Chapter 2b – Bellewaarde Wood

Battle of Bellewaarde Wood – 24 & 25 May 1915 Context The last action of the 2nd Battle of Ypres was a successful attempt by the Germans to gain control of the Bellewarde…

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Chapter 2c – Sanctuary Wood

Sanctuary Wood – June 1915 On Wednesday the 2nd the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) 1 forward observation post sited in the cottage in front of the Bn positions was shelled and set ablaze.…

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Chapter 2a – St Julien

Lt Col Alfred James Foster
Lt Col Alfred James Foster

Context

Within six weeks of the British mobilisation, the German Army had fought their way to within thirty miles of Paris before being checked at the Battle of the Marne by the French Army and British Expeditionary Force (BEF). 1 The Germans withdrew to the River Aisne, but the allies were slow in their pursuit, allowing the enemy time to select suitable terrain on which to form a defensive line.

Attempts to outflank the enemy positions only resulted in the defensive line extending further and further to the northwest and southeast. The city of Antwerp, surrendered on the 10th of October forcing its Belgian defenders back to the coastal city of Nieuwpoort and the BEF to the ancient lace manufacturing Belgian town of Ypres. 2 By October the line stretched from Nieuwpoort to the Franco-Swiss border, a distance of two hundred and forty miles. Although German plans for a swift and decisive victory had been dashed the army was far from beaten and its aim now was to hold the line until a victory on the Russian front had been secured.

The German army launched a fresh offensive in Flanders on the 20th of October in a determined attempt to capture the channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne. The Belgian army thwarted the attempt by opening the sluice gates on the Yser River and flooding a twenty mile stretch of polder 3 land between the river and the Dixmunde-Nieuwpoort railway. The enemy switched its attention south, launching a series of offensives against Ypres. Both sides suffered heavy losses, until the onset of winter finally brought fighting to a halt on the 22nd November. In just four months the BEF had sustained sixty thousand casualties, a loss of experience amongst the regulars which not only reduced fighting capability on the front line but also had profound consequences for the effective training of thousands of raw recruits back in the UK. Despite the horrendous losses the BEF held its own and by April 1915 troops from the Territorial Force and from around the British Empire were arriving in Flanders in great numbers. The BEF was now facing the enemy along a twenty-five mile stretch of the front line stretching from Ypres in the north to Armentieres just over the border in France.

HQ

Lt Col Alfred James Foster (CO)
Major William Ernest Stephenson
Capt. Bernard Cruddas (Adjutant)
Capt. David Henderson Weir (Medical Officer)
Capt. Rowland Burdon Webster (Supernumery)
Lt William Henry Wynnsford (Quarter Master)

Lt Norton Bulter Napier Good (Machine Gun section)
Lt Henry Hogarth Bell (Transport)

‘A’ Coy

Capt. Frank Robinson
Capt. Lionel Davey Plummer
Lt Wilfred Joseph Bunbury
Lt Clive Montague Joicey
Lt David Thomson Turner
Lt Wilfred Walter Varvill

‘B’ Coy

Capt.Edward Cecil Dixon
Capt. Gerald Lindsey Hunting
Lt Roger William Cranage
Lt Robert Allen
Lt Guy Laing Bradley

‘C’ Coy

Major Bertrand Dees Gibson
Capt.John Ridley Robb
Lt William Maitland Turner
Lt Leicester Cecil Peregrine Scaife

‘D’ Coy

Capt. William Robb
Capt. Cecil Chipper
Lt Henry Mylas Carrick
Lt Cecil George Arkwright
Lt Herbert Benjamin Speke
Lt Charles Osbourne Provis Gibson
Lt John Wilfred Robinson

Hencotes

Embarkation

The Bn transport 4 and machine gun sections set out for Southampton ready for a Channel crossing to the French port of Le Havre at 5pm on Sunday the 18th, under the command of Capt. Rowland Webster, Lt Henry Bell and Lt Norton Good. Moving these two sections by train and boat would have been quite an undertaking in its own right. The transport section comprised five Small Arms Ammunition (SAA) carts, two water carts, two limbered General Service (GS) wagons carrying tools, one Maltese (Medical) cart, a limbered wagon for the machine guns, pack and spare animals and four travelling kitchens (one for each Coy).

The firepower of all Bn machine gun sections had doubled earlier in the year, so each was now equipped with four Maxim guns. The section was equipped with two SAA carts and two GS wagons to carry the four machine guns, tripods and ammunition. Two heavy draught horses were needed to pull each mobile kitchen and GS wagon, and eight pack cobs to haul the ammunition carts. With three spare draught horses and a cob this gave a total of twenty-six animals. A team of twenty-four men were needed to handle all the vehicles and the spare horses. Four more GS wagons and eight heavy draught horses were needed to haul the Bn HQ baggage, stores and supplies, however this transport was organised and handled by the Army Service Corps (ASC) train.

