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


The Winter of 1916-1917

The march to Halloy on the evening of October 30th was conducted in silence for the first few miles, as we had no wish to notify our departure to the enemy, but the men were then encouraged to sing, and as each platoon sang a different tune, hymns, sentimental songs, and facetious ditties being chosen impartially in turn, the resulting harmony was interesting. The weather broke during the march, and the Battalion arrived at their billets wet through, but in excellent spirits, at 10.30 p.m. Next day was a complete rest, but on November 1st the march was continued to Bealcourt in fine weather: starting at 8 a.m., we had a two-hours' halt at mid-day, when dinners were cooked and eaten by the roadside, and the 14 miles was completed at 4 p.m. On the 2nd a 10-mile march in Brigade was finished at 3 p.m., and the Battalion billeted at Coulonvillers for the night; the next day's march of nine miles brought us to Argenvillers, where excellent billets were available, in which we remained for the next ten days. After such a long spell of trenches marching proved rather a trial to the men, and sore feet were very common, although it was made a point of honour to complete the day's march, and not fall out; the band was a great help during this march.

We had now reached the area in which the Division was to rest, but the so-called rest was in reality a period of very strenuous training. November 4th was devoted to kit inspection and interior economy, [p94] but the course of training began next day with three hours' close order drill after a Battalion church parade. The details of the training need not be described, but it was practically all training for open warfare, special attention being given to night operations, marching on compass bearing, bayonet fighting, and the practice of the attack by day and night. In addition a strenuous programme of "recreational" training was arranged, each Battalion had its inter-platoon football competition, while an inter-Battalion Divisional competition for a cup presented by the G.O.C. was keenly contested; cross-country running and boxing contests were also arranged.

Divisional Headquarters were at St. Riquier, a few miles from Abbeville, and many officers and men took advantage of the opportunity of being within reach of shops and the amenities of civilization, as a day's leave was granted to all in turn. The training programme was a very full one, and it hardly seemed to be realised by the Staffs of Higher Formations that the men did really require some physical rest; the O.C. Battalion on more than one occasion was compelled to protest that the men were really being over-worked, and to ask for some relaxation in the hours of work. On November 11th we changed our billets, proceeding to La Plessiel, a village about three miles nearer to Abbeville, where we found comfortable billets for the remainder of our "rest". On the 12th a Brigade church parade was held, a reminiscence of the days of training in England, but on this occasion followed by three hours' work in close order drill! The Brigade Boxing competition was held on the 18th and the Battalion was very successful. On the 20th the training finished with a very strenuous day's work, the morning being devoted to practising the Battal [p95] ion in attack, with Brigade night operations after dark, the Brigade forming up in mass, marching over open country on a compass bearing, and finally deploying in artillery formation. The Battalion did not get back to billets until nearly 10 p.m., and only a short night's rest was possible, as we left La Plessiel at 7.15 a.m. next morning, marching about ten miles to Domqueur, where excellent billets were found, on our way back to the front.

The duties of Adjutant were performed during the whole of the training by Lieut. L. C. Schiller, in the absence of Captain A. L. Binns, who had been obliged to go sick at the end of October, and was subsequently invalided to England. Lieut. Schiller was therefore now officially gazetted as Adjutant and fulfilled the duties with conspicuous success until the return of Captain Binns in February, 1917.

On November 23rd, the march to the Front was resumed; leaving Domqueur at 7.15 a.m., we reached Bonnieres at 3 p.m. to find very crowded billets, where we remained over the next day, which was spent in cleaning and rest. On the 25th, we left Bonnieres at 9 a.m. in pouring rain, which continued until at 2 p.m. we reached Halloy, the village where we had rested on our first night out of the trench area. Everyone was wet through, the billets were bad and very crowded, but the depression of spirits produced by these conditions was quickly dispelled by the fine weather and complete rest which the next day gave. The 27th to 29th were spent in training in the rather limited area available, and the 30th was devoted to the Divisional Cross-country run. A course of about three miles was marked out, and every officer and man who completed the run in 25 minutes scored one point for his unit. The unit scoring the greatest number of points in proportion to its strength won the competition. Five hundred [p96] and fifty of the Battalion turned out for the run, but owing to an unfortunate mistake on the way to the starting point, some sixty arrived too late to start; however, 167 finished within the shedule time, and we took 6th place out of 13 competing units.

