Continuing the story of Edward Lound’s experiences in the First World War.
As was indicated in the last chapter, 1915 began with weeks of almost continuous rain. All the little things like thigh boots, footboards and water pumps that made life in the trenches slightly more bearable in wet weather were months in the future. For the Sherwood Foresters the trenches were at Houplines and the Battalion were there for 18 days. In the circumstances it is remarkable that only 63 men were sent to hospital during this period. A platoon had been withdrawn for 24 hours rest when General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien happened to pass by and inspected the men; he was very concerned at the conditions they had to endure. As result in the future the time spent in trenches was reduced to four days on and four days off in that sector.
At the end of February some platoons of Canadians began to be attached to the Battalion. They were getting acquainted with realities of life on the front line. By March they were involved independently in engagements on the front. Although Canada had been at war from August 1914 their standing army was very small, and it took several months to recruit and train the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The French Canadians were less keen on becoming involved in this European war, although France itself was the centre of operations. The Canadians took heavy casualties but the experience of fighting at places like Vimy Ridge did much to produce a sense of Canadian identity. Wilfred Peachey, the brother of Edward Lound’s second wife had emigrated to Canada in 1911 and returned as a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many years later, on Wilfred’s last visit to England, Edward gave him a silver cigarette case which he had been given as a memento of his army days.
March and April were relatively quiet months for the 2nd Battalion although heavy firing in the distance was a constant reminder of the continuing fighting. At the end of April the Foresters moved to billets in Le Bizet in Belgium. German shelling increased markedly in May. On the 11th of that month the Battalion took over trenches near Le Touquet in northern France. The fighting was not hand-to-hand combat and mostly involved mines, shells and mortars, although rifle fire also took many lives. On the 15th May Major Dove was shot through the head while inspecting the trenches; he was buried at Le Bizet. He was a Forester and had arrived on 14th November 1914 when the Battalion was stationed at Bois Grenier. Two officers and twenty men were also wounded on this day.
On the 28th May the Sherwood Foresters were relieved by the Irish Fusiliers to the south of the river Lys and by the Irish Regiment to the north. The men began their march from Houplines at 7.30 p.m. and arrived at Bailleul at 12.30 a.m. on the 29th. By the end of the 31st May they were in huts on the Ypres Salient where they were to remain for over a year. Ypres – or “Wipers” to the ordinary British soldier- was central to much of the fighting in Flanders. It became the site of the Menin Gate, the memorial that commemorates the British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives on the Salient and who have no known grave. It was unveiled in 1927.
Poison gas was now a deadly new development in warfare, and the 2nd Battalion were fortunate to receive an improved pattern of respirator before their arrival at the front. Even this new type of gas mask was far from perfect, but the previous model had been virtually useless. By late in the following year (1916) the British at last had a respirator in which it was safe to enter gas chamber. In the trenches the troops were regularly shelled, and some of the shells carried poison gas. Gongs sounded a gas alarm on the 30th June at 9.30 in the evening, but fortunately the shells passed over the heads of the Sherwood Foresters. On the 19th July the War Diary records that some gas shells “made us weep”. Gas continued to be a threat for the rest of the year and indeed remained so throughout the war. Poison gas (chlorine) was first used by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and in retaliation the British launched a poison gas attack in September. Their experience on that occasion, when the wind changed and blew the gas cloud back on the British Infantry, shows the unpredictable nature chemical warfare. Their own gas caused several British fatalities. The Hague Convention of 1907 had already prohibited the use of “poison or poisonous weapons” in warfare, so the use of poison gas already constitute a war crime.
On 26th July a German aeroplane was observed flying over the British lines. Anti-aircraft guns began shelling it without effect, but suddenly a British fighter dropped from the clouds and brought the German plane to earth with his machine gun. On Sunday 12th September the officers were shown aerial photographs of the line that had been taken by a reconnaissance aeroplane. The use of aeroplanes was another novel aspect of war that together with use of telephones and machine guns makes the First World War the first modern conflict.
On the 29th July the War Diary observes that with these bright moonlit nights it was surprising that the men placing sandbags on the parapets of the trenches did not receive more casualties; it reported just two men wounded. On the 30th and 31st the Germans had launched an attack near the British lines to their right flank, but the Foresters were not involved. The sound of artillery bombardment meant disturbed nights for the men however.
On 3rd August the relief of the Sherwood Foresters was accomplished, although they would not be out of action for long. They were billeted at the railway station at Poperinghe, which they left on the 5th. The troop movement along the Ypres Road was observed by the Germans and they were shelled, one man being killed and 12 wounded, including the Commanding Officer Lt Col P. Leveson Gower.