The rest of the Bn embarked on Tuesday the 20th of April. At 6.30am, with the ‘Bn band playing at its liveliest', the fusiliers of‘A’ and ‘B’ Coy paraded outside their respective billets before rendezvousing on the march to Blyth railway station. Here they boarded a chartered train scheduled to depart at 7.45am on the first leg of the journey to the Kent ferry port of Folkestone. Travelling with the officers of 'A' and 'B' Coy were Brig. Gen. J.F. Riddell 5, Maj. Moore 6, Lt Col. A.J. Foster (Bn Commander), Maj. W.E. Stephenson 7, Capt. B. Cruddas 8 and the unofficial Bn mascot, Sammy the dog. According to Lt Col. Foster, Sammy would have been miserable if left behind. ‘C’ and ‘D’ Coy, under the command of Maj. B.D. Gibson, followed half an hour later on a second chartered train. Despite the early hour quite a crowd gathered to wave them off from the station and the scene was patriotically described in the next edition of the Hexham Courant newspaper:

'There were stirring scenes in Newcastle and district in the early days of this week. In fact nothing has been seen like this since the beginning of the war. This has been due to the transference of large bodies of troops from the country to other places, though in only too many cases the men themselves did not know their own destination. The enthusiasm has been extraordinary, yet in many cases wives and mothers, sisters and sweethearts, could be seen who were deeply affected by the parting. The present transference of troops has had no parallel in living memory. Where volunteers were numbered by the hundreds in the time of the South African war, they are counted in their thousands now, and their comings and goings are taken as a matter of course. Khaki has lost its novelty; every other man one meets in the streets is dressed in it.

Among the departing troops were the First line of the 4th Northumberland Fusiliers, the service Bn which has its headquarters at Hexham and in which the people in this south west corner of Northumberland take such an immense pride.Other Northumberland regiments have departed southwards this week, all of them having an enthusiastic send off, but none of them more so than the 4th. The regiment was paraded on Monday and inspected, and on Tuesday morning they left Blyth, where they have been so long quartered, for Newcastle, on route to the south. Blyth turned out en masse to give them a fitting “God speed,” for the Bn has been highly popular there. The early morning departure had no effect on the attendance, and the scene when the regimental band played a number of suitable airs at the station was a memorable one. When the troop trains moved off the assemblage broke into loud cheers, which were warmly responded to by the men.

Many were the handshakes these gallant fellows received, and the clinging women, even amid their tears, could not but smile their satisfaction over the lionising to which the men of their hearts were being subjected.  The sight of them, however, and the children which some carried in their arms, was a pathetic reminder to onlookers of the grim tragedy of this war, “for men must work and women must weep”. Truly the men went to their work, dangerous as it is, with fine courage. The women, too, bore themselves bravely, and, after all, perhaps theirs is the hardest task – watching and waiting. A strong reminder of duty were these happenings to the men who still remain outside the services' 
Blyth Station
Blyth Station (Author's Collection)
Newcastle Station
Newcastle Station (Author's collection)
Machine gun limber and team (Courtesy: D Alden) (RC Bell collection)
Machine gun limber and team (Courtesy: David Alden)
(RC Bell collection)
Folkestone Harbour
Folkestone Harbour
A letter from one of the Bn officers published in the Hexham Courant describes the Channel crossing as excellent:

"The Bn behaved splendidly, rather to the astonishment of the officers. The embarkation officer and disembarkation gave us some encouragement. It took the Bn exactly thirteen minutes to leave the boat, form up and march off. As the record disembarkation for a Bn is twelve minutes, we did pretty well. Had to march about three miles after disembarking, up a very long hill; pretty well cooked when we got into camp, as everybody was carrying blanket and waterproof sheet, in addition to full marching order.  Slept in bivouac tents, very cold and wet".

(4th-NF-Officer, 1915)
Hand made postcard; a French cottage industry during WW1.
Hand made postcard; a French cottage industry during WW1. CSM Edwin Wind posted this card. (Courtesy: Mr D Marsh)
The next day we moved off about 10am, and marched to a place just near the Belgian Frontier. We expected to stay there a day or two, but next morning about 8am, we received word that we were to move off again at 9am.

(4th NF officer, Hexham Courant – 1st May 15
We set away again the next day, and marched about 10 miles to another farm place, where I thought we were going to be rested for a while, but we had to move the next day again, and marched 20 miles, where we landed at the reserve trenches'.