On December 1st the Battalion, after a morning's practice, paraded at 1.45 p.m. for a ceremonial inspection by the G.O.C. VII. Corps, who was accompanied by the G.O.C. 46th Division. The inspection was of the usual type, beginning with a general salute, and ending with a march past, and advance in review order, and passed off very successfully, a complimentary order being issued in the evening by the Corps Commander, congratulating the Division and Brigade on the appearance and steadiness of the Battalion. After the inspection the Corps Commander presented Military Medal ribands to eight men of the Battalion who had recently been awarded the medal. The only drawback to the success of the afternoon's proceedings was the bitterly cold piercing wind, which made the return to the shelter of billets very welcome. On December 2nd, the morning was spent in fitting the Battalion out with new Box Respirators, while the C.O., Adjutant, and Company Commanders travelled by 'bus to Bienvillers, and then walked up to Fonquevillers to reconnoitre the sector to be taken over on the 5th, which was not identical with that we had occupied in June, although the Battalion Headquarters were the same.

On December 5th the Battalion marched by Platoons from Halloy through Bienvillers to relieve the 8th West Yorkshire Regiment in the trenches between the La Brayelle and Essarts Roads, the relief being completed by 2 p.m., three companies being in the line and one company in dug-outs at [p97] Battalion Headquarters at Fonquevillers. The trenches were very muddy and wet, and proper stores for bombs and ammunition conspicuous by their absence, and it was evident that much hard work would be required: the advanced trench, dug in June, had been abandoned, but an intermediate trench was now held as the front line, while the original front line was now the support line. About 9 p.m. on the 6th, when a patrol under Lieut. R. E. W. Sandall, the Intelligence Officer, went out to reconnoitre No Man's Land, they were surprised by a German party lying in wait on the Hannescamp-Essarts Road, who opened fire on our patrol at close range, and also bombed them heavily. Lieut. Sandall was wounded, and our patrol retired with one man missing. A strong patrol was immediately sent to the scene of the affair, but no trace of the German party or our missing man could be found. On the same evening a sentry in the line reported to Sergt. J. W. Hall that he had seen six men enter our trenches some distance to his flank. Sergt. Hall, first sending one man to his Platoon Commander with the information, ran along the trench accompanied by Private J. Wilkinson, saw the party to be Germans, and attacked them, killing one, and wounding others, cleared the trench and obtained in addition a valuable identification, as the dead man was found to belong to the 77th Reserve Infantry Regiment. Both Sergt. Hall and Private Wilkinson were awarded the Military Medal.

These two incidents on one night showed that the Germans had apparently been allowed to attain the superiority in the No Man's Land between the lines in this sector, and orders were at once issued by the O.C. Battalion that the greatest boldness was to be exhibited by our patrols at night in order to obtain that superiority in No Man's Land which [p98] the Battalion had always previously enjoyed, and prevent the enemy advancing beyond his own wire; these orders were carried out with conspicuous success.

The remainder of the tour passed uneventfully, and on December 11th we were relieved by the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, and withdrew to billets in Souastre as Divisional Reserve. The men were billeted in huts, which were weatherproof, but very cold, as only one small stove was available for 30 men; gridded paths between huts were in good order, but it was essential to keep to the grids as the ground elsewhere was ankle deep in mud, which a snow storm during the night made worse than ever. Bathing, interior economy, route-marching, and company training, as far as bad weather permitted, occupied the next few days. The Divisional Concert Party, the "Whizz-Bangs," gave their opening performance in Souastre on the 12th, and their entertainment provided every evening after this date was very highly appreciated. The condition of the trenches to which we returned on the 17th, in spite of constant repair work, was found to be steadily deteriorating, and constant pumping was necessary in many places to render them tenable, and the mud was 12 to 18 inches deep in the front line. The supply of trench boots was fairly adequate, but the prevention of trench feet was promoted with anxious care all through the winter by taking every precaution. The orders of the O.C. Battalion were strictly obeyed; every man went daily to the stretcher bearers' dug out, where his feet were well rubbed with whale oil, dry socks were put on, and boots were changed; by strict adherence to these instructions while in trenches the incidence of trench feet in the Battalion was rendered almost negligible.


