The day of the move overseas arrived. This was on November 15, 1915, when the regimental transport entrained at Tidworth for Havre, followed one day later by the Battalion, which proceeded to Folkestone, Boulogne being reached on November 17, Ostrohove Rest Camp being the first objective. No time, however, was wasted there, for on November 18 the Battalion entrained at Pont-de-Briques, joining the transport which had come up from Havre.
It was at Steenbecque, reached a day later, and where billets were found in barns and farmhouses, that the sound of artillery in action was first heard by the Battalion. Four days were occupied here in sorting things out generally, the companies parading, route marching, and being inspected.
On November 23 a move was made to Busnes, the first part of the route being over badly cut up second-class roads, and the remainder on pavé. The men, the war diary tells us, marching in greatcoats, and carrying blankets, found the march very trying. Billets in the area La Miquellerie were reached at 3 p.m. Distance, 11˝ miles.
Then came a very important thing from a soldier's point of view. Pay was drawn from the Field Cashier, and distributed for the first time in France. Next came the notification that in conformation with the policy of re-forming the 33rd and the 2nd Divisions by forming brigades, each consisting of two new battalions and two regular battalions, the 99th Brigade was to lose the 17th and 24th Battalions Royal Fusiliers, receive the 1st Royal Berks and the 1st King's Royal Rifle
Corps and join the 2nd Division.
On November 25 the Battalion paraded to march to their new billets at Bethune, being inspected en route by General Walker and the Staff of the 2nd Division. General Walker's opinion was that the 23rd Royal Fusiliers was one of the best battalions he had seen in Bethune.
Still moving, on November 26 the Battalion marched to Annequin, Fosse 9, and owing to the road being frequently shelled, orders were given that seventy-pace intervals should be kept between platoons east of Beuvry. To improve matters, it may be mentioned, there was a heavy fall of snow, and in the portion of the village south of La Basse the majority of the houses were in ruins, the result of frequent bombardments by the enemy.
Then began the first experience of the Battalion in warfare. Before being trusted to hold a line by itself it had to serve an apprenticeship. This was done by attaching, in the first place, platoons, then companies, and then the half-battalion to battalions in the line in order to learn the work and what was expected of them.
During this time much kindness was experienced from the regular battalions to which the attachments were made. The units of the Battalion not doing attachment duty were used for working parties in the trenches and suffered several casualties. No. 2 platoon, right flank company, specially suffered, being caught by shrapnel fire on the Bethune-La Basse road, ten N.C.O.'s and men being wounded.
On December 10 instruction in the use of the gas helmet was given. Every man was required to pass through a hut sprayed with chlorine gas ten times as strong as would be used on ordinary occasions, General Kellett being present while this was being carried out, and himself going through the test.
So things went on until December 19. On that date the Battalion marched to Cambrin support point to relieve the 1st Royal Berks and take over a sector "on its own." In the trenches, No. 1 Company was on the right, adjoining the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, No. 2 Company on the left, adjoining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, No. 3 Company was in the centre, and No. 4 Company was in support at Annequin (Fosse).
It was a very busy time, for No. 3 Company held command of the sap head at New Crater, a spot where German snipers were particularly troublesome. A gas attack was ordered upon the enemy, but, much to the disappointment of the officers and men, it proved a "wash-out" owing to the breeze dying down at the last moment. On December 21, however, as the wind was favorable, a gas attack took place on a front of about a mile. It was on this day that Captain Cameron, of No. 1 Company,
was wounded in the arm by a piece of high-explosive while entering the front line.
Then the Battalion, less No. 4 Company, was relieved by the 1st Royal Berks, and proceeded to reserve billets at Annequin (Fosse) on December 22. Not for complete rest, though, as it is generally understood by the civilian, for working parties had to be detailed; indeed, on December 24 all four companies were out, less sick and those on duty. And, says the war diary, no straw was provided for the billets, no coke, coal, or wood for the drying-room, and no facilities for
drying or cleaning clothes.
Christmas Day in the Trenches, On Christmas Day the Battalion paraded for trench duty to relieve the 1st Royal Berks, the trenches taken over being the same as were occupied on December 19-22, with the alteration in disposition that made No. 4 Company replace No. 3 Company in the centre.
