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Late 1915 – licking wounds again
So on the 26th the surviving men found themselves in old British trenches in Vermeilles and moved to a new front line on 27th. These were good with with wooden slats on the floor. On the 28th they went back to Mazingarbe for a few hours in billets until 9pm when they moved to Loos to relieve cavalry divisions, and were there until the 30th. Mazongarbe was a coal mining town with associated industries. Reached Cocques 28/9. This was near the Hohenzollern redoubt – a famous strong point in the German front line. Robert would see it again. In the Loos encounter it had been won back by the Germans. 29th billeted Verquigneul in a coal mine building ‘a welcome but somewhat grimy residence ‘the D company men from the Newcastle district who were mostly miners enjoyed a return to peace-time labour’
Stoner – 1 October – ‘The boys are going out bringing in helmets and dozens of other things even German telephones. 100s of dead English and German horses. mules, motor bikes smashed upon the streets lined with bricks shells bombs pieces of iron coal box holes…one of the worst places I have seen [Germans on hill top overlooking] 2nd French coming to relieve. Continual shelling ‘man just run in said 6 men to dig the General out just across the road. Three shells have dropped and killed the two French officers and brig major terry has had his legs or leg blown off. The general is only slightly wounded in hand and leg.
Got to Neuly Minniens heard Brigadier major terry died on stretcher. Rotten place, 6 miles from firing line. Lovely it feels to be away from those sights for a bit’.
Noeux-les-Mines and Hulloch trenches
And then to Noeux-les-Mines, a small town 6 kilometres south of Bethune on the main Arras Road. It now has a large World War I cemetery. The billets here may not have been too bad as Thomas McCall of a Highland Battalion recalls (FirstWorldWar.com) “The following day our pipe band met us at Mazingarbe and played us down to Noeux-les-Mines, where we went into billets, and had quite a nice time visiting estaminets, eating pomme-de-terres et oeufs, and speaking broken French”. Then on the 7th it was back to Loos and the old German front system of trenches. The 8th saw an unsuccessful German attack along the front line at about 4pm; one killed and one wounded. From the 9th to the 12th they were in the old German troops in support. Digging parties out every night. One was wounded and three gassed. On the 10th one killed and 11 wounded on the 11th. Relieved by 3rd Coldstream guards opposite Tulloch passing through the greatly destroyed Vermeils ‘after crossing the old front line we came under long range rifle and machine gun fire from the direction of the Hohenzollern redoubt and suffered some casualties. 14th back in trenches immediately south of Hulloch. We were interested to find that the 5th battalion occupied the sector on our r but there was no time for liaison
Offensive in Hulloch
13th October. The 1st Brigade made offensive in Hulloch, Loos with the aim of capturing German trenches. Robert’s battalion was to find one company to act as a strong patrol which in the event of the 1st capturing the German front lines half an hour later were to establish themselves in the German trenches west of Hulloch and on either side of the road. A company was chosen with C company in support. D company were to support the Cameron Highlanders. At 1pm gas and smoke discharged and at 2.19pm A company advanced. However the 1st Brigade advance failed and B and C companies were retained. 9 ORs killed, 71 wounded, 36 missing.
The following day, the 14th at 5.30am the battalion was put in support of an advance by the Northamptonshires. The men got as far as our front line but the attack then put off as daylight had broken. Following this the battalion was relieved and went to Lillers.
Here for a month the Battalion had parades, drills, musketry and physical exercises including running. Concerts were held in the theatre and Lillers and night operations carried out around the town. Lillers is a small farming town 15 miles NW of Bethune. Some old manor houses and remnants of castle and fortifications survive.
17th October Stoner - Lillars ‘of course the officers have got nice places to sleep in with white sheets etc but it don’t matter about tommy. Its always the same’. ‘Cooking – nice old lady – she gave me rum and coffee this morning and keeps saying to the boys what a good cook I am. She is after something’.
22nd October Stoner - The old lady is just as good as ever will give me anything good old soul
21st Fourquereuil, one mile south west of Bethune “tin hats” or “battle bowlers” issued for the first time but only a very few available to start with so issued first to bombers when posted in the saps. 25/10 Annequin – consists almost entirely of miners cottages and large fosse or slag heap. Fosse 9 de Bethune which had colliery works and buildings including baths. Some tragic accidents Pvt Cain D Co “barney” a boxer of some repute was wounded when he lit a mills bomb detonator in mistake for a cigarette. These had only just been issued and not all instructed in them. Weather now wet and first real experience of French mud
Hulloch trenches and Noeux-les-Mines again
From November 14th the Battalion went to trenches near Hulloch. The pattern continued for the next month of trench duty near Hulloch and billeting in and around Noeux- les- Mines.