On December 21st we were relieved and proceeded to Bienvillers as Brigade Reserve. The new billets were good, and cellars were available for all, an important asset in view of the fact that bombardments of the area were increasingly frequent. Lieut.-Col. Fane, commanding the 3rd Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, who had come out for a course of instruction, was attached to Battalion Headquarters, and was a welcome guest for a week from the 21st. The usual strong parties for fatigues were supplied daily until the 24th, Christmas Eve, when all available men were paraded in the street in Bienvillers for inspection by Lieut.-General Simpson, Colonel of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who addressed the Battalion in a humourous manner, and expressed his great pleasure at being able to see a Territorial Battalion of the County Regiment on Active Service —fortunately the enemy artillery were quiet during the proceedings.

It had been arranged that the Battalion should relieve the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in the trenches on Christmas Day, and consequently, at the men's request, all Christmas festivities and celebrations were postponed until our relief, when we should be back in billets in Souastre. A re-arrangement of the trench sector had been carried out, and on returning to the trenches on the 25th, only two Companies were distributed in the line, two Companies in dug-outs in support in Hannescamps and Crawlboys Lane, while Battalion Headquarters remained at Fonquevillers. The trenches were in a terrible condition, knee deep in water and liquid mud in most places, and in spite of continuous pumping and drainage tended to get worse, as the weather continued wet. On the 28th, a heavy bombardment of the sector on our left at 3 a.m.— [p100] we heard later that the enemy attempted a raid, which was repulsed—caused the Battalion to stand to until 4 a.m. but our front was not attacked; otherwise the tour was quiet, and after another night's heavy rain we were relieved on the morning of the 29th and returned to billets at Souastre, where the condition of the camp showed no improvement, a wilderness of mud, with leaky huts without doors, but fortunately the morale of the Battalion was high, there was no grumbling, and all were cheerfully determined to make the best of it under most adverse conditions.

Next day, December 30th, was kept as Christmas Day, i.e., a whole holiday. In the morning the various gifts, cake, chocolate, fruit, cigarettes, etc., from the Christmas Comforts' Fund, raised as the year before by Mrs. Sandall in our district of Lincolnshire, were distributed; in order that cooking facilities might be ample, A and B companies dined at 1 p.m., and C and D at 4 p.m., a good dinner with plum pudding, etc., was provided, and the officers all did their best to make the festive occasion a success, and everyone enjoyed themselves. On January 2nd, as it had been decided in view of the bad weather and awful state of the trenches, that the Battalions should be relieved temporarily every four days, instead of every six, as usual, we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment. Major H. G. Wilson proceeded to England to join the Senior Officers' Course for three months, and Major F. E. Tetley, 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment, joined the Battalion for temporary duty as 2nd-in-Command.

It was now realised that it was quite impossible to maintain a continuous trench line in repair, and certain lengths of the front line were abandoned, blocks constructed, and the disused trench filled with barbed wire, and wired over, and the garrisons [p101] gradually reduced to isolated posts at the heads of the communication trenches. On January 3rd, owing to the absence of the Brigadier on leave, the C.O. left the Battalion to assume temporary command of the Brigade, while Major Tetley took over the temporary command of the Battalion. Except for occasional enemy bombardment no special incident occurred, and we were relieved on the 6th and returned to Bienvillers as Brigade Reserve, where a small draft of 85 men joined. The village was somewhat heavily shelled on the evening of the 9th, but none of our billets were damaged, and the Battalion returned to the trenches on the 10th. Rain fell nearly every day, and every available man was employed in pumping and clearing trenches, and repairing damage done by enemy shelling, which was troublesome at intervals.

On the 14th the Battalion were only too ready to be relieved, and proceed to billets in Souastre— the weather cleared for a day or two, permitting some platoon and physical training, but a heavy snowstorm on the 17th caused everything to be suspended. On January 18th, when we returned to the trenches, a redistribution of the Battalion was adopted, two Companies plus one platoon holding the line, one Company (less one platoon) in support in the crypt under the church at Hannescamps, and one Company with Battalion Headquarters at Fonquevillers. Enemy shelling during the tour was very troublesome and did much damage, although causing very few casualties; when the Battalion was relieved on the morning of the 22nd, one platoon was unable to be relieved till after dark, as the trench was blocked and the parapet destroyed.

