Since their arrival on the front line back in September 1914, the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters had not spent any longer than 10 day periods away from the trenches; now however they were to have an extended period of relaxation. On the 19th March they arrived at Wormhout where they were billeted for about a fortnight. This town in northern France was about 25 miles away from Ypres, and an equal distance from Dunkirk. From April 6th the Battalion was accommodated in a camp two miles outside Calais. The distance from the front meant the sound of artillery no longer disturbed their nights. In all they had a break from hostilities of over a month.

Apart from 30 days spent outside Calais, the 2nd Battalion was still defending the Ypres Salient for the first seven moths of the year. Although no major engagements took place, the every day discomforts of trench warfare remained. There were repeated casualties, and acts of individual courage. On July 20th Colour Sergeant Edward Lound was awarded the Gallantry Cord for bravery in the field.

Lt Kaine who joined the Battalion early in 1916 had an interesting past; he had lived for some years before the war with the Sioux Indians in America. He was severely wounded later in the year. On a musical note the arrival in April of Lieutenant G. S. Taylor with his mandolin enlivened the dreary hours that “A” Company had previously had to endure. A few months later he was killed in action. That summer the Battalion’s fifes and drums were reclaimed from the Mayor of Oulch le Château, who had been looking after them since the early days of the war.

Before leaving Ypres I must mention the Wipers Times. This was produced from 1916 until the end of the war by members of the Sherwood Foresters serving in a unit made up during the war, the 12th Battalion. An NCO who had been a printer in civilian life found the press and type abandoned near the front line. For those readers who do not know the journal, it was a satirical publication. It had its humorous adverts, in-jokes and poems, all produced in appalling conditions. They edited the Wipers Times less than half a mile from the front line. One of the writers for the Wipers Times, who later went on to have a career as an author, was Gilbert Frankau, a novelist and poet. Edward Lound had a copy of the first collected edition among his most prized possessions. For someone who had been right through the war in the trenches it brought back some happier memories, a relief from the darker ones. The fact that it had been produced by his comrades in the same regiment made it especially important to him. Although the Wipers Times is the best known journal from the Great War, it was one of many produced by the various British units operating around Europe and the Middle East.

By the middle of 1916 the High Command had evolved a plan to hit the Germans hard. After 13 months on the Ypres Salient the Foresters marched to Proven on the 2nd August, from whence they entrained for Condas. They arrived at 10 a.m. the next day at Proven, which is a suburb of Poperinghe. They then had a short march to the front, but it was exhausting because of the heat. They relieved a battalion west of Beaumont Hamel. The trenches that they occupied on 5th August were strewn with British corpses and their first task was the distressing one of giving a decent burial to the dead. By the time the Foresters had arrived in the area the Battle of the Somme had already been raging for a month, and the second phase of the battle had begun. This fighting accounts for the many bodies they found.  Throughout August they held their lines with regular patrols through no man’s land, but although the Germans replied to any incursions, the time was mostly spent fairly quietly. The third and last phase of the Battle of the Somme did not begin until September 9th. This time the fighting involved our Battalion, and lasted until November 18th. On September 11th the Battalion arrived at Guillemont which is less than 10 miles to the east from their previous position at Beaumont Hamel, but it could not be reached directly, as the front line ran too close for comfort.

The Allies had pushed the Germans back a few miles, but the British were feeling the strain of his modest advance; they need fresh troops. Although most of the fighting was done by the French, British casualties were higher. By the now the number of divisions in the British Army had increase from the original 6 in August 1914 to about 70, but the huge increase in the number of soldiers meant that training them was still incomplete. This ‘citizens’ army’ which had been recruited as a result of Kitchener’s campaign, “Your Country Needs You”, was ill prepared for horrors of the war in France. Even the 2nd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was largely made up of newly recruited men, the bulk of the original unit having been lost as casualties or POWs. The German Army was much larger than the British, and had entered the war with 2 million men. Fortunately this imbalance was partly redressed by Germany having to fight on two fronts, the Western Front against Britain and France and the Eastern Front against Russia.