There was also a special bombardment on this day, and the Battalion's first patrol, consisting of four men and an officer, went over the parapet, being out in No Man's Land for an hour. During that time the party located a sniper's post, cut out some wire from the enemy's entanglements, and were persistently sniped at themselves, while great difficulty was experienced in maintaining direction.
Then, on Boxing Day, Colonel Lord Maitland was wounded in the knee by a piece of high-explosive while proceeding to the 99th Brigade Headquarters via Cambrin Church.
The German snipers continued their activity, there were intermittent bombardments, several casualties were sustained, and on December 29 the Battalion was relieved by the 18th Royal Fusiliers. Owing to the bad state of the trenches this relief did not take place until 5.10 p.m., although it was due to be effected at 3 p.m.
Still, the Battalion got back to its billets at Annequin (Fosse), and on December 30 marched back to Busnettes for sixteen days' divisional rest. Owing to the very arduous work which had been done since December 19, on this occasion no packs were carried, and only three men fell out in a tiring march of 11Ľ miles.
The New Year opened quietly, the usual rest-time routine of kit inspection, squad drill, route marching, and so on, being indulged in, a draft coming up from the base on January 7, while on January 11 the first leave for officers commenced. Then came a move, and on January 19 the Battalion marched to Le Touret, relieving the 6th Queen's Regiment, the 99th Infantry Brigade taking over a sector of the front at Festubert from the 37th Infantry Brigade.
Lt.-Col. H.A. Vernon, D.S.O.
On January 22 the Battalion relieved the 1st Royal Berks, "B" Company being in reserve in the old British line, "A" Company in support in Richmond Trench, "C" Company in front line Cover Trench and Islands, and "D" Company in front line Orchard Trench. The front line and support line garrisons, it may be noted, had to take up their positions over the top, and so could not be visited in daylight. The position remained the same until the then Kaiser's birthday, on
January 27, when although the order for relief was given at 6 p.m., a "stand to" was ordered in anticipation of an attack.
This did not come off, and, the relief by the 24th Royal Fusiliers being effected, the Battalion marched back to Bethune on January 28, where the billets were inspected by General Kellett.
On January 29 Colonel Lord Maitland relinquished the command of the Battalion, temporary command being taken by Major Richey, D.S.O., and Lieutenant-Colonel H.A. Vernon (1st King's Royal Rifle Corps) assumed command on January 31, while Lieutenant Cooper was appointed machine-gun officer in place of Lieutenant Lewis, who had been wounded.
Le Quesnoy was the next move, made on February 3, and relieving the 1st Royal Berks on February 7, the Battalion was in turn moved out of the trenches into the village line Givenchy on the 11th, remaining there until the 15th, when it again relieved the 1st Royal Berks in B3 sub-sector Givenchy. On the 17th the Battalion was relieved by the 16th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and moved to Le Quesnoy, remaining there until the 27th, when it proceeded to Barlin. On February 28 another
move was made to Petit Sains, relieving the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, and on the 29th the Battalion took over the Souchez North sector of trenches from the French 77th Infantry Regiment.
From March 1 to March 13 the Battalion held the line at Souchez North in turn with the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps and on the latter date proceeded to billets at Noulette, returning again to the trenches on the 17th, the Battalion on the left being the 17th Royal Fusiliers, and on the right the 1st Royal Berks. Then on March 28 it moved to La Comte for divisional rest.
Reclinghem was the next move, made on April 9, and on April 11 there was a Brigade field day, another reinforcing draft arriving on the same day. Then on the night of April 21-22 the Battalion relieved the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps in the Souchez second sector of the line. So the end of the month arrived with alternate duty in the trenches and rest in billets.
More reinforcements, to replace wastage, arrived in the early part of May, and on the 23rd the Battalion was in the trenches at Berthouval, marching to its billets at Camblain l'Abbé on May 30. Working parties were naturally provided for the trenches while the Battalion was resting, and two men were accidentally wounded on the 4th. But things were moderately quiet until the night of June 10-11. On that date the Battalion relieved the 17th Middlesex Regiment in the Carency
left sector of the front.
On June 21 Lieutenant-Colonel Vernon was wounded whilst visiting a sap head held by Jerry Delaney, the boxer, Major H.V. Pirie assuming command of the Battalion until he returned to duty. The Battalion was relieved by the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps on the night of June 22-23, and proceeded to billets at Villiers aux Bois. The next move, on the 27th, was made to Estrée Cauchie.
