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


The Winter of 1915-16 in Flanders

On October 16th, with Captain Madge in command and with the assistance of several officers temporarily lent from other Battalions in the Brigade, the reorganization and re-equipment of the Battalion was begun, and steadily proceeded with during the next two days. A draft of 53 men was received, Company training, with route marching, was carried out daily, and at a church parade on the 24th the Divisional Commander inspected the Battalion and afterwards distributed cards of recognition to those to whom they had been awarded for conspicuous devotion to duty on the 13th, and expressed his satisfaction with the gallant conduct of the Battalion, and his sympathy and regret at our heavy losses. On the same day a further draft of 50 men with five officers, Lieuts. Riggall, Binns, Standen, Collins and Lown, joined from England, thus enabling the services of the officers borrowed from other Battalions to be dispensed with; Lieut. Binns took up the duties of Adjutant, and Lieut. Lown of Machine Gun Officer. On the 26th, the Battalion moved to Verquin and on the 28th on the occasion of the inspection of units of the First Army by H.M. the King, when the 138th Brigade was represented by a composite Battalion, we were just able to furnish the one complete Company required to represent the 1/5th Lincolnshire Regiment by bringing on parade the Transport Section, Quartermaster's staff, and a few men just returned [p54] from hospital. It will be remembered that the review was marred by the serious accident to H.M. the King, whose horse fell about ten minutes after he had passed the Battalion.

During the next week Major W. S. N. Toller, 1/5th Leicestershire Regiment, took over the temporary command from Captain Madge, and training was continued as far as weather conditions, which were atrocious, permitted; by November 4th various drafts brought our total strength up to 446, and the Battalion was once more organised on the 4 Company basis. On November 6th the Battalion marched in Brigade through Bethune to Robecq, where much more comfortable billets were available, and a further draft of 70 men arrived, and on the next day Lieut.-Col. P. T. Westmorland, D.S.O., Royal Warwickshire Regiment, took over the command from Major Toller, who returned to his own Battalion. On November 8th, Major A. J. C. Collinson, who was appointed 2nd-in-Command, and eleven other officers joined, none of them Lincolnshire officers unfortunately, but all keen and prepared to work hard in the interests of their adopted Battalion, while on the 10th, a draft of 171 men and 5 officers arrived from the 2/5th Lincolnshire Regiment in England. These reinforcements brought us practically up to establishment in officers, but still leaving us very much below strength in other ranks. The weather continued cold and wet, but steady training was carried on as far as possible in the sodden low lying fields round Robecq until the Division was once more called upon to take its place in the line.

On November 13th the Battalion marched to St. Venant, next day to Floris, and on the 15th to Croix Barbée, finding billets in some scattered and shell-shattered hovels; it rained all the way, the roads [p55] were muddy and crowded with the Indian Divisions then leaving France, and the billets allotted for the Battalion only existed on the descriptions of them circulated by the Staff. The officers went up to reconnoitre the line of trenches in front of Richebourg St. Vaast, and on the 17th the Battalion relieved the 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment, being distributed with three Companies in the line, and one in support.

The trenches were shallow, and indescribably muddy and wet; a jumbled mass of bricks and stone, with one solitary brick wall 100 yards behind marked the village; in front stretched some 300 yards of No Man's Land, a swamp crossed by numerous ditches, bank-high with muddy water. On the left front the black bulk of the Bois de Biez loomed through the mist about a quarter of a mile behind the line of mud, which marked the German parapet. The opposing artillery, blinded by the fog, rumbled but rarely, but the machine guns made the night hideous, particularly for those carrying rations and stores over the open, all communication trenches having been long since incorporated into the river system of the country.

On November 20th, we were relieved, and returned to billets at Croix Barbée, moving next day to Rue de Chevattes, where the Battalion remained till the 24th, supplying the usual working parties while out of trenches. On the evening of the 24th, while Battalion Headquarters remained at Rue de Chevattes, the Battalion took over a line of trenches from Quinque Rue to Farm Cour d'Avoué, two Companies being in the line, one in support at Fuise Station, and one at Battalion Headquarters. On the 26th, an inter-company relief took place, and meanwhile the weather changed and hard frost succeeded the rain, making the ground too hard to dig, but on the [p56] other hand rendering locomotion easier, and enabling several derelict trenches to be occupied, as the water in them froze. The previous occupants had been much too engaged in fighting to think of safety and comfort, and the almost complete absence of dug-outs was keenly felt in a temperature approaching Zero Fahrenheit. Plenty of occupation was usually found by everyone in changing socks and oiling feet with a view to prevention of frost bite.

After another inter-company relief on the 29th, we were relieved by the 1/4th Leicestershire Regiment on the 30th, and marched back to billets at Etouret, which were not reached till 3.15 a.m. on December 1st. At this time the Battalion, cheerfully resigned to the prospect of a winter in Flanders, was roused suddenly to enthusiasm by the unexpected receipt of Orders at 3 a.m. on December 3rd that the Division would at once proceed to the East. During the day the 20 mile march was completed to Le Sart, a village W. of Merville, where a halt of a fortnight's duration was enjoyed to allow the Division to concentrate, daily Company training and an occasional route march filling up the time. On the 14th a number of officers proceeded to Lillers and Berguette to inspect the entraining arrangements at those stations, preparatory to the move to the East. On December 19th, the Battalion moved to new billets at Thiennes, near Aire, and for the next week training in open warfare was energetically carried out. The weather was now mild, and Christmas was spent by everyone in great comfort and some measure of good cheer, the distance from the "dykes", as the trenches were then colloquially termed, being sufficiently great to permit of this. A fund had been raised in Lincolnshire by Mrs. Sandall, the wife of the late Commanding Officer, to supply Christmas comforts to the Battalion [p57] including plum puddings, and the receipt of these, together with supplies of cake, chocolate, and other comestibles, cigarettes, footballs, boxing gloves and so on, added greatly to the comfort and enjoyment of the men who greatly appreciated the kindness of their friends at home.

After Christmas, training in open warfare was resumed, Battalion and Brigade schemes frequently carried out and outpost training assiduously practised. The long delay, however, caused some anxiety to those looking forward to a winter in Egypt, but at length on January 4th, 1916, the long expected and anxiously awaited orders to move arrived, and on January 5th, the Battalion marched at 9.30 a.m. to Berguette, where we entrained, leaving at 4.40 p.m. in high spirits at leaving the mud and cold of Flanders behind, with roseate visions of the East in our thoughts.