On the 13th September the Foresters were to attack a strong point on the German lines known as the Quadrilateral. After over a year spent on the flat lands of southern Belgium the terrain here was very different. A deep ravine just to the enemy side of the Quadrilateral held both the road and the railway line, although neither was in use, naturally. The village of Givinchy had been reduced to rubble, being fought over for days in an action involving the French and British, and German counter attacks. By the time the Foresters were brought into action the site of the village had been wrested from the Germans, who had thus lost a valuable observation post. They still held the Quadrilateral itself however.

Three  companies of the Foresters were ordered to attack in the evening, but two, “B” and “C” companies, never received the order to advance.  Heavily outnumbered“D” Company was almost entirely wiped out. The few men who made it back were attached to “A” Company, which also received Lt Taylor (the mandolin player in quieter moments) as commander, the previous commander having been wounded.

The next day, 15th September, was the start of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which carried on for a week; in the Foresters case an effective attack on the first day was made impossible by heavy machine gun fire coming from the German lines. This battle was the first occasion when the British tanks were used.  Out of 49 machines available, 3 were allotted to the 6th Division (of which the Foresters were a part). Two of them broke down before they could be brought into action, and the one remaining tank was blinded by having its periscope shot off. Penetrated by armour-piercing bullets, it returned without achieving anything. In all only 9 tanks made it across no man’s land to the German front. Although the use of tanks had been rushed through before the teething troubles had been ironed out, the lessons learned helped to improve reliability, and later tank attacks were much more effective.

bataille_de_la_Somme_un_des_chemins_menant_a_BapaumeThe 6th Division finally took the Quadrilateral on the 18th September. In all the fighting between September 12th and 19th, of the 681 men in the Battalion, 17 officers and 421 other ranks were killed, wounded or missing. The next few days which should have been a time of rest and recuperation from a heavy battle were taken up by reorganizing and incorporating the replacement men into the Battalion.

On 15th October at 5.30 in the morning the Battalion attacked the new German trenches and gun pits. After heavy bombardment by the British, the Foresters took the gun pits but the adjoining trenches were proving more difficult to occupy. Communication trenches needed to be dug in the reverse direction, now the gun pits were in British hands. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hobbs went up to the front line to inspect progress. He had already been wounded a month earlier, and on this occasion he was so severely injured that he died of his wounds shortly afterwards.

With the gun pits secured the Battalion was relieved on the 19th October by the 2nd Northamptonshire Regiment. The exhausted Foresters finally settled into billets in Fouquereuil, about 10 miles south-east of St Omer. The Battalion had taken part in three attacks in the Somme valley, two in September and one in October. In the 6 weeks spent on the Somme the Battalion suffered a total of 805 casualties, a larger proportion of its strength than its total number at the start. These losses had led to repeated drafts of men to make up the shortfall. Despite these heavy losses, the total advance during the year 1916 was only a few miles. This led to a rethink among the supreme command, and in future the objectives would be more limited.

The Germans too had been exhausted by the Battle of the Somme, in spite of holding onto most of the ground that they had taken in the early weeks of the war. Consequently they were now very quiet; during November the Sherwood Foresters’ casualty list amounted to just one man wounded. The regiment was not idle despite the lack of fighting, digging trenches for deep underground redoubts, carrying out gas drills and musketry practice. During December the Germans made rather more use of their trench mortars, but the misty conditions made accurate shooting difficult for both sides. Another raid was ordered on the night of the 19th December. Of the two patrols sent out one could not find a gap in the enemy’s wire and returned without exchanging fire, but number two found a small gap to the right. Leaving his men behind him, Sergeant Staples dropped into the German trench; those left behind then saw a figure spring out of the trench and immediately fall back in. Some shots were heard. Grenades forced the men to retire and no more was heard of Sergeant Staples, who was reported missing in action. In addition three others were killed during the month, and ten were wounded.

The Battalion spent Christmas day out of the line in billets. The Y.M.C.A Hut where they were entertained to Christmas dinner could not accommodate the whole Battalion, and the meal was held in relays.

To be continued.



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