‘this last period in the trenches was a very strenuous one for all ranks and the Brigade was congratulated for the excellent conditions in which the trenches were handed over’. They were soon acquainted with such names as Maroc, the garden city, twin slag heaps Vermelles and Great Lewes alley – comunication trench from Hole in Wall at Maroc parallel to front line across Loos road and up to chalk pits. The front line fairly quiet except for German snipers. It had been a French trench with wooden slots to fire and see through – snipers aimed at anyone behind these – lots of men lost this way. Mills bombs replaced the jam tin and stick bombs. Easy to lob but firing from rifle did in the rifle
We were there issue 14
Snow in France
The tattered grass of No Man’s Land
Is white with snow tonight
And up and down the deadly slopes
The ghosts of childhood play
The sentries peering from the line
See in the humblest snow
Light forms that were their little selves
A score of years ago
We look and see the crumpled drifts
Piled in a little glen
And children once again
From joyous hand to laughing face
We watch the snowballs fly,
The way we used ere we were men
Waiting our turn to die
Tonight across the empty slopes
The shells will scream once more
And flares go up and bullets fly
The way they did before
Bur for a little space of peace
We watch them come and go
The children that were you and I
At play among the snow
Bois d’Authuille 1915 A Highland regiement, by Lt Ewan Alan Mackintosh
Hohenzollern redoubt for the first time
5th November ‘ for the first time we now occupied part of the famous Hohenzollern redoubt, the extensive German 5 point which protected the Dump or Fosse 8.. Three faces – N & S being Big & Little Willie while as the Mid or W face remained in our possession another The Chord had been dug – only lightly held, main positions Cross Trench, B & Little Willie. Unpleasant in every way – dead bodies – ours and Germans – scattered about most of the parapets in front line and No man’s line piled with corpses. Mainly 9th Scot division since 25 sept ‘all trenches in an awful state. Heavy sick rate due to mud – no duck boards 200 evacuated for trench feet and rheumatism. One part of the trench “this bay is reserved for the greasing and rubbing of feet” someone posted next fire bay “This bay is reserved for wailing and gnashing of teeth”. For these reasons proposed attack on Little Willie and chord cancelled
S DN reported on the 2nd December that trench boots, waders needed, this call being the result of visit on the 6th November by a London munition workers deputation. It also reported food on the Front was good, no shortage or wastage.
14th November - Stoner -Massinger – only German reserve trenches. Some shelling artillery fire in day
16th Bethune – enjoyed the towns facilities
18th – St Hilaire – 4 miles far side of Lillers. Good billets. Good rest. Leather jerkins, waterproof capes, mittens and vests. Jerkins dog skin so each company had a pack of fox terriers, collies, retrievers and airdales.
3rd December Stoner - move to [no place] ‘it’s a wonder this place is like it is, there is not too much damage done and our guns it seems everywhere and a big mine well in view of the German lines but the civvies are still here where I am helping the old lady as 16 kids and the young woman as 2. I have a nice bed with white sheet. A bit of a change’. Shortly after believed he might have to return to being a linesman. This happened on 21st December –‘I haven’t been on an instrument for over a 12 month but wont take long to pick it up again’
On the 3rd December one man killed, two wounded and on the 5th one man killed. The Battalion went to Philosophe on the 7th and the next day spent cleaning up clothing.
Back in England on Saturday 4 December it was reported that Arundel wanted a captured German gun to help recruitment which has been excellent – 20% of a population of 2700 had enlisted. Miss Buchanan of Lavington Park Fittlworth had a fund to send Christmas boxes to the RSR 2nd Battalion which would be open until 15 December. She had done the same last year and had received shoals of letters from men thanking her
Possibly Robert’s last days with the 2nd
On 11 December Robert’s record shows that he suffered shrapnel wound to the scalp. However the battalion diary has no mention of any wounding that day. Could he actually have been one of those recorded as being wounded on the 13th or 14th? He was dealt with by the 2nd Field Ambulance. Unfortunately their diary for this time is missing.
9th to 11th December In support trenches in Section A1. Diary – ‘During these days owing to the inclement weather much work had to be performed by the companies, in keeping the trenches free from water and mud, by removing trench boards and digging deeper sump its’
12th December the Battalion moved up front line in the vicinity of the quarries near Hulloch. The diary for the 13th ‘throughout this day the German aircraft and our own were very active. On two occasions German machines were repeatedly checked from crossing our lines. 2 men killed, one wounded’. And on the 14th one man was killed, one wounded and one missing. Late that night they were relieved and returned to Noeux-les-Mines.
On the 20th the Battalion moved from Noeux- les- Mines to billets in Philosophe and wire in Brigade reserve and then to the trenches and to the fire line in section B on Boxing Day.
20/12/1915 the SDN officer ‘However, on Sunday I strolled over into Vermelles, which, once a good sized town, has now not a single house intact and the beautiful old church has about half its tower left & a few pillars & one or two windows in which some of the stained glass still remains. I have never known anything so extraordinary as the way the Crucifixes are never touched. Here is Vermelles Church, a complete ruin but a large wooden Crucifix hanging on one of the few pieces of wall left has not a single splinter missing!
Working parties are a jolly sight more dangerous while they last than any spells in the trenches as they are all occupied as they are all occupied and no-one has any room for you and when you are building up new trenches eight in the Front of the Line if you want a dug-out you have to build it yourself and they take a long time”
“What a hateful part of France this is, dreary and barren fields with these great slag-heaps and ruined mining villages doted here and there – everywhere the same, it’s what a “tommy” told me only this morning, he said it seemed a fitting background for all the death and misery which is all around one”
25/12 dinner turkey, roast beef, spuds and duff but not a drink which made it rotten. Last year I spent Christmas day in Essars. I wonder where I shall spend the next hope in blighty. I am fed up with this life and know everyone else is. It’s just like last year to see the poor chaps coming down the trenches one mass of mud from head to foot hardly able to walk, look as if they are going to drop every pace they make. Smart men once if only England could see and understand what her brave sons are going through she would cry.
With that we leave Stoner’s small leather covered pocket
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness
To the end, to the end, they remain
Siegfried Sassoon Dreamers
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land
Drawing no dividend from time’s tomorrow
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives,
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches lashed by rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bags,
And mocked by hopeless longings to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows and spats
And going to the office in the rain
The Battalion moved up to firing line on Boxing Day. Robert was never to rejoin the 2nd Battalion and see any old pals.