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


The Preparation for the Battle of the Somme

On April 20th, 1916, we left Camblain l'Abée at 10 a.m. and marched away from the battle area in a S.E. direction for 14 miles, billeting for the night in pleasant surroundings at Mont en Tenois. Next day the Battalion was very thoroughly inspected by companies by the Commanding Officer, but no other work was done, and on April 22nd we moved on to Penin, where again excellent billets were available, and the next two days were spent in interior economy, special attention being paid to cleanliness of arms and equipment in the effort to promote greater smartness in appearance. Baths were available for the men at the brewery in the neighbouring village of Tinques. A rifle range was also available at Penin, and the opportunity was taken of putting all men through a short musketry course, while company training, especially close order drill, was carried out daily until the 28th with good results.

On April 29th training was interrupted, as the Battalion was required to provide parties for work on the Corps Line near Mont St. Eloi, for which purpose we moved to another area. Half the Battalion being required for work the same night were carried up to the area by motor-'bus, while the other half, who would not be wanted till next day, marched. The billeting area was very scattered, Battalion Headquarters and details being at [p67] Maroeuil, a village exposed to distant shell fire, as was demonstrated by one shell exploding in the garden of the house occupied as Battalion Headquarters, fortunately doing no damage; the Transport and Quartermaster's Stores were at the hamlet of Bray, two miles away; two Companies were in dug-outs in a large wood, the Bois des Allieux, N. of Mont St. Eloi, which was quite a pleasant rural retreat: one Company occupied huts, an unexpected luxury, in a copse at Ecoivres; and the fourth Company occupied dug-outs by the Chausée, a road running parallel to the Corps Line, about half-a-mile in front of Maroeuil. The whole Battalion worked on the Corps Line trenches from April 29th to May 7th, part by night on those sections exposed to enemy observation, and the remainder by day. During the week Lieut.-Col. T. E. Sandall proceeded to a Commanding Officer's Conference at Auxi-le-Chateau, where the Second Army School was situated, and Major H. G. Wilson was in temporary command.

On May 8th, the necessary work in the Corps Line being completed, the Battalion marched back to Penin occupying their former billets for the night, and on the next day marched to Sus St. Leger, a village near Lucheux, where ample, clean and comfortable billets were available, and for the next few weeks we rested in comfort and contentment probably greater than any we enjoyed at any other time during our service in the Field. The weather was for the most part delightful, the billets were comfortable, the work was comparatively light, the surrounding country charming and well wooded, looking its best in early May, and last, but not least, we were well outside the zone of shell fire, and practically far enough back to be free even from the sound of guns.


On May 10th three Companies were detailed for work in the forest of Lucheux, a delightful stretch of woodland and a beautiful specimen of French forestry at its best, which extended to within a mile of the village, while one Company devoted itself to Company training, and this routine with occasional modifications was continued for the next fortnight. The Battalion usually paraded at 9 a.m. and marched into the forest, working till 1 p.m. when one hour was allowed for dinner, which was cooked in the field kitchens which we took out with us, and worked again from 2 to 4.30 p.m., when we returned to billets. After tea the band usually played which added much to our enjoyment.

The work in the Forest consisted of felling saplings, trimming them, and finally weaving them into hurdles, or tying them into fascines, which were destined to be used in the assembly trenches then being prepared for the forth-coming attack on the Somme, rumours of which had reached our ears; the work was carried on under the superintendence of an R.E. detachment and the men soon became apt pupils. At the first accidents were frequent, as felling axes and bill-hooks are somewhat dangerous weapons in unskilled hands, and their use is fraught with considerable danger to a careless or incompetent wielder, but the quantity of completed hurdles and fascines gradually increased each day for the same hours of work, and the average man in the Battalion accounted himself a fair woodman by the end of our experience in Forestry.

During this period each Company in turn was struck off duty for a few days for anti-typhoid inoculation or re-inoculation, the immense value of which had already been conclusively proved; many sore arms, much bad language, and more grousing was the immediate result but the future good health [p69] of the Battalion, and our practical immunity from enteric fever during the whole campaign was the ultimate result, well worth it all. On May 15th, a strong draft of four officers and 330 other ranks reached the Battalion, while four more officers of the Middlesex Regiment joined on the 19th, thus once more bringing us up to a reasonable fighting strength. On May 17th, the routine was varied by a Battalion operation, the opportunity being taken of practising wood-fighting, and marching through the Forest on a compass bearing, under the supervision of the Divisional Commander.

On May 20th our delightful rural sojourn at Sus St. Leger came to an end; it was a period of unalloyed happy memory to all, except the victims of inoculation already referred to, and the Battalion returned on 20th to the trench area marching through Pas-en-Artois, where Divisional Headquarters were situated, to Bienvillers, a village two miles behind the front line, opposite Gommecourt. The country in this sector was very different from the bare flat fields in front of Kemmel, the sodden plain of Ypres, or the chalky slopes of the Vimy Ridge, consisting as it did of numerous villages embowered in trees, with undulating cultivated fields between; a distant view gave one an impression of a large tract of uninhabited country, the houses being hidden in innumerable small woods, which dotted the landscape.

Bienvillers, although within two miles of the front line, was still occupied by a considerable number of its original inhabitants, and the land was cultivated to within a short distance of the trenches, as the enemy, owing to the wooded nature of the terrain, had no direct observation, and aeroplanes were still few and far between. For many months this had been one of the quietest parts on the British [p70] Front, but as our preparations for attack became apparent to the enemy, his artillery activity gradually increased, and life was not quite so peaceful from this time forward.