The Battle of Hooge began in earnest at 3.15 a.m. on the 9th August although there had already been three days of bombardment by the British artillery. Hooge is a small village two miles to the east of Ypres. On the 19th July a British mine had been exploded at Hooge under the German lines and this left a crater 120 feet wide. This huge pit is still there, now filled with water and surrounded by verdant greenery.
The Foresters 989 men were the second line of attack after the Durham Light Infantry and were to assemble in Sanctuary Wood. They began to move up at 1.45 a.m. and were in position by 2.30. Then artillery began to bombard the German lines and five minutes later the German guns began to retaliate; at 3.10 a.m. the British artillery fell silent and the Infantry advance began. This closely integrated use of artillery and infantry was a new tactic in the war. The first resistance the British encountered was quickly overcome.
Meanwhile accurate German shells were raining down on the Foresters, and telephone communication could not be maintained. Runners were the only means of communication and now that it was light these men were at particular risk. Battalion Headquarters remained in Sanctuary Wood, where the report came in that the Durham Light Infantry had occupied the trenches which were their objective. These were in the vicinity of the Crater. Both they and the Sherwood Foresters were coming under accurate German shell fire leading to many casualties. In the evening after 18 hours of heavy fighting the Battalion was relieved by the Queen’s Westminster Rifles. The day had seen 9 officers and over 100 men of the Battalion dead and 5 officers and 222 other ranks injured. The remaining men were put up in dug outs in the Ypres Ramparts.
In this action “tin hats” were introduced for the first time, and these must have afforded some much-needed protection from shrapnel splinters. Only “A” company received them in time for the engagement at Hooge however. It is significant that the war was a year old before this basic article of body armour was provided for the troops. In this respect the British were in advance of the Germans however, for they did not finally replace the Pickelhaube (the German helmet) with the steel version until 1916. The Pickelhaube was made of boiled leather which gave the wearer no protection from rifle bullets or shrapnel. It had the distinctive spike that made the wearer look fierce but also a prime target in trench warfare. This spike was latterly made removable and was no longer worn on the front line after 1915. When eventually the Germans supplied steel helmets for their troops it was of a superior design to the British one, giving more protection to the neck.
After the engagement on the 9th August the depleted numbers of the Battalion were soon made up by two drafts of men, and this took the total number over strength by 64 other ranks, although the officers remained under strength. Two months of low casualties meant the complement of men was the highest of any period of the war. After Church Parade on 15th August a fire broke out in the Ordnance Stores at Poperinghe but with the assistance of all it was put out before in spread. The War Diary records that all the men were glad to be marched out-of-town to their hutted camp and to leave their “depressing billets” behind. Days were taken up by drilling and marching. On August 20th for example they did half an hour running, an hour and a half drill and musketry and a two hours route march. While this was going on the machine gunners and signallers had instructions in their own specialities.
The Germans attacked again on the 5th October. Potijze to the north-east of Ypres was the advance position held by “A” and “B” Companies and it was rushed by German troops at 6.30 in the morning. The casualties to “B” Company were eleven killed and one missing believed killed; one was wounded believed captured. The month continued under almost constant German bombardment, and even the periods of “rest” were far from restful. Even when they were withdrawn from the front line they were accommodated near Ypres or Poperinghe and the sound of the shelling if not the shells themselves interrupted their sleep. On October 27th some shells fell very near to Battalion HQ.
On the 12th November the Foresters occupied the Cross Road Farm section of the line where the trenches were in a truly appalling state. The damp, unsanitary and cold conditions led to an outbreak of “trench foot”, a condition which can lead to gangrene, the loss of toes or even the amputation of the feet. The muddy parapets were in a precarious state and frequently collapsed into the trenches regardless of where on the salient the troops happened to be based. The trenches themselves were knee deep in water and mud. It was still possible to get some rest in a place of relative safety in billets or camps behind the line; later the development and growth of aerial bombing made nowhere out of reach of the enemy.
On the 19th December the men were again ordered to march this time to the Canal bank. Under heavy bombardment along the Poperinghe to Ypres main road one man was severely wounded by a shell; and the British artillery were also firing. Two more men were wounded by shell fire during the night and there was some gas in the air.
At last something was being done to improve the conditions in the trenches. Perhaps it had not been done sooner because no one had imagined in 1914 that the war would go on more than a few months; the troops would be in trenches temporarily, for week or two at most. That they were still in virtually the same position after a year (let alone four) was then unthinkable. Now the provision of duck boards meant that you could normally walk along the trench without getting mud up to your thighs.
Christmas day was spent in the trenches and the celebration was therefore postponed until the 27th, when all ranks were billeted once more in Poperinghe. Just before Christmas Field-Marshall Sir John French resigned and was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Politicians back in London had become increasingly worried by the lack of decisive action in the war. Indeed the opposing forces were very much where they had been a year earlier, but a change in leadership did little to improve the conduct of hostilities.
To be continued.