The weather began to improve, and sharp frost succeeded the constant rain to everyone's delight; the next tour in the trenches was comparatively [p102] free from hardship, as at least everyone could keep dry if not warm, and on Jan. 30th we again returned to Souastre as Divisional Reserve, when a careful reorganization of each Company into platoons and sections was carried out. Meanwhile a fresh distribution of front was made, the Brigade sector "side-slipping" to the North, and when we relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment on February 3rd, Battalion Headquarters were moved from Fonquevillers to Hannescamps, two Companies held the line, and two Companies were in support in dug-outs and in the crypt at Hannescamps. The 2/6th London Regiment were attached to us for a few days for instruction, and gave great assistance in the work of repairing trenches. The C.O., Lieut.-Col. Sandall, rejoined the Battalion on Feb. 4th, Major Tetley remaining as 2nd-in-Command. On the 5th Lieut.-General Sir I. Maxse, the G.O.C. XVIII. Corps, to which the 46th Division now belonged, visited the trenches, and expressed satisfaction with what he found. We were relieved and proceeded to Bienvillers on the 7th, and in the evening received an unexpected warning to be ready to move next day, definite orders being received at midnight. Owing to the crowded state of the front area where new second line Territorial Divisions were up for instruction, it was found that one Battalion of the 138th Brigade could be spared to go back for a short rest, and to our great delight we were selected. Accordingly on February 8th the Battalion marched by Platoons from Bienvillers to Souastre, and thence by Companies through Pas to Grenas—about eight miles—which were covered in three hours. At Grenas excellent billets were available with plenty of room, the training carried out during the next ten days was entirely in the hands of the O.C. Battalion, and the rest from [p103] the trenches, all the more welcome from being unexpected, was much enjoyed. One Company was detailed to work under C. R.E. XVIII. Corps, at Pas, and billeted there for three days, being then relieved by another, while the remainder of the Battalion carried out daily training, especially in trench attack. The only unfortunate incident of our stay at Grenas was a fire, which broke out in a billet occupied by D Company about 9 p.m. on February 10th, due to a spark from the Company cooker setting alight to the thatch. The fire was subdued by 11 p.m. but considerable damage was done to the property, and some rifles and equipment were destroyed. The Adjutant greatly distinguished himself as an amateur fireman on this occasion, and the whole Battalion worked hard to extinguish the conflagration as soon as possible.

After a pleasant stay of ten days orders were received to return to the trench area on the 18th, and the Battalion marched to Souastre where billets were found for the night, and a draft of 75 men joined next day. In the evening the Battalion relieved the 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment in the old trench sector, which however had been somewhat extended. A frontage of over 2,000 yards was now held by the Battalion by a series of isolated posts, the intervening trenches being blocked and wired in; these posts were manned by 2½ companies, while 1½ companies and Battalion Headquarters were in Hannescamp. The sector was a very quiet one as a rule, as in places the trenches were nearly 1,000 yards apart and rifle fire was practically absent, but on February 21st, from 3 to 4 a.m., a very heavy bombardment with shells of all calibres on our right sector was carried out; although the material damage was considerable, only one casualty was caused, and the enemy made no attempt to [p104] approach our line. On the 22nd, a gas shell bombardment caused a few casualties. The weather during the last few days had been very misty, but fine and mild: the thaw, as was to be expected, had again converted the trenches into channels of liquid mud, rendering them absolutely impassable in places, but owing to the mist this was not of so much importance, as it was quite safe even during daylight to move about over the open in our own lines, as the enemy trenches were so far away. On February 23rd we were relieved at 8.30 p.m., Battalion Headquarters and two Companies proceeding to Bienvillers, while two Companies under the 2nd-in-Command occupied dug-outs at Fonquevillers, this being the new distribution of the Brigade Reserve. This proved to be our last tour of monotonous trench warfare during the winter of 1916-17, as before we returned to the trenches on the 27th, the great German retreat to the Hindenburg Line had begun, and more interesting and more exciting work than holding a trench line fell to our lot.