(Pte J.D.Lathan, ‘D’ Coy – Hexham Courant 29th May 15)(Lathan, 1915)

 

Both trains stopped briefly at Newcastle, York, Doncaster, Lincoln, Spalding and March stations, to enable the fusiliers to stretch their legs on the platform and to enjoy the refreshments the Great Northern Railway company had laid on for minimal, or in some cases, no cost. The Bn disembarked at the London Liverpool Street terminal at 5pm and set off on the two and half mile march across central London to the South Eastern & Chatham Railway terminal at Charing Cross station; some of the officers exploiting the opportunity to dine in one of the numerous restaurants on the route. The transfer appears to have been conducted swiftly and efficiently because by 8pm the Bn was forming up on Folkestone quayside; the main embarkation point for troops destined for France and Belgium. Within half an hour the entire Bn was aboard and the boat was steaming out of the harbour to rendezvous with a Royal Navy destroyer escort. In order to minimize the ever present threat of U-Boat attack the fusiliers were strictly forbidden from talking or smoking. The boat docked safely in Boulogne 9 at 9.40pm and was met by Capt. L. Plummer, who had crossed the Channel three days earlier in order to arrange transport and billets. The Bn was quick to disembark and was soon marching through the eastern outskirts of the town and tackling the climb up to St Martin’s Rest Camp 10 near the Cathedral. After such a long and emotionally draining day this final march up a steep gradient, carrying heavy back-packs on a very close evening proved to be quite a challenge for the fusiliers.

Col. Foster motored ahead accompanied by Capt. Cruddas and one of the Bde staff officers in order to meet the camp adjutant and inspect the campsite. Satisfied with the inspection Foster arrived back at his own tent just in time to watch the Bn march into the camp. A blanket was issued to each man to supplement their personal blanket and waterproof sheet, which was just as well as it became raw, damp and bitterly cold as the night wore on. By midnight all the men were bedded down in their allotted tents. Col. Foster shared with Maj. Stephenson and in the next tent were Capt. F. Robinson, Lt W. Bunbury, Lt Varvill and Lt D. Turner.

Reveille sounded at 6am on a cold and misty morning. After a scratch breakfast many of the men occupied their time until the 11am parade penning postcards to family and friends. As soon as the parade and inspection was over, the Bn formed up with the rest of the Northumbrian Divn and marched four miles along very dusty roads to Pont de Briques 11, to await the trains that would convey them towards the front line. The men were very cheerful and took every opportunity to practise their French on passers-by. It was not long before the train arrived, and much to the surprise of the men, the Bn transport and machine gun sections were already on board with Capt. Webster, Lt Bell and Lt Good. A French army officer was attached to the Bn at the station; his role was to act as interpreter and to assist with the search for billets. The officer’s boarded first class carriages whilst thirty fusiliers were allotted to each of the covered cattle wagons coupled up behind. The train pulled away from the platform at 2pm and steamed north-easterly towards the Belgian border. French troop trains were prohibited from exceeding 15mph, so although the journey was less than forty miles, four hours were to pass before the Bn was finally able to disembark at Bavinchove. Fortunately, the wagon side doors were wide open, so the fusiliers were able to sit on the steps, inhale the fresh air and enjoy the pretty countryside.

On stepping down from the train the men were immediately surrounded by a crowd of gesticulating children, and a good many of the older peasant folk, greeting them in French or broken English accompanied by the words –‘Souvenir, Messieurs’. Initially Col. Foster found the situation amusing:

'the men enjoying their first attempts to make themselves understood in a foreign language and only too willing to exchange their buttons for their entertainment. But such amusements had rather narrow limits, and as our men disliked intensely to refuse the tiny beggars, in the end I had to issue instructions forbidding the giving away of badges and buttons, etc.. which were not the easiest things to replace when so far away from the base of supplies in England' .

‘D’ Coy were tasked with unloading the transport wagons, whilst the rest of the Bn marched to the billets which had been arranged for them for that night. As soon as the unloading was complete and all the wagons were harnessed, 'D’ Coy set off down the same road, however it would seem that the billeting officer had been a little imprecise with the directions. They were two miles down the road before they were informed their billets were in the farm adjacent to the station. Eventually, the correct farm was located and by 9.20pm the entire Coy were crowded, but comfortably settled, in one large shed.

Normal protocol was adhered to; the officers occupying rooms in the farmhouse whilst the NCOs and men settled down on straw in the outbuildings and barns. The floor space allotted to ‘A’ Coy was very cramped, so many of the men took advantage of the warm and dry conditions, opting to bivouac outside. The eastern sky was continually illuminated by artillery fire and the rumble of big guns could be heard quite distinctly. Col. Foster and Capt. Cruddas were sharing a room in a house near the station, but they wasted no time in locating a café and dining out with Capt. Hill (Bde Staff Captain). The officers of one Coy considered themselves fortunate to be accompanied by the newly appointed Bn interpreter; an association that undoubtedly paid dividends where the acquisition of accommodation and food was concerned.

'Monsieur and Madame of the farm were very kind. We had omelettes, coffee and schnapps for supper, and cutlets for breakfast.  The old lady made us rather realise that it isn’t all a picnic. Her son had died of typhoid, and she wished us "Bonne chance" and wept over us many times when we left next morning' (4th-NF-Officer, 1915).

