceremonial parade of a composite Battalion made up of one Company from each Battalion in the Brigade; on the same day Lieut. R. E. W. Sandall left the Battalion to take command of the Brigade Lewis Gun School. On the 12th the final of the Brigade Football competition was played in the morning, when A Company were beaten by the 468th Company R.E. by 4 goals to 1. The weather during our stay at Petite Sains as Divisional Reserve was very fine and warm, and the rest from front line work was greatly appreciated; it ended on the afternoon of of the 12th, when we took over billets in Lievin from the 1/5th South Staffordshire Regiment, becoming Brigade Reserve; heavy shelling was experienced during the relief, and we were fortunate in only having four casualties. Next day the area was again heavily shelled, causing 13 casualties, while an equal number were due to an accidental explosion in a bomb store.

On May 15th the Battalion once more went into the line, relieving the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment [p117] in the left Lievin sector, a line of trenches between the Grenay-Lens railway and the Lievin-Lens road, with an outpost line in Cité St. Theodore, 2½ Companies being in the front line, and 1½ Companies in support in Lievin.

Repeated warnings had been received from Brigade Headquarters that patrolling must be very active, as the enemy were expected to evacuate Lens at any moment, but it became increasingly evident that the great German retreat was nearing its end, and that the enemy intended to hold on to the positions he now occupied, unless attacked in force, and German patrols were active in feeling for the position of our outpost line. On the night of the 17th a strong enemy patrol of 20 or 30 approached one of our advanced posts, but were fortunately observed; Sergeant F. Warren, who was in charge of the post, reserved his fire until the enemy were only 25 yards away, and then opened fire on the patrol, who fled at once leaving one dead man, of the 118th Regiment, thus furnishing us with a valuable identification. Another identification was also obtained on the same night by Private G. P. Rawson, who accompanied by another man, was visiting our advanced posts as a connecting patrol. The two men were attacked with bombs by a patrol of six Germans and both wounded, but Private Rawson at once fired at his opponents, killed two, and charged at the others with his bayonet. The enemy fled, and Private Rawson was awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry in attacking an enemy party, when himself wounded, and with odds against him. The two men killed proved to belong to the 35th Regiment.

On the 18th, we were relieved by the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and went back as Brigade Reserve to Lievin, finding strong working parties for the next [p118] few nights, and on the 21st we again took over the front line, with instructions that a Company raid was to be carried out during the tour, which were subsequently cancelled owing to a gas attack on the Cité St. Laurent front. The tour passed comparatively quietly, but there was considerable artillery activity, especially on the 24th, when the 137th Brigade on our left, attacked Nash Alley in the Loos sector. On the evening of the 25th we were relieved and again returned to Petite Sains as Divisional Reserve.