For the next fortnight training was entirely put aside, the whole Battalion being employed on the construction of assembly trenches and communication trenches leading to Fonquevillers, a village about half-a-mile behind the front line directly in front of Bienvillers. Half the Battalion worked by day, where they were not under observation, the other half by night, where new trenches were sited in the open; by May 28th all trenches were so far advanced that further work on them could be safely carried on by day. The G.O.C. Division was so pleased with the progress made that one day's complete holiday was allowed the Battalion, a rest much enjoyed by everybody.

On May 31st an important reorganization within the Battalion was effected, the Lewis Gun Section, the successor of the original Machine Gun Section, being broken up and distributed among Companies, as the establishment of eight Lewis Guns per Battalion now available allowed two guns to be allotted to each Company, of which they became henceforth an integral part, although the Lewis Gun Officer, at this time Lieut. R. E. W. Sandall, remained attached to Battalion Headquarters for their general supervision.

Work on trenches continued daily up to June 3rd, the Midland Trench, an assembly trench immediately in rear of Fonqevillers village, and the communication trenches up to it, being completed. The sector still remained fairly quiet, but in the early morning of June 3rd Bienvillers was somewhat heavily shelled and several billets were hit, causing some casualties, among others Lieuts. J. B. and F. R. Coulson were [p71] wounded, the former unfortunately so severely that he subsequently died of wounds.

On June 4th the Battalion once more returned to duty in the trench line, relieving the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters at 8.30 p.m., being distributed with two Companies in the front line, one Company in support in dug-outs about 400 yards in the rear, and one Company in reserve with Battalion Headquarters in Fonquevillers village, which lay about 800 yards behind the front line. The work in progress in the trench area consisted of the preparation of several lines of assembly trenches behind the front line, while a new trench in No Man's Land, here some 400 to 500 yards wide, was taped out on the night of June 7th about 200 yards in advance of our original front line, the Battalion supplying covering parties to enable this to be done.

On the night of June 8th a covering party of two platoons with Lewis Guns was pushed well forward, while one and a half companies and the whole the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment dug about 400 yards of the new trench down to a depth of 3 feet 6 inches, during the night. The enemy evidently was aware of the proceedings to some extent, and the work was carried on under heavy shrapnel and machine gun fire, which caused us 15 casualties. The 1/4th Lincolnshire Battalion suffered somewhat heavily, their Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel H. Gardner, being dangerously wounded. On the next two nights, June 9th and 10th, with the usual covering parties out, the digging was completed, and the trench sufficiently wired to enable it to be occupied for observation purposes, the garrison consisting of one platoon by day, and three platoons by night. By day work on the assembly trenches was continued, trench mortar positions and ammunition stores were prepared, S.A.A. and bomb [p72] stores were constructed in the front line, and communication trenches were improved; by night we supplied covering parties, while working parties of the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment continued the wiring and improvement of the advanced trench, known as the Bush Trench. Meanwhile it was evident that the enemy by this time had observed the immense amount of work being done, and the days of the "quiet sector" were over, the enemy shelling growing day by day more heavy and persistent, and it was therefore with considerable satisfaction that after a spell of 14 days continuous work in the front line we were informed that we were to be relieved on the night of June 18th. The company in the sector N. of the La Brayelle road was relieved by a company of 11th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, from the Division on our left, while the remainder of the Battalion was relieved by the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters and we withdrew to rest billets in huts at Humbercamp, a prettily situated and practically unshelled village about three miles behind the line.

During the next few days a certain amount of training was performed, but the Battalion was chiefly employed in digging cable trenches, and on the construction of dug-outs to serve as Divisional Battle Headquarters at St. Amand. The huts at Humbercamp were pleasant quarters, but the immediate proximity of a 15 inch gun of ours, which fired constantly, was not one of the amenities. The plans for the attack on Gommecourt in which the 46th Division was to participate were explained at a Commanding Officers' Conference at Brigade Headquarters at Warlincourt on the 23rd and on the 24th the preliminary bombardment of the Battle of the Somme began and continued day by day. The Battalion supplied working parties until the [p73] 26th, when we moved from Humbercamp to huts at Warlincourt, where two hours light training was performed daily, but otherwise all enjoyed as much rest as possible.

On the 28th the final orders for the attack on Gommecourt were received, the assembly point of the Battalion being the Corps Line Trench, running N. and S., 500 yards E. of Souastre, between the Bienvillers-Souastre and Fonquevillers-Sousatre roads. A forward party of 50 was sent up at noon to this position with bombs, tools, and reserve rations, while a reserve ration of water was sent up to the Midland trench behind Fonquevillers. The men were served with two Mills' bombs, four sandbags and 170 rounds of S.A.A. each, while every fourth man was provided with a pick or shovel, and the Lewis Guns provided with 49 magazines per gun carried in canvas buckets, and the Battalion was ordered to reach Souastre at 11.45 p.m. At 3.45 p. m., however, an order was received by wire from Divisional Headquarters, "Postpone all moves until further notice"; the forward party were therefore recalled, the stores being left under guard in the respective trenches, and the Battalion remained in the Warlincourt huts awaiting orders.

On the 29th we rested, except for two hours' light training awaiting, the final orders to move, which arrived later in the day, finally fixing the Divisional attack on Gommecourt for July 1st. On June 30th, at 6 p.m., the advance party proceeded to their stations and at 9 p.m., the Battalion marched from the huts at Warlincourt, to the strains of the Lincolnshire Poacher from the Band, who played us out, to take up their assembly position in the Corps Line Trench before Souastre for the opening of the Battle of the Somme.