The Somme Fighting. Then came the move to the Somme and the July of 1916, when the average life of the infantry subaltern in France was only worth three weeks. Many, indeed, were killed within a week of their crossing the Channel, on the very first day of entering the trenches and taking part in the British advance. The 23rd Royal Fusiliers were engaged in the whole of the desperate fighting on the Somme, including the battle of Delville Wood, the story of which is told in
another part of this volume.
Following this bath of blood, on August 1 the Battalion left Bund support trench, two companies going to Longueval Alley, and two remaining to garrison and dig trenches at Montauban.
Becoming united again, on the 29th the Battalion, under the impression that it was going out for a promised rest after its battle, moved to The Citadel, Sandpit Valley, and on to Mericourt l'Abbé; thence on to Fremont (passing through Amiens), Naours, Longuevillette, Authie, and Bus les Artois; and next, instead of the longed-for rest, found itself back in the trenches again at Hebuterne, relieving the 1st Coldstream Guards!
September was spent in the Hebuterne sector, and October saw many moves. Starting with Coieneux (Basin Wood) the Battalion was at the Redan (Serre sector), Mailly-Maillet (where the church, it will be remembered, had been protected by means of fascines), Raincheval, and Acheux Wood, where the rail-head and the factory with its tall chimney were bombed heavily from the air and shelled by the German heavies. Finally, on October 30, the Battalion relieved the 2nd Highland
Light Infantry in the Redan right sub-sector, being in the trenches there when the month drew to a close.
November saw the Battalion taking its part in the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. Told by the War Diary this month's events were:
November 1.—Battalion in Redan right sub-sector.
November 2.—Battalion relieved by the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps, and proceeded to billets at Mailly-Maillet.
November 3-4.—Battalion in billets, providing working and carrying parties.
November 5.—Battalion relieved 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps in Redan right sub-sector.
November 6.—Battalion in Redan right sub-sector.
November 7.—Battalion relieved by 24th Royal Fusiliers and proceeded to billets at Bertrancourt.
November 8-12.—Battalion in billets, providing working and carrying parties.
November 13.—Battalion left Bertrancourt at 2.10 a.m., and proceeded to Ellis Square, Fort Hoystead, and View Trench (Redan right sub-sector). "A" and "C" Companies sent at 10.10 a.m. to G.O.C. 5th Brigade at White City. These companies proceeded later to the old German front line, and at 5 p.m. "C" Company was ordered up to reinforce the 2nd Highland Light Infantry in Green Line.
"B" and "D" Companies at 7 p.m. carried the German second line. During this time, these companies were under the command of G.O.C. 8th Infantry Brigade. At 7 p.m. Battalion Headquarters moved to White City.
November 14.—1st King's Royal Rifle Corps at 3 a.m. also established Headquarters at White City. At 6 a.m. Battalion moved forward in support of 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps and 1st Royal Berks. "A" and "C" Companies proceeded to Crater Lane, and later to Wagon Road (on right). "B" and "D" Companies (on left) took up position in Lager Alley, between the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and the 1st Royal Berks.
November 15.—At 1 a.m. Battalion Headquarters moved from White City to Headquarters of 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps in German front line. Companies still in support of 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps and 1st Royal Berks.
November 16.—Battalion at 1 a.m. moved back to Ellis Square.
November 17.—Battalion moved to billets in Mailly-Maillet.
November 18.—Battalion moved to billets at Sarton.
November 19.—Battalion marched to billets at Gezancourt.
November 20.—Battalion in billets at Gezancourt.
November 21.—Battalion marched to billets at Candas.
November 22.—Battalion in billets at Candas.
November 23.—Battalion marched to billets at Domqueur.
November 24.—Battalion marched to billets at Gapennes.
November 25.—Battalion marched to billets at Millencourt.
November 26.—Battalion in billets at Millencourt.
November 27.—Battalion marched to billets at Oneux.
November 28-29-30.—Battalion in billets at Oneux.
The following month, December, the Battalion also spent in rest at Oneux.
The 23 (Service) Battalion Royal Fusiliers, 1920