The Bn formed up outside the station at 10am and then marched north avoiding the main roads which were choked with ambulances and trucks ferrying men and materials between the frontline and the railhead at Bavinchove. The route took them up the steep winding road to the hilltop town of Cassel 12, 13 and through the outskirts of Oudezeele village where the York and Durham and DLI Bde were billeted. By 3pm the Bn had covered seven miles and was in farm billets once again. Many of the farms in the area were quite small, so billets were allocated to platoons rather than coys. Col. Foster found himself warmly received and comfortably accommodated by the village priest, whose command of the English language was excellent. No1 platoon were comfortably settled in a hay loft on the outskirts of the village and had the added luxury of a farm yard pond in which they were able to bathe and wash their clothes.

That evening Foster and Cruddas inspected all Coys in their billets and read out the list of field punishments to which the men would now be subject should they misdemeanour on active service. To emphasise the gravity of the situation the Colonel highlighted recent offences promulgated in orders that were certain to result in the death penalty.

Gas

At the very time the fusiliers were bedding down for the night, just twenty miles to the northeast the German 35th Pioneer Regiment 14 were completing preparations to discharge poison gas 15 against the allied lines for the very first time. At 5pm, after an eleven-hour delay due to unfavourable wind conditions, the valves on six thousand gas cylinders were opened, opposite the front line trenches occupied by French colonial troops of the 45th (Algerian) Divn, releasing one hundred and sixty-eight tons of Chlorine. The Algerian troop positions were near Langemarck in the northern section of a bulge in the front line around Ypres, held jointly by the French and British Army. This bulge, known as the Ypres Salient, encompassed a low-lying area of farmland drained by a network of dykes and ditches. The enemy had the advantage of holding the so called ‘mountains’ of Flanders, ridges south and east of Ypres which rose to 500ft.

Accompanied by heavy shelling targeting Ypres, the surrounding villages and French forward trenches, a light north-easterly wind blew the fifty-foot high cloud of greenish yellow gas towards the lines occupied by Algerian troops. Chlorine gas is heavier than air so it sank into all the trenches and dugouts in its path, choking and asphyxiating the occupants. Those who were not incapacitated by the chlorine abandoned their trenches and fled in panic, opening up a four-mile wide gap in the frontline. The effect of the gas on the right flank was not as severe, so elements of the French and the 1st Canadian divisions were able to hang on to their positions. Fifteen minutes after the gas was released respirator equipped German infantry advanced cautiously behind the barrage. They were able to cross the allied front line virtually unopposed and advance over a mile in less than an hour.

The capture of Ypres now appeared to be within the grasp of the German army, but their high command failed to appreciate how successful the gas attack had been and was not prepared to conduct a major offensive in the sector. The subsequent pause in the German advance gave BEF commanders valuable time in which to move troops forward and plug the dangerous gaps which had opened up in the front line. Even so, the threat posed to Ypres and the channel ports beyond was very serious and was to determine the immediate future of the fresh and enthusiastic personnel of the Northumbrian Divn.

News of the German attack first reached Maj. Gen. Sir W. Lindsay 16 (GOC Northumbrian Divn) at 10.40pm and within a matter of minutes he received orders to have six Coys of the York and Durham Bde fully equipped and ready to move forward by motorbus. At 11.29pm a supplementary order was received stating that all units of the Northumberland Bde were to 'stand by' in their billets, fully equipped and ready to turn out immediately.

Just before midnight the 10th and 16th Canadian Bns 17 counterattacked in an attempt to recapture Kitchener’s Wood 18. As the wood lay on a small ridge running north from the village of St Julien, it was of great tactical advantage to whoever controlled it. The attack was partially successful in that the Germans were cleared from most of the wood and a new line was established on its southern edge.

During the early hours of Saturday the 23rd a hastily assembled force of part Bns known as Geddes 19 detachment advanced and succeeded in linking the new Canadian positions, south of Kitchener’s Wood, with the Yser Canal. Meanwhile, the French were planning a counterattack to recapture the ground lost the previous afternoon. Gen. Sir John French met with French Gen. Ferdinand Foch in Cassel and agreed to the BEF 20 co-operating with this attempt and on returning to his HQ in Hazebrouck, he took the decision to bolster the 2nd Army 21 by placing the three infantry brigades of the Northumbrian Divn at its disposal 22.

'Country very pretty, difficult to realise that war is so near; can occasionally hear the boom of a big gun. Each platoon is billeted in a different farm. All within a radius of half a mile. Found two platoons of the 6th Durhams already in our billets. As however, they were allotted to us they move out tonight. The farm I am in is very comfortable and people very kind'. 

4th NF officer, Hexham Courant: 1